Gov. Wolf Listens to Pittsburgh Students

Oh those kids! Remember the amazing Pittsburgh CAPA students who testified at the school board hearing in December about arts education? [“All They Want for Christmas … Is Art Education”] Not only did the Washington Post pick up their story, but now Governor Wolf is listening to them, too.

Here’s a report from Yinzercation steering committee member, Kathy Newman, who helped to organize the student testimony: On Thursday, February 26th five sleepy but excited CAPA students waited in the chilly dawn to get on the Education Justice bus to Harrisburg. United with a group of activists from One Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, the PA Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN), Action United, Yinzercation, SEIU and 32BJ, they were ready to bring a message about education funding and sustainable community schools to the state capital.

This CAPA group got its start when Margaret (Meggie) Booth, president of her National Arts Honor Society, and fellow CAPA student William Grim, decided that one of their projects this year would be using art to advocate for more state funding. They made over 100 watercolor postcards, and asked their classmates to write on the other side of the postcard about why the arts are important. For the action on Thursday the CAPA students fashioned these postcards into a festive mobile banner, and presented it to our new Governor, who seemed thrilled with their efforts – and tweeted it out under his own name!

Gov.Wolf Gives Pgh Students Thumbs Up!

On the bus back to Pittsburgh Margaret and Will reflected on their day in Harrisburg.

Meggie Booth – Advocate & Speaker:

As soon as we entered the rotunda of the capitol building, I was amazed by the breathtaking ornate beauty. An elegant marble staircase sat in the middle with gold, silver and glass twisting through every inch of the room. Fluid murals ascended towards the ceiling, directing our eyes upwards. And then, there was the most beautiful sight of them all. The beauty of ordinary faces glistened. The faces of workers, parents, students, constituents. Our voices blended together to form a harmony that demanded an effort to build healthier communities. Our beauty decorated the capital, emulating the words “Wise And Just,” scripted on the ceiling.

Fellow CAPA students and I were there to represent the arts. We wanted to emphasize the importance of arts when talking about a quality education. I was fortunate to be given an opportunity to speak during the rally. This opportunity was both frightening and empowering. The crowd was full of optimism as energy spilled from their smiles. People shouted and shook their heads in agreement. We chanted “Enough is enough,” “When we fight, we win,” and “If we don’t get it, shut it down.”

For me, the most powerful thing about this rally was how it truly encapsulated the power of the people, not just experienced lobbyists and organizers. This rally spoke to the fact that problems in the world cannot be addressed without conversations and collaboration with those most directly affected. Today, it was the people who raised their voices. Today, the people were heard.

[Photo credit: Sarah Hudson]

[Photo credit: Sarah Hudson]

[Photo credit: Sarah Hudson]

[Photo credit: Sarah Hudson]

Pittsburgh CAPA students, left to right: William Grimm, Andrew Lowery, Sarah Hudson, Meggie Booth, and Maya Bingham. [Photo credit: Sarah Hudson]

Pittsburgh CAPA students, left to right: William Grimm, Andrew Lowery, Sarah Hudson, Meggie Booth, and Maya Bingham. [Photo credit: Sarah Hudson]

Will Grimm – Advocate & Constituent:

The people were heard by representatives, politicians, and perhaps most importantly, Governor Tom Wolf himself. Meggie and I, along with other CAPA students, had each member of the student body state the importance of the arts in schools on a postcard. These cards were first presented to the Pittsburgh Public School Board in early December and then again today in Harrisburg.

The cards, each of which has a hand painted design, were strung in groups of ten and attached to two poles. This was an airy yet influential visual that shared student voices. We had originally planned to display this with the other visuals at the rally but arrived to the news that it would be gifted directly to the Governor.

The CAPA group, along with organizers from OnePittsburgh, headed to the official chambers anticipating the Governor. We were instead greeted with his advisors who assured us that it would go to the right place. To our surprise, it did. A few hours later, Tom Wolf shared an image of himself with our project, thanking us for sharing our voices. Our group hooted and hollered—we had been heard.

Having political leaders that listen to their people is the first step in creating change. When everyone—the students, teachers, workers, organizers, parents—stood together, it was evident we are following this path. Citizens are rising and this generation is acting for the benefit of the next. Being in a room packed with fellow activists was an honestly moving experience. We united as one and as a result, the students of CAPA were heard. Our opinions were shared, our work was validated, and our vision unmasked.

————

Thank you, Will, Andrew, Sarah, Meggie, and Maya! Finally, I leave you with more pictures from Yinzercation steering committee member Pam Harbin, who went to Harrisburg with the students, to fight for fair and adequate education funding for all our schools. Thank you, Pam!

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Look at that Great Public Schools Pittsburgh banner!

Look at that Great Public Schools Pittsburgh banner!

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A Moment of Silence for Michael Brown

Steve Singer is a Yinzercation steering committee member and a teacher in the Steel Valley. This was his experience in the classroom yesterday with his students as they tried to process Ferguson together. This Thanksgiving, I am grateful for teachers like Steve.

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Michael Brown has been dead for more than 100 days.

Yet he was in my classroom this morning.

He stared up at me from 22 sets of eyes, out of 22 faces with 22 pairs of mostly Black and Brown childish cheeks.

The day after it was announced Missouri police Officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted in the shooting death of the unarmed Black teen my class was eerily quiet.

There was no yelling.

No singing or humming or tapping either.

No one played keep away with anyone else’s pencil or laughed about something someone had said or done the night before.

No conversation about what so-and-so was wearing or arguments about the football game.

My first period class filed into the room and collapsed into their seats like they’d been up all night.

Perhaps they had been.

By the time the morning announcements ended and I had finished…

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Reporting Back on Community Schools

After our fantastic gubernatorial candidate Education Debate two weeks ago, some people did not get much sleep. Early the next morning, over thirty people went to Cincinnati, Ohio for a national conference on community schools. Pittsburgh sent the largest delegation, which included school board members, district administration, representatives from the Mayor’s office and City Council, parents, teachers, foundation officials, faith leaders, and community members.

Members of the Pittsburgh delegation get ready to board the bus for Cincinnati!

Members of the Pittsburgh delegation get ready to board the bus for Cincinnati!

Now this group is ready to report back what they learned. Want to find out more about community schools and what they might look like for Pittsburgh? Many of us really wanted to go to the conference but could not – so this is our chance to hear all about it and be a part of the discussion. Please come!

Monday, May 5, 2014: 6PM
{note the date change! this was previously announced as April 29 – new location to be announced here as soon as I receive that information}

You can also RSVP on our Facebook event page and invite your friends to help spread the word. Many thanks to the Heinz Endowments for making it possible to send so many parents and community members and to the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers for the thankless task of organizing the registration, bus, and hotel details.

At this point you may still be asking, what are “community schools”? I like this quick definition: a community school is both a place and a set of partnerships, linking the school and community resources. It integrates the work of local non-profits, businesses, healthcare and social service providers, after school programs, and more – not just by asking groups to donate their services, but by becoming full partners in a way that benefits all. Community schools are central hubs in their community and respond to local needs. Many offer classes such as adult literacy, provide exciting enrichment programs, and open their recreational facilities to everyone in the evenings and on weekends. [Read more about community school models in the report, “Great Public Schools for all Pittsburgh Children: A Community Based Plan.”]

Are community schools a magic bullet? Of course not. But the models do offer a new way of thinking about public schools – and there is some promising data coming from cities that have implemented the concept. An evaluation of 20 initiatives across the country showed improvement in student learning, attendance, and behavior as well as increased parent engagement, “[i]mproved safety and security, increased community pride, stronger relationships between school and community, and greater utilization of schools….” [Community Schools Research Brief, 2009]

What could community schools do here in Pittsburgh? What do you think? What happens next? Please come and be a part of this important conversation!

More Bad than Good

Governor Corbett doesn’t want to hear what the public thinks about his proposed budget. He leaked details to the press Monday in advance of his Tuesday announcement “under the condition of a late-night embargo, precluding the gauging of reaction before publication.” [Post-Gazette, 2-4-14] So we’ll keep our analysis nice and simple for him:

  • More $ for special ed = GOOD
  • More scholarships for higher ed = GOOD
  • More $ for early childhood = GOOD
  • Flat funding for K-12 basic ed = VERY BAD
  • More $ for richer schools = BAD
  • Flat funding for higher ed = BAD
  • Making schools compete for $ = BAD
  • Grant $ only for training but not teachers = BAD

Now, for those who would like a few more details, let’s start with the positive. Governor Corbett proposed a $20 million increase to special education funding. That’s welcome news since the state’s own Special Education Funding Commission recently found that special education funding has not increased since 2008-09, effectively pushing rising costs onto local school districts. [Pennsylvania Special Education Funding Commission Report, December 2013] This has been especially problematic for districts like Pittsburgh that have substantially larger proportions of students with special education needs (18.1% of Pittsburgh students receive special education services, while the state average for all schools is 14.5%). Legislators need to continue the positive momentum on special education funding while also re-instating a fair funding formula to distribute that money.

Governor Corbett also proposed an additional $10 million for early childhood education and a $25 million college scholarship program. There’s probably no better investment we can make than in quality early childhood programs. However, while the college scholarship program will help low-income and middle-class families, it does nothing to address the historic de-funding of higher public education. 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) and he proposes locking in those cuts again this year. Pennsylvania students now rank as the third-most indebted in the nation. [Project on Student Debt]

Perhaps the worst news in the budget is the Governor’s plan to flat-fund the K-12 “basic education” line. This line provides the bulk of education funds to our public schools and flat funding essentially means another budget cut, as districts grapple with ever rising costs. Our kids have already lost just about everything that isn’t nailed down. What else would he like them to give up?

The Governor is clearly banking on the $340 million he has proposed adding as a “Ready to Learn Block Grant” to dampen criticism of his education funding policies this election year. Unfortunately, this money comes with strings attached, with a narrow focus on math and reading readiness, curriculum, and teacher training. [PA Dept. of Education release, 2-4-14] While these are valuable, schools can’t use this money for the very things our students need most: hiring back their teachers, reducing class sizes, restoring their tutoring programs, or replacing lost art and music classes.

But here’s his worst idea of all: some of that money will be distributed as competitive grants, including $10 million for a competitive Hybrid Learning program that would award funding to 100 schools, and $1 million for a new competitive Governor’s Expanding Excellence Program (GEEP), open to schools with SPP scores 90 and above. Making schools compete for money creates winners and losers, not equal opportunity for all. These programs are not about getting our neediest students the resources they deserve, and they overwhelmingly favor wealthy districts.

Last week when Governor Corbett let the news slip about his GEEP plan, we talked about this misguided strategy to give more money to exactly the wrong schools. [“GEEPers, More Money for the Rich”] In a new analysis of GEEP, Research for Action found that only 428 schools (out of 3,004 in Pennsylvania) would be eligible to participate in the program based on their SPP scores. It also found that “Statewide, no school with a poverty rate above 65 percent is eligible.” [RFA Policy Note, 2-4-14] As you will recall, SPP scores are almost entirely based on high-stakes-test scores, which track very closely to family income. Research for Action has produced a terrific new scatter plot that beautifully demonstrates the correlation between SPP scores and poverty. Stick with me, and we’ll explain this:

PAschoolsSPPscorePoverty

On this graph, every school is represented by a triangle. Those that are GEEP eligible, with SPP scores over 90 (on or above the red line), are shown in blue. The vertical axis shows the school’s SPP score (those range from 11.4 to 101.4, possible due to the awarding of “bonus” points). The horizontal axis shows the percentage of students at that school living in poverty. Now see that black line tracing the declining SPP scores for schools with a higher proportion of economically disadvantaged students? That’s a pretty stark illustration of the way that, for all its bells and whistles, the School Performance Profile system continues to grade schools – and reward them – on the basis of wealth.

On the whole then, Governor Corbett’s budget proposal contained more BAD than GOOD. But it was just the opening salvo. We now have several months of negotiation before the legislature will pass the final state budget in June. We need to tell our legislators LESS BAD would be GOOD for Pennsylvania students.

A Week of Action

This week we’ve had several reminders that action works. When we work together, we make change happen.

On Monday, Pittsburgh Public School superintendent Dr. Linda Lane announced that she is recommending only one school closing right now: Woolslair K-5 in Lawrenceville/Bloomfield. [Post-Gazette, 11-4-13] We had been expecting to hear a much longer list of proposed closings. And though the district assures us that list will be forthcoming in the new year – when the new school board is seated – the delay is very much a “win” for all of us. Pittsburgh students deserve a plan with real vision to improve all schools and we don’t have that yet (proposals announced Monday included mowing the grass and shoveling the snow less often to save money – which is not exactly what we had in mind).

On Tuesday, Pittsburgh formally elected Bill Peduto as Mayor. This is a huge win for public education. [See “Pittsburgh is Lucky” for our endorsement back in the spring.] Mr. Peduto has already signaled that his administration will work much more closely with the school district to find solutions that help students, families, and Pittsburgh neighborhoods. For instance, he’s thinking about how the city might shift some revenues back to the district, which has lost almost $84 million in earned income tax over the past decade after the state legislature forced a change to favor the then-sinking city. [Post-Gazette, 11-3-13]

On Wednesday, Gov. Corbett came to town to kick off his re-election campaign and discovered public education advocates ready to “greet” him. Outside the Governor’s press event at the Heinz History Center, speakers said it was time to make Corbett himself history, calling him “One Term Tom.” The “people’s moving van” showed up with signs suggesting it was time to send Corbett packing, due to the harm he has caused our schools.

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Now it’s Thursday and it’s time for more action. Tonight you can be a part of the PIIN town hall meeting with over 1,000 people who will get commitments from our public officials on several critical social justice issues, including public education. Join us from 7-8:30PM at Rodef Shalom in Oakland. Action works. Acting together makes things happen.

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Heating Up

Boy, it’s getting intense as the state budget negotiations heat up. Senate majority leader Dominic Pileggi and House majority leader Mike Turzai are trying to get the two Republican caucuses into alignment. Senator Pileggi said they “are working through the details” on public education funding, among other issues, and Rep. Turzai praised his colleague’s budget plan, calling it “fiscally responsible while still balancing the needs of Pennsylvania citizens.” [Post-Gazette, 5-31-12]

What Turzai is calling “fiscally responsible” is actually another $50 million in proposed cuts to public education. That’s on top of the staggering cuts Governor Corbett made last year. Far from being “fiscally responsible,” these cuts have put tremendous negative pressure on local communities across the state.

Take the news from Pittsburgh today: Pittsburgh Public Schools will be sending furlough notices to 285 teachers and other professionals such as school social workers. The notices are provisional, meaning things won’t be finalized until August, but it’s still “expected to be the largest number of teacher layoffs in the district’s history.” [Post-Gazette, 5-31-12] That’s one out of every eight teachers in the district who won’t be returning in the fall. Yet the number of students and their learning needs remain the same.

There’s no doubt that Pittsburgh has some belt tightening to do, with one of the highest per-pupil costs in Pennsylvania. But drastic state budget cuts have forced its hand. And now we’re talking about an additional 285 well-educated, professional people losing their jobs in Southwest PA. There’s a huge multiplier effect on communities with these layoffs, but this supposedly “fiscally conservative” Governor seems to conveniently overlook the economic consequences of his actions.

Now consider how this is happening all across the commonwealth. A new study out this month found that 75% of school districts will furlough or not fill vacancies and more than half have a wage freeze in place (that’s up dramatically from 16% last year). [PASA/PASBO May 2012] And that’s on top of the many thousands of teachers who lost their jobs last year.

A national group called American Working Families has taken notice, launching a two-week television ad campaign in the state looking at the effects of Gov. Corbett’s budget cuts. The organization’s founder, Bud Jackson, said that Gov. Corbett is “one of the worst governors in the country when it comes to helping the middle class and he’s been making things harder for them.” Jackson told CBS News that Corbett has been deceitful: “Corporate friends and campaign donors – he chose to give them tax breaks. His staff – pay raises. And a new SUV for himself and his wife while eliminating health care for our children and cutting our schools by more than $1 billion.” [CBS News, 5-29-12]

And speaking of national attention. Actress, writer, and producer Tina Fey has weighed in on the terrible cuts Pennsylvania schools are being forced to make, especially to the arts. [Washington Post, 5-29-12] Fey is a graduate of Upper Darby School District, which has announced it will eliminate music, art, library, and physical education classes for elementary students and foreign language and technical education for middle school students. She is lending her considerable voice to the cause of public education, urging people to sign a petition that will be presented to Gov. Corbett next week. She also emailed this moving video to her network, to help spread the word about the real consequences of the governor’s budget:

But you don’t have to be a celebrity, or have the financial resources to run television ads, to make a difference. Every time we call our legislators, sign a petition, or participate in a rally we are being heard. Did you see the excellent letters-to-the-editor from Matt Chinman and Steve Karas in yesterday’s Post-Gazette? We are keeping the spotlight on public education and things are certainly heating up.

EITC: No Credit to PA

While our legislators are busy looking under their sofa cushions for spare change to fund the state budget, they might want to consider the $75 million that just walked out the front door. That’s how much the Education Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program costs us taxpayers every year.

The misnamed EITC program has nothing to do with educational improvement and everything to do with funneling what would have been state budget dollars into private schools, while increasing profits for corporations. Here’s how it works: corporations can get an EITC tax credit by contributing to a Scholarship Organization, which channels the money to private schools. The companies receive up to 90% of their contributions as a tax credit, worth up to $300,000 per year, and can get a federal tax write-off as well, making the program highly attractive.

Not only do corporations get a tax write-off, but they also receive good publicity and increased access to legislators. For example, gas driller XTO Energy (now owned by Exxon) donated $650,000 over the past three years allowing it to stage ceremonies all over the state at the time when its fracking technique was coming under intense scrutiny. The New York Times reported last week that a state official credited XTO with going “ ‘above and beyond’ its duty” when “[i]n reality, as much as 90 percent of XTO’s donation was underwritten by taxpayers.” [unless otherwise noted, all quotes from New York Times, May 21, 2012]

And don’t underestimate the benefit corporations receive in cozying up to legislators through the program. Two of Pennsylvania’s biggest Scholarship Organizations are run by lobbyists who turn to lawmakers for “advice” in deciding which schools should receive the money. As the Times concluded, “The arrangement provides a potential opportunity for corporate donors seeking to influence legislators and also gives the lobbying firms access to both lawmakers and potential new clients.”

For instance, XTO made its tax-payer funded donation to the Bridge Educational Foundation chaired by Peter Gleason, a Harrisburg lobbyist. Bridge’s advisory board includes two other XTO lobbyists and the chief of staff to Pennsylvania’s Speaker of the House Sam Smith. And it gets worse: “Bridge’s director, Natalie Nutt, whose husband ran the campaign of Gov. Tom Corbett…said all of the group’s board members were selected for their devotion to school choice.” One of Bridge’s founders was John O’Connell, another lobbyist who embezzled over $200,000 from a Pennsylvania non-profit group promoting tort reform.

O’Connell was also a partner at Bravo, another large Scholarship Organization, and he tried to use his connections to both groups as evidence of his charitable work in arguing for a lesser sentence. Federal prosecutors disagreed, saying, “As a lobbyist, O’Connell’s involvement in the Bravo Education Foundation and later in the Bridge Foundation was very beneficial to him in a business sense in that it afforded him excellent opportunities to cultivate new corporate clients and relationships with legislative leaders.”

Now full disclosure here. I am on the board of a non-profit early childhood education center in Pittsburgh that has received EITC scholarship money. There is no doubt this has been helpful for our organization and the families we serve. But we are talking about $75 million a year in taxpayer money that is walking out the door at the same time the Governor proposes slashing about that same amount from the Accountability Block Grant program. That would be the program that funds early childhood education and Kindergarten programs across the state.

And there is no accountability for that $75 million. The Keystone Research Center analyzed the EITC’s K-12 component (the program also funds pre-K scholarships and ‘educational improvement organizations’ that work with public schools) and found that “schools benefiting from the EITC scholarships are not required to report on student progress or document school quality.” [Keystone Research Center report, April 7, 2011]

In fact, the legislature outlawed any attempts to collect such information and the program is actually managed by the Department of Community and Economic Development – not the Department of Education.

With practically no state oversight, the public has almost no financial information on the organizations receiving tax credits or distributing scholarships. The Keystone report warns, “Experiences in Arizona indicate that a lack of financial accountability opens the door to the misuse of public funds.” And we’re talking about a program that provides scholarships to over 38,000 students to attend private and religious schools – that’s more than the number of students in the Pittsburgh Public School District.

If all this weren’t enough to make you concerned about the program, the Times report noted that there is a nationwide movement for EITC-like programs backed by the voucher-touting American Federation for Children and its ALEC allies. (For the back-story on these organizations and their connection to efforts to privatize education in Pennsylvania, see “It’s All About the Money, Money, Money” and “There’s Nothing Smart About ALEC.”) A spokesman for the American Federation for Children boasted to the Times, “Scholarship legislation was approved in Virginia this year and is gaining traction in other states, including New Hampshire and New Jersey.”

The EITC program has been operating as a backdoor voucher program in Pennsylvania since it was founded in 2001. In eleven years, it has cost over $300 MILLION in lost revenue. Those are real dollars that are not available to fund the state budget so it can support things like, oh, you know, public education. Revoking the EITC program would put millions of dollars back into the state’s coffers without raising taxes one dime. It’s time for legislators to get their heads out of their couches: the Education Improvement Tax Credit is not improving education and it’s certainly no credit to the state of Pennsylvania.