The emergence of the Black Women for a Better Education political action committee in 2021 has changed the political dynamic shaping Pittsburgh Pittsburgh Schools. The group endorsed three school board candidates who went on to win and one of those board members, Sala Udin, was elected board president. The PAC was the most outspoken critic of former superintendent Anthony Hamlet, who resigned after the release of an ethics investigation last year.

The PAC joins three other groups in actively driving agendas in the state’s second largest urban school district: The Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, A+ Schools and OnePA’s Education Rights Network. Each of the nine current district board members was endorsed by at least one of the four groups.

As Pittsburgh Public Schools [PPS] prepares to make some of the toughest decisions it’s had to make in more than a decade about staffing and school closures, these four groups are likely to have outsized influence.

Although the groups share more in common than they sometimes admit, they also have profound differences about what education should look like in the city. Some believe the district has the resources it needs but would like to radically transform how they’re being managed, while others are advocating to add more resources overall to create change. Most of the groups have vowed to work with each other but that would require setting aside their differences to come to a collective vision for the district.

A+ and Black Women

Although none of the groups are completely aligned, there are clear factions. A+ Schools and Black Women for a Better Education [BWBE] both invoke the need for a radical transformation of the district’s status quo. James Fogarty, the director of A+, said the current split between magnet schools and neighborhood schools has created a two-tiered system of education, where some schools’ populations are nearly all Black and brown students. He wants the district to do more to spread economic privilege around and spend more district resources on the students with the most need. 

But the two groups are structured differently. A+ Schools does advocacy work on issues to try to influence the administration and board, but not political advocacy. “We’re trying to be an informer of a great school board but not a creator of it,” Fogarty said. BWBE has primarily done political advocacy so far, although it recently held several information workshops. 

Both groups take an open-minded approach to charter schools, pointing out that some charter schools are doing better than district schools and others are doing worse. BWBE believes parents should have the right to choose what school is best for their own children and doesn’t think Black parents should have to continue to shoulder the burden of a district that isn’t working for many.

LaTrenda Sherrill, one of BWBE’s leaders, said the group is trying be open-minded rather than ideological. “Much of the politics in the region is guided by super black-and-white thinking. Either you’re for charter schools or for traditional public schools; either you support teachers or you don’t,” she said. “And we have so many young people that live in the gray.”

Several members of the Black Women for a Better Education group pose for a portrait. (Photo courtesy of LaTrenda Shirrell)

A+ Schools spends between $800,000 and $1 million per year, according to its most recent tax filing, and has seven staff members. BWBE, on the other hand, doesn’t yet have a full-time staff member and is largely sustained by donations from about 30 of its members that have not yet totaled $100,000, according to its most recent public disclosures.  

Both groups have been criticized by OnePA, a social justice advocacy group, for relying on foundations that support charter schools. But Fogarty said the large foundation community in Pittsburgh should be considered an asset, not denigrated. 

Tracey Reed, both a PPS board member and BWBE member who works for the Grable Foundation, said the focus on ties to local foundations is typical but unjustified.  “You can look in the news and see when Black women get together for whatever reason, especially in education, then the question always becomes: Who is supporting them?” she said. “Like we can’t support ourselves or have ideas that can stand on our own.”

Both groups say the district has the resources now to be able to turn itself around if it spends more wisely. They note that the district has one of the highest per-pupil funding levels in the state.

“We are not a poor district. We are a district that has mismanaged the funds,” Sherrill said. “Let’s stop believing the hype that we can’t do what’s right for Black children.”

OnePA and the teachers union

OnePA’s vision for the district, by contrast, is to invest in neighborhood schools and provide wraparound services, like health clinics and dentists, which would help meet students’ basic needs and allow them to focus on their classes. Rather than a dramatic reimagining of the district, they think the district needs more resources to offset the challenges students in poverty face.

James Fogarty, executive director of the A+ Schools advocacy group at the organization’s annual report press conference. (Photo by Mary Niederberger/PublicSource)

OnePA has also focused on trying to change the district’s approach to discipline and special education. The group successfully lobbied to eliminate suspensions of students in grades K -2 and hopes to incrementally add more grades, although an attempt to expand the suspension ban to grades 3 to 5 failed last year

OnePA takes a hard line against charter schools — although some of the group’s parents do enroll their children in charter schools. The group’s leaders argue that there should be a moratorium on additional charter schools until the state funding formula is changed, so charter school enrollment doesn’t come at the expense of local district budgets. Its leaders say that charter schools, which are publicly funded but run by private boards, are not as democratic as districts with elected school board members.

OnePA spent about $2.2 million in 2019, according to its most recent publicly available nonprofit tax records. But the group’s education work is only one of several campaigns. In Pittsburgh, OnePA has two staff members now devoted to education advocacy, including former PPS board member Moira Kaleida. 

“Black neighborhoods faced the brunt of school closures last time. I think they are off limits.

James Fogarty, executive director of A+ Schools

The group’s funding largely comes from national sources, said Angel Gober, OnePA’s Pittsburgh director.

“I would never ever take money from a foundation that is pro-charter. Never never never, not one dollar. I would never take money from a union, so they can’t control us,” she said. “We don’t get any local money.”

OnePA emphasizes problems with the charter school funding formula and a lack of resources to address the growing demands to serve special education students. Kaleida has criticized A+ Schools’ goal of redistributing resources between schools, saying it undermines the union contract that spells out where teachers are placed. 

“The answer isn’t attacking teachers, the answer is adequate funding from the state/feds and charter reform,” Kaleida wrote in a tweet last week. 

Fogarty disagrees with this premise. “The reality is the current system is inequitable. If you add more money, you are just going to create greater divergence of inequity,” he said. “If I put $1 million more into a system that already gives $2,000 more to students at CAPA than at Perry, I’m just going to exacerbate the inequity.”

Nina Esposito-Visgitis, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, sits for a portrait in her office at the organization’s headquarters on the South Side. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)

The Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers [PFT] has endorsed many of the same school board candidates as OnePA. For example, both endorsed board member Jamie Piotroski in 2021. The PFT also takes a hard line against charter schools.

“I am so anti-charter,” said Nina Esposito-Visgitis, the PFT president. “But some parents have a different view of them, like they’re safer.””

The PFT has the most resources of any of the four local education groups, spending around $2.6 million per year, according to its most recent tax filing. Not surprisingly, the PFT continues to emphasize the need for substantial resources to attract the best teachers. 

“They say I’m trying to get every penny,” Esposito-Visgitis said, “Yeah, I am. We have a lovely contract.” 

The PFT has also clashed on some issues with OnePA, most notably on whether the district’s police officers should be allowed to carry weapons in the schools. 

Esposito-Visgitis said she has worked with A+ on areas where they agree but declined to comment when asked about her opinion of BWBE. The new PAC has publicly criticized the union, accusing it of prioritizing salaries over students and for pushing a contract that is inflexible to reform.

But Esposito-Visgitis said she thinks the union contract provides sufficient options for restructuring schools and encouraged critics to read the contract more closely.

School closures

One of the most volatile issues that could come before the school board this year is whether to close schools and, if so, which schools to close. The four groups are already staking out positions.

A t-shirt hangs at the offices of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers on the South Side. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)

Last year, Hamlet proposed closing seven schools. The plan was quickly defeated after it was criticized for being rushed without community input. 

But as the district looks to cut its growing budget deficit, school closures could come up again. District officials have said they are using federal COVID relief money to try to be more strategic and careful about what layoffs or school closures they propose this time around.

Esposito-Visgitis said if the district is going to close schools, it should prioritize increasing the size of schools to support its teachers. “I know there needs to be some consolidation because some of our schools have gotten so small,” she said.

Both OnePA and A+ Schools agree on a proposed red line for school closures in Pittsburgh: no closures in predominantly Black communities.

“They better not close one Black school in one Black community. I’m telling you that right now,” said Gober. “They can close white schools in their neighborhoods.”

Community members and educators still cite the negative impact of moving the CAPA 6-12 magnet school out of Homewood and into downtown in 2003. And Esposito-Visgitis said she still hears complaints from community members about when PPS left the Hazelwood community without its own school in 2001, which some believe cleared the way for Propel to open a charter school in the neighborhood in 2013.

“Black neighborhoods faced the brunt of school closures last time. I think they are off limits,” Fogarty said. “You really have to give those neighborhoods and schools that need investment additional supports.”

Sala Udin, School Board Representative for Pittsburgh Public Schools poses in front of Miller Elementary School in the Hill District. (Photo by Kaycee Orwig/Pittsburgh City Paper)

The union is tired of hearing delays from the school district and wants to know soon which schools will close and how many furloughs there will be, so it can prepare its members.

Leaders of BWBE have said the district continues to spend more money on educating fewer students, without improving its results. To turn itself around while also spending less money on schools and staff, they say the district needs to rethink its approach.

“The best hope for stemming this decline,” according to the group, “is to create compelling, high-quality options that help attract families to the city.”

Correction: The district’s police were erroneously characterized in an earlier version of this story.

Oliver Morrison was PublicSource’s K-12 education reporter. He can be reached at morrison.oliver@gmail.com or on Twitter @ORMorrison.

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Oliver reports on K-12 education for PublicSource. Before becoming a journalist, Oliver taught English and drama in the Arkansas Delta for seven years. He has previously written education features in New...