Still no Budget

When I left for Alaska ten days ago, parents, teachers, and community members from across the state were still camped out at the Capitol building keeping a vigil for a better budget. The group from Pittsburgh included many ActionUnited volunteers, who worked around the clock.

Volunteers keeping vigil at night with glow-in-the-dark signs!

Volunteers keeping vigil at night with glow-in-the-dark signs!

Delivering coffee to the Governor's mansion.

Delivering coffee to the Governor’s mansion to tell him to “Wake up and smell the coffee: you are hurting Pennsylvania’s children!”

ActionUnited volunteers from Pittsburgh stayed in the capitol around the clock

ActionUnited volunteers from Pittsburgh stayed in the capitol around the clock

Having just returned to the lower-48, I fully expected to see news of a final state budget. Oh, but no. In case you haven’t been paying attention, or have been off-line in the wilderness like me, here’s the current situation.

The Pennsylvania legislature has passed a budget – full of problems – but the Governor has yet to sign it. He is currently holding out because he did not get the pension reforms he wanted. Yet if he doesn’t get his signature on the page before Friday, the budget will go into effect without his stamp of approval. [Patriot News, 7-8-14]

Unfortunately, either way, we’re looking at mostly more bad news for public schools. The budget passed by the legislature once again flat funds the basic education line, which provides the bulk of support to school districts. It does increase special education funding by $19.8 million, which is most welcome after six years of flat funding in this area. However, as Ron Cowell of the Education Policy and Leadership Center points out, “it’s important to note that special education costs to districts have risen more than $400 million during that time.” [Post Gazette, 7-5-14]

The budget sitting on the Governor’s desk also includes a slight increase in education funding through block grant programs. These generally come with strings attached and are less helpful to districts that are desperately struggling to provide basic educational programs. The increase is also $141 million less than what Gov. Corbett initially proposed back in February.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment with this unsigned budget is that it relies on unicorns to pay the bills. We just finished the 2013-14 fiscal year last week short by a half-billion dollars. Sharon Ward of the PA Budget and Policy Center explains that legislators “magically wiped away that inconvenient truth through creative accounting.” Then for the new budget, “lawmakers used one-time transfers, overly rosy revenue projections, and accounting tricks to close a $1 billion projected revenue gap.” For instance, this budget assumes that there will be revenue from new gas drilling on public lands – but that will depend on the outcome of a case still winding its way through the courts. It also assumes there will be revenue from a Philadelphia casino that hasn’t even been built yet! [, 7-9-14]

This kind of magical thinking is a recipe for disaster. Overall, Pennsylvania collected less in revenue in 2013-14 than it did the year before. Yet the new budget for 2014-15 counts on adding $1 billion more than we managed to take in this past year. [PA Budget and Policy Center, 7-7-14] Where are we really going to get this money?

Having just returned from mineral-rich Alaska, it’s astonishing to me that Gov. Corbett will not even consider a severance tax on Marcellus shale. Every other major gas producing state has one. Our local guide in Juneau proudly pointed to the Alaska Permanent Fund building and explained that every person in that state gets an annual check, usually between $1,000-$2,000, drawn from oil revenues.

Meanwhile, school districts in Pennsylvania are forced to raise property taxes yet again. Last week, just after the House passed the current budget, the Shippensburg school district voted to raise local taxes to make up for the shortfall in state support it had been expecting. [, 7-9-14]

Alaska was gorgeous. But I would like to be able to stay here in Pennsylvania and send my children to properly funded schools. We may not have glaciers, but we do have eagles again, right here in Pittsburgh. Now if only we could fund public education.

From Bad to Worst

From bad to worse to – what’s worse than worse? A new report released this week shows that “the financial condition of school districts across the Commonwealth continues to deteriorate.” The Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA) and the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO) surveyed the state’s 500 school districts and got some chilling results. [PASA-PASBO Budget Report, 6-5-14] With 56% of districts responding, the researchers found that:

  • 90% of school districts have cut staff, and more than 40% of districts have already, or plan to, cut more of our children’s teachers. Look at Wilkinsburg right here next to Pittsburgh: they just announced that students will lose 18 more teachers. That’s 14% of the faculty, and comes on top of the 10 teachers and three other staff members they lost last year. [Post-Gazette, 6-5-14]
  • 64% of districts have increased class size since Gov. Corbett’s historic budget cuts in 2010-11, with the elementary grades hit the hardest. (This is especially awful since it’s the earliest grades where research shows small class sizes really make a strong difference for students, especially our most disadvantaged students.)
  • Over half the districts will eliminate or reduce academic programs next year. The most frequently cited cuts will come from field trips (51% schools will eliminate); summer school (37%); world languages (34%); music and theater (31%); and physical education (24%).
  • Students will lose extra-curricular and athletic programs, or have to pay a fee, in over a third of the districts.
  • The vast majority of school districts report that their costs are going up because of un-funded state mandates (such as the administration of high-stakes testing).
  • In nearly every part of the state, districts are relying on local revenues (property taxes) to pay for a growing majority of school budgets. Over 75% of school districts will increase property taxes next year (that’s more than any in the past five years).

These conditions aren’t just “worse” for our children, they are quickly becoming some of the worst in the nation. Pennsylvania ranks as one of the worst in terms of the proportion of school funding provided at the state level, pushing responsibility down on local taxes, and worsening inequality. And this isn’t just at the preK-12 level: over the past four years, Gov. Corbett has cut public college and university funding by an astonishing 20% (forcing institutions to push costs onto students through rising tuition bills). Pennsylvania college students now rank as the third-most indebted in the nation. [Project on Student Debt]

Are we really trying to be the worst in the country when it comes to educating our children? What if we tried to be one of the best, instead?

The Pennsylvania budget must be passed by the end of this month, so now is the time to tell our legislators our students deserve the best, not the worst. Please come to Harrisburg with us on June 18th! We’ve got a bus and made all the arrangements, all you have to do is get on. Please sign up here and we’ll send you all the details.


Tax Shift is Shifty

First, the good news. Legislators in the Pennsylvania House yesterday voted down a proposal that would have eliminated school property taxes. [Post-Gazette, 10-3-13] These are the taxes that you and I pay (whether we own property or not, because the cost gets passed along to renters, too) to support our schools. In fact, they are the largest source of funding for public education. They are also a source of the inequality in public school funding – so you would think getting rid of them would be a good thing, right?

Well, here’s the problem. By eliminating property taxes, the House would have shifted the funding of schools onto state income and sales taxes. This is what a separate House bill (HB 76) attempts to do – but with potentially disastrous results for schools. The Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center found that HB76 (and its companion in the Senate, SB76) would:

  • Create a permanent funding gap, by locking in the cuts to public education over the past two years.
  • Cap education spending at a rate lower than what school districts need to keep up with rising costs.
  • Give large tax cuts to corporations who own commercial real-estate (think office buildings, shopping malls, factories, etc). A third of property taxes come from non-homeowners. [PA Budget and Policy Center, 9-25-13]

Pennsylvania’s Independent Fiscal Office agrees. In an analysis of HB/SB 76, they found that property tax elimination done this way would lead to a deficit for schools of hundreds of millions after the first year, growing to $1billion in just five years. [IFO Special Report, 10-1-13] In order to make up the difference through state personal income taxes, the PA Budget and Policy Center estimates that Pennsylvania would have to increase the tax rate from 3.07% to 6.8%: “Put another way, Pennsylvania would go from having the lowest top income tax rate in the country to having the highest personal income tax rate on working families in the country.” [PA Budget and Policy Center, 9-25-13]

The cruel irony here is that we started to relieve property tax burdens back in 2008 when the General Assembly adopted a modern school funding formula. Governor Corbett cut that formula in his first budget (along with close to $1 billion for public education), taking us backwards. Pennsylvania actually ranks in the bottom five of all states in the country in the proportion of school funding provided at the state level. This pushes responsibility for education down on local taxpayers and greatly increases disparity as wealthier districts can afford to pay more for their schools – while some poor districts actually have to raise their tax rates beyond those of wealthy districts.

The PA Budget and Policy Center concludes: “Restoring the state’s commitment to fund 50% of the cost of public schools would go a long way toward solving both problems — ensuring that students who live in modest and lower-wealth districts get the same high-quality education as their wealthier counterparts, and reducing the pressure on property taxpayers.”

So the good news is that the legislature did not do away with property taxes entirely. But the bad news is that the bill they did pass (HB1189) basically shifts local taxes without addressing the real problem. Mike Woods, Research Director for the PBPC explains, “It allows school boards to enact new business privilege taxes or raise earned income taxes and use all the new funds for property tax reduction.” However, under current law, schools districts would first have to get voters to approve any new income tax, and the law explicitly forbids business privilege taxes. [Third and State, 10-2-13]

In other words, this tax shift bill is a bit shifty. The Post-Gazette reports that, “House Republicans celebrated passage of the bill, which they said would provide local communities greater flexibility in how they pay for education.” [Post-Gazette, 10-3-13] Could someone please tell them that the problem is not flexibility at the local level. It’s that the state reneged on its commitment to adequate, equitable, and sustainable funding for public education. Our kids are missing a cumulative $2.3billion dollars for their schools.

Sadly, HB1189 received broad support from House Democrats as well as Republicans (it passed 149-46). It seems that our legislators are all eager to be doing “something” about property tax relief. But that must come with serious attention to the crisis this Governor and legislature have created in our public schools. If they are going to talk about property tax relief, then they also need to talk about relieving our schools by restoring the education cuts, fixing the state funding formula, and sensible charter funding reforms.

Unfortunately, even our allies in the House are not hearing from public education advocates on these issues. I know, I know. This stuff is in the policy weeds. It makes your eyeballs roll back in their sockets. I get it. But consider what just one or two voices can do: on Monday I met with the legislative director for Rep. Erin Molchany (who sits on the House education committee) and he told me I was the only person contacting them in opposition to HB76 (the property tax elimination bill). Meanwhile, when I tweeted about that bill last week, a person going by the name of “Mrs. D” publicly accused me of purposefully misleading people and then launched a twitter campaign urging libertarians to tweet every PA Senator and Representative to support the bill, saying “American Freedom = No taxation!”


(Apparently American freedom also means hiding behind pseudonyms, making false accusations without evidence, and ending all public goods and services paid for with tax dollars. This actually doesn’t sound like freedom to me at all.)

These are the people making the noise about tax issues right now. Our legislators need to know that we believe in public funding for public education. Yes, that’s right. We believe in taxes. Because that’s how we pay for our public goods and services. Public schools are a collective responsibility and everyone needs to pay their fair share. Do we need property tax reform? Probably. But not at the expense of our common good. Enough with the shifty politics.

Corporate Grinches

It’s legal – for now – but it stinks. Corporations are rushing to stuff their stockings with our public tax dollars before the New Year when the law changes. Right now companies are allowed to buy giant office buildings here in Pittsburgh without paying a penny in deed transfer taxes, which means millions in lost revenue for the school district, city, and state. These corporate Grinches are stealing public education.

Last year, a New York group under investor Mark Karasick bought the U.S. Steel Tower – one of the signature pieces of our downtown skyline – for $250 million. [Post-Gazette, 11-17-11] Using an “89-11” tax loophole, the real estate investors agreed to purchase 89% of the property up front, then the remaining 11% in three years time, handily avoiding the deed transfer tax. Because the school district receives 1% from this tax, that particular transaction cost Pittsburgh Public Schools $2.5 million right at the very moment Governor Corbett was brutally slashing the education budget. Two and a half million dollars could have saved a lot of those teaching jobs the District was forced to eliminate.

These things have been going on for years, with legislators crafting tax policies full of holes and then looking the other way as corporations moved in to take full advantage of these gifts from the public coffers. The U.S. Steel Tower sale tipped the scales, however, and State Senator Jim Ferlo (a Democrat from Highland Park) introduced an amendment to close the 89-11 loophole. I applaud Senator Ferlo and our state legislature for moving on this bill, and Governor Corbett for signing it into law this past summer. At the time, Senator Ferlo said, “We must not tolerate overt tax avoidance policies in the tax code that let big business off the hook and leave everyone else holding the bag.” [Post-Gazette, 7-12-12] I agree, and would add that those ultimately left holding an empty bag are our kids, whose public schools are being actively de-funded.

Unfortunately, the 89-11 rule doesn’t disappear until January 1st, so investors had a strong incentive to get their holiday shopping done early this year and close on some big real estate transactions. Another New York firm, KKR & Co. LP just bought the Del Monte Center office building over on the North Shore for $52 million. KKR also acquired the Del Monte company itself last year, so the investment firm is now a major corporate citizen of this city. But they won’t be handing over a dime in transfer taxes to our schools, which means a loss of over a half a million dollars for public education in Pittsburgh. [Post-Gazette, 12-19-12] Too bad their idea of corporate citizenship is to bilk taxpayers and our students of desperately needed revenue.

And KKR has some company. The group that just sold them the Del Monte building is selling another six-story office building on the North Shore: the California investment group IRA Realty Capital is buying the Equitable building for $31 million. This deal will cost Pittsburgh taxpayers over $300,000 in lost money for our schools. [Post-Gazette, 12-19-12] That’s a lot of library books for our ten schools that had empty shelves at the beginning of this school year.

Ah, but wait, it gets worse. The Del Monte and Equitable buildings were both owned by a real estate group contracted by the Steelers and the Pirates to manage the development of property between the two new stadiums. That group, the Continental Real Estate Cos. from Columbus, Ohio, received millions in taxpayer-funded infrastructure upgrades on the North Shore to support the development work. Ira Weiss, lawyer for the Pittsburgh Public Schools, notes that, “These developers come to the taxing bodies, extract concessions from them in the way of tax increment financing and other devices, then turn around and put a dagger in the back of these taxing bodies when they have a chance.” City Controller Michael Lamb called it a “slap in the face.” [Post-Gazette, 12-19-12] I’ll say. These two transactions alone constituted nearly a one million dollar slap in the face to every single student in Pittsburgh.

And KKR & Co. and IRA Realty Capital can welcome another corporate scrooge to their ranks. Highwoods Properties of North Carolina, which already owns PPG Place, just bought the EQT Plaza skyscraper downtown for $99.2 million. Crossing that sale off its wish list before the January 1st deadline means Highwoods will not pay our schools close to one million dollars. [Post-Gazette, 12-19-12] You know, a million here, a million there, and suddenly you are talking about real money.

If only the season had our corporate citizens in more of a giving mood. Of course, they are only doing what is legal (for the next two weeks). And really, they are only doing what our legislators allowed them to get away with until recently. This is how companies are supposed to behave – they are beholden to their shareholders and not to the communities that host them or offer them sweet deals to set up shop. They will find every tax loophole and even petition to lower their property assessment, as Rivers Casino is doing now, to try to reduce their obligations to our city and schools. (See “Rivers Casino’s Fair Share” on how this will cost Pittsburgh schools another $3 million.)

Corporations do not exist for the public good, but our legislators are supposed to: we must insist that our representatives protect our schools. The way things are going, the Pittsburgh school district is facing bankruptcy in 2015. [Post-Gazette, 12-5-12] It’s time for all corporations to pay their fair share. If you want to join the chorus of voices calling for just this, please come to the press conference today on the North Shore at 2:30PM to demand that Rivers Casino makes good on its promise to the students of Pittsburgh. Bring your little Cindy-Loo Whos. Even the Grinch had a change of heart.

Rivers Casino’s Fair Share

Now Rivers Casino wants to shortchange our kids $1 million per year. What is it with these large corporations that promise to do good things for our community and then try to wriggle out of paying their fair share to support our schools?

This week, we helped to make headlines by testifying at a special County Council hearing about UPMC’s tax-exempt status and its duties as a public charity. [See “UPMC’s Fair Share”] Several news sources featured our message about the impact of UPMC’s vast landholdings on local school districts. [For some great coverage, see KDKA TV, 12-5-12 and WESA 90.5FM, 12-6-12]

In the case of the Rivers Casino, we are talking about a business that promised to bring revenue to our city and schools when it opened back in 2009. The casino made that promise in exchange for its license to operate a gambling establishment that many did not want in our fair city and on prime riverfront property. But practically as soon as they opened, Rivers Casino started petitioning to reduce their property assessment, which would directly reduce revenue for our community. In fact, between 2009 and 2012 they sought to slash their assessment by half, on average, which would have meant a loss of $3 million for the Pittsburgh Public School district alone.

Fortunately, this August the Allegheny County Court ruled against the casino. [Post-Gazette, 8-25-12] But now Rivers Casino is back at it, attempting once again to lower its 2013 assessment. If they succeed in getting the property assessed at what they claim is its current value, the result will be a $1 million loss for our schools every year. Meanwhile, the casino has taken in over $1 billion in revenue since it opened three years ago. [Opinion and Order of the Court, 8-23-12] And it wants to take money away from our children?

But wait. It gets worse. The majority owner of Rivers Casino is an investment fund managed by Walton Street Capital. This Chicago based company (co-founded by billionaire Neil Bluhm, an ally of President Obama) takes money from various sources and invests it in this particular fund, which then profits when the casino profits. Guess who sends their money to Walton Street Capital? Teachers. That’s right. According to an analysis done by UNITE HERE (the union currently organizing Rivers Casino workers), the following teachers’ pension funds have invested in this particular fund [data from Walton Street]:

  • Chicago Teachers Pension Fund
  • Illinois Teachers Retirement System
  • Indiana Public Retirement System
  • New Jersey Division of Investment / State Investment Council
  • New York State Teachers Retirement System
  • Teachers’ Retirement System of Louisiana (TRSL)
  • Teachers’ Retirement System of Texas (TX TRS)

So, indirectly, public school teachers in at least six states own a stake in Rivers Casino here in Pittsburgh. Perhaps they will join us in calling for the casino to live up to its promises to our community.

UNITE HERE has started an on-line petition where we can join together in asking Rivers Casino to stop trying to wiggle out of its commitment to our public schools. Think about Pittsburgh Manchester preK-8, home of our very own Manchester Miracle, just a stone’s throw away from the casino and without books in its library. Please sign the petition today, and spread the word: perhaps you even know a teacher or two in one of those states listed above. After what Pittsburgh has given Rivers Casino – including a hefty piece of our beautiful skyline now occupied by their parking garage – it’s time for them to stop the legal maneuvering and pay their fair share for our kids.

UPMC’s Fair Share

$8.5 million. That’s how much the healthcare giant UPMC could be sending to Pittsburgh Public schools if it were to agree to a Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) plan. It already does this for the South Fayette school district here in Allegheny County, as well as a school district up in Erie, PA. [See the Post-Gazette’s special report, “UPMC: Forging a Giant Footprint,” September 2012].

I’ve been asked to testify before County Council later today about the impact of UPMC’s massive stock of tax-exempt property on our schools. UPMC is actually the largest landholder in Allegheny County. Its tax-exemptions are a privilege that we grant to institutions serving the public good and we here in the community must hold UPMC up to its responsibility as a public charity. Either UPMC needs to behave like a charity and support the community through PILOTs, or operate as a for-profit corporation and pay taxes. Here is what I will be telling our County representatives:


Good evening ladies and gentlemen of our County Council. My name is Jessie Ramey and I am the mother of two Pittsburgh Public school students. I also teach history at the University of Pittsburgh and write about public education policy at Yinzercation, which is the on-line home of a large grassroots movement here in Southwest Pennsylvania fighting for our public schools. We are the ones behind the amazing Manchester Miracle you might have heard about – filling that school with library books – as well as the Pittsburgh Opera protest back in May.

We are all volunteer parents, students, teachers, and concerned community members. And we’ve been forced to buy library books and fight for arts education precisely because our public schools are not getting the resources they need.

UPMC calls itself a public charity and exempts itself from paying property taxes – the very taxes our schools depend on to survive. Yet UPMC gobbles up property all over Allegheny County, opens branches all over the world, and behaves like a big-money global corporation. Meanwhile, the 42 school districts in our county are struggling like never before. Our children have lost hundreds and hundreds of teachers, tutoring programs, summer school, music, art, languages, gifted and special education. Schools have been forced to slash textbook budgets, custodians, transportation, sports, and even early childhood education programs.

Our kids can’t afford UPMC’s tax breaks. The Post-Gazette’s recent special report estimated that UPMC could be paying $8.5 million to the Pittsburgh Public Schools alone if it were to pay its fair share on all its property in the city. UPMC has already entered into an agreement with the South Fayette School District here in the county. $8.5 million would let us hire back the teachers my kids lost this year…and restore our after school tutoring program…and put a full time librarian in every school.

Now I just want to say, I appreciate UPMC’s pledge to the Pittsburgh Promise program. But those dollars do not go to the school district. Also, they only benefit those living in the city of Pittsburgh. And it’s not the same as regular, sustainable, and predictable income for our schools.

School districts in this state are particularly vulnerable to tax-exempt property. That’s because Pennsylvania ranks in the bottom ten out of all fifty states in this country in the proportion of school funding provided at the state level: that pushes responsibility for schools down on our local communities, which have no choice except to raise property taxes. When you have a giant charity, acting as a corporation, coming in and taking more and more of that property off the tax roles, our kids wind up paying the ultimate cost.

This community is coming together right now and demanding that we hold UPMC accountable as a public charity. Public charities must exist for the public good. For the sake of our children and public education, it’s time for UPMC to pay its fair share.

Education Victories

We had several significant election wins for public education in Southwest PA last night. And it’s a good thing, because we just got more dire school budget news, meaning these folks are going to have their work cut out for them. But first the good news.

Congratulations to Erin Molchany, a Democrat in State House District 22, which is largely in Pittsburgh’s South Hills. She said the key issues in her race were “reliable public transit… And of course public education.” Molchany is connected to our Yinzercation networks and I had the pleasure of sitting on a Town Hall panel with her last month at the Pittsburgh Public Theater. Last night she noted, “There’s a very evident commitment to public education in the district and beyond.” [Post-Gazette, 11-7-12] We look forward to working with Rep. Molchany and having another strong voice for public education in the legislature.

Also in the South Hills, Democrat Matt Smith is moving from the House to the District 37 Senate seat. Smith has been very vocal about public education, calling Governor Corbett’s budget cuts “draconian,” and when he was in the House, “he introduced legislation that would increase funding for full-day kindergarten.” [Post-Gazette, 11-7-12] Smith has also met with Yinzercation parents multiple times and issued a detailed public statement last spring about the impact of state budget cuts on our schools. Both Smith and Molchany were endorsed by Education Voters PA. (For details on other EdVoter endorsed candidates across the state, see the rundown put together by the Keystone State Education Coalition.)

Back in the State House, we are glad to see public education stalwart Dan Frankel, who ran unopposed in this election for his District 23 seat. As minority caucus leader, Frankel is a crucial leader in our state, and has met numerous times this past year with our grassroots movement. Frankel also lent a hand to first-time candidate Susan Spicka, a public education grassroots organizer from the middle part of the state, who put up a spectacular fight in the 89th House District. [The Sentinel, 11-7-12] Spicka had an incredible turn out, and we hope she runs again. She will have lots of support from her public education allies in Southwest PA.

Our schools are going to need all the supporters they can get in Harrisburg this year as the pension crisis looms, threatening district budgets everywhere. For a quick tutorial on this critical topic, please be sure you have read our “Pension History 101.” The Pittsburgh Public School District announced Monday night that it would be broke by 2015. While it has slashed its spending and laid off a historic number of teachers, the district is already in deficit – plunged there in no small part because of state budget cuts – and has been spending down its reserve account. Those reserves will be gone by 2015, at which point the deficit is forecast to grow to $42.78 million. And these projections assume no further budget cuts from the state. [Post-Gazette, 11-6-12]

The pension crisis is a massive threat to public education in our state and will require a serious bi-partisan effort to address. Our job in the grassroots will be to insist that our legislators get started, and that they take every step with the assumption that public schools are a public good worth saving. Dr. Linda Lane, Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent, noted that every district in the state is affected by growing pension contributions, but said, “I don’t see a miracle out there to solve it other than money from school districts.” [Post-Gazette, 11-6-12] If local school districts are forced to substantially increase property taxes to compensate for the pension spike, it will only further solidify inequities in our public schools. This is one issue that we must insist that our state legislators have the courage to address.

The good news is that the overwhelming majority of public school families believe strongly in their schools. In a report released this week, the Pittsburgh Public School District found that two-thirds of parents surveyed would recommend their child’s school to a friend. The most enthusiastic support came from parents with children in early childhood centers, where 85% would recommend the school, and in K-5 schools, where 74% would recommend the school. Sixty-seven percent of respondents felt that teaching quality is improving in the district. [Post-Gazette, 11-6-12] These results reflect national trends, as Americans are giving their local public schools the highest ratings in twenty years. Nationally, when asked about the school their oldest child attends, over three quarters of those polled – 77% – gave their school an A or B (and only 6% gave it a D or F). [Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll, 8-20-12] (For more on this survey and its results, see “What the Polls Say.”)

In other words, Americans may feel there is a general public education crisis, but when you ask them about the actual schools in their own backyards, they are quite positive about them. Our grassroots movement needs to tap into this overwhelming majority that supports their local public schools. This is truly the “silent majority” that we must give voice to – our work is to amplify those voices so that they can be heard all the way in Harrisburg by our newly elected legislators.

Facts vs. Truth

Facts lie. And as Mark Twain said, there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. Tim Eller, Press Secretary for the PA Department of Education, was feeling defensive in a letter to the editor on Sunday, writing, “Let’s face it, the media’s attacks on the governor’s budget are nothing more than a call for higher taxes. Facts seem to be ignored when the argument is made that more money is needed.” [Penn Live, 6-17-12]

Actually, the Governor’s austerity budget is forcing school districts across the state to increase local property taxes, but there are many places Pennsylvania could be looking for money for public education – and a lot of them won’t cost taxpayers a dime. (See “Pizza and Silver Bullets” for our latest list of suggestions.) What Eller really wanted to do with his letter was to declare the following five “facts,” which practically beg for a little truth telling:

“Fact” #1: “In the 2010-11 school year — state, federal and local taxes combined — Pennsylvanians invested more than $26.5 billion into pre-K-12 education — an increase of $6 billion since 2004-05.”

Eller has been throwing around that large-sounding $26 billion figure for several months now – and this is actually the first time he has qualified it to show that he is really talking about federal, state, and local taxes combined. (See “The Accountability Hoax.”) To be clear: the state proposes to spend $10.6 billion next year on education – and this includes early childhood, K-12, the state higher education system, and our public libraries combined. [2012-2013 projected budget] Let’s put this in context: Pennsylvania ranks in the bottom ten out of all fifty states in spending on public education. And the PA legislature appropriates almost $500 per student per year less than the national average, and less than all of our contiguous states. (See “A New Mantra” for details.)

“Fact” #2: “Since 2004-05, the number of public school students dropped nearly 63,000, while the number of public school professionals increased by 9,500.”

Public school enrollments have declined – but not evenly or in all places. Some urban and poor districts have lost population, but have legacy costs of older buildings and fixed costs such as utility bills that do not decline. Places like Pittsburgh have to make hard decisions to close schools, but places like Duquesne are being forced to close up shop altogether and send their kids to neighboring districts – not because there aren’t students, but because of historical inequity in state funding that has compounded the crisis.

Last year Pennsylvania lost over 14,000 educators due to the state budget cuts, and thousands more teachers are losing their jobs this year. (See “No More Teachers, No More Books.”) And what about other school employees? Take Philadelphia, where every single bus driver, janitor, and maintenance worker got a pink slip this year – 1,400 members in all of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). [Philadelphia Inquirer, 1-3-12] If the state really has seen an increase in public school professionals, perhaps it is due to all those charter and cyber charter schools the Governor and his allies have been approving. We certainly haven’t seen an influx of teachers around here – just the opposite – ask the kids who will be sitting in classrooms with 30, 35, even 40 students next year. (See “Shifting Blame, A Shifty Trick” for examples.)

“Fact” #3: “In 2004-05, taxpayers contributed $228 million to the Public School Employees’ Retirement System. In 2012-13, this will jump more than 300 percent to $916 million.”

Yep. The state has been under-funding the pension system for twenty years, despite numerous warnings, through Democratic and Republican administrations alike. It’s important to understand this issue, because it plays a huge role in the looming crisis for our public schools. (Please read “Pension History 101,” if you haven’t already.) But Eller seems to use this data here to suggest that public education itself is too costly. Get real. We absolutely must deal with the pension crisis, but we must also properly fund our public schools.

“Fact” #4: “In 2004-05, salaries and benefits paid by public schools totaled $12.8 billion. This increased 30 percent to $16.7 billion in 2010-11.”

Here’s another attempt to portray public education as too expensive. (As Pennsylvania native turned Harvard President Derek Bok famously said, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”) But what this “fact” really attempts, in combination with the one above, is to portray teachers as the problem. Specifically their salaries and benefits. Did Governor Corbett work for free that one year he taught high school? I rather doubt it. Nor should he. Our teachers are professionals and deserve to earn reasonable middle-class wages for their work. And benefits. You know, those cushy things like health insurance so their kids can see doctors.

Sure, school districts and teachers unions need to work together to look at appropriate salary ladders. But portraying our educators as overpaid at the expense of taxpayers plays right into the broader attack on public workers that we are seeing across the country. And we need public workers. As we talked about yesterday, the vast majority of government workers are really teachers, firefighters, and police officers – and cutting those jobs has actually hurt the economy. (See “Economics 101.”)

“Fact” #5: “Gov. Corbett’s first two budgets will invest an additional $828 million in state support of public schools. It’s not that more money is needed. The public education system needs to refocus its efforts to ensure that students remain the No. 1 priority.”

Now that’s a whopper. Governor Corbett’s first two budgets actually slash $1 BILLION from public schools. Eller and his colleagues are usually very careful when they make this claim to say that they have increased funding for “basic education” – which is only one line item in the budget, while they have actually cut funding overall for schools. (See “Dishonesty Disguised as Generosity.”) But here he leaves out that caveat altogether. Where is he seeing an “additional $828 million in state support”? Governor Corbett actually allocated $372 million LESS last year alone for PK-12 education than the state spent in 2008-09, the year before federal stimulus dollars kicked in. (See “The Truth About the Numbers.”)

You can decide for yourself if Eller’s “facts” are lies, damned lies, or statistics. But to quote another well-known writer: the “truth will out.” (William Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice, for those of you keeping track of today’s literary references.)

Butterflies and Stinkbugs

It’s been a beautiful June week and the insects, both good and bad, are out in full force. For our Friday news wrap-up, we present some virtual awards complete with small flying critters.

Butterflies to Yinzer Nation residents Amanda Godley and Betsy Magley: nominated by Education Voters PA as citizen advocates for education, they were recognized last night by the Keystone Research Center / Pennsylvania Budget & Policy Center at their annual awards dinner in Philadelphia.

Stinkbugs to the Gateway school board, which voted last week against a resolution that would have asked the state for adequate funding for public education, despite its own financial crisis. Six of the nine board members said that local municipalities should tax residents for schools instead – the least equitable or efficient means of funding schools. (See “A Shameful Betrayal.”) Yet the district is furloughing 27 teachers, increasing class sizes up to 30, and eliminating K-8 field trips, activity buses, band uniforms, the Latin program, middle school athletics, and the high school math lab and writing center. [Post-Gazette, 6-7-12] We sentence the school board to a remedial history class for summer school to learn lessons from Pennsylvania’s own sorry history.

Butterflies to the parents, children, teachers, and administrators in the Highlands school district who held a candlelight vigil for public education last week, inspiring Pittsburgh families to plan a similar event. School board President Debbie Beale criticized the drastic cuts in state funding, quoting Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s, “The fierce urgency of now.” State Representative Frank Dermody, a Democrat from Oakmont, supported the vigil, calling Gov. Corbett’s budget an “attack on public education.” [Post-Gazette, 6-7-12]

Stinkbugs to the House Republican leaders who are wasting valuable time this week advocating for the expansion of tax credits to businesses sending money to private schools when they should be finding real solutions to the state’s education funding crisis. (See “EITC: No Credit to PA.”) Now they are talking about giving away even more of our taxpayer dollars to corporations by increasing the EITC program and adding another, similar, scholarship program. A plague of stinkbugs on the PA House if they let this go forward.

Butterflies to Canon-McMillan (down in Washington County) school board member Joe Zupancic and middle school Principal Greg Taranto for speaking out against taxpayer-funded billboards advertising the PA Cyber Charter School. Current billboards on the turnpike and along I-79 cost thousands of dollars to rent – all money coming from our taxes that no public school district could possibly afford to spend. [Canon-McMillan Patch, 6-6-12]

Stinkbugs to Gov. Corbett and his allies who continue to defend his $1 BILLION cuts to public education while blaming school districts for the crisis. Here’s what is happening in a typical suburban district in our area: Baldwin-Whitehall (in the South Hills) is being forced to raise local taxes for the first time in five years in order to maintain its educational programs. The district is doing reasonably well, but said that state cuts and the unfunded expense of cyber and charter schools, which cost the district $1 million a year, leave them no choice. [Post-Gazette, 6-7-12] May Gov. Corbett open the windows of the governor’s mansion to let all those pesky, infiltrating critters out – deep-pocketed donors looking to privatize education and stinkbugs alike.

Butterflies to the 26 House Republicans and 11 Democrats who have signed on as sponsors of a new bill that will change the charter school funding formula. Introduced by Rep. Mike Fleck, a Republican from Huntington, the legislation will help to fix many of the problems with the way charter schools receive funding from their local public school districts. For instance, school districts would no longer have to include the cost of athletics and charter school tuition payments when calculating their average per-pupil costs – a figure then used to determine their payments to charter schools. [Post-Gazette, 6-5-12]

Up Go Property Taxes

Struggling to balance their budgets, 199 Pennsylvania school districts have asked the state for permission to raise local property taxes, the state Department of Education announced yesterday. That’s forty percent of all the districts in the state. Faced with Governor Corbett’s $1 BILLION in state cuts to public education, school districts have few alternatives.

Because of the 2006 Taxpayer Relief Act, Districts may not raise their local property taxes without either seeking voter approval (by local referendum), or requesting an exemption from the state. School boards know that it is extremely difficult to convince voters to raise their own taxes: the ballot option frequently fails, leaving Districts with no revenue options.

Now the state has made it even harder to apply for exemptions. Districts used to have ten reasons they could petition, but Governor Corbett signed a new law last June limiting the number of exceptions to three: school districts can only raise taxes due to school construction projects that were already underway before the law went into effect, to cover special education costs, and to pay for pension obligations.

Of the 199 school districts requesting permission to raise property taxes, 35 are here in Yinzer Nation (see the full list below). The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports that districts are trying to deal with the uncertainty created by the current state budget cuts. “We’re in the same position as every other district,” Ligonier Valley School Board President James Cunkleman said. “We don’t know what we’ll be getting, but we do know that we have obligations that we have to meet. We’d like to not have to raise taxes at all, but that might not be an option.”

Not all school districts that request permission to raise taxes will wind up doing so, but recent evidence suggests that most will. Last year, for instance, 135 of the 228 districts that asked for exemptions – or 59% – raised local property taxes. Those taxes are based on “mills”: one mill equals $1 for every $1,000 in assessed property value. In other words, a homeowner with a house worth $100,000 would pay $100 in property taxes for each mill.

That brings us to millage rates. The Department of Education approved millage increases ranging from 0.06 mills in the Riverview School District to 4.41 in Ligonier Valley. Other districts on the high end of millage increases include Seneca Valley (3.60 mills), Slippery Rock (3.52 mills), Franklin Regional (3.43 mills) and Uniontown (3.34 mills). The massive state cuts to public education are forcing even the wealthiest schools to raise local property taxes: for example, Mt. Lebanon and Upper St. Clair are both on the list.

As you read through the following list of school districts and their approved millage rate increases, remember that local property taxes are the worst way to pay for public education, leading to horrible inequity in school funding. And these are just 35 of 199 school districts looking to raise taxes: that’s 199 more reasons the state needs to reverse these devastating budget cuts and start providing equitable and sustainable funding for public education.

Albert Gallatin — 0.60
Ambridge — 1.51
Avonworth — 0.60
Baldwin-Whitehall — 0.56
Beaver — 1.04
Bethel Park — 0.41
Burgettstown — 0.19
Central Greene — 0.30
Clairton City — 0.35 for buildings; — 8.69 for land
Ellwood City — 1.62
Franklin Regional — 3.43
Freeport — 1.7 Armstrong; — 2.8 Butler
Gateway — 0.41
Hempfield — 0.25
Highlands — 0.63
Karns City — 1.02 Armstrong; — 1.55 Butler; — 0.00 Clarion
Ligonier Valley — 4.41
Mt. Lebanon — 0.61
North Allegheny — 0.32
North Hills — 0.33
Peters — 2.15
Pine-Richland — 0.51
Quaker Valley — 0.63
Riverview School District – 0.06
Seneca Valley — 3.60
Sharon — 1.38
Sharpsville — 0.28
Shenango — 0.30
Slippery Rock — 3.52
South Fayette — 0.41
Uniontown — 3.34
Upper St. Clair — 1.23
Washington School District – 2.88
Western Beaver — 2.51
Wilkinsburg — 0.85