New PAC Descends on Pittsburgh Public Schools to Charterize and Take Over School Board

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Prepare yourself, Pittsburgh.

A new Political Action Committee (PAC) has descended on the ‘Burgh to further privatize our public schools and wrest control away from parents who are in favor of school reforms that actually work.

It’s called Campaign for Quality Schools, but make no mistake. The wealthy special interests behind it don’t care about quality schools – they care about quality profits for their investors.

PACs are political committees organized for the purpose of raising and spending money to elect and defeat candidates. Unlike federal PACS which can only give up to $5,000 to a candidate per election, state PACs in Pennsylvania have no spending limits. In that way, they are like federal Super PACs which also have no limits on donation size.

Besides giving an unfair advantage to special interest groups, PACS also have notoriously been used for nefarious ends. For instance, former Republican U.S. Rep. John Doolittle’s leadership PAC paid 15% to a firm that only employed his wife. One Leadership PAC purchased $2,139 in gifts from the Bose Corporation. Former Republican U.S. Rep. Richard Pombo used his leadership PAC to pay almost $23,000 in hotel bills and buy $320 in baseball tickets for donors.

And now we’ve got one in Pittsburgh with its sights on city schools.

The moneyed interests behind it want to swipe control of even more Pittsburgh schools away from the community and give them to for-profit companies in the shape of charter schools. Since charter school boards are appointed, not democratically elected, this means the decisions about how these newly charterized schools operate would be made behind closed doors out of public view. The community would have no way to hold them accountable. Likewise, this means operators could spend taxpayer money however they want with little to no oversight. They would have nearly unlimited power to reduce student services and pocket the savings as profit.

THAT’S what they mean by “Quality” schools.

The PAC is run by the usual suspects of Pittsburgh corporate school reformers.

In 2015, four of the nine Pittsburgh School Director seats were up for grabs and voters sided in all cases against candidates running on a standardization and privatization platform. One of these losers is Kirk Burkley. He lost against Lynda Wrenn for school board and now is listed as chairman of the political action committee.

Though Burkley well outspent Wrenn, voters made it clear they didn’t want the lawyer specializing in bankruptcy, restructuring and creditors rights anywhere near our public schools. He only got 19% of the vote. Apparently Pittsburghers want candidates who support well-resourced community schools, positive discipline policies with supports, etc. But a host of wealthy investors behind this PAC must feel otherwise. They know better than you and me.

The PAC’s treasurer is Cate Reed, our own Teach for America (TFA) recruiter. Perhaps she took it personally when the newly elected school board overturned a decision by its predecessors to contract with TFA for three-years and pay $750,000. This is one of the few times – if not the only time –this has happened across the nation. Reed is also a Broad Center residency recipient. Established by billionaire Eli Broad, the Broad Center runs an unaccredited training program for school leaders, where candidates learn Broad’s philosophy of school management. Broad has no education experience. He is a self-proclaimed expert, a businessman who made his billions in home-building, mortgage lending, and insurance (AIG).

On the Broad alumni page, Reed speaks about making sure every child has an opportunity to succeed, especially students of color in low income communities.

“The Broad Residency affords me the opportunity to be a part of the change I wish to see—and to use my skills to pursue my wildest dream of educational equity,” she says.

The problem she identifies is real. However, her solution is ludicrous. You don’t provide better opportunities for poor black children by making the leaders of their schools unaccountable to the public. You don’t help poor black kids by removing qualified teachers from their classrooms and replacing them with lightly trained Teach for America recruits. You don’t help poor black kids by giving them an endless series of culturally and economically biased standardized tests and ignoring the fact that they receive substantially less resources than their richer, whiter peers.

Leigh Halvorson, one of the managers of the Heinz Endowment, gave the PAC a boost soliciting donations. She sent an email in early March asking for money. I’ll post the entire email below, but here is Halverson’s description of the PAC:

“I am proud to be part of a group that is launching Campaign for Quality Schools-Pittsburgh, a bi-partisan Political Action Committee that is committed to supporting candidates of any political party who (1) believe that all children, regardless of their background can succeed; (2) embrace policies that hasten the growth of high-performing schools that serve all children; and (3) have the courage to challenge the status quo and tackle this problem with fierce urgency and determination.”

In other words, she’s looking for folks willing to (1) pay lip service to helping kids while actively working to hurt them, (2) will work to privatize more Pittsburgh schools and (3) are willing to run for office counter to the emphatic will of Pittsburgh voters who soundly rejected the corporate school reform agenda in the last election.

Halvorson continued:

“Our kick-off event on March 2nd at 5:30 pm, at the home of Cate Reed and Doug Anderson, will feature State Representative Jake Wheatley, from District 19 here in Pittsburgh who embodies these principles.”

Wheatley, a Democrat, has been a longtime supporter of charter schools and an enemy of public school teachers. He is one of only two Democrats to vote a bill out of the House Education Committee that was meant to eliminate due process for teachers. The bill has been languishing in the legislature, but if approved, it would allow teachers to be fired for almost any reason. It would eliminate the provision that teachers cannot be furloughed for “economic reasons.” (NOTE: it could come up for a vote any day now.)

Wheatley also teamed up with Republican House Speaker Mike Turzai to hold a roundtable discussion praising charter schools and the need to increase them in the city. He joined Turzai again in January for a school choice rally in Harrisburg.

Halvorson closed her email like this:

“If you are unable to attend, but would like to donate, please see the attached invite for instructions how you can do that.”

The invite asked for donations of between $50 and $250 per person.

Reed and Halvorson are both on the board of A+ Schools – Pittsburgh Community Alliance for Public Education. The organization serves an advisory position to help improve city schools. Though the organization includes people on both sides of the standardization and privatization movement, it has been co-opted in recent years by a $1 million grant from the Gates Foundation given between 2011 and 2013. Since the grant, the organization went from issuing an annual “Report to the Community” on the state of city schools to pushing for corporate education reform measures such as doing away with teacher seniority. Many disillusioned volunteers now consider it to be a paid proxy for Gates to make it appear his pet projects are supported by communities.

Like most urban districts, Pittsburgh Public Schools is struggling because of lack of resources. If you live in a poor neighborhood, your school gets less money from local taxes to help kids learn. Moreover, the district has lost almost $1 billion annually in state funding for the last five years. Living in poverty increases the need for wraparound social services, tutoring, nutrition and counseling that isn’t present for more affluent kids. But there’s no money to help them, and it’s hard for students to concentrate on school when they’re experiencing food insecurity and post traumatic stress. Likewise, state and federal education policies are giving an increasing portion of our shrinking funding to charter schools while forcing the traditional public schools to give new and more difficult standardized tests and enact unproven and developmentally inappropriate academic standards. If these corporate education reformers actually wanted to improve Pittsburgh schools, they’d focus on the real problems – not make wild attempts to grab more money for charter schools, deprofessionalize our kids’ teachers and grab power for themselves.

It’s unclear how many people showed up to the PACs kickoff fundraising event and how much money the PAC took in. But one thing is certain – consider yourself on notice, Pittsburgh.

After being defeated for school board and after the board rejected Teach for America, the corporate education reformers are preparing to strike back.

They are gathering people and resources to take the five school board seats up for re-election in 2017.

Will we let them steamroll over us with their big money and political connections or will we continue to fight for reforms that actually help our children?

It’s up to you, n’at.


Halverson’s email:

Dear friends,

The single most important civil rights issue facing our country is the disparity in our education system. We have far too many children who are trapped in persistently failing schools, Here in Pittsburgh alone, 23 of the 52 PPS schools are performing in the bottom 15% in the state. It is unacceptable. We know we can do better because we’ve seen it — transformative school exists that are proving that poverty is not destiny- and we need more of them, right here in Pittsburgh. I am proud to be part of a group that is launching Campaign for Quality Schools-Pittsburgh, a bi-partisan Political Action Committee that is committed to supporting candidates of any political party who (1) believe that all children, regardless of their background can succeed; (2) embrace policies that hasten the growth of high-performing schools that serve all children; and (3) have the courage to challenge the status quo and tackle this problem with fierce urgency and determination. Our kick-off event on March 2nd at 5:30pm, at the home of Cate Reed and Doug Anderson, will feature State Representative Jake Wheatley, from District 19 here in Pittsburgh who embodies these principles. I know for some of you, political contributions or political action is unfamiliar, so if you have questions or just want to talk further about why we believe groups like this can make a real impact on the future of our city and on behalf of our little people, don’t hesitate to reach out. My cell phone is 503.320.2384. I hope you can join us in supporting policymakers that put students and families first. Please see the attached invitation for more details and drop Cate or I a quick email if you can attend. If you are unable to attend, but would like to donate, please see the attached invite for instructions how you can do that. If you know people that should be invited to this event, please share their emails with us ASAP. Any questions can be directed to campaignqualityschoolspgh@gmail.com. I hope to see you on March 2nd.

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