Sixteen Gadfly Articles That Made Betsy DeVos Itch in 2019


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“Life can only be understood backwards,” wrote Søren Kierkegaard, “but it must be lived forwards.”

 
I remember reading the Danish philosopher’s “Fear and Trembling” in my philosophy of religion class back in college.

 

To be honest I was never a big fan of his work – I thought if the only way to truth was taking a leap of faith, how many madmen have already reached enlightenment?

 

 

But he had a point when he wrote about the backwards order of perspective – that we can only understand the meaning of our lives once those moments have passed. How cruel that we must live our lives without knowing the importance of those moments until later.

 

 

The only times I remember knowing – really knowing – that I was living through an important moment were when I was married and when my daughter was born.

 

 
Other than those few instants of my life, I’ve wandered forward like an infant – unaware of whether this would really leave an indelible mark on the fabric of my reality or not.

 

 

And that’s not even mentioning what I’ve done – if anything – that has had an effect – any effect – on our larger shared reality.

 

 

It’s the same with writing a blog. I wrote 77 posts in 2019 – a full 32 less than last year. Yet my blog got 297,000 hits – 82,000 more than the year before.

 

However, which articles – if any – will have any staying power?

 

Will anything I wrote this year still be read in the days to come? Has any of it made a difference?

 

Maybe it’s foolish but that is what I’m trying to do.

 

 
I sit at my laptop pounding away at the keys as if any of it has an impact on the world.

 

 

A few weeks ago at the Education 
Forum in Pittsburgh – when the leading Democratic candidates for President actually seemed to have heard the education activist community’s concerns – it felt like what I had been writing really HAD made some sort of mark.

 

 

Then a week later when the Pittsburgh School Board decided to make cuts to services for students instead of raising taxes to meet costs beyond the district’s control, it felt like nothing I wrote really mattered. Really, Pittsburgh? You have the lowest millage in Allegheny County, but you can’t get the gumption to fund your schools? You’re beset by charter schools, pension costs and a mayor who refuses to put back tax revenue he was perfectly willing to use to help the city when it was in dire straights.

 

 

Does no one care about school children – if they’re poor and black?

 

 

Anyway, to the best of my knowledge, if anything I’ve written this year has made a difference, it was probably one of these articles.

 

 

I’ll include the usual top 10 list – a countdown of my most popular works this year – but I’ll end with six honorable mentions. These are articles that I feel personally proud of that wouldn’t qualify based just on sheer numbers alone.

 

 

I hope you enjoy this stroll down memory lane, and here’s hoping 2020 will leave the negativity behind while still continuing the positive change that may have crept in this year that was.


 

10) Standardized Testing is a Tool of White Supremacy

 

 

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Published: April 5

 

 

Views: 4,389

 

 

Description: Here’s the story of how standardized testing went from the eugenicist movement to the Barack Obama administration to continually enforce white power. High stakes testing is an instance of being color blind – when “post racial” just means racist and ignorant.

 

 

Fun Fact: I think the title really captured people’s attention. Black people have been saying this for decades, but the so-called mainstream has refused to listen. This article still gets a lot of readers in its incarnation on commondreams.org. I hope it provides easy proof of this point to stop the constant gas lighting from naysayers in every walk of life who can’t seem to grasp how something so pervasive can be so pernicious to people of color.

 


9) Six Problems with a Growth Mindset in Education

 

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Published: Aug. 12

 

 

Views: 4,678

 

 

Description: One of the most frequent excuses given for high stakes testing is that we can substitute growth for achievement. However, that idea has its own problems.

 

 

Fun Fact: A lot of folks have guzzled so much of the testing Kool-Aid that they simply refuse to accept the facts about cognition and development here. Growth has its place – but it doesn’t fit at all in a pedagogy based on standardized testing.

 


8) Standardized Tests Are Not Objective Measures of Anything

 

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Published: June 29

 

 

Views: 5,290

 

 

Description: Question – If standardized testing doesn’t assess student learning, what does it assess?Answer – not much. And certainly not what you thought it did.

 

 

Fun Fact: There will come a day when standardized tests are rightly considered pseudoscientific. This is my attempt to get this idea across to a larger audience. Audience reactions have ranged from giving me looks like I’m deranged to sighs at how obvious this is.

 


7) Every Charter School Must Be Closed Down – Every. Single. One.

 

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Published: Sept. 8

 

 

Views: 6,869

 

 

Description: The world finally seems to be realizing that charter schools are deeply problematic. But what to do with them? My answer is to shut them all down and any that actually provide value to their students should be transitioned to becoming authentic public schools.

 

 

Fun Fact: This article was partially in response to charter school critics who would say things on Twitter like “No one wants to shut down all charter schools, but…” No. I really do want to shut them all down. I think their time is up. We need to abolish this failed concept and move on to real education policies that actually have a chance at helping students.

 


6) Charter School Teacher Introduces Elizabeth Warren at Rally

 

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Published: June 4

 

 

Views: 9,761

 

 

Description: Before Elizabeth Warren introduced her education policy, no one really knew where she stood on the issue. So many of us in the education activist community became worried when she had former charter school teacher Sonya Mehta introduce her at a California Rally.

 

 

Fun Fact: This article drudged up huge controversy over my characterization of Mehta. At first, I called her a “Charter school lobbyist.” This was unfair and I changed the article to reflect that. However, I was dragged in the media as an anti-Warren troll and Russian bot. Since Warren has released her education policy, I have written extensively about how really comprehensive it is. I think Warren is second only to Bernie Sanders in this race and even exceeds him in some areas of policy. But no one has yet to apologize to me for daring to question a political figure.

 


5) Teachers Are Not Responsible for Student Growth or Achievement

 

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Published: Nov. 29

 

 

Views: 11,188

 

 

Description: Teachers can’t make students learn. We can’t even make them grow. We can do lots of things to optimize the conditions for growth, but we are not ultimately responsible for the result. We’re only responsible for what we do to help bring it about.

 

 

Fun Fact: Lots of folks hate me for writing this article. Lots of folks love me for writing it. However, it was past time someone said it. Teachers make a huge impact on their students, but we are not magical. When you expect us to be wizards, you end up destroying our ability to do our jobs and you enable all the corporate testing and privatization hacks who build themselves up by tearing down our profession because we’re not magic.

 


4) Charter Schools Were Never a Good Idea. They Were a Corporate Plot All Along

 

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Published: Sept. 15

 

 

Views: 13,153

 

 

Description: Where did charter schools come from and what was their original purpose? Read here to find the facts.

 

 

Fun Fact: I wrote this article because of the common lie that charter schools were created by union president Albert Shanker to empower teachers. WRONG. They were created by Minnesota “policy entrepreneur” Ted Kolderie and privatization cheerleader Joe Nathan. This is an attempt to get the record straight. I hope it succeeds.

 


3) Are Teachers Allowed to Think for Themselves?

 

 

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Published: Nov. 7

 

 

Views: 22,041

 

 

Description: It’s kind of a simple question. Many administrators and school boards treat teachers like robots to be programmed and do what they’re told. But we’re also expected to display a large degree of autonomy. Which one is the real expectation because we can’t ultimately be both.

 

 

Fun Fact: This article was republished in the Washington Post and continues to be hugely popular. I think that’s partially because it calls out the elephant in the room in every faculty meeting, school board meeting and education policy session at local, state and the federal government. Maybe allow teachers to be part of the conversation if you really want to bring about positive change.

 

 


2) How Many Decisions Do Teachers Make Every Day?

 

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Published: Jan. 5

 

 

Views: 27,286

 

 

Description: Answer – on average, teachers make at least 1,500 decisions a day. That comes out to about 4 decisions a minute given six hours of class time.

 

 
Fun Fact: This fact has been around since at least the 1980s. It represents the kinds of things we were interested in education before standardized testing and school privatization took over. And it has implications that go on for miles and miles and miles…

 


1) As LA Teachers Strike Over Charter Schools, Democrat Cory Booker Speaks at Pro-Charter Rally

 

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Published: Jan. 18

 

 

Views: 37,652

 

 

Description: In California, 30,000 Los Angeles teachers were on strike because charter schools are gobbling up their funding without providing the same level of quality services or accountability. Meanwhile in New Orleans, Sen. Cory Booker was giving the keynote address at a charter school rally.

 

 
Fun Fact: This raised the question of where the Democrats stand on education policy. And thankfully the Booker branch of neoliberals has been overpowered by the Sanders-Warren wing. We’ll see if this continues through the Presidential nomination and (hopefully) the next administration. Could it be a sea change in Democratic support for real, authentic education policy and away from standardization and privatization? Time will tell.

 


Honorable Mentions

 

 

6) Pittsburgh Mayor’s Tantrum About School Finances Proves He Doesn’t Understand Education or Equity

 

 

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Published: Nov. 17

 
Views: 3,237

 

 

Description: Mayor Bill Peduto refuses to give back millions of dollars in tax revenue to city schools that could help close budget gaps and provide the services students need. The money was given to the city when it was in financial distress, but now that the city situation has improved, the schools are calling for that money to be returned. Just simple fairness.

 

 

Fun Fact: This was one of the first times I really addressed Pittsburgh politics especially as it branches out from the schools. Readers were extremely interested and I seemed to have tapped into a real conversation about the mayor’s role in school politics.

 


5) Charter Schools Are Quietly Gobbling Up My Public School District


 
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Published: May 20

 

 

Views: 2,919

 

 

Description: The Propel charter school chain keeps getting more and more of Steel Valley Schools budget despite enrolling around the same number of kids. It is expected to get away with 16% of Steel Valley Schools’ entire $37 million yearly budget in the coming year. How is that fair?

 

 
Fun Fact: This is one of the first times I have written so openly about the district where I teach. The result was extremely positive. It really got people talking and put together a lot of information that – sadly – our local media has failed to compile. With the loss of neighborhood papers and the consolidation of newspaper budgets, it’s left to bloggers like me to do actual journalism.

 


4) Greater Test Scores Often Mean Less Authentic Learning

 
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Published: Oct. 5

 

 

Views: 2,580

 

 

Description: Standardized tests only assess ability at taking standardized tests. So if we misconstrue test scores for learning, we’re leaving out the entire universe of concepts and skills that are not and cannot be captured by those tests.

 

 
Fun Fact: I think this is an important point that can’t be emphasized enough. It frustrated some readers because they wanted the easy conflation between test scores and learning. But few things in education are that easy. This article outlines exactly where the tests go wrong. It’s a tour of the sausage factory that will leave anyone less hungry for standardization.

 


3) Top 7 Ways Technology Stifles Student Learning in My Classroom

 
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Published: July 31

 

 

Views: 1,991

 

 

Description: We have become too reliant on technology in schools. We’ve welcomed and incorporated it without testing it, or even reflecting upon whether it promises to offer better pathways toward student comprehension and discovery or whether it merely offers flash and novelty devoid of substance. And perhaps even more frightening, we have not investigated the ways in which using these technologies actually puts student privacy and intellectual growth at risk.

 

 

Fun Fact: It is essential we question our assumptions – especially about technology. Many teachers fund this article a breath of fresh air. Others condemned me as a technophobe. You be the judge.

 


2) The Last Day of School

 

 

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Views: 1,271

 

 

Description: I had a stronger connection with last year’s students than any group I’ve ever taught. I was their Language Arts teacher for two consecutive years – 7th and 8th grade. When our time ended, they even re-enacted the closing scene of “The Dead Poet’s Society” – a movie we had watched together in class.

 

 

Fun Fact: I will always treasure the two years I had with these children. They changed my life for the better and made me a better teacher. I am honored by their reviews of my teaching.

 


1) The Stink of Segregation Needs to End in Steel Valley Schools

 
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Published: Nov. 12

 

 

Views: 988

 

 

Description: The dark secret of my district is how deeply segregated our elementary schools are. I wrote about what the problem is and how I think we can solve it. This is about as real and raw as policy making gets.

 

 

Fun Fact: Again this was one of the first times I let myself talk so openly about my district and what I thought needed to be done to improve it. Community members have come forward to talk with me about it but the response from anyone in the district has been total silence. I hope we’re actually serious about making a change here. The community is crying out for it. Teachers want to help. Where we go in the future is anyone’s guess.

 

 


 

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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Why is Accountability Too Much to Ask of Charter Schools?

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NOTE: Not an exact quote but Allen wrote a book “Charting a New Course The Case for Freedom, Flexibility & Opportunity Through Charter Schools” that proposes just this idea.

 
If you hire someone to buy your groceries, you’ll probably ask for a receipt.

 

That’s really all education advocates want from the charter school industry.

 

Charter schools are bankrolled with tax dollars but often run by private businesses.

 

Is it too much to ask these businesses to account for how they spend the money?

 

Apparently it is because Jeanne Allen has been sending her representatives all over the country to harass Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and any other candidate with the audacity to demand charter schools be transparent and accountable.

 

Yesterday she wrote another blistering press release with the title:

“Democratic Candidates Asked to Listen to Voices of Struggling Parents Following Them Across Nation”

 

Allen is CEO and Founder of the Center for Education Reform – a billionaire backed lobbying firm for school privatization.

 

Not exactly a “struggling parent” or anyone who speaks for them. But she is a former member of the Heritage Foundation and current member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

 

She doesn’t speak for parents. She speaks for the billionaires who pay her salary.

 

 

Armed with bundles of cash from the Walton Family and others, Allen has been organizing functionaries to disrupt Democratic rallies across the country including a speech by Warren in Atlanta last month. I wonder how she’s moving her protestors around – perhaps utilizing $2 million a year private jets like the one leased by Texas-based charter chain IDEA.

 

 

Oh! Wait! The Texas branch of the American Federation of Teachers made such a stink about that use of public dollars, the charter chain had to give up its lease.

 

 

States shouldn’t have to rely on teachers unions and the media to shame charters into being accountable. That should be the price of accepting public money.

 

 

But Allen doesn’t want to hear it. Back in 2016, she wrote a book called “Charting a New Course The Case for Freedom, Flexibility & Opportunity Through Charter Schools” that put forward the libertarian idea that charter schools need not be held accountable by anything other than the invisible hand of the market.

 

 

Unsurprisingly, such far right radicalism didn’t result in an invitation to last weekend’s Education Forum in Pittsburgh for candidates seeking the Democratic 2020 Presidential nomination.

 

Instead the room was full of public school parents, students, teachers, advocates and civil rights leaders.

 

Allen was furious. How dare they leave out charter school flunkies!?

 

It wasn’t so long ago that Democrats like Barack Obama and Bill Clinton were staunch supporters of school privatization. But many in this new batch of progressives typified by Sanders and Warren are demanding real reform.

 
According to reports by the Network for Public Education “Asleep at the Wheel” and “Still Asleep at the Wheel,” more than $1 billion in federal funds were wasted on charters that either never opened or closed not long after opening. And now Congress has appropriated $440 million more dollars for the federal Charter School Program, a slush fund to open even more charter schools across the country even in states like New Hampshire that don’t want them.

 
Isn’t it fair to demand a few receipts?

 
Thank goodness there’s Republicans like Betsy DeVos who make no such demands. Allen has the entire Trump administration willing to listen to her anytime she wants. But ironically for someone who champions schools be run like businesses, she wants to corner the market and eliminate any political choice or competition.

 

In yesterday’s press release, Allen demanded the seven leading Democratic candidates at last night’s Los Angeles debate sit down and listen to her particular special interest group.

 

And – make no mistake – it is a special interest group.

 

Charter schools are the very definition of special interest.

 

According to the Oxford Dictionary, Special Interests are:

 

“A group of people or an organization seeking or receiving special advantages, typically through political lobbying.”

 

That’s exactly what Allen is trying to do.

 

She is challenging the request that charter schools meet the same accountability standards as authentic public schools.

 

She wants charter schools to be held to a lower standard – that they can enroll just the students they choose instead of having to accept everyone in their coverage areas like authentic public schools are required to do. She wants charter schools to be able to narrow the curriculum and get rid of extraneous classes and student services so that the business folks running the place can take the money that had funded these things home as a bonus. She wants to ensure charter schools can continue to operate with appointed bureaucrats and not be required to be managed by elected school boards drawn from everyday citizens in the community.

 

Authentic public schools aren’t allowed to skirt these rules. Why should charter schools? If they’re public schools, shouldn’t they have to abide by the same safeguards?

Allen claims she’s just looking out for children of color.

 

Yet the overwhelming majority of black students enrolled in authentic public schools – 7 million strong – would probably disagree with her. She certainly isn’t speaking for THEM.

 

Here’s this white woman telling the black community she knows what’s best.

 

Only about 800,000 black kids are enrolled in charter schools nationwide and that number is dropping.

 

Black people know how charter schools disproportionately locate in the inner cities to target them – just like those other markers of the predatory economy: takeout liquor stores and payday lenders.

 

Ex-journalist Roland Martin, who at least is black, held a streaming event a few days ago to reiterate his support for charter schools.

 

He used to be backed by the billionaire funded Black Alliance for Education Outcomes (BAEO) which praised DeVos to the heavens when she was chosen as Education Secretary.

 

In a press release, the organization enthused:

 

“BAEO congratulates Betsy DeVos on becoming our next Secretary of Education. She is a very gifted and well-respected education leader with a proven track record of advancing excellence and equity for students. She has been a strong advocate of parental choice, ensuring that all children regardless of race or economic status have access to excellent schools.

 

“DeVos has spent much of her life working on behalf of low-income and working class Black families who just want access to better educational options for their children. She will be a strong supporter of parental choice policies and education reform initiatives that we believe will help close the academic achievement gap.”

 

However, after DeVos championed cutting civil rights guidelines for students, slashing funding for everything other than school vouchers and advised teachers to report their undocumented students to ICE, the civil rights community revolted.

 

Both the NAACP and Black Lives Matter have condemned DeVos and demanded a moratorium on new charter schools. These huge people powered groups represent the will of the black and brown community – not Allen, Martin and their billionaire backers.

 

BAEO was so overcome with negative publicity, the group disbanded.

 

Allen claims charter schools are necessary because of low standardized test scores at public schools.

However, she’s just parroting the same school privatization talking points of the past three decades. Increasing charter schools didn’t raise test scores in the 90s, the 00s or the 10s.

 

Moreover, the test scores she’s referring to are international comparisons between the US and other industrialized countries that don’t take many relevant factors into account. Most importantly, the US is committed to educating all of its students while many of these other nations are not. They weed out the lower achieving students by middle and high school. They don’t educate all of their students with special needs. And they don’t have the same level or scale of poverty. In short, these are not apples to apples comparisons and have little to tell us about the quality of the American system unless it’s that our ideals are better than most international systems.

 

Finally, Allen neglects to mention that charter schools have never outperformed authentic public schools. They are not a solution to falling test scores, because charter school kids get the same scores or often worse ones. Cyber charter schools in particular are notorious for achieving worse academic outcomes for students than literally not going to school at all!

 

The fact that many of the current Democrats have embraced charter school criticism may be a sign of real reform on the horizon.

And that’s what terrifies Allen and her rich backers.

 

The school privatization industry relies on being held to a lower standard than authentic public schools. That’s all a charter is, anyway – an agreement NOT to hold the business running a taxpayer funded school to the same standards as the authentic public ones.

 

It’s time those charter agreements were ripped to pieces.

 

All public schools should have to reach the same standards.

 

If there are charters that can do so, we should allow them to continue running as public schools. But those who cannot should be closed.

 

That’s just fiscal responsibility.

I say it is NOT too much to ask of any public school – including charter schools.

 

 

Like authentic public schools, charter schools should be required to show us the money, present the receipts and be accountable for their actions.

 


 

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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Top 10 Lessons From the 2020 Public Education Forum

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The school bell chimed and the class shuffled home.

 

But the students weren’t little children.

 

They were Democratic Presidential candidates!

 

And boy-oh-boy did they get sent packing with a ton of homework!

 

Teachers, students, parents and community members from all over the country sat them down with instructions on how to improve the public education system.

 

Kudos to the candidates for agreeing to listen.

 

It was billed as the MSNBC “Public Education Forum 2020: Equity and Justice for All” – and though it’s over now, its effects may be felt for months or years yet to come.

 

The fact that it happened at all is almost miraculous.

 

Who would have thought Presidential hopefuls would care enough about public schools to address education issues and answer our questions?

 

Who would have thought it would be broadcast live on TV and the Internet?

 

And – come to think of it – who would have EVER thought it would happen in my hometown of Pittsburgh!?
But it did.

 

I was there – along with about 1,500 other education activists, stakeholders and public school warriors from around the country.

 

It was an amazing day which I will never forget.

 

Perhaps the best part was getting to see so many amazing people in one place – and I’m not talking about the candidates.

 

There were members of the Badass Teachers Association, the Network for Public Education, Journey for Justice, One Pennsylvania, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and so many more!

 

I wish I could bottle up that feeling of commitment to our children and hope in the future.

 

Perhaps that’s kind of the point behind this article.
So much happened and there is so much worth noting, let me put my impressions down as a series of takeaways or lessons for us to savor between now and the primary election – maybe even until the general.

 

Here’s my top 10 most important lessons:

 

1) Charter School Support is Weak

 

When the forum was announced, Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform wrote a blistering memoabout how the charter school community would not put up with politicians listening to constituents critical of their industry. Allen is a far right Republican with close ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) who even used Donald Trump’s public relations firm to publicize her protest. But when we got to the forum, all it amounted to were a dozen folks with matching yellow signs trudging through the rainwho didn’t even stay for the duration of the forum. YAWN! Silly school privatizers, that’s not how you protest!

 

2) Michael Bennet Doesn’t Understand Much About Public Education

 

The Colorado Senator and former school superintendent really doesn’t get a lot of the important issues – even when they intersect his life. As superintendent, he enacted a merit pay initiative for teachers that resulted in a teachers strike. He still doesn’t comprehend why this was a bad idea – that tying teachers salaries to student test scores makes for educators who only teach to the test, that it demands teachers be responsible for things beyond their control, etc. Moreover, he thinks there’s a difference between public and private charter schools – there isn’t. They’re all bankrolled by tax dollars and can be privately operated.

 

But I suppose that doesn’t matter so much because few people know who Michael Bennet is anyway.

 

3) Pete Buttigeig is Too Smart Not to Understand Education – Unless He’s Paid Not to Understand

 

Mayor Pete came off as a very well spoken and intelligent guy. But he also seemed about as credible as wet tissue. He said a bunch of wrongheaded things. For instance, he said that “separate has never, ever been equal,” but he supports charter schools. Separate but equal is their business model.

 

It’s the kind of misunderstanding that only happens on purpose, and it’s not hard to see why. He’s taken so much money from anti-education billionaires like Netflix Founder Reed Hastings, no one else can trust him. How are we supposed to think he works for us when his salary comes from the super rich? You never recover from ignorance when it’s your job to be ignorant.

4) Gender Neutral Bathrooms Just Make Sense

I used a gender neutral bathroom for the first time at the forum. I figured I just had to pee so it didn’t matter. Inside were nothing but bathroom stalls – no standing urinals. People of all genders were in there using the facilities and it didn’t matter at all. In fact, it just made sense. It only seems strange because of what we’ve grown to expect. Gender neutral is just logical – no one uses the bathroom for anything but… using the bathroom. Try it and you’ll see – it’s the most logical and natural thing in the world.

 

5) Elizabeth Warren is a Star!

 

Warren simply electrified the room as soon as she entered it. She was at least as smart and well-spoken as Mayor Pete, but she was credible, too. She said all charter schools should have to meet the same requirements as authentic public schools. She said public school money should stay in public schools. She had detailed plans for how to fix what ails or school systemincluding a two cent wealth tax (three cents if you’re a billionaire) to pay for universal child care, universal pre-kindergarten, better pay for childcare workers, broader pell grants, and SO much more.

 

I was even more impressed with her in person and she got a standing ovation from the crowd. She would make a great President.

 

6) Bernie Sanders is a Superstar!

 

If Warren electrified the audience, Bernie was like a nuclear explosion. I don’t think anyone stayed in their seat when he entered. Fists pumping in the air, applause, chants of “Bernie! Bernie!” It was clear who the audience appreciated most.

 

And he was amazing. He said we need to break our dependence on property taxes to fund our schools. He said the problem with testing is we spend too much time teaching to the test. There are better ways to assess learning. He said we need a revolution in how we feel about education and learning. We’ve got to respect the educators who provide that education. He talked about criminal justice and unions and a broader range of issues and in more depth than any other candidate.

 

But my favorite moment was this.

 

Question: Should the federal government subsidize student lunch?

 

Bernie: “And breakfast and dinner as well.”

 

I think he solidified for most of us that he’s our number one candidate in this election. He would be a once in a lifetime President!

 

7) MSNBC Anchor Rehema Ellis Does Not Understand Standardized Testing

 

Throughout the forum, Ellis kept asking the same question over-and-over. She kept asking about America’s dismal standardized test scores compared to other countries. But we weren’t ignorant rubes. She was talking before an audience of teachers. It became clear she didn’t understand what these international test scores mean. First of all, she kept talking about US kids being behind grade level. Proficiency on tests like the NAEP isn’t the same as grade level proficiency. Moreover, comparing the US – which educates everyone – and other countries that do not is like comparing apples to oranges. But Ellis was part of NBC’s Education Nation initiative and has been spreading falsehoods and half-truths about testing for a decade. Maybe after educating the politicians we need to send the media back to school, too.

 

8) This is Not the Moment for Tom Steyer

 

Steyer is a billionaire self-funding his campaign in a time when voters are sick to death of the rich controlling our politics. He’s like a fox warning us all about foxes. It doesn’t make me want to vote for him. It makes me wonder if he thinks I’m lunch.

 

9) Amy Klobuchar is a Better Candidate Than I Expected

 

And the winner of most improved image is Klobuchar – by a mile. She came off so authentic and honest. She started with an emotional story about her mother – a teacher – which naturally lead into some really smart policy suggestions. And saying that she’d fire Betsy DeVos in seconds after becoming President and replace her with an educator was nice, too. I’m not saying I think she can or should win the nomination, but I’m glad she’s in the race and I hope we see more of her.

 

10) Joe Biden is Not Going to Beat Donald Trump

 

Biden came tottering onto the stage late like a friendly but lost old man. He flashed the charm and told us what his policies were but he couldn’t explain why he supported a single one of them.

 

He was the worst public speaker all day. His words rambled this way and that. At one point he told the audience to stop clapping so he could explain why he wanted to fully fund special education, but then he went off on a digression and got lost. At one point he rhapsodized about all the terrible teachers out there and said teachers touch students’ lives – “metaphorically speaking.”

 

Dr. Denisha Jones – an amazing activist and friend – asked him a pointed question about standardized testing and whether he was against it? He told her she was “preaching to the choir” but then rambled on for moments more about … something. I don’t know what.

 

Biden seems more like someone with Alzheimer’s Disease than aspirations to the chief executive. If he won, his wife or someone else would really be making the decisions. He isn’t well. And all you have to do is hear him speak for a few minutes to see it.

 

Bottom line: I don’t think he could beat Trump.

 

 

As terrible as Trump is, he can speak more coherently than Biden. That’s a horrible thing to admit, but it’s true.


So there you have it – my top 10 takeaways from the education forum.

 

It was a great way to spend a Saturday.

 

The candidates left knowing exactly where the education community stands. They know what they need to do to get our votes – and many of them are actively trying to do that.

 

We have several candidates that would make good Presidents – and several who stand a good chance against Trump.

 

Here’s hoping that we all learn our lessons and use them to win back our government in 2020.

 

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Mark Fallon and Me
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Network for Public Education buddies – Carol Burris, Dan Greenberg, me and Peter Greene.
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Pittsburgh strong – Kathleen Newman, me and Jesse Ramey
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Mitchell Robinson and me
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Keeping it Local – State Rep Summer Lee (Homestead), Mark Fallon and me.

 

 

 


If you missed the event, you can still watch it 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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Public School Teacher Questions for 2020 Dem Presidential Candidates

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What happens when you give a microphone to a public school teacher?

 

 

That’s not a rhetorical question. I really want to know, because we so rarely let educators speak in any context other than the classroom.

 

 

Maybe that’s why it’s so refreshing that MSNBC is hosting “Public Education Forum 2020: Equity and Justice for All”on Saturday, Dec. 14, in my hometown of Pittsburgh.

 

 

Public policy is usually made by billionaires who tell their think tanks what to write up and then give it to legislators to vote it into law.

 

 

But ask parents, students, community members or – God forbid! – school teachers about what we should do with something as mundane as education!? That’s crazy talk!

 

 

Well, the Democrats, at least, are taking it seriously.

 

 

The candidates who are expected to attend Saturday’s forum include: Former Vice President Joe Biden; Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana; billionaire businessman Tom Steyer; and Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

 

 

All the presidential candidates who either qualified for the October debate or hold statewide office were invited to attend, according to organizers.

 

 

And guess who else will be there?

 

 

ME!

 

 

Somehow your humble edu-blogger got an invite to the party – limited to an audience of about a thousand.

 

 

To be honest, I don’t know if I’ll get the chance to actually ask a question. I might spend the whole time listening, but that would be far from wasted.

 

 

Forcing candidates to tell educators to their faces what they intend for public schools is a worthwhile endeavor in itself.

 

 

But I must be honest – there is a possibility I may get the microphone and have the opportunity to ask something.

 

 

So I’ve prepared the following questions – one for each candidate expected to be at the forum:

 

 

 

Joe Biden

 

Biden

 

Your education plan triples the amount of money the federal government spends annually on low-income schools from about $16 billion to about $48 billion. That money is supposed to go to raising teachers’ salaries, Pre-K, and “more rigorous coursework.” My question is this: will you tie federal spending to standardized testing, Common Core and school privatization initiatives like your former boss Barack Obama did, and how does your position differ from Race to the Top and Obama’s other top down corporate education reforms?

 

 

Pete Buttigieg 

 

Mayor-Pete

 

You are infamous for taking money from some terrible people who want to destroy public schools – Reed Hastings, for example, the billionaire founder of Netflix, who wants to replace authentic public schools with charter-schools so that all schools are run by corporations and not elected school boards. Hastings has hosted fundraisers for you. He set aside $100 million to promote the privatization of public schools by charter-school expansion as well as served on the California State Board of Education, where he used his influence to minimize any regulation of charters. My question to you is this: how are any of us to take you seriously when you allow yourself to be bought and sold by the school privatization industry? How can we believe a thing you say when your vote has so obviously been up for sale to the highest bidder?

 

 

 

 

Amy Klobuchar

 

Amy-Klobuchar

 

You’ve said that you support national testing standards and that schools should be held to the highest benchmarks. You’ve also said you’ll work to help schools better measure comprehensive achievement. My question is this: how much and in what ways does your education policy differ from the reductive and corporate-driven policies of Barack Obama and George W. Bush? Would you continue to use biased and unscientific standardized assessments to measure student learningand then hold schools responsible for scores predicated on economic inequality and white supremacy?

 

 

Bernie Sanders

 

Bernie-Sanders

 

Along with Sen. Warren, you have one of the most progressive and comprehensive education plans of any candidate running in 2020. In fact, it’s one of the best any candidate who has sought the Democratic nomination has ever put forward. However, the weakest part of your plan concerns standardized testing. As recently as 2015, you voted to keep the same test and punish bogus accountability initiatives as Barack Obama and George W. Bush. My question is this: what happened to change your mind and would you please explain if and exactly how high stakes standardized testing fits in with your education policies?

 

 

 

 

Elizabeth Warren

 

 

Elizabeth-Warren

 

Along with Sen. Sanders, you have one of the most progressive and comprehensive education plans of any candidate running in 2020. In fact, it’s one of the best of any candidate who has ever sought the Democratic nomination. However, you seem to equivocate on standardized testing and national academic standards. On the one hand, you say that you’re against high stakes testing, but on the other you speak about putting an emphasis on student careers, and aligning high school graduation requirements with that of colleges. You even say you’d direct “the Department of Education to issue guidance on how schools can leverage existing federal programs to facilitate education-to-workforce preparedness.” This sounds a lot like Barack Obama’s Race to the Top which held school funding hostage to regressive reforms and Common Core which used standardized tests to determine what would be taught in schools. My question is this: please explain exactly if and exactly how high stakes standardized testing and Common Core fit in with your education policies?

 

 

 

Tom Steyer

 

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Your campaign Website takes no stand on many issues important to educators, families and students including charter schools and standardized testing. Yet you’re a hedge fund billionaire who has donated at least $100,000 through your foundation to Teach for America in 2009. My question is this: what is your position on these policies – standardized testing, charter schools and Teach for America? Do you still think that a few weeks of a crash course is equal to a full teaching degree? Do you still think we need fake temporary teachers who are only committed to the classroom for a few years? Or is it better to have teaching be a respected vocation with highly educated and valued professionals?

 

HONORABLE MENTION

 

 

Finally, here’s a question I could ask to any and all of the candidates:

 

 

I want to ask you about charter schools. Why do we need them at all? Why do we need schools that are publicly funded but privately run? Shouldn’t public schools that accept public money have to accept public administration – elected school boards, transparency and accountability? Shouldn’t all public schools be required to accept all student who live in their coverage areas and not be allowed to cherry pick students? Wouldn’t it be better to close all charter schools that can’t meet the same requirements as authentic public schools and transition those that can to becoming fully public schools?

 

 

Well, those are my questions.

 

If anyone has any other suggestions, please post them in the comments. And if someone else this weekend or later in the campaign season happens to get a chance to query one of the candidates, feel free to use one or all of what I have compiled here.

 

My hope is that this interest in education isn’t just a political stunt but will translate to better school policies no matter who wins the election in 2020.

 


Livestream the education forum here on Saturday, Dec. 14, beginning at 9:45 am.


 

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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White Billionaires Cannot Buy the Charter School Debate

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Betsy DeVos is not woke.

 
Bill Gates has not been to the mountaintop.

 
Nor is the Walton Family Foundation concerned with promoting civil rights.

 
So when white billionaires pour cash to charter school lobbying groups – as the Walton’s did Thursday for charter school protestors at an Elizabeth Warren rally – it isn’t exactly convincing.

 
Speaking at the historically black college Clark Atlanta University, Warren, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for President in 2020, was interrupted by audience members chanting charter school slogans.

 

 

She eventually met with the protestors after the rally.

 

 

Strangely enough, Warren hasn’t suggested any policy position that would adversely affect the charter schools from which the protestors hail.

 

 

Along with Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, Warren has a progressive charter school platform calling for increased transparency and an end to federal funding of charters, which are paid for with tax dollars but privately run.

 

 

The Intercept journalist Rachel Cohen noted:

 

 

“Frankly suggesting that stronger transparency standards for publicly-funded charter schools would ‘limit parental choice’ is an incoherent talking point that really should not be taken seriously. Increased transparency only ‘limits choice’ if the charter schools themselves refuse to accept higher transparency standards.”

 

 

Intercept journalist Ryan Grim, who was present at the rally, noted that the group of protestors was funded by the Waltons.

 

 

The group was from Memphis Lift Parent Institute which bused in people from around the country. It was supported by a GoFundMe page showing numerous $1,000 donations from anonymous sources.

 

 

Published financial reports clearly show the Waltons backing Memphis Lift to the tune of $1.5 million since 2015. And since then, their 2017 filing shows $375,200 more, with a mere $200 coming from other public contributions. That’s pretty close to 100%. The Walton’s Website makes the connection even more undeniable.

 

 

Support also came from Nashville education consulting firm Strategy Redefined, the Tennessee’s chapter of Democrats for Education Reform and Chris Barbic, the original head of Tennessee’s disastrous Achievement School District.

 

 

That is not grassroots.

 

 

That is astroturf.

 

 

Both the NAACP and Black Lives Matter have called for a moratorium on new charter schools primarily because of how they increase school segregation and adversely affect children of color.

 

 

These are huge national organizations making decisions based on democratic input of their members. They are not solely representative of the tiny fraction of parents (6%) who send their kids to charter schools nationwide, nor are they funded primarily by corporations and billionaire investors who, in turn, make a profit off of the school privatization industry.

 

 

While it’s true that you’ll find polls showing strong support for charters among people of color, the overwhelming majority of these polls are conducted by pro-charter groups. They’re like the American Apple Foundation finding high support for U.S. apples – little more than paid advertising.

 

 

However, even a poll conducted by charter school lobbying organization Democrats for Education Reform found that both black and white respondents support a moratorium on new charter schools.

 

 

Billionaires like DeVos, Bill Gates and the Waltons have spent incredible amounts of money to convince the public that school privatization is grassroots, but we have the receipts.

 

 

The Walton foundation has promised $1 billion since 2018 to expanding charter schools.

 

 

Andre Perry, an education policy expert at the Brookings Institution, describes the Walton foundation as hiding behind black faces to obscure who’s really in charge – they’re exploiting black people for a “white agenda.”

 

 

“It’s a sad thing that education reform is about how much money you have and not about what connection you have with black communities,” Perry said.

 

 

The Walton Foundation gave $9 million to the United Negro College Fund for a scholarship to the organization’s fellowship program for students interested in education reform. They are literally paying to indoctrinate black people to the ideology that school privatization is in their best interests.

 

 

This also includes $530,000 to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation to sponsor an affiliated education policy advocacy and campaign training workshop and an additional $170,000 to sponsor events.

 
Walton money has also gone to two other pro-charter groups – nearly $2 million to the 100 Black Men of America campaign and $7.3 million to the National Urban League.

 

 

And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

 

 

Charter schools are not required to provide the same basic services that authentic public schools must.

 

 

To suggest that providing fewer services to black and brown children is somehow in their best interest should insult Americans of every race.

 

 

Black children – just like white children – deserve schools run by elected school boards.

 

 

Black children – just like white children – deserve schools that accept all comers, not institutions that cherry pick which kids to enroll and which to counsel out to other institutions.

 

 

Black children – just like white children – deserve schools that will provide them with robust services and don’t try to cut programs and pocket the savings as profit.

 

 

None of this is controversial.

 

 

It is common sense.

 

 

The problem is that after decades of misinformation, people are becoming ever more aware of how charter schools are scamming the public in general and black communities in particular.

 

 

The billionaires funding this industry are using their vast wealth to try and buy the debate.

 

 

It is up to every thinking American to look at the facts and understand the extent to which we are being bamboozled by white elites at the expense of our black and brown brothers and sisters.

 


 

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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Eight Things I Love About Elizabeth Warren’s Education Plan – And One I Don’t

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My daughter had bad news for me yesterday at dinner.

 

She turned to me with all the seriousness her 10-year-old self could muster and said, “Daddy, I know you love Bernie but I’m voting for Elizabeth.”

 
“Elizabeth Warren?” I said choking back a laugh.

 

Her pronouncement had come out of nowhere. We had just been discussing how disgusting the pierogies were in the cafeteria for lunch.

 
And she nodded with the kind of earnestness you can only have in middle school.

 

So I tried to match the sobriety on her face and remarked, “That’s okay, Honey. You support whomever you want. You could certainly do worse than Elizabeth Warren.”

 

And you know what? She’s right.

 

Warren has a lot of things to offer – especially now that her education plan has dropped.

 

In the 15 years or so that I’ve been a public school teacher, there have been few candidates who even understand the issues we are facing less than any who actually promote positive education policy.

 

But then Bernie Sanders came out with his amazing Thurgood Marshall plan and I thought, “This is it! The policy platform I’ve been waiting for!”

 
I knew Warren was progressive on certain issues but I never expected her to in some ways match and even surpass Bernie on education.

 

What times we live in! There are two major political candidates for the Democratic nomination for President who don’t want to privatize every public school in sight! There are two candidates who are against standardized testing!

 

It’s beyond amazing!

 

Before we gripe and pick at loose ends in both platforms, we should pause and acknowledge this.

 

 

Woo-hoo!

 

 
Both Sanders AND Warren are excellent choices for President. And Biden might even do in a pinch.

 

So in honor of my precocious political princess backing Elizabeth Warren – I THINK she knows she doesn’t actually get to vote, herself, yet! – I give you eight things I love and one I don’t in Warren’s education plan.

 

Things I like:

 

1)       IT INVESTS IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS.

 

WARREN’S PROPOSAL:  Quadrupling Title I funding — an additional $450 billion over the next 10 years for the neediest children and their schools. Finally have the federal government pay 40% of all special education costs – a promise lawmakers made years ago but never kept. Invest an additional $100 billion over ten years in “Excellence Grants” to any public school. That’s roughly $1 million for every public school in the country to buy state-of-the art labs, restore afterschool arts programs, implement school-based student mentoring programs, etc. By 2030, she’ll help 25,000 public schools become community schools. Invest at least an additional $50 billion in school infrastructure — targeted at the schools most in need.

 
WHAT I LIKE: Everything! Our public schools are crumbling under decades of neglect and targeted disinvestment – especially those serving the poor and minorities. This could be a game changer for the entire country!

 

 

2)       IT ACTIVELY WORKS TO INTEGRATE PUBLIC SCHOOLS.

 

 
WARREN’S PROPOSAL: Spend billions of dollars annually that states can use to promote residential and public school integration. This includes infrastructure like magnet schools but also integrating communities. Support strengthening and robust enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This prohibits discrimination on the basis of race in any program receiving federal funding.

 
WHAT I LIKE: Segregation is the elephant in the room in our nation. We can’t be a single country pursuing liberty and justice for all when we keep our people “separate but equal.” If you want to undo our history of racism, prejudice and xenophobia, we must get to know and appreciate each other from a young age. Plus it’s harder to horde resources for one group or another when all children are in one place.

 

 

3)       IT SUPPORTS ALL OUR STUDENTS.

 

WARREN PROPOSES: Protecting the rights of LGBTQ+ students, immigrant students and their families, English Language Learners, students of color, etc.

 
WHY I LIKE IT: I love my students – all of my students. It breaks my heart that the same system that’s supposed to provide them an education oftentimes allows them to be discriminated against.

 

 

4)       IT ELIMINATES HIGH-STAKES TESTING.

 

 

WARREN PROPOSES: In particular:

“The push toward high-stakes standardized testing has hurt both students and teachers. Schools have eliminated critical courses that are not subject to federally mandated testing, like social studies and the arts. They can exclude students who don’t perform well on tests. Teachers feel pressured to teach to the test, rather than ensuring that students have a rich learning experience. I oppose high-stakes testing, and I co-sponsored successful legislation in Congress to eliminate unnecessary and low-quality standardized tests. As president, I’ll push to prohibit the use of standardized testing as a primary or significant factor in closing a school, firing a teacher, or making any other high-stakes decisions, and encourage schools to use authentic assessments that allow students to demonstrate learning in multiple ways.”

 

 
WHY I LIKE IT: High stakes testing is a curse on the education field. It warps nearly every aspect of our school system with biased and inappropriate assessments. Good riddance!

 

5)       IT SUPPORTS FEEDING ALL STUDENTS – NOT SHAMING THEM FOR THEIR POVERTY.

 

 

WARREN PROPOSES: Canceling student breakfast and lunch debt. In particular:

“I will also push to cancel all existing student meal debt and increase federal funding to school meals programs so that students everywhere get free breakfast and lunch.”

 

 
WHY I LIKE IT: No child should have to go hungry – especially at school. No child should have to feel guilty for their parent’s economic situation. And feeding all children removes any stigma and helps create community.

 

 

 

6)       IT SUPPORTS TEACHERS.

 
WARREN PROPOSES: Providing funding for schools to increase pay and support for all public school educators, strengthen the ability of teachers, paraprofessionals, and staff to organize and bargain. In particular:

 

“I pledged to enact the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, which ensures that public employees like teachers can organize and bargain collectively in each state, and authorizes voluntary deduction of fees to support a union.”

 
WHY I LIKE IT: A robust system of public education needs teachers who are respected and appreciated. You cannot have this when salary is based on the wealth of the community you serve. The only choice as far as I see it is to have the spender of last resort (the federal government) take up the slack. I know some of my fellow bloggers are nervous about this because these funds could come with strings attached. Pay could be contingent on teachers increasing student test scores or using certain corporate curriculum, etc. However, any tool can be misused. I don’t see this as necessarily being a backdoor for corporate shenanigans, but we certainly must be cautious.

 

7)       IT FIGHTS THE CORRUPT SCHOOL PRIVATIZATION INDUSTRY.

 

 

WARREN PROPOSES: Ensuring charter schools are subject to at least the same level of transparency and accountability as traditional public schools. In particular:

 

“…I support the NAACP’s recommendations to only allow school districts to serve as charter authorizers, and to empower school districts to reject applications that do not meet transparency and accountability standards, consider the fiscal impact and strain on district resources, and establish policies for aggressive oversight of charter schools.”

 

Ending federal funding for the expansion of charter schools. Banning for-profit charter schools including non-profit charter schools that outsource their operations to for-profit companies. Directing the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to investigate “so-called nonprofit schools that are violating the statutory requirements for nonprofits.”

 
WHAT I LIKE ABOUT IT: Everything! This is where Warren’s proposal really shines! She is even more comprehensive than Sanders’! She doesn’t stop with just “for-profit” charter schools but understands that many of these institutions circumvent the rules even without that tax status.

 

 

8)       IT PROTECTS STUDENT DATA FROM ED TECH COMPANIES AND BEYOND.

 

 

WARREN PROPOSES: Banning the sharing, storing, and sale of student data. In particular:

 

“My plan would extend the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) to ban the sharing, storing, and sale of student data that includes names or other information that can identify individual students. Violations should be punishable by civil and criminal penalties.”

 
WHAT I LIKE ABOUT IT: Ed tech companies are seen for the danger they bring to education. Students are protected from having their entire lives impacted by the choices of ignorant school administrators or school directors. The road to the replacement of public school with digital alternatives is recognized and blocked.

 

And this just scratches the surface. These are just the points that jumped out at me on a first read.

 

I’m sure there is more policy gold in here we’ll find as the election season progresses.

 

However, there was one thing that jumped out at me in a less positive light.
 
One thing I did not like:

 

1)      WARREN’S EMPHASIS ON “CAREER AND COLLEGE READINESS” SOUNDS TOO MUCH LIKE THE WORST OF BARACK OBAMA’S EDUCATION POLICY.

 

 

On the one hand, Warren says unequivocally that she’s against high stakes testing. Then on the other she writes:

 

“We must also ensure that students are able to take advantage of those opportunities and that high schools are funded and designed to prepare students for careers, college, and life…

…I’ll work with states to align high school graduation requirements with their public college admission requirements. And I’ll also direct the Department of Education to issue guidance on how schools can leverage existing federal programs to facilitate education-to-workforce preparedness.”

 

This sounds an awful lot like Race to the Top and Common Core.

 

Is she really proposing all public schools have the same top-down academic standards? Is she proposing states force corporate-created academic standards on their schools? And is she threatening to use the power of the federal government – possibly the power of the purse – to make states and schools fall into line?

 

Warren needs to understand that Common Core cannot be separated into curriculum and testing. The testing drives the curriculum. You can’t say you’re against testing being used to make high stakes decisions and then have that same testing determine what is taught in schools.

 

Perhaps this isn’t her intention at all. But she needs to be asked and she needs to give a definitive answer.

 

Obama was all about teacher autonomy, too, before he got into office.

 

And that’s really the biggest issue for most education advocates like me.

 

We’ve been burned so many times before by politicians, it’s hard to accept that any of them might actually be serious about doing something positive for children’s educations.

 

I’m still a Bernie Sanders supporter. I’ll admit that.

 

But Warren has gone a long way with this proposal to getting me into her corner, too.

 

In the primary, I’ll probably continue to feel the Bern.

 

But who knows? In the general election, perhaps my daughter and I will get to root for the same candidate.

 

I’m extremely thankful to Warren and her team for coming up with such a thoughtful and detailed education plan. It couldn’t have been easy – either to draft or politically.

 

It really does appear to be an attempt not just to sway voters but to actually get things right.

 

Here’s hoping that voters do the same in about a year.

 


 

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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America’s New School Lunch Policy: Punishing Hungry Students for Their Parents’ Poverty

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There are few things as bad as a hungry child.

 

Hunched over an aching stomach as the school day creeps toward its end, one in six children go hungry in America today.

 

It’s harder to learn when you’re malnourished and in pain – especially for children.

 

It should be harder for adults to let them go hungry.

 

Yet for many policymakers, nothing is as bad as feeding children and letting their parents avoid the bill.

 

About 75% of US school districts report students who end the year owing large sums for lunches, according to the School Nutrition Association. And of those districts, 40.2% said the number of students without adequate funds increased last school year.

 

In fact, that has become the central issue – not child hunger but lunch debt.

 

Policymakers at the federal, state and school district level are finding new ways to force impoverished parents to pay for their children’s meals even if doing so means penalizing the children.

 
Just yesterday the Trump administration announced a plan to tighten eligibility requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that could result in hundreds of thousands of the poorest children losing automatic eligibility for free school lunches.

 

In my home state of Pennsylvania, a district made headlines by threatening to send kids to foster care if their parents didn’t pay up.

 

The state legislature even voted in June to reinstate lunch shaming – the practice of denying lunch or providing low-cost meals to students with unpaid lunch bills.

 
That is how America treats its children.

 

Progressive Approaches and Challenges

 

Throughout the country, students whose families meet federal income guidelines can receive free or discounted lunches. However, many families don’t know how to apply to the program or that they can do so at any point in the school year. Moreover, districts can minimize debt if they help families enroll.

 

Unfortunately, too many school administrators are opting on coercion and threats instead of help.

 

In the poorest districts, a federal program called community eligibility has been providing relief.

 

When 40 percent of children in a district or school qualify for free or reduced meals, the federal government steps in to provide free breakfasts and lunches to all students in the district or school regardless of parental income.

 

It’s an enormously successful program that avoids the pitfalls of penalizing or shaming students for their economic circumstances.

 

 

But it’s exactly what’s come under fire by the Trump administration.

 

 

The Department of Agriculture’s new proposed limits on which students should qualify for free meals could change the status of 265,000 children. This would cause a chain reaction at many districts making them unqualified for community eligibility.

 

It would literally take away free meals from whole neighborhoods of youngsters.

 

The Agriculture Department will accept public comments on the proposed rule, called revision of categorical eligibility in the SNAP, for 60 days.

 
This measure is exactly the opposite of what’s being proposed by the most progressive Democratic challenger to Trump – Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

 

Instead of reducing the numbers of children who can get free meals, Sanders wants to increase the numbers to include everyone.

 

As part of his Thurgood Marshall Plan, the lawmaker seeking the Democratic nomination for President promises to enact a federal program to feed all students year-round.

 

This means free breakfast, lunch and even snacks. The program would be open to every child, regardless of parental wealth.

 

No one would be shamed because they are the only ones eligible for these free meals, and we wouldn’t be stuck wondering why needy kids have difficulty learning on an empty stomach.

 

Providing school meals, even at cost, is a losing proposition. The price of unpaid lunches and the cost to complete mountains of paperwork involved in collecting the money is put on the backs of local taxpayers.

 
Sanders is offering a truly humane approach to the problem that would eliminate administrative threats and even bolster district budgets.

 

This is how good government responds to the needs of its citizens – not by terrifying and degrading parents and children due to economic hardships.

 

And it flies in the face of nearly every other measure offered to deal with the problem.

 

Regressive Policies

 

One of the worst offenders is Wyoming Valley West School District in Pennsylvania.

 

Though one of the poorest in the state as measured by per-pupil spending, administrators sent letters to dozens of families demanding they pay their children’s school lunch debt or their kids could be taken away on the basis of neglect.

 
The former coal mining community fed poor children but felt bad about it. School administrators were so incensed that these kids parents didn’t pay, they resorted to fear and intimidation to get the money owed.

 

Children can’t control whether their parents can pay their bills. But that didn’t stop administrators from taking out their disdain for impoverished parents on these youngsters.

 

In the Valley district, parents had run up approximately $22,000 in breakfast and lunch debt. This is a fraction of the school district’s $80 million annual budget and could have been reduced had administrators concentrated on helping parents navigate the system.

 

Instead they simply demanded parents pay – or else.

 

After sending mailers, robocalls, personal calls and letters to families, administrators took more drastic measures.

 

About 40 families whose children owed $10 or more were sent a letter signed by Joseph Muth, director of federal programs for the district, which said:

 

“Your child has been sent to school every day without money and without a breakfast and/or lunch. This is a failure to provide your child with proper nutrition and you can be sent to Dependency Court for neglecting your child’s right to food. If you are taken to Dependency court, the result may be your child being removed from your home and placed in foster care.”

 

When the story hit the national media, experts from across the country weighed in that this was a bogus claim. Parents cannot have their children taken away because they can’t pay for school lunches.

 

And district officials have apologized and vowed not to make these kinds of threats in the future.

 

Perhaps the best news is that the district’s increasing poverty has qualified it to take part in community eligibility in the Fall.

 

All students would get free meals regardless of their parents income – unless, of course, the Trump administration’s new SNAP eligibility goes into place.

 

In that case, the district could continue to twist parents arms in a futile attempt to get blood from a stone.

 

State Dysfunction

 
But don’t look for help from Harrisburg.

 
In June the state legislature voted on annual revisions to its school code which brought back lunch shaming.

 

Now districts that aren’t poor enough for community eligibility will be able to deny lunches to students who can’t pay or provide them a lower quality meal until parents settle any lunch debts.

 

It’s a surprising about-face from a legislature who only two years ago voted to end this policy. Now lawmakers are going back to it.

 

Why?

 

Republicans are claiming this is a solution to districts racking up thousands of dollars in lunch debt. Democrats are claiming ignorance.

 

Many state representatives and state senators are saying they didn’t read the full bill before voting on it.

 

Lawmakers are actually saying they were surprised that lunch shaming was back. Yet it was many of these same lawmakers who voted for the omnibus bill that reinstates it.

 
The only difference between the old lunch shaming bill and the new one is the threshold for inclusion. The old measure allowed schools to provide “alternative meals” to children with $25 or more in unpaid lunch bills. The new measure inserted into the school code allows alternative meals for students who owe $50 or more. Students could be fed these lower quality meals until the balance is paid or until their parents agree to a repayment plan.

 

The Shame of a Nation

 

Stories about student lunch debt have been all over the news.

 

Yogurt company Chobani paid off a large chunk of a Rhode Island districts $77,000 lunch debt in May after administrators threatened to feed kids sunflower seed butter and jelly sandwiches until their debt was paid.

 

The same month a New Hampshire lunchroom employee was fired for letting a student take food without paying. The employee said the student owed $8 and she was confident the child would eventually pay her back.

 

A Minnesota high school even tried to stop students with lunch debt from attending graduation.

 

Will America continue to prioritize late-stage capitalism over ethical treatment of children?

 

Or will we rise up to the level of our ideals?

 

That has been the challenge for this country since its founding.

 

And the answer is far from assured.


 

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