Not concerned about budget cuts to public education? Then you are NOT paying attention


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What if you knew that your children's teachers have been talking lately with school administrators about how many more desks they can fit into their classroom next September?

That, behind closed doors, principals are trying to figure out where gifted education can be trimmed? And foreign language education? And special education? And, of course, the ever-expendable music and art?

Bottom line: How many teachers, aides and classes can your school get by without -- who can be let go? That's the conversation.

Oh, and by the way, your school board may be considering a property tax hike (which, as of this writing, holds true for Mt. Lebanon, Pine-Richland and North Allegheny, to name just a few of the districts that are keeping that option on the table).

Conversations like these are taking place in every single one of Pennsylvania's 500 school districts -- urban, suburban, rural, affluent or not. It would be irresponsible for them not to be having these conversations, and here's why.

As mandated by state law, districts are in the process of drafting their proposed budgets for the 2012-13 fiscal year. So, too, is Gov. Tom Corbett, who will announce his proposed budget Feb. 7.

Last year, Gov. Corbett proposed cuts to education that were so steep that even his Republican colleagues in the Legislature wouldn't accept them. In the end, they put some money back in, but the state still hit K-12 education with an unprecedented $860 million in cuts. That said, the governor's administration has already signaled that the budget for the next fiscal year will again take a cuts-only approach.



Think you're immune? Think again . Pine-Richland saw 11.4 percent of its state funding disappear in the last round of cuts; Fox Chapel Area, 10.8 percent; North Allegheny, 8.2 percent; Bethel Park 7.9 percent; and Mt. Lebanon, 7.4 percent. Each of these cuts amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars per district. Pittsburgh Public Schools saw nearly $26 million disappear -- 14.3 percent of its state funding. Woodland Hills lost 21.9 percent.

The neediest districts took the biggest hits, but this isn't about haves versus have-nots. Whatever your socioeconomic status, I hope that we all want the same thing, and that is the best, most productive lives possible for all of the 87 percent of school-age kids in Pennsylvania who attend our public schools.

Consider this: The annual expenditure per pupil in Pennsylvania is about $10,700. The annual expenditure per prisoner is about $33,000. That means that for every dollar we spend on public education, we're spending about $3.08 on our prison population. In 2007, one in 28 adults in Pennsylvania was incarcerated, on probation or on parole. Pennsylvania's incarceration rate has increased 280 percent since 1982.

Voluminous research documents the link between education or the lack thereof, criminal activity and incarceration. Study after study has concluded that education is a proven investment that keeps people out of jail. Not a big surprise. Yet our Legislature continues to invest more in incarcerating Pennsylvanians than it does in educating them.

Pennsylvania's child poverty rate worsened from 15 percent in 2000 to 19 percent in 2010. That's 522,000 living, breathing boys and girls just like your kids, just like mine, except maybe they don't have enough to eat or a safe place to live.

What does poverty have to do with education? When the state cuts back on funding, classes get bigger, textbooks and computers get old and out-of-date, and the quality of teaching frequently declines. As you would expect, poor kids are affected by those declines at a much greater rate than kids whose families are better off. In a nutshell, they're more likely to start out with an inferior pre-school and elementary education that leaves them less prepared for high school and less prepared to go on to college, that is, if they manage to graduate high school (poor kids are more likely to drop out).

Ultimately, a lot of these kids end up trapped in a multi-generational pattern of low education rates, low employability and high poverty. The irony is a better education would leave them better equipped to get a good job, earn a decent income, pay more in taxes and contribute more overall to society. A 2007 study by the Brookings Institution found that improving education outcomes could result in national savings between $7.9 billion and $10.8 billion annually in public assistance, food stamps and housing assistance.

Not exactly chump change.

Wouldn't it make more sense to front-load spending and invest more early in education, rather than pay more later for entitlement programs aimed at mitigating poverty? How else can we expect to break the cycle?

Since my oldest son started kindergarten in 1999, I have been paying attention to public education and I have never been so deeply concerned as I am right now. Which is not to suggest that this is the time to lose heart and abandon our schools. Rather, this is the time to get serious about fighting back, before the gradual chipping away erodes our schools to the point where there's not much left to save.

Whatever you might think about the tea party movement or the Occupy movement, these grassroots efforts changed the conversation; there was no dialogue around the 99 percent before there was Occupy. That's what we need to do. We need to change the conversation from, "How much money do our districts need to survive?" to "How much money do our districts need to thrive? To save our favorite teachers? To save our foreign language classes? Our teacher's aides, our counselors, our school libraries?"

How do we change the conversation? We organize, either through Parent Teacher Organizations or through other parents willing to step up. One idea: plan a letter-writing event. Parents from Pittsburgh's Colfax school got together with their kids at someone's house and turned out more than 70 letters to their state legislators in an afternoon.

EducationVotersPA is also organizing call-in days to state legislators. On one such day, parents at Pittsburgh's Montessori coordinated an afterschool call-in that netted more than 50 calls to legislators in one hour.

Don't know who your legislator is? Go to EducationVotersPA.org. There you'll also find information about how to write letters, how to phone your legislators and how to make your case. It isn't hard. Don't be intimidated. Just do something.

To network with other parents in our area and see what they're doing, go to yinzercation.wordpress.com. That's a website started by a Colfax parent to share documents, toolkits and ideas. I don't know any of the Colfax parents who got the ball rolling in my neighborhood, but because their message reached me, I went to a meeting and that's why you're reading this today. That's grassroots.

It's time to make noise.


Judy Wertheimer is a writer living in Squirrel Hill with two sons at Pittsburgh Allderdice (wertheimer.jb@gmail.com). First Published January 29, 2012 5:00 AM


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