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.



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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Diagram of a Victory

And that, my friends, is how you win an election. For three long years we have been fighting the devastation wrought by Gov. Corbett on our public schools. But last night we helped unseat the first incumbent governor in Pennsylvania history, to elect Tom Wolf, who ran on a strong public education platform! In fact, I dare say that we here in the grassroots are largely responsible for this victory.

The political analysts all over the news this morning have missed this point. Although they are quick to highlight that Gov. Corbett’s budget cuts made him deeply unpopular, most have failed to mention the authentic, bottom-up movement that formed around Pennsylvania’s public schools. For instance, Terry Madonna of Franklin & Marshall College explained that, “Governor Corbett’s job performance dropped in his first year and he’s never been able to recover,” as drastic cuts, particularly in education, “simply dogged him throughout his administration.” [Post-Gazette, 11-5-14]

While this is true, what really dogged Corbett was – us! Ordinary parents, students, teachers, and community members refused to let this issue go. We wrote letters to the editor, op-eds, and blog pieces; we staged rallies and demonstrations; we held mock-bake sales; we wrote petitions and got on buses to Harrisburg to deliver thousands of signatures; we hosted public debates, lectures, and national authors. With “dogged” determination, we took every opportunity to counter Corbett’s attempts to minimize the damage he was inflicting on our schools: we took to social media and made on-line comments on news stories at every chance.

Some folks had been doing this work for many years and became advisors and mentors to the more recent groundswell of advocacy, as we joined the long arc of the education justice movement. We connected with others across the state, from Philadelphia, to the Lehigh Valley, State College, Shippensburg, Erie, and beyond. I’m especially grateful to parent leaders such as Helen Gym, Rebecca Poyourow, Susan Spicka, Mark Spengler, and Dana Bacher. One take away message from this election is “don’t mess with Pennsylvania parents – or hurt their kids and schools!”

I also have immense appreciation for the work of state-wide advocates and organizations such as Larry Feinberg and Lynn Foltz at the Keystone State Education Coalition; Susan Gobreski and Education Voters PA; the Education Law Center; the PSEA; and the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center.

Locally, I especially need to give a huge shout out to the 14 members of the Yinzercation steering committee who have kept this work going day-in and day-out for three straight years, entirely as volunteers: Beth Bosco, Valerie Brown, Matt Chinman, Kipp Dawson, Gabriella Gonzalez, Sara Goodkind, Pam Harbin, Tara McElfresh, Kathy Newman, Wallace Sapp, Cassi Schaffer, Steve Singer, and David Taylor. And there are so many, many others doing this work.

So when reports say that Gov. Corbett “never successfully countered Democratic messaging, specifically around education” – I feel we must point out that this was not merely political party messaging. In fact, we are the ones who created the message, by speaking the truth about what has been happening to our children and their schools. And then we kept that message out there constantly in the public eye. One Republican committee member explained Corbett’s loss saying that Democrats, “hit the ground running with the education thing.” [Post-Gazette, 11-5-14]

But that obscures the real involvement of thousands of ordinary people who became politically activated around this issue, yet were not acting as rank and file members of a political party – or any group, for that matter. There were plenty of Republicans furious about public schools, too. For many people, this was more a social movement – focused on kids, schools, and communities – rather than a political campaign orchestrated by party officials from the top down.

Why is this an important distinction? We just saw an authentic, grassroots movement give voice to real people, about an issue central to our democracy and our state’s future – and we won. We. Won. People matter, our voices matter, and we can make a difference when we work together. Congratulations public school advocates! And thank you!!

Top 10 Education Reasons to Vote Corbett Out

Tomorrow is the day! We have the chance to make history and vote Gov. Corbett out of office. After four long years of hurting our children, Corbett’s time could be up – if enough people show up at the polls. With the race tightening between Tom Wolf and Tom Corbett, we not only need to cast our own votes on Tuesday, we need to make sure everyone we know heads to the polls, too. Here is a list you can share with your friends of the top 10 education reasons Gov. Corbett needs to go:

1.  Slashed almost $1 billion from public education. Gov. Corbett continues to claim that he has increased funding for our schools, which would be funny if it weren’t so painfully untrue. He actually eliminated multiple education line items and collapsed several others into the “basic education” line item, and then boasts that he increased “basic education” funding. He even admitted on record that, “We have reduced education funding if you look at it as a whole.” [See “The Governor’s Bad Week”] He also likes to claim that the cuts were really the result of the expiring federal stimulus program, but Corbett has taken state funding for our schools back to pre-2008 levels, lower than before Pennsylvania even accepted federal stimulus dollars. [See “The Truth About the Numbers”]

2.  Eliminated our modern, fair funding formula. For reasons I still cannot fathom, Gov. Corbett eliminated the state’s equitable funding formula, so that the poorest students and most struggling schools get the least support. [See “Hurting the Poor”] He made Pennsylvania one of only three states in the nation without a modern formula that would take into account things such as the actual number of families living in poverty or the true number of students with special education needs. [See “A Shameful Betrayal”] Instead, we have a system that allows politically connected legislators to hand pick their favorite pet school districts to hand them extra cash. [Newsworks, 7-11-13]

3.  Caused students to lose 27,000 of their teachers and educators. Corbett has tried to downplay this astonishing figure arguing that not all of the jobs lost were teachers – they include guidance counselors, nurses, librarians, and classroom aids (as if students don’t need these professionals in their schools). [PA Fact Finder, 10-1-14] Not only are our children missing thousands of trusted adults in their schools, the cuts have dramatically increased class size. The latest data shows that over 90% of PA school districts have cut staff, and 64% have increased class sizes since Corbett’s historic budget cuts in 2010-11, with the elementary grades hit the hardest. [See “From Bad to Worst”]

4.  Wiped out music, art, library, tutoring, athletics, Kindergarten, and more. Over half of Pennsylvania school districts will eliminate or reduce academic programs this year. Most cuts will come from field trips (51% schools will eliminate); summer school (37%); world languages (34%); music and theater (31%); and physical education (24%). In over a third of districts, students are also losing extra-curricular and athletic programs, or have to pay a fee to participate. And those cuts are on top of massive cuts made the past two years. [See “From Bad to Worst”]

5.  Forced over 75% of PA school districts to raise local property taxes. In nearly every part of the state, districts are relying on local revenue from property taxes to pay for a growing majority of school budgets. Over three-quarters of school districts will increase property taxes this year – more than any in the past five years. [See “From Bad to Worst”] Pennsylvania is now one of the stingiest states in the entire country in terms of the proportion of school funding provided at the state level: we rank #45. [Census Bureau data summarized in PA School Funding Project]

6.  Promoted vouchers and tax credit programs to send public dollars to private and religious schools. While Corbett failed to pass voucher legislation, his #1 education priority, he instead expanded the EITC tax credit programs. Essentially “vouchers lite,” these programs cost us $150 million per year by funneling corporate tax money that should have gone to the state for our budget needs into the hands of private and religious schools instead, with zero accountability to the public. [See “EITC No Credit to PA”; Keystone Research Center, “No Accountability,” 4-7-11]

7.  Cut public higher-education by 20%. Historic, truly enormous cuts to public colleges and universities have forced those institutions to pass along costs to students and their families. For instance, Corbett cut $67 million from the University of Pittsburgh three years ago, and then locked those cuts in for the past two years: Pitt’s state aid is at its lowest level since it affiliated with the state system in the 1960s. [See “Rolling in Dough or Debt”] And Pennsylvania college students are now the 3rd most indebted in the entire nation. [Post-Gazette, 6-1-14]

8.  Tried to eliminate local control and accountability from elected school boards. In the fall of 2012, Corbett attempted to ram through a statewide authorizer bill, which would have permitted only a state commission of political appointees the right to open new charter schools and to supervise them. This end-run around locally elected representatives would have removed fiscal and academic accountability from those tasked with protecting taxpayers and their communities. [See “Real Charter Reform” and “Now That’s More Like It” for details.]

9.  Expanded high-stakes testing. Gov. Corbett has subjected Pennsylvania students to a dramatically increased number of standardized tests – and has jacked up the stakes, as well. For instance, in opposing the new Keystone graduation exams, which will prevent many students from graduating from high school, the NAACP called them a “present day form of Eugenics” and a “human rights violation.” [Public School Shakedown, 2-2-14] The tests are also an unfunded mandate on local school districts that cost millions. For example, the new School Performance Profile system, largely based on student test scores, cost us taxpayers $2.7 million to develop over the past three years and it will cost an estimated $838,000 every year to maintain. [Post-Gazette, 10-5-13] This does not include the $201.1 million contract Pennsylvania made with Data Recognition Corporation to administer high-stakes-tests to our students. [PennLive.com, 12-1-11] And all this testing is not actually helping students learn. [See “High Stakes Testing”]

10.  Practiced cronyism instead of protecting students. Corbett tried to pass a bill exempting charter school operators – his top campaign donors – from Pennsylvania’s Right to Know “sunshine” law. [See “Where are the Real Republicans?” and “Charters are Cash Cows”] Then he appointed his friend Ron Tomalis, who had been the PA Secretary of Education, to a $140,000 ghost position where an investigative report found he did no work. However, in that capacity Tomalis did advise private equity investors in New York City on how to make money by selling products to school districts. [Post-Gazette, 9-14-14]

Who is Voting for Tom Corbett?

Ever since he slashed close to $1 billion from public education back in 2011, Governor Corbett has been claiming he did the very opposite. So it’s no surprise – though completely ludicrous – that he has been campaigning on his “record of support” for public schools. Still, I spit out my coffee when I saw the full page ad in this morning’s Post-Gazette. (See first image, below.) To set the record straight, I made some factual corrections. (See revised ad, below.) We don’t have Corbett’s deep pockets to take out a full page ad in the paper, but we can share this post – and share the truth!


School Choice: Trick or Treat?

Boo! Halloween is a scary time of year, so I suppose it’s an appropriate week to talk about “school choice.” Tomorrow evening, A+ Schools is sponsoring a panel discussion with Dr. Howard Fuller, a well-known advocate of charter schools, vouchers, and tax-credit programs. Dr. Fuller will also be the keynote speaker at a full-day seminar sponsored by the Heinz Endowments at the University of Pittsburgh. I’m not sure if anyone will be handing out chocolate, but as we consider whether these programs actually work for students I hope folks will ask: is school choice a trick or a treat?

A former civil rights activist and superintendent of the Milwaukee Public School district, Dr. Fuller is now a professor of education at Marquette University. He serves on the Milwaukee Region Board of Teach for America, and the Milwaukee Charter School Advocates, and is an Advisory Board member of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools and the National Association for Charter School Authorizers. His Black Alliance for Education Options is funded by the Gates Foundation, the Walton Foundation, Betsy DeVos of the American Federation for Children, and many others who like to talk about school choice as a way to “rescue” poor black and brown children from “failing public schools.” [See “Big $” for a rundown on many of these organizations.]

Let’s start with charter schools. As I have argued before, there are a handful of “good” charter schools, but most are not serving Pennsylvania students well at all. [See “12 Problems with Charter Schools”] The state considers a score of 70 or above on its new School Performance Profile (SPP) system to be in the acceptable academic range. (I have also argued that the SPP system is highly flawed, but let’s go with the state’s own data here.) Pennsylvania’s public schools average 77.1, but charter schools lag more than ten points behind, with an average of 66.4.

Here in Pittsburgh, only 4 of the 9 charter schools authorized by the district received an SPP score above 70 last year. And crucially, not one of those schools is serving the same population as the Pittsburgh Public School (PPS) district. For instance, 18.1% of PPS students have special needs, but none of the top ranked charter schools comes close to serving that proportion of kids with special needs. Two of the four also do not educate the same proportion of students living in poverty or African-American students. (This includes City Charter High School, whose founder, Richard Wertheimer, will be speaking on the A+ panel with Dr. Fuller.)

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The situation is much the same in Dr. Fuller’s Milwaukee: the charter schools there are not educating the same students as the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). One recent report found that “MPS educated three times as many students learning English and twice as many students with special needs, compared with independent charters. The charter schools enrolled a lower percentage of white students and lower percentage of students in poverty than MPS.” What’s more, the two Milwaukee charter schools with the lowest grade “were Milwaukee Math and Science Academy and Milwaukee Collegiate Academy, formerly called CEO Leadership Academy and connected to voucher school advocate Howard Fuller.” [Journal Sentinel, 9-23-13]

In addition to those charter schools listed in the chart above, Pittsburgh pays to send students to another 13 charter schools (authorized by other school districts and not accountable to the city’s school board) as well as 9 cyber charter schools. [Post-Gazette, 10-14-14] Not one of Pennsylvania’s 14 cyber charters schools scored over 70 on the SPP system; in fact, eight of those schools had scores below 50! And over half of all Pennsylvania brick and mortar charter schools (55%) also scored below 50. [Rep. Roebuck Charter Update, 4-14] These dismal numbers are backed up by recent research: a national study last year concluded that Pennsylvania’s charter schools are the third worst in the entire country. It found that charter students here cover 29 fewer days of reading material on average, and 50 fewer days of math than traditional public schools. [Stanford CREDO, National Charter School Study 2013]

This evidence strongly suggests that charter schools are far more “trick” than “treat” for our students. Yet Dr. Fuller argues that poor students, and especially students of color, need access to more charter schools. Presumably he means the “good” ones. But remember, even the “good” ones in Pittsburgh are not educating the same students as the public school system. Let me be clear: schools like the Environmental Charter School are gorgeous and all of our students deserve the small classes and other opportunities offered there. I want all of our children to have theater training with someone as amazing as my friend Hallie Donner at the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh Charter School.

Will Dr. Fuller talk about how to (finally) feed innovative ideas from charter schools back into traditional public schools so that all students can benefit? Will he talk about how to get rid of the under-performing charter schools that are costing our district a fortune and preventing us from spending desperately needed dollars on student programs? Will he suggest specifically which public schools we should close if we open more charter schools (because that is, in fact, what we will actually have to do)?

Maybe he would like to comment on the recent report released by 27 (!) Pennsylvania school superintendents from five different counties in the Lehigh Valley area calling for desperately needed charter reform. Explaining the need for a revised charter funding formula, one superintendent noted, “The charter school concept is a caterpillar that never became a butterfly … In this story, the caterpillar eats the green leaves of taxpayer dollars and deprives the larger community of children from receiving valuable supplies and interventions.” [Morning Call, 10-17-14]

Perhaps Dr. Fuller will comment on the situation in Hazelwood, where the district created an education desert when it closed all the local public schools. It shifted the neighborhood’s students to Pittsburgh Minadeo in Squirrel Hill and then sold the former Burgwin school to Propel, which opened it as a charter school this year. Now Propel Hazelwood has 123 students paid for by Pittsburgh – almost exactly the number of students (113) that Minadeo lost in enrollment this year, causing it to lose teachers and leading to increased class size. [Post-Gazette, 10-14-14] How does Dr. Fuller want to account for this constant churn and displacement, and the consequences (such as larger class size and fewer resources) for those “left behind” in the public school system?

I suspect Dr. Fuller will also talk about vouchers, which Milwaukee has had since 1990. In her book, Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City (2013), journalist Barbara Miner explains, “After more than 20 years, one of the clearest lessons from Milwaukee is that vouchers, above all, are a way to funnel public tax dollars out of public schools and into private schools. Vouchers, at their core, are an abandonment of public education.” Wisconsin state test scores show that poor children are not performing any better in voucher schools than in traditional schools (and actually had worse math scores in voucher schools).

The people of Pennsylvania have joined citizens in numerous other states rejecting voucher systems. In a nutshell, vouchers are unconstitutional, expensive, not supported by research, and funnel money away from public schools to private institutions that lack accountability, both fiscally and academically. [See “Vouchers, Coming Again Soon”] So would vouchers really be like candy for our children, or a nasty trick?

Finally, Dr. Fuller promotes tax credit programs, such as those initiated in recent years in Pennsylvania. These programs are actually tax cuts for corporations that cost us $150 million per year by funneling revenue that should have gone to the state for our budget needs into the hands of private and religious schools instead, with zero accountability to the public. [See “EITC No Credit to PA”; Keystone Research Center, “No Accountability,” 4-7-11]. Yet Dr. Fuller’s Black Alliance for Education Options (BAEO) actually boasts about its role in creating those programs here in our state.

Even more shocking, the BAEO claims it was “instrumental in passing the law that led to the state takeover of the School District of Philadelphia, which has led to an increase in quality educational options for poor families.”  That’s right — the BAEO is proud of the state takeover of Philly, which has mercilessly defunded that school system and created horrific conditions there. It’s even worse than that Halloween when you thought you would get a full sized Hershey’s bar from the house down the street and wound up getting a toothbrush, instead.

Tomorrow’s A+ event is being co-sponsored by PennCAN, which will be giving away copies of Dr. Fuller’s new book, No Struggle No Progress: A Warrior’s Life from Black Power to Education Reform, to the first 100 people in the door (costumes are apparently not required). PennCAN is an off-shoot of the Connecticut based ConnCAN, founded by hedge fund managers with a long history of funding charter schools and charter management organizations (CMOs). These are not educators, they are financiers who know about making money for their portfolios, and view schools as investment opportunities. [See “Can or Con?”] Here in Pennsylvania, PennCAN promotes charter expansion, a statewide authorizer of charter schools (that would remove control and accountability from democratically elected local school boards), vouchers, funding for early childhood (something we agree on), the elimination of teachers’ seniority, and teacher evaluation based on high-stakes student testing.

Are these the answers we are looking for to help all of our children? Why aren’t they talking about things like smaller class sizes, libraries for all students, the restoration of art and music, tutoring programs, and wrap-around services? Charter expansion, vouchers, and tax credit programs don’t get us great public schools for all our kids. So you decide: is school choice a trick, or a treat?

Mayor’s Task Force on Education

I was honored earlier this year to be asked to serve on Mayor Peduto’s Task Force on Education. That group just wrapped up its fourth meeting last night and many folks have been asking how it’s going, so here’s a quick report.

I am optimistic by nature and was excited about the opportunity to get the Pittsburgh Public School administration, board members, and educators together with elected representatives from City Council, the mayor’s office, and community members to think about how to improve our schools and neighborhoods. Meeting process and organizational issues have beaten back some of that optimism, but I remain hopeful that (perhaps small) steps towards progress can be made.

The Task Force was actually created through a City Council resolution a year ago, when we were facing the potential closing of several more Pittsburgh schools. That resolution, authored by Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith, specifically called for the group to consider school closings and the district’s financial situation as well as equity issues. While some of us were asked to serve on the Task Force in the winter when it was announced to the press, others were invited later, and there was a several month delay while the Mayor’s office hired an education program manager and then an outside “mediator” to run the group.

A number of us objected to the idea of a “mediator,” rather than a facilitator, for these meetings, as it suggested that our work would be confrontational or conflict-ridden, which was not at all how we saw our role. After the first meeting in June, the Mayor’s office terminated the contract with the mediator. [Post-Gazette, 7-29-14] After our third meeting in September, we learned that the new education program manager had never moved to the city and had resigned. [Post-Gazette, 10-7-14]

The June meeting was largely spent trying to determine the agenda of the Task Force, with the discussion ranging from district finances to safety, housing, poverty, teacher quality, and relationships to outside entities such as foundations and businesses. (Full disclosure: I was not able to attend the first meeting as it was rescheduled at the last minute when I was having minor surgery. As it turned out, not one of the four parents on the Task Force was then able to attend.) The group decided to focus on school closings in the next meeting.

However, at that second meeting in July, we learned that superintendent Dr. Lane would not be bringing forward recommendations for any new school closures until the board asks for such a list. With the threat of imminent school closures off the table, the Task Force spent the second meeting in another discussion of what the agenda ought to be, focusing finally on 1) how PPS and the city can collaborate, and 2) how the groups might work together to improve public perceptions of the schools. While I (and others) pushed for the inclusion of community schools in the conversation – as this recommendation comes from the grassroots, is a natural fit with the theme of collaboration, and represents the work of many hundreds of our community members – the topic was shelved for future discussion.

At the third meeting of the Task Force in September, I presented ideas for collaboration between the district and the city stemming from the extensive work we had done for the last Great Public Schools Pittsburgh report. These are all specifically ideas for collaboration to improve the fiscal situation of the district (there are lots of other ways we could foster collaboration, but no ideas were presented). I will re-print all nine suggestions from the report here, though some lend themselves more to collaborative work with the city than others (stick with me, or skip ahead to read about the final Task Force meeting):

  1. Engage the entire community in a concerted effort to restore the state budget cuts. Since Governor Corbett’s historic budget cuts to Pennsylvania’s public schools in 2011, the Pittsburgh Public School district has lost $26.8 million per year. Just a single year’s loss represents well over half (58%) of the entire projected PPS deficit of $46 million. The cumulative loss to PPS over the past three years totals $80.4 million – far exceeding the district’s entire expected shortfall in 2015. In other words, the loss of state funding has been devastating to Pittsburgh students and is the single largest threat to the district’s financial well-being. Restoring the state budget cuts ought to be our community’s top priority. Fortunately, Pennsylvania could do just that. There is money in the state budget, but it’s not going to public education. Budgets are about priorities. [See our running list of “Where’s the Money” for a list of our revenue source ideas.]
  2. Lobby for a fair funding formula. Following its own 2006 “Costing-Out Study,” the Pennsylvania legislature concluded it was short-changing public schools $4 billion and established a six-year plan to phase in increased state funding for public education using a new, fair funding formula. The state was two-years into this plan when Governor Corbett took office and eliminated the new formula, making Pennsylvania one of only three states in the nation without a modern, equitable way to distribute its education budget. [Education Law Center, “School Funding Report 2013”] The current formula costs districts such as Pittsburgh millions, in part because it does not account for the actual number of students with special education needs nor the actual cost of educating those students. Pittsburgh has a larger proportion of special education students, including children with multiple disabilities, than many other districts. Right now, 18.1% of Pittsburgh students receive special education services, but the district is only reimbursed based on a flat rate of 16% in the broken funding formula. In addition, 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. [“PA Special Education Funding Commission Report,” December 2013]
  3. Work with state legislators for charter reform. The way Pennsylvania pays for charter schools is broken. An outdated and seriously flawed funding formula enacted by the PA legislature mandates that our local school districts make tuition payments to cyber charter schools that far exceed what it actually costs to educate children. In many districts across the state, local schools are able to provide cyber school services to students at half the cost cyber charters are charging. [Data and analysis at Reform PA Charter Schools]
    Our legislators need to stop taxpayer overpayment to cyber charter schools – currently estimated at $365 million every year – by limiting cyber charter school tuition rates to what it costs local school districts to provide the same or better cyber school service. We should also be auditing cyber charter schools at the end of each school year and returning excess cyber charter school payments to school districts.
    In addition, due to an administrative loophole in the law, all charter schools are paid twice for the same pension costs – once by local school districts and again by the state. Our state legislators need to stop this “double-dip” pension payment system, which by 2016-2017 will cost taxpayers $510 million. They also need to stop charter and cyber charter school management companies from using taxpayer dollars allocated for educating children on advertising and political lobbying. Currently, for-profit management companies of charters and cyber charters can spend tax dollars on 7-figure CEO salaries, expensive advertising, shareholder profits, billboards, TV and internet advertising, and more.
  1. Collaborate with the City of Pittsburgh to find mutually beneficial solutions. For example, we should consider shifting the balance of earned income tax revenues split by the city and the school district. In 2003, the state required the school district to turn over a portion of its earned income tax revenue to the city, which was bankrupt at the time. This has resulted in a loss of $84 million to the Pittsburgh Public Schools. [Post-Gazette, 11-4-13] We urge the district to work with Pittsburgh’s new mayor, Bill Peduto, who has expressed an interest in re-visiting this state-mandate. The mayor’s transition team recently reported on many other ways it recommends the city and school district work together to find mutually beneficial solutions, including cost savings with shared services. The new cabinet-level Chief of Education and Neighborhood Reinvestment position within the mayor’s office is a step in the right direction, as is the new 21-member task force proposed by City Council. These efforts recognize that strong schools make strong communities, that we can no longer afford to silo the school district off on its own and expect it to thrive, and that the future of our city depends on finding bigger solutions to our mutual challenges.
  2. Ensure that everyone pays their fair share. In the last property assessment, the Pittsburgh Public School district lost more than $10 million in tax revenue from large corporations. [Post-Gazette, 12-6-13] For instance, BNY Mellon got a $1.5 million tax bonus from the reassessment. Despite its promise to support the city, Rivers Casino has petitioned to reduce its assessment every year since it opened, attempting to shortchange Pittsburgh schools by $1 million per year. [Post-Gazette, 8-25-12] In addition, some large non-profits do not pay anything to the school district. For example, Allegheny County controller Chelsa Wagner conservatively estimates that if UPMC, the largest land-owner in the county, were to pay property taxes just on its holdings in the city of Pittsburgh alone, it would owe the school district $14 million. [Post-Gazette, 3-21-13] If UPMC submitted PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) to PPS, schools would gain $8.5 million a year. [Special report, Post-Gazette, 9-23-12] We urge the district to work with the new city administration to ensure that all corporations pay their fair share to support our public schools.
  3. Consider a small local tax increase. A recent survey found that Pittsburghers would support a small increase in their local taxes to support public schools. [Great Public Schools Pittsburgh community report, October 2013.] This is not surprising given that a similar tax was recently approved by voters to support public libraries. [Tribune Review, 2-26-13] We support the Pittsburgh school board’s January 2014 decision to raise taxes, yielding $3 million for the district. [Post-Gazette, 1-22-14]
  4. Work with federal legislators to end sequestration. Federal cuts due to the U.S. government sequestration cuts cost Pittsburgh Public Schools over $2 million in the 2013-14 academic year. This has already resulted in the loss of six early-childhood classrooms. [Post-Gazette, 7-25-13]
  5. Explore alternative sources of revenue with existing resources. We believe the district can repurpose schools that are supposedly “under-enrolled,” and attract more students to those schools. The district can expand the magnets for which there is tremendous demand. For example, the district could take some of the most selective magnets in the city, such as Sci-Tech, Dilworth, and CAPA and expand them. The district could also expand into the area of adult education as well as rent space in its underutilized schools. We also encourage the district to fully consider proposals put forth by the community for monetizing existing assets as put forth in the October 2013 VIVA report.
  6. Partner with local foundations and community organizations. Community based schools have been successfully implemented in other cities with local partners helping to cover the costs of many of the programs and services envisioned in this report. Pittsburgh is blessed with philanthropic and business sectors actively engaged in public education: one goal of the community schools strategy is to get all partners “pulling together” rather than working piecemeal. By engaging foundations and local businesses in the planning and implementation phases, they will also be able to make more strategic use of their resources. For example, partners might spend a dollar once to support a community health care clinic in a school, rather than spending that dollar three times to support three different program goals around “Communities,” “Healthcare,” and “Children and Education.”


These were the only suggestions put on the table in September. The highlight of that meeting for me was the participation of our three student members, who emphasized the way in which gentrification in city neighborhoods is pushing out families and entire schools (ala Reizenstein, now Bakery Square). Their insightful comments about poverty, housing, tax credits for urban development, and the city’s ability to attract and retain families were truly inspiring.

At the September meeting we learned that our fourth, and what was to be our final, meeting in October would be open to the public. The focus of that meeting last night was to be on “marketing” ideas to improve public perceptions of Pittsburgh Public Schools. A few Task Force members and folks from the audience contributed ideas, and also shared a number of pressing concerns in response to Dr. Porter’s question, “What can be better about our schools?” [For more details, see Post-Gazette, 10-21-14]

I reminded the Task Force of the following marketing-related recommendation from the Mayor’s Transition Team subcommittee on PPS partnerships (which I also served on last December):

“Mayor as an Advocate for Positive School Press: The mayor holds regular meetings and publicity events at our schools. The mayor regularly highlights positive events occurring at the schools as a part of these media events. This will increase media attention on positive events occurring at our schools. It will make the positive relationship between the city and schools apparent.”

I then presented ten additional suggestions – gathered from the community in conversations with parents, students, teachers, and others – about how the Mayor and City Council could partner with Pittsburgh Public Schools to serve as media and public relations advocates for public education:

  1. What if this is the “year of the public school” in Pittsburgh? Hold every press conference at a different public school throughout the city.
  2. Use the schools for public meetings and include students.
  3. Feature PPS students whenever possible (such as inviting students to help pick the art for his new office – which was brilliant!) More student bands at city events, students leading the pledge of allegiance, students reading their work. Use PPS students as “the face of Pittsburgh.”
  4. Create a website featuring PPS stories and graduates. Or include these in existing web sites.
  5. Highlight PPS graduates whenever and wherever possible: Hall of Fame, emphasize in mayoral and City Council proclamations, emphasize to the press.
  6. Designate each week a certain school’s week. With 50 PPS schools, every week of the year could celebrate a different school: “Pittsburgh Manchester week,” then “Pittsburgh Lincoln week,” etc. Or double up, and feature two schools each week for 25 weeks during the school year. Concentrate news stories on those schools and use it as a way to engage families and communities in the process.
  7. Engage students, families and communities in creating the list of “What works in my school” or “What’s great about my school.” Otherwise it’s not authentic and rings hollow. Kids can spot what’s phony.
  8. Sponsor a student media or video contest to have kids tell their stories about #PPSWhatWorks, #PPSrocks.
  9. Acknowledge that we want these success stories in every PPS school; not an attempt to whitewash or paper over problems. Stories of “What is Great” are both real and aspirational.
  10. Encourage billboard and other media donations for an ad campaign featuring students and parents explaining why #WeChosePPS

We learned that our final meeting will be with Mayor Peduto himself, and then the Task Force will submit its concluding report by December. If you have anything to add, please let me know and I will bring it to the table! I consider these small windows through which we can make our voices heard. Process issues can frustrate our attempts, or even slam those windows shut, but our determination and commitment to education justice for all students is strong stuff. And I am still encouraged that our new mayor truly wants to hear from the community. So let’s hear your ideas!

Books for ARThouse Kids

Remember our Manchester Miracle? Two years ago we helped engage literally thousands of people all over the world in a book drive that wound up completely renovating the library at Pittsburgh Manchester preK-8. [For original story, see “Library Books and Equity”] It’s time for another miracle.

Our friend, the amazing artist Vanessa German, is opening a reading room in the new ARThouse. This art-making space for children in Homewood literally started on Vanessa’s front porch as neighborhood kids gathered to watch her paint and make sculptures. The Love Front Porch project outgrew the porch and moved into a nearby house that Vanessa purchased with support from the community. It’s a beautiful place where young people gather after school to feed their creative souls, make art, eat snacks, do homework – and read.



Vanessa explains, “we are building a reading room at the new ARThouse because i noticed this year that kids would come right after school not going to their homes or homework programs and they’d sit right down in the midst of the paint and scramble and attempt to find 5 equations that equal 132. with, not surprisingly, great frustration. also the reading room because it is going to be soft and quiet and comfortable and, hopefully, filled with reams and reams of adventures.”


The architect of our Manchester Miracle, children’s librarian extraordinaire Sheila May-Stein, has hand-picked a list of books for the ARThouse. You can purchase new books from this Amazon Wishlist she has compiled and they will be sent directly to the ARThouse. (If you have books shipped from another source, please send them c/o Vanessa German, 7803 Hamilton Ave., Pittsburgh PA 15208.) You may also drop off gently used children’s and teen books on the porches of Yinzercation steering committee members Kathy Newman (Squirrel Hill: 5353 Beeler Street) or Tara McElfresh (Morningside: 1001 Chislett St).

As many in our community already know, Sheila is having major surgery tomorrow and has asked that folks send books to the ARThouse along with their healing thoughts for her extended recovery. What an amazing thing Ms. Sheila has started. And it’s already taking off:

  • In the past 48 hours, over 150 books have been purchased from the list.
  • Writer Katha Pollitt from The Nation, who supported our Manchester Miracle, got actress Salli Richardson of “I Am Legend” to retweet and rapper Missy Elliot to favorite her tweet about the project.
  • Children’s author Arnold Adoff put our message out on his Facebook page.
  • Homewood native Robin Walker Williams, is arranging for Vanessa to be on early morning TV shows to discuss the reading room project.
  • The founder of Awesome Pittsburgh bought 7 books and is sharing the message. (And Tara McElfresh is going to write a $1,000 grant to Awesome Pittsburgh for the ARThouse!)
  • The Homeless Children’s Education Fund is sending books.
  • The Homewood Children’s Village has 100 books they are donating.

Sheila asks, “What can you say when people all over Pittsburgh decide to take time out of their day to send biographies of Handel and Mozart to children in Homewood? When Lakota origin tales and giant coffee table books with full color plates of Basqiat’s work are on their way to wondering eyes and little hands? Each book a message straight from a heart to a child: you matter. you have value. you belong on this earth.” These children are all of our children. They belong to all of us:

Vanessa German: “we made books and ate pizza last week. we were the writers, publishers and makers. we are so bold.”

“we made books and ate pizza last week. we were the writers, publishers and makers. we are so bold.” – Vanessa German

“Miyah made a great journal last week. high design if you'd have asked me. yesterday she came in. pulled last week's journal from her book bag. with the pages filled. she then went into production on a new journal.i remarked. you could be an entrepenuer. a young book maker. i went outside to work with some of the younger artists. when i came back in at the end of the evening. she had 5 new books laid out. creating masterful, colorfilled covers. and she is SOOOO quiet. she moves like a light wind from the east. remarkable.” – Vanessa German

“Miyah made a great journal last week. high design if you’d have asked me. yesterday she came in. pulled last week’s journal from her book bag. with the pages filled. she then went into production on a new journal.i remarked. you could be an entrepenuer. a young book maker. i went outside to work with some of the younger artists. when i came back in at the end of the evening. she had 5 new books laid out. creating masterful, colorfilled covers. and she is SOOOO quiet. she moves like a light wind from the east. remarkable.” – Vanessa German

Vanessa posted this poem on October 9th, when we had lost three African-American teenagers in one week to violence:

don’t think that it isn’t heartbreaking that our children are being killed and left for useless and worthless in a world that all too often neither celebrates, acknowledges or even considers their inherent, immutable, wisdom and beauty. don’t think that we don’t grieve them all. because we do. and every child we love. is every child we love. and we love the children we love as we love ALL the children whose names and places we know and do not know. and we celebrate them. in art and dancing and joy and food. and we celebrate them as the celebration in and of itself is an honoring of their remarkable remarkable-ness, is an honoring of their profound and mysterious and glorious humanity. we honor them as we honor and celebrate ourselves. and every joy we share in. is a healing. every ounce of paint and glue and water, every seed of glitter every juice box every t-shirt every over-crowded classroom Arthouse and city park is a healing. and we grieve. and the grief is an honoring. and we celebrate them in our humanity, in the courage of our human commitment and political will– we stand for us all. Love.

Can you send a book from the Amazon Wishlist and then help spread the word? Vanessa German, the ARThouse, and the children of Homewood need our help. Let’s make another miracle.

Vanessa German

Vanessa German performing at our Rally for Public Education, February 2013.

Go, Go, Go GOTV!

OK, I’ll admit the first time I saw the acronym “GOTV” I thought Go-TV was some kind of new television. Or that we were supposed to be cheering for TVs. Then I realized it stands for “Get Out the Vote!” And nothing could be more important right now. With just three weeks left in this gubernatorial race, we need to be cheering on voters to get to the polls.

Our friend Susan Spicka, a mom who leads a volunteer group of parents much like ours in central PA, has been out knocking on doors for the Wolf campaign in Franklin County. She reports that even though she isn’t seeing Corbett yard signs or bumper stickers in that normally heavily Republican part of the state, “Anyone who wants to see Tom Corbett get booted out of office this year needs to vote on November 4. Polls don’t win elections, voter turnout does. A whole lot of Republicans will hold their noses and vote for Corbett. Voters who support Wolf need to make sure to vote for him.”

Research confirms her point. Kristin Kanthak, as associate professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh, explains that Tom Wolf’s large lead in the polls is starting to close as more Corbett-leaning voters become willing to express their support for him: “This kind of tightening is really pretty common with someone where their positive numbers aren’t very high.” In other words, while the incumbent has had dismal approval ratings and his supporters were not lining up early on to cheer for him, they are more willing now. And Dr. Kanthak points out that Corbett is “the most endangered Republican in the country right now,” so millions of dollars in out of state contributions have been pouring into his campaign coffers. [Public Source, 10-14-14]

Back to Susan Spicka’s point: voter turnout is what will win this race. That means getting people to the polls. What can you do? Here are two easy ways to help GOTV!

Our colleagues at the statewide Education Voters Action Fund (which is separate from Education Voters PA, which cannot endorse candidates) will be running a virtual phone bank. You can make calls from home on the next three Thursdays, starting tomorrow – October 16, 23 & 30th – between 6 and 8PM to help reach voters directly in the districts that matter the most in the upcoming election. Everyone will be phoning for Wolf, and when possible, you will phone for other endorsed candidates along with Wolf to double the impact of the phone call. Some endorsed candidates may be Republicans who have been friends, and will continue to be friends, of public education. (This is great!)

Education Voters Action Fund will provide you with a script. All you need is a phone and a computer. Please contact Bob Previdi at evaf@educationvoterspa.org or call him at 267-235-8523 to sign up or with any questions.

Now here’s a second way you can GOTV and meet Tom Wolf in person! This Saturday, October 18th, our friends at the “Make it Our UPMC” campaign will be hosting a meet-and-greet with Mr. Wolf at 10:30AM at the Jeron X. Grayson Community Center (1852 Enoch St. / 15219). From there, everyone will fan out for a special door-to-door canvass. You will be with other people, they’ll show you where to go, and you’ll have information so you know what to say (if you want it). In other words – this is easy, all you have to do is show up!

This is it, folks. Just three weeks left. It’s all about GOTV now. Go, go, go!


Celebrating Hope, Action, and Change

Pittsburgh hosted the national launch of Bob Herbert’s new book last week with an event that was part rally, part community meeting, and part serious conversation. But it was also a fun celebration of our education justice movement with kids and drums and balloons, full of hope that ordinary folks like us can change the world when we work together. Losing Our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America tells a series of close-up stories about growing income inequality, the true costs of war, and our country’s failure to invest in public goods from infrastructure to education. It’s a devastatingly honest account of our national policy failures and the consequences of misplaced priorities. In a book full of gripping narratives – including a woman badly injured in the Minneapolis bridge collapse and a solider from Georgia who loses both his legs and more in Afghanistan – we are a point of hope. Herbert was inspired by our truly grassroots movement fighting back against the defunding and corporatization of public education. And he wound up writing three chapters on education, two of them framed closely by our work in Pittsburgh.

The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh provided children's activities

The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh provided children’s activities

Drummers from Pittsburgh Dilworth and Pittsburgh Linden performed for the audience

Drummers from Pittsburgh Dilworth and Pittsburgh Linden performed for the audience

Rev. Freeman, president of PIIN, delivers opening words helping us think about the three African American teenagers we lost in Pittsburgh in just one week

Rev. Freeman, president of PIIN, delivers opening words helping us think about the three African American teenagers we lost in Pittsburgh in just one week

Over 300 people were in McConomy Auditorium at Carnegie Mellon University for the event!

Over 300 people filled McConomy Auditorium at Carnegie Mellon University for the event!

Tony Norman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette moderated the conversation with Bob Herbert

Tony Norman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette moderated the conversation with Bob Herbert

Bob Herbert emphasized the need to grassroots activism and a coordinated effort to fight income inequality and for good jobs.

Bob Herbert emphasized the need for grassroots activism and a coordinated effort to fight income inequality and for good jobs.

Bob Herbert explains that the movement will have to come from the bottom up.

Bob Herbert explains that the movement will have to come from the bottom up.

Jessie Ramey and Kathy Newman are two of the four Pittsburgh parents mentioned by name in the book (spoiler alert:  Sara Segel and Sara Goodkind are the other two!)

Jessie Ramey and Kathy Newman are two of the four Pittsburgh parents mentioned by name in the book (spoiler alert: Sara Segel and Sara Goodkind are the other two!)

Bob Herbert answered audience questions

Bob Herbert answers audience questions


Our friends at Mystery Lovers Bookshop sold copies of the book hot off the press!

Our friends at Mystery Lovers Bookshop sold copies of the book hot off the press for Herbert’s first stop on his national book tour!

Bob signs books while a film crew interviews audience members.

Bob signs books while a film crew interviews audience members.

We are participating in a new social media campaign encouraging people to talk about what #OurSchoolsNeed

We are participating in a new social media campaign encouraging people to talk about what #OurSchoolsNeed

Hill District activist Kent Bey, who runs the Stand Up Now Network, participates in the #OurSchoolsNeed campaign

Hill District activist Kent Bey, who runs the Stand Up Now Network, participates in the #OurSchoolsNeed campaign

Tony Norman with his son, Chris, a PPS graduate, say we need more art in our schools

Tony Norman with his son, Chris, a PPS graduate, say we need more art in our schools

Yinzercation_0220 Not surprisingly, Bob Herbert is getting a lot of national press, including this interview on Bill Moyers (where you can also read the introduction to the book) and an excellent Politico feature on “The Plot Against Public Education: How Millionaires and Billionaires are Ruining Our Schools.” Locally, Bob Herbert was on WESA’s “Essential Pittsburgh,” the Rick Smith Show, Jon Delano’s KDKA Sunday business show, and was interviewed by the City Paper. Congratulations, Pittsburgh, on another moment in the national spotlight as we celebrate real hope, grassroots action, and change from the bottom up.

If you missed this incredible book launch, or just want to keep the conversation going, please consider joining our co-sponsor, the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Council, for an informal gathering to discuss Losing Our Way: Monday, October 27, 2014 from 7-8PM at the PAJC offices (Rodef Shalom Congregation, 4905 5th Avenue). Light refreshments will be served. More information at pajc@pajc.net.

Top 10 Reasons to See Bob Herbert

We are hosting Bob Herbert, the award winning, longtime New York Times columnist, for the national launch of his new book, Losing Our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America. I know that sounds like a very serious title, but this is going to be an exciting event and the book features our local education justice work! So why should you come next Thursday (October 9th) at 5:30PM to Carnegie Mellon? Here are the top ten reasons you don’t want to miss this event:

1.  You will be inspired. Bob is a terrific writer and speaker. With this book, he takes us across the U.S. to look at the consequences of the crippling Great Recession, austerity, and de-investment in the public good, profiling ordinary Americans who are trying to rebuild their lives and our country. Our story of Pittsburgh’s own grassroots parent movement and our efforts to save public education in Pennsylvania from devastating state budget cuts is the hope-filled highpoint of the book. You will be re-inspired by what we have accomplished working together. And now others around the country will be looking to Pittsburgh as a model for citizen action.

2.  Celebrate our victories. This is our time to shine a little in the national spotlight! Education justice work is a long haul; even narrowly defined goals such as restoring state budget cuts takes years of work, with many highs and lows along the way. It’s important to stop and recognize what we have achieved together. And this event is yet another achievement: we are hosting the national launch of this book (yes, Bob will be celebrating with us here in Pittsburgh before he even launches the book back home in New York City)!

3.  Get a signed copy of the book. Our friends at Mystery Lovers Bookshop will be on hand selling books hot off the press and Bob will stay after the Q&A to sign copies.

4.  Be a part of a community wide event. We have 15 co-sponsors from across the region working on this event, from universities and academic groups to faith-based organizations and labor and community organizations. That doesn’t happen every day in Pittsburgh.

  • Action United
  • American Federation of Teachers
  • Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh
  • Carnegie Mellon University:
    • Center for Arts in Society
    • Center for Africanamerican Urban Studies and the Economy (CAUSE)
    • English Department
    • History Department
  • Great Public Schools Pittsburgh
  • OnePittsburgh
  • Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network
  • Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee
  • Pittsburgh Collaborative for Working Class Studies
  • Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers
  • Point Park University School of Communication
  • University of Pittsburgh English Department

5.  Hear the Dilworth drummers. These fantastic students from Pittsburgh Dilworth K-5 raise the roof with their music and enthusiasm when they perform. You have enjoyed them at some of our previous events: don’t miss this chance to hear them again at 5PM when the doors open. We will also have children’s activities sponsored by the fabulous librarians of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh!

6.  See Tony Norman. Mr. Norman – a columnist, associate editor, and book editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – will be moderating the conversation with Bob Herbert, followed by a Q&A with the audience. Tony has long been one of my favorite columnists and it will be a treat to see him live on stage with Bob.

7.  Find out who is in the book. Hint: at least four Pittsburgh parents are named in the book. And there’s an entire chapter framed by the story Bob discovered at Pittsburgh Lincoln preK-5 when he visited that school. Find out what he has to say about yinzers!

8.  It’s free. With free parking. In Pittsburgh, that’s enough said.

9.  Our elected representatives will be there. From the school board to city council, the mayor’s office, and state legislators, many of our elected representatives have told us they are planning to attend. We want them to see a crowd and know that public education advocates are a force to be reckoned with. (No joke – this is really important.) We had 1,000 people out for the launch of Diane Ravitch’s book one year ago and they really took notice – make sure you come and help this event be a big success.

10.  Because Bob Herbert. Seriously, Bob Herbert people!