The Best School Innovation Would Be More People

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Public schools thrive on innovation.

 

In nearly every classroom around the country you’ll find teachers discovering new ways to reach students and foster skills, understanding and creativity.

 

But if you pan out to the macro level, the overwhelming majority of innovations aren’t organic. They’re imposed on us by bureaucrats and functionaries from outside the classroom:

 

Education Technologies.

 

School privatization.

 

Standardized tests and Common Core.

 

For the last two decades, these are the kinds of innovations that have been forced on public schools at gun point.

 

And each and every one of them is pure bullshit.

 

They are corporate schemes written by the wealthy to cash in on education dollars for themselves. Big business hands them out to their paid political lapdogs to push through our state and federal legislatures to become laws and policies the rest of us have to obey.

 

They have nothing to do with helping students learn. Their purpose is to boost profits.

 

Just look at the difference between the ways the word innovation is defined.

 

Merriam Webster says the word signifies “the introduction of something new” or  “a new idea, method, or device: Novelty.”

 

But BusinessDictionary.com finds a tellingly distinct meaning:

 

“The process of translating an idea or invention into a good or service that creates value or for which customers will pay.”

 

 

It is that second business-friendly definition that has dominated our schools and narrowed our view until the only concept of advancement and revolution has been centered exclusively on the profit principle.

 

It is time to put a stop to all of it.

 

No more useless iPads, apps, software and so-called “personalized” educational technologies that do little more than allow marketers to steal student data and profit off of a new form of school where everything can be provided by technology at a cost while the quality of services takes a nosedive. No more technology for technology’s sake instead of using it as a tool to promote authentic learning.

 

No more laughable charter and voucher schools where education budgets become slush funds for corporations who don’t have to provide the same standard of services to students or the community. No more operating without  transparency or accountability.

 

No more outmoded and disproven standardized tests. No more canned academic standards that strip classroom educators of autonomy while reducing effective teaching behind a smoke screen of test scores that merely conflate the economic situation students live in with their academic abilities. No more corporations creating bogus multiple choice assessments whose only utility is to demonstrate how many more test prep materials we need to buy from the same company or industry.

 

It’s too bad we’re not interested in that FIRST definition of innovation, or at least innovation tied with the motive of providing quality education for children.

 

If we were interested in that kind of real, authentic school reform, we would focus on things that really matter. And chief among those would be one main thing, one major innovation that would be easy to accomplish but could change the fabric of our schools from top to bottom – people.

 

After all, that is what our public schools need the most – more people.

 

Have you walked into a public school lately? Peak your head into the faculty room. It’s like snatching a glance of the flying Dutchman. There are plenty of students, but at the front of the overcrowded classrooms, you’ll find a skeleton crew.

 

Today’s public schools employ 250,000 fewer people than they did before the recession of 2008–09. Meanwhile enrollment has increased by 800,000 students. So if we want today’s children to have not better but just the same quality of services kids received in this country only a decade ago, we’d need to hire almost 400,000 more teachers!

 

 

Instead, our children are packed into classes of 25, 30 even 40 students!

 

 

And the solution is really pretty simple – people not apps. Human beings willing and able to get the job done.

 

If we were fighting a war, we’d find ways to increase the number of soldiers in our military. Well, this is a war on ignorance – so we need real folks to get in the trenches and win the battle.

 

We need teachers, counselors, aides and administrators promoted from within and not functionaries from some think tank’s management program.

 

We need more people with masters or even more advanced teaching degrees – not business students with a three-week crash course in education under their belts who are willing to teach for a few years before becoming a self-professed expert and then writing education policy in the halls of government.

 

We need people from the community taking a leadership role deciding how our schools should be run, not simply appointing corporate lackeys to these positions at charter or voucher schools and narrowing down the only choices parents have to “Take It” or “Leave It.”

 

We need people. Real live people who can come into our schools and do the actual work with students.

 

And that means money. It means cutting the crap boondoggles to corporations and spending on flesh and blood reform.

 

It means fixing the funding inequality at the heart of nearly every public school in the country. No more spending tens or hundreds of thousands on wealthy students and merely hundreds on poor ones. No more dilapidated school buildings for the poor and palaces for the rich. No more socialistic pulling together for the wealthy and rugged individualism for the poor.

 

THIS is how you solve our education crisis – a crisis not caused by falling test scores or failing schools. A crisis caused by vulture capitalists preying on our educational institutions and our students as if they were some bloated carcass on the side of the road and not our best hope for the future.

 

It’s really that simple.

 

It’s a matter of ideology based on empiricism not “common sense” Laissezfaire maxims of “This is how we’ve always done it.”

 

We’ve been trying so-called corporate education reform for decades now – through Bush and Obama and now Trump. It doesn’t work.

 

It’s time we stopped making excuses for failing policies and got back to the best thing that works.

 

People.

 


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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Schools That Hinder Opt Outs Are Participating in Their Own Demise

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You can’t be a public school and still ignore the will of the people.

 

That’s the problem at too many districts across the country where narrow-minded administrators are waging an all out war on parents opting their children out of standardized testing.

 

The federal government still requires all states to give high stakes tests to public school students in grades 3-8 and once in high school. So states require their districts to give the tests – despite increasing criticism over the assessments’ validity, age appropriateness, racial and economic bias and the very manner in which the scores are used to justify narrowing the curriculum, school privatization, funding cuts, teacher firings and closing buildings serving the most underprivileged children.

 

In response, parents from coast to coast continue to fight the havoc being forced upon their communities by refusing the tests for their children.

 

Yet instead of welcoming this rush of familial interest, at some schools we find principals, superintendents and every level of functionary in between doing whatever they can to impede parental will.

 

Most administrators don’t actually go so far as out right refusal of a parent’s demand to opt out their children.

 

That’s especially true in states where the right to opt out is codified in the law.

 

Three states – California, Utah, and Wisconsin – have enacted legislation permitting parents to opt their children out of standardized tests. However, at least five others, including my home of Pennsylvania, have laws respecting parents’ opt-out wishes for certain reasons. In others states there may not be specific legislation permitting it, but none have laws forbidding it either. At worst, test refusal is an act of civil disobedience like tearing down a confederate monument or freedom rides.

 

In Pennsylvania, the school code specifies that parents can refuse the test for their children for “religious reasons.” Those reasons and the religion in question never need be named. Citing “religious reasons” is rationale enough.

 

Consider:

 

“PA School Code Chapter 4.4(d):

 

(4)  …If upon inspection of a State assessment parents or guardians find the assessment to be in conflict with their religious belief and wish their students to be excused from the assessment, the right of the parents or guardians will not be denied upon written request that states the objection to the applicable school district superintendent, charter school chief executive officer or AVTS director.”

 

So when a parent provides just such an objection, it’s there in black and white that administrators must comply with that request.

 

However, some administrators are trying to game the system. When the other students are taking the state standardized test, the opt out students are rounded up and forced instead to take a district created assessment that just so happens to look almost exactly like the test their parents explicitly asked they not be subjected to.

 

So in my state, some parents have opted their children out of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) or Keystone Exams, but administrators are requiring them instead to take an assessment they cobbled together themselves that closely resembles the PSSA and/or Keystone Exam.

 

They take a little bit from the PSSA, a bit from the Partnership for Assessment of Reading Readiness for College and Careers (PARRC) test, a question or two from the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) and voila! A brand new Frankenstein’s monster of standardized assessment.

 

But that’s not all. Some districts go one step further. They tie the results of this bogus “district” assessment with class placement. The results of the faux test are used to determine whether students are placed in the remedial, academic or the honors class in a given subject (English Language Arts, Math or Science) in the next grade.

 

Does that violate the law? Parents did not want their children to be assessed with a standardized test, and that’s exactly what the school did anyway. The only difference is the name of the standardized test they used.

 

I am not a lawyer, but I’ve contacted several. The answer I’ve gotten is that this may not be technically illegal, but it does at least violate the spirit of the law.

 

Districts are given a certain latitude to determine their own curriculum and assessments. This kind of runaround is ugly, petty and possibly just on the line of legality.

 

But our administrators are not done. Not only are they requiring such students to take a cobbled together standardized assessment, when children are done, they are forced to do hours of test prep for the state assessment that their parents refused for them.

 

Imagine opting out of the PSSA and then being forced to spend that time preparing for that very test. Imagine refusing to allow your children to take the Keystone Exam but then having them forced to prepare for it instead.

 

Petty, small-minded, punitive and – in this case – possibly illegal.

 

The school code is specifically against this. From the same section (4.4):

 

“(d) School entities shall adopt policies to assure that parents or guardians have the following:

 

(3) …The right to have their children excused from specific instruction that conflicts with their religious beliefs, upon receipt by the school entity of a written request from the parent or guardians.”

 

Again, I am not a lawyer, but it seems pretty clear that this, at least, is a violation of the law.

 

They can request their children not be given specific instruction – in this case test prep. Yet that’s exactly what administrators are doing anyway.

 

So what are opt out parents to do? Should they lawyer up?

 

Possibly. Though no one likes to have to take their own school to court. Any monetary damages thus recovered come from the collective pot that should go to help all students learn. It’s unfortunate that some administrators play so freely with taxpayer dollars when it would be a simple matter to safeguard them AND respect parental rights.

 

A better course of action may be for opt out parents in such situations to seek redress directly from the school board.

 

School directors are elected officials, after all. They may not be appraised of the actions of the administrators in their employ.

 

And that is really where the buck stops. If school directors don’t approve of this sort of chicanery, they can easily put a stop to it.

 

These are public schools. They are supposed to be run by the public. Our democracy is supposed to be what defines us. We are run by the people, for the people.

 

We’re not some charter school where school directors are appointed to their positions, hold their meetings in private and rarely if ever have to account for their decisions.

 

It’s shocking that in an age when public schools are often set against privatized ones that we’d allow such foolishness.

 

We need to set ourselves apart. Instead of denying parental requests, we should go out of our way to accommodate them.

 

Parents could, after all, remove their children and try their luck elsewhere.

 

At charter schools, they would probably get an even worse welcome. After all, most such schools pride themselves on their test scores and test prep curriculum having kicked out any students who don’t score well.

 

However, parents of means could enroll their children in private or parochial schools that are not required by law to even take these high stakes tests.

 

I’m not recommending that course of action. These schools are expensive, restrictive, insular and extremely racially and economically segregated.

 

But how short sighted must public school administrators be if they play these sorts of games with parents and children in just such an environment?

 

Any public school leader who wars against opt outs is participating in their own schools demise.

 

This is doubly so at schools serving high poverty populations.

 

Children of the poor and minorities historically get lower test scores than those from wealthier families. These tests are used to justify budget cuts and firing school staff – including these administrators.

 

Opting out of testing is one way to deny this data to the state so that they can’t use it against the school.

 

Certainly having high numbers of students opting out can, itself, become an excuse for punitive action from the state. But nowhere in the country has it ever actually happened.

 

State legislatures, too, are run by majority rule. The same with the federal government.

 

Our lawmakers have no authority to tell voters they can’t opt their children out of testing. It is the voters who are the boss.

 

We’d all best remember that.


 

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

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Sell Your Soul to the Testocracy: Kamala Harris’s Faustian Teacher Raises

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I love the idea of Kamala Harris’ plan to give teachers a pay raise.
 

But once we get past ideas, it’s way more troubling.

 

The California Senator and Democratic Presidential hopeful is proposing a $13,500 pay increase for the average teacher, with the exact number based on the size of each state’s pay gap.
 

That’s $315 billion more over a decade through federal matching funds, which amounts to a 23 percent salary increase for most educators.

 

Yes, please!

 
I could certainly use a raise.
 

But as Joe Moore said, “You can’t trust a promise someone makes while they’re drunk, in love, hungry, or running for office.”

 
And Harris IS running for office.

 

With this policy she’s wooing the national teachers unions and filling the neoliberal seat left by Hillary Clinton in 2016.

 
I love my union, but its leadership is like a college kid during spring break – ready to jump into bed with anyone who says the right words.
 

The fact of the matter is this plan also is favored by the people out to destroy my profession from the inside out.
 

Arne Duncan likes it.
 

Yes, THAT Arne Duncan!

 
Obama’s first Education Secretary. The guy who thought Hurricane Katrina was the best thing to happen to New Orleans because it allowed the government to close the public schools and replace them with charter schools.

The man who held federal grant money hostage unless schools enacted his unproven and disastrous corporate driven education reforms.
 

 
The man who encouraged pushing out teachers of color who had four year education degrees in favor of mostly white Teach for America temps with a few weeks crash course training.
 

 
The man who encouraged a rapid increase in high stakes standardized testing, narrowed curriculum, let class sizes balloon and decreased authentic lessons.

 
THAT Arne Duncan wrote this about Harris’ plan on Twitter:
 

 

“Radical idea: pay the professionals we entrust to teach, nurture and mentor our children a better salary!”

 

 

 

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How to reconcile the two?

 

 
I draw your attention to what he said on a recent book tour:

 

 

 

“If we were willing to invest in high-quality early childhood education, if we’re willing to pay great teachers and great principals significantly more, the benefits to our society, the benefits to our economy, the benefits to our democracy I think would be extraordinary…

[But] Money is never enough. So you’ll never hear me say, it’s only about money. For me it’s always about your high expectations as well as high support. And we have to hold ourselves accountable for great results. When schools aren’t working, we have to be willing to challenge the status quo. So investment is part of it, but high expectations have to go with that, and we have to hold ourselves accountable as educators for results, absolutely.”

 

 
So for Duncan this plan is entirely consistent with corporate education reform.
 

 
In fact, it makes sense as a continuation of those policies.

 

 

When privatization cheerleaders like Duncan talk about “high quality teachers” and “accountability” what they really mean are strings attached.

 

 

In this case, they probably mean merit pay – giving bonuses to teachers whose students get high test scores.

 

 

It’s a terrible idea because it encourages bad behavior from teachers, administrators and districts, which in turn hurts kids.

 

 
Having all your teachers fight over the rich white kids who get the highest test scores doesn’t help the struggling students. It just means fewer educators will want to teach the underprivileged because they can’t take the financial hit that comes with it.
 

 
The result is test prep all day, every day.

 

 
I want a raise, but not if it means I have to bastardize my own profession down to that!
 

 
And it’s not just Duncan who loves this idea.

 

 

Catherine Brown, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress (CAP), actually helped Harris write this proposal.

 

 

“It could be transformative in terms of how we think about elevating and modernizing the teaching profession and the federal role in doing so,” Brown said.

 

 

CAP is a neoliberal think tank that worked closely with the Obama and Clinton administrations. And Brown is also the co-author of “The Progressive Case for Charter Schools”.
 

 
Any plan to raise teacher salary that is consistent with increased privatization is inherently suspect.
 

 
You can’t champion authentic public schools and public school teachers while also pushing for more institutions run without the same transparency, democratic government, and enrollment standards. If you think schools should be able to cherrypick which students to accept, they should be run by appointed bureaucrats, and it’s fine to cut student services while pocketing the profits, you aren’t a friend of public education.

 

 

In an article she co-wrote published by CAP called “Fact Sheet: Yes, Increase the Salaries of All Teachers,” she made it clear that merit pay is a good idea.

 

 

She wrote:

 

 

“…there is still debate surrounding whether all teachers need a raise, or if it is enough to make changes for a select group of teachers through differentiated or merit-based pay. While differentiated and merit-based pay can help alleviate some specific teacher shortages, such as those in subjects or schools that are high-needs, they are not a substitute for higher base pay.”

 

 

Ultimately, Brown comes out in favor of an across the board salary increase for teachers, but in her view merit pay is part of that solution.

 

 
This is a backdoor for the same snake oil the privatizaters have been selling for years.

 

 

As education blogger Peter Greene points out, the language used in Harris’ proposal is right from the neoliberal playbook. It is full of the same euphemisms and code words that have signaled school privatization, high stakes testing and merit pay.
 

 
Consider this gem:

 

 

“Every child deserves a world-class education, regardless of their ZIP code. Of all in-school factors that impact their success, there’s nothing more important than our teachers.”

 

 
“World class education” and  “regardless of ZIP code” mean charter schools galore. And the only “success” these folks are interested in is high test scores.
 

 

Or this:
 

 

“Our plan will include a multi-billion dollar investment in programs that help elevate the teaching profession and support principals and other school leaders. This includes high-quality teacher and principal residencies early-career induction programs that pair new teachers with mentors and master teachers, career ladder models that allow for advancement opportunities for teacher leaders, and “Grow Your Own” programs that help increase teacher diversity.”

 

 

Greene says that the term “Career ladders” is a red flag because it usually denotes career stagnation. It’s code for adding more duties and responsibilities on teachers without actually furthering their careers.

 

 

If I’m honest, these are all red flags.
 

 

As much as I want a raise, I’m doubtful Harris’ plan would actually accomplish much other than selling my soul to the testocracy.
 

 
Ultimately that’s what this is – a Faustian bargain.

 

 
We need to invest in greater per pupil spending and let that translate into higher teacher salaries.

 

 
We need equitable and sustainable funding formulas that aren’t tied to testing or that don’t open the door for privatization.

 

 

 
And most of all, we need an understanding of the real challenges in education and not a piece of parchment where teachers are supposed to sign in blood.

 


 

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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Tying Kids’ Lunch Money to Test Scores? It’s No Crueler Than High Stakes Testing

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UPDATED

 

Most people agree that the best way to get kids to read isn’t by threatening to take away their lunch.

 
But an Arkansas state Representative is threatening to do just that – sort of.

 

Rep. Alan Clark, a West Memphis Republican, proposed a bill that would cut “Lunch Funding” for impoverished children in state schools where students struggle with standardized reading tests.

 

However, he’s not proposing we take away kids’ food.

 

If passed, the bill would reduce a district’s National School Lunch funding – a state mechanism that distributes extra resources to schools with high concentrations of students who qualify for free lunch programs – if student test scores don’t rise over a period of time. This would cut things like professional development and tutoring.

 

However, this has been confused with the federal program of the same name and drawn almost universal condemnation.

 

“I would never starve kids,” Clark said. But he would starve their schools of resources.

 

Either way, his proposal is obviously unfair.

 

Only a monster would think you can incentivize reading comprehension by threats and coercion.

 

It’s like saying “You’d better understand this complex puzzle OR ELSE!

 

Learning doesn’t work that way.

 

But Clark sees things from a different perspective – that of business and industry. He told KTHV, a state television network:

 

“In most businesses I would be laughed at for suggesting such a small goal. But sadly many educators act like I have asked them to storm the beaches at Normandy… It appears I have much more faith in our schools than many of our educators do.”

 

This is what happens when you elect people without empathy or intelligence to public office.

 

I wonder if Clark would do a better job representing the people of his state if they threatened to lower his salary based on his popularity polls.

 

It says a lot about us that people react so viscerally to the inaccurate idea that Clark is suggestion we withhold food from bad test takers. That’s unthinkable. But it isn’t really that much more cruel than the way we actually treat students.

 

Our entire federal education policy is based on just such inhuman treatment of children.

 

After all, we still hold kids, schools and teachers “accountable” by student test scores. The consequences though aren’t an empty belly. They’re crowded classrooms and fewer tutors.

 

In every state of the union, students are required to take high stakes standardized tests in reading and math. If they don’t do well, we take away their resources.

 

Sure, we don’t deny them food, but we deny them many other things they need to learn.

 

We lower funding to their schools so that they have larger class sizes, fewer teachers, narrowed curriculum, etc. We threaten to withhold their diplomas and any chance of ever earning more than minimum wage. In many cases we tie teachers salaries, reputations and even employment to these same scores. Sometimes we even take away their parents right to govern their children’s schools so that all administrative decisions are made by state flunkies. Or we force their authentic public schools to become charter institutions so that spending decisions happen behind closed doors without accountability and even whether a student can enroll or not becomes a decision of the private management company and not simply something that is the students’ by right of living in the district.

 

It may not be as severe as the idea of Test Scores for Food, but it’s the same in kind.

 

In both cases, we tell kids – “Increase test scores, OR ELSE!” It’s just a difference of consequence.

 

Call me crazy, but that’s nearly as cruel and wrongheaded.

 

Keep in mind, all of this takes for granted that standardized tests are adequate and fair assessments of student learning in the first place. This has never been proven. In fact, it has been cast in serious doubt after more than a century of academic study. Ask anyone to narrow their thinking down to four prepackaged choices and you’ll find them trying to guess what the test-maker wanted more than what the truth is. Critical thinking, analysis, innovation – these escape any multiple choice exam.

 

But even if we go with this empty assumption, it flies in the face of everything we know about the way human beings acquire knowledge and demonstrate skills.

 

When kids struggle with learning, you can’t get them to do better with threats. Or at least you can only do that if those children are doing poorly on purpose.

 

Kids who just aren’t trying hard enough might be incentivized by threats. But even then it transforms learning into a means to an end. Once you do that, you destroy their natural curiosity. Learning will never again be an end in itself. It will be a menial task you only do to get something else that you really want.

 

However, in most cases kids don’t struggle because they’re just lazy. They don’t need an incentive. They need help. They need resources.

 

It’s no wonder that children in rich and middle class neighborhoods have less trouble getting higher test scores. They have lower class sizes, more teachers, wider curriculum, more extra curricular activities, access to tutors, counselors, nurses and after school programs.

 

Poor kids don’t. THAT’S why they struggle.

 

And what do we do when that happens? We take away the meager resources they have!

 

If a teacher tried any of this crap in her classroom, she’d be fired for dereliction of duty – and she’d deserve it!

 

Just imagine if you told the kids who were struggling in your class that they didn’t deserve tutoring. Instead you were going to give extra help to the kids who got the best scores on the exam!

 

And if the struggling children continued to do poorly, you took away their desks. Now they had to sit on the floor!

 

THIS is the kind of thing we’re doing to our children nationwide.

 

It’s called TEST AND PUNISH, and it’s federal policy – often backed up by state and local law.

 

Moreover, it’s supported by both Republicans and Democrats alike.

 

We may not be  denying poor kids a meal, but we are denying them an equal opportunity at an education just the same.

 

It’s way past time that we wake up and see that.

 

We can point and jeer at what we thought this regressive Arkansas nitwit was doing, but we’re really pointing and jeering at ourselves.

 


NOTE: An earlier version of this story – like many in the state and national press – wrongly suggested that Clark wanted to withhold lunches from poor children based on test scores.


Still can’t get enough Gadfly? 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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What Will It Take to Get Equitable School Funding in Pennsylvania – a Statewide Teachers Strike!?

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What if every public school teacher in Pennsylvania refused to come to work on Monday?

What if instead they took to the streets with signs and placards, bullhorns and chanted slogans.

Maybe:

“Hey! HEY! Ho! HO! This Unfair Funding Has to Go!”
Or:

“What do we want!? FAIR FUNDING! When do we want it? YESTERDAY!”

The problem is that from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and all places in between, the Keystone state has the most unequal school funding system in the country. And no one in Harrisburg seems able and/or willing to do a damn thing about it.

Nor is anyone going to do much again this year.

Gov. Tom Wolf didn’t mention it once last week during the Democrat’s first budget speech to the legislature after being re-elected.

Don’t get me wrong. He’s not exactly ignoring the issue. His newly proposed budget asks for a $200 million increase in education funding.

But that’s far from what’s needed to heal the billions of dollars schools lost during the massive budget cuts of Tom Corbett, the former Republican governor, nor does it address the underlying inequity of how we fund these schools in the first place.

Sadly, failing to fix education funding gaps is par for the course in Harrisburg.

Every year Democrats complain about the problem, suggest repairing it, and then are denied everything but an incremental increase by the Republican-controlled legislature.

Every year, that is, until this one.

This is the first time Democrats have seemingly given up on solving the problem and just proposed the incremental increase that they suspect Republicans will approve.

It’s a pitiful situation to accept as status quo.

One could argue that it’s the electorate’s fault. After all, if they keep voting for Republicans that make it clear they don’t support equity in education, that must represent the will of the people.

Except it doesn’t. Fair funding is popular among voters everywhere in the Commonwealth. And it’s one of the reasons they elected and re-elected Wolf. However, when it comes to state government, legislative districts are so gerrymandered, the will of the people gets ignored.

In November, Democrats got 381,000 more Pennsylvania votes than Republicans to represent them in the state House. But Republicans still kept the majority.

So what can you do when your voice is smothered by red tape?

You can turn to the Democratic governor who is the only thing stopping the opposition from gutting schools even further. You can ask him to push lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to get off their collective asses and do their jobs.

But Wolf does not seem ready to spend his political capital in this way.

According to an Associated Press article by Marc Levy:

 

“For his part, Wolf’s office says he remains open to a discussion with the Legislature on making school funding fairer. However, someone else may have to carry the torch.”

Just who could this “someone else” be?

As usual, it may have to be the Commonwealth’s teachers.

As in every state, when governments and communities can’t or won’t do right by their children, educators step up.

We buy classroom supplies, we feed the hungry, we dry the tears, and when all else fails we put our jobs on the line and strike until school boards, legislatures and governors do the right thing.

Some have suggested that’s what’s needed here.

There have been at least nine large-scale teachers strikes across various states in the last 12 months. This includes actions in Arizona, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Virginia, West Virginia, and – most recently – Los Angeles, California, and Denver, Colorado.

They began in Republican dominated states but have spread to those governed mostly by Democrats.

The Denver strike ended Thursday morning with an agreement between the Denver Classroom Teachers Association and Denver Public Schools. After three days on the picket line, teachers may be returning to their classrooms having achieved their goals.

In today’s climate of dark money and political gridlock, collective action seems the only way to get anything done.

Perhaps we need an army of the state’s 123,000 educators to walk out of their classes in unison demanding fair funding for our most vulnerable students.

Such a move would be unprecedented. To my knowledge, teachers strikes in the Commonwealth have always involved educators and staff at one of the hundreds of districts, not a unified action of teachers throughout the state. A movement on this scale would require cooperation and buy in from the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT). And union bosses are rarely motivated to endorse such measures without being forced to it by grassroots pressure from members.

Moreover, it would put teachers unions in a dangerous position. Each district contract has a no strike/no lockout clause guaranteeing that membership won’t walkout during the life of a contract. Where we’re seeing these major nationwide strikes either the contract has expired like in Denver and Los Angeles or they’re so-called “Right-to-Work” states without these explicit worker protections.

It’s doubtful the state could actually fire and replace the more than 100,000 teachers in its employ, but the worst case scenario for a state-wide strike in Pennsylvania would be the invalidation of all existing contracts, the loss of arbitration, grievances, collective bargaining and even putting retirement at risk.

That’s a lot to ask of educators – though creative organizers could find ways to avoid or mitigate the risk – for instance with a sick out or mass demonstrations on weekends or holidays.

I – for one – am sick of watching my middle school students overstuffed into classrooms with crumbling infrastructure and meager resources while a few miles down the road the rich kids have small classes and schools that look like palaces. I’ll bet there are a lot of teachers and parents who feel the same way.

Perhaps it’s time for us to take to the streets.

Perhaps it’s long past time.

When I say the state is the most inequitable in the country, that’s not hyperbole.

It’s according to several studies done over multiple years by groups like the Associated Press and the U.S. Department of Education.

More than any other, the Keystone State gives a boost to rich kids and a boot to poor ones.

Why?

You have to understand where the money comes from to educate kids in America.

Public schools have basically three revenue streams – the federal government, the state and local neighborhoods.

The federal government pays about 10% of the cost across the board. The problem in Pennsylvania is that the state isn’t meeting its obligation thereby forcing local neighborhoods to shoulder most of the cost.

Pennsylvania state government pays a ridiculously low percentage of the bill – 38%.  That’s the 46th lowest in the country. The national average is 51%.

In rich neighborhoods, this is no problem. In middle class communities, it’s not much of one. But in poor communities, there isn’t enough money to make up the difference. Their kids have no choice but to do without.

So kids from rich communities get everything. Kids from middle class communities get most of what they need. And kids from poor communities get whatever scraps are left at the bottom of the barrel.

It’s trickle down economics – Pennsylvania style.

And it’s an intolerable situation!

According to an Associated Press analysis of 2016-17 state data on school district spending, middle class districts spend as much as $673 more per student than poor districts. Rich districts spend about $4,300 more per student.

 

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According to the U.S. Department of Education, poor schools in the Commonwealth spend 33 percent less on their students than rich ones. That’s a significantly larger difference than the next-closest state, Vermont, where the spending difference between rich and poor schools is only 18 percent. Three other states — Illinois, Missouri and Virginia — have gaps of 17 percent.

 

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We can’t keep kicking minorities and the destitute to the curb. We can’t keep giving the rich and middle class every opportunity to succeed while depriving the poor of that same chance.

Wolf, the Democrats and a few Republicans have tried several times to fix the problem.

First, they attempted large increases in education funding to catch up to where funding would be if the Corbett cuts hadn’t happened coupled with the rising costs caused by inflation.

In 2015, the governor proposed a $400 million increase but funded it with a tax increase on the rich that almost all Republicans refused.

Then he tried to bring the state share of education funding up to 50% by using a more equitable tax plan. He proposed cutting property taxes in poorer districts and replacing them with higher state taxes elsewhere. However, Republicans saw it as an opportunity to completely eliminate property taxes and cut school funding even further. It ended in a stalemate and another incremental education increase.

If the legislature wouldn’t approve the necessary spending increases to heal the cuts it made under Corbett, Wolf at least wanted lawmakers to approve dividing the money up more fairly among the state’s 500 school districts.

A funding formula had been approved four years ago to reflect changes in school district attendance and wealth that had been ignored for a quarter century. This would result in more support for poorer schools and less for wealthier ones.

And there’s the sticking point. Lawmakers wouldn’t approve a plan that would provide less funding to 70% of the state’s districts – but neither would they increase school spending to make up the difference.

You’d think that such legislative gridlock might make voters lose hope. However, there is a mass movement of people at the grassroots level demanding change for our children.

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

The lawsuit – now in its fourth year – is scheduled for trial before the state Supreme Court in 2020. So at best, relief is still a ways in the future. Many are hoping justices will order the legislature to dramatically increase its investment in public schools. But the outcome is certainly not a sure thing.

Could striking teachers in red and blue states be showing us in Pennsylvania the solution?

Might it be time to raise our teacher voices in the purple states, too?

And is there a path to equity through collective action that doesn’t hang teachers out to dry?

 


 

Still can’t get enough Gadfly? 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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Pittsburgh Christian Academy Tries to Become a Charter School to Cash in on Taxpayer Funding

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The line between public and private school is getting awfully thin in Pittsburgh.

 

City public school directors received a request from Imani Christian Academy, a religious school in the East Hills, to be allowed to transform into Imani Academy Charter School for the Fall term of 2019.

 

Though parochial schools have metamorphosed into charter schools in Florida, Tennessee and Washington, D.C., this would be the first such transformation in Pennsylvania, according to Ana Meyers, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.

 

The change would require Imani to give up its religious curriculum in exchange for being fully funded by taxpayer dollars.

 

However, there are numerous red flags in the school’s application that make one wonder if operators are being entirely honest about giving up a faith-based curriculum.

 

First, there is the proposal by the school, itself.

 

The application does not specify that religious values will be taught in the classroom. However, its personnel budget lists a comparative religion teacher on staff. The list of proposed teachers also includes a middle/high school religious studies teacher.

 

That’s not exactly common practice at most public schools though teaching about religion in a secular context is allowed.

 

According to the Anti-defamation League’s Website:

 

“Public schools may not teach religion, although teaching about religion in a secular context is permitted. The Bible may be taught in a school, but only for its historical, cultural or literary value and never in a devotional, celebratory or doctrinal manner, or in such a way that encourages acceptance of the Bible as a religious document.”

 

Even so, it’s awfully convenient that a school whose mission statement currently includes “We share Christ with our children daily and seek to help them grow into mature Christians” would somehow magically become secular overnight.

 

If Imani’s charter is approved, it would be required to discontinue any religious component in its curriculum. The state school code requires even charter schools to be “nonsectarian in all operations.” The proposed academy would not be permitted to display any religious objects or symbols on the premises.

 

Yet one wonders who will check to make sure this actually happens.

 

Charter schools are not required to be nearly as transparent as fully public schools. They are not required to have open meetings of school directors, release their documents for public inspection or any of a host of other safeguards that you’ll find standard at the state’s hundreds of fully public districts.

 

Pennsylvania charter schools have had operators embezzle millions of dollars from taxpayers to buy private jets, apartments and jewelry. It took investigators years to uncover such graft.

 

Will the few auditors tasked with keeping charter schools honest even be equipped to determine whether parochial schools suddenly turned charter actually refrain from ministering to students?

 

According to Public Source, a nonprofit digital newspaper covering the Pittsburgh area, one of the qualities Imani is looking for in an operator for its charter school is the ability to use the school building after-school hours for religious instruction and activities.

 

So during the day, there will be an entirely secular K-12 school at the site of the present day parochial school that just happens to teach comparative religious studies. Then at a certain time of day, it will transform into an optional religious school offering church functions!?

 

This is a violation of the Separation of Church and State waiting to happen.

 

But it’s not only the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution that is in danger of being trampled.

 

Imani’s proposal is not fiscally responsible.

 

The charter application proposes its CEO/head of school be paid a salary of $145,000 a year for an institution that would enroll merely 230 students.

 

Pittsburgh Public School Superintendent Dr. Anthony Hamlet earns a salary of $210,000 a year and he oversees a district with 24,652 students!

 

The proposed academy would also employ a principal at $85,000 annual salary.

 

That’s not exactly good reimbursement of services for the outlay of cash taxpayers are expected to pay.

 

Imani has struggled financially for several years.

 

In 2014, the school had more than $400,000 in additional expenses over its revenue, according to its form 990 filed with the IRS. The very next year, it had a budget surplus of almost the same amount. By 2016 – the most recent year on file – its expenses again were more than its revenue – this time by more than $500,000.

 

Imani CEO and Head of School Paulo Nzambi explained  the up and down budgeting to state officials in 2017 this way. The parochial school relied on the state’s defacto school voucher program – the Education Improvement Tax Credit. However, payments were delayed resulting in the use of a line of credit to pay bills.

 

It’s just such financial uncertainties that are pushing Imani to become a charter school in the first place. Even with school vouchers, parochial schools rely heavily on tuition from parents. However, you always know where the money is coming from in a charter school. Like religious and private schools, these institutions are privately managed – but like public schools they’re funded entirely by taxpayers.

 

Before setting up shop, any new charter school in Pennsylvania must get the approval of the school board from the district where it would be located. If the board does not approve the application, charter school administrators can appeal to the state Charter Appeals Board.

 

Pittsburgh school board held a public hearing on Imani’s application in December and earlier this month. Next, the district’s review team will offer its suggestions on the application. District solicitor Ira Weiss says the board is scheduled to vote on the matter at its Feb. 27 meeting.

 

If approved, the district would be required to pay for each student at the new charter school based on the district’s per-student spending formula.

 

The Pittsburgh district already pays approximately $82.8 million – about 13 percent of its total budget – for charter school tuition.

 

Imani Christian Academy currently operates out of the former East Hills Elementary School building, which it purchased from the city school district for $1 million in 2008.

 

The objections brought up here are really just the tip of the iceberg.

 

The proposal leaves many questions unanswered. For instance, though the new academy would be located within the geographical boundaries of the Pittsburgh Public School District, where would it get its students from? Would current students at the religious school get preferential enrollment – and what if they don’t already live in and pay taxes to Pittsburgh?

 

Let’s hope Pittsburgh school directors do the right thing and deny this request.


 

Still can’t get enough Gadfly? 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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Ten of 15 Cyber Charter Schools in PA Are Operating Without a Charter – Close Them All

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Cyber charter schools are an experiment that failed.

 

 

It’s time to pull the plug and recoup our losses.

 

 

First, let’s get straight exactly what we’re talking about here.

 

 

Like all charter schools, these are contracted institutions. In fact, that’s what charter means – they’re independent businesses that sign a deal with the state to teach kids.

 

 

So they’re publicly financed but privately run. And in the case of cyber charters, they agree to educate children online without the benefit of a physical building.

 

 

Students access lessons via computer or other device, submit work electronically, get virtual feedback and assessment.

 

 

At best, these institutions are the grade school equivalent of the University of Phoenix – good only for independent, self-motivated learners. At worst, they’re the kiddie version of Trump University – a total scam.

 

 

In Pennsylvania, 10 of the state’s 15 cyber charter schools are operating with expired charters, according to a report by the Philadelphia Inquirer.

 

That’s incredibly significant – especially for an industry that enrolls about 35,000 students across the state.

 

These are charter schools operating without a charter. They only get the right to operate because a local school district or the state has signed a contract allowing them to do so.

 

If you hire a plumber to fix your toilet, you give him the right to enter your house and do what needs to be done. That doesn’t mean the plumber can walk in anytime he feels like it. There is a limited term of service. Once that term is up, the plumber needs to get out.

 

In the case of these cyber charters, the authorizer is the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE).

 

Charters are initially issued for three to five years. They are an essential contract between the schools and the supervisory body. The school details how it will operate, what curriculum and education strategies will be used, etc.

 

 

The state has the option to revoke the charter if the school violates its agreement or fails to meet requirements for student performance or fiscal management.

 

 

After the initial period, charters must be renewed every five years in the state.

 

 

Yet for the majority of the Keystone state’s cyber charter schools, this has not happened. The charter agreements have been left to lapse without any decision being made by state officials to renew or cancel them.

 

 

Some of the reluctance to decide may stem from the fact that the state Charter Appeal Board – the body which decides on appeals of charter applications – are all serving out expired terms, themselves.  They were all appointed by the previous governor, Republican Tom Corbett, a notable privatization ideologue.

 

 

The current Governor Tom Wolf, a Democrat now elected to his second term of office, still hasn’t gotten around to appointing new ones.

 

 

Another issue gumming up the works could be staffing issues at PDE that make it impossible to handle the reviews in a timely manner. It could be because the cyber charter schools have not provided all the data required of them by the state for the review to be completed on time. Or it could be because state officials are struggling with a fair and adequate metric with which to assess these schools.

 

 

CYBER CHARTER’S DISMAL ACADEMIC RECORD

 

 

To be frank, the latter option has to weigh heavily on state auditors. After all, it’s no secret that these schools are an educational disaster. On-line schools in Ohio, Georgia, Indiana, Nevada and New Mexico are all being closed by their respective states.

 

Study after study consistently shows that cyber charters are much less effective than traditional public schools – heck! They’re even less effective than brick and mortar charter schools!

 

A recent nationwide study by Stanford University found that cyber charters provide 180 days less of math instruction and 72 days less of reading instruction than traditional public schools.

 

Keep in mind that there are only 180 days in an average school year. So cyber charters provide less math instruction than not going to school at all.

 

 

The same study found that 88 percent of cyber charter schools have weaker academic growth than similar brick and mortar schools.

 

Student-to-teacher ratios average about 30:1 in online charters, compared to 20:1 for brick and mortar charters and 17:1 for traditional public schools.

 

 

Researchers concluded that these schools have an “overwhelming negative impact” on students.

 

And these results were duplicated almost exactly by subsequent studies from Penn State University in 2016 (enrolling a student in a Pennsylvania cyber charter school is equal to “roughly 90 fewer days of learning in reading and nearly 180 fewer days of learning in math”) and the National Education Policy Center in 2017 (cyber charters “performed significantly worse than feeder schools in both reading and math”).

 

Even the state’s own data shows lower graduation rates and standardized test scores at cyber charters than at traditional public schools.

 

According to a 2015-16 state PDE report, about 86 percent of public school students across the Commonwealth finished high school in four years. During the same time, only about 48 percent of cyber charter school students graduated in four-years.

CYBER CHARTER’S COST TOO MUCH

 

But providing such a poor service to Pennsylvania students is only one reason these schools are problematic. They’re also ruinously expensive.

 

 

They cost taxpayers more than $463 million in 2016-17 alone.

 

The state charter law grants these schools as much money per pupil as brick and mortar schools, yet their costs are much less having forgone a physical building and all that goes with it.

 

So cyber charters get whatever the local per-pupil expenditure is. It doesn’t matter if a district spends $8,000 on each student or $20,000. Whatever the amount, that goes to the cyber charter.

 

However, the cost of educating kids is drastically reduced online. Their programs are bare bones compared with what you get at a traditional public school. Most online charters don’t have tutors or teacher aides. They don’t offer band, chorus or extra-curricular activities. You don’t have to pay for any building costs, grounds, upkeep, large staff, etc. But the funding formula ignores this completely. Cyber charters get to keep the difference – whatever it is. In fact, they have an incentive to keep as much as possible because they can do almost whatever they want with it. That includes putting it into operators’ pockets as profit!

 

And when it comes to special education funding, it gets worse. In Pennsylvania, our funding formula is so out of whack that charters schools of all stripes including cyber charters often end up with more funding for students with special needs than traditional public schools get. However, because of this loophole in the Commonwealth, Pennsylvania online charters have been increasing the number of special education students they enroll and even working to label as many of their students as possible as needing special services on the flimsiest of pretexts.

 

According to a report by the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA), tuition for special education students is often twice as much at cyber charter schools than at traditional public schools.

 

CYBER CHARTER FRAUD

 

Unsurprisingly, these conditions have lead to rampant fraud and malfeasance.

 

Just this past year (2018) the head of the largest cyber charter chain in the state was sentenced to jail for siphoning $8 million from his school into his own pockets.

 

PA Cyber Charter founder Nicholas Trombetta was found guilty of tax fraud in relation to the theft of public funds. He used that money to buy an airplane, a $900,000 condo, houses for his girlfriend and mother, and nearly $1 million in groceries and personal expenses, according to the grand jury. Trombetta allegedly set up numerous for-profit and nonprofit businesses to provide goods and services to the cyber charter. Federal investigators filed 11 fraud and tax conspiracy charges against him and indicted others in the case.

 

Another cyber charter founder, June Brown, was also indicted for theft of $6.5 million. Brown ran the Agora Cyber Charter School, which was part of the K12 Inc. empire of virtual charters. She and her executives were indicted on 62 counts of wire fraud, obstruction of justice and witness tampering. She was well known for student test scores and had a reputation for claiming large salaries and filing suits against parents who questioned her, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.

 

WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT

 

It’s no wonder the state has been tardy renewing these schools’ charters!

 

Frankly, there is no good reason to continue lavishing taxpayer dollars on a system of education that provides  subpar services at an exorbitant expense and is subject to runaway fraud.

 

But lawmakers have always been reluctant to do the right thing.

 

After all, there are a slew of wealthy investors who want to make sure the money train of taxpayer dollars keeps flowing to their shady businesses. And lawmakers who enable them are assured hefty campaign contributions.

 

The only chance we have of saving our children from this monstrous abuse of power and saving our wallets from this shameful waste of funding is if voters make their intentions known.

 

The people of Pennsylvania need to stand up and demand an end to the cyber charter school experiment.

 

We need lawmakers with the guts to stand up to big money and rewrite the state’s charter school law.

 

And that’s part of the problem. The law is a joke.

 

It’s more than 20 years old and was only amended once in 2002 to allow cyber charters.

 

Subsequent attempts at requiring more accountability have resulted in horrible compromise bills that would have made the situation much worse and – ultimately – no vote.

 

With Ohio and California, Pennsylvania was in the “big three” cyber-charter states in 2016, accounting for half of cyber charter enrollment nationally, according to the industry’s authorizers’ association. While 35 states and the District of Columbia allow full-time cyber charter schools, eight do not, including neighboring New Jersey.

 

The right course is clear.

 

We just need a people-powered movement to force our lawmakers to do it.

 

Either that or replace them with those who will.


 

Still can’t get enough Gadfly? 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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