The Pittsburgh Community is Stronger Than the Synagogue Shooter’s Hate

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There’s a popular yard sign in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

 

In bands of green and blue and yellow, it projects the same message in Spanish, English and Arabic:

 

“No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.”

 

If the community had a motto, I think that might be it.

 

Though known for its high concentration of Jewish residents, the Pennsylvania locale is a multicultural crossroads.

 

That may have made it a target today when a shooter entered the Tree of Life Synagogue.

 

Though the alleged culprit has been captured, details are still being uncovered. The death toll has yet to be tallied.

 

Unconfirmed reports state that he shouted “All Jews must die,” before opening fire.

 

But I don’t believe that the Jewish community was his only target.

 

Or more precisely – it wasn’t just the Jewish part – it was the community that had grown up around it.

 

I know Squirrel Hill well.

 

I live close by. I grew up on those streets. I’ve been to services at that synagogue. I have family who are members.

 

Thankfully it seems that no one related to me was there this morning. But when victims names are released, I probably will know who they are.

 

I know this community.

 

I am an extended part of it.

 

And that’s something of which I am proud.

 

Just walk along Murray Avenue and you’ll see Indian, Italian, Jewish, African, Chinese – every nationality imaginable – offering the fruits of their culture for friendly commerce.

 

You’ll see Hasidic Jews in dark hats and flowing tzitzit walking next to women in colorful saris next to trans and lesbians, kids with every color skin playing together in harmony.

 

Whenever I want a good corned beef sandwich or a quality lox and bagel, I go there. Whenever I want a spicy curry or the freshest sushi or an authentic macaroon, that’s the place. If I want to hear a string quartet or a lecture from a visiting dignitary or even if I want to swim in a public pool, membership to the Jewish Community Center is open to all.

 

It’s like a few blocks of cosmopolitan life tucked away in a city more known for segregation. We have many ethnic neighborhoods but few where one culture flows so easily into another.

 

Heck. Even the Tree of Life Synagogue, itself, doesn’t serve one congregation. It serves three who all had services going on at different parts of the building this morning.

 

There’s just something very special about this place.

 

It’s where you can go to be yourself – in fact, you’re encouraged to be who you are and not conform to any particular norm. Yet in doing so, you’re somehow demonstrating unity.

 

Paradoxically, being you makes you one of us.

 

It’s weird.

 

I think it may have been that sense of community that made Squirrel Hill, in general, and the Tree of Life Synagogue, in particular, a target.

 

The hate-filled person who attacked us today was terrified of that unity.

 

He was so frightened of disillusion, of losing his sense of self, that he had to end the lives of those who could do what he couldn’t.

 

It’s pathetic, really.

 

If your sense of self is only a negative, only opposition to someone else’s otherness, you really don’t have much self to lose.

 

If you define yourself by your hate, what are you?

 

Do you even really exist?

 

Most of us are very different.

 

We are complex assortments of personality – a family identity, a cultural heritage, a work persona, a spirituality, a sense of justice.

 

Communities like Squirrel Hill nurture this multifarious nature.

 

They welcome and celebrate difference.

 

I wish America was more like Squirrel Hill and not the other way around.

 

If this community’s normal was our national ideal, think of the country we would be living in!

 

Being different wouldn’t be an obstacle, it would be cherished.

 

When meeting someone with an unfamiliar name, a heritage of which you were ignorant, a sexuality or gender identity of which you had little knowledge – your response wouldn’t be fear or discomfort. It would be a thrill of excitement that you are lucky enough to broaden your understanding of the many ways there are to be human.

 

It would be a country where no one grew up so stunted and afraid that the only solution they could imagine would be the death of others.

 

That’s the America I want to live in.

 

Squirrel Hill is stronger than this synagogue shooters hate.

 

I hope our country is, too.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Dear Non-Voters, Your Country Needs You

Voting.

 

Four in 10 Americans who were eligible to vote in 2016 didn’t do so.

 

That’s some 92 million U.S. Citizens.

 

These people weren’t purged from the polls.

 

They weren’t barred from voting.

 

They just didn’t bother.

 

So, the way I see it, the responsibility for President Donald Trump rests with you.

 

The United States has a Reality TV Show clown in the oval office.

 

He is a dimwitted narcissist who panders to racists, sexists and xenophobes to stay in power.

 

He is an incurious liar who constantly trolls the media and the public.

 

He is an admirer of dictators and fascists across the globe with no qualms about enriching himself and those like him at the expense of you and me.

 

Everyday he provides aide and comfort to anti-American regimes from Moscow to Riyadh by diminishing our international stature, withdrawing us from treaties and contracts, leaking sensitive information and otherwise pursuing foreign interests over those of American citizens.

 

And that’s before we even begin to examine his colossal impact on human rights – emboldening terrorists and white supremacists while his own administration throws children in cages and forcibly separates them from their families.

 

This is on you, non-voters.

 

You did this.

 

A democratic republic is like any other machine – it only functions properly if all of its parts are working.

 

You can’t have majority rule when 40% of voters shirk their duty.

 

A study by the Pew Research Center found that not only were non-voters likely to be younger, less educated, less affluent, and nonwhite, but 55% of them were Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents.

 

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If more non-voters under the age of 30 had gotten their acts together in just a few swing states, we wouldn’t all be living through this national nightmare.

 

So if you think voting doesn’t make a difference, look around.

 

Look at your bank account for instance.

 

Wonder why your wages continue to stagnate while the rich pocket more and more of the economy?

 

Look at your neighborhood. Wonder why our schools, roads, bridges and other public services are crumbling into disrepair?

 

It’s because you didn’t vote.

 

I’m not saying everything would have been great under President Hillary Clinton. But Trump sets an awfully low bar for competency.

 

 

You think your vote doesn’t matter?

 

Republicans disagree with you.

 

They aren’t working overtime to stop people like you from voting because it makes no difference.

 

Robert Kennedy put it this way:

 

“The most significant civil rights problem is voting. Each citizen’s right to vote is fundamental to all the other rights of citizenship and the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and 1960 make it the responsibility of the Department of Justice to protect that right.”

 

Our courts have given up that responsibility.

 

Since 2013 when the Supreme Court invalidated a key part of the Voting Rights Act, millions of people have been barred from casting a ballot.

 

The federal government used to require nine states with a history of racial discrimination to obtain federal approval before making such changes. Now that they no longer need to do so, between 2014 and 2016 there’s been a 33% increase in voter purges in these states.

 

This isn’t just cleaning the polls of the names of people who’ve died. It’s actively preventing people – especially the poor and people of color – from having their voices heard.

 

In Arkansas, thousands of voters were erroneously flagged in 2016 under the guise of removing people who had been convicted of felonies. In Virginia, voters were wrongly deleted from the rolls in 2013 under the excuse of removing people who allegedly had moved.

 

And this election cycle more than one hundred thousand Georgia voters were removed because they didn’t respond to a mailer or there was a typo on their registration form.

 

To make matters worse, the purge was overseen by Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a Republican candidate for governor. Since most of the people being removed from the polls are people of color, the poor and other Democrats or leaning Democrat voters, the move makes it harder for Democrat Stacey Abrams to challenge him.

 

Kemp and his Republican buddies wouldn’t be going through all this trouble if voting made no difference.

 

“Too many people struggled, suffered, and died to make it possible for every American to exercise their right to vote,” said civil rights icon and U.S. Senator John Lewis.

 

And people have died for the opportunity that millions of people decide not to exercise.

 

People like James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were murdered in 1964 while trying to register black voters in Mississippi. People like Viola Liuzzo, who was murdered a year later by the Ku Klux Klan during the Selma march for voting rights.

 

When you willingly give up an opportunity that was purchased so dear, you disrespect the memories of the dead.

 

President Franklin D. Roosevelt put it like this:

 

“Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except themselves and the only way they could do this is by not voting.”

 

Our country is under attack. Our very freedoms are on the line.

 

Will you be a willing accomplice by standing idly by and allowing these miscreants to defecate all over the flag?

 

Or will you take a stand, do your duty and vote!?

 

 

“Bad politicians are sent to Washington by good people who don’t vote.”

-William E. Simon

 


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Pennsylvania’s Keystone Exam – the Monster We Refuse to Let Die

 

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Let’s say there was a monster loose in Pennsylvania and you caught it.

 

Its days of wandering loose causing chaos and destruction were over.

 

But what would you do with such a beast now?

 

Would you kill it outright? Stop it from ever hurting anyone ever again?

 

Or would you simply neutralize it – place it perhaps in the center of a labyrinth, continue feeding it, and in fact create a whole religion based on worshipping it?

 

In the keystone state, we have just such a creature, and we’re going with the second option – the maze, nourishment and a cult.

 

The monster is, of course, the Keystone Exams. And like the Minotaur of ancient myth, we’re building a bureaucratic prison in which to house it.

 

Sure, we’ve spent billions of dollars on these unnecessary, badly written and biased graduation assessments.

 

And, heck, it would just make more sense to stop doing something that isn’t working, wastes money and causes legitimate problems for students.

 

But this is Pennsylvania! We’re not going to admit we made a mistake. Better to bury it under red tape and pretend like this is what we meant all along. Nothing to see here, folks. Nothing to see…

 

When lawmakers originally came up with this plan… correction: when testing companies bribed federal lawmakers to force state lawmakers to enact this cockamamey plan – it was supposed to function as a graduation requirement.

 

Pass these tests or no diploma for you.

 

However, somehow Harrisburg politicians couldn’t get up the nerve to actually bar tens of thousands of worthy students from graduating when they had already proven they deserved it by passing 12 years of grade school.

 

So after kicking the can down the road for more than 6 years, they came up with this solution. Make it a graduation requirement, but include a whole truckload of other options that could count instead.

 

In short, we’re creating endless corridors of paperwork, placing the tests in the center and going on with our day.

 

The good news: if students can make it through the labyrinth, they never need to take or pass the Keystone Exams!

 

The bad news: we’re still paying millions of dollars to support these tests and we’re still forcing our teachers to make all instruction about them.

 

And that’s what we in the Commonwealth call a “victory.”

 

Yippee!

 

The bill to circumvent the Keystone Exams by providing multiple means of getting a diploma was passed by the state house and senate. Gov. Tom Wolf is expected to sign it into law this week.

 

If he does, students will still be given the Keystone Exams (unless opted out) and could demonstrate they’re worthy of a diploma by passing them. But students will have many additional ways to prove they’re worthy of a cap and gown, such as:

 

  • Show proficiency on the SAT, PSAT or ACT;
  • Pass an Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exam;
  • Complete a dual-enrollment program;
  • Complete an apprenticeship program;
  • Get accepted to an accredited four-year nonprofit institution of higher education;
  • Complete a service-learning project;
  • Secure a letter of full-time employment;
  • Achieve an acceptable score on a WorkKeys assessment, an exam administered by the ACT which assesses workplace skills including math, reading comprehension and applied technology.

 

To sweeten the pot even further, this won’t even go into effect until the 2021-22 school year.

 

So in four years, high school seniors will be racing to submit their letters of college admission, or letters of employment or SAT scores or whatever to prove they actually deserve that diploma.

 

But that will not be the end of it.

 

Just because victims thrown into the labyrinth have an easy path to avoiding the monster doesn’t mean the monster won’t affect them.

 

Teaching evaluations are still based on test scores. Schools evaluations are still based on test scores.

 

This continues the tremendous state pressure for local districts to make instruction all about testing.

 

Kids don’t have to pass the test, but their everyday classroom experiences will still be largely determined by these test.

 

Heck, many districts will probably “voluntarily” decide to make passing the test a graduation requirement just to force their students to take them seriously.

 

So anyone who’s out celebrating that the Keystone Exams are dead is premature.

 

State Sen. Andy Dinniman, at least, understands this.

 

“Remember, the Keystones have been delayed and the graduation requirement associated with them has been stopped, but they will still be required in Pennsylvania schools for federal accountability,” he said in statement.

 

“Meanwhile, we know they are expensive, redundant and unnecessary and I will continue to work to end them once and for all.”

 

Dinniman, a Democrat, is minority chair of the Senate Education Committee.

 

It’s a problem all too typical in the state.

 

Most lawmakers are too timid to take any type of real stand. They’d rather support some half-measure so they can claim to be in favor of either or both sides of an argument.

 

For instance, consider the time it takes to finish the tests.

 

Parents, teachers and students have complained about how these assessments waste academic time that could be better used to teach the necessary skills needed to pass.

 

So Gov. Wolf cut the Keystone Exams and Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) test by a total of almost 2 hours a year.

 

However, at the same time, his administration suggests students take a series of additional pretests that are supposed to predict success on the PSSA or Keystone Exams – tests such as the Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDT) assessment.

 

If schools follow the state’s instructions and give students this exam in reading, math and science 3 to 5 times a year, that’s an additional 50-90 minutes per test. That comes to 22.5 hours of additional testing!

 

So 22.5 hours minus 2 hours equals… NOT A REDUCATION IN TESTING!

 

But it gives lawmakers plausible deniability.

 

They can claim to be cutting testing while actually suggesting we increase it.

 

And we see the same sort of thing here.

 

Lawmakers can claim to be reducing the power of the Keystone Exams while still enshrining it as the driving force behind all instruction in the state.

 

What we need are leaders and not politicians.

 

We need people willing to take a stand and do what’s right even if that puts them at odds with the moneyed special interests.

 

That takes more than polls and market analysis.

 

It takes moral courage.

 

But there’s no test for that.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Five Reasons to Vote NO on the Allegheny County Children’s Fund

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You can’t raise taxes without a plan of how to spend the money.

 

But that’s exactly what voters in and around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, are being asked to approve this Nov. 6.

 

Come election day, all voters in Allegheny County will be confronted with what’s been called the Children’s Fund, a referendum asking for a voluntary 5% property tax hike that allegedly would go to pay for early learning, after-school programs and healthy meals for kids.

 

But there are no details about who will provide these services, who will be responsible for the money, exactly what else the money might be used for or almost anything substantive about it.

 

It’s just a check with “For Kids” scrawled in the Memo and everything else left blank.

 

The plan is highly controversial drawing criticism from across the Mon Valley including school directors, education advocates and even progressive groups like the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN).

 

Here are the top five reasons you should vote NO on the referendum:

 

1) It Raises Taxes Without Stipulating Where the Money Goes

 

Here’s what we do know.

 

The Children’s Fund would be financed by 0.25 mills of property tax — $25 on each $100,000 of assessed value, beginning Jan. 1.

 

That’s expected to generate roughly $18 million a year that would begin to be distributed in 2020.

 

If approved, it would change the county Home Rule Charter to establish the fund as part of county government. It would create a new office under the supervision of the county manager.

A Citizens’ Advisory Commission would “review and advise” the work of the new office, according to the proposed charter amendment.

 

However, County Council and County Executive Rich Fitzgerald would have to do the work of actually creating all this stuff. They’d have to pass an ordinance establishing how this all works, what powers the advisory commission has, etc. They would have to determine whether the money goes to existing programs or new ones. They’d have to set up audits of the money every five years, conduct a study to recommend goals and a focus for how the funding is spent.

 

That’s an awful lot left undecided.

 

It makes no sense for voters to hand over the money BEFORE we figure all this other stuff out.

 

It’s not at all how good government works.

 

You’re supposed to define a problem or need and then come up with a plan to meet that need. You prepare a budget that justifies raising taxes and then you vote on it.

 

This is exactly the opposite. We’re getting the money before the plan of how to spend it.

 

That’s a recipe for fraud and financial mismanagement.

 

 

2) It’s Unclear Who Would Be In Charge of the Money

 

Who would be accountable for this money?

 

We know who gets to decide this – County Council and the Chief Executive. But we don’t know who they will pick or what powers they’ll delegate to these people. Nor do we know what kind of oversight there will be or what kind of regulations will exist for how it can be spent.

 

This is a blind statement of trust.

 

It’s like saying – “Here’s $18 million. Go buy us something nice.”

 

What if they mismanage the money? And what would that even mean for money with so few strings attached? And how would we know? How transparent would this process be?

 

It’s kind of hard to approve such a plan with so many variables up in the air.

 

3) The Campaign was Not Grass Roots

 

To hear supporters talk, you’d think this was a bottom up crusade created by, organized by and conducted by everyday citizens from our communities.

 

It wasn’t.

 

Sure, volunteers for the Children’s Fund went door-to-door to collect more than 40,000 signatures from voters last summer.

 

But they weren’t all volunteers.

 

 

Financial documents show that the whole initiative has been funded by various nonprofit organizations that could, themselves, become beneficiaries of this same fund.

 

 

According to the Children’s Fund’s own campaign finance report, as of June there were three nonprofit corporations who donated $427,000 to the campaign: the Human Services Center of Turtle Creek gave $160,000, Pressley Ridge Foundation gave $150,000, and Allies for Children gave a donation of $45,000 and another for $72,000.

 

That’s like McDonalds spending a hundred thousand dollars to fix up the school cafeterias so it could land a multi-million dollar annual contract!

 

It’s a huge conflict of interest.

 

At very least, it’s purposefully misleading.

 

Many of those “volunteers” gathering signatures weren’t working for free. They were part of the $100,000 spent by the campaign to hire Vote Goal Organizing for paid signature collectors.

 

That doesn’t look like charity. It looks like philanthrocapitalism – when corporations try to disguise grabs for power and profit as philanthropy.

 

Corporations – even so-called nonprofit corporations – rarely do things out of sheer goodness. They’re acting in the best interest of the company.

 

I see no reason to think this “Children’s Fund” is any different.

 

4) It Works Around Instead of With Local Government

 

Though almost everyone agrees with the stated goals of the Children’s Fund, many organizations and government officials complained that they were not consulted and made a part of the process.

 

 

Two Pittsburgh Public School directors went on record in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette about a lack of communication.

 

“First and foremost, we have not had any conversations with the organizers of the referendum,” board president Regina Holley said. “There are lots of ifs and whats that have not been answered.”

 

Kevin Carter, another city school director added, “In my role as a school board member, they didn’t talk to us about this at all.”

 

“When you leave your largest school district in the region out of this conversation, are you doing this around children?” he asked, citing that the district serves 25,000 students daily.

 

This has been a common thread among officials. No one wants to say they’re against collecting money that’s ostensibly for the benefit of children, but it’s hard to manage the money if you’re not part of the process.

 

And it’s not just protocol. Many are worried that this lack of communication may be emblematic of how the fund will be run. If organizers aren’t willing to work with local governments to get the job done, how will they know what each community needs? How will they meet those needs? Is that even what the fund will really be about?

 

Richard Livingston, Clairton school board president, noted concern that the money collected might not be spent evenly throughout the county. For all he knows, it could just be spent in the city or in select areas.

 

Indeed, this is not the best way to start any endeavor funded by all, for the benefit of all children.

 

 

5) It’s Redundant

 

While it’s true that the county could use more funding to meet the needs of students, numerous organizations already exist that attempt to provide these services.

 

 

There are a plethora of Pre-K, after school tutoring and meal services in the Mon Valley. In fact, much of this is done at the county’s various neighborhood schools.

 

If organizers were only concerned with meeting these needs, why form an office within county government that would have an appointed advisory commission? Why not just increase the funding at the local schools and/or organizations already doing this work?

 

In fact, this is exactly the reason the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network is against the initiative.

 

According to the organization’s statement:

 

 

“At PIIN, we believe that the faith community is a sacred partner with our public schools, and we have long been supportive of both the community schools model and increasing state funding to provide an excellent, high-quality education to every child in our region. We believe in funding for early childhood learning, after school programs, and nutritious meals. However, we cannot support a ballot initiative that creates an unnecessary entity, with an unknown advisory board, and an unclear process for directing our tax dollars.

 

This is why we are urging our membership to reject the Allegheny County Children’s Fund Initiative at the polls this November.”

 

 

 

Another related organization, Great Public Schools-Pittsburgh, also released a statement with “several specific concerns” about the potential fund. These include how the money would be distributed, which organizations would benefit from it, and questions about its redundancy.

 

Several pre-K programs already exist but are not fully funded, the organization noted. Why don’t we just fund them?

 

The group is a coalition of the Education Rights Network, One Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, PIIN, and the Service Employees International Union.

 

The group’s statement noted concerns but fell short of urging an outright NO vote.

 


The bottom line is that many people are concerned about inadequate funding for children’s programs.

 

But this “Children’s Fund” is not a solution to that problem.

 

This is the creation of another bureaucracy that can take our tax dollars and do almost whatever it wants with them.

 

There is no guarantee it will help kids.

 

In fact, it looks a lot more like a power and money grab by corporate interests, many of whom would prefer to privatize our school system.

 

This November, when you go to the polls, do the right thing for our kids.

 

Vote NO on the Allegheny County Children’s Fund.

 

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Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Want to Make a Difference? Canvass for Local Candidates You Believe In

 

 

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Knock! Knock! Knock!

 

I stood there on the porch staring at my own knuckles in disbelief.

 

My 9-year-old daughter was looking up at me with a look like “What did you just do?”

 

But there was no time to say anything.

 

The door was opening.

 

An older gentleman stood in the entryway looking like he had just been stirred from sleep.

 

“Hello! Is this…” I began and Pam, who was standing next to me filled in the name.

 

“Yes,” he grumbled.

 

I introduced the three of us and told the man that we were canvassing his neighborhood for two local candidates running for state legislature.

 

And then I stopped because I wasn’t sure what to say next.

 

Luckily Pam jumped in and told him what our candidates stood for – education, healthcare and working families.

 

“Are these Democrats?” he groused. “I’m done with them. After what they did to that judge, I’m done.”

 

“You mean Kavanaugh?” I said.

 

He nodded.

 

My mouth opened to say something but what do you say?

 

Brett Kavanaugh was accused by multiple women of sexual assault but was saved from a thorough FBI investigation by his buddy, Donald Trump. He cried, whined and spouted partisan conspiracy theories yet still was confirmed to a lifetime appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.

 

Really, what was this guy’s problem? Did he think we shouldn’t investigate Supreme Court Justices when credible accusers hurl accusation of abuse? Did he think Kavanaugh’s chief accuser – Dr. Christine Blasey Ford – made the whole thing up so that she could have her reputation forever tied to an attempted rape and her family displaced from their home and forced into hiding because of constant death threats? Did he think we should give privileged white guys lifetime judicial appointments based on what? Political affiliation? Skin tone?

 

 

Pam tried to bring up a few other topics – about how Republicans in our state of Pennsylvania are actively working to cut this man’s healthcare, calling this man’s generation “the greediest generation” and other topics.

 

But it did no good. Fox News had gotten there first.

 

So we handed him our campaign literature, thanked him and went on our way.

 

Sometimes that’s the best you can do.

 

And it’s not nothing.

 

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If you’re reading this blog, I’m assuming you’re a lot like me.

 

You see the madness of our modern age and wonder what the heck went wrong?

 

A reality TV show clown is President of the United States of America. And all over this country, the conservative clown car is spitting out candidates for major office.

 

Even here in the keystone state, we have Scott Wagner running for Governor on the leftover promises of our previous GOP Governorslashing education funding, firing teachers and lower taxes for the wealthy.

 

Meanwhile, the world is falling apart. The U.N. just released a major report finding that we have about a dozen years to make significant changes to our energy consumption or else global climate change will be irreversible. Yet our leaders complain there’s nothing they can do!

 

It’s enough to make one lose hope in the future.

 

As a father and a public school teacher, I can’t afford that despair.

 

There needs to be at least the slimmest glimmer of the possibility of a new day.

 

And I’m here to tell you, friends, it’s out there.

 

It starts with you.

 

If you want real progressive change, you have to go out there and make it – one day at a time.

 

We can turn back the tide of self-destruction. We can beat back the politics of bread and circuses. We can take back this country and build a better future.

 

But it will take more than one day.

 

It will take all of us, doing incremental good, every day we can.

 

So my suggestion is to make a commitment to voting this Nov. 6.

 

I know our electoral system is a mess. I know many people are being purged from the rolls and our districts are gerrymandered and the entire system is set up against us.

 

But if all of us try to vote, we can still win.

 

Find a candidate you can support and go out there and campaign for him or her.

 

I know there are a lot of phonies running for office. There are an awful lot of fake progressives who will talk nicely to your face and then sell you out to corporations and the wealthy at their first opportunity.

 

Just know that they’re not all like that.

 

Find yourself someone you can trust – probably someone new to the game coming on the scene to change things.

 

In the Pittsburgh area I found Lindsey Williams.

 

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Lindsey Williams and Me

 

She’s an amazing lady with real conviction running for State Senate in the 38th District – that’s most of Northern Allegheny County from Franklin Park eastward, as well as Highland Park and sections of East Liberty in Pittsburgh.

 

Her number one priority is the same as mine – education.

 

That should come as no surprise from a candidate who’s also the communications director for the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers.

 

But Williams actually lives her values.

 

Before coming to Pittsburgh, she was fired for union organizing at the National Whistleblowers Center. Ironically, she was working there to tell the story of people who were retaliated against for reporting waste, fraud, and abuse, and found herself a target for attempting to organize a staff union. She eventually won the resulting case with the National Labor Relations Board.

 

When her campaign literature says she “won’t back down” fighting for working families. That’s what it means.

 

And her priorities – education, healthcare and labor – aren’t pie in the sky promises. She has a fiscally responsible plan to support them by creating a severance tax on natural-gas drilling and closing a loophole that allows businesses headquartered in other states to avoid state taxes. She wants to keep taxes low for homeowners while making sure the wealthy and corporations pay their fair share.

 

Perhaps that’s why a conservative dark money organization aligned with her Republican challenger, Jeremy Shaffer, has created knockoff campaign signs that look just like Williams with the word “Socialist” emblazoned on them.

 

It’s a desperation tactic.

 

Shaffer is down in the polls. The district – once a Republican stronghold – went to Hillary Clinton in the last election.

 

Even Shaffer, a Ross Township supervisor, is a throwback – he’s a far right extremist who primaried incumbent state Sen. Randy Vulakovich (R-Shaler) in May.

 

And his platform is nothing but tax cuts for the rich and school privatization for the rest of us. In effect, he’s a mini-Trump come to bring the circus to town.

 

So not only is Williams a candidate I can believe in, her race really matters to the overall state picture. If the Democrats only pick up her seat in November and don’t lose any others, we’ll crush the GOP’s veto-proof majority!

 

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But I didn’t come out this weekend just for Williams.

 

I also was there to canvass for Betsy Monroe, a Fox Chapel medical professional at Highmark running for State House in the same North Hills area.

 

She was inspired to get into politics after Trump’s election and the subsequent 2017 Women’s March.

 

She noticed that state Rep. Hal English (R-Hampton) had run unopposed in the last two elections, so she decided to run against him, herself.

 

Monroe was particularly angered by English’s vote to criminalize abortions after 20 weeks for all women in the Commonwealth. (The bill was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf back before the GOP had a veto proof majority.) She thought it was unfair for lawmakers to decide what adult women can do with their own bodies.

 

However, there was one other woman I was there to support – my own daughter.

 

For someone in elementary school, she is incredibly interested in politics. I caught her on Saturday literally writing political stump speeches for her stuffed animals. Let me tell you, Eeyore the donkey from the Hundred Acre Wood has some mighty progressive views on women’s rights!

 

I wanted my little one to see real women in politics, fighting to make a difference.

 
The news is always so grim. I wanted her to see that there are people out there fighting for the good.

 

And you know what? It helped me, too.

 

At this point I need to pause and give a huge “Thank You” to two people – Pamela Harbin and Jodi Hirsch.

 

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Me and Pamela Harbin

 

Jodi is an amazing organizer who put together the event in the first place.

 

I wanted to get more involved in the election and Jodi knew exactly how I could do that and which candidates I’d be most interested in.

 

Pam is a local activist I’ve known for years. I fought with her side-by-side against the statewide education budget cuts, charter schools, standardized testing and a host of Corporations Gone Wild shenanigans.

 

I was new to this whole canvassing thing, so she agreed to go with my daughter and me to show us the ropes.

 

I couldn’t have done it without her.

 

Thankfully, not every door we knocked on went like the grumpy gentlemen described above.

 

Frankly, most people weren’t home or didn’t answer the door.

 

Some people – especially young folks – proudly responded that they don’t vote or have no idea what’s going on.

 

Others were energized by what was happening and were looking forward to going to the polls and being heard.

 

“You know I’ll be there!” said one gentleman. “I’m straight Dem. Right on down the line. I’ve had enough of this Trump crap.”

 

But more people than I’d expected took pride in their nonpartisanship.

 

They wouldn’t commit to anything – just took our literature, heard us out and said they’d decide at the polls.

 

I always wondered what an undecided voter looked like. I saw a lot of them this weekend.

 

But that’s why we were there – to help nudge the uncommitted.

 

Hopefully on Nov. 6 they’ll think of Pam, my daughter and me.

 

Maybe even the Fox News fan who thought Kavanaugh got a raw deal will have his resolved softened.

 

Maybe he’ll think of my daughter’s chubby cheeks and innocent eyes as he considers voting for people who’d gladly steal her future for the prospect of more tax cuts for the rich.

 

Then again, maybe not. But who knows?

 

We tried.

 


If you live in Pennsylvania and want to get involved, click HERE.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Teacher Autonomy – An Often Ignored Victim of High Stakes Testing

 

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When I think of the modern day public school teacher, I think of Gulliver’s Travels.

 

Not because I’ve ever taught the Jonathan Swift classic to my students, but because of its most indelible image.

 

Gulliver is shipwrecked on the island of the Lilliputans – tiny people who have tied the full sized sailor to the ground with thousands of itty bitty strings.

 

If that is not the picture of a public school teacher, I don’t know what is!

 

We are constantly restrained – even hogtied – from doing what we know is right.

 

And the people putting us in bondage – test obsessed lawmakers, number crunching administrators and small-minded government flunkies.

 

You see, teachers are in the classroom with students day in, day out. We are in the best position to make informed decisions about student learning. The more autonomy you give us, the better we’ll be able to help our students succeed.

 

But in an age of high stakes testing, Common Core and school privatization run amuck, teacher autonomy has been trampled into the dirt.

 

Instead, we have a militia of armchair policy hacks who know nothing about pedagogy, psychology or education but who want to tell us how to do our jobs.

 

It’s almost like we’ve forgotten that educator self-determination ever was a value people thought worth preserving in the first place.

 

Whereas in generations past it was considered anywhere from merely advisable to absolutely essential that instructors could make up their own minds about how best to practice their craft, today we’d rather they just follow the script written by our allegedly more competent corporate masters.

 

 

The way I see it, the reason for this is fivefold:

 

 

  1. Testing

    School used to be about curriculum and pedagogy. It was focused on student learning – not how we assess that learning. Now that standardized tests have been mandated in all 50 states as a means of judging whether our schools are doing a good job (and assorted punishments and rewards put in place), it’s changed the entire academic landscape. In short, when you make school all about standardized tests, you force educators to teach with that as their main concern.

  2. Common Core

    Deciding what students should learn used to be the job of educators, students and the community. Teachers used their extensive training and experience, students appeal to their own curiosity, and the community tailored its expectations based on its needs. However, we’ve given up on our own judgment and delegated the job to publishing companies, technology firms and corporations. We’ve let them decide what students should learn based on which pre-packed products they can most profitably sell us. The problem is when you force all academic programs to follow canned academic standards written by functionaries, not educators, you put teachers in a straight jacket constraining them from meeting their students’ individual needs.

 

3. Grade Promotion Formulas

It used to be that teachers decided which students passed or failed their classes. And when it came to which academic course students took next, educators at least had a voice in the process. However, we’ve standardized grade promotion and/or graduation policies around high stakes test scores and limited or excluded classroom grades. When you’re forced to rely on a formula which cannot take into account the infinite variables present while excluding the judgment of experienced experts in the classroom, you are essentially forbidding educators from one of the most vital parts of the academic process – having a say in what their own courses mean in the scheme of students educational journeys.

 

4. Scripted Curriculum

Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of this whole process has been the attempted erasure of the teacher – as a thinking human being – from the classroom, itself. Instead of letting us be people who observe and adapt to the realities in front of us, many of us have been forced to read from a script. It should go without saying that when you constrain educators to abide by scripted curriculum – what we used to call “teacher proof curriculum” – or pacing guides, you remove their ability to be teachers, at all.

 

5. Value Added Evaluations

 

We used to trust local principals and administrators to decide which of their employees where doing a good job. Now even that decision has been taken away and replaced by junk science formulas that claim to evaluate a teacher’s entire impact on a student’s life with no regard to validity, fairness or efficiency. However, local principals and administrators are there in the school building every day. They know what’s happening, what challenges staff face and even the personalities, skills and deficiencies of the students, themselves. As such, they are in a better position to evaluate teachers’ performance than these blanket policies applied to all teachers in a district or state – things like valued-added measures or other faith based formulas used to estimate or quantify an educator’s positive or negative impact.

 

It’s no wonder then that teachers are leaving the profession in droves.

 

You can’t freeze someone’s salary, stifle their rights to fair treatment while choking back their autonomy and still expect them to show up to work everyday eager and willing to do the job.

 

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) conducted a representative sample of more than 37,000 American public school elementary and secondary teachers showing widespread dissatisfaction with the job in general and a lack of autonomy in particular.

In fact, they cited this lack of self-determination as a leading contributor to the nationwide teacher shortage. Having control over how you do your job is essential to being fully satisfied with your work.

Teacher-Autonomy

 

If you’re just following orders, your accomplishments aren’t really yours. It’s the difference between composing a melody and simply recreating the sounds of an amateur musician with perfect fidelity.

Today’s teachers rarely get to pick the textbooks they use, which content or skills to focus on, which techniques will be most effective in their classrooms, how to discipline students, how much homework to give – and they have next to zero say about how they will be evaluated.

And to make matters worse, sometimes it isn’t that educators are forbidden from exercising autonomy, but that they are given such a huge laundry list of things they’re responsible for that they don’t have the time to actually be creative or original. Once teachers meet the demands of all the things they have to cram into a single day, there is little room for reflection, revision or renewal.

School policy is created at several removes from the classroom. We rarely even ask workaday teachers for input less than allowing them to participate in the decision making process.

We imagine that policy is above their pay grade. They are menial labor. It’s up to us, important people, to make the big decisions – even though most of us have little to no knowledge of how to teach!

Finnish educator and scholar Pasi Sahlberg says that this is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing if we really cared about improving both the teaching profession and the quality of education we provide students.

In the United States, autonomy usually stops at the district or administrative level and results in decision-making that ignores the voices of educators and the community, he says.

Sahlberg continues:

“School autonomy has often led to lessening teacher professionalism and autonomy for the benefit of greater profits for those who manage or own private schools, charter schools or other independent schools. This is perhaps the most powerful lesson the US can learn from better-performing education systems: teachers need greater collective professional autonomy and more support to work with one another. In other words, more freedom from bureaucracy, but less from one another.”

Perhaps the biggest roadblock to increased autonomy is political.

Lawmakers and pundits conflate teacher professionalism and increased decision making with union membership.

And they do have a point. Having a seat at the bargaining table is vital to educators’ self-determination.

In some states, local teachers unions negotiate annual contracts with their districts. However, most states have statewide teacher contracts that are negotiated only by state teachers unions.

These contracts can directly affect exactly how much independence teachers can exercise in the classroom since they can determine things like the specific number of hours that teachers can work each week or limit the roles that teachers can play in a school or district.

There are even some tantalizing schools that are entirely led and managed by teachers. The school does not have formal administrators – teachers assume administrative roles, usually on a revolving basis. But such experiments are rare.

In most places, teacher autonomy is like the last dinosaur.

It represents a bygone age when we envisioned education completely differently.

We could try to regain that vision and go in a different direction.

But if things remain as they are, the dinosaur will go extinct.

Autonomy is a hint at what we COULD be and what we COULD provide students…

…if we only had the courage to stop standardizing and privatizing our country to death.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Kavanaugh Confirmation Begs the Question – Does Truth Matter?

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“The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. Lies will pass into history.”

-George Orwell

 

 

Does the truth matter?

 

It seems to be one of the central questions of our age.

 

We just held a Senate confirmation hearing for Brett Kavanaugh’s lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court.

 

And despite multiple women making credible allegations of sexual misconduct against him…

 

Despite an FBI investigation so grossly limited in scope that investigators couldn’t even interview either the accusers or the accused…

 

Despite the withdrawal of support from some of the most conservative organizations including the National Council of Churches representing more than 100,000 congregations, the magazine of the Jesuit religious order, and even former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens…

 

Despite all that, the Republican majority gave their wholehearted approval.

 

 

Only Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski bucked her party and voted against him – while Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia was the only Democrat to vote for him.

 

 

The result was a forgone conclusion – a Republican majority who blatantly ignored any evidence and made a decision based purely on party politics.

 

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified in front of these people only a week earlier about a drunk Kavanaugh’s attempted rape when they were both in school.

 

She put her life, her security and her family’s happiness on the line to come forward. She still can’t return to her home after multiple death threats.

 

Yet those in power chose to ignore her.

 

They looked at the facts presented to them and chose to interpret them in a way that allowed them to do what they wanted to do in the first place.

 

Many said that they believed Ford was accosted but not by Kavanaugh.

 

Yet they refused to allow the kind of investigation that might have gotten at the truth.

 

These are not the actions of lawmakers interested in what happened all those years ago between Kavanaugh and Ford – or between Kavanaugh and multiple other women who they didn’t even give a hearing.

 

These are not the actions of lawmakers concerned about picking the best person for the job.

 

Instead, they are the actions of partisans who put power over objective reality.

 

They’d rather craft a story that fits their desires than the other way around.

 

It is craven, cowardly and disrespectful to their office and their charge.

 

This article began with a quote from George Orwell, author of 1984. Let me offer another:

 

“Totalitarianism, however, does not so much promise an age of faith as an age of schizophrenia. A society becomes totalitarian when its structure becomes flagrantly artificial: that is, when its ruling class has lost its function but succeeds in clinging to power by force or fraud. Such a society, no matter how long it persists, can never afford to become tolerant or intellectually stable.”

 

That is what happened here. A ruling class resorting to force and fraud to broaden its power.

 

 

Republicans already have control of two branches of government. Now they have stolen a third – a power grab that will echo down the halls of history for decades to come.

 

 

This is a senate majority representing fewer people than the so-called minority, lead by a President who lost the popular vote.

 

It is not democracy or a just republic. It is a coup.

 

 

As Orwell warns, when we ignore an inconvenient reality, we are on the road to totalitarianism.

 

 

It didn’t matter to those senators whether Kavanaugh was a blackout drunk, whether he still drinks to excess, whether he engaged in sexual harassment or attempted rape.

 

Heck. He could have attacked Ford on the floor of the Senate, itself, on live TV.

 

None of it would have mattered.

 

He was simply a means to an end – the increased power of the Republican Party and the donor class it represents.

 

GOP senators (and even Kavanaugh, himself) complained about dark money influencing the nomination process, yet the overwhelming majority of that money came from conservative backers!

 

They raved and foamed at Democrats for stalling the nomination yet refused to take responsibility for sabotaging Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland.

 

Instead they offered bad faith distinctions between what you can do during an election year vs. a presidential election year – as if it made any difference.

 

It is not just the spirit of the Constitution that lay in tatters on the Senate floor – but the fabric of reality, itself.

 

Thankfully, voters have an opportunity to have their voices heard in a few weeks.

 

We can take to the polls and let these people know how we feel about it.

 

Honestly, this may be our last chance.

 

I am absolutely devastated by these events.

 

I find myself at the ripe old age of 44 chiding myself for being naïve.

 

I watched the hearing as if it were a TV show or a Frank Capra movie. At the last minute, goodness will prevail.

 

That didn’t happen.

 

I, too, was blind to reality.

 

Well, the blinders are off.

 

Like so many of you, I am in mourning for a country that never really existed.

 

But the wake is in November.

 

Let’s hope it will be the start of a rebirth.

 


Click here to find ways to get involved in the November 6 midterm election.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

WANT A SIGNED COPY?

Click here to order one directly from me to your door!

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