Thursday, September 13, 2012

Schools Failing, Debate About Schools a Pompous Mess

A large urban school district, in the full swing of a major rebuilding effort, suffers a tremendous setback just prior to triple-digit layoffs of teachers.

In a year of disappointing results on state math and reading tests, most schools in Pittsburgh Public Schools saw their scores drop in reading, math or both, with six experiencing double-digit dips in the percentage of students proficient or advanced on both tests. (P-G, Eleanor Chute)

Whether something particularly awful was going on in our District alone, or in many urban districts, or more generally statewide will not be known until statewide reports are released.

Days later, elsewhere in the P-G, a rant appears chock full of outrageous-sounding anecdotes and character attacks, casting all who believe something real must be done to instill a culture of urgency and efficiency in America's public schools as enemy saboteurs trying to destroy public education and workers' rights.

It's back-to-school time! Time for the editorialists and the Tea Party, the GOP and Barack Obama's Education Secretary Arne Duncan to rip into the people who dare teach in public schools. And in Arne's old stomping grounds, Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is stomping on the teachers, pushing them into the street.

Let's stop kidding ourselves. This is what Mitt Romney and Barack Obama and Arne Duncan and Paul Ryan have in mind when they promote charter schools and the right to fire teachers with tenure: Slash teachers' salaries and bust their unions. (P-G, Greg Palast)

Teachers unions are about to solidarity public education out of existence.

The crux of the last-ditch argument to save public education from itself, when political rhetoric eases up and allows anybody to think dispassionately, tends to return back to the legitimacy of using standardized test scores -- which are already used to determine school funding, student advancement, and in some cases teacher merit pay -- to evaluate and identify teachers that are doing great and teachers that are being less productive than others for their students.

A Harvard / Columbia study seems to demonstrate that if you have enough data and control for enough variables (this is very important) the evidence is clear and striking -- that great teachers can not only be identified regardless of who it is they teach, but their influence can be relied upon to make their students wealthier and more successful for years and years.

But wait, not so fast, say critiques of that study and the others which are starting to circulate. And the truth is, no study or counter-study says exactly or only what the person waving it in your face insists it says.

The result is what Tunch Ilkin calls "paralysis by analysis," and then a reversion to comfortable political talking points.

In the end, although urban public schools were doing poorly already and apparently on the way toward doing even worse before payrolls were slashed, the solutions to the problem offered by the public labor sector has been to restore cuts and increase budgets.

Of course that also invites counter-arguments:

The money missing from the education budget was federal stimulus money. Over a two year period the prior administration actually cut the state's share of funds in Basic Ed and backfilled and then topped it off with the stimulus money. School districts ended up paying salaries and benefits with this money as if it would be there the next year. Instead, we had a $4.2 billion deficit to fill. Corbett restored the state share to Basic Ed to pre-stimulus levels and this year he added more. (Dennis Roddey, Special Asssitant to Gov. Corbett, timely correspondence on a related matter)

Now, the way to increase education spending regardless of where it truly started would be as simple as raising taxes on corporations, capital gains and high wage earners so that everybody is paying their "fair share". Politically and practically speaking however, taxes may go up and taxes may go down, but only a little. We may in fact be on the low side of that pendulum presently, but one can not rationally expect that in a few years, American public opinion is on the brink of undergoing a drastic sea-change, leading to gouging millionaires and profitable companies like perhaps we should.

Meanwhile, students will suffer, attaining an education abysmally out-of-step with those in most other developed nations. And we shall all get to proudly wave our banners stating who is truly to blame. My hunch is that the subset of people who actually desire to eliminate public education through indiscriminate use of vouchers, charters and budget cuts eventually will be successful -- with the help of a general public frustrated by the failure any public school reform efforts to gain any traction. But Labor will still get to blame conservative saboteurs for tricking a hapless public ignorantly fascinated with "teacher accountability", so who really loses?

Aside from students, teachers, parents, the poor, the Country, and everybody whose first concern is not the ideological Cold War.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Darlene Harris "Advertising Justice" Bill...

... is an outrage. The City should be demanding at least 20%. Netting only $4 million would be a largely symbolic drop in the City's nightmarish operating, capital needs and human resources budgeting -- in exchange for all the roads we maintain, plow and police right through Billboard Country. Unlike the Festival of Lights, it's a year-round and citywide display.

How did they arrive at the figure 10% anyway? The establishment Democrats on Pittsburgh City Council are once again being way too business-friendly.

Stan Geier, vice president and general manager of Lamar’s Pittsburgh office, said in an email that the proposal is “unconstitutional.”

“Outdoor advertising is a speech protected by the First Amendment, and a special tax levied on any one industry engaging in First Amendment activities is unconstitutional,” he said. (Trib, Bob Bauder; h/t Blogh)

Advertising is speech. Renting out your privilege of speaking with a privately owned billboard is commerce.

Every time you sue us, Lamar, those courtrooms you drag us into -- you didn't build that! Somebody else built that for you.

Image: GoM Oil Spill Blog.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Fracking Good Time

Pittsburgh's ban on natural gas drilling or "hydro-fracking" goes way too far, according to recommendations from a State commission as part of an advisory opinion requested by the city's Legal Department. (P-G, Olson & Smydo)

Meanwhile at a Consumer Energy Alliance Energy & Manufacturing summit held on the South Side, a frustrated Mayor Ravenstahl encourages residents and stakeholders to ask that City Council lift the City ban. (PBT, Anya Litvak)

And for those who failed to notice, deep within this post your true progressive Pittsburgh Comet came out in favor of gas drilling on public County lands.

Police Chief Nate Harper, in Homewood.

Yesterday, at the Homewood-Brushton YMCA, on the invitation of the Alliance for Police Accountability and others.

Credit to Nunyaman

Monday, September 10, 2012

Required Reading: Finances, Pensions, Work

Read these three articles. Let us begin...

Carrying just a 1% cushion is just awful. Awful! Know that.

All credible experts say governments should carry at least 4-5% for [finger quotes] "just in case." Meteor strikes and more routine bad news. Flooding. Unexpected company.

Borrowing interest rates are at historic lows, so Rich Fitzgerald's idea to float a bond is by no means ludicrous. Yet it is so much more pleasant going into debt when we can imagine returns on investments in specific programs or infrastructure -- debt simply to fill the cash box seems unfortunate. Especially if there is a structural deficit at work, and we are just going to have to go to the well once again in a couple years.

Enter new Republican County Council member at-large Heather Heidelbaugh:

"I am in favor of an entire package that would look at raising revenues in ways we haven't considered in 15 years and then rolling back the millage," she said.

The county needed an additional $12 million to $14 million to close its budget gap, and it might be able to find some of that revenue in revised fee schedules, she said. "It is responsible to look at how much an individual user of government services is paying for a service and whether that covers the actual cost [of providing it]," she said.

"We also might be able to raise some revenue in a capitalistic way in the medical examiner's office," she said. (ibid)

Heidelbaugh is talking in a way that I like to hear. Keeping the scornful rhetoric in check. Strumming her partisan ideology like a steady bass guitar, not wailing on it solo like some kind of double-necked synth.

If county Democrats can begin working with some credible Republican governing partners, that can only help move things along.

Also, a note on gas drilling on County land for County profit: This Region Be Fracking. There is no ignoring that. If we can identify and vet an Allegheny County site and get involved in pursuing a pilot project, the public oversight employed might turn the whole thing into an excellent laboratory experiment. That is, in addition to the revenue, which, once again, we seem to require in an awful way.

Oh, but one last thing [Columbo impersonation] take note that we recently discovered that back when we raised the sales tax by 1%, we didn't break the County by any means.


It's nice to have a rock star institution in the heart of the city, and the Mark Nordenberg needs to be congratulated for that.

“The universities taking property off the tax rolls has always been an issue,” said Frank Gamrat, a senior research associate with the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy in Castle Shannon. “But there are a lot of positives to having them there. They bring people into the city to work. Those people contribute to the city indirectly, through wage taxes and supporting other businesses. (ibid)

I don't see why we must have so much trouble conceiving of both. Appreciate and cultivate the wages, revenue and activity the University provides, while understanding that property tax exemptions present serious issues of imbalance. It was not this hard to build out a sewer system, for example, back when steel and coal were the driving forces.

Public officials need to continue working on divining appropriate instruments by which we might glean for the public only appropriate shares of our Non-For-Profits' impressively deft wealth aggregation practices. Even if those solutions are narrowly tailored by case or category.

In 2008, [Nordenberg] agreed to chair a 13-member committee assembled by Ravenstahl and then-Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato to study the pros and cons of consolidating city and county governments.

Though the group worked for 17 months, little came of its report recommending “functional cooperation,” Nordenberg acknowledged.

“There clearly was resistance,” Nordenberg said. “It has not gone far at all, and so you could say that perhaps it has become yet another of those reports that is gathering dust on shelves.” (ibid)

That old thing (pdf). To think this was once exciting. The idea was to obliterate just one government out of over a hundred (the City of Pittsburgh) and turn it into an "Urban Services District" of the County. Practicalities and functional consolidations and cooperations were missing from the focus, and the ambient disengagement turned the much-anticipated final product into a poison pill. There is so much refreshing frankness in this interview with Nordy -- the up-side of a puff piece.

Oh, and one more thing ... and this just popped into my inbox yesterday ... the affordability of college education? Word is out on the street, it doesn't add up for most people. Soon it will be trendy to say, "college is a rip off".


I had seen the characterization of this as "crazy", but not the defense of it as "absolutely false." That debate is rather important.

We must needs use Michael Lamb's sortie here, and the fundamental pension-management issues surrounding it, as a springboard to begin considering these Lamb / Peduto / Ravenstahl determinations facing Pittsburgh soon. And in a very capitalistic way. Pittsburgh deserves clarity as to its options as early as workable, so it can make real and conscious choices when those times come. This major project however will have to wait until next week. And unfortunately for Our Controller we can't simply rely on financial numbers and transparency practices... there are neighborhood development issues, infrastructure issues, personality issues, boy this will take the whole solid week of the 17th.