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Friday, March 9, 2012

Yes, it’s Working! (and here’s how we know)

- Post by Jessie Ramey of Yinzercation

We’ve called our legislators, written them letters, and met with them; we’ve hosted house parties, a teach-in, and public forums; we’ve held a rally in a snowstorm, published op-ed pieces, and submitted letters-to-the-editor. But is it working?

The simple answer is yes. But to understand how it’s working, we have to piece together what is going on around the state.

The end goal is obviously to reverse the devastating state budget cuts to public education. Since our legislators are the people who can do that through the budget negotiation process, we have to monitor what they are saying and doing to gauge if we’re being effective. But our legislators are politicians first, which means they are listening to their constituents. So there are really two gauges we have to keep our eye on: 1) our legislators’ increasing willingness to champion public education, and 2) the general public’s growing awareness and advocacy around education.

The good news is that both dials appear to be nudging upwards. For instance, on the legislative dial here in Southwest Pennsylvania, Representative Dan Frankel has long been counted on to support public education. But we’re hearing from him more regularly on the issue now, including comments he issued immediately following the proposed budget announcement last month. He also called out Yinzercation specifically in a recent email to constituents. Senator Jay Costa has replied to letters and phone calls with impressively detailed accounts of his pro-public education stand and spoke at the “Last Lunch” seminar at Pitt last week about the budget.

Also in Yinzer Nation, Senator Wayne Fontana, Representative Nick Kotick, and Representative Jesse White spoke forcefully for public education at last week’sforum in South Fayette. And Representative Jake Wheatley, a member of the House Education Committee, met with students who travelled to Harrisburg for the A+ Schools Valentine’s Day Rally and also spoke at the Pitt “Last Lunch” seminar.

In other parts of the state, Representative Mike Sturla from Lancaster County has become a vocal advocate of public education. He hosted a public hearing on the budget cuts two weeks ago along with Representative Margo Davidson of Upper Darby. Sturla has particularly highlighted the issue of fiscally distressed districts such as Chester Upland (the current poster-child for the state’s failure to provide equitable and sustainable resources to all students).

While these representatives are all Democrats, there has been some noticeable movement among Republicans, too. Fifteen Republicans refused to vote for Governor’s Corbett’s voucher bill in December – a crucial victory for public education advocates (though the battle is not yet fully won on that issue). Representative Paul Clymer, a Republican from Bucks County, met with teens rallying for public education in Harrisburg last month. And Senator Jake Corman, a Republican from Centre County has come out quite vocally against cuts to public higher-education, an obviously closely related issue.

Another strong indicator of progress on the “legislative dial” is the new effort of the House Democratic Caucus to track press coverage of school district budgets. Every single day, the caucus website posts articles from around the state. Since January 23rd, the site has shared over 250 newspaper articles detailing the devastating effects of state budget cuts on local schools, helping to keep legislators focused on public education. They wouldn’t be doing this if they weren’t hearing from their constituents that public education matters.

On the “public awareness dial,” there has been much movement in the past few months. This past weekend, OnePittsburgh – a coalition of local faith groups, community organizations, and labor – hosted a well-attended education event with a presentation by Ron Cowell, President of the Education Policy and Leadership Center. Collaborations like these with state-wide education groups are proving extremely fruitful in nudging that public awareness dial. Last week, the Pennsylvania State Education Association kicked off its Partners for Public Education campaign in South Fayette, drawing a large crowd.

Tonight on the other side of the state, there is a legislative forum on public education in Lehigh County, sponsored by the League of Women Voters with state representatives and senators invited. Next week, legislators will be meeting with school officials in Bradford, Sullivan, and Tioga counties at an event sponsored by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. Later this month, Pennsylvania Auditor Jack Wagner will talk on “The Real Impact of the Proposed State Budget on Public Education” at a public meeting hosted by the League of Women Voters of Chester County; and Arcadia University will host a panel discussion, “Unpacking the PA School Budget: What Does This Mean for Me?” moderated by the Education Law Center.

Education Voters PA, a state-wide public education advocacy organization, set the date for this week’s call-your-legislator day and worked with groups across Pennsylvania. This was the third time Yinzer Nation has collaborated with EdVoters PA on call-in events, with participation increasing each time. Also in our area, EdVoters PA is helping to organize a public forum in the North Hills, a “Write Now!” kids’ advocacy event at the Children’s Museum, and will be coordinating a state-wide bake-sale in April, highlighting how many cookies we would all have to sell to make up for these budget cuts. Stay tuned for lots more details on these efforts.

These events are more than the sum of their parts. As we work with groups like EdVoters PA, we spark conversations around the state, acting as a catalyst for further grassroots organizing. And we know that this grassroots movement is working. Our friends at EdVoters PA keep a close eye on Harrisburg and tell us that a new Department of Education website is a sure sign of mounting public pressure. The website, designed to explain Corbett’s claim that schools are actually getting increased funding under his proposed budget plan, is clearly a reaction to the growing public realization that school budgets are, in fact, being drastically slashed.

As the Capitolwire Bureau Chief Peter DeCoursey points out in a recent article, “For a guy who ran for governor saying school districts were over-funded and could and should do more with less money, Gov. Corbett sure does everything he can now to hide the fact that he is governing as he promised in his campaign…. Why is he trying to hide this clear policy goal now?… it is about his only declared policy on which he shilly-shallies about what he did.” It is pretty clear that Corbett is feeling the heat of public pressure on this issue as people line up behind their public schools.

So all this was a long-winded way of saying, “Yes, it’s working!” Keep up the fight. Keep talking to your friends and to your legislators, and we’ll keep pushing those dials a little further. We can do it when we work together.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

An Increase or a Decrease?

Yesterday, March 5th, it was time for Secretary Ron Tomalis to testify in front of the House Appropriation Committee. I was curious to see if this budget hearing would be similar to the Senate’s budget hearing last week. In that hearing, it seemed that people were unhappy with the lack of leadership to support public education and the cuts the Governor has proposed. I was wrong. There was not the frustration in the room seen last week, there was actual praise for the “leadership” of the Secretary (huh?). In some cases, it seemed certain easy questions were planted so that he could get in all of his talking points.

The main focus of this hearing was whether funding for education was an increase or a decrease.

Now you would think whether or not the budget for education has been cut would be an easy thing to determine, but there was a lot of disagreement. The hearing started out with charts being distributed by the some members of Appropriations. The purpose of these charts was to show the accounting gimmicks Corbett and his Administration are using to say there is an increase in education when there is none.

Rep. Matt Bradford asked the Secretary if he agreed that state funding for K-12 in 2012-13 (post-stimulus budget) at$5.3 billion is reduced from the $5.8 billion funding level in 2008-09 (pre-stimulus budget). The Secretary disagreed, stating that you need to consider the $300 million in pension contributions (which are state mandated). Tomalis argued that this should be considered in the instructional cost of having a teacher in a classroom. But neither the 2008-09 funding ($5.8 billion) nor the 2012-13 proposed funding ($5.3 million) include pension contributions. Seems like a decrease to me.

The second is it or is it not there question was the Accountability Block Grant. In this year’s budget, the state legislature and Governor inserted the $100 million in ABG as an addition to the just-ending budget year’s school funding (ending June 2011) for it to be spent in the current school year ending in June 2012 (which it was). The Secretary argued that since it was not actually included in this year’s budget and is not proposed in next year’s, there is no decrease. I have a feeling school districts across the Commonwealth who are currently using that $100 million to fund programs such as full-day kindergarten and tutoring would beg to differ when they don’t have those funds next year. What do you think?