Public education the focus of Pittsburgh rally

Yinzercation organizers urge audience members to push for sustainable government funding


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American public schools have leveled the playing field for poor children and provided opportunities for children of all backgrounds for more than a century. But their ability to continue to do so will continue to erode unless the community works to establish adequate, equitable and sustainable government funding for public education, local education activists said Sunday.

Inside the Yinzercation rally for public education, local parent Jay Aronson said the consequences of failure include a steadily widening chasm between Pittsburgh's -- and the nation's -- rich and poor, as wealthy families increasingly educate their children at private schools while poor families are left with an ever-dwindling resource. And for those children who receive an inadequate public education, and for the country as a whole, the price of that failure is steep.

"We either pay now or pay later," Mr. Aronson, a 38-year-old Squirrel Hill resident whose son attends Pittsburgh Colfax K-8 and who has two younger children who will start school soon, said over the sound of students from Pittsburgh Dilworth PreK-5 drumming inside the Kelly Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty. "We can educate young children or we can incarcerate young adults."

About 150 people -- many of them parents of children at Colfax in Squirrel Hill and Dilworth in East Liberty -- filled the theater Sunday to listen to folk and rap protest songs, performances by students from Pittsburgh CAPA, and a call to action. In it, Yinzercation organizers reminded audience members to call and write to their legislators to ask for increased education funding; travel to Harrisburg and Washington, D.C., to lobby lawmakers; join the movement to opt out of high-stakes testing; and attend the education town hall meeting being held by the PA Interfaith Impact Network on March 11.

In the past year, Yinzercation has helped organize dozens of rallies and protests against education budget cuts proposed by Gov. Tom Corbett as a result of the loss of federal stimulus funding, which was intended as temporary help but that many school districts grew to rely on. Pennsylvania schools saw funding cuts of nearly $1 billion two years ago.

In his proposed 2013 budget announced last week, Mr. Corbett asked the state Legislature for a $90 million increase in basic education aid, bringing that funding to $5.5 billion. Overall state support of public schools would be $9.8 billion, compared with about $9.5 billion last year, according to state education officials. Early childhood education aid would increase by $11.4 million, or 3.4 percent. Funding for the Accountability Block Grant program, which many districts use to fund full-day kindergarten, would remain level.

Mr. Corbett also proposed the creation of the Passport for Learning Block Grant, which would send about $1 billion to schools over a four-year period for school safety initiatives, individualized learning, enrichment for elementary reading and math, and improvements in science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs. The funding depends on the Legislature's agreeing to privatize alcohol sales.

At Sunday's rally, however, activists said Mr. Corbett's most recent budget proposal doesn't go far enough to fix what they say he broke two years ago. Thousands of teachers, instructors and support staff have yet to return to classrooms, music rooms and libraries, and many schools in poor communities are struggling to provide basic materials such as books and art supplies, they said.

A quarter of American children are living in poverty, said the Rev. David Thornton, pastor of Grace Memorial Baptist Church. Just 18 percent of African-American male high school seniors in the Pittsburgh Public School District are eligible for the Pittsburgh Promise, which awards $40,000 per eligible student to pay for college tuition, room and board, he said. Many children don't get enough to eat, while others come to school after a night of sleeping on the floor or dealing with family chaos.

And public schools not only deal with the fallout of those family conditions, but often offer the only path to a happier, more stable and more prosperous future, he said. They need help -- much more help -- than they are getting, and it would be in lawmakers' and the nation's best interest to give it, he said.

"We believe public education is a public good," Rev. Thornton told the crowd, which responded with whistles, cheers, pumping fists and a brief chant of "save our schools!"

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Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: aschaarsmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1719.


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