Don’t blame the unions … blame the lawmakers in Harrisburg

Letter by David W. P. Jones, Daily Local News, 7/11/14

Mr. Thomas Haas … you stated that you were taught “if we make a mistake, to correct it.” Well, you made a few mistakes in your article.

First and foremost, taxpayers have no claim to the private payments and accounts made by teachers. This is not taxpayers’ money, this is the money workers paid from their wages and it belongs. Second, your taxes are not going up “just” because of the pensions. Other issues, like construction, special education, medical benefits and for-profit private school payments are also contributing to the escalation. Next, if the solution were as simple as you suggest it would have been done by now, but one of the things you overlook … which is extremely important … is that the legislators are part of this same system. So, the difficulty is not getting legislators to vote to change employees benefits, but rather, that they must change their own benefits at the same time.

You referred to pensions in the private sector that had to be modified because they were “overly generous.” The private sector pensions were not overly generous, they were underfunded in the exact same way the public sector pensions have been underfunded. In the private sector many companies simply shifted to pay profits before they paid their obligations and then claimed they didn’t have enough funds left to pay their obligations. Many of these pension systems went bankrupt and then the taxpayers had to bail them out with the federally funded pension insurance.

You also blame the “generous formula” the unions pushed for as part of the problem. Well, that generous recalculation in 2002 under the Ridge administration was part of the problem, but it was not generated by the unions, it was pushed by the Legislature and the administration. Just to be clear, while the employees did get a generous recalculation of 25 percent, the legislators actually doubled that to 50 percent for themselves. So don’t blame that one on the unions, please….

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School Funding Advocacy Day in Harrisburg

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Join committed parents, leaders, and community members from around the state to make it clear to Harrisburg that PA students need fair and full funding now!

Sponsored by Public Citizens for Children and Youth, and Education Voters PA

This action day is open to anyone committed to making sure that children throughout our state get the full and fair funding they deserve.

If you plan to go, please RSVP to and we will tell you where to meet up with us. Any questions can be directed to Devon Miner at 215-563-5848 x12 or

PA funding for education: Up or down?

These 2 graphics from PA Budget and Policy Center are instructive.

The first illustrates why people can say both that the state has cut a billion dollars from education (compare the tops of the 2010-11 and 2011-12 bars) and that it has increased the budget for education (compare the tops of the last 2 bars to the first 2 bars on the left):

Education-Funding-2008- PA

The benchmark is over 9 billion in 2008-09. In 2009-10 and 2010-11, the total state contribution rose to almost 10 billion, but the yellow shading shows over a billion dollars from the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 = ARRA, or Stimulus program. The states weren’t supposed to use Stimulus funds to replace regularly budgeted items, but in hard times, PA and some other states did.

After the Stimulus funds ended, PA was left contributing less to local public education in 2011-12. Under pressure of public opinion, rising local school taxes, inflation, continued draining of funds to charter schools, and other causes, state funding has been rising, though slowly.

The proposed 2014-15 budget seems to have more money than ever for education. But note how large the blue-gray section is at the top of the bar. That’s for pensions. For many years, the state did not contribute its expected share toward future retirees’ pensions (the teachers and other employees did). So now it’s catch-up time.

Thus, although total state education spending is higher already this year (2013-14) than in 2008-09, the amount the school districts received from the state for educating students (not including pension costs) is still significantly less than they received in 2009-10 or 2010-11.

Some confusion has also been caused by consolidation of budget lines. Traditionally, one looked at the “basic education funding” line. In recent years, that line was increased by moving some other lines into it, and various line items that previously went towards education (e.g. reimbursement of charter school costs to school districts) have been cut entirely. So it is no longer valid to look at “basic education funding” in isolation.

Furthermore, even in the proposed 2014-15 budget, the dark blue part of the bar is still slightly lower than in 2008-09. That means that state spending to educate students and meet school districts’ everyday expenses would be lower than 6 years earlier. So we can’t say education funding has increased or decreased. The way to express it is:

PA education funding will be higher in 2014-15 if we include pensions and if the budget holds up.

Unfortunately, the second “if” is a problem too. Here is another graphic from PA Budget and Policy Center:


It shows that state revenues have taken a dive below their expected level. The PA General Assembly will be scrambling to figure out what to do with the shortfall for the rest of this year and what do do about an obviously over-optimistic budget for next year.

There will be proposals, obviously damaging, to cut back the investment in education. And there are proposals to tap the huge potential revenue source that is natural gas production, on which PA does not currently levy a designated extraction tax.

Anyone interested in the future of education needs to keep an eye on these issues.

If school districts in the state’s wealthiest county (that’s us, Chester County) are under pressure, think of the other end of the spectrum. As stated in “A Strong State Commitment to Public Education, A Must Have for Pennsylvania’s Children,” which is the executive summary of PBPC’s April 2014 report:

“Recent trends follow the state’s history of underfunding schools, with Pennsylvania ranked 10th lowest for the state share of school funding. Low state funding makes schools dependent on local income and wealth, leading to large gaps in funding between affluent and poor districts and a “D” for funding equity on one recent national report card.”

Download the full report here.

A Strong State Commitment to Public Education, A Must Have for Pennsylvania’s Children

Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, April 30, 2014

This report examines school funding in Pennsylvania, focusing on the city of Philadelphia and on other low-income school districts. The report highlights recent funding cuts, and the policy choices that led to these cuts. The end of the report suggests some alternative – and better – choices that Pennsylvania might make regarding state school funding and tax policies going forward.

The scale of recent funding cuts in Philadelphia and other low-income districts has been unprecedented. Since 2011 Philadelphia has experienced a $294 million drop in state school funding. Philadelphia educates 12% of Pennsylvania’s school students but experienced 35% of statewide school funding cuts.

State education funding cuts have affected all school districts, but targeted those with the poorest students. Philadelphia ranked first with cuts of $1,351 per student, followed by Chester-Upland ($1,194), York City ($1,096) and Southeastern Greene, a rural district ($1,022). Meanwhile some wealthy suburban districts experienced cuts of only $36 to $59 per student. Statewide, three years after close to $1 billion in state reductions to classroom funding, 54% of per student cuts remain.

Within Philadelphia, state funding cuts, and the siphoning off of state school funding to charter schools, have wreaked tangible devastation on schools and children. For example, since 2011, the School District of Philadelphia has reduced its school counseling staff by over half, its central administration and support staff by nearly half, its school nurses by nearly a third, and its early childhood teachers by one fifth.

More than 800 parents from 70 schools have filed complaints with the Pennsylvania Department of Education alleging denial of necessary educational services to their children in 2013. Educational enrichment programs that help students get into competitive colleges have all but come to an end, including Northeast High School’s acclaimed Space Research Center (SPARC), debate, dance, science Olympiad and other programs. With roughly 1 nurse for every 1,250 students, parents have been particularly concerned about health for their children. The lack of an onsite nurse is thought to have possibly contributed to the death of 12-year old Laporshia Massey following an asthma attack that began at school.

Other hard-pressed districts across the Commonwealth have also closed schools, increased class sizes, cut instructional personnel, and ended music, arts, and sports programs. Based on a survey of school districts, the Pennsylvania School Boards and School Business Officials declared that the “the financial condition of Pennsylvania’s public schools declined from “difficult” in 2011-12 to “desperate” for 2012-13.

Recent trends follow the state’s history of underfunding schools, with Pennsylvania ranked 10th lowest for the state share of school funding. Low state funding makes schools dependent on local income and wealth, leading to large gaps in funding between affluent and poor districts and a “D” for funding equity on one recent national report card.

Over two Pennsylvania gubernatorial administrations, the state began to recognize the problem of low state funding and then launched a bipartisan effort to close a $2,400 per student gap between actual funding and levels adequate to support a quality education for all children. Philadelphia’s shortfall to achieve funding adequacy was 75% higher than the statewide average gap, $4,184 per student.

Funding cuts since 2010, however, have undone initial progress towards funding adequacy, leading Philadelphia’s District Superintendent Dr. William Hite to lament only weeks before the current school year that stopgap funding would “allow us to open the doors of the school” but “not do enough for what goes on behind those doors.”

State education funding cuts have come at the same time as federal funding for preK-12 education declined and the local property tax base has been constrained by a slow recovery, falling property values, and the state tightening caps on annual increases in local school funding.

Recent Pennsylvania public school funding trends reflect a trifecta of misguided policy choices.

The first choice was an effort to balance the state budget through cuts in public services. Pennsylvania’s education funding cuts translated into 20,000 lost jobs in public education, which also held back private job (and revenue) growth as reduced spending by school employees rippled through local economies. Pennsylvania’s job growth since January 2011 ranks 49th of the 50 states.

At the same time that the commonwealth was reducing education spending, the state moved forward with several large corporate tax cuts, some of which continue to phase in even now. Since 2003, the value of Pennsylvania corporate tax cuts has more than tripled, and in 2013-14 the tax breaks have a value equivalent to nearly one-third of the total prek-12 education budget. The state also failed to enact a severance tax on natural gas drilling.

Third, Governor Corbett and the General Assembly diverted additional funding for alternatives to public schools, despite the impact of funding cuts on public education and the commonwealth’s economic recovery. The commonwealth now supports four separate systems: private and sectarian schools, charter schools, and online “cyber charters,” as well as public schools. Expansion of these parallel systems has particularly affected districts like Philadelphia with high poverty populations. By 2013-14, for example, payments to charter schools represented 30% of Philadelphia school district’s operating budget.

Pennsylvania’s deep cuts in education funding singling out the most vulnerable districts fly in the face of overwhelming evidence that concentrated poverty is a major impediment to children’s educational progress.

Pennsylvania can make different policy choices related to public education. The end of this report outlines ways that the state could increase revenues for schools and get back on track to funding levels adequate to deliver educational quality in poor as well as wealthy districts. This is the right – and far-sighted – choice not only for the children and families in those districts but also for the long-run health of Pennsylvania’s economy.

Download the full April 2014 PBPC report, “A Strong State Commitment to Public Education, A Must Have for Pennsylvania’s Children,” by Sharon Ward here

NY Times: Walton Family Foundation Funds Charter Movement

By Diane Ravitch, April 27, 2014

Readers if this blog have long known that the Billionaires Boys Club has pledged its allegiance to the privatization of American public education. Among the Billionaires Boys Club, we include the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foubdation, the Walton Family Foundatioon, and hedge fund managers. They are allied with ALEC and other rightwing “think” tanks, all of which are in live with charters and vouchers.

Motoko Rich wrote in Saturday’s Néw York Times about the dedication of the vastly wealthy Walton Family Foundation. The Waltons do not like public education. They do not like unions. They like charters and vouchers. They spend $160 million every year to spread the gospel of privatization and to destroy the public schools that are the heart of most communities.

With their support, the US is recreating a dual school system: one that chooses its students and the other that accepts all. Further, they have got the media cheering for segregated schools, determined as the Waltons are to establish the success of all-black schools.

They use their vast wealth not to pay their workers a living wage but to destroy their communities, killing off mom and pop stores, and destroying their local public school, replacing it with a corporate chain school.

Altogether a great triumph for the cold and mean face of American capitalism, which cares not at all for family , community, tradition, or humane values.

Finnish Schools Not Relying on Ed Tech

by Diane Ravitch, 5/31/14

Caitlin Emma of paid a visit to Finland and was surprised to discover that teachers are not depending on educational technology. By contrast, American schools are spending billions of dollars on tablets, laptops, and other devices.

She writes:

“Finnish students and teachers didn’t need laptops and iPads to get to the top of international education rankings, said Krista Kiuru, minister of education and science at the Finnish Parliament. And officials say they aren’t interested in using them to stay there.

“That’s in stark contrast to what reformers in the U.S. say. From President Barack Obama on down, they have called education technology critical to improving schools. By shifting around $2 billion in existing funds and soliciting $2 billion in contributions from private companies, the Obama administration is pressing to expand schools’ access to broadband and the devices that thrive on it.

“School districts nationwide have loaded up students with billions of dollars’ worth of tablets, laptops, iPods and more on the theory that, as Obama said last year, preparing American kids to compete with students around the globe will require interactive, individualized learning experiences driven by new technology.”

(Since the research on the benefits of technology is sparse, it is likely that the heavy U.S. investment in technology is driven by something other than research.)

The Finnish secret: recruiting excellent students into the teaching profession, which is respected and prestigious; according the teachers professional autonomy; working closely with the educators’ union to promote better education; no standardized testing until the end of high school; no charters; no vouchers.

Read more at Diane Ravitch

Michelle Obama: The Arts Raise Test Scores (!)

by Diane Ravitch, 5/23/14

A reader sent me this story with this comment: “Bizarro world.”

First Lady Michelle Obama promotes arts education because the arts raise test scores.

The administration said 35 schools would get federal turnaround funding for the arts because early evidence shows that the arts lead to higher math and reading scores.

Time to stop and think. The Bush-Obama high-stakes testing policies have diminished resources, staff, equipment and time for the arts.

The purpose of the arts is not to raise test scores but to express and develop our talents, to enhance our lives, to give us the joy of experience and skill in music and the other arts.

Arts are not a path to picking the right bubble on a standardized test. They are far more valuable than that. The self-discipline required in the arts, the joy of performance is sufficient unto itself.