Represent! Education Policy in Pennsylvania

BY SYLVIA PALMS

Why is PGDG interested in education policy in Pennsylvania? Public Education is a cornerstone of Community Development. Friday morning, Danielle and I sat amidst nearly a hundred attendees at a gathering organized by Represent! PAC to learn more about current issues in education policy and how we progressive women in Philadelphia can work to turn it around. The roll call of statistics presented a dire situation. But the panel discussion moderator, Christine Jacobs, founding board member of Represent! (impromptu stand-up comedian), pointed out that a banquet table of donuts were provided to keep us engaged. We fed ourselves while listening to the FACTS (remember those?) and eventually starting to understand how crucial it is to PLUG IN NOW if we hope to shift the tide toward support of public education in PA.

Represent! is not one, but actually TWO political action committees (a state PAC and a federal PAC) formed to increase the number of Democratic women elected in 2016 to representative office in Pennsylvania and from PA to DC. So here the sad statistics begin. A century ago, Pennsylvania women led the way for representation in public office, but today only 17% of the PA General Assembly is women. Now here’s how Represent! will change that: already, a full 75% of democratic women currently in the State House of Representatives are Represent! endorsed candidates.

And the first call to action—support Represent! now, for the 2017 election cycle, so Represent! can support more women, identified for their capacity to WIN.

Following the rally cry of introduction to Represent!’s mission and impact, Christine shifted our attention to today’s Breakfast Briefing topic. The guest panel to address education policy in PA included Represent!-endorsed State Representative, Maureen Madden, along with Deborah Gordon Klehr of the Education Law Center, and Ebony English of Partners in School Innovation, and Claire Roberson-Kraft, PhD, Director of ImpactED. Each of these impressive do-gooders described her path to her current work, each informed by extensive training and broad experience in the fields of education and public policy.

Deborah brought the payload of bad news (reminder: go to donuts). Pennsylvania ranks 46th in the country for state education funding. They use a formula for apportioning funding that is based on history not need. PA ranks DEAD LAST (and by that I mean FIRST) in disparity of funding for the poorest versus richest school districts. Last year there was a TEN MONTH delay in delivery of funding from the state to our schools. Here’s the good news. Legislation was passed last spring to change the apportioning model. Deborah stresses that the new formula is important in that it "takes into account poverty, number of ELLs, tax effort, tax capacity, etc. It’s just that [PA only sends] 6% of the state’s basic education funding through that formula. It’s the other 94% that is sent out not through the formula but rather based on history not need. A formula is only as good as the dollars sent through it."

Claire is a passionate researcher who started as a teacher and worked in policy development before launching ImpactED at UPenn’s Fels Institute of Government. From that three-pronged foundation, she advocates for informing education policy through research—the research representing the perspective and experience of on-the-ground practitioners (read teachers and school administrators). It is the practitioners who know from their direct experience the impact of policy on the children and communities they serve.

Ebony’s work is in the realm of these practitioners, consulting at schools that are most impacted by state funding policy. With a background in public school teaching at the middle school level, to kids with autism, and in the Head Start program, she now trains teachers and staff how to transform the learning experience for kids in public school as well as English learners. Through her work, she hopes to change the narrative about public schools in support of school equity. And no, the answer is not vouchers. Great things are happening in public schools, and those victories are drowned out by proponents of alternative school system models.

Representative Madden urges we must anticipate the new federal administration’s policy that compromises the public school system. With foresight, she has already introduced legislation to protect transgender and LGBT kids’ rights at school including House Bill 303. With regard to funding, she described the new “Fair Funding Formula” as not nearly enough to make up for a twenty year policy called “Hold Harmless” which promised not to decrease funding to school districts even while they lost population, as well as the gutting of school funding during the Corbett years. Hold onto your hat, this is because the new formula would only be applied to six percent (6% !) of the overall funding—not enough to make a dent in the current pattern of inequity.

So what’s the answer? How is a small pie divided to resolve school equity? Perhaps the pie should grow. Pennsylvania is the ONLY STATE with natural resources that does not have a severance imposed. In Texas, there is a tax of 8-9% on resource profits to benefit its population. Education funding MUST come, not from property taxes, as property values decline, but from a natural gas tax of at least 5%.

What else? ADVOCATE for what is important to you. Implementation on-the-ground matters. Volunteer at your local public school, write letters to the editor of your local papers, write blog posts! And VOTE! Every election matters. There is an election THIS MAY where progressive Democratic dames can make more headway. Check out what Represent! is doing to support candidates positioned to make change. Madden declares DT (aka, the Administration) is “the gift that keeps on giving” —in that every time he opens his mouth, he rallies THOUSANDS.

On my way out of the Represent! breakfast briefing, another attendee confirmed that Deborah (and the Education Law Center) is both an authority on the statistics (however dire), and the BEST source for talking points to engage your elected officials. Representative Madden says, don’t talk to those in our camp, talk to (call, post-card, rally) the representatives who have been there too long, voting the wrong way. Apparently her office can offer some ideas of where/with whom to start (so give them a call first).

So let’s get started, EH? After all, we are NOT moving to Canada. We are staying here, to Represent!