School board elections used to be a rather sleepy affair. A few local people would pay attention and the average candidate expected to spend a few thousand dollars to run a campaign. But now some of the wealthiest people on the planet are running around pouring money into elections in cities where they don’t even live, trying to stack school boards with corporate-reform-minded majorities.
We saw this in Los Angeles earlier this year, where the mayor of 3,000-miles-away New York, Michael Bloomberg, spent $1 million to promote corporate reform candidates. He was joined by Michelle Rhee and members of the Walton family (of the Wal-Mart fortune), who have been pumping their wealth into state and local elections. [See “School Boards Matter”] Now we are watching the vultures circle Denver. A school board member in the Mile-High-City just announced she won’t be seeking re-election and familiar players are swooping in to protect the corporate-reform agenda they’ve got under way there.
Dr. Kenneth Wong, chair of education policy at Brown University, explained to the Denver Post that these “national groups have homed in on a small number of public-school systems with split school boards,” such as Denver. He said, “It’s an investment on their part to protect their previous investment.” Meanwhile, the executive VP of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a bastion of corporate-reform, acknowledged freely that they view Denver as one of their “bright spots” because the city’s “policies on merit pay and charter schools have thrived.” [Denver Post, 4-17-13] Never mind that merit pay doesn’t work and charter schools have not solved the problems facing public education. [On charter performance, see “Talking Turkey About Charters”; on merit pay, see Albert Shanker Institute, 1-12-12; Washington Post, 10-6-12; VOX economic research, 9-26-11]
Once again, we here in Pittsburgh are lucky. We’re lucky we aren’t Denver. Or L.A. We’re lucky our school board has not bought into privatization schemes. And while 5/9 of our school board slots are up for election this May (with only one incumbent running unopposed, meaning we will have four new people joining the board), the deep-pocketed corporate reformers have so far stayed away from the Steel City. Find something wood to knock on right now.
These elections matter a great deal. If you live in the city, please make sure you know your school board district and learn about the candidates. Yinzercation is co-sponsoring a city wide candidate forum on May 8th, hosted by A+ Schools and the League of Women Voters, from 6-8PM in the Hillman Auditorium, Kaufmann Center (1835 Centre Ave. / 15219).
We’re also lucky here in Pittsburgh that our mayoral candidates are talking about education. The two front-runners, Bill Peduto and Jack Wagner, appeared at a real-estate developers breakfast together yesterday (candidates Jake Wheatley showed up at the end and A.J. Richardson never appeared) and then spent the day getting specific about their education agendas. [Post-Gazette, 4-18-13]
I appreciate that as former state auditor general Jack Wagner looked into school finance issues (his office issued the report revealing that Pennsylvania taxpayers are over-paying cyber charter schools by $1 million per day). But his statements on education here in Pittsburgh feel out of touch: speaking through a spokesman, Wagner’s campaign said it would “concentrate on expanding student programs — with a special emphasis on math and science programs.” Has Mr. Wagner been paying attention to what is happening in Pittsburgh schools? Math and science programs are lovely – but we are missing hundreds of teachers, art and music classes, full-time librarians, nurses, counselors, and much more.
Mr. Wagner has not been at a single education event I have attended in the past year and a half. If he had been there, he would know what Pittsburgh families are talking about and what the real needs are in our schools. His campaign told the Post-Gazette he is interested in “after-school activities, internships and summer employment” for our students. [Post-Gazette, 4-18-13] All noble things, but here in the grassroots we’ve been talking about priority issues such as:
- A rich, engaging, and culturally relevant curriculum for every student with full art, music, library, science, history, and world language programs in addition to reading and math.
- Safe, orderly, respectful and nurturing learning environments.
- Appropriate facilities and adequate books and materials in every school.
- Smaller class sizes.
This is just a partial list from our shared “Vision for Great Public Schools” – a document we created after many grassroots conversations, rallies, and meetings – and a list so powerful, that resonated so widely, that it was picked up and shared nationally by education historian and advocate Diane Ravitch
Bill Peduto has been at every one of those town-hall meetings, rallies, small group conversations, and education press conferences. He shivered in the cold with over 250 people in a February snowstorm last year as we protested state budget cuts. He was at the Rally for Public Education this February in the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater as we talked about the disproportionate impact of those cuts on our poorest students and communities of color. I have seen him at PIIN community meetings and A+School gatherings. We were tweeting together from the press conference last week at which all of the school board candidates signed the Equity and Excellence pledge. Those were school board candidates and had nothing to do with the mayor’s race, but Bill Peduto was there.
Where was Jack Wagner when Rev. David Thornton of Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church delivered the “State of Public Education” in Pittsburgh with such passion the crowd was on its feet cheering? Bill Peduto was there – and listening. And he heard Vanessa German’s heart-wrenching spoken word piece that reminds us all of what is really at stake in our fight for public education.
That’s why I was thrilled to see Mr. Peduto’s announcement yesterday that he wants to focus on early childhood education. [Post-Gazette, 4-18-13] If we could only do one thing on our list, many education researchers and advocates agree it should be to invest in quality early childhood education programs. Bill Peduto has proposed offering free, universal high-quality early childhood education to every child in Pittsburgh. Right now Mr. Peduto tells us that less than half of all the city’s pre-school age kids are in any kind of program – and too few of those children are in programs rated highly by Pennsylvania’s Keystone STARS certification. Quality early childhood education pays off big dividends – for the child, families, and our society. Various studies have shown that every dollar spent now on programs like the one proposed by Bill Peduto save up to $17 later on. Mr. Peduto has some other innovative ideas that he has been releasing every day this week in a series of education policy papers. I encourage you to check them out.
And I really encourage you to vote on May 21st! This is the primary, but given the politics in Pittsburgh, this is where both our school board and mayoral races will essentially be decided. The last day to register to vote is Monday (by 5PM on April 22nd). Independent voters can participate by registering temporarily as a Democrat. Download a registration form here. Or find a list of registration locations here.
We’re lucky here in Pittsburgh, indeed. Lucky to have some great candidates to vote for!