If Pittsburgh Council Really Wants to Help City Schools, There’s an Obvious Solution

Ricky Burgess and Daniel Lavelle really have some nerve.

Back in February, the two Pittsburgh City Council Members proposed an “Education Emergency” at city schools due to Covid-19.

It died.

Now that the pandemic is on the wane, the two were back Wednesday to propose another “Education Emergency” but this time because the schools are “failing.”

I wonder what Fall’s crisis will be.

Let’s get something clear. Pittsburgh Public Schools are NOT in an education emergency, and the district certainly is not failing – though the students, teachers and administrators do have very real problems.

Namely money.

These are inner city schools serving students from very different neighborhoods. Some kids have every benefit possible before they even enter the schoolhouse doors. Others bring more traumas and developmental deficits with them than school books.

Yet Burgess and Lavelle – who aren’t even on the school board (and Bugress’ kids and grandkids attend or attended parochial schools) – want to continually characterize this as something the district is doing wrong.

Fellas, it’s not a matter of the district willfully withholding anything from students. It’s the district not having the resources to provide every student with the help they need.

Even James Fogerty of the sometimes corporate minded A+ Schools organization backed this up.

The district spends about the same on every child regardless of their needs, according to A+ Schools data. However, students with greater needs require more funding to keep up with those who have fewer academic deficits.

It’s like if you have two cars, one already with half its tank full and the other running on fumes. If you give them both an additional half a tank of gasoline, one car is going to go much further than the other one.

That doesn’t mean one car is better than the other. It simply means, you didn’t give BOTH what they needed.

Burgess and Lavelle like grand standing on this issue every few months despite the fact that running the district isn’t in their job description. That’s for the school board to do.

However, as luck would have it, there is something these two City Council Members could do to make a real difference in the lives of students at Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Pay back the $20 million in wage taxes that city schools loaned city government every year since 2004.

That’s right. The City of Pittsburgh continues to take money from the district that the city didn’t get originally and that it doesn’t need.

When the city was on the verge of financial collapse 17 years ago, the school district agreed to help by diverting a portion of its tax revenue to the city.
 


 
Now that the city is out of financial distress (and has been since 2018), some folks such as Superintendent Dr. Anthony Hamlet have suggested the city should return that money – not back payments, just stop taking the additional tax revenue. Administrators estimate that would bring in another $20 million for the city school district.


 
 
It wouldn’t solve all the district’s financial shortfalls, but it would certainly make a difference.

So Burgess and Lavelle don’t have to continue making these symbolic resolutions. Just do your job and stop the City of Pittsburgh from leeching off of school children.

They could do it today. They could do it tomorrow. They could have done it years ago. But they didn’t. They don’t. They won’t.

Why?

Because they aren’t interested in helping the schools.

They just want an opportunity to hear themselves speak.

This kind of trash talk from City Council used to be kindled by outgoing Mayor Bill Peduto. However, with Ed Gainey beating him in the primary, it looks like Gainey will be the next mayor.

Unfortunately, Gainey has not yet made a statement about returning the wage tax revenue to the district.

Nevertheless, there are encouraging signs. As a State Senator, he served on the Education Committee.

And he has said the following about the relationship between city and district governance:

“I want to be able to come in and begin to build a relationship where we’re working together and we’re building a level of cohesiveness. You can’t build if you’re not talking and so that’s one of the major issues … let’s talk and find out how we can help each other.”


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I’ve also 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!

Stop Transforming US Schools into Prisons in the Name of Security

You probably heard about the Texas mom who became Internet famous for posing as her daughter in school last week.

Casey Garcia, 30, was arrested after she was caught attending her 7th grade daughter’s classes while disguised in a hoodie, a mask and thick black glasses.

In a viral video she posted to YouTube, she said the stunt was a “social experiment” to “prove a point.”

“We need better security at our schools,” Garcia said. “I kind of feel that I proved it.”

“There have been one too many mass shootings,” she added, arguing that schools should have metal detectors and possibly ban backpacks.

However, most schools already DO have metal detectors, and the presence of these devices won’t stop a parent like Garcia from posing as a teen during a pandemic when students are often required to cover their faces behind masks.

Hopefully sometime next school year when more teens are vaccinated and mask restrictions disappear, no one will be able to take advantage of pandemic safety precautions to sneak into classes.

Don’t get me wrong, teachers should have caught Garcia last week long before the end of the day, but the El Paso parent did more to prove the necessity of smaller class sizes than additional security.

You can pay millions of dollars on new complicated and time wasting screening processes to enter the building, or you can simply have teachers responsible for fewer kids so they can actually give them all more attention. It’s less costly and would reap educational benefits along with improving safety.

The fact is, we already spend an awful lot on school security. And often those measures and the costs to enact them directly impede teachers ability to teach and students willingness to learn.

Let’s start with cost.

The United States is one of the richest countries in the world. You’d expect that we could afford to buy BOTH security AND education for our students.

However, in practice, it doesn’t work that way.

To put it bluntly – we’re cheap. Especially when it comes to children.

Correction: Especially when it comes to OTHER PEOPLE’S children.

Right wing pundits love to quote exorbitant figures of how much the US spends per student as compared with the rest of the world.

However, they neglect to mention (1) this money is spent unevenly so that we spend much more on rich kids versus poor kids, and (2) we spend that money on services in this country that most other nations do not.

One of those things is security.

It’s not that schools in Europe and other comparable nations don’t concern themselves with keeping students safe. But they typically don’t have metal detectors, armed police, and high tech security systems. While secondary entrances and exits tend to be locked, main entrances usually remain open and unmonitored throughout the day.

Nor do they have the same dangers as we do. In the US, there are more firearms – roughly 400 million – than people. Not true in other countries.

Moreover, even in other nations like Switzerland where gun ownership is high, they have comprehensive background checks that make it much more difficult for criminals or the mentally ill to get a hold of a gun.

In the US, we have a large population that is racially diverse, a history of social strife, runaway income inequality, and a crumbling social safety net. All of which, when mixed together, are a recipe for conflict.

Not so in most other countries.

Moreover, the way most European nations, for example, have addressed safety is completely opposite to the way we do it in the US.

School shootings were on the rise in Europe in the early 2000s, but instead of buying security systems to stop shooters from entering the building, most schools focused on prevention. They realized that the overwhelming majority of shooters were not interlopers from outside but were disgruntled students. So these schools invested in more psychologists, social workers and resources to help children navigate the turmoil of growing up. The result was an almost complete disappearance of shootings.

If you ask me, a similar investment in the US would have similar success. However, given the differences in our societies, I don’t expect it would solve all of our problems.

In fact, emphasis on security certainly hasn’t.

Since 2012, US schools spending on high tech security programs has increased by at least $3 billion – not counting the billions more spent on armed campus police officers — with very little research proving these measures are at all effective, according to the Washington Post.

In fact, there is evidence that these measures don’t work. A federally funded 2016 study by Johns Hopkins University, for instance, concluded there was “limited and conflicting evidence in the literature on the short- and long-term effectiveness of school safety technology.”

But in the United States, when there’s an entire industry lobbying to take advantage of a crisis, that industry will likely be seen as the solution. It might not actually work, but at least huge corporations are making a profit. That’s often enough to justify spending more and more.

Security firms tout their products as the solution just as hammers scream we need more nails. Never mind that buying them will impede our progress and bankrupt us in the process.

Which brings me to education.

Even if heightened security was 100% effective against violence, it has a negative impact on learning.

No one wants to go to a prison for school.

Prisons are not welcoming environments. Children don’t want armed guards watching their every move. They want empathetic teachers and adults to help them understand their world.

This is especially true for low income and students of color. There is already a tendency among white faculty (and others) to criminalize their behaviors. In a punitive environment, this is even more so. Children become not something precious to be protected but the inmates, themselves, whose adolescent behaviors become the excuse for treating them like suspects and criminals.

Even preparing for violent situations can have negative impacts.

Active shooter drills – especially those from the ALICE Training Institute — do more to traumatize students than make them safer. The increasingly popular ALICE program teaches kids to physically confront gunmen under any circumstances. Consultants, school psychologists, safety experts and parents say this is dangerous and irresponsible.

“There is no research/evidence . . . that teaching students to attack a shooter is either effective or safe,” Katherine C. Cowan, spokeswoman for the National Association of School Psychologists, says. “It presumes an ability to transform psychologically from a frightened kid to an attacker in the moment of crisis, the ability to successfully execute the attack on the shooter (e.g., hit the shooter with the book or rock, knock them down, etc.) again in a crisis situation, the ability to not accidentally hurt a classmate, the reality that unsuccessfully going on the attack might make that student a more likely target of the shooter.”

However, the feeling that we are doing SOMETHING that we are at least preparing for a crisis is what keeps programs like this viable.

It’s also why Home Depot and Walmart market $150 bulletproof backpacks to parents. They may not actually help in a real life emergency, but they give the illusion of safety.

That’s what most of this really is – an illusion.

The fact is that the risk of being the victim of gun violence is low.  There are more credible risks traveling to and from school, catching a potentially deadly disease or suffering a life-threatening injury playing interscholastic sports. But we rarely worry about those.

Moreover, the risk of being a victim of gun violence is the same in the US whether you’re in school or not. And it’s higher in this country than in most others. A 2016 study in the American Journal of Medicine found that, among high-income nations, 91 percent of children younger than 15 who were killed by guns lived in the United States. Schools cannot solve that problem. We need sensible gun regulations and background checks in combination with measures for universal healthcare, racial equity and a reduction in income inequality.

However, our public schools are so often left to solve the problems our policymakers refuse to tackle.

If our teachers and administrators weren’t tasked with such a heavy burden and were actually given the funding and support they needed, perhaps they could better do the job of educating students.

That is the central purpose of public schools, after all.

Not gratifying parents to make points on the internet.

Not even security or profiting huge corporations.

It’s to teach kids.

We’d do best to remember that.


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I’ve also 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!

Pittsburgh Media Runs Right Wing Propaganda About Public Schools As If It Were Real News

The Commonwealth Foundation is not a reliable news source


 
It’s a right wing propaganda network that provides the motivation behind American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) sponsored bills.  


 
ALEC writes the laws. The Commonwealth Foundation justifies them. And GOP lawmakers pass them (often with help from neoliberal Democrats). 


 
So why are otherwise reputable Pittsburgh television and radio stations running stories based on Commonwealth Foundation reports?  


 
On May 25, WTAE-TV ran a story called “Pennsylvania school districts flush with federal cash, but many still considering tax hikes.” It was a love letter to the Koch Brothers funded ideological network. 

The basic thrust of the story is captured in the headline. It says that public schools throughout Pennsylvania have received an influx of funding to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic but school directors are unnecessarily planning to increase taxes anyway.

For example, Pittsburgh Public Schools has received $161 million in three rounds of federal disaster funding. Yet the district is still projecting a $38 million deficit this year. 


 
Ideologues at the Harrisburg based Commonwealth Foundation don’t understand how that’s possible. They want to know why districts can’t just use the disaster funding to pay for continuing expenses?

Because it’s illegal. Duh.

Pittsburgh Superintendent Dr. Anthony Hamlet explains:


 

“That’s one-time dollars. That money cannot supplant the general fund so the general fund is different. These are supplementary dollars that can’t be used for personnel or anything like that.”

Most of those funds will go to pay for after-school or summer school programs to help students with declining academics after they spent much of the past year at home, he continues.

Moreover, if districts spent that money (illegally) to fill pre-existing budget holes, all they’d be doing is kicking the can of funding deficits down the road a year or two.

Ideologues at the Commonwealth Foundation know that.

In fact, later on in the exact same story, they worry about this very thing.

At the beginning of the story, Elizabeth Stelle, Director of Policy Analysis for the Commonwealth Foundation, says, “We see no reason why the federal funding is not more than enough to cover the needs of districts today.”

But then later in the same story she says, “I’m very concerned they’re going to spend that money on ongoing needs and we’ll be in a very difficult situation a couple years from now.”

Well, which is it Stelle? Are you worried about districts REFUSING to use disaster funds to pay for ongoing needs or are you worried that they WILL use disaster funds for this exact purpose?

You can’t have it both ways.

Stelle made headlines in March lobbying to eliminate the minimum wage in Pennsylvania and allowing slave labor.

WTAE should have had the journalistic integrity to ask her about her blatant contradiction in this story and her reprehensible positions on record. Or perhaps have the integrity not to invite such members of the lunatic fringe on their network and legitimize her position with coverage.

Unfortunately, producers are content to broadcast clickbait to get low information voters agitated against schools without any good reason.

I suppose it gets ratings.

If it bleeds it leads, and if it antagonizes it televises.

Sadly, WTAE wasn’t the only local television station to do so.

On march 15, WPXI ran a similar story under the headline, “Study claims Pa. schools don’t need COVID-19 relief money, local districts pushing back.” 

This at least was a more skeptical look at the same Commonwealth Foundation report.

But why run anything on the report to begin with?

Were the Flat Earthers busy? Was Q-anon out of conspiracies? Has no one spotted the Illuminati lately? 

WPXI characterized the report less about COVID funding misuse than additional funds being unnecessary to begin with.

Reporters said the Commonwealth Foundation report concluded that state districts were not hurting from the pandemic in the first place. And then journalists went to local districts who flatly contradicted that statement with facts. 


Gateway School Board President Brian Goppman, for example, said the district cut $3 million from its operating budget due to the pandemic. Moreover, the tax base, itself, has suffered from COVID. When businesses close, that’s less tax revenue to fund social programs like schools.

“Monroeville and especially our district… we get a lot of money from the businesses. Every day that we’re in the pandemic with these restrictions is another day we’re wondering if that business will be around tomorrow,” Goppman said. 

And this doesn’t even factor in additional costs to hire more teachers and support staff to help students deal with a year and a half of less than ideal academics caused by quarantines and other safety measures.

However, the worst of all may have been the report on The KDKA Radio Morning Show with Larry Richert and Kevin Battle from May 27.

They had on Jennifer Stefano, Chief Strategist and Vice President at the Commonwealth Foundation, to talk about public school funding. Stefano is a former Tea Party member and frequent talking head on Fox News and other radical right propaganda networks who famously attacked the Head Start Program that provides early childhood education, health, nutrition, and parent services for low-income families.

She could not have found a more friendly audience in Richert and Battle.

KDKA is one of the oldest commercial broadcasting radio stations in the US with a more than 100 year history. However, in 2017, KDKA Radio split from the television station of the same name and was purchased by radio conglomerate Entercom. Since then it has become increasingly rightwing and reactionary.

Richert and Battle were pathetically begging for relevance and ratings while letting Stefano spout nonsense statistics about public schools for 8 minutes.

This may come as a shock, but a group like the Commonwealth Foundation that advocates for cutting governmental services doesn’t like public schools.

They think schools have too much money. Privatized institutions like charter and voucher schools need and deserve an influx of cash, but those pesky government schools are already rolling in it.  

Of course, this isn’t true at all. 


 
A real investigative journalist might have just walked into an inner city school to check it out. She would have seen that many schools are literally falling apart.  


 
Or she could look up actual statistics. A full 35 states provide less overall state funding for education today than they did in 2008. Most states still haven’t recovered from George W. Bush’s Great Recession and the subsequent state and local budget cuts it caused. And schools in 27 of those states actually saw per pupil funding fall even further.  


 
Moreover, Pennsylvania is one of the worst. The state government pays only 38% of the cost to educate children leaving the majority up to local communities to make up the difference.  That’s the 46th lowest in the country. The national average is 51%. 


 
In fact, our funding inequality is the worst in the nation. According to the U.S. Department of Education, poor schools in the Commonwealth spend 33 percent less on their students than rich ones. 


 
These are the reasons why the parents of six school children, six school districts, the NAACP and a rural schools group are suing the state over education funding.  


 
Not because public schools are “flush with cash” – a characterization right out of the mouth of Donald Trump. 

However, the Commonwealth Foundation plays with the numbers to mask this reality.

For example, they claim the US spends more per student than nearly any other country in the developed world. But that figure varies tremendously by state with some spending much more than others. Moreover, American schools have costs educational institutions in other countries don’t have such as security and other non-instructional costs.

As we’ve seen, even when you look at per pupil spending across the state, you’re masking funding inequalities from district to district. You’re looking at an average of all spending, which ignores how little we spend at lower income schools and how much we spend at districts catering to rich communities.

Moreover, if we compare the percentage of GDP spent on education with other countries, you’ll see the US spends much less than comparable nations. For example, we spend about 5% of our GDP on schools compared with 6.4% in New Zealand, 6.9% in Finland, 7.5% in Iceland and 7.6% in Denmark.

This has been the situation for decades and it relies on one basic fundamental catastrophe – much of American education funding is determined by local property taxes.

If you live in a rich neighborhood, your kids get all the best. If you live in a poor one, you don’t get comparable services.

Trolls like the Commonwealth Foundation feed off this burning dumpster fire by covering the inequity of our taxing system which relies too heavily on the poor and middle class and lets the wealthy get by without paying their fair share.

Instead of pointing out the real problem and demanding the rich do their part, the Commonwealth Foundation covers for their billionaire masters. Partisans at the foundation ignore low taxes on the wealthy and blame high taxes on the poor and middle class on things like public schools.

And stories like these only go to further enrage taxpayers so that they’ll support tearing down the very systems that help keep them and their kids afloat.

No news organization should be falling for these lies.

WTAE, KDKA and WPXI should know better.

They are helping tear down media trust in this post truth age.

How ironic that in doing so they are helping destroy education – the one tool essential to navigating through such a landscape.

Find out more about state education funding shortfalls HERE.


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I’ve also 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!

Top 6 Administrative Failures of the Pandemic Classroom

This school year has been a failure in so many ways.

But don’t get me wrong.

I’m not going to sit here and point fingers.

The Covid-19 pandemic has tested the public school system like never before.

Teachers, administrators and school directors have been under tremendous pressure and I believe most really tried their best in good faith to make things work as well as possible.

But as the year comes to a blessed close, we need to examine some of the practices common at many of our schools during this disaster and honestly evaluate their success or failure.

Some things worked well. Many made the best of a bad situation. But even more were blatant failures.

We need to know which was which.

As a classroom teacher with 17 years experience who worked through these times, let me clarify one thing.

I am not talking about things that were specific to individual classrooms.

Teachers struggled and stretched and worked miracles to make things run. We built the plane as we were flying it. As usual, this is where policy meets execution and that can differ tremendously from place-to-place.

What I’m talking about for the most part is policy. Which policies were most unsuccessful regardless of whether some super teachers were able to improve on them or not in their classrooms.

Here are my top six administrative failures of this pandemic school year:

1) SOCIAL DISTANCING

Health officials were clear on one point – keeping space between individuals helps stop the spread of Covid-19.

Exactly how much space we need to keep between people has varied over time.

At first, we were told to keep 6 feet apart. Then as health officials realized there wasn’t enough physical space in school buildings to keep students that far apart AND still have in-person school, they changed it to 3 feet.

The same happened with violating social distancing.

At first, you were considered a close contact only if you were within the designated space for 15 consecutive minutes. Then that was changed to 15 minutes in total even if that time was unconsecutive.

In any case, classes were held in physical spaces. Many schools at least tried to make an effort.

Was it successful? Did we actually keep students socially distanced all day?

Absolutely not.

Walk into nearly any school during a class change and you will see the same crowded halls as you would have seen pre-pandemic. Observe a fire drill, and you’ll see the same students right next to each other, skin against skin as they try to quickly find an exit.

These times generally aren’t 15 minutes consecutively, but think about how many class changes there are a day. If you have 8 or 9 classes, with each class change averaging 3 minutes, that’s 24 to 27 minutes of exposure a day.

If it weren’t for the fact that most children are asymptomatic, what would the result of this have been? How many kids did we expose to Covid-19 because of the sheer difficulty of administering social distancing protocols?

2) MASKING

Health officials told us it was important to wear masks on our faces to stop the spread of respiratory droplets that contain the virus. True there was some discrepancy on this issue at the beginning of the pandemic, but over time it became an agreed upon precaution.

There was also some discrepancy about what kinds of masks to wear and whether one should double mask.

However, putting all that aside, did schools that had in-person classes abide by this policy?

It actually depends on what part of the country you’re in. Some schools were directed to do so and others were not.

However, even in districts where it was an official policy, it rarely worked well.

Not only is it difficult to teach when the most expressive parts of your face are covered, it’s difficult to be heard. And for students, it’s even worse. They are still adolescents, after all. They abided by mask mandates with various degrees of success.

In my own classes, about a quarter of my students could never get their masks over their noses. No matter how many times I reminded them, no matter how often I spoke up, the masks always slipped below their noses – sometimes moments after I made a remark. Sometimes three, four or more times in succession to the point that I gave up.

Administration didn’t seem to take the matter as seriously as the school board written dress code policy, and teachers (including me) didn’t want to come down too hard on kids for neglecting to do something that many of them seemed incapable of doing.

Were we all exposed to respiratory droplets? Definitely. Without a doubt. Especially during lunch periods which were almost exclusively conducted in doors without even the possibility of opening a window.

Did partial masking have some positive effect? Probably. But I do not think we can call this policy a success.

3) CONTACT TRACING

How do you tell if someone has been exposed to Covid-19?

Health officials advised contact tracing. In other words, when someone exhibits symptoms and then tests positive for the virus, you identify people who came into close contact (within 3 feet for 15 minutes total).

However, this was conducted entirely on the honor system. So it was only as accurate as those reporting it were perceptive or honest. If someone was a close contact but didn’t want the hassle of quarantine, they could usually just refrain from reporting themselves.

Even worse was the fact that most children are asymptomatic when infected with Covid-19. Hundreds or thousands of kids could be walking around the school as carriers of the virus and you’d never know with contact tracing.

Random blood tests for Covid-19 and Covid-19 antibodies would have actually solved this problem, but it was never even recommended. This may have been because of costs or fears of inconveniencing students. However, it demonstrates perhaps the worst failure of the entire pandemic.

Any sense of security was completely false. Every week – often every few days – I’d get phone calls and emails from my district about students and staff testing positive for Covid-19 but miraculously there were no close contacts. Districts, administrators, school directors, health officials have lost a tremendous amount of credibility from this which may damage our society much worse than Covid-19 ever did.

4) STANDARDIZED TESTING

We threw caution to the wind and reopened in-person classrooms so children could have live instruction. Then the Biden administration mandated standardized testing which would eat up much of that time.

It’s nonsensical.

My last month of school is divided up almost equally in half between teaching and testing.

I’ve had to cut my curriculum to ribbons just to get a semblance of instruction done by the last day.

And it serves no purpose.

We all know students haven’t had the kind of robust instruction time they normally would. Why do we need tests to show that? It’s like looking at a person bleeding from an open wound and then testing to see if there was blood loss.

Not to mention the fact that these standardized tests have been shown to be bad assessments long before Covid-19 came on the scene.

This is a total policy failure that the kids are paying for with less time to learn.

But at least the testing corporations will get paid.

5) CYBER SCHOOL

Many students spent some or all of the last year on-line. The reasons why are clear and even potentially sound.

Their parents wanted to mitigate infection, and going cyber certainly did that.

However, the quality of instruction provided was variable to say the least.

At best, classroom teachers provided lessons through distance learning platforms like Zoom using accessories like Google Classroom.

At worst, prepackaged cyber curriculum based on credit recovery programs was used as the main provider of curriculum.

Platforms like Edmentum – which my daughter had to use – provided material that was not developmentally appropriate, assessed unfairly, and full of typos.

This just demonstrates the inferiority of cyber programs in general. The more interaction possible between teachers and students, the better. However, even at its best this is not as effective as live instruction.

Those districts that simply gave up and threw students onto fully cyber programs almost abrogated their responsibilities to educate at all.

However, I can certainly see why parents may have chosen this option for their children. After all, I made such a choice for my own daughter.

The best result though would be safety from Covid but somewhat less instructional quality. Either way, it’s a failure, but the degree will vary.

6) HYBRID MODELS

Many districts choose a hybrid education model combining some cyber and some in-person learning.

This tried to strike a balance between keeping children safe and providing the best possible education. However, both models were flawed and thus the hybrid model combines these flaws.

The worst part of this type though was how it often forced educators to educate.

Teachers usually had to instruct both live students in the classroom and cyber students on-line at the same time.

This is nearly impossible to do well. It’s like trying to perform a play to two different audiences at the same time. What works in-person does not work as well on-line and vice versa.

I found myself catering to one group and then another. Often it lead to the on-line students being left more to their own devices. Since most of them had their cameras off and rarely responded to questions, I fear they got an even worse education than under fully cyber circumstances.

In-person students also had to exercise patience as the teacher divided his or her attention to the on-line group.

And the degree of technical wizardry expected of teachers was astronomical.

In every class I was required to post material to a central in class TV screen so my in-person students could see it, while also making sure it was displayed on-line for my cyber kids. Sometimes it wouldn’t work for one group and I’d have to trouble shoot the problem in real time.

There were often instructional videos or examples I wanted to show where the volume or video wouldn’t display for one group or another. And sometimes on-line students couldn’t hear the teacher or their classmates.

Then we had Internet connection issues where cyber students were inexplicably dropped or in-person students couldn’t access materials on Google Classroom.

It was a nightmare – an every day, every period, never ending nightmare.

But teachers just got on with it and achieved amazing things despite all the issues.

CONCLUSIONS

This pandemic year can be characterized by epic failures at all levels.

But each failure contains within it a success.

In short, things could have been much worse.

At each level, these failures were mitigated by everyday classroom teachers who made the best of it.

The school year was not a complete waste academically for most students.

It would have been better under normal circumstances, but these were not normal circumstances.

Likewise, students, their families and educators were put at unnecessary risk of infection. And many paid the price for that with long illnesses, lingering symptoms and even death.

However, it could have been worse. Safety efforts – though insufficient – did protect people and fewer people were infected than might have been otherwise.

As more people are vaccinated against the virus and we move forward with vaccinating those 12 and older, risk should become even less prominent.

I dearly hope infection levels will be legitimately low enough in August that we can dispense with social distancing and masking, that we can have universal in-person classes.

However, we probably will do away with these measures WHETHER IT’S SAFE TO DO SO OR NOT!

And that is the worst problem!

Throughout the Covid pandemic, our policies have demonstrated a blatant disregard for human life and safety. Instead we have prioritized economics and capitalistic pragmatism.

Don’t let anyone tell you “Safety was our number one priority.”

It wasn’t. And it isn’t.

In America, the almighty dollar reigns supreme and your life and the lives of your children come in a distant second.


Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

I’ve also 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!

PA Gov. Wolf Fires Charter School Appeals Board. Every. Single. Member.

Being Governor of Pennsylvania must be one of the most thankless but important jobs ever.

With a hopelessly gerrymandered legislature, a majority of Republican lawmakers representing a minority of voters stops nearly anything from getting done for the rest of us.

If it weren’t for a Democratic Governor to act as a check and balance on this lunatic fringe, the state would devolve into chaos.

Case in point: the Charter School Appeals Board (CAB).

It took Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, seven years to fire his predecessor’s appointments and nominate replacements to the CAB.

Yet the GOP legislature is crying crocodile tears that he’s exceeding his authority by doing so.

The board is supposed to be a place where charter schools can challenge decisions made by their local school boards.

Charters are schools that are funded by taxpayer dollars but can be privately operated.

They have to ask the local school board for permission to open a new school in their district. Since the new charter would double services already present at the existent public school and require both schools to split existing funding, there is little incentive for school boards to grant these requests.

But charters can bypass local government by going to the CAB. Or at least they could when the board still had sitting members on it.

The CAB consists of the Secretary of Education and six members who are appointed by the Governor and approved by the state senate.

However, closed door negotiations with the Republican controlled senate over who they would even consider approving over the years continually stopped Wolf from putting people forward as official nominees.

After all, why would Republicans work with Wolf? What incentive did they have to do so?

Refusing to work with the Democratic Governor kept the previous Republican Governor’s appointees in place long after their tenure should have expired.

This kept the CAB ideologically right wing so the members could rubber stamp charter schools left and right bypassing the will of duly elected school boards all over the Commonwealth.

Take the most recent approval in March of the Pennsylvania STEAM Academy – a school founded by Carolyn Dumaresq, former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s Education Secretary.

She literally sat on the board and worked with several sitting members of CAB when she was part of the Corbett administration. Now all these years later she appears before CAB for a hearing asking them to overrule the Harrisburg School Board that had originally denied her charter school’s application.

Guess who won?

The CAB unanimously sided with Dumaresq over elected members of the local community.

So Wolf finally gave these privatization zealots their walking papers.

It’s a pattern we’ve become sickeningly familiar with in Pennsylvania.

A problem arises. The GOP legislature does nothing or has no power so the Governor takes action to fix it. Then the GOP throws a hissy fit.

The house was just on fire and you doused the flames! You shouldn’t be allowed a bucket of water!

We saw the same thing with COVID. Wolf closed the state down to stop a global pandemic. And Republicans are still crying “Tyrant” over his use of executive power.

The far right love crying “Wolf” and blaming everything on the Governor, but make no mistake –  gridlock is exactly what they want.

That’s why Wolf’s action on CAB is so clever.

By firing the remaining members of the board, Wolf has functionally erased it from existence.

If the senate wants there to be a charter school appeals board, lawmakers need to vote on his nominees.

Wolf has nominated the following people to the board:

-Jodi Schwartz, a school board member from the Central Bucks School District

-Shanna Danielson, a teacher in the East Pennsboro School District in Cumberland County and former state senate candidate

-Stacey Marten, a teacher in the Hempfield School District in Lancaster County

-Ghadah Makoshi, a business owner and former candidate for Pittsburgh’s school board

-Nathan Barrett, superintendent of the Hanover Area School District in Luzerne County

 
One of the most exciting things about these nominees is how they might interpret the state’s 20-year-old charter school law.

Previous CAB members have refused to let school boards consider the financial impact of opening a new charter school. However, the state constitution requires public schools to provide a quality education to students in their district. Therefore, if opening a new charter school would adversely affect a districts finances, doesn’t the constitutional necessity to provide a quality education take precedence?

Many school privatization critics think it does. Will Wolf’s nominees?

Unfortunately, they have several hurdles to clear before the senate would vote on them and we’d find out.

Senate Republicans are already throwing a tantrum because Wolf placed Pennsylvania in a regional initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

How dare he endanger short term fossil fuel profits just to provide a cleaner environment for our kids and grandkids!

As a result, they’ve vowed to block the Governor’s appointment to a state utility commission. It’s doubtful they’d let CAB nominees through while blocking Wolf’s other appointment.

Moreover, there will doubtless be legal challenges to the Governor’s firing of previous CAB members.  

In the meantime, there are at least nine cases scheduled to be decided by CAB from Souderton, Southeast Delco, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Philadelphia. And that’s not even counting a recent pair of charter schools in Philadelphia where backers said they would appeal the local school board’s decision to deny their request to open.

Republicans may find themselves forced to choose between waiting out protracted legal challenges while their pet charters languish in appeals limbo or swallowing their pride, doing their damn jobs and voting on Wolf’s nominees!



Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

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I’ve also 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!

Diversity is the Most Important Reason to Save Public Schools

Public schools are under attack.


So what else is new?


It’s been so since the first moment the institution was suggested in this country  by revolutionaries like Thomas Jefferson:

“Education is here placed among the articles of public care… a public institution can alone supply those sciences…”


And John Adams:


“The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it.


But as the founders saw public education as primarily a means of securing democracy by creating informed citizens able to intelligently vote, that is only one of its many benefits today.


Compared to its main alternatives – charter, voucher, and private schools – public schools are more fiscally responsible, democratically controlled and community oriented.


However, these are not the most important reasons to cherish our system of public schools.


For all the system’s benefits, there is one advantage that outshines all the others – one gleaming facet that makes public schools not just preferable but necessary.


That is diversity. 


Public schools ARE the American Dream


They are the melting pot made real. 

Where else can you go and see so many different races, cultures, ethnicities, religions, abilities and genders learning together side-by-side from adolescence to adulthood?


Nowhere. 


I don’t think you can understate how important that is.


When you grow up with someone, you can’t really remain strangers. Not entirely.


When you sit beside different kinds of people in every class, you learn that you and people like you aren’t the center of the universe. You learn that there are many other ways to be human.


And make no mistake. I’m not talking about mere tolerance. I mean seeing the beauty in difference.


I’m talking about seeing the grace and originality in black names and hairstyles, the fluidity of Arabic writing, the serenity of Asian philosophy…


When you make friends that are diverse, have different beliefs, styles, cultures, you open your mind to different ideas and concepts.


If children are our future, we become that future in school. If we’re educated together in a multifaceted society, we are more at home with our country’s true face, the diversity that truly is America. By contrast, if we become adults in secluded segregation, we find difference to be alien and frightening. We hide behind privilege and uphold our ways as the only ways worth considering.


In fact, privilege is born of segregation. It is nurtured and thrives there.


If we want to truly understand our fellow citizens and see them as neighbors and equals, it is best to come to terms with difference from an early age in school.


Integration breeds multiculturalism, understanding and love. 


I’m not saying this happens in every circumstance. All flowers don’t bloom in fertile soil and not all die in a desert. But the best chance we can give our kids is by providing them with the best possible environment to become egalitarian.


That’s public schools.


Of course, diversity was not there from the beginning. 


Through much of our history, we had schools for boys and schools for girls that taught very different things. We had schools for white children and schools (if at all) for black children – each with very different sets of resources.


But as time has gone on, the ideal embodied by the concept of public schooling has come closer to realization. Brown v. Board took away the legality of blatant segregation and brought us together as children in ways that few could have dreamed of previously.


Unfortunately, a lot as happened since then. That ruling has been chipped at and weakened in subsequent decades and today’s schools still suffer from de facto segregation. In many places our children are kept separate by laws that eschew that name but cherish its intent. Instead of outright racial or economic discrimination, our kids are kept apart by municipal borders, by who goes to which school buildings and even by which classes students are sorted into in the same building.


But it’s really just segregation all over again. The poor black kids are enrolled here and the rich white kids there.


The surprising fact is how much we’ve managed to preserve against this regression. Even with its faults, the degree of diversity in public schools far outshines what you’ll find at any other institution.


That’s no accident. It’s by design. 



Each type of education has a different goal, different priorities that guide the kind of experiences it provides for students.


Privatized schools are by definition discriminatory. They only want those students of a certain type – whatever that is – which they specialize in serving. This is true even if their selection criteria is merely who can pay the entrance fee.


After all, the root word of privatization is “private.” It means “only for some.” Exclusion is baked in from the start.


By contrast, public schools have to take whoever lives in their coverage area. Sure you can write laws to exclude one group or another based on redlining or other discriminatory housing schemes, but you can’t discriminate outright. Yes, you can use standardized testing to keep children of color out of the classes with the best resources, but you need a gatekeeper to be intolerant in your place. You can’t just be openly prejudiced.


That’s because you’re starting from a place of integration. The system of public education is essentially inclusive. It takes work to pervert it.


And I think that’s worth preserving.


It gives us a place from which to start, to strengthen and expand.


There are so many aspects of public schools to cherish. 


But for me it is increased diversity, understanding and integration that is the most important.


What kind of a future would we have as a country if all children were educated in such an environment!?



Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

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Just CLICK HERE.

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I’ve also 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!

Can Unions Defang Charter School Vampires?

What if a vampire suddenly lost its fangs?

Would it still be a vampire?

That’s the question at the heart of a major change in the largest charter school network in western Pennsylvania.

This week, staff at the Propel network of charter schools voted overwhelmingly to unionize.

So the money men behind the Allegheny County system of charter schools are probably wondering if they’re still investing in charter schools at all.

After all, when encumbered by the need to collectively bargain with employees, can a charter still do all its usual profitizing tricks?

Thursday, Propel teachers and other staff voted 236-82 to join the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA).

The drive took 9 months to achieve. Propel enrolls about 4,000 students at 13 schools in Braddock Hills, Hazelwood, Homestead, McKeesport, Pitcairn, Turtle Creek, Munhall, McKees Rocks and the North Side.

Though PSEA represents staff at about a dozen charters throughout the state, unionization is a rarity at charter schools.

And the reason is pretty obvious.

Charter schools are all about escaping the rules that authentic public schools have to abide by.

Though publicly financed, they are often privately operated.

They don’t have to be run by elected school boards. They don’t have to manage their business at public meetings. They don’t have to open their budgets to public review. Heck! They don’t even have to spend all the money they get from taxes on their students.

They can legally cut services and pocket the savings.

Nor do they have to accept every student in their coverage area. They can cherry pick whichever students they figure are cheapest to educate and those who they predict will have the highest test scores. And they can hide this discrimination behind a lottery or whatever other smoke screen they want because – Hey! The rules don’t apply to them!

I’m not saying every charter school does all this, but they all can. It’s perfectly legal to do so, and we rarely even see it happening until the school goes belly up and taxpayers are left paying the tab.

So how do unions change this system?

Most obviously, they put a check on the nearly limitless power of the charter operators.

Now you have to pay a living wage. You can’t demand people work evenings and weekends without paying them overtime. You have to provide safe working conditions for students and staff. And if you want to cut student services and pocket the difference, the staff is going to have something to say about that – AND YOU HAVE TO LISTEN!

How much will union power beat back charter bosses?

It’s hard to say. But there is no doubt that it will play a moderating influence.

And how much it does so may depend to a large degree on the individuals working at the school and the degree of solidarity they can exercise against their bosses.

One thing is for sure, with a union the gravy train is over.

Wall Street speculators often fawn over the charter industry because it’s possible to double or triple your investment in seven years.

This will probably not be the case in a unionized charter. And the impact of such a reality has yet to be felt.

Will the worst financial gamblers abandon school privatization because unions make it too difficult to make handfuls of cash? One can hope.

If it happened, the only charters left standing would be those created without profit as their guiding principle. The goal would really have to be doing the best thing for children, not making shadowy figures in the background a truckload of money.

Do such charter schools even exist? Maybe. With staff continuing to unionize, maybe there will be even more of them.

However, even if all of them become altruistic, there still remains a problem.

There still remains an authentic public school with which the charter must compete for limited funding.

Even a positive charter school that only does the best for its students still needs money to operate. And most districts barely have enough funding for one education system – certainly not two parallel ones.

This is a problem I don’t think unions can solve.

The state and federal government will have to find a better way to fund education. Relying on local property taxes to make up the largest share as we do in most parts of the country must come to an end.

But even if we figure out how to adequately, equitably and sustainably fund one education system, the presence of a charter school requires we do it twice.

Fiscal watchdogs may object to this as irresponsible, and one can certainly see their point.

However, in a country where we spend more on the military than the next ten nations combined, perhaps it isn’t so much to ask that we more than double spending on education.

Maybe there is something to be gained by having two parallel school systems. But there are certainly dangers.

Obviously the situation would be rife for de facto segregation. Charter schools already increase racial and economic segregation wherever these schools exist. However, if we regulated them to eliminate this risk, it is at least conceivable that these two systems could coexist.

It could certainly solve the problem of large class sizes by decreasing student to teacher ratios.

But will it?

Most of the people who work at charter schools are dedicated to their students and want them to succeed. They deserve every opportunity to thrive in a profession centered around children, not profit.

But can a system created to enrich the few ever be fully rehabilitated into one that puts children first?

When you defang a charter school, are you left with something harmless?

Or have you simply forced the beast to find other ways to feed?



Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

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Just CLICK HERE.

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I’ve also 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!

How to Vote on Ballot Measures in Pennsylvania’s 2021 Primary Election

Can you feel it?

The primary election is just a few weeks away.

Voters will decide all kinds of things like who will represent their respective parties for school board, judges, magistrates, county council, etc.

However, that’s not all.

There also will be four statewide ballot initiatives. All Allegheny County residents will get a fifth. And Pittsburgh residents will get a sixth.

If you’re like me, you don’t want these questions to come as a surprise on May 18 or before (if you’re casting a mail in ballot).

These queries can change the state for better or worse in dramatic ways, yet for some reason, they don’t write these things in the way everyday people talk.

This is lawyer speak. You have to wear a long black robe and put on a white haired wig (called a peruke) just to understand these things.

But don’t get your gavel in a tizzy.

As a public service, I’m going to translate each question and make a suggestion on how you should vote.

QUESTION 1:

“Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law and increase the power of the General Assembly to unilaterally terminate or extend a disaster emergency declaration—and the powers of Commonwealth agencies to address the disaster regardless of its severity pursuant to that declaration—through passing a concurrent resolution by simple majority, thereby removing the existing check and balance of presenting a resolution to the Governor for approval or disapproval?”

Translation: Allow the legislature to second guess the governor and terminate an emergency disaster declaration without just cause

Suggestion: VOTE NO

This is yet another example of the endless far right hissy fit from science denying lawmakers still mad that Gov. Tom Wolf had the gall to close down the state because of the global Covid-19 pandemic. If passed, this would erode the powers of the governor and give them to our gerrymandered Harrisburg legislature.

We have three branches of government for a reason – checks and balances. Robbing the executive to boost a dysfunctional legislature would make the declaration of emergencies and natural disasters a matter or politics not facts.

Emergencies could be terminated at a moment’s notice without cause sending our first responders into chaos. Emergency managers could lose precious time and resources, communities could lose relief and recovery funding from the state and federal governments, all while our chuckleheaded legislature debates reality.

The Covid-19 pandemic may not be over yet. We’re working overtime to distribute vaccines and combat threats from emerging variants. The last thing we need is a political show prematurely eliminating masking, social distancing and other safety precautions so performative ideologues can win points on Fox News.

QUESTION 2:

“Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law so that: a disaster emergency declaration will expire automatically after 21 days, regardless of the severity of the emergency, unless the General Assembly takes action to extend the disaster emergency; the Governor may not declare a new disaster emergency to respond to the dangers facing the Commonwealth unless the General Assembly passes a concurrent resolution; the General Assembly enacts new laws for disaster management?”

Translation: Limit an emergency disaster declaration to 21 days regardless of the severity of the emergency

Suggestion: VOTE NO

Disasters do not come with time limits. But randomly limiting them all to 21 days again takes power away from the Governor and gives it to the legislature. The only way to extend emergency declarations would be passage of a resolution by the state House and Senate.

Do we really want our emergency responses tied to the endless back and forth of legislators who rarely even pass their annual budgets on time? This is unnecessary bureaucracy so politicians can grandstand while emergency personnel wait for the go ahead to save lives.


QUESTION 3:

“Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended by adding a new section providing that equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged because of an individual’s race or ethnicity?”

Translation: Make it illegal to deny or cut short anyone’s rights because of race or ethnicity

Suggestion: VOTE YES

This should be a no brainer. No one should be able to deny a person’s civil rights because of race or ethnicity. Or any other reason!

However, we just lived through four years of a reality TV show President who packed the federal courts with dozens of questionable and unqualified judges who made their careers discriminating against people of color, people of different creeds, religions, etc.

So it makes sense to enshrine equal protection for all at the state level and protect Commonwealth residents from federally sanctioned prejudice especially focused around workers’ rights, criminal justice reform, housing and healthcare.


Moreover, as a part of the state Constitution, this amendment would stop even our own state legislature from passing any laws inconsistent with it.

QUESTION 4:

“Do you favor expanding the use of the indebtedness authorized under the referendum for loans to volunteer fire companies, volunteer ambulance services and volunteer rescue squads under 35 PA.C.S. §7378.1 (related to referendum for additional indebtedness) to include loans to municipal fire departments or companies that provide services through paid personnel and emergency medical services companies for the purpose of establishing and modernizing facilities to house apparatus equipment, ambulances and rescue vehicles, and for purchasing apparatus equipment, ambulances and rescue vehicles, protective and communications equipment and any other accessory equipment necessary for the proper performance of the duties of the fire companies and emergency medical services companies?”


Translation: Allow municipal fire departments and EMS companies to apply for state loans to modernize critical safety equipment

Suggestion: VOTE YES

Both municipal fire departments and EMS companies with paid employees and volunteer departments and companies would be able to apply for state loans.

This vital funding could be used to modernize or purchase necessary safety equipment for first responders. It would keep fire fighters up to date and able to serve residents – especially those in rural areas. It would make sure every fire department could have up to date equipment.

Question 5 (Allegheny County Only):

“Shall the Allegheny County Code, Chapter 205. Allegheny County Jail, be amended and supplemented to include a new Article III, as set forth below, which shall set forth standards governing conditions of confinement in the Allegheny County Jail?”

Translation: Should we prohibit solitary confinement at Allegheny County Jail except in extreme emergencies?

Suggestion: VOTE YES!

Solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment. A lawsuit filed in September by ACJ inmates alleges that solitary confinement was being used as a punishment against inmates seeking mental health care. Recent research from Cornell University demonstrates that even a short amount of time in solitary confinement can increase recidivism rates, as well as unemployment rates.

Question 6 (Pittsburgh residents only):

“Shall the Pittsburgh Home Rule Charter be amended and supplemented by adding a new Article 10: Powers of the Pittsburgh Police, containing Section 1001, which shall bar employees of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police from executing warrants at any residence without knocking and announcing themselves?”

Translation: Should we eliminate no-knock warrants?

Suggestion: VOTE YES!

This would require all Pittsburgh Police to physically knock and announce themselves before gaining entry to execute a warrant.

No knock warrants are dangerous and often a component of racial discrimination in law enforcement.

Briana Taylor’s death in Louisville, KY, during the execution of a “no knock” warrant clearly shows how this practice recklessly endangers human life. Many municipalities now have banned no-knock warrants including Louisville, KY. Pittsburgh City Council also introduced legislation to ban the use of no-knock warrants by Pittsburgh Police officers.

So those are my suggestions for this race’s ballot initiatives.

NO. NO. YES. YES. YES.

And if you happen to be a Democrat living in Allegheny County’s District 9, please vote for me for County Council.

Together we can build a better world.


Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

I’ve also 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!

A New Children’s Fund – Reducing Student Inequality Through Allegheny County Council

Public schools are not funded fairly.

Every child does not receive equitable resources or even close to what they need.

The state and federal government provide some funding, but they leave it up to each neighborhood to take the brunt of the burden.

So the majority of funding comes from local tax revenues – rich communities give their kids more than enough and poor ones struggle to give them enough to even get by.

This means things like class size, access to tutoring and remediation, extracurricular activities, advanced placement courses, field trips, counseling, even access to a school nurse often depends on how rich of a community kids live in.

It’s a backward and barbaric way of supporting children – a kind of economic Darwinism that gives the richest kids the most advantages from the very start while holding back everyone else.

It doesn’t have to be this way, but don’t look to the state or federal government to fix it.

No matter who has been in power in the Oval Office or held majorities in Congress, national lawmakers don’t seem to care much about public schools unless it has to do with standardized testing or school privatization – policies that only make things worse.

In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf has been working his entire tenure to make the system more fair, but the Republican controlled legislature has blocked him at nearly every turn. And given our hopeless gerrymandered legislative districts, this isn’t about to be rectified anytime soon.

So what are we to do? Give up?

No.

In the Pittsburgh area, we have a solution ready at hand to at least reduce the inequality among rich and poor kids. All we have to do is reach into the trash.

Three years ago we had a ballot initiative called The Children’s Fund. It would have created a voluntary 5% property tax hike to pay for early learning, after-school programs and healthy meals for kids. It was defeated by voters.

And for good reason.

The proposal was an absolute mess.

As a local teacher, education activist and blogger, I advised against the plan because it raised taxes without stipulating where the money would go, it was unclear who would have been in charge of the money and other reasons.

But that doesn’t mean there was nothing of value there.

The idea of county tax revenues being used to help balance the scales of public school funding is not a bad one.

We could fix the problems with the original children’s fund and create a new one.

In fact, that’s one of the reasons I’m running for county council. I want to increase our local investment in children and the future.

Here’s how we do it.

The 2018 Children’s Fund would have raised taxes by 0.25 mills of property tax — $25 on each $100,000 of assessed value. This would have generated an estimate $18 million a year and gone to a newly created government office under the supervision of the county manager. There would have been an advisory commission but it was really left under the discretion of the County Executive to figure out how all this would work. He’d get to pick who was in charge of the money and where it went.

This was a terrible idea.

We don’t need a big pot of money that a king gets to dole out as he chooses. Nor do we need to created unnecessary bureaucracy.

All we need is a funding formula. Collect X amount of tax revenues and send it to Y schools according to these guidelines prioritizing Title I schools and other institutions serving needy children.

Moreover, the fund doesn’t even need to include a tax increase. Council should first look to cut wasteful spending already in the budget to generate the money needed.

We already have a $2 billion budget. We spend $100 million of it to keep people locked up in the county jail, and 80 percent of them are nonviolent offenders who haven’t been convicted of anything. Many simply can’t pay cash bail, failed a drug test for something like marijuana or violated our ridiculously long parole period.

Finding $18 million might not be too difficult if we took a hard look at our finances and our priorities. And even if we couldn’t find the full amount, we could propose a lower tax increase. And if we do have to increase revenues, we can look to do so by making corporations and the wealthy pay their fair share before putting more burden on residents.

We should at least explore these options before jumping on another across the board tax increase even if the cause is a good one.

Another problem with the 2018 proposal was that it was too broad. For instance, it suggested some of this money be used to offer meals to children in school. However, much of that need has been met by a program called the Community Eligibility Provision which is available nationwide as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed in 2010.

While food insecurity remains a problem for low income students and their families, I think there are better solutions such as increasing the minimum wage and creating more well-paying union jobs.

We should limit the new children’s fund to increasing pre-K access to needy children, offering funding to school districts to create or fund existent after school tutoring programs, reduce class size and increase teacher salaries at low income schools.

Another problem with the 2018 proposal was that it worked around instead of with local government.

Though almost everyone agreed with the stated goals of the proposal, many organizations and government officials complained that they were not consulted and made a part of the process.

There’s an easy fix for that.

Before enacting any new legislation, County Council should seek input from school districts and pre-K programs. That way, the legislation can be best crafted to meet need.

I care about schools, students and families, but I don’t know everything and neither does County Council or the County Executive. We should be humble enough to listen to what stakeholders tell us they need and then find a way to meet it.

Finally, there’s the question of fraud and mismanagement of funds.

One of the biggest red flags around the 2018 campaign is that it was not grass roots.

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

We have to make sure that the money is going to help children, not corporate raiders or profit-obsessed philanthrocapitalists.


To ensure this does not happen, we should put some restrictions on how the money can be used.

For example, the federal government is infamous for offering money to schools with strings attached. President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top, for example, was a huge corporate welfare scheme to enrich standardized testing and school privatization corporations. Schools could compete for limited funds by increasing test scores, and then if they won, they’d have to spend that money on test prep or privatization.

We don’t need any of those shenanigans in Allegheny County.

The new Children’s Fund should be barred from use in standardized testing preparation programs, it should not be available to buy new technologies or apps, and it should be used at the K-12 level ONLY at strictly public schools.

County residents cannot afford to bankroll people’s kids to private schools.

This money should not be available at any private schools even if those schools use school vouchers, Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC), Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) programs or other tax scholarship programs that function like school vouchers.

Moreover, county residents shouldn’t be pouring our tax dollars into schools that don’t have the same high fiscal accountability requirements as our fully public schools even if these schools claim to be fully public.

Unlike public institutions, charter schools do not have to be run by elected school boards, do not have to have school board meetings open to the public or even open their budgets to annual public review.

That’s why this new funding should be available at charter schools ONLY if those schools charters are in good standing AND if the charter schools will admit to a yearly public audit of how the money has been spent. Any misappropriation or unaccounted for funding would disqualify the charter school from further funding and prompt an immediate full state audit.

I think if we enacted legislation along those lines, we could really make a difference for the children of our county.

We have to face the facts.

Pennsylvania is one of the worst states in the country when it comes to educational equity for poor and non-white students.

The commonwealth ranks 47th in the nation for the share of K-12 public education funding that comes from the state.

The state ranks 48th nationally in opportunity gaps for high school students of color compared with white students and 47th for Hispanic students, according to a 2018 report from the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Research for Action.

A separate 2016 study found that Pennsylvania has one of the widest gaps between students along racial and socioeconomic divides in the country.

And the list goes on and on.

Only the federal and state government can truly fix the problem long term. But that’s not going to happen anytime soon.

We can sit idly by as our children get left behind or we can stand up and do something about it.

If elected to county council, I will do everything in my power to right this wrong.

Our kids deserve more than governmental dysfunction, class warfare and de facto racism.

Please stand with me to enact a new children’s fund that helps support our kids.

Please help me gain a seat on Allegheny County Council.


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I’ve also 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!

 

Why a Public School Teacher is Running for Allegheny County Council

People seem surprised when I knock on their doors.

Perhaps it’s the fact that they weren’t expecting anyone to drop by.

Perhaps it’s because we’re still in a global pandemic.

But when they peek through their screens or poke their heads out with a quizzical look, the one thing that seems to put them at ease is when I tell them I’m a public school teacher.

It’s certainly not that I’m running for Allegheny County Council near Pittsburgh, Pa.

A teacher, they know and understand. Their kids had teachers. They had teachers when they were young.

But County Council?

Many of them seem to struggle with what that governmental body even is.

Municipal council, they know. School board, magistrate, even their local dog catcher.

But County Council is the kind of thing that falls through the cracks between state and local.

So why is a public school teacher like me trying to get their support on May 18 and get elected?

In truth, it’s been a long time coming.

I teach at Steel Valley Middle School in Munhall, just outside of District 9 where I’m running for office.

Being an educator is the greatest job I’ve ever had.

It’s challenging, time consuming, exhausting, but at the end of every day I go home with the feeling that I really did something worthwhile.

I help kids learn to read and write. I open them up to new possibilities and give them opportunities to express themselves.

Sure, I teach grammar and vocabulary, but we also read “The Diary of Anne Frank.” We read “The Outsiders” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” We read authors from Edgar Allan Poe to Charles Dickens to Langston Hughes, Toni Cade Bambera and Gwendolyn Brooks.

We have heated discussions about race, class, gender, punishment, justice.

For 17 years I’ve watched my students learn and grow as the resources available to them withered and died. Privatization expanded like a new frontier as constraints upon what counts as learning became more rigid and reductive.

Class sizes got larger every year. Electives, extra curricular activities, tutoring all disappeared.

They were replaced with standardized testing, test prep for the standardized testing, testing before the testing, and workbooks about how to do the testing right.

Every year it got a little harder.

Then came Covid-19 and the response to it.

In one year the system nearly collapsed.

The only thing that kept us going was the tenacity of teachers.

They closed our classrooms and we figured out how to do the job from home with our laptops and home computers. We became experts overnight in Zoom, Google Meets, Google Classroom and every other file sharing, digital conference software there is.

And that would have been okay I guess – if the rest of society had held up its side of the bargain.

Immunologists told us we had to shelter in place but our governments didn’t provide the means to do so.

The economy needed a kickstart. People just got a kick.

And schools were caught in the maelstrom.

Many schools reopened unsafely. Not only did people get sick, but the quality of education was subordinate to babysitting services so parents could get back to nonessential jobs that kept their bosses showered in profit.

Too many school directors became like the mayor in Jaws, proudly announcing the beaches were open, then trying desperately to find any excuse for the mangled bodies washing up on shore other than a hungry shark.

I will never forget the calm certainty with which policymakers announced schools were reopening without even mentioning the impact on the teachers who still had to staff these schools and put themselves and their families at increase risk of infection. Nor will I forget the CDC advising that vaccinating teachers first was nice but not necessary.

However, as bad as all of that was, it was the insurrection at the Capitol that pushed me over the edge.

Here we had a group of white terrorists dressed up for comic-con proudly rushing our highest legislative body to kill lawmakers who wouldn’t perform a coup.

I had had enough.

Somewhere inside myself – as I tried to calm my students and explain the significance of what was happening – I promised that I would try to make a change.

If so few people tasked with making the important decisions couldn’t do it, I would offer to do it, myself.

If so many easily corrupted fools could cheer the destruction of democracy, I would do what I could to defend it.

So when the opportunity arose to run for County Council, I took it.

Like I said, it’s a strange position.

Allegheny County is one of the biggest counties in Pennsylvania second only to Philadelphia. Being on council would allow me to have a say in everything from transportation to law enforcement to business to – yes – education.

First, the area where I live – the Mon Valley – is made up of former steel towns left behind by the rest of the county. In most parts of the city, if you need to get somewhere, you can just take a bus. Not in the Mon Valley.

So many Port Authority routes have been cut that getting in to the city on public transportation is nearly an all day affair – if possible at all. I should know. My wife used to ride to work on the bus, but after the latest round of cuts, that become too hard to fathom.

On County Council, I could do something about that.

Then there’s our air quality – some of the worst in the state.

When the steel mills closed, we lost most of the smog and haze, but it didn’t last. With the fracking boom and well-meaning efforts to keep as many mills open as possible, the air became a thick, rusty tasting mess.

On County Council, I could do something about that.

Well-paying union jobs are harder to come by these days, and those that do exist shouldn’t require us to poison the environment. We have all these rivers, all these corridors free from trees or phone lines. We could build wind turbines on the shores and generate more power than we’d know what to do with. We could checker the rooftops with solar panels and not have to worry about the latest thunderstorm knocking out our power.

And doing so would require hiring people to build, maintain and improve this green infrastructure. No more sewage overflowing into the river during flood times. No more pollution from industries not required to monitor and regulate their output. No more lead from flaking paint getting into our food and water.

On County Council, I could do something about that.

Let’s not forget law enforcement.

The County Jail is located right in the middle of Pittsburgh, and the way it’s run is a disgrace.

About 80% of the people incarcerated there have not been convicted of any crime. They simply can’t afford cash bail, failed a drug test (often for something like marijuana) or violated our county’s inordinately long parole period. It’s ridiculously expensive not to mention inhumane. It costs $100 a day to keep someone in lockup. That’s $100 million a year or 27 cents from every dollar of county taxes collected.

We need to stop this madness, get civilian oversight of police and cut out the military style policing.

On County Council, I could do something about that.

And of course there’s education.

According to state law, community colleges are supposed to be bankrolled completely by the state, the county and student tuition. However, the state and the county have always shortchanged the college, only paying about 20% instead of the 33% they owe. The result has been an increased burden on students and families with rising tuition and fewer services. That’s appalling, especially in a county where one third of all residents have taken at least one class through Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC). I, myself, took a math course there when I was preparing to become a teacher. And my father-in-law was a teacher there until they cut his job.

Moreover, County Council plays a role in appointing people to boards and authorities including those that administer CCAC. Yet council has rarely appointed any educators or people who understand the profession.

On County Council, I could do something about that.

Which brings me to my final point.

What about public schools?

Does the county have any role to play in what happens to them?

At present, the answer is mostly no. But it doesn’t have to be.

In Pennsylvania, as in most states, public schools are primarily funded by local property taxes. So rich communities spend a boatload per student and poor communities scrape together whatever they can afford.

It’s a problem only the state and federal government can truly solve, but that doesn’t mean we’re helpless at the county level.

We have a $2 billion budget. We have an awful lot of big corporations that hide behind a non-profit status but act a lot more like for-profit companies.

We wouldn’t have to scrape together much to make a real difference in the lives of underserved students.

We could help them get pre-kindergarten services, decrease class size, increase arts and humanities, get more after-school tutoring

On County Council, I could do something about that, too.

So that’s why I’m running for office.

That’s why I’m willing to trade in a few nights from the classroom to the council chambers.

I’d still be a teacher. I wouldn’t be giving up my day job.

But if people see fit to support my candidacy, I could get a seat at the table, a chance to form coalitions to bring real change for the people of my district and the county as a whole.

That’s why I’m going door-to-door, introducing myself and asking for support.

I want to make a difference.

I want to be able to look my students in the eye with the full knowledge that I’m doing everything I can to ensure they have a future.

But I can’t do it alone.

We can only do it together.


Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

I’ve also 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!