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On Monday, I provided testimony to Pittsburgh City Council about their resolution concerning Pittsburgh Public Schools. Here’s what I said:

I am here to speak to why Council Resolution #2013-1875 is a very bad idea.

Our District currently spends more than takes in. If nothing changes, we can count on a state takeover from Harrisburg by 2016 when the District runs out of money.

Some facts to consider:
• Pittsburgh is among the five highest spending districts in Pennsylvania and receives more in state subsidy on a per pupil basis than 80% of the other districts;
• PPS has more buildings and staff on a per pupil basis than its peer districts;
• PPS spends $7,000 more per pupil (even adjusted for special costs that other districts don’t have like providing early childhood education and high debt load) than its peer districts.

Insolvency means Harrisburg can run our schools – a state takeover will take away local control, focus decisions primarily on money rather than quality, and dismantle much of the progress being made in our schools.

State takeover will mean:
• No publicly funded transportation (transportation is not mandatory under state law, and in other takeover situations, has been proposed by the Chief Recovery Officer);
• No sports programs or after school programs that are paid for by the District (see Duquesne City); and
• The elimination of free public pre-kindergarten for our most vulnerable students (we’re lucky to have this in Pittsburgh already as many districts don’t even have full day kindergarten).

In an effort to avoid insolvency the district embarked on the Envision planning process earlier this year. Recently, Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Linda Lane hinted that closing some schools will be part of the mix of recommendations that will emerge from the Envision Process and that the status quo would mean that the Board would have to raise taxes by 40%.

A+ Schools has consistently advocated for decisions that will improve the quality of education for our most vulnerable children while also putting us on the road to financial solvency.

This resolution fails our criteria on two levels.

For one, it calls for an absolute moratorium on school closings without offering up any other way for the district to balance its budget. City Council knows how difficult these decisions can be and that no elected official relishes them; putting political pressure on the school board is simply not helpful. Nor do we think City Council wants to be on record discouraging the school board from making the hard decisions that will help it avoid insolvency unless of course you are ready to share the blame when insolvency finally comes.

Secondly, and more importantly, this resolution puts our City Council on record as being against the marquee Empowering Effective Teachers reform that teachers and administrators have been working on for the past five years . This initiative is important if we want our teachers to be in a better position to help our kids succeed. Part of this work includes, having a high standard for what is quality teaching and what is not. If a teacher gets less than 50% grade, they are considered needing improvement or failing (just like our students). The resolution in City Council calls this a “high stakes cut score.” We couldn’t agree more. For our kids, having an excellent teacher in their classroom can be the difference of seven months worth of learning in one school year alone. This resolution implies that there’s no remedy for a teacher who may just have one bad grade and that is simply not the case. Our teachers have 2 years to remedy the deficiencies identified in their evaluations and past experience shows most do. Our kids deserve the very best. We can’t be satisfied with mediocrity, yet that’s exactly what this resolution is advocating.

We urge City Council to table this resolution. Your interest and engagement in the future of the public school system is essential and must start with consulting the facts of the district’s financial situation and reforms from Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent and elected school board.

Press coverage 

Group rallies outside Pittsburgh City Council Chambers to keep Public Schools Open, WTAE