When Foundations Go Bad

Money talks. And sometimes money buys contracts with companies that have an agenda to privatize our public schools. That appears to be the case with Philadelphia’s prominent William Penn Foundation: last week parents in that city accused the venerable foundation of contracting with the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) to develop a plan to close dozens of public schools while opening many more charter schools. They charge the foundation and consulting company with essentially acting as lobbyists to influence policy decisions in the School District of Philadelphia. Here’s why we should care in the rest of Pennsylvania when good foundations go bad.

Parents United for Public Education – a fantastic group of Philadelphia public education advocates that organized back in 2006 (Yinzercation’s big sister) – filed a complaint with the City Ethics Board requesting a formal investigation of BCG’s behavior. Joining Parents United in the complaint was the Philadelphia Home and School Council and the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP. The groups had requested a legal analysis by the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia before making their decision to file the charges, saying, “Just a week before the District is expected to announce dozens of school closings which will throw our city into turmoil, we believe the public deserves to know the full influence of private money and access on decisions that impact us all.” [Parents United, 12-6-12]

It turns out that the William Penn Foundation signed a contract with BCG explicitly stating that the group would recommend expanding charter schools, target 60 public schools for closure, and influence labor negotiations. [The Notebook, 7-9-12] Philadelphia has a state-imposed “School Reform Commission” (SRC) and could be the poster-child for what a state-privatization plan does to a city. [For details, see “This is What Privatization Looks Like.”] Parents United discovered that the Boston Consulting Group’s contract actually specified that it would influence the SRC before an important vote it made back in May. That’s when the commission decided that, despite the District’s severe financial crisis, it would approve adding 5,416 new seats in charter schools across the city (expanding charters from 25% to 40% of the entire District) at an eye-popping cost of $139 million over the next five years. [The Notebook, 7-19-12]

The William Penn Foundation clearly got what it paid for with the Boston Consulting Group. With unprecedented access to key decision-makers as well as data from the District, the BCG has been acting as a lobbyist on behalf of the privatization agenda, able to push their plans behind closed doors. As Parents United points out, “No such access has ever been afforded to parents and community members who had to settle for limited information and public meetings.” [Parents United, 12-6-12]

And it gets worse. The foundation solicited private donors to help fund the BCG contract and then kept their identities a secret by funneling the dollars through a separate agency. Those donors include individuals and groups affiliated with charter organizations. [The Notebook, 6-6-12] As Parents United explains, this lack of transparency matters, “because under this shrouded arrangement, the public can’t know whether the work BCG did was for the District’s benefit or for the benefit of its donors. From our viewpoint as parents, this is not philanthropy. It’s something dramatically different….” [Parents United, 12-6-12]

What’s more, this kind of thing is going on all over the country, with big-money foundations investing their philanthropic resources in corporate-style education reform. These include the Broad Foundation (which has trained a large number of urban school superintendents, including Pittsburgh’s own current and immediate past leader, in corporate-style management practices) as well as the Gates Foundation (which has given Pittsburgh Public Schools $40 million for teacher evaluation efforts). I agree with Parents United that, “what we’re seeing across the country is an unprecedented level of private money shaping public policy under the guise of philanthropy. Too often that agenda has centered around a radical dismantling of public education, increased privatization, and disruptive reform that has sent many districts spiraling into chaos and sustained turmoil.” [Parents United, 12-6-12]

If there’s any good news here, it’s that the Philadelphia grassroots movement for public education is making a real difference. Just one week after Parents United sent its letter of intent to file an ethics complaint, the William Penn Foundation board met; one week later, the foundation’s president, Jeremy Nowak, publicly announced his resignation. Nowak had been widely regarded as the guiding force behind the foundation’s turn towards school privatization. Parents United co-founder Helen Gym, noted that, “William Penn, under [Nowak’s] stewardship, went from being this beloved Philadelphia foundation to being a controversial and very conservative promoter of a very special kind of reform agenda.” [Philadelphia Inquirer, 11-30-12]

The lessons for us here on the other side of the state? We must pay attention to the role of large foundations, which are increasingly entering the “education reform” business with little more than an ill-formed notion that school privatization will cure what ails us. Southwest Pennsylvania is also home to many venerable foundations with a proud history of supporting children, families, and education. It’s time for these foundations to partner with our community – in full transparency and with parent participation – to tackle the serious equity, policy, and resource issues confronting our schools. Foundations can absolutely be a force for public education and for the public good. How about it Pittsburgh Foundation, Heinz Endowments, Grable and others – are you ready to be vocal advocates for our public schools?

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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.

You’re Invited to a Private Screening

Are you in an ethical quandary about seeing the new “Won’t Back Down” movie? Perhaps you are angry about the film’s parent-trigger agenda and that it’s set in Pittsburgh claiming to be inspired by true events – that never actually happened here – but you still want to see the movie so you can be fully informed without contributing to these ultra-right filmmakers’ box office receipts? [See “We Won’t Back Down, Either” for the gory details about who made this movie and why.] Here’s the solution to your dilemma:

The Pittsburgh Public School district, the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, and A+ Schools are hosting a private screening of “Won’t Back Down” on Wednesday, October 3, 2012 at 6:00 PM. The viewing will take place at South Side Works Cinema. Seating is limited and will be reserved on a first come basis with parents and teachers given priority. RSVP HERE

There will be a brief panel discussion after the film moderated by the Rev. John Welch from PIIN (PA Interfaith Impact Network SW), who is also Vice President for Student Services and Dean of Students at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Panelists will include:

  • Nina Esposito-Visgitis, President, Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers
  • Carey Harris, Executive Director, A+ Schools
  • Dr. Linda Lane, Superintendent, Pittsburgh Public Schools
  • Randy Testa, Vice President of Education and Professional Development, Walden Media

For the life of me, I can’t figure out why we would give anyone from Walden Media 12 seconds of our time, especially since the entire previous two hours of the movie will be “their” message – complete with tear-jerking sound track and a feel-good story. Heck, who doesn’t want to root for the single mom who sticks up for her kid’s educational needs? Who doesn’t love a good story about a white woman and a black woman coming together and beating the big bad system? We all love a good underdog tale.

But Philip Anschutz and his Walden Media are not interested in what real parent engagement looks like in our public schools. They are selling privatization – turning over our public schools to private corporations in the name of corporate-style “reform.” There’s a reason the parent-trigger law is becoming known as the parent-tricker law: in California where it was first introduced, the law fooled many parents into thinking they were taking (more) control of their local schools. But scores of parents there cried foul after realizing the way outside operatives had been sent into their communities and lied to them. Closing down public schools and handing them over to private charter companies destroys a public good, forever (while enriching those corporations at tax-payer expense).

Walden Media’s Randy Testa, who has taught third grade and has an Ed.D. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has made it clear that these movies are designed as propaganda. In an interview earlier this year, he explained, “We have also recently made Walden’s tacit commitment to education more explicit. We co-produced the recent documentary about education, “Waiting for ‘Superman’” and we have a film coming out this fall, a drama not a documentary, called “Won’t Back Down” about two mothers –one a teacher—who come together to change their local school. … A good story gets people talking –and maybe even doing.” [Ploughshares Literary Magazine, 2-24-12]

Indeed. There’s mighty power in pop-culture, and Walden Media knows it. I hope Linda Lane, Nina Esposito-Visgitis, and Carey Harris come out swinging in defense of public education on October 3rd. We need to make sure people are “talking and maybe even doing” alright, just as Testa says – talking and doing something about this slick effort to sell school privatization, that tells lies about Pittsburgh, and attempts to introduce parent-tricker laws here in Pennsylvania. Let’s all be there on October 3rd to demonstrate what meaningful parent engagement in our schools looks like and that we here in the grassroots intend to keep fighting for public education as a public good.

We Won’t Back Down, Either

Have you heard the buzz around “Won’t Back Down,” a major new Hollywood movie opening here in three weeks? It’s time for that buzz to start sounding like a swarm of angry bees coming from anyone who cares about our public schools. Here’s why.

The film, which was shot here in Pittsburgh and also set in our fair city, claims to be “inspired by real events.” Starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, and Holly Hunter, it tells a stirring tale of parents fighting for their kids against downright cruel teachers and uncaring school administrators while also vilifying teachers’ unions. But there is absolutely no evidence that anything like the events depicted in the movie ever occurred in Pittsburgh. In fact, “Won’t Back Down” is very clearly an attempt to promote school privatization and ALEC-backed parent trigger laws, which have not even been on the radar screen here in Southwest Pennsylvania. [For more on ALEC, see “There’s Nothing Smart About ALEC.”]

The movie was produced by Rupert Murdoch’s 20th Century Fox and Walden Media, which is owned by Philip Anschutz. Anschutz co-produced that last anti-teacher and anti-public school film, “Waiting for Superman.” He’s an oil billionaire with ultra-right politics, making contributions to groups that teach creationism in our schools and oppose gay rights. Parents Across America, a grassroots organization like ours fighting for public education on the national level, notes that, “Anschutz has also donated to Americans for Prosperity, founded by the Koch brothers, which opposes environmental regulations and union rights, and to the political career of Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin.” [Parents Across America alert, 8-12]

Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers (whom I had the honor of marching with when she was in town for Monday’s Labor Day Parade), points out that, “Anschutz’s business partner is on record saying that he intends to use Walden Media … as way for him to promote their values.” In a piece last week in the Washington Post, Weingarten explains those values are “crystal clear”: Anschutz funds ALEC and a host of organizations that “operate against the public interest in favor of corporate interests, and all of them actively oppose collective bargaining rights and other benefits for workers. Anschutz has also invested millions in anti-gay and extreme religious-right organizations such as the Promise Keepers, whose founder declared that ‘homosexuality is an abomination against almighty God,’ and organizations affiliated with Focus on the Family.” [Washington Post, 8-28-12]

These guys didn’t just go into filmmaking for the fun of it. They have a clear agenda. And this time they are pushing parent-trigger laws. These laws allow parents to vote – by a simple 51% majority by signing a petition – to essentially shut down a public school. School districts are then forced to either fire all the teaching staff at that school, close the school altogether, or privatize it and turn it over to a charter school operator. The idea for parent-trigger laws was hatched by a California organization called Parent Revolution, which was founded by – surprise, surprise – a charter school operator.

Parent Revolution got major funding from the Gates and Broad Foundations as well as the Waltons (of Walmart fame and huge supporters of school privatization) to push the law in California. The group sent agents into Compton to get parents to sign a petition to charterize their elementary school, but some of those parents later said they had been purposefully misled. Parent Revolution then sent its operatives into Adelanto, CA and tried to get parents to sign two different petitions: one calling for smaller class sizes and other reforms, and the other calling to hand the school over to a charter operator. But after the group only submitted the charter petition, nearly 100 parents asked to have their names removed and a judge refused, insisting that the conversion to a charter school would proceed. [For more on the film and parent trigger laws, see Save Our Schools, another national grassroots organization like ours.]

These “Parent-Tricker” laws are fundamentally anti-democratic. They permit a small group of parents to essentially hand over a public asset to private owners. Public schools do not exist just for the parents and families who happen to currently be using them. That’s what we mean when we say public education is a public good: public schools serve the broader public interest by educating future citizens. They also exist for tomorrow’s students who have yet to step foot in the door. Parents have every right to fight to make education the best it can be for their children, but they cannot do it by converting public goods into private assets.

Ironically, I have to point out that these anti-public good school privatizers got public tax-payer dollars to make their film. Yes, that’s right: we here in Pennsylvania extend a nice fat tax-credit to film companies to induce them to make their films in places like Pittsburgh. [See Pittsburgh Film Office, tax credit information.] Those are tax dollars we don’t see in state revenue and can’t use to support our public schools. Perhaps we need (some) tax credit programs, but it’s all about priorities: maybe we shouldn’t be giving our money to film makers who turn around and tell blatant lies about Pittsburgh, our schools, and our teachers while undermining public confidence in a crucial public resource.

But that’s just what this film is doing. And the filmmakers have had plenty of help spreading their message. Three weeks ago, CBS aired a concert called Teachers Rock, funded by Walmart, as a promotion for “Won’t Back Down,” with stars including Carrie Underwood, Meryl Streep, Jennifer Garner, Matthew Morrison, Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, Usher, and Maroon 5’s Adam Levine. [Business Wire, 7-24-12] And as I lamented yesterday in my open letter to President Obama’s senior education policy advisor, the Democrats stepped right in line with Republicans, both showing the film at their national conventions these past two weeks. [See “Dear Mr. Rodriguez…”]

You can be sure we’ll be hearing lots more about parent-trigger laws here in Pennsylvania, too. Proponents have already popped up in Harrisburg: back in June during the budget debates, House Bill 2352 wound up defeated, but it would have created a parent trigger law. [Keystone State Education Coalition, 6-27-12] Remember, this is where grassroots activism will make the difference: this past spring, Florida parent groups fought back against proposed parent trigger legislation and won after an intense battle. [Miami Herald, 3-9-12]

When the film opens across the country on September 28th, we will have an opportunity to weigh in on the conversation and many eyes will be on Pittsburgh. Let’s be ready! We will need to write letters to the editor, op-ed pieces, and engage our social networks to expose the real agenda behind “Won’t Back Down.” We’ll need to attend showings and discussions (stay tuned for more on those). We’ll need to let the country know what authentic parent engagement looks like, why we are fighting for public schools as a public good, and that we won’t back down.

Dear Mr. Rodriguez …

An Open Letter to Roberto Rodriguez, Special Assistant to the President for Education Policy

Dear Mr. Rodriguez:

As you will no doubt recall, last week when I was invited to the White House as one of 40 education leaders from Pennsylvania I stood before you and pleaded for an end to the national narrative of “failing public schools.” I am writing to let you know about the national conversation that that meeting has sparked – and the overwhelming sense of disappointment, despair and frustration it has evoked. You asked for a dialogue and feedback, so please allow me to tell you what people are saying.

First, many people want to know how it is that the White House, the Department of Education, Democratic leaders, and many on the political left have bought hook, line and sinker into this rhetoric about public education – once a pillar of our democracy – overlooking the actual experience of education professionals and despite mountains of educational research. (This is exactly what “At the Chalkface,” a national talk radio program, spoke with me about this past weekend.) The toxic failing-public-schools narrative is not only based on a false notion that American students are falling farther and farther behind our international peers, but it blames supposedly overpaid, uncaring teachers and bureaucratic school administrators for the very real problems that do exist in our country.

Yet we know that middle class students from well-funded schools perform at the top on international tests. We know that student achievement has actually gone up, not down over the past thirty-five years. And we know that the trenchant problem of racial disparity in our schools has far more to do with poverty and inequitable funding at the local and state level than with bad teaching or unions.

People want to know why, then, this administration seems blind to the consequences of adopting President Bush’s signature No Child Left Behind (NCLB) policy, which set schools up to fail, stigmatized them, and then undermined public confidence in public education. They ask why our national leaders ignore the clear evidence that NCLB has wrecked havoc on our schools, creating a culture of high-stakes testing, teaching to the test, cheating scandals, drastically narrowed focus to just reading and math, all the while preventing desperately needed debate about real issues such as meaningful curriculum reform.

The piece I wrote about our conversation last week, “The Elephant at the White House,” was picked up and re-published nationally by AlterNet.org, the Horace Mann League, and Diane Ravitch, among others. Ravitch wrote a response piece, “About that Meeting at the White House,” in which she asked pointedly, “will they do anything differently? What signal, if any, will the White House give to show that they understand that Race to the Top is an extension of NCLB? It is NCLB on steroids.” Here are some comments from people across the country:

  • “Empty chair for PRESIDENT! Because no other choice measures up”
  • “…the Dems [are] hellbent on pushing [Race to the Top] during Obama’s re-election. From a purely political perspective, it has got to be the worst strategy the Dems have ever had. The race is very close and it is possible Obama will lose. I wonder why he has abandoned teachers and parents.”
  • “I guess [the election] wouldn’t be so close right now if he hadn’t forgotten all of us. I am disgusted, completely and totally disgusted with Obama, Duncan and the whole lot of them. Obama should spend a morning at Sidwell Friends and then follow up with an unannounced visit to a test prep charter. Then he should hang his head in shame.”
  • “…[throw] the profiteers and consultants out of the meeting; [abandon] Race to the Top; [say] that Mr. Duncan would not be part of the next administration; [promise] to phase out testing and to remove test scores from teachers evaluations. When they do the above, I will trust them.”
  • “USDoE spokespeople seemed to be brave in this meeting — and then what? And now how is the Obama administration going to respond to the brave teacher/parent/community alliance in Chicago, where teachers are being forced to strike…to defend and protect their students and schools?”
  • “Alas, the [NCLB] waiver is not a waiver, just a commitment to do other harmful things!”
  • “…of the 40+ educators who attended, only 2 were teachers. Teachers have professional expertise that needs to be acknowledged, cultivated, and sustained.”
  • “Race to the Top is more of the same un-researched, unreliable, and feckless education policy that further demeans the profession and those of us who are steeped in the research of effective practice.”

Last week we talked about the new Hollywood movie, “Won’t Back Down,” which blames coldhearted teachers, unions, and school districts and was made by the same people who released “Waiting for Superman” two years ago. I practically begged you not to use the movie as a promotion for market-based corporate “reformers” and their agenda of school privatization. This piece of fiction claims to be “inspired by real events” and is set right here in Pittsburgh, though there is absolutely no evidence that anything like it ever happened here. What is clear, however, is that the film was bankrolled by the ultra-right and attempts to introduce the notion of parent-trigger laws, another policy darling of those supposed reformers. I was appalled to learn that the Democratic National Convention chose to show the movie this week (following in the footsteps of the Republicans who showed it at their convention last week).

I’ve been invited by President Obama’s campaign here in Pittsburgh to speak tonight at a party celebrating his acceptance speech. I’ve been asked to speak about my trip to the White House. What am I supposed to tell them? On this issue, Mr. Rodriguez – your issue of education – President Obama is no different from his opposition. To say we are disappointed is an understatement.

I hope you and all of the President’s advisors will give serious attention to Diane Ravitch’s most excellent advice in, “How President Obama Could Win the Election.” She has proposed an amazing, short speech that could win back educators, parents, and public school advocates.

I plead with you once again from here on the ground in the grassroots of a key state in this election: let’s talk equity, let’s talk about poverty, let’s talk about real education reform, and let’s talk about public education as a public good.

Respectfully yours,

Jessie Ramey
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Jessie B. Ramey, Ph.D.
ACLS New Faculty Fellow, Women’s Studies and History
University of Pittsburgh
Yinzer Nation + Education = Yinzercation

The Elephant at the White House

So there we were at the White House. Forty “education leaders” from Pennsylvania invited to meet with President Obama’s senior policy advisors as well as top staff at the U.S. Department of Education (USDE). The room contained district superintendents, school board members, principals, college presidents, education professors, representatives from a host of education associations, a super-PAC school privatizer, educational consultants, and various non-profit directors. And one elephant.

This elephant in the room fittingly started as a Republican beast, but has gained so much traction with Democrats over the past decade that it could just as well have been a donkey lurking there in the corner. Whatever its animal form, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was casting a pretty big shadow and it was time to talk about the consequences of labeling our public schools as failures, high stakes testing, and the demonization of teachers.

And so during the first discussion session, I stood to address Roberto Rodriguez, the President’s senior policy advisor on education. I reminded him of what I had told him back in March, when I implored the White House to stop participating in the national narrative of failing public schools. (See “What I Told the White House.”) And then I gave him the view from the ground here in Pennsylvania where our grassroots movement has been fighting massive budget cuts, to let him know what it looks like when our country stops believing that public education is a public good. When it chooses to cut teachers, tutoring programs, nurses, special ed, school buses, music, art, foreign languages, and even Kindergarten.

NCLB has created a culture of punishment and fear, with student “achievement” measured by highly problematic standardized tests that don’t begin to assess real learning, and teachers evaluated on those test scores and little else. It has narrowed the focus in our schools to reading and math, jettisoned real education in favor of high stakes testing resulting in a plague of cheating scandals, and nurtured a system of “teaching to the test” on top of weeks of school time spent on test taking and nothing else. NCLB set a pie in the sky target of 100% proficiency for all U.S. students by 2014, and as that deadline has approached and the proficiency bar has moved ever higher, more schools have “failed” and more teachers have been blamed.

All this supposed failure and blaming has served as convenient cover to gut public education in states like Pennsylvania, where Governor Corbett and the Republican controlled legislature acted as fast as they could to slash $1 billion from public schools, install voucher-like tax credit programs, and privatize struggling districts, handing their schools over to corporations run by their largest campaign donors. But they had plenty of help from the other side of the aisle, because faced with the relentless media barrage of the failing-narrative, far too many people have lost confidence in public education as a pillar of our democracy.

And this has been happening all across the United States, with the backing of mountains of ultra-right superPAC money and ALEC-inspired legislation as well as major new foundation players including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation. This is truly a national battle, and we can’t win this fight isolated in our trenches. We need tone-changing leadership from the top.

My report from the grassroots met with a rousing round of applause from attendees and was followed by a series of equally urgent remarks. Larry Feinberg of the Keystone State Education Coalition warned that President Obama’s policies have looked nearly identical to Republicans on education (with the exception of vouchers, which he does not support) and that he may backfire at the polls with teachers and educators. Feinberg sits on the Haverford school board, a wealthy district near Philadelphia, and reminded the President’s staff that middle-class students in well-resourced schools actually score at the top on international tests. We are ignoring poverty while adding ever more testing, which will drastically expand yet again this year in his district and many others. Similarly, Susan Gobreski of Education Voters PA argued that we ought to have a new national narrative of equity, and that we have choices and need to help the public see that we can make different ones.

For their part, the White House advisors and senior USDE staff seemed to agree. Roberto Rodriguez emphasized that we “need more investment in public education, not less” with a focus on early childhood education, curriculum, wrap around programs, and parent engagement. He reported on the 300,000 teaching jobs lost in recent years, noting the economic implications for the U.S. and warned that sequestration – which will happen if congress does not head off looming mandatory budget cuts this fall – will mean billions of dollars cut to Title I, special ed, higher ed, and other student programs.

Massie Ritsch, Deputy Assistant Secretary at the USDE, talked about the fact that NCLB will be up for renewal next year, and that we here at the community level need to keep talking about “the lunacy that this law has allowed to perpetuate.” Yes, those were his actual words. Think about that. Of those Americans who say they are very familiar with NCLB, nearly half now say that the law has made things worse in this country (and only 28% say it’s better). (See “What the Polls Say.”) And here was the top brass at the USDE agreeing, calling the fallout from this federal law “lunacy.”

Deborah Delisle, USDE Assistant Secretary noted that 30 states have now applied for NCLB waivers to gain some flexibility in dealing with its ever more stringent requirements. However, Pennsylvania is not one of them. Many in the room expressed serious frustration with Governor Corbett’s apparent preference to have our schools labeled failures and refusal to seek relief through the waiver program. And it was readily apparent that the PA Department of Education declined to send anyone to this White House forum, which was hardly a meeting of Corbett’s political foes (after all, Students First PA was there: that’s the group that funnels superPAC millions to the campaigns of legislators who promise to deliver vouchers and give away public funds to private and religious schools through tax credit schemes.)

Delisle also commented on the polarizing effect that NCLB has had on our nation. It has created a climate in which those who embrace the corporate-marketplace-inspired reform mantra of choice, competition, and test-based accountability smear professional educators and public school advocates as “defenders of the status quo” who only care about union perks and not children. But this educational “reform” movement of the past decade has been a bit like the king’s new clothes. A wide swath of America has lined the parade route – Republican and Democrat alike – loudly cheering for the king’s beautiful new royal robes of privatization, but there’s nothing there covering his privates.

This “reform” movement is premised on a false idea that American schools have been in steady decline for the past forty years, which is not supported by the evidence. Despite ample data to the contrary, these reformers continue to insist that our students are falling further and further behind their international peers and promote the NCLB inspired narrative of failing public education. (For an excellent analysis of the data, see Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System.) What’s more, they accuse those who point out the obvious – that privatization is not working, that charter schools and tax credits are draining our public coffers of desperately needed resources, that we have to address the astonishing high rate of child poverty – of being satisfied with the persistent racial achievement gap and using poverty as an excuse.

We are at a cross-roads with public education in our country. If we are going to get serious about making sure that every student has the opportunity to attend a great public school – “A school,” as Assistant Secretary Deborah Delisle said, “that every one of us would send our child to” – then we have to get serious about restoring this country’s belief in the public good of public education. It’s time to name the elephant in the room, have a serious conversation about overhauling NCLB, and make the choice to adequately and equitably fund our public schools.

Jessie Ramey of Yinzercation and Sherry Hazuda, President, Board of Directors of the Pittsburgh Public Schools, at the White House, 8-30-12

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White House policy advisors and USDE senior staff participants:

Kyle Lierman, White House Office of Public Engagement
Roberto Rodriguez, Special Assistant to the President for Education Policy
David Bergeron, Acting Assistant Secretary, USDE
Miriam Calderon, Senior Advisor, White House Domestic Policy Council
Lexi Barret, Senior Policy Advisor, White House Domestic Policy Council
Massie Ritsch, Deputy Assistant Secretary for External Affairs and Outreach, USDE
Deborah Delisle, Assistant Secretary, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, USDE
Brenda Girton-Mitchell, Office of the Secretary, Director, Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, USDE
Brenda Dann-Messier, Assistant Secretary, Office of Vocational and Adult Education, USDE
Steven Hicks, Special Assistant for Early Learning, USDE
Betsy Shelton, Director of Public Engagement, USDE

Back to School, Back to the White House

It’s that time of year again – many of us are sending kids back to school this week. And Yinzercation has been invited back to the White House! This Thursday the White House and the U.S. Department of Education will host an “Education Forum with Pennsylvania Leaders.” The group will meet with President Obama’s senior administration officials to discuss “education programs and initiatives, including specific conversations about K-12, higher education and other focus areas.”

Last time I was there, I shook my metaphorical finger at some of the President’s policy advisors and implored them to stop participating in the national narrative of “failing public schools.” Return this nation instead, I pleaded, to its long standing belief in public education as a public good. This time, I intend to share the consequences of what happens when we lose sight of the common good served by our schools.

I will have to tell the White House about the many hundreds of teachers who will not be heading back into the classroom here in Southwest Pennsylvania, and what that will be like for our students, those out-of-work education professionals and their families, and our local economy. I will tell them about larger classrooms, lost librarians and nurses, cancelled special ed and tutoring programs, gutted arts and foreign language curricula, slashed school bus services, and even reduced course offerings in core subjects like reading and math. And I will tell them about the ultra-right billionaires that have pumped mountains of money into superPACs funding politicians who promise to send our taxpayer dollars to private corporations and religious institutions while over a third of our local school districts have been forced to raise property taxes to pay for schools. [Post-Gazette, 7-15-12]

I will try to explain how families are bombarded with expensive ads and billboards on our highways from those superPACs and private charter schools promising to “rescue” their children. How great swaths of people in our region of every stripe and political persuasion have become convinced that there is something horribly wrong with public education, even though they have great faith in the actual schools in their own neighborhoods. [See “What the Polls Say“] And how the rhetoric of failing schools has served as cover to cut $1 billion from public education in Pennsylvania, to pass laws making it impossible to see what is going on inside charters and scholarship organizations, to set up new tax credit programs draining hundreds of millions more from the public coffers that could have been used for our schools.

But I will also tell the White House about our incredible grassroots movement. How quickly it has grown and how effective we have been. How ordinary people care passionately about their public schools and how we’ve fought the rhetoric of failure with the simple truth and a commitment to the social good served by our public goods. It’s back to school time. And it’s time for the White House to commit to sending all our students back to a great school, with adequate, equitable, and sustainable public funding for public education.

The Commonwealth

We are the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Stop and think about that phrase, the official title of our state. We are a commonwealth, that’s common + wealth. It’s an old English term from the 15th century meaning a body politic (or a political community) organized for the “public welfare” and the “general good.” [Online Etymology Dictionary]

We are one of only four states in the U.S. that calls itself a commonwealth (Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Virginia are the other three.) Not only is the word in the title of our state, it’s in our constitution. In fact, the notion is at the core of Pennsylvania’s original constitution, which was written in a convention in Philadelphia from July through September of 1776 presided over by Benjamin Franklin himself.

The very first section of that original constitution is a “Declaration of the Rights of the Inhabitants of the Commonwealth or State of Pennsylvania” and closely resembles the Bill of Rights. Number five on the list: “That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection and security of the people, nation or community; and not for the particular emolument or advantage of any single man, family, or soft of men, who are a part only of that community.” [PA Constitution, 9-28-1776]

Government is for the common benefit. We hold wealth in common, to serve the public good. These are powerful old ideas that derive from colonial common law and helped shape the new nation. Look at how Massachusetts puts it in their constitution: “The body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals: it is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good.” [Preamble, MA Constitution]

Our legislators need to think about the meaning behind the very name of our state, as they race to ink a final budget in the next three days. Republicans revealed the details of the budget yesterday with mixed news for education. [Post-Gazette, 6-27-12] On the positive side, it is all but certain now that Governor Corbett will not get his way with his proposal to eliminate $100 million from the block grant program that many schools use to fund Kindergarten and early childhood education. That is a $100 million victory for our grassroots movement and you can be sure we would not have achieved it without the enormous statewide effort of ordinary folks like us who stood up for public education.

Our countless letters to the editor, op ed pieces, phone calls, rallies, vigils, advocacy events for children, meetings with legislators, bus trips to Harrisburg, research, writing, and consistent dialogue in social media kept this issue front and center when the administration wanted desperately to make it go away. We pierced Govenor Corbett’s claims about his education budget, we skewered his metaphors, and revealed the big money interests behind his attempts to privatize our schools. And we caught national attention: people from coast to coast were horrified to learn about the operatic tragedy of arts education unfolding in Pennsylvania; our articles were published in the Huffington Post among others; we were invited to the White House.

Yet we know that this new budget provides only level funding for public K-12 education. Last year’s massive cuts are carried forward and will continue to deeply impact our schools. And we know that Governor Corbett will continue to play games with rhetoric, claiming that he has increased funding for schools when he has merely moved line items around. For example, the Post-Gazette is reporting today, “The basic state subsidy for public schools would be set at $5.4 billion, an increase of $49 million over the current year.” [Post-Gazette, 6-27-12]

There is no actual increase for public education overall. In fact, we are almost sure to see the expansion of corporate tax credit programs this week, which will effectively divert hundreds of millions of public revenue dollars to private and parochial schools that could be used for our public schools. (See “2-4-6-8, Who Do We Appreciate?” for the latest details.) You will hear Rep. Christiana and others claim that their massive corporate giveaway doesn’t take money away from public education.

But if we remember that we are the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, we can see the absurdity of that statement. Our public revenue, our wealth, is for the common good; it is to be held in common, for the benefit of us all. Benjamin Franklin and his colleagues inked those powerful words 236 years ago and they are every bit as meaningful today.

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Yinzercation is going on vacation. Your faithful blogger will return, but for now, I leave you with these words: Public education is a public good.

That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection and security of the people, nation or community; and not for the particular emolument or advantage of any single man, family, or soft of men, who are a part only of that community, And that the community hath an indubitable, unalienable and indefeasible right to reform, alter, or abolish government in such manner as shall be by that community judged most conducive to the public weal. [PA Constitution, 1776]

The Other C Word

Choice. They stole our word. Not so long ago, “choice” belonged to progressives who had successfully attached its meaning to women’s reproductive rights. It had become shorthand for an entire, complex movement (though often stood in for the single hot-button issue of abortion). But the agents of school-privatization have co-opted the term. “School choice” now means sending public taxpayer dollars to private and parochial schools benefiting a select few at the expense, and to the detriment, of the great many.

Education historian and activist Diane Ravitch wrote yesterday about the problem of looking at education as a consumer choice rather than a public good. “The more that people begin to see education as a consumer choice, the more they will be unwilling to pay for other people’s children. And if they have no children in school, then they have no reason to underwrite other people’s private choices.” [“How Choice May Kill Public Education,” 6-24-12]

Public education is a social compact (remember this from high school social studies class?): we collectively agree to educate all children in our community, because we all benefit from an educated populace. “But once the concept of private choice becomes dominant,” Ravitch warns, “then the sense of communal responsibility is dissolved. Each of us is then given permission to think of what is best for me, not what is best for we.”

We are a nation of consumers, trained from an early age to look at everything as a consumer choice. And we like the idea of choice: what’s more American than a grocery store aisle with 112 kinds of cereal to choose from? In fact, the concept of choice is almost a pathological fixation in our culture. If we can choose something, then we will like it; if we have a choice, then all is well.

Take healthcare as an example, where the far right has been launching a successful attack on affordable medical care for all, with scary stories about people losing their “choice of doctors” or “choice of plans.” When it comes right down to it, what people want is not necessarily a choice of plans or doctors, but a good doctor in their community that they can afford to see.

The problem of “choice” is related to “The Competition Fallacy” we outlined last week. (That article, by the way, has received some national attention and will be republished by Alternet.org.) Those who would like to privatize our public goods use the framework of choice and competition, but these are the wrong guiding principles. Nobel Prize winning Princeton economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman addressed just this issue over the weekend in a piece about the similar effort to privatize our prison system. He asserted, “you really need to see it in the broader context of a nationwide drive on the part of America’s right to privatize government functions.” [New York Times, 6-21-12]

Krugman went on to explain why this is happening with prisons, but he could just as easily been talking about education: “You might be tempted to say that it reflects conservative belief in the magic of the marketplace, in the superiority of free-market competition over government planning. And that’s certainly the way right-wing politicians like to frame the issue. But if you think about it even for a minute, you realize that the one thing the companies that make up the prison-industrial complex … are definitely not doing is competing in a free market. They are, instead, living off government contracts. There isn’t any market here, and there is, therefore, no reason to expect any magical gains in efficiency.”

And yet, Pennsylvania legislators are voting today on a massive expansion of a plan to send even more public money to private institutions. As we reported on Friday, this latest voucher-in-disguise effort will expand the current Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program, which currently diverts $75 million in revenue from corporations that we could otherwise be using for our public schools. (See “One Million Per Day.”) Yesterday Republican leaders announced they would almost certainly add another $25 million to this program, while creating a similar tax credit program that will cost another $50 million. [PennLive, 6-24-12]

The good news is that the House is not going along with Governor Corbett’s proposal to cut another $100 million in block grants to public schools for early childhood education. This is money that Pennsylvania schools could not afford to lose on top of last year’s massive cuts. However, the preservation of these funds comes with strings attached – and we’ll see those strings today as legislators vote to further expand voucher programs.

We will undoubtedly hear how tax breaks for corporations and the funneling of public money to private and parochial schools is wonderful, and how these programs create “choice” and “competition.” Just remember that other C word. No not that one. Remember “community.” As Diane Ravitch said, we have a communal responsibility to public education. Once we start seeing it as a consumer choice, we will lose the essence of our public schools: that they belong to all of us, and that we share the obligation to support them.

The Competition Fallacy

We love competition in this country. From early on, we are taught that competition in the capitalist marketplace allows the best ideas to emerge, the best-run companies to rise to the top, the best products to reach consumers. That’s a lovely thought, although the U.S. has never practiced pure capitalism (we decided long ago some government regulations were a good idea) and the rise of the 99% has highlighted the staggering problems of income inequality produced by our current system. Yet we love the idea of competition and continue to believe in its simplicity as a guiding principle. It’s part of our pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps American narrative of individualism; part of our moral fiber.

But the concept of competition does not apply equally to all things. Take public K-12 education. Those promoting privatization efforts such as vouchers and charter schools love to say that public schools will benefit from competition. Monica Allison, the Philadelphia based president of PA Families for Public Cyber Schools, wrote in a letter-to-the-editor today that, “Schools need to be competitive. Choice in education is very good and it breeds competition. Competition in education makes every school step up and provide a quality education.” [Post-Gazette, 6-20-12] Oh if only that were true.

We need only look at charter school performance to see the fallacy of “competition.” Only two of Pennsylvania’s 12 cyber charter schools achieved Adequate Yearly Progress status last year, and seven have never made AYP at all. (For details on charter school performance, see “Dueling Rallies.”) The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University found that students in every single Pennsylvania cyber charter school performed “significantly worse” in reading and math than their peers in conventional public schools. [Stanford/CREDO report summary, 2011] That’s a 100% failure rate. Pennsylvania introduced charter schools back in the 1990s – if competition was so good for them, would we not be seeing positive results by now?

The point is that competition as a philosophy doesn’t work when you are talking about our public goods. Let’s consider our public park system as an analogy. Would anyone suggest that we hand half of our public parks over to private corporations to run them as good little capitalist enterprises (think Budwesier signs on the fountain at the Point, oil derricks in North Park, casinos in Gettysburg); then siphon off state funding meant for the parks and hand the money over to those companies; and then tell the remaining public parks they need to manage with fewer resources and “compete” in order to attract visitors?

Actually, some people have suggested just this. But most people realize that our beautiful natural resources are not about increasing someone’s bottom line. They are not even necessarily about attracting visitors (we value remote wilderness for reasons other than its ability to pack in a crowd). We ask our government to own and manage green spaces for us because those places belong to all of us – they exist for the public good – whereas private companies are legally obligated to answer to their shareholders.

Public schools exist for the public good. They benefit not only individual students, but also society as a whole, which requires an educated citizenry in order to function. They are mandated to educate every child in every corner of the state and with every learning need. We are right to insist that our public schools deliver a quality education and work to fix problems where they exist. But the problem is not that our public schools lack competition. It’s that they are being systematically starved of funding.

Last week, Pittsburgh Public Schools announced they would start their own cyber charter school. The district figures its per pupil cost will be $3,500 compared to the nearly $14,000 on average that it is forced (by state law) to send to other cyber charter school operators. Since Governor Corbett cut reimbursements to districts for their charter school payments, right now Pittsburgh is losing $45 million per year for the 3,125 students it must pay to send to those schools. That includes $11 million for 798 students in cyber charter schools. [Post-Gazette, 6-13-12]

In a district with about 25,000 students, charter schools have sucked away a small percentage of overall enrollment, but a very large chunk of cash. It is the equivalent of having one or two students leave a classroom of 25, yet the district still has to pay all the costs of educating those remaining 23 kids, with the same teacher’s salary and the same light bill.

Ms. Allison of the PA Families for Public Cyber Schools claims that, “districts need to look at where they can do better and compete for students.” [Post-Gazette, 6-20-12] We always want our public schools looking at what they can do better, but asking them to compete for students will not make them better. In fact, competition is the wrong guiding principle for public education.

We need to adequately, equitably, and sustainably resource our public schools so they can meet the needs of all our students. Because good public schools are a public good. They benefit all of us.