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Pittsburgh Schools Cannot Afford Backward Steps

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OBAMA JOBS
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The shortsightedness of those in Harrisburg and on Capitol Hill have put Pittsburgh teachers at great risk. Earlier this month, Gov. Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania put forth an education reform plan that is uninspiring, has misguided priorities, and will push the communities of the Keystone State like ours into long-term economic paralysis. On October 20, the U.S. Senate blocked a key component of President Obama's American Jobs Act intended to stem the tide of teacher layoffs -- which had the potential to keep many of our district's educators in their classrooms. Our teachers need visionary leadership in this troubled fiscal environment and it is unacceptable that the Governor and these Senators have demurred in the face of adversity.

The hallmarks of the Governor's proposal will be devastating for our students and their educators -- 3,500 of which I represent as President of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers (PFT). I agree with the Governor that we need to reform our school system's education efforts. However, that is where our common ground ends. The PFT's approach -- which has shown to be effective and is already achieving positive outcomes that our children deserve -- is built on collaboration and bringing education professionals together to help design that reform. Gov. Corbett's proposals do not take into account the very people who have devoted themselves to improve the lives of the children, families, and the greater community they serve -- teachers.

The PFT has worked collaboratively with the Pittsburgh Public School District to make important strides toward reforming our education system. Even though the city and state continue to face economic challenges that threaten our budget, we will not stop taking the steps needed to create the most conducive teaching environment so that our children can achieve their greatest potential. We brought in teachers to discuss how together we can provide the tools needed to improve teacher effectiveness. We developed a district-wide-adopted evaluation system with the input of those serving daily in the classrooms. And when faced with the prospect of having our novel program, known as the Teacher Academy, cut, we restructured it to meet the financial constraints facing the district while still preserving the core intent of the program.

Corbett's plan is full of the usual buzzwords around education reform: vouchers, charter schools and teacher evaluations. The flaw is in believing that those simple words translate into effective solutions. They will not provide our students or our teachers with what they need to achieve excellence in the classroom and for an improvement for their future prospects. Diverting resources away from struggling schools to provide vouchers does little to help underserved communities and has in fact proven to increase the gap between students from higher-income households and lower-income households. A charter school system administered from Harrisburg does not take into account what districts can do for themselves -- we understand the infrastructure needs and life circumstances of our communities better than anyone. We should have the power to create and execute our own solutions without intervention from a higher authority. This is what we accomplished when we developed our own meaningful teacher evaluation system.

The president's proposal to put more people back to work included provisions for teachers who were laid off due state budget cuts -- a situation we deal with daily in Pittsburgh. Specifically -- and according to the White House fact sheet -- he wants to invest $1.16 billion in funds to Pennsylvania to support up to 14,400 educator jobs. We certainly welcome that support.

In September, U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan made Pittsburgh the first stop on his back-to-school bus tour, labeled "Education and the Economy." We were chosen because the Secretary and the Obama administration wanted to highlight Pittsburgh's success in labor-management collaboration and how that model has been effective in creating the best outcomes so that teachers can teach and students can learn. We have proven that working together and ridding ourselves of the old, adversarial way of doing business yields positive results.

There is no wiser investment to be made than in our teachers, schools, and the children they serve. While we are not waiting for Harrisburg or Washington to provide us with answers -- we have come up with solutions that work best for our community -- we can surely use all the help we can get. The president's emphasis in his jobs bill for revitalizing and investing in America's education is a great first step. Gov. Corbett's proposal is a step in the wrong direction.

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