More on School Push-Out

Over 80 people crowded into the Kingsley Center on Saturday morning to talk about school push-out! Organized by Pam Harbin (a Yinzercation steering committee member) and hosted by Great Public Schools Pittsburgh, the Education Law Center, and the Center for Third World Organizing, the event also featured state Rep. Ed Gainey and University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work professors Jeff Shook and Sara Goodkind (another steering committee member).

WESA-FM covered the event, quoting Dr. Shook explaining research that demonstrates the danger of placing disciplinary labels on young children: “This study finds that there’s an internalization of this label that’s related to subsequent behavior, but more importantly it also finds that authority figures, school figures and other authority figures, they’re more apt to apply that label once it’s initially applied.” He also indicated that suspension does not necessarily correct student behavior, while sending young people into the juvenile court system leads to significant negative outcomes.

Nancy Potter, a lawyer with the Education Law Center, told the group that research confirms, “high levels of suspension and zero tolerance policies not only hurt the student disciplined but hurts all students who feel they aren’t in a safe and nurturing environment.” She led one of the breakout sessions that discussed recommended changes to Pittsburgh’s student code of conduct. [WESA, 3-1-15]

Want to help keep the work going? Join us this Wednesday at the Carnegie Library in East Liberty at 4:30PM to make the recommendations from the meeting into a reality. The school push-out committee will be a working group focused on making and promoting the solutions to end school push-out in our schools! Light snacks will be provided. More information and RSVP here.

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!


Our Amicus Brief in the State Funding Lawsuit

Did you know that there is a current lawsuit against the state to fund our schools? The Education Law Center (ELC) and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia brought the suit last fall on behalf of six school districts, seven parents, and two statewide associations accusing the state of failing to uphold Pennsylvania’s constitutional obligation to provide a “thorough and efficient” system of public education. The state is arguing that the case should be thrown out and there is a key court date coming up on March 11th.

Yinzercation has joined with other grassroots organizations to submit an amicus (meaning “friend of the court”) brief demonstrating the reasons this case ought to move forward. I will include the full Statement of Harm we were asked to file in support of the brief below. (Click here for the full amicus brief, which was delivered on Tuesday.) For more information about the lawsuit, including an easy-to-read FAQ, visit the Pennsylvania School Funding Litigation website.

If you would like to attend the oral arguments in the case, you are invited to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg (601 Commonwealth Avenue, Courtroom 5001) on Wednesday, March 11th at 9:30AM. As the ELC explains, “this is a historic case challenging the legislature’s failure to adequately support and maintain Pennsylvania’s public school system.” The suit “asks the Court to ensure that all students — including those living in low-wealth districts — have the basic resources they need to meet state academic standards. We ask the court to hear this case and enforce the rights of our children to a “thorough and efficient” system of public education as guaranteed to them by our state constitution.” If you plan to attend or have questions, please contact Spencer Malloy at

Here is the information Yinzercation submitted to support the arguments in this important case:

Statement of Harm

Pennsylvania ranks in the bottom five of all states in the proportion of funding provided by the state to public schools. This under-funding, combined with four years of de-funding in the 2011-2015 fiscal budgets, has pushed responsibility for supporting public education down on local municipalities, which have been forced to cut programs and staff. In its most recent survey of the state’s 500 school districts, the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA) and the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO) found that:[i]

  • 90% of school districts have cut staff, and more than 40% of districts have already, or plan to, cut more teachers.
  • 64% of districts have increased class size since the historic budget cuts in 2010-11, with the elementary grades hit the hardest.
  • Over half the districts will eliminate or reduce academic programs next year. The most frequently cited cuts will come from field trips (51% schools will eliminate); summer school (37%); world languages (34%); music and theater (31%); and physical education (24%).
  • Students will lose extra-curricular and athletic programs, or have to pay a fee, in over a third of the districts.
  • The vast majority of school districts report that their costs are going up because of un-funded state mandates (such as the administration of high-stakes testing).
  • In nearly every part of the state, districts are relying on local revenues (property taxes) to pay for a growing majority of school budgets. Over 75% of school districts will increase property taxes next year (that’s more than any in the past five years).

The over-reliance on local resources such as property taxes to support education exacerbates inequity in school funding as poor districts struggle to meet basic needs. In addition, because the state’s budget cuts to the most impoverished school districts were more than three times as large on average as those made to the wealthiest districts, Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable children have been harmed the most. For example, class sizes have increased more in high poverty districts while reading and math scores have declined the most for students living in poverty.[ii]


[Source: PSEA analysis, 8-25-14]

Yinzercation’s analysis of data for Allegheny County supports the finding that on a per-student basis, the poorest school districts have been impacted the most by state budget cuts. Pittsburgh tops the list of districts most harmed with an average per-child loss of $1,038, followed by a list of nine other high-poverty school districts. Race is a crucial factor, too, as these districts have a large proportion of students of color. Those districts harmed the least by state budgets cuts in the county include those in the wealthiest suburban areas, including Upper St. Clair, which actually gained $4 on a per-student basis during this time period.



In order to deal with the under-funding of their schools, poor districts have been forced to slash line items directly affecting students and their classrooms. For example, in 2012, Pittsburgh furloughed 285 teachers and educators. To put this in context, in total between 2008 and 2013, Pittsburgh students lost:

  • 17 percent of their teachers,
  • 45 percent of their librarians,
  • 35 percent of their paraprofessionals and support staff, and
  • 20 percent of their guidance counselors and psychological personnel.[iii]

Similarly, this school year, Wilkinsburg – a predominantly low-income, African-American school district adjacent to Pittsburgh – eliminated 18 teachers, amounting to a full 14% of its faculty. This was in addition to the 13 teachers and staff members who were furloughed last year.[iv]

Students in these districts are some of the poorest in the county, yet have lost critical education programs. Some examples illustrate the actual impact on kids:

  • Pittsburgh Colfax K-8, a Title I school with one of the largest achievement gaps in the city, eliminated its after school and Saturday tutoring program.
  • Some classes grew to 39 or more students.
  • This school also cut its middle level choral program and baseball team, and delayed instruction for instrumental students at the elementary level.
  • Pittsburgh Manchester, a Title I school with 94% students of color, has a brand new library built by the community but students cannot check out books because there is no regular librarian.
  • Parents and teachers at Pittsburgh Linden K-5 provide paper for photocopies and other basic supplies.
  • Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12, a magnet school for creative and performing arts, eliminated sculpture classes for visual art students and solo lessons for instrumental students (a cornerstone of instruction in those fields).
  • There aren’t enough math textbooks for the students at Pittsburgh Allderdice high school.
  • The historic marching band at Pittsburgh Westinghouse high school was not able to purchase drumsticks or replace 15-year-old uniforms.
  • The district eliminated its Parent Engagement Specialists who worked with the most marginalized students and their families: this position had been especially effective at schools serving children bussed from distant communities (the result of a long pattern of school closures in poor neighborhoods and communities of color).
  • In 2014, Pittsburgh announced plans to cut additional world language classes, with schools eliminating language offerings entirely or seriously reducing courses.
  • The graphic on the following page offers additional impact statements from parents, students, teachers, and community members about the effect of cuts in Pittsburgh’s schools due to inadequate state funding.[v]

Inadequate state funding for school districts also leads to inequities within poorer districts, as some individual schools have access to community resources while others do not. For instance, one school on Pittsburgh’s East End has an active parent organization that annually raises over $60,000 to support educational field trips, student activities, classroom technology, and basic supplies – items that wealthier school districts are able to provide without relying on volunteer donations. Yet parents at other city schools struggle to raise similar donations leading to wide variation in the availability of crucial educational programs and enrichment opportunities for students within the same district. Adequate and equitable state funding for public education is crucial to address such inequities within and between school districts and to eliminate the harmful impacts on our most vulnerable children.


[i] PASA-PASBO report, “Continued Cuts: The Fourth Annual Report on School District Budgets,” June 2014. []

[ii] PSEA report, “Budget cuts, student poverty, and test scores: Examining the evidence,” August 2014. []

[iii] Pittsburgh Board of Public Education, “Financial Statements, Final Budget,” August 2013.

[iv] Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 5, 2014. []

[v] Great Public Schools Pittsburgh report, “Creating a District of Last Resort,” October 2013. []

Push-Out is Gendered, Too

The weather has been messing up everyone’s plans lately. But the community meeting about school push-out has been re-scheduled for this Saturday, February 28th. Hosted by Great Public Schools Pittsburgh, the Education Law Center, and the Center for Third World Organizing, the conversation will run from 10AM-12PM at the Kingsley Center in East Liberty. Speakers will include Sara Goodkind (a Yinzercation steering committee member) and Jeff Shook, both from the School of Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh.

At least the delay bought some extra time for media attention to this important issue. Did you catch the banner headline article about the upcoming meeting in Monday’s Post-Gazette at the top of the front page? [Post-Gazette, 2-23-15]

While we are talking about ways to reduce the disproportionate use of school discipline leading to the “school-to-prison pipeline,” let’s remember to include gender in that conversation. A report released earlier this month by the African American Policy Forum and the Columbia Law School’s Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies revealed some stunning new comparative data showing the impact of harsh disciplinary actions on girls of color. While the focus tends to be on black boys, who are suspended three times as often as white boys, nationally black girls are suspended six times more than white girls. [Report, Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected]

Kimberlé Crenshaw, the report’s lead author and a professor of law at both UCLA and Columbia, explains, “As public concern mounts for the needs of men and boys of color through initiatives like the White House’s My Brother’s Keeper, we must challenge the assumption that the lives of girls and women—who are often left out of the national conversation—are not also at risk.” She argues that we need an intersectional approach to think about how social categories such as race, class, and gender overlap, creating inequality and oppression on multiple levels.

The report, which looked closely at students in New York and Boston, also found:

  • “In New York, the number of disciplinary cases involving black girls was more than 10 times more than those involving their white counterparts and the number of cases involving black boys was six times the number of those involving white boys, despite there being only twice as many black students as white students.
  • In Boston, the number of disciplinary cases involving black girls was more than 11 times more than those involving their white counterparts while the number of cases involving black boys was approximately eight times those involving white boys, despite there being less than three times as many black students as white students.
  • Rates of expulsion were even more strikingly disproportionate between black and white students, especially among girls.”

Please join this important conversation!

2.28.15 turnout.childcare

Fund Our Schools

Like a breath of fresh spring air in the middle of the winter, Gov. Tom Wolf this week talked about his plan to restore funding to our schools. After touring an elementary school on Wednesday morning, he announced a proposal to impose the 5 percent natural gas extraction tax that he promised during his campaign. He estimated it would raise about $1 billion in the first year and said the “lion’s share” would be dedicated to education – which would put the figure close to what Gov. Corbett cut from our schools.

Gov. Wolf explained, “We have to make sure that we’re funding schools adequately, and this is a source of funding that’s fair for Pennsylvanians. … We have the natural resources to actually do something about the problem here.” [Post-Gazette, PowerSource, 2-12-15] Further underscoring the fact that he really does get the problem, Gov. Wolf noted:

The commonwealth ranks 45th in the nation in percentage of state funding for public education, and as a result, we have seen larger class sizes, fewer teachers, and vital program cuts. These cuts have made it more difficult for students to get a strong education in Pennsylvania’s public schools. This is the right thing to do for our children and our economy and to move Pennsylvania forward. [ 2-11-15]

While these words are welcome relief after four years of draconian cuts that continue to harm our kids and schools, Gov. Wolf faces an uphill battle in the legislature. Although the extraction tax is modeled on neighboring West Virginia’s – and every other mineral rich state in the nation taxes these resources – the Marcellus Shale industry has been crying foul and lining up its many supporters in Harrisburg.

Before Gov. Wolf announces his proposed budget on March 3rd, it’s crucial that our legislators hear from us. Fortunately, our colleagues at OnePittsburgh are making that easy: please GET ON THE BUS to Harrisburg to rally for a fair budget and get the money back for our schools. Pittsburgh will send at least three buses to join the hundreds of others converging on the Capitol on Thursday, Feb. 26th. It’s fun and all the details are taken care of: you just have to GET ON THE BUS. Click here to register.

We know these bus trips matter and that they work. As we’ve discovered walking the halls of the capitol building, our legislators hear from a steady stream of paid lobbyists (some of whom had the brass to mock out loud a bunch of us moms and kids when we were there back in June). We won a major battle getting Gov. Wolf into office, but if we want the money back for our schools, we still need to win over our legislators. Someone’s gotta go to Harrisburg – can you?

Stop the Push Out

In Pittsburgh, students of color are 2.5 times more likely to be suspended than white students. Four out of every ten black students are suspended at least one time. And suspension is just one of the policies, practices, and procedures that “push out” students, making them less likely to graduate – a serious, and life altering outcome that feeds the “school to prison pipeline” and disproportionately impacts students of color and those with disabilities. [Beyond Zero Tolerance, ACLU report, 2013]

After meeting with parents all over the city, the Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh coalition has made school push-out one of its primary areas of focus. GPS is partnering with the Education Law Center, the Center for Third World Organizing, and other organizations to host a conversation about school push out and discuss what they will be doing this year to tackle the problem. Please join us:

Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015
5:30 PM Dinner, 6PM Meeting
Sci-Tech Academy (107 Thackeray Ave., Oakland)

GPS Push Out Community Meeting

High-Stakes-Testing in National and Local Spotlight

Are they or aren’t they? As the U.S. Senate debates re-authorization of the No Child Left Behind act, they have waffled on eliminating the federal mandate for annual high-stakes-testing. Just two weeks ago, Education Week gave opponents of required testing some hope when they reported:

Although members of the Senate education committee agreed at a hearing Tuesday that teacher evaluations are essential for a thriving public education system, it’s unlikely that the forthcoming reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act will include specific requirements. Republicans, including Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said Washington shouldn’t mandate such policies, while Democrats, including ranking member Patty Murray, D-Wash., were wary of increasing the role student test scores play in evaluations and how those evaluations are used to compensate teachers. [Education Week, 1-27-15]

But yesterday, Politico reported, “Now that Sens. Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray are working together on a No Child Left Behind bill, it’s all but certain that any deal will keep the federal annual testing mandate.” This despite massive push-back by parents across the country who point to the dramatic expansion of testing and test culture, the elimination of non-tested subjects, the loss of learning time, and a host of negative impacts on kids, teachers, and schools. Just this weekend, Save Our Schools New Jersey mobilized over 1,000 people to email their representatives about rolling back the federal testing requirement, saying it’s time to “stop using test scores to punish students, teachers and public schools.” [Politico, 2-9-15]

With support for high-stakes-testing going all the way to the top of both political parties, the White House, and the Department of Education, parents and others concerned about the over-use and mis-use of testing face a continued state by state organizing strategy. Fortunately, they are increasingly aided by brave teachers, principals, and superintendents speaking out about the hazards of high-stakes-testing. Did you catch the fantastic op-ed last week by Superintendent Thomas Ralston of the Avonworth School District, right here outside Pittsburgh? (See below for complete transcript.) That piece went viral from the Post-Gazette web site, where it had 2.3k “likes” on Facebook, and counting!

Want to learn more about high-stakes-testing? This Friday, our colleagues at the League of Women Voters are hosting a meeting devoted to the update of the organization’s State Education Policy Position. They will discuss high-stakes-testing and develop a consensus to be submitted to the membership at their PA State Convention in June. The public is welcome to attend and contribute to the discussion (however only League members will be able to vote on the consensus). The Central Pittsburgh Unit will meet at the Squirrel Hill Library, Friday, February 13th at 1 pm.

Now I leave you with these wise words from Superintendent Ralston:

Make Our Kids Future-Ready; Enough with the Standardized Testing [Post-Gazette, 1-1-15]

Back in November, I was one of several school superintendents from Western Pennsylvania fortunate enough to be invited to Washington, D.C., along with colleagues from across the United States to participate in the Future Ready Pledge.

The day included meetings with President Barack Obama and with officials from the U.S. Department of Education, including secretary Arne Duncan. Time for collaboration was also built into the day as the superintendents shared success stories, some from districts in truly desperate situations, and brainstormed about how to meet challenges with creative, innovative solutions.

The pinnacle of the day was taking the Future Ready Pledge, led by Mr. Obama, as we dedicated ourselves to employ digital learning tools to prepare students for success in college, career and citizenship. The experience was invigorating and energizing, truly a capstone of my 25 years as an educator.

Then, last month, I was disappointed to see Mr. Duncan reaffirm his support for annual standardized testing of all American schoolchildren in grades 3 to 8 and in high school. This announcement runs counter to our pledge to be future-ready.

The age of standardized testing has de-emphasized creativity and innovation by overly relying on test performance as a criterion of school and student success. This emphasis has resulted in limiting school curricula, robbing students of experience with the arts and other non-tested subjects.

Mr. Duncan has said that “testing issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools.” His reaffirmation for the need for continual annual testing contradicts this previous statement.

Let me be clear, my colleagues and I embrace assessment. It is essential to inform instruction and allow educators to respond to the needs of their students. However, it should be done daily to appropriately challenge and support each student. Likewise, broader periodic assessments provide children with multiple ways to demonstrate what they know and can do.

Standardized tests do not acknowledge the developmental differences in children. When we endorse them we subscribe to the belief that all children learn the same way and at the same rate.

Likewise, standardized tests fail to measure the skills that employers have identified as essential for success now and in the future: communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity.

In addition, as long as standardized-test performance is used as the primary method of judging the success of schools, it will be the primary educational focus of most schools, especially ones that struggle in our most challenged communities.

Alternatives to annual standardized testing of all students to measure school performance do exist. Finland, for example, which has one of the highest-ranked public education systems in the world, randomly selects schools for assessment. The results are confidential, so as not to be punitive in nature.

Singapore, another nation universally lauded for its educational performance, invests heavily in professional development and mentoring of novice teachers as a proactive strategy, rather than using standardized tests to shame schools and teachers.

Even China, which has traditionally valued standardized tests to determine the future success of its students, is realizing that this approach is folly and is working diligently to reduce the burden of testing and instead focus on learning experiences that accentuate creativity.

Every year in the United States, important data on student and school performance is gathered. Students pursuing post-secondary education participate in college entrance exams such as the ACT and SAT. Those who choose vocational fields are assessed with the NOCTI exam once they have concluded their programs.

Across the United States, graduation and attendance data are gathered and schools are randomly selected to participate in the National Assessment for Educational Progress. This allows schools to measure and compare academic progress. This assessment, given in grades 4, 8 and 12, provides valuable data on the same subjects that are tested under the federal annual-testing guidelines.

With the overdue reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act on the horizon, education in America is at a critical crossroads. Rather than continue with an iteration of the act that brought us No Child Left Behind in 2000, I hope it is reauthorized in a way that captures the essence of the Future Ready Pledge.

It is time for our government officials to display courage and do what is best for children. The rest of us must make sure our voices are heard as we demand that all children receive creative and engaging learning experiences that will best prepare them for the opportunities of the future.

The question remains: Are we working to be future-ready?

I am, Secretary Duncan. How about you?

Thomas Ralston is superintendent of the Avonworth School District (