Fact Checking Propel Charter Schools – Do They Live Up to Their Own Hype?

The Propel Charter School network has a history of making fabulous claims for its schools – claims not always backed up by reality.

The non-profit chain of 13 schools based in Pittsburgh, Pa, boasts high academics, safe campuses and certified teachers.

At least, that’s what its advertising blitz proclaims from every grocery store cart, newspaper page, radio announcement and billboard. Which just goes to show that anyone will tout your virtues if you pay them enough money – taxpayer money, that is.

Take Propel McKeesport – the franchise located in my own neighborhood.

The other day I saw a bus advertisement bragging:

“Catch Your Star!

#1 Elementary Charter School in the Nation – Just Blocks Away!

Propel McKeesport”

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any support for this claim anywhere.

When I went to Propel’s own Website, in fact, there was nothing about it. Instead, it claimed Propel McKeesport was:

“…ranked as ONE OF THE BEST charter schools in the nation by U.S. News World Report” (Emphasis mine).

One of the best is not THE best. But it’s still good. Let’s call it embellishing the school’s resume.

According to Propel’s Website, in 2021, the McKeesport location was #11 in the state’s charter elementary schools and #7 in the state’s charter middle schools.


I suppose that is impressive, too, though being one of the best CHARTER SCHOOLS isn’t the same as being one of the best SCHOOLS.

In fact, when compared with all schools in the state, Propel McKeesport is in the bottom half for standardized test scores in both math and reading – one of the main metrics used to calculate its rank by US News and World Report.

The percentage of students achieving proficiency in math was 7% (which is lower than the Pennsylvania state average of 38%) for the 2020-21 school year. The percentage of students achieving proficiency in reading was 34% (which is lower than the Pennsylvania state average of 55%) for the 2020-21 school year.

Moreover, test scores in both subjects were higher at the McKeesport Area School District, the local authentic public school – 17% higher in math and 3.5% higher in reading at the elementary level and 6% higher in math and 2% higher in reading at the middle school level. Propel McKeesport does not teach beyond 8th grade.

So what exactly is Propel celebrating?

Maybe it’s the fact that its McKeesport location achieved these standardized test scores while teaching an intensely racially segregated student body – 86% minority (mostly Black). By comparison, the authentic public schools range from 52-71% minority students (mostly Black).

I’m not sure that’s much of a victory. Wasn’t one of the major tenants of the civil rights movement having racially integrated schools – that doing so would help students of color achieve academically because resources couldn’t be horded away from them?

That still sounds like a worthy goal – and one that is being actively worked against by Propel’s business model.

Moreover, Propel McKeesport is the only school in the charter chain where students of color outscore white students. Across the Propel system, white kids do anywhere from 17.6% better in math at Propel Pitcairn to 32.6% better in science at Propel Braddock Hills.

Not exactly a civil rights victory.

So what about the rest of Propel’s claims?

Since charter schools are paid for with tax dollars but can be privately operated (like Propel), they are free from many of the safety regulations that make authentic public schools great – like elected school boards, and transparent curriculum and finances.

The corporation runs the following schools in Allegheny County: Propel Andrew Street High School, Propel Hazelwood K-8, Propel Montour Middle School, Propel Braddock Hills Elementary School, Propel Homestead K-8, Propel Northside K-8, Propel McKeesport K-8, Propel Pitcairn K-8, Propel Braddock Hills High School, Propel Montour Elementary School, Propel Braddock Hills Middle School, Propel Montour High School, and Propel East K-8.

According to an advertisement in mass circulation, each of the schools in the charter chain provides:

“Safe Learning Environment

Individual Attention


Small Class Size

100% Certified and Qualified Teachers

Award Winning Arts Programs

Leaders in Technology Integration

Uniforms

Tuition Free”

Let’s take a look at each claim in turn.

-Safe Learning Environment

What exactly does that mean?

Propel schools are no more safe than other schools in the area. There certainly isn’t any evidence they are somehow MORE safe.

There have been numerous incidents of arrest, criminality and danger in and around Propel Schools.

In 2021, a security guard at Turtle Creek, Pitcairn and McKeesport Propel Schools was fired after being charged with open lewdness and indecent exposure, according to court documents. North Versailles Police said the suspect was captured on video exposing and fondling himself inside a Walmart. When confronted by police, he allegedly showed officers his Propel School ID badge.

In 2015, two teenagers at Propel Braddock Hills High School were arrested after one allegedly tried to sell guns to another in a bathroom during the school day. Two guns were recovered by police and the students were taken into custody on campus. The rest of the students were placed on lockdown until police cleared the area.

In 2015, a visiting dance instructor at the Propel Middle School in Braddock was fired and arrested after allegedly sexting a 13-year-old female student. He allegedly told the girl not to tell anyone about it. In a statement from Propel, school officials say it happened “after school hours and off of Propel property.”

In 2019, Pitcairn Propel was evacuated when fumes made three teachers and four students nauseous. Roughly 280 teachers and students were evacuated from the school and the affected people were taken to nearby hospitals. Monroeville Borough was doing work on a sewer when fumes got into the school.

In 2019, police arrested four people in connection with a scheme to steal nearly $23,000 from Propel Schools by forging checks in the charter school operator’s name. The Propel Schools Foundation filed a report with police after discovering nearly two dozen fraudulent checks in Propel’s name had been cashed at various places, a Pittsburgh Public Safety spokeswoman said. At least 28 checks drawn against the school’s bank account were counterfeit, the complaint said. The fake checks were cashed using the forged signature of the school’s co-founder, Jeremy Resnick.

So does Propel provide a safe learning environment? Maybe. But not more so than any other district.

Individual Attention and Small Class Size


The problem here is verification.

Charter schools are not nearly as transparent as authentic public schools. They are not required by law to provide as much information about their operations as neighborhood public schools. For instance, nearly every authentic public school district is run by an elected school board which has open meetings and open records.

For Propel it is unclear exactly how members are chosen for its corporate board, but it is difficult for parents and community members to be appointed.

According to an article in Public Source, individuals can only become board members if they are already members of the “Friends of Propel,” but the charter chain did not provide information on this group or how its members are selected.

So for most details we’re really left with just taking Propel’s word without any method of verifying it.

When it comes to class size, most Propel schools report having student-to-teacher ratios slightly smaller or the same as at neighborhood authentic public schools. But who knows? There’s no way to tell whether classes may actually be larger.

However, individual attention is even harder to verify.

Most schools focus on more individual attention these days.

Unfortunately, the network provides very little detailed information about its curriculum.

Even in 2018 when Propel had submitted applications to the state to consolidate its network into a Multiple Charter School Organization, it did not submit its entire curriculum which had been requested to see if it was aligned to state academic standards. The state ultimately denied this request due to insufficient information.

So does Propel provide individual attention? Your guess is as good as mine.

-100% Certified and Qualified Teachers

Authentic public schools need to have certified and qualified teachers by law. To teach math, for example, you usually need someone with at least a 4-year teaching degree or more. Only in the case of shortages can positions by temporarily filled by individuals with emergency certifications. Not so with charter schools. They only have to have certified and qualified teachers in core content areas – English, Math, Science and Social Studies.

So this claim by Propel is a way of bragging that the network doesn’t have to have certified and qualified teachers, but it does so anyway.

Unfortunately, it is definitively false.

According to those US News and World Report spotlights that the charter school network likes to highlight, several Propel schools do not have all certified teachers. For instance, Propel McKeesport only has 92% full-time certified teachers, Propel Homestead only has 94%, Propel Pitcairn only has 96%, etc.

Moreover, a state audit of the Propel network conducted in 2016, found that even in core content areas, Propel charter schools did not have “highly qualified” teachers in accordance with state law.

So does Propel have 100% Certified and Qualified Teachers? Absolutely not.

Award Winning Arts Programs

Kudos to Propel for recognizing that arts are an important part of the curriculum. Or at least using it as a selling point on its advertisements. However, without details of its curriculum submitted to the state and verifiable by audit, there is nothing to back this claim up factually.

In fact, on Propel’s own Website, the only reference I see to awards for art is a brief mention in its after-school program which they label as “award-winning.”

What award did it win? The ‘Propel Presents Itself with an Award’ Award? Is there anything more substantial to this claim?

-Leaders in Technology Integration

Some Propel charter schools do claim to provide laptops to students. However, details are pretty sketchy beyond this point.

Moreover, technology in school is a terrible end in itself. It really matters how it’s being used. There are very few details on this that I can find.

-Uniforms

Yes! Propel does require students to wear blue, black or khaki clothing of a particular type. And you can even buy clothing on the network’s Website.

But is this really such a positive? Standardized testing is bad enough? Do we have to standardized dress, too?

Certainly every school should have a dress code, but can’t students express themselves freely anymore? I just don’t see why emulating the worst qualities of private schools is a great thing – especially when it adds an unnecessary cost for parents.

-Tuition Free

Charter schools are funded with public tax dollars. So, yes, you don’t have to pay a tuition to attend. However, you do have to pay for extras like school uniforms.

Also having multiple schools that provide duplicate services is instrumental in raising your local taxes.

Think about it. You already have an authentic public school you pay to operate. Now here comes Propel, a charter school network, demanding to open up shop. That means an additional tax burden on all residents and a reduction in resources for the neighborhood schools already in service.

In fact, overcoming the unpopularity of charter schools because of the increased expense for taxpayers is cited by Droz Marketing – the company that made all those glossy Propel advertisements – on its Website portfolio as an obstacle the company had to overcome to sell Propel to the masses.

Which brings us back to the beginning.

Does Propel go beyond the facts in its claims for itself?

Certainly.

Many businesses do that these days. And make no mistake – Propel IS a business. If it can cut a corner or find a loophole to put more money in operators’ pockets, it will.

Don’t let its non-profit status fool you.

For instance, in 2016 the state caught Propel stealing $376,922 of your tax dollars to pay for rental fees on properties it already owns. It was literally charging itself an unnecessary fee and paying itself with your money.

Technically, this is not illegal. But it certainly doesn’t help educate children. It just goes to enrich the charter school operators.

Non-profit? Yeah, in name only.

However, let me end with what may be the most telling indicator of what it is like at Propel’s charter schools.

indeed.com is a Website workers use to decide if they should apply at a given job site. Employees anonymously review their current place of employment to let prospective job applicants know what it is like there and if they should consider seeking a job there.

The site has many entries on schools in the Propel network. Some are positive. Some are glowing. But most are incredibly negative.

Here in their own words is what it’s like inside the Propel network from the people who work (or worked) there.

Propel Schools – Insiders’ Accounts:

 

 

Students rule.

Para Educator (Former Employee) – Propel East, Turtle Creek – July 19, 2020

Pandering to the cultural climate and using all the right talking points still doesn’t provide a quality education because of the many behavior problems.

 

 

 

Educator (Current Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – August 4, 2022

Management verbalizes a desire, but does not actively seek to improve diversity within the ranks of educators. The lack of diversity directly impacts how the student body is educated.

 

Stressful, consuming place to work with little support from administration.

First Grade Teacher (Former Employee) – McKeesport, PA – April 15, 2022
I worked at Propel McKeesport for 9 days before I realized it would negatively affect my mental health greatly if I stayed. Everything about the school was chaotic and unorganized. There is so much asked of the teachers, and they are given little to no support in the process. The people that are put in place to act as supports are spread so thin, that you aren’t able to receive the support necessary. I would have to get to work early and stay late in order to get all of my tasks done. I had no time for my personal life, and I was constantly overwhelmed. Leaving was the best decision I could’ve made for myself and my well being.
Pros
Higher than average starting pay for new teachers, healthcare benefits
Cons
Unorganized, consuming, little support/structure

 

 

Hope you have a good therapist if you get hired at the Hazelwood location.

Elementary School Teacher (Former Employee) – Hazelwood, PA – February 3, 2022
My time at Propel Hazelwood was the worst experience I have ever had in a professional setting. The principal, at the time, had all sorts of big ideas, and no clue how to make them actionable. Behavior was managed through a failed token economy… so I’m sure you can imagine what behavior looked like. But good news, they’ll just fire you before you qualify for benefits, and trick the next poor sap. For reference, I was the 3rd of 5 teachers to go through that position in 2 years.

In summary, I hope you line up a therapist before you sign your soul away to Propel. I know I needed one.
Pros
There were no pros. I can’t even make one up.
Cons
Pitiful everything. People, leadership, attitudes, slogans, curriculum (or lack there of). Run away… fast.

 

 

Teacher (Former Employee) – McKeesport, PA – September 3, 2021
Propel McKeesport cannot keep their staff members. They have so many open positions because their lesson plan template is 6 pages long, and the work pile-up is more than loving your scholars. The wonderful scholars don’t get a chance to love who you are because you (if you are not a favorite) are swamped with work. The job is a nightmare.
Pros
There is not one pro I can think of.
Cons
Flooded with work. Lies and says it is “Propel-Wide”

 

Don’t work for them

Janitor (Current Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – January 3, 2022

Hr treats you bad
Teachers treat you bad
You are less then nothing to everyone even your bosses
Never work for Braddock propel worst school I’ve seen
Pros
Nothing
Cons
You will be treated like you are worthless

 

Pure and total chaos

Teacher (Former Employee) – Braddock Hills, PA – September 27, 2021
Wow. It sounds good from the outside but is terrible in the inside. High school students were out of control. Administration offered little help. The parents were just as aggressive as their children. The teachers will throw anyone under the bus as soon as possible.
Pros
Great pay. Amazing benefits. Stellar retirement and health insurance.
Cons
Terribly behaved students, aggressive parents, woke and offended staff

 

Long school day, longer school year, longest time spent working outside of contractual hours

Educator (Current Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – May 21, 2021
Even though I went in knowing the hours would be long and the school year would be longer, I was not prepared for the lack of work life balance. I have worked with Propel for 3 years and I will say that it is all consuming. I have been expected to not only do my job during building hours, but outside of work as well. This would be fine if it was occasional, but especially during COVID, it has become constant. Not only is the work never ending, but in my buildng we are not given adequate time to eat (25 minutes) or plan (50 minutes, but this time is often taken up by meetings almost daily). On top of limited planning time and expectations that never seem to stop coming, many of us have been forced into taking on additional, unpaid roles that we did not ask or agree to, and “no thank you” is not accepted as an answer. The district struggles to employee substitutes, so teachers are often expected to split classes when other grade level members are out. This has resulted in 30+ students in classrooms during non-COVID times, with one educator.
Pros
Good benefits, reasonable pay for the area, great curriculum
Cons
Short breaks, underqualified building administration, limited support

 

Schools care for kids but profit can get in the way

Teacher (Current Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – January 13, 2021
Propel staff does care a lot about the students, but it doesn’t feel like those who are higher up care as much about them. Having a CEO/Superintendent may be the reason for this.
Pros
Dedicated cohorts
Cons
Work-life balance off

 

Administration had a lack of trust for teachers and lack of discipline for students.

teacher (Former Employee) – Montour, PA – July 24, 2020
There was always a feeling of being watched in a critical way throughout the day. Administration was constantly evaluating teacher performance in the classroom which created a negative work environment.
When a student became disruptive in the classroom administrators were difficult to locate. If an administrator did come to the classroom he/she would coddle the student with candy or a fun activity before returning him/her to the classroom. Needless to say the disruptive behavior would continue within an hour. Positive effective leadership was nonexistent.

 

Not very friendly

Accounting Manager (Former Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – March 4, 2020
Did not get the job I was hired to do. Turnover was high. Cannot speak to majority of the the issues that I had due to a clause in my severance package.

 

Ehhh.

Educator (Former Employee) – Pitcairn, PA – February 3, 2020
Challenging work environment, burn out is high, little support from administration. Propel varies from building to building, but overall its sounds great in theory and in their “plans”, but they’re not able to carry out what they promise to students or staff.

 

This is a good ole boys system

Principal (Former Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – January 26, 2020
Pros: Let me start by saying, the students are amazing! The parents can be challenging but they truly want what’s best for their children. Cons: If you aren’t LIKED by the superintendent and assistant superintendent your days with Propel are numbered. From the onset, I was deceived by this organization. I spent 4-months interviewing for a High School principal position. I was offered the position of high school principal only to find out I would be a K-8 principal. This was the first red flag of many. Unfortunately, I wasn’t well liked therefore I received very little of what I needed to effectively lead the school. Instead, I got the unhelpful support they thought I needed and none of which I requested. By Feb. I had lost both my APs – one by choice and the other by force. In March I was given a replacement AP that wasn’t a good fit. Work-life balance does NOT exist at Propel Charter Schools. On average, I worked 12 -14-hour days. Sadly, this is the norm for principals in this network. If you are considering Propel for a position as a school administrator, I would not recommend it.
 
 
Teacher (Former Employee) – Hazelwood, PA – September 18, 2019
The staff is wonderful and very supportive. However, the students there are very disrespectful, rude, and have major problems with authority. As a teacher walking into the classroom, they refuse to listen, talk over you, cuss you, and not a lot is done about it.

Cons

Being cussed at and put down by students daily
 
 
 

Poor working place

Teacher (Former Employee) – Homestead, PA – August 10, 2019
Propel is not ran like a school, it is ran like a business. They do not give the students a fighting chance for a bright future. They are more worried about the name ‘propel’ than anything. The work-life balance is awful. They expect way too much of your own time and when they don’t get it, you are looked down on for it. They create cliques and if you are not in the clique, consider yourself gone. They place you wherever they want, certified or not, and will watch you fail. There is lack of help and support from the administration. The only decent people around are your co-workers. I would never recommend this as a work environment nor for parents to send their kids there. No learning takes place. You constantly deal with behavior problems while the children who want to learn are put on the back burner. They change rules half way into the school year and fudge their data. At the rate they are going, they will never compare to peers across the state for PSSAs due to behavior issues and poor management. Not to mention, your lunch is 20 minutes so I hope you can eat fast and 9X out of 10, your planning time to taken away from you for meetings! Be prepared for meetings!!!

Pros

Good benefits

Cons

Everything
 
 
Teacher (Current Employee) – Pitcairn, PA – May 6, 2017
There was little time to be able to practice individualized teaching practices and spend time working with students. Leaders were only focused on enrollment and test scores, and did not focus on the important needs of the child. Work/Home life balance did not exist, as emails and texts were sent at 9:00 PM at night. Money is the number one focus, and for a school system, it was not what was expected.

Pros

Teaching children, benefits and compensation

Cons

Bad work/home life balance

 


 

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Artificially Intelligent Chatbots Will Not Replace Teachers

Education pundits are a lot like the guy in the “Distracted Boyfriend”meme.

They’re walking with teachers but looking around at the first thing possible to replace them.

This weekend it’s AI chatbots.

If you’ve ever had a conversation with Siri from Apple or Alexa from Amazon, you’ve interacted with a chatbot.

Bill Gates already invested more than $240 million in personalized learning and called it the future of education.

And many on social media were ready to second his claim when ChatGPT, a chatbot developed by artificial intelligence company OpenAI, responded in seemingly creative ways to users on-line.

It answered users requests to rewrite the 90s hit song, “Baby Got Back,” in the style of “The Canterbury Tales.” It wrote a letter to remove a bad account from a credit report (rather than using a credit repair lawyer). It explained nuclear fusion in a limerick.

It even wrote a 5-paragraph essay on the novel “Wuthering Heights” for the AP English exam.

Josh Ong, the Twitter user who asked for the Emily Bronte essay, wrote, “Teachers are in so much trouble with AI.”

But are they? Really?

Teachers do a lot more than provide right answers. They ask the right questions.

They get students to think and find the answers on their own.

They get to know students on a personal level and develop lessons individually suited to each child’s learning style.

That MIGHT involve explaining a math concept as a limerick or rewriting a 90’s rap song in Middle English, but only if that’s what students need to help them learn.

It’s interpersonal relationships that guide the journey and even the most sophisticated chatbot can’t do that yet and probably never will have that capacity.

ChatGPT’s responses are entertaining because we know we’re not communicating with a human being. But that’s exactly what you need to encourage the most complex learning.

Human interaction is an essential part of good teaching. You can’t do that with something that is not, in itself, human – something that cannot form relationships but can only mimic what it thinks good communication and good relationships sound like.

Even when it comes to providing right answers, chatbots have an extremely high error rate. People extolling these AI’s virtues are overlooking how often they get things wrong.

Anyone who has used Siri or Alexa knows that – sometimes they reply to your questions with non sequiturs or a bunch of random words that don’t even make sense.

ChatGPT is no different.

As more people used it, ChatGPT’s answers became so erratic that Stack Overflow – a Q&A platform for coders and programmers – temporarily banned users from sharing information from ChatGPT, noting that it’s “substantially harmful to the site and to users who are asking or looking for correct answers.”

The answers it provides are not thought out responses. They are approximations – good approximations – of what it calculates would be a correct answer if asked of a human being.

The chatbot is operating “without a contextual understanding of the language,” said Lian Jye Su, a research director at market research firm ABI Research.

“It is very easy for the model to give plausible-sounding but incorrect or nonsensical answers,” she said. “It guessed when it was supposed to clarify and sometimes responded to harmful instructions or exhibited biased behavior. It also lacks regional and country-specific understanding.”

Which brings up another major problem with chatbots. They learn to mimic users, including racist and prejudicial assumptions, language and biases.

For example, Microsoft Corp.’s AI bot ‘Tay’ was taken down in 2016 after Twitter users taught it to say racist, sexist and offensive remarks. Another developed by Meta Platforms Inc. had similar problems just this year. 

Great! Just what we need! Racist Chatbots!

This kind of technology is not new, and has historically been used with mixed success at best.

ChatGPT may have received increased media coverage because its parent company, OpenAI, was co-founded by Tesla Inc. CEO Elon Musk, one of the richest men in the world.

Eager for any headline that didn’t center on his disastrous takeover of Twitter, Musk endorsed the new AI even though he left the company in 2018 after disagreements over its direction.

However, AI and even chatbots have been used in some classrooms successfully.

Professor Ashok Goel secretly used a chatbot called Jill Watson as an assistant teacher of online courses at the Georgia Institute of Technology. The AI answered routine questions from students, while professors concentrated on more complicated issues. At the end of the course, when Goel revealed that Jill Watson was a chatbot, many students expressed surprise and said they had thought she was a real person.

This appears to be the primary use of a chatbot in education.

“Students have a lot of the same questions over and over again. They’re looking for the answers to easy administrative questions, and they have similar questions regarding their subjects each year. Chatbots help to get rid of some of the noise. Students are able to get to answers as quickly as possible and move on,” said Erik Bøylestad Nilsen from BI Norwegian Business School.

However, even in such instances, chatbots are expensive as yet to install, run and maintain, and (as with most EdTech) they almost always collect student data that is often sold to businesses.

Much better to rely on teachers.

You remember us? Warm blooded, fallible, human teachers.

The best innovation is still people.


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Workers Rights are Human Rights – Even If Our Government is Too Cowardly to Support Them

In today’s America, the more essential your job, the fewer rights you are allowed to exercise.

Teachers aren’t allowed to strike. It’s bad for the kids.

Nurses aren’t allowed to strike. It’s bad for the patients.

And – as we discovered just this week – railway workers aren’t allowed to strike. It’s bad for the economy.

None of these are actually true, however. It’s just union busting hidden under government sponsored propaganda.

Teachers strikes are inconvenient for students, families AND teachers. But having burned out, underpaid educators in the classroom does not help kids learn.

Nurses don’t want to strike. But going to the hospital and being cared for by an overworked, underpaid, unsupported nurse is not going to improve your health.

Railway workers would certainly rather get on with their jobs than contend with the bosses or Congress. But having no paid sick leave and a lack of adequate pay will not help move goods across the country any better, either.

Don’t believe the hype.

This isn’t about what’s good for society or the economy. It’s about protecting the upper class from having to respect people who do the most indispensable work. It’s about making sure workers will continue to labor in dangerous conditions.

That is all. It’s about who gets the power – the bosses or the people who do the actual work.

That’s why the Senate forced national freight rail roads and their unions to avert a strike and accept a contract which failed to provide workers with a component they aggressively sought: paid sick leave.

Congress passed the motion and President Joe Biden signed it. So both political parties are to blame.

Neither Republicans or Democrats have the backs of working people.

It’s no wonder that the U.S. is the only country in the developed world that doesn’t guarantee paid sick and family leave to workers.

Instead, we are at the mercy of employers to step up and do so. And when it comes to the poorest but most important workers – the ones without which our country would grind to a stop – employers are often extremely reluctant to do so.

Roughly a quarter of the private workforce — more than 33 million people — have no paid sick days so they can take care of themselves if they get ill. Even worse, more than 80 percent of private sector workers have no access to paid leave so they can care for a family member. 

And it’s indisputably a racial and class phenomenon.

Higher-paid, professional workers almost universally have paid sick and family leave. But, of course, most of these workers don’t just lack pigment on their collars, they lack it on their faces, too. Among the lowest-paid quarter of the workforce, the majority of whom are Black and Latinx workers, only half of them have any paid sick days, and just 7 percent have paid family leave.

So workers of color, the poor, and disproportionately women are much more likely to lack sick and family leave than those who are paid more, have white skin and are male.

And before you explode with indignation, let it be known that this could be rectified any day our government sees fit.

Our representatives could stop holding water for groups like the railway companies that pulled in $20 billion in profits last year alone. Our government could represent us, the people, instead of businesses that could afford to do better but don’t because we aren’t holding them accountable and our Congress and the President refuse to stop them or even let us force them to do right by subjecting them to a strike.

It is past time for the U.S. to pass a national law enshrining the right to paid sick and family leave.

It is past time for our government to begin respecting the rights of workers to organize and collectively bargain for better treatment.

We just suffered through a pandemic where these so-called essential workers had to put themselves in the most danger just to keep society running while the rest of us stayed home and were unequally protected.

If these workers are truly essential, they at least deserve sick and family leave. Otherwise, it is all too obvious how bogus the term is.

The U.S. can no longer run on the unrespected work of an underclass of the poor and people of color.

This must change if our nation is to continue. And it must change today.

I stand with American workers. Do you?


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The Teacher Exodus Continues Whether You Care or Not

Remember when federal, state and local governments actually seemed poised to do something about the great teacher exodus plaguing our schools?

With an influx of money earmarked to help schools recover from the pandemic, many expected pay raises and bonuses to keep experienced teachers in the classroom.

Ha! That didn’t happen!

Not in most places.

In fact, the very idea seems ludicrous now – and this was being discussed like it was a foregone conclusion just a few months ago at the beginning of the summer.

So what happened?

We found a cheaper way.

Just cut requirements to become a teacher.

Get more college students to enter the field even if they’re bound to run away screaming after a few years in.

It doesn’t matter – as long as we can keep them coming.

The young and dumb.

Or the old and out of options.

Entice retired teachers to come back and sub. Remove hurdles for anyone from a non-teaching field to step in and become a teacher – even military veterans because there’s so much overlap between battlefield experience and second grade reading.

And in the meantime, more and more classroom teachers with decades of experience under their belts are throwing up their hands and leaving.

Stop and think for a moment.

This is fundamentally absurd.

If you have a hole in your pocket and you keep losing your keys, wallet and other vital things from out of your pants, the first thing you do is sew up the hole! You don’t keep putting more things in your pocket!

But that’s only true if you’re actually interested in solving the problem.

Maybe you prefer the status quo. Maybe you even like it or see it as an opportunity to change your wardrobe entirely.

It’s a simple matter of cost.

The educators who have been in the classroom the longest are also the highest paid. So if we just let them go, we can save some money for other things.

Of course the problem of getting excellent teachers in the classroom is only compounded by such thinking. You don’t get more seasoned teachers by letting them leave and putting increasing pressure on those who stay.

And make no mistake – experienced teachers are incredibly valuable. That’s not to say new teachers don’t have their own positive aspects, but the profession’s expert practitioners are its heart and soul.

Think about it.

Like any other profession, the longer you practice it, the better you usually get. For example, no one going under heart surgery would willingly choose a surgeon who had never operated before over a seasoned veteran who has done this successfully multiple times.

But we don’t value the work teachers do nearly as much as we do surgeons. Or lawyers. Or almost anything else that requires a comparable level of education.

That’s really the core issue.

We don’t care about quality teaching. In fact, in many cases we actively don’t want it to occur.

Republicans are literally running a political platform on weakening teachers, schools and education because they need the poorly educated to make up their voting base.

When Trump was President, he actually praised the badly educated because they supported him more than any other demographic.

And even those who aren’t actively against education are more concerned with privatizing the public system for profit. They like it when public education fails because it gives them an excuse to push for more charter schools, more school vouchers, more cyber schools – anything where they can siphon away tax dollars earmarked for education into their own private pocketbooks (and no holes in there even to pay their own taxes)!

So the teacher exodus isn’t being fixed on purpose.

It is a political and economic plot against increasing the average intelligence and knowledge of voters, stealing government funding for personal gain and refusing to increase the quality of a government sponsored service.

In the meantime, more teachers are leaving every day.

A February 2022 report from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics said the numbers of public school teachers had gone from approximately 10.6 million in January 2020 to 10 million — a net loss of around 600,000 teachers.

In August, the national Education Association (NEA) sounded the alarm that an additional 300,000 educators had left since the report was issued. And it’s only getting worse. An NEA union poll found that 55% of educators were considering leaving education earlier than they had originally planned.

In my own district, there are several teachers who have taken leaves of absence or are sick and had to be temporarily replaced with long term subs. We’re located in western Pennsylvania south of Pittsburgh, just across the river from a plethora of colleges and universities with teacher prep programs. Yet it was pretty difficult to find anyone to fill these positions or serve as day-to-day subs.

There is so much we could be doing to encourage seasoned teachers to stay in the classroom beyond increased pay.

You could cut all unnecessary tasks like formal lesson plans, stop holding staff meetings unless an urgent need presents itself, refrain from new and unproven initiatives, and/or cut duties where possible to increase teacher planning time

And that’s before we even get to the lack of respect, gas lighting, scapegoating, and micromanaging teachers go through on a daily basis.

What we have here is a crisis that cuts to the very heart of America’s identity as a nation.

What do we want to be? A capitalist experiment in school privatization whose only regulation is the free hand of the market? Or a nation supported by a secure system of education that took us to the moon and made us the greatest global superpower the world has ever known?

What do we want to be? A nation of dullards who can be easily manipulated by any passing ideologue? Or a country of critical thinkers who can accept new evidence and make rational decisions based on facts?

There is a cost to becoming a great nation and not just emblazoning the idea on a hat.

That cost is education. It is paying, supporting and respecting veteran teachers.

Are we still willing to pay it?


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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!

Will We Even Try to Keep Students and Teachers Safe from Gun Violence? Or Just Keep Preparing for the Worst?

“Teachers, we are operating on a lockdown. Please keep your doors locked until we tell you it has been lifted.”

Before me a sea of wide eyes and scared faces.

I slowly walked toward the door continuing the lesson I had been giving before the announcement. The door was already shut and secured but I nonchalantly turned the extra deadbolt.

“Click!” it sounded like a gunshot across the suddenly silent room.

I continued talking while making my way back to the blackboard pretending that nothing out of the ordinary was happening.

That’s just life in the classroom these days.

According to Eduction Week, there have been 38 school shootings in the US this year resulting in injuries or deaths. That’s up from 34 last year and the highest it’s been since the media source began tracking such things in 2018.

During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, there were only 10 such shootings in 2020, and 24 each in 2019 and 2018.

That comes to a total of 130 school shootings in the last five years.

“Mr. Singer, can I go to the bathroom?” DeVon asked.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “We’re still under lockdown. I’ll write you a pass as soon as it’s lifted.”

It seems like nowhere is safe.

Three of this year’s shootings were in my home state of Pennsylvania.

The first was on January 19 at Pittsburgh’s Oliver Citywide Academy, a special education school.

A 15-year-old boy waiting in a van to go home was shot and killed after at least one person opened fire outside the school.


The second was on April 5 at Erie High School. A 16-year-old student was shot and injured at the school.

The third was on Sept 27 at Roxborough High School in Philadelphia.

A 14-year-old student was killed and four others wounded (ages 17, 15, 14, and 14) in a shooting near the high school athletic field after a football scrimmage.

“Mr. Singer, what’s happening?” Olivia asked.

I turned to her confused at first then I realized what she meant.

“The lockdown? Let me check my laptop. No…. Nothing. I really don’t know, Honey. But I’m sure whatever it is, it will be over soon. Why don’t you get back to the assignment?”

“Okay.”

Such violence isn’t limited to schools.

On Sept 24 three people were shot in Kennywood Park, a popular amusement park in West Mifflin.


Two years ago in September a 15-year-old boy was killed and another was wounded in a shooting at the Haunted Hills Hayride in North Versailles.

In 2020 a man was shot and killed at Monroeville Mall. In 2015, a 17-year-old entered the men’s department on the lower level of Macy’s department store in the evening and shot his intended target and two bystanders, leaving two with critical injuries.

Is there anywhere safe anymore?

You can’t go to the mall. You can’t go on a haunted hayride. You can’t go to an amusement park.

I had students who were hiding in the mall during the 2015 shooting. My daughter wasn’t involved in any shootings but she went to Kennywood this summer.

Where does it stop?

Why are we doing so little?

A few weeks ago my school had another active shooter training for teachers while the students, thankfully, had a day off.

Every few years we do this. Teachers huddle in classrooms and try to react to a shooting scenario. We either barricade ourselves in our classrooms or try to find an escape route. We help train police and local medical personnel.

At this years training, teachers were given a talk by a law enforcement “expert” who regaled us with his time working as a Blackwater mercenary in Afghanistan. He told us how difficult it was to make decisions under fire but that sometimes you had to make the hard decisions.

“Some of you teachers have kids in wheelchairs in your classrooms. You think you’re going to get your whole class out of the building and to safety!? You have to ask yourself, how are you going to get that kid in the wheelchair out? What are you going to do if a child flips out or is too scared to move? I know it’s not nice to think about, but sometimes you have to make decisions that will save the most people – not necessarily everyone.”

It made me want to vomit. But he wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know.

I like to believe I’d pick the child up out of his wheelchair, throw him over my shoulder and carry him to safety. I hope I could calm down a child having a panic attack and whisk her out of the building.

But could I really? Alone?

We do everything we can to prepare ourselves in case something like this happens – but as a society we do nothing – NOTHING – to prevent shootings from happening in the first place.

Where’s increased gun regulations to make sure these weapons aren’t getting into the hands of criminals or the mentally unstable?

Where are bans on assault weapons and other weapons of mass destruction and war?

Where is increased liability for those recklessly selling firearms?

Where is anything we could be doing to make our schools, malls and places of entertainment safer?

“Mr. Singer, I really have to go to the bathroom.”

“You can’t hold it just a little longer, DeVon?”

“No,” he said hoping from foot to foot.

“Number 1 or number 2?”

He giggled and held up one finger.

I reluctantly pointed to the trash can.

“Take it over there to the corner. I’ll stand in front of you so…”

“Attention teachers! The lockdown has now been lifted. You may continue as normal.”

I sighed, unlocked the door and wrote DeVon a bathroom pass.

We never did find out what triggered the lockdown. One time it was a gunshot in the surrounding neighborhood. Another time it was an unauthorized adult seeking access to the building.

It could be much worse. And it will happen again.

The chances of it being a school shooter are low.

The chances of myself or my students being hurt or killed is even lower.

But it’s still too high.

Living under the constant shadow of this threat is creating a trauma that we’ve given up trying to solve and just call normal.

It is unacceptable.

We need to do more.

Not just on the days when one of these tragedies strike – but every day.

It is not safe for students and teachers – it will NEVER be completely safe, but it can be safer.

That’s the point – how safe can we make it?

And why aren’t we doing anything to reach that goal other than preparing for the worst?


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Top Five Republican Nightmare Fantasies About Public Schools

Republicans are fighting against a version of public education that does not exist.

Critical race theory, pornographic school books, and other bogeymen haunt their platforms without any evidence that this stuff is a reality.

Doug Mastriano, the GOP nominee for Governor of Pennsylvania, actually promises to ban pole dancing in public schools.

Pole dancing!

“On day one, the sexualization of our kids, pole dancing, and all this other crap that’s going on will be forbidden in our schools,” he says.

Mr. Mastriano, I hate to tell you this, but the only school in the commonwealth where there was anything like what you describe was one of those charter schools you love so much. The Harambee Institute of Science and Technology Charter School in Philadelphia used to run an illegal nightclub in the cafeteria after dark.

But at authentic public schools with things like regulations and school boards – no. That just doesn’t happen here.

Maybe if your plan to waste taxpayer dollars on universal school vouchers goes through you’ll get your wish.

But reality has never stopped the state Senator from complaining about a list of fictional public education woes.

On Twitter he routinely makes statements like this from August:

“Democrats are pushing woke ideology, racism, and sexuality on children in the classroom. As your governor, I will ban this on day one…”

Yikes. This is like promising to ban sorcery in school – another thing we don’t teach.

This isn’t the Republican Party I remember when I was growing up.

Instead of personal autonomy and free trade, today’s GOP solemnly swears to eliminate a series of racially and sexually motivated phantasms that are like shadows under a child’s bed. I suppose it’s easier to get rid of something that’s never existed than to fix the real problems we actually have.

But let’s be honest – for some folks this kind of unhinged messaging works.

Perhaps if we examine the most common claims against public schools, maybe we can see through the mist and electioneering to the very real fears the GOP is using in a desperate attempt to manipulate voters to their side.

So here are the top 5 Republican nightmare fantasies about public schools:

1) Teaching boys to hate themselves

“I believe that white men are the most persecuted identity in America.”

Georgia Congressperson Marjorie Taylor Greene actually said this – out loud – in an interview.

And the GOP attention-seeker is not alone.

Many Republicans claim anti-male discrimination is wide spread. Men are blamed for so many things in our society they’re forced to turn to porn and video games because they have no other options, Green claimed.

And women have become “… too weak and pathetic to take care of themselves. They want a great big giant government to take care of them. It’s such a hypocrisy. They claim they want the future to be female, but they aren’t capable of taking care of themself.”

How did we get here? Public schools that teach sexual politics.

But, Marjorie, the following ARE facts:

-The US is one of only eight countries in the world that does not provide any form of paid maternity leave by federal law.  

-Women earn 83 cents for every dollar a man makes.

-Despite being almost 60% of the population, women hold only 26% of the seats in Congress.

Should we teach such facts in school?

Contrary to Republican opinion, teaching about the many ways women are unfairly treated in the US does not turn men into victims or make women helpless.

Male students are not responsible for a world created by past generations but they ARE responsible for picking a side and doing something about it as they become adult members of society.

In a country where a GOP-controlled Supreme Court has usurped women’s bodily autonomy by overturning Roe v. Wade and men still have untold economic advantages, redefining men as victims and education as infantalizing is, itself, a fantasy.

2) Teaching kids to be gay

Republicans literally think public school teachers are turning kids gay.

That’s the impetus behind Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” bill and several copycat bits of legislation the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is pumping out across the country.

They insist that even mentioning LGBTQ people exist is grooming children into a sexuality they wouldn’t otherwise have.

First, believing this shows massive ignorance.

No one can really be coerced into a sexuality they didn’t already possess. As you grow and mature, you have sexual preferences. It’s not really a matter of nurture – it’s nature. People are born this way.

Second, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge that there are other ways to express your sexuality is not going to make people ignore their innate inclinations. The idea seems to be that if kids never find out there are other options, they’ll simply be satisfied with heterosexuality – how they’re told to think and feel.

And finally, it is extremely unfair to LGBTQ people. We already live in a culture that celebrates cis hetero-normativity. Trying to erase everyone else causes real harm and trauma to both people who are different and to those who are not but never get to fully understand the entire spectrum of humanity.

Teachers are not making kids gay, but they are telling kids that gay people are real. We are trying to stop bullying and homophobia. And let’s be honest – that’s really what Republicans are objecting to here.

They want it to be okay to hate gay people.

Sorry. Not in public school.

3) Teaching kids to be trans

This is where the backlash against using appropriate pronouns and recognizing trans people is coming from.

As much as Republicans hate gay people, they absolutely despise and fear the trans community.

Once again they conflate acknowledging the existence of the other with coercing students to become the other. Just knowing that trans is an authentic way human beings can live is seen as a threat. But if this kind of knowledge makes you trans, you almost certainly were trans already.

It hurts no one to call another person by the pronouns they would prefer you use. That’s just respect – treating others like you would want to be treated.

It hurts no one to see the world as bigger than just one way of living. This is reality, after all. And that’s what Republicans are rebelling against.

Far from teachers coercing students to become trans, the GOP wants us to bully children not to be. They want to constrain difference, punish and hide it.

This cannot be the mission of public schools. At its best, it is for everyone and must respect each child on their own terms.

It’s not easy. Recognizing such differences can be messy and challenging, but that’s life. Deal with it.

4) Teaching kids to hate white people

This is one of the most common complaints of Republicans everywhere.

Thy say public schools are woke. Public school teachers talk about racism and prejudice. They teach what was, what is and encourage kids to act to dismantle systems of injustice against people of color that persist.

Yeah. We do that.

I make no apologies.

It’s not Critical Race Theory (which is a legal framework) nor do we teach anyone to hate white people. But we do teach what whiteness has done and continues to do.

It’s called history and current events.

White kids today are not responsible for slavery, Jim Crow or a host of evils perpetrated throughout our collective past. But that doesn’t remove their responsibility to do something about it today.

Republicans, though, try to flip the script and call this teaching, itself, racism. That’s absurd! It is not racist to show kids injustice.

For example:

-Median household income for Black people, at $43,862, is 37 precent less than that of white people, at $69,823.

-Census data shows Black couples are more than twice as likely as whites to be denied a mortgage or a home improvement loan, which leads to just 59 percent of the median home equity white households have, and just 13 percent of Black wealth.

-A Black child born today can expect to live four years less than a white one.

-Black people have been more than twice as likely as white people to experience threats or uses of force during police encounters, and three times more likely to be jailed if arrested.

These facts matter.

They shouldn’t make children hate white people, but they may encourage them to hate white supremacy.

And that’s what Republicans are really against.

5) Teaching kids to be sexually active

This may be the strangest fantasy the GOP is trying to spread about public school.

They say we’re making kids engage in sexual activity. Which is strange because according to the Centers for Disease Control, fewer US children are choosing to engage in sexual activity.

An estimated 55% of male and female teens have had sexual intercourse by age 18, according to the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS).

However, these percentages have declined since 1988 when 51% of female and 60% of male teens had engaged in sexual activity.

If public schools are teaching kids to bump uglies, we’re doing a bad job.

Are kids more sexualized today than in the past? Probably. But that’s a result of the culture. When you sell teenagers shorts with the word “juicy” on the butt, don’t complain about public schools.

Some schools offer sex education classes, but they are focused on health and wellness. There is no encouragement to have sex. In fact, many such classes are still teaching abstinence only instead of safe contraception.

The idea that public schools are teaching sex is just dog whistle politics. It is Republicans trying to scare parents that public schools are instilling values they don’t share. It is blaming public schools for social ills that the schools didn’t cause and don’t control.

Looked at calmly and rationally, all of these fantasies are just scare tactics to get the gullible to react emotionally on election day.

They want to terrify responsive voters into giving GOP candidates the power to stop a host of things that never really existed. They want an excuse for doing nothing to solve the actual problems of the day.

There’s a reason they spend so much time railing against woke education – they want to ensure America remains asleep.

A fitful sleep – tossing and turning in various Republican nightmares.


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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!

The Guardian vs. the Goon: PA’s Most Important Governor’s Race

The choice for Pennsylvania Governor could not be more clear in November.

On the one hand, we have Josh Shapiro – an Attorney General who fought for Commonwealth citizens’ rights for six years.

On the other, we have Doug Mastriano, a former US Army Colonel and 3-year state representative who supported a literal coup against the United States government.

In any sane world, that would be all you’d need to know.

Shapiro, the state’s chief law enforcement officer, vs. Mastriano, a traitor who actively worked to overturn the votes of the very citizens who elected him to office.

This should not be an election – it should be a rout.

However, Commonwealth voters will need to come to the polls and make it clear that they reject Mastriano’s fascism and that they instead support their own right to determine who governs in Pennsylvania and beyond.

That sounds extreme. I wish it weren’t also true.

Following the last Presidential election when it became clear Donald Trump had lost the vote, Republican Mastriano helped organize large rallies pushing false claims of election fraud. He chartered buses to take protesters to the Capitol on January 6. He personally crossed police barricades at the Capitol during the riot, and attempted to submit “alternate” (i.e. fake) pro-Trump electors to the official count. And he even coordinated all this with Trump when he was invited to the White House to discuss the “stop the steal” strategy.

If Mastriano somehow wins the governors race, he will be in a position to basically call off Democratic rule in the state. As governor, he would choose the secretary of state — the official in charge of administering the 2024 presidential election. This would effectively allow him to pick the winner, himself.

This is not just conjecture. Mastriano has gone on record that as governor he would decertify voting machines in some precincts – making it hard to count votes there. He has even alluded to the independent state legislature doctrine, which holds that state legislatures can name whoever they want as the recipient of a state’s electoral votes, regardless of who voters select.

This is not conservatism. It is not protecting American values or law and order. It is the opposite.

By contrast, Shapiro, the Democrat in the race, is a model of exactly those qualities usually associated with sobriety and efficiency.

As Attorney General, he fought federal government overreach including Trump’s travel ban. He filed a lawsuit to stop religious organizations denying health coverage including contraceptives to employees. He joined a lawsuit against for profit colleges resulting in a $168 million settlement. He reached an agreement with federal officials to prevent the distribution of blueprints for 3D printed firearms. He launched an investigation of allegations of sexual abuse by members of the Catholic Church including a Grand Jury report alleging the sexual abuse of more than a thousand children at the hands of more than 300 priests.

In short, he worked hard to protect the people of this Commonwealth.

And the difference is stark on so many other issues when compared head-to-head.

Shapiro supports increasing public school funding. Mastriano wants to cut it in half.

Shapiro wants to increase security and gun regulations to prevent school shootings. Mastriano wants to give teachers guns and let them do the shooting.

Shapiro has fought to protect women’s reproductive rights against the state. Mastriano supports the state telling people what to do with their own bodies.

And on top of all that – Mastriano has ties to White Supremacists!

Until recently, his campaign paid consulting fees to Gab, a white nationalist social media site owned by anti-Semite Andrew Torba. Gab was the site that helped inspire the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue mass murder in 2018. Torba and others on the site that Mastriano was explicitly looking to for support commonly champion Great Replacement theory and support Vladimir Putin.

No skeletons of this type have been found in Shapiro’s closet.

The worst anyone has found so far is a $100,000 donation from Students First PA, a charter school advocacy group, which he took money from when he was running for Attorney General in 2016. However, Shapiro made no effort to hide the donation and his voting record when he was a state representative was not pro-charter. In 2011, for example, he voted against a measure to provide tuition vouchers of charter schools, and he has been a vocal critic of the industry for years. Moreover, neither Students First PA nor any other pro-education privatization organization that I can find has made any significant donations to him this election cycle so far.

The way I see it, this is a simple – if terrifying – election.

Shapiro is not perfect, but if elected, he would function similarly to current Governor Tom Wolf. He would be a guardian against the overreach and bad decisions of the gerrymandered Republican legislature.

One can hope voters throughout the Commonwealth would take back their individual voting districts from the extremists, but given the still uncompetitive lines of these districts, this seems unlikely.

So we need a Wolf, we need a Shapiro, standing on the battlements stopping the goons like Mastriano from taking advantage of the majority of us.

Shapiro would certainly do that. He might even go farther and fight to find ways to get real change through the legislature. But even if he can’t do that, voting for him is essential.

Mastriano may simply be the worst candidate for governor in the Commonwealth’s history – and that’s saying something!

We need Shapiro. We need Austin Davis as Lt. Governor. And we need John Fetterman as Senator.

That would make a huge difference both nationally and throughout the state.

It would set us up with a firm foundation and at least keep people safe from the worst.

I know it is depressing to be put in this situation constantly. Every election cycle seems to be the most important because the country is falling apart. Maybe we can find a way to turn things back and reach some level of sanity. But we can’t do anything unless we elect Shapiro, Davis and Fetterman.

We need the guardians against the goons.


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!

 

I Will NOT Lead My Students in Prayer and Neither Should You

As a public school teacher, I have a responsibility not to bully my students into believing as I do.

In fact, I go out of my way to respect their right to form their own opinions – to think, not just to accept what they’re told.

The US Supreme Court apparently has no idea how this works.

The six Republican members (I refuse to call them justices) paved the way for organized prayer in public schools by ruling this week in support of a high school football coach who lead his team in prayer on the field.

Anyone who has ever been in the minority knows that when an authority figure leads students in an activity, it is not optional – no matter what they say.

I know this from personal experience.

When I was in elementary school, I was one of a handful of Jewish kids in a building of mostly Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, etc.

In December, the kids were preparing for a choral concert where we’d sing a slew of holiday songs.

I loved to sing and enjoyed Frosty the Snowman, Jingle Bells and all the other classics…

Except one – Silent Night.

I just didn’t feel right singing things like “Round yon virgin mother and child” and “Christ the savior is born.”

So when we practiced that song, I’d stop singing.

I’d enthusiastically belt out all the other tunes, but I just stood there when it was time for Silent Night.

I didn’t think it would make a difference. There were hundreds of others kids. No one would notice me.

But the choral teacher did.

She pulled me out of line and demanded to know why I wasn’t singing. I told her I was Jewish and didn’t want to sing that song.

She chided me for making everyone else look bad and told me to just move my mouth during the song so it looked like I was singing.

I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want people to even THINK I was singing things I didn’t believe.

It’s not that I really accepted Santa and his reindeer, either, but this was somehow different. I didn’t want my parents to go to the concert and see me participating in this farce. I didn’t want to be forced to go onstage and before everyone profess the opposite of all I had been taught – to declare myself other than what I really was.

But the other kids were right there listening to this whole conversation and giggling. It was yet another way I was being marked as an outsider, as different – so I gave in and did what she demanded.

In retrospect, I now know I could have complained to my parents and gone to the principal and we could have even taken the matter to court like the aforementioned coach.

However, when you’re a little kid in elementary school you usually just listen to what the adults tell you to do. At least I did.

It took me decades to get over it. Really.

Whenever that song would come on the radio or I’d hear it in a department store, I’d get all tense and upset. Like something had been stolen from me.

So it was with some trepidation many years later that I attended my daughter’s first winter concert when she was in elementary school.

It was with some relief that I noticed no holiday songs like Silent Night. They were all pretty secular and even multicultural.

And my daughter goes to the same district I went to as a child.

We’ve come a long way in the past three decades.

By and large, public school teachers today make an effort not to force their ways onto their students.

It’s a lesson I take to heart, myself, in my middle school classes.

When we discuss things – as you must in Language Arts – I encourage students to agree OR disagree with me or anyone else. Either option is okay so long as they try to explain why they think the way they do.

Moreover, I encourage them not to just speak but to also listen to what their classmates have to say and even be open to revising their original thoughts based on what they’ve heard.

And this includes discussions of religion.

When something Biblical or theological comes out of a book like “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “The Outsiders,” we give it our full attention.

I tell my kids that they can say or think whatever they want about it. If they want to talk about God or religion, that is fine. It’s just me who is constrained. I am not allowed to give them my own opinion on these matters.

Often I tell them that this isn’t necessarily what I believe, but I’ll propose one idea or another to get them thinking.

I remember one year my students were particularly interested in religion, and they complained that they couldn’t pin me down on anything – they couldn’t tell if I was religious or an atheist.

And that’s how it should be.

Kids have never been forbidden from talking about God or praying in school.

It’s just that teachers have been forbidden from telling them what to think or leading them in prayer.

Until now.

However just because an increasingly illegitimate Supreme Court makes a regressive ruling doesn’t mean teachers have to change.

Even if we CAN lead kids in prayer, that doesn’t mean we SHOULD.

I don’t plan on altering a single thing in my classroom, and I don’t think my colleagues should, either.

But there are 3.2 million teachers in public schools. There are bound to be some who will use this ruling as an excuse to give in to their worst tendencies.

So here’s what I suggest we do.

We should not coerce our students to do anything, but we damn well can and SHOULD pressure our colleagues not to indoctrinate their students.

Principals should give crappy assignments to teachers who break this taboo. Keep them away from students if at all possible. After all, they don’t belong in the classroom if they’re going to misuse the trust students have in them.

Teachers should give them the cold shoulder in the faculty room and at the copier.

Want to borrow my grammar unit? Not if you’re going to subject your classes to your faith and encourage them to follow along.

Consenting adults can do what they like on their own time, but this is public school.

When it comes to undue influence, inculcation and alienation of kids who are different, we cannot be bystanders.

We may not have dark money and Christian Nationalists behind us, but until we have a rational Supreme Court to overturn this decision or a Congress with enough guts to codify freedom from religion into law, teachers still have some modicum of power.

We should use it to protect our children.


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Doug Mastriano’s Rootin’ Tootin’ School Shootin’ Prevention Plan in PA

A teenage boy in a black trench coat walks down a school hallway.

A young girl abruptly turns a corner and is about to walk past when she stops and notices an oblong shape in his coat.

He pulls out an AR-15 and points it at her head.

She gasps. He smiles.

“Hold it right there, Patrick.” Says a voice behind him.

“Mr. Callahan?” The boy says starting to bring the barrel around.

‘Uh-uh. Stop right there,” says the voice shoving something in the boy’s back.

“I know what you’re thinking,” the teacher continues. “My homeroom teacher, Mr. Callahan, has a gun in his desk. Did he remember to bring it with him to hall duty? Well to tell you the truth in all this excitement I kinda lost track myself. But being it’s a 500 S&W Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you’ve gotta ask yourself one question: “Do I feel lucky?” Well, do ya, punk?”

Apparently this is how Doug Mastriano thinks school shootings can best be prevented.

The Pennsylvania State Senator and Republican candidate for governor plans to introduce a bill allowing school employees to arm themselves while on school property if they have a concealed carry permit and pass a firearms course.

Not gun control. Not stopping teens from buying assault weapons. Not keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.

Instead, arm the teachers. Arm the principals. Put a piece in the hands of Lunch Lady Doris. Maybe even the custodians will be packing heat with a bucket and mop.

This is not the kind of serious proposal Commonwealth residents deserve from a representative of the legislature or executive branch. It’s not the kind of serious proposal you’d expect from a grown adult. Heck. It’s not what you’d expect from a small child still unable to tie his own shoes.

School shootings are not action movie scenarios. They’re not run-and-gun video games. They’re not cops and robbers. They’re real life.

They’re the cause of elementary kids being decapitated by assault weapons fire.

They’re the cause of fifth grade bodies so unrecognizable they have to be identified by their green Converse sneakers.

They’re the cause of child sized coffins adorned with cartoon doggies and kitties – brightly colored friends to accompany little kids to their final resting places.

Mastriano’s suggestion would be pathetic if it weren’t so dangerous.

He thinks school shooters are attracted to places where they know people aren’t armed.

However, history proves him wrong.

The overwhelming majority of school shootings either involved armed police stationed at the school or police responding quickly thereafter.

Lest we forget, there were police officers on both the campuses of Robb Elementary School in Texas and Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where shootings cumulatively took the lives of more than 30 students.

According to a 2021 JAMA Network study that looked at 133 school shootings from 1980 to 2019, armed guards did not significantly reduce injuries or deaths during school mass shootings.

In fact, when researchers controlled for location and school characteristic factors, “the rate of deaths was 2.83 times greater in schools with an armed guard present.”

Put simply, school shootings are not rational activities subject to cost benefit analysis from the people contemplating doing them. Would-be shooters do not expect to come out alive. They don’t care if there is armed resistance or not. In fact, the presence of armed resistance only encourages them to bring deadlier weaponry – especially semi-automatic guns.

That’s why police in Uvalde, Texas, were too scared to go into Robb Elementary School and stop the perpetrator armed with an AR-15 – perhaps the most common weapon used in school shootings.

And when trained police are afraid, Mastriano expects better from school staff – teachers, secretaries, aides, and nurses!!!?

A similar proposal permitting the arming of school employees passed the state Senate in June 2017 but it died in a House committee. In the district where I work as a middle school teacher, we talked about the issue at a staff meeting.

The few people who thought it was a good idea and said they would gladly bring a gun with them to school are nice people – but they’re the last ones you’d want armed.

Moreover, we have a school resource officer who said he was not in favor of the measure because it would make things tougher for law enforcement responding to a shooting. It would make it that much more unclear who the shooter was and increase the chances of friendly fire.

It’s hardly surprising Mastriano is making such boneheaded proposals.

If elected governor, he also promises to cut public school funding IN HALF and make it harder for educators to collectively bargain for better salaries, benefits, and working conditions.

He is an extremist who wants to destroy public education in favor or charter and voucher schools, take away people’s freedom to choose what to do with their own bodies, discriminate against anyone with a different sexuality or religious belief and give away as much tax money as possible to private businesses.

Mastriano is either a fool who does not understand the issues or a patsy of the lunatic fringe of his party or both.

He wouldn’t arm teachers with books, funding or resources to teach – just guns.

He is an embarrassment to the people of Franklin County who elected him to the legislature and the Republican base who chose him to represent them in the governor’s race.

I know it’s trendy for the GOP to pick the candidate most likely to piss off the people across the aisle, but this isn’t a game.

Fools like Mastriano are going to get innocent people and their children killed – not to mention the suffering thousands will have to endure if his policies ever see the light of day.

He thinks the answer to school shootings is to turn the school librarian into Yosemite Sam.

If you vote for him in the general election, you will reap what you sow – misery and death.


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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!

Holtzman Resigns as MASD Superintendent After Questions Over Contract Shenanigans

For the second time in a year, McKeesport Area School Directors accepted the resignation of Superintendent Dr. Mark Holtzman.

However, this time his resignation appears to be permanent.

At a special meeting in July of 2021, the board both accepted Holtzman’s resignation and then immediately gave him a new 5-year contract.

However, after months of controversy over the legality of the move, at last night’s special meeting, the board voted to let him go FOR REAL.

Holtzman has accepted a new position at Beaver Area School District, approximately 50 miles northwest of McKeesport.

His last day is June 30. Assistant Superintendent Dr. Tia Wanzo will serve as Acting Superintendent immediately upon his departure.

The controversy stems from a move last year by the outgoing board to retain Hotlzman in McKeesport when he had been poised to accept a new superintendents position at Kiski Area School District. He resigned and was rehired at MASD in order to secure him a new contract with a competitive salary and years of service.

But this didn’t sit well with three board members (Steven Kondrosky, James Brown and Mindy Sturgess) who walked out of the meeting before it was officially called to order.

Then in January – a month after three new board members were sworn in following the election – the board voted 5-4 to look into whether Holtzman’s resignation and subsequent rehire were enforceable.

Lawyer William C. Andrews wrote a letter stating that the measure could be viewed as circumventing the intent of the Pennsylvania school code. The law does not allow such contracts to be extended with more than a year left before they expire. Holtzman still had two years left on his contract.

Holtzman’s own legal council, Mark E. Scott, wrote that the move was, in fact, legal and that it was common practice at other districts.

At a February board meeting where letters from both lawyers were read into the record, Holtzman offered to resign, then and there:

“I will clearly state if they want me to move on, and I’ve said it to them in private, I want a year’s salary and benefits and I will resign tonight. This witch hunt and issue is over, overdone, overstated and we need to move on and once I’m compensated for my attorney fees.”

At the time, it was unclear whether the board could move forward with Holtzman at the head of the district or not.

Apparently Holtzman couldn’t continue to work with them.

A mere three months later, he put in his current resignation.


Holtzman’s tenure at McKeesport was fraught with controversy from the beginning.

He was hired as high school principal without any principal experience while his own father, Mark Holzman, Sr., was on the school board.

Before this, he had been dean of discipline at McKeesport’s vocational department for two years before taking a similar role at West Mifflin Area High School. However, he was mostly known in MASD for his years on the high school football team when he had been a student there (he graduated in 1997) and then at Syracuse University.

His family also had a close relationship with one of the most controversial figures in the Mon-Valley, Pat Risha. The late Risha, who had been a superintendent, himself, at McKeesport, West Mifflin and South Allegheny districts, could have opened many doors, and was heralded as a “power broker” in his obituary.

Holtzman was originally hired as MASD superintendent at a special meeting on March 29, 2017, at a salary of $140,000, according to minutes from that meeting.

His time as superintendent was rocky, to say the least.

The Covid-19 pandemic offered hard challenges for every district, but Holtzman often made decisions that put students and staff at risk, keeping buildings open during times of high community spread and often with mask optional policies. The result was hundreds of people testing positive for the disease who might not have otherwise.

The district offered a cyber option for students whose parents wanted to keep them safely at home during the worst of the pandemic. Many districts were able to provide live teachers from the child’s grade level to instruct through on-line services like Zoom. However, MASD used the corporate Edmentum program to provide academics. The problem is it wasn’t created for that purpose. It was created for credit recovery, not robust academics. As a result, the district cyber program was developmentally inappropriate, and full of typos and inaccuracies.

It was no better for students who came to school in-person. Thousands of children were unable to get to school because bus routes were cancelled daily over the last year.

Holtzman blamed the problem on a contract with bus company, PA Coach Lines, which didn’t have enough drivers and would cancel the routes just hours before the buses were set to arrive.

The district had to go to court to break the contract and just entered into a new 6-year contract with Krise Transportation out of Penn Hills starting next year.

Holtzman’s controversies predate the pandemic.

In 2019, he refused to allow 11 high school students to create a Black Student Union. He claimed his objection wasn’t due to the organization’s content  but the participation of one of the student’s mothers – Fawn Montgomery Walker who was running for McKeesport Mayor at the time and who is lead organizer of Take Action Mon Valley, a community action group.

The district eventually reached a settlement agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union and the students who had filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the district and Holtzman.

The students were allowed to create the club as long as no “non-school persons or entities” are named as advisors or participants of the club.

Not everything Holtzman did in the district was contentious.

He had a talent for getting donations from large companies.

Last year, he was instrumental in getting Comcast to provided 2,500 free laptops for students, teachers and staff in the middle and high school. The gift also included one year of free high-speed internet access for eligible families – services that can be extended annually. 

The news was broadcast live on NBC’s “Today” show.

Around the same time, Holtzman helped broker a partnership with The DICK’S Sporting Goods Foundation and MASD for investment in students at Twin Rivers Elementary School. The agreement is supposed to involve co-designing a new school model and wrap-around services for the community.

Here’s hoping MASD has success with Dr. Wanzo or whoever eventually takes the Superintendent’s position on a permanent basis.


 

 

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!