Big Money Fails to Oust In-Coming Pittsburgh Schools Superintendent

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Democracy 1, Oligarchy 0.

That might be the score in the latest contest between corporate education reformers and the Pittsburgh Public School Board.

Special interest groups and the media had stirred up controversy for months over one line in newly hired superintendent Anthony Hamlet’s resume.

Last night the board voted to let the 46-year-old African American start his job as planned Friday morning.

The board voted 7-2 not to cancel his contract. He will be sworn in tomorrow to start a 5-year commitment in the city.

He had been unanimously hired May 18 from the Palm Beach County district in Florida where he had distinguished himself with an excellent record of leadership and enacting authentic reforms.

Though critics cited one line in his resume as too similar to a statement in a Washington Post article, the real reasons for the dispute are ideological.

Put simply, Hamlet favors reforms that have nothing to do with teaching to the test, charter school expansion, closing schools and other market driven policies.

This put him at odds with the usual gang of corporate sycophants:

1) The Campaign for Quality Schools Pittsburgh – a PAC recently formed to Make City Schools Great Again by promoting charter schools and other failed neoliberal reforms.

2) A+ Schools, an advocacy organization that used to champion the same kinds of authentic reforms school directors are trying to enact with Dr. Hamlet’s help. However, after getting a fat check from the Gates Foundation, the group has became a cheerleader for privatization and disaster capitalism.

3) Various foundations who immediately offered to pay for a new superintendent search if the district dismissed Dr. Hamlet – a measure that probably would have meant paying him at least a year’s salary to sit at home.

Why?

In short, they want a superintendent who thinks like them who they can control. They want to undermine our elected school board and community input process. They want to further THEIR agenda – not the education of our children.

Pittsburgh school directors are to be congratulated for not giving in to the monied interests.

Even the two directors who voted to remove Hamlet did so for good reasons. Though I thoroughly disagree with them, I think Terry Kennedy and Lynda Wrenn truly have the best interests of students at heart. They have always voted that way before.

It’s easy to write a blog about a district where you don’t live, as I do. They, however, are accountable to their constituents. I’m just a doofus with a WordPress account. They had a lot of information to process and made a tough decision. Thankfully, the other seven board members didn’t see it their way.

But that’s the beauty of it. This was democracy at work! At so many other urban districts throughout the country – even in similarly troubled Philadelphia – decision making “by and for the people” has become disbarred.

Many schools like Pittsburgh’s with a shrinking tax base, large pockets of crippling poverty and a history of state disinvestment are taken over by the state. Bureaucrats and flunkies make these decisions not members of a duly elected school board held accountable by the voters.

In fact, many calling for Hamlet’s dismissal were surely cheerleading just such a move in Pittsburgh. They were hoping to show that democracy doesn’t work in the Three Rivers community and must be replaced with … THEMSELVES.

The defeat of that position is the biggest victory here.

Now Hamlet and the board will get a chance to enact authentic reforms to help the children of Pittsburgh get the best possible education.

Now Hamlet will get to strengthen the restorative justice project already under way at 20 city schools. Instead of simply assigning detention or suspension for student misbehavior, administrators are encouraged to make students set things right after doing wrong.

In Florida Hamlet made a name for himself partnering with the criminology department at Florida Atlantic University on this same project.

It’s widely acknowledged in education circles that suspensions can have lasting impacts especially on black students making them more likely to enter the school-to-prison pipeline. Finding an approach to increase discipline without adversely affecting students’ prospects is imperative. This is especially true since Pittsburgh Public Schools have been known to suspend black students at a rate four times higher than white students.

Hamlet also will get to enact measures to transform Pittsburgh’s schools into a central part of the community and not apart from it. Like many on the board, he is an advocate for community schools. That means pushing for social services to help students and the community to make the schools the center of the neighborhood.

Hamlet has received support from all over the city including from the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers.

However, in an unexpected move, some educators came out individually in favor of Dr. Hamlet even though doing so might mean putting targets of their backs from corporate forces.

High School teacher Jon Parker even wrote a blog about the issue where he pulled no punches:

“While the [Pittsburgh] Post-Gazette is complicit in this scheme to defame and destroy Dr. Hamlet, the real enemy here, as always, is A+ Schools. They simply cannot pursue their Gatesian agenda with a superintendent who believes in community schools. They need one who believes in firing teachers. They can’t pursue their agenda if the superintendent believes in collaboration rather than stacked ranking. And they can’t pursue their agenda of closing schools and turning them into charter profit factories if the narrative in our schools shifts away from “achievement” being measured by high stakes tests. Simply put, Anthony Hamlet is not their style, and they can’t stand that Pittsburgh’s community, through real grassroots activism and real community empowerment, elected a school board which genuinely engaged its community in a selection process that produced a once-in-a-lifetime superintendent selection.”

 

Erin P. Breault, a district teacher with three children who graduated from Pittsburgh Public, wrote to the Post Gazette to praise Dr. Hamlet:

“First, he will be a fine superintendent who will work to foster community schools, increase student learning outcomes and graduation rates. He will be an especially welcome breath of fresh air, not beholden to corporate “reformers” agenda. Second, I am especially alarmed about growing calls for his contract to be dissolved and if it is not, that our democratically elected school board be replaced by an appointed system.

This is outrageous. These attacks on Mr. Hamlet and on the process of the search need to be viewed in context. There are powerful interests including the Pittsburgh foundations, A+ Schools and Students First who are upset that their vision of privatization of our public schools has been challenged by our school district.

They have leapt into action, using their money, and political clout to engage into what amounts to character assassination.”

 

Kathy M. Newman, an associate professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University, wrote to the Post Gazette to school them on the definition of plagiarism:

“Mr. Hamlet’s resume is not a copyrighted work of art or nonfiction, such as a novel or a work of history. Nor is it a work of journalism. He was not trying to “pass off” (a legal term) the work of another artist or historian or journalist as his own.

…the outrage over Mr. Hamlet’s resume doesn’t acknowledge why it is that we demand citations from students and historians, or why artists might sue those who have appropriated their work. As the scholar Steven Dutch has argued, in an article called “Sense and Nonsense about Plagiarism,” citations “allow readers to check the accuracy of facts, gauge the credibility of the ideas being presented, know whether an idea is solidly established, controversial or hypothetical, and find further information.” When Mr. Hamlet borrowed a sentence from a Washington Post editorial to express his educational philosophy he did not, to use another phrase from Mr. Dutch, diminish the “credibility of the ideas being presented.”

Finally, the furor over Mr. Hamlet’s resume has had a tone of moral outrage so hysterical that I have been concerned about the toxic mixture of sanctimony and glee expressed by many people I otherwise like and respect. Again, according to Mr. Dutch, “the institutional hysteria over plagiarism [can become] a ‘witch-hunt.’ … Charges of plagiarism are fast becoming the blood sport of choice among academic bottom-feeders.”

Ouch. But perhaps the most incendiary remarks came from Churchill resident Lorraine Turner. In the Post Gazette, she accused the paper of outright racism in its criticism of Dr. Hamlet:

“As an African-American, we are taught this particular lesson many moons ago (along with the talk about police) growing up in, “Pittsburgh, Mississippi.” That lesson is: Black people must run twice as fast and jump twice as high as their white competitors. Black people must be exceptional with every “i” dotted and every “t” crossed. The comparison of President Barack Obama and Donald Trump will highlight this lesson…

…The editorial goes on using language to highlight nearly every antiquated, racist stereotype referencing black men: Mr. Hamlet made a “perfunctory apology” (he didn’t bow his head and say, “I’se so sorry), Mr. Hamlet “sounded like a nervous student” (just call him boy), then “a bad superintendent” (black is bad), “a good superintendent” (one approved by someone white), Mr. Hamlet “prefers recalcitrance to transparency’ (recalcitrance is when one is stubbornly resistant to authority or guidance — he thinks he’s actually going to have the power of the superintendent!)…

… I hope the board quotes a line from “The Wizard of Oz,” and tells your good ol’ boy editorial staff what the Good Witch of the East told the Bad Witch of West: “Go away, you have no power here!”

In the end, the power of the monied elites evaporated against the power of good ol’ fashioned democracy.

Because the fight against corporate education reform is a fight for representative government.

And the winners of today’s battle are as always our children, our grandchildren, our posterity.

Witch Hunt Against Incoming Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Escalates

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To be or not to be.

That is the question for incoming Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Hamlet.

He is set to takeover the district on July 1, but a well financed public smear campaign is trying to stop him before he even begins.

Big money interests oppose him. The public supports him.

Meanwhile the media helps fuel corporate attacks on the 47-year-old African American because of criticisms leveled by a Political Action Committee (PAC) formed to disband the duly-elected school board.

It’s ironic.

Corporate school reformers criticize Hamlet for allegedly plagiarizing a single statement in his resume. Meanwhile they have plagiarized their entire educational platform!

Mayoral or state takeover of the district? Check!

Close struggling schools? Check!

Open new charter schools to gobble up public tax dollars as profit? Check!

Hamlet represents a new direction away from corporate education reforms. The new school board who hired him has soundly rejected these policies of the old guard. Many of the same members are still on the board who first changed course in 2013 by tearing up a contract with Teach for America.

But the Empire strikes back with allegations of plagiarism and resume padding.

Yes, Hamlet used some of the same words from a Washington Post editorial in his resume. He wrote:

“A successful superintendent has to satisfy many constituencies, keeping high achievers in the system while devoting resources to those who need them most.”

The Post wrote:

“A successful superintendent has to satisfy many constituencies, keeping high achievers in the system even while devoting resources to those who need them most.” (Emphasis added)

These aren’t exactly the same words used by the Post. They don’t rise to the level of plagiarism, but he certainly should have attributed them or reworded the ideas.
On the other hand, his critics want to use the same policies that have failed again-and-again in Philadelphia, Newark, Little Rock, Memphis and elsewhere. They want to steal control of the district and give it to bureaucrats who will do what THEY say. They want to take money set aside to help all students and use it to enrich their friends and associates.

Sure, Hamlet used someone else’s words to describe a good idea of leadership. But his critics are using their own words to describe someone else’s terrible, failing educational platform.

Hamlet made a small forgivable error. His critics are seizing upon it to turn the tide in their favor and take away the community’s right to representative democracy.

Make no mistake. This is a witch hunt.

Critics are splitting hairs, disputing statistics and calling it fact.

Hamlet has a proven record as a principal in Palm Beach, Fl.

He says the schools he administered improved academically for various reasons. Critics point to Florida state records that show those improvements to be less dramatic.

So both sides agree those schools did well under Hamlet. What’s in dispute is the degree.

Hamlet counters that state data is inaccurate. He was there on the ground. He lists several factors not accounted for by the state that fully justify his statements.

For example, when he talks about school improvements, he counts the total number of student suspensions – if a student is suspended twice, he counts that as two suspensions. The state, however, ignores multiple suspensions. In this and other ways, Hamlet shows his data is more accurate than the state’s.

National data backs up Hamlet. Florida is infamous for being backward, regressive and untrustworthy in education circles, often spearheading some of the worst abuses of policy in recent history.

“This has been a hoopla,” said Valerie Allman, a Troy Hill parent and activist interviewed in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. “And it’s taken the focus off what’s important: these kids. … We’re expecting him to climb this huge mountain at the same time we cut his legs out from under him.”

One of the reasons the board originally hired Hamlet is his background in “restorative justice.

Instead of simply punishing or suspending students who misbehave, the program calls for making students set things right.

At Palm Beach County Schools, Hamlet implemented this approach with help from Mara Schiff, a criminology professor from Florida Atlantic University. It’s “far tougher than sitting in detention,” Schiff said in the Post Gazette.

“You have to acknowledge what you’ve done … and take responsibility for the harm you’ve caused. It’s not a kumbaya approach.”

It’s widely acknowledged in education circles that suspensions can have lasting impacts especially on black students making them more likely to enter the school-to-prison pipeline. Finding an approach to increase discipline without adversely affecting students’ prospects is imperative. This is especially true since Pittsburgh Public Schools have been known to suspend black students at a rate four times higher than white students.

In fact, the district has already launched a restorative justice program at 20 schools.

“I have nothing but good things to say about Dr. Hamlet,” said Schiff. “He had a [restorative-justice] coordinator who was fabulous, and who Dr. Hamlet completely empowered.”

Another reason for Hamlet’s hire is his advocacy for community schools. Like many on the school board and in the district, he has pushed for social services to help students and the community to make the schools the center of the neighborhood.

“You can have the best teachers, the best curriculum, the best classrooms,” said Rev. Rodney Lyde, a Homewood pastor and president of the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network. “But we need a place on-site that can comprehensively address the other impediments — like kids coming hungry, or from abusive situations.”

Despite community support, several well-financed organizations oppose Hamlet and the board’s authentic reforms.

Foremost among them is Campaign for Quality Schools Pittsburgh, a new PAC formed recently to make city schools great again – by doing the same failed crap that didn’t work before.

Also on the side of corporate education reform are the Pittsburgh Foundation and the Heinz Endowments. Representatives for both organizations have offered to pay for a new superintendent search if the district gives Hamlet his walking papers – a measure that probably would mean paying him at least a years salary without having him on the job.

This would also result in weakening the district’s ability to hire a new superintendent and increasing public mistrust of the electoral process. Such a move would pave the way for disbanding local control.

How generous of these philanthropies! I remember a time when giving meant providing the resources for organizations like public schools to fix themselves – not having the right to set public policy as a precondition for the donation. But in the age of Bill Gates and the philanthro-capitalists, this is what we’ve come to expect.

Even the editorial board of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette has drunk the Kool-aid. In a June 10 editorial, the paper published the following statement:

“The (school) board’s failure at this essential task calls its leadership into question, and will renew calls for legislation to dissolve the elected school board and move to an appointed system.”

Finally, we have A+ Schools – an advocacy organization that at one time championed the same kinds of reforms school directors are trying to enact. However, after a $1 million grant from the Gates Foundation, the group has become a cheerleader for weakening teachers unions, privatization and standardized testing.

Against these special interests stands a public school board and a community at the crossroads. Will they give in to public pressure and big money? Or will they allow Hamlet to do the job he was hired for and attempt to improve an urban district suffering from crippling poverty and state disinvestment?

This particularly tragedy has yet to find an ending.

To be or not to be?

New PAC Descends on Pittsburgh Public Schools to Charterize and Take Over School Board

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Prepare yourself, Pittsburgh.

A new Political Action Committee (PAC) has descended on the ‘Burgh to further privatize our public schools and wrest control away from parents who are in favor of school reforms that actually work.

It’s called Campaign for Quality Schools, but make no mistake. The wealthy special interests behind it don’t care about quality schools – they care about quality profits for their investors.

PACs are political committees organized for the purpose of raising and spending money to elect and defeat candidates. Unlike federal PACS which can only give up to $5,000 to a candidate per election, state PACs in Pennsylvania have no spending limits. In that way, they are like federal Super PACs which also have no limits on donation size.

Besides giving an unfair advantage to special interest groups, PACS also have notoriously been used for nefarious ends. For instance, former Republican U.S. Rep. John Doolittle’s leadership PAC paid 15% to a firm that only employed his wife. One Leadership PAC purchased $2,139 in gifts from the Bose Corporation. Former Republican U.S. Rep. Richard Pombo used his leadership PAC to pay almost $23,000 in hotel bills and buy $320 in baseball tickets for donors.

And now we’ve got one in Pittsburgh with its sights on city schools.

The moneyed interests behind it want to swipe control of even more Pittsburgh schools away from the community and give them to for-profit companies in the shape of charter schools. Since charter school boards are appointed, not democratically elected, this means the decisions about how these newly charterized schools operate would be made behind closed doors out of public view. The community would have no way to hold them accountable. Likewise, this means operators could spend taxpayer money however they want with little to no oversight. They would have nearly unlimited power to reduce student services and pocket the savings as profit.

THAT’S what they mean by “Quality” schools.

The PAC is run by the usual suspects of Pittsburgh corporate school reformers.

In 2015, four of the nine Pittsburgh School Director seats were up for grabs and voters sided in all cases against candidates running on a standardization and privatization platform. One of these losers is Kirk Burkley. He lost against Lynda Wrenn for school board and now is listed as chairman of the political action committee.

Though Burkley well outspent Wrenn, voters made it clear they didn’t want the lawyer specializing in bankruptcy, restructuring and creditors rights anywhere near our public schools. He only got 19% of the vote. Apparently Pittsburghers want candidates who support well-resourced community schools, positive discipline policies with supports, etc. But a host of wealthy investors behind this PAC must feel otherwise. They know better than you and me.

The PAC’s treasurer is Cate Reed, our own Teach for America (TFA) recruiter. Perhaps she took it personally when the newly elected school board overturned a decision by its predecessors to contract with TFA for three-years and pay $750,000. This is one of the few times – if not the only time –this has happened across the nation. Reed is also a Broad Center residency recipient. Established by billionaire Eli Broad, the Broad Center runs an unaccredited training program for school leaders, where candidates learn Broad’s philosophy of school management. Broad has no education experience. He is a self-proclaimed expert, a businessman who made his billions in home-building, mortgage lending, and insurance (AIG).

On the Broad alumni page, Reed speaks about making sure every child has an opportunity to succeed, especially students of color in low income communities.

“The Broad Residency affords me the opportunity to be a part of the change I wish to see—and to use my skills to pursue my wildest dream of educational equity,” she says.

The problem she identifies is real. However, her solution is ludicrous. You don’t provide better opportunities for poor black children by making the leaders of their schools unaccountable to the public. You don’t help poor black kids by removing qualified teachers from their classrooms and replacing them with lightly trained Teach for America recruits. You don’t help poor black kids by giving them an endless series of culturally and economically biased standardized tests and ignoring the fact that they receive substantially less resources than their richer, whiter peers.

Leigh Halvorson, one of the managers of the Heinz Endowment, gave the PAC a boost soliciting donations. She sent an email in early March asking for money. I’ll post the entire email below, but here is Halverson’s description of the PAC:

“I am proud to be part of a group that is launching Campaign for Quality Schools-Pittsburgh, a bi-partisan Political Action Committee that is committed to supporting candidates of any political party who (1) believe that all children, regardless of their background can succeed; (2) embrace policies that hasten the growth of high-performing schools that serve all children; and (3) have the courage to challenge the status quo and tackle this problem with fierce urgency and determination.”

In other words, she’s looking for folks willing to (1) pay lip service to helping kids while actively working to hurt them, (2) will work to privatize more Pittsburgh schools and (3) are willing to run for office counter to the emphatic will of Pittsburgh voters who soundly rejected the corporate school reform agenda in the last election.

Halvorson continued:

“Our kick-off event on March 2nd at 5:30 pm, at the home of Cate Reed and Doug Anderson, will feature State Representative Jake Wheatley, from District 19 here in Pittsburgh who embodies these principles.”

Wheatley, a Democrat, has been a longtime supporter of charter schools and an enemy of public school teachers. He is one of only two Democrats to vote a bill out of the House Education Committee that was meant to eliminate due process for teachers. The bill has been languishing in the legislature, but if approved, it would allow teachers to be fired for almost any reason. It would eliminate the provision that teachers cannot be furloughed for “economic reasons.” (NOTE: it could come up for a vote any day now.)

Wheatley also teamed up with Republican House Speaker Mike Turzai to hold a roundtable discussion praising charter schools and the need to increase them in the city. He joined Turzai again in January for a school choice rally in Harrisburg.

Halvorson closed her email like this:

“If you are unable to attend, but would like to donate, please see the attached invite for instructions how you can do that.”

The invite asked for donations of between $50 and $250 per person.

Reed and Halvorson are both on the board of A+ Schools – Pittsburgh Community Alliance for Public Education. The organization serves an advisory position to help improve city schools. Though the organization includes people on both sides of the standardization and privatization movement, it has been co-opted in recent years by a $1 million grant from the Gates Foundation given between 2011 and 2013. Since the grant, the organization went from issuing an annual “Report to the Community” on the state of city schools to pushing for corporate education reform measures such as doing away with teacher seniority. Many disillusioned volunteers now consider it to be a paid proxy for Gates to make it appear his pet projects are supported by communities.

Like most urban districts, Pittsburgh Public Schools is struggling because of lack of resources. If you live in a poor neighborhood, your school gets less money from local taxes to help kids learn. Moreover, the district has lost almost $1 billion annually in state funding for the last five years. Living in poverty increases the need for wraparound social services, tutoring, nutrition and counseling that isn’t present for more affluent kids. But there’s no money to help them, and it’s hard for students to concentrate on school when they’re experiencing food insecurity and post traumatic stress. Likewise, state and federal education policies are giving an increasing portion of our shrinking funding to charter schools while forcing the traditional public schools to give new and more difficult standardized tests and enact unproven and developmentally inappropriate academic standards. If these corporate education reformers actually wanted to improve Pittsburgh schools, they’d focus on the real problems – not make wild attempts to grab more money for charter schools, deprofessionalize our kids’ teachers and grab power for themselves.

It’s unclear how many people showed up to the PACs kickoff fundraising event and how much money the PAC took in. But one thing is certain – consider yourself on notice, Pittsburgh.

After being defeated for school board and after the board rejected Teach for America, the corporate education reformers are preparing to strike back.

They are gathering people and resources to take the five school board seats up for re-election in 2017.

Will we let them steamroll over us with their big money and political connections or will we continue to fight for reforms that actually help our children?

It’s up to you, n’at.


Halverson’s email:

Dear friends,

The single most important civil rights issue facing our country is the disparity in our education system. We have far too many children who are trapped in persistently failing schools, Here in Pittsburgh alone, 23 of the 52 PPS schools are performing in the bottom 15% in the state. It is unacceptable. We know we can do better because we’ve seen it — transformative school exists that are proving that poverty is not destiny- and we need more of them, right here in Pittsburgh. I am proud to be part of a group that is launching Campaign for Quality Schools-Pittsburgh, a bi-partisan Political Action Committee that is committed to supporting candidates of any political party who (1) believe that all children, regardless of their background can succeed; (2) embrace policies that hasten the growth of high-performing schools that serve all children; and (3) have the courage to challenge the status quo and tackle this problem with fierce urgency and determination. Our kick-off event on March 2nd at 5:30pm, at the home of Cate Reed and Doug Anderson, will feature State Representative Jake Wheatley, from District 19 here in Pittsburgh who embodies these principles. I know for some of you, political contributions or political action is unfamiliar, so if you have questions or just want to talk further about why we believe groups like this can make a real impact on the future of our city and on behalf of our little people, don’t hesitate to reach out. My cell phone is 503.320.2384. I hope you can join us in supporting policymakers that put students and families first. Please see the attached invitation for more details and drop Cate or I a quick email if you can attend. If you are unable to attend, but would like to donate, please see the attached invite for instructions how you can do that. If you know people that should be invited to this event, please share their emails with us ASAP. Any questions can be directed to campaignqualityschoolspgh@gmail.com. I hope to see you on March 2nd.