Thursday, May 10, 2007

How You Can Improve the Future of the Region Next Week

Next Tuesday, May 15, is primary election day.

In terms of the future of the region, the most important candidates on the ballot are getting very little attention in the media.

They're the people who are running for school board.

Presidents run for office talking about what they will do about education and taxes.
Governors run for office talking about what they will do about education and taxes.
Legislators run for office talking about what they will do about education and taxes.

But there is only one set of elected officials who really determines what happens in education, and that's your local school board. And they also determine how high the majority of your local taxes are.

The more than 1,100 school board members that govern the 126 school districts in the Pittsburgh Region spend $3.8 billion of state and local tax dollars each year to educate over 352,000 children.

Half of those school board seats are up for election this year. Believe it or not, there are almost 900 people running for election as a school director throughout the 10-county region.

But if this year is like most years, only a small minority of voters will even bother to go to the polls to influence the critical decision about who will lead their schools, determine the future of their children, and set local tax policy.

Why should you bother yourself to vote for school board members? Because the children that those school board members are responsible for educating represent the future of our region. And unfortunately, our schools are failing to educate those children.

Currently, over 40% of the region’s 11th graders are not proficient in math, and nearly 30% of them are not proficient in reading.

If you think your school district doesn’t have a problem, you’re wrong. Not a single one of the 126 school districts in the region has 90% or more of its eleventh graders proficient in math. Only 5 have 90% or more proficient in reading.

It's not just high school students. Not a single one of the 126 school districts in the region has 90% or more of its fifth graders proficient in reading. Only 19 have 80% or more proficient in reading. In 41 districts – 1 out of every 3 – fewer than 60% of the fifth-graders can read properly.

What business could survive if a third of its products were defective? How can our region thrive if a third or more of our children aren’t proficient in basic skills?

Schools would like you to believe that 70% or 80% proficiency is the best they can do without more money, particularly if they have a lot of low-income children. But some of our elementary schools are proving that 100% proficiency is possible. If you think they’re in Fox Chapel, Mt. Lebanon, or Upper St. Clair, you’re wrong. They’re in Greensburg, Kiski, Slippery Rock, and Uniontown. Schools there are achieving 100% proficiency for fifth graders in reading and/or math, despite the fact that over 1/4 of their kids are from low-income families. And they do it spending less than the regional average. If they can do it, other schools can too.

But to get there, the leadership of the schools -- the elected school boards -- need to set a goal of 100% proficiency and make a commitment to achieve that goal.

Most school districts in the Pittsburgh Region don't have explicit goals for student proficiency. Go to any school district's website and see if you can find any goals at all. If they have a search feature, search on "goal" and see if you find anything. If you find goals, see if any of them actually commit to achieving specific proficiency levels for the children. In some districts, you will be able to find a "Strategic Plan" on their website. Every district is required by state law to have one. But if you can actually find the plan for a particular district, you will likely find that it has no clear goals and no clear strategy. It's much easier to claim success if you have no goals to be measured against.

So if you want to improve the future of the region, here's what you can do between now and next Tuesday:

1. Find out how the children in the school district where you live are doing in terms of proficiency in basic skills. You can find out how 5th graders in your district are doing compared to other districts at

2. If you don't know, find out who the school board members are for your school district on the website for that school district. (While you're on the school district's website, see if you can find any information as to how well all of the kids are doing in terms of proficiency, and see if you can find any statement about goals or plans for achieving them. If the school district says it's meeting Adequate Yearly Progress standards under No Child Left Behind, don't be impressed -- only 54% of the kids need to be proficient for that, which is hardly something to be proud of...)

3. Find out who's running for school board in your district. You can find a list that the League of Women Voters and Allegheny Conference have compiled at (You'll note that most of the candidates didn't even bother to respond to a questionnaire they were sent asking their position about education issues.)

4. Contact the people who are running for school board and ask them two simple questions:
(1) Are you committed to achieving 100% proficiency for all of the children in the district?
(2) What is your plan for achieving that goal?

5. Then go to the polls and vote for the people who say yes to #1 and whose answer to #2 doesn't include "spend more money."


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