Win, Place, or Show?

In its May 19th presentation "Building a Sustainable District" the Pittsburgh Public Schools laid out its fiscal challenges for the coming year. What was bad (close to a $9 million deficit in 2011) is projected to grow worse ($24 million deficit) as a result of the state budget. The 2012 budget does not look any rosier.

So why-when one looks at the page that lists various PA districts, average daily membership, the percentage getting free or reduced lunches, and the cost per pupil-did the presentation say "PPS is in a better place than others?"

Pittsburgh’s cost per pupil topped the fifteen district list at $19,634. The closest was Harrisburg at $17,674; Philadelphia was $12,449; the lowest was Reading at $10,720. So were they referring to Pittsburgh being in a better place because it spends the most per pupil?

Or were they referring to the percentage of students that qualify for free/reduced price lunch? Pittsburgh was 66%, not as high as Harrisburg (89%), Reading (87%), or York (81%) but certainly higher than the local districts of Penn Hills (44%) and Woodland Hills (59%) and a few others around the state.

Could it have been enrollment? Pittsburgh is the second largest district in the state, but its enrollment is about seven times smaller than the biggest district (Philadelphia) and has been falling, thus prompting the calls earlier this week (discussed in Monday’s blog) for more school closures.

So again, how is PPS in a better place than others?

Pittsburgh’s School Buildings to Go Under the Microscope

The Pittsburgh Public Schools has seating capacity for 36k students, but it only utilizing 25k of it, roughly 70%. That means another round of school closures, the first since 2006 when the public school count went from 86 in 2005 to 65 in 2006. In the decade from 2000-09, enrollment fell from 38k to 27k (28%) while the number of schools decreased from 96 to 66 (31%).

Seeing this imbalance, the superintendent noted that "every dollar we spend on underutilized bricks and mortar is one less dollar we have available to spend towards improving the life prospects of our students". Note that the District’s per-pupil cost in 2009 was $19,963, up 11% from where it stood in 2006.

The process in 2011 will use data like student achievement, enrollment, facility condition, racial balance, transportation costs, etc. to decide what to shutter and what to keep open.

Here’s how the overall facility inventory for the District looks: In 2000, the District had 100 buildings (96 schools, 2 administration buildings, 1 operations/maintenance building, and 1 food service building) with 9.5 million square feet (about 247 square feet per student). In 2009, the District had 71 buildings (66 schools, 3 administration buildings, 1 operations/maintenance building and 1 food service building) totaling 7.3 million square feet (263 square feet per student). We have noted the growth in administrative employees (non-teachers) so it is no surprise that more space was needed to house them. Whereas the District carried about 129k of square footage for administration during most of the decade; that amount tripled to 390k in 2008.

Newbies Beware!

Two news stories this morning go a long way to illustrating the heavy-handed public sector union attitude on how seniority trumps all when it comes to job cuts and job assignments.

At the Pittsburgh Public Schools budgetary constraints have led the administration to shutter the new teacher academy. In its application for funding to the Gates Foundation the District heralded the academy as a critical factor in its approach to instruction. "We believe that the Academy, with its emphasis on hands-on, applied learning will make a dramatic difference in the way in which we bring new teachers into the system".

While the Pittsburgh teachers’ union stated the decision to close the academy was a decision by the administration, the handwriting on the wall was clear: "…the collective bargaining agreement…would not allow new teachers to work while more senior teachers were furloughed." The proposal made it clear several times throughout that the union would have the final say on contractual matters. That makes the praise heaped upon the District and the union by a think tank quite misplaced.

Now to the meter readers, represented by another union and under a separate collective bargaining agreement with the Public Parking Authority. Even before higher rates and longer hours of enforcement went into effect the moaning and groaning over the right to select shifts began. The accusation leveled by the union is that newer part-time workers are getting daylight shifts and the more senior employees are getting evening hours. The implication is that Authority management is taking factors like absenteeism and ticket counts into their decision-making criteria.

A Roll Call of Local Taxes

"Tax Freedom Day", an illustrative construct created by the Tax Foundation, is the calendar date on which the typical taxpayer has "…earned enough money to pay this year’s tax obligations at the federal, state and local levels". This year it was April 12th nationally; given the variance of income taxes (flat, progressive, or not levied), sales taxes (statewide, local option, or both, and what type of exemptions), corporate taxes, etc. at the state and local levels freedom comes at various points in the 50 states. This year Pennsylvania’s is today (April 14th); not as early as Mississippi (March 26th) but not as late as Connecticut (May 2nd).

How long local residents have to work to pay for local taxes in Allegheny County is a discussion for another day after rigorous data collection. Suffice to say it is quite easy to collect the information on rates and types of taxes for governing bodies in the County. Here is what the three biggest general purpose governments-Allegheny County, the City of Pittsburgh, and the Pittsburgh Public Schools-levy.

  • Allegheny County-Real Estate, Alcohol, Car Rental, Hotel ($300 million in 2011)
  • City of Pittsburgh-Real Estate, Wage, Parking, Payroll Preparation, Local Services, Amusement, and Realty Transfer ($314 million in 2011)
  • Pittsburgh Public Schools-Real Estate, Wage, Realty Transfer ($265 million in 2011)

Both the County and the City (along with all municipalities in Allegheny County) partake in the revenue from the Regional Asset District sales tax (1%). The City is counting on $11 million this year and the County for $40 million. This does not count the funding that goes directly to assets that receive support from the tax or have debt repaid by the tax.

Goodbye Superintendent, Better Luck at Your New Job

In a going away interview the Pittsburgh school superintendent regaled the interviewers with how hard he worked to make a difference. He declared success in improving teacher effectiveness and creating the Promise Scholarship Program. He was more modest in regretting that only modest improvement was achieved in the high schools.

Too bad he did not mention the Promise Program’s failure to keep or attract students as its advocates predicted excitedly it would. Enrollment continues to fall, especially in the high schools. Nor has the Program helped academic progress. Indeed, as we have suggested earlier, there is a very real possibility the Promise Program has reduced incentive of serious students to work hard.

After five years, per students costs have not been reduced despite school closings and fewer teachers employed. Meanwhile, non-teaching administrative jobs have jumped sharply. Moreover, the District has maintained its spending levels without raising tax rates because of a $40 million infusion of state money provided through the Federal stimulus program. The next budget cycle will look a lot different as the Federal money is no longer available. A tax increase is almost inevitable.

So here’s wishing the outgoing superintendent better luck at his new job. Resurrecting a bankrupt college might be a snap compared to making progress in an urban school district.

One wonders if in his heart of hearts he ever thought, "You know. There might be something to this school choice, voucher idea." That could keep a person awake nights for a long time.

Pittsburgh School District Builds “Crown Jewel” School

City school officials are all gaga over the impending $14 million renovation of Northview Accelerated Learning Academy. The Northview Heights elementary school will incorporate a bunch of "green" innovations such as geothermal power and energy efficient lighting. Gushed the school district architect, "When we are done, this will be the premier elementary school in the City."

Unfortunately, there was no discussion about how going green, being so politically correct in construction and spending $14 million will translate into educational performance.

Would it not be much more desirable for the school district to just once hold a press conference and announce that 90 percent of 3rd, 8th, and 11th graders in the City schools had demonstrated grade level proficiency in math and reading?

The true test of the whether the $14 million spent on the school is a good investment will depend on the ability of the school to enhance student performance of the students over time. Otherwise, this crowing about the wonderful "green" school is nothing more than window dressing designed to divert the public’s attention from the enormous amount of money being spent per student and the very poor academic performance in many City schools.

A real crown jewel school has students demonstrating superior academic performance. We must stay focused on the real issues and that is not school architecture or heating systems.

Building a Great Nation without Public Pre-School

It never ceases to amaze how many supposedly intelligent people continually complain about the lack of adequate pre-kindergarten education. Just recently a local physician weighed in with such a pronouncement in an opinion column in the Post-Gazette. What is wrong with the argument? Consider this. How did the U.S. become the world’s foremost economy and military power during a period when very few people went to public pre-school-there weren’t any such schools-and many citizens never went to kindergarten?

Children who are raised in a loving, caring environment where they are encouraged at home to learn as they grow do not need pre-school. It is all well and good if parents want to send their children to private or church run pre-schools but those schools are certainly neither necessary nor sufficient for intellectual or emotional development.

Then too, what we know to be an incontrovertible fact is that the longer kids are in most urban public schools, including Pittsburgh, the worse their academic and intellectual development becomes. They tend to do relatively well in first through third, maybe okay through fifth grade, then their development slows dramatically. If they start out in first grade doing reasonably well with some hope they can move along satisfactorily and then stumble as they get older, obviously it is not the presence or absence of pre-school that is important. It is the failed school system and a lack of parental guidance and discipline that carries over into the schools that creates the problem.

If the good doctor wants to see kids get a better education, then he should support vouchers that would enable students to escape the failed public schools. Whining about the lack of spending on public pre-schools is simply an effort to excuse the school system for its shortcomings by claiming things would be better if pre-schools were funded and required for all three and four year olds. In some places that is known as cynical foolishness.

Pittsburgh Magnet Schools Educate Better

What an unsurprising report finding. Pittsburgh’s magnet schools show higher levels of achievement than non-magnet schools. An easily predicted result.

Can anyone with a modicum of common sense have any doubts as to why this happens? Magnet schools are schools of choice. Parents who care about their children’s education will make sacrifices to get their students into these schools. When parents care about education, children are more likely to place value on learning.

Too bad all schools in the City are not and cannot be magnet schools. But here is another way to offer choice to parents and students. Create a district voucher or scholarship program that will allow Pittsburgh’s parents to opt out of public schools in favor of a private school or home school. Second, allow and facilitate the creation of more charter schools that can serve as magnet schools.

Given the disaster that masquerades as education for far too many of Pittsburgh’s children, why not do something noble such as actually creating change that will improve learning instead of the endless series of dead end efforts to fix what cannot be fixed?

Pittsburgh Promise Tries to Make Up for Broken Prior Promise

There is much rejoicing in the office of the Pittsburgh Promise program as well in the Mayor’s and Superintendent’s office. Several million more dollars have been squeezed from the corporate community to ensure that UPMC’s pledge of $10 million will be forthcoming.

The Promise program was established to provide college scholarships to graduates of the City’s high schools in an effort to stanch the flood of students abandoning the public school system-a bribe by another name. And why is the bribe necessary? Because the school system has been, and continues to be, an almost utter failure in delivering quality education to the majority of its students. So parents are enticed to stay in the City or move into the City in order for their children to get help with college expenses.

But the supreme irony is that the larger and more morally important promise to provide a good education implicit in the district’s very existence has not simply been broken, it has been shattered. Having failed in its moral obligation, the school district and the City have launched an effort to keep kids in the schools. Their first and primary obligation should be to restore a quality education program that achieves good results. When that happens, parents will not have to be bribed to send their children to Pittsburgh’s schools.

After all, the expenditure of over $20,000 per pupil ought to be enough to get the job done. The fact that it isn’t getting done argues for dramatic changes and reforms in the management and oversight of the schools. Some real competition and choice through a voucher program would do wonders for the public schools. They would either get better or disappear. Instead, the Pittsburgh solution is in place: Ignore the real underlying causes of the problems and just throw more money at the them. Money that could be spent on far better things.

Of course all this depends on a corporate and foundation community that is willing to spend money on politically correct things as opposed to things that might actually work-such as a corporate scholarship program to let students choose a school other than the public school.