Hey, Teachers’ Unions, Let’s Get This One Right – No Early Presidential Endorsements & Lots of Membership Engagement

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Let’s not mince words.

 

The last Presidential election was a cluster.

 

And we were at least partially to blame for it.

 

The Democratic primary process was a mess, the media gave free airtime to the most regressive candidate, and our national teachers unions – the National 
Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) – endorsed a Democratic challenger too early and without getting membership support first.

 

This time we have a chance to get it right.

 

Edu-blogger Peter Greene spoke my feelings when he took to Twitter:

 

“Just so we’re clear, and so we don’t screw it up again—- NEA and AFT, please wait at least a couple more weeks before endorsing a Democratic Presidential candidate for 2020.”

 

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He’s being snarky.

 
No one would endorse two years before people actually enter a voting booth.

 
But fairness. Evenhandedness. Moderation.

 
Let’s be honest. That didn’t happen in 2015.

 
So let’s take a brief trip down memory lane and review our history for just a moment in order to prevent these same mistakes.

 

The NEA represents 3 million educators. It is the largest labor union in the country. However only about 180 people made the decision to back Hillary Clinton last time around.

 

In October of 2015, the NEA Board of Directors voted 118 to 39 in favor of the endorsement with 8 abstentions and 5 absences.

 

The 74 member PAC Council voted to endorse Clinton with 82% in favor, 18% against and some of the largest delegations – California and New Jersey – abstaining.

 

Check my math here. So 61 PAC votes plus 118 Directors plus one President Lily Eskelsen Garcia equals 180 in favor.

 

That’s about .00006% of the membership.

 

We may call it such, but that is not an endorsement.

 

We need more than just the leadership to support a candidate. We need that to translate to actual votes.

 

When you circumvent membership, you see the result – Donald Trump.

 

To be fair, some NEA directors may have polled state union leaders. But according to NEA by-laws, the organization need go no further to obtain input from individual members for a primary endorsement. Even these straw polls are a formality.
The 8,000 strong Representative Assembly (RA) did not get a say. This larger body representing state and local affiliates did get to vote on an endorsement in the general election when the field was narrowed down to only two major candidates.

 

But anything like a poll of individual members was apparently not desired by leadership – now or later.

 

We can’t do that again.

 

The process at the AFT was likewise perplexing.

The AFT endorsed Clinton in July of 2015 – a half year before the primaries and more than a year before the general election.

 

This much seems certain:

 

1) The AFT executive board invited all of the candidates to meet with them and submit to an interview. No Republican candidates responded.

 

2) Democrats including Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley and Clinton were interviewed in private.

 

3) The executive committee voted to endorse Clinton.

 

4) THEN the interviews were released to the public.

 

How can the AFT claim its endorsement was a result of membership opinion when the organization didn’t even release the interviews to members until AFTER the endorsement?

 

Ostensibly, the executive council used these interviews to help make its decision. Shouldn’t that same information have been available to rank and file members of the union before an endorsement was made?

 

Which brings up another question: were AFT members asked AT ALL about who to endorse before the executive council made the final decision?

 

According to the AFT press release, they were:

 

“The AFT has conducted a long, deliberative process to assess which candidate would best champion the issues of importance to our members, their families and communities. Members have been engaged online, through the “You Decide” website, through several telephone town halls, and through multiple surveys—reaching more than 1 million members.

Additionally, over the past few weeks, the AFT has conducted a scientific poll of our membership on the candidates and key issues. The top issues members raised were jobs and the economy and public education. Seventy-nine percent of our members who vote in Democratic primaries said we should endorse a candidate. And by more than a 3-to-1 margin, these members said the AFT should endorse Clinton.”

 

So the AFT claims union members said to endorse Clinton on-line, on telephone town halls, surveys and a scientific poll of membership.

 

But did they really?

 

I’m not a member of the AFT but I know many teachers who are. Very few of them have ever been surveyed.

 

The press release says AFT members preferred Clinton 3-1. Yet to my knowledge they never released the raw data of any polls or surveys of membership.
This can’t happen again.

 
AFT President Randi Weingarten said something similar during an interview Friday on C-SPAN.

 

She said the executive council passed a four step process just last week to ensure members were behind whoever the union eventually endorsed this time around:

 

“Our Executive Council just passed a process last week which has four components. Number One is what do the members want? What are their aspirations? What are their needs in terms of Presidential candidates? And so we will be doing a lot of listening and engaging with members.

 

Number Two – There’s a lot of candidates that want access to our membership. What we would like them to spend a day with our members. We would like them to see the challenges in classrooms. The challenges that nurses have. [The AFT also represents nurses.] Listen to the challenges of adjunct professors who have student loan debt that is well beyond what salaries they get per month.

 

Number Three – People are really active these days. So we don’t want them to wait until there is a nationwide endorsement to involve or get engaged with candidates. So there’s going to be an ability to be involved or engaged as delegates to do these kinds of things.

 

Number Four – At one point or another we’ll get to an endorsement.”

 

Frankly, this seems kind of vague to me. I hope this new process gets better results than the last one.

 
We need to be able to trust our unions.

 
Don’t get me wrong. I love my union. I bleed collective bargaining and labor rights.

 
I teach in Homestead, Pennsylvania, just a few miles away from the site of the famous steel strike.

 
I want a union that represents me and my colleagues.

 
We must do better this time around.

 
We need a candidate that has broad popular support of members, not just leadership. Broad popular support will lead to engaged members at the polls and that engagement will translate into actual votes for our endorsed candidate.

 
So NEA and AFT leaders, your members want to know:
What is your process for selecting our next U.S. presidential candidate?

 
What questions will you ask potential candidates?

 
How will members have a democratic voice in the process?

 
Please be transparent and publish your process to share with members through multiple sources.

 
And my union brothers and sisters, get involved. Engage in the endorsement process now! Call on our NEA and AFT leadership to invite early and widespread, as well as transparent, involvement in the endorsement process.

 

 

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Do you know your NEA Board Members?

http://www.nea.org/home/1686.htm

 

NEA Leadership Contact INFO here:

http://www.nea.org/home/49809.htm

 

AFT Leadership:

https://www.aft.org/about/leadership

 

AFT Contact Info:

https://www.aft.org/contact

 
Let’s get it right this time.

 
Everything is riding on it.

 
Our vote is our future.


Special Thanks to Susan DuFresne for inspiring this article.


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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Rahm Emanuel’s Non-Apology Apology for Being a School Privatization Cheerleader

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Rahm Emanuel’s recent op-ed in The Atlantic may be one of the dumbest things I have ever read.

 

The title “I Used to Preach the Gospel of Education Reform. Then I Became the Mayor” seems to imply Emanuel has finally seen the light.

 

The outgoing Chicago Mayor USED TO subscribe to the radical right view that public schools should be privatized, student success should be defined almost entirely by standardized testing, teachers should be stripped of union protections and autonomy and poor black and brown people have no right to elect their own school directors.

 

But far from divorcing any of this Reagan-Bush-Trump-Clinton-Obama crap, he renews his vows to it.

 

This isn’t an apologia. It’s rebranding.

 

Emanuel had been White House Chief of Staff at the beginning of President Barack Obama’s first term. He’s a former U.S. Representative, and senior adviser to President Bill Clinton.

 

Yet he’s persona non grata.

 

Now that the extremely unpopular chief executive has decided not to seek re-election, he’s trying to secure his legacy – to make sure the history books don’t remember him as the Democrat In Name Only (DINO) mayor who closed an unprecedented number of schools serving mostly minority students while catering to the will of rich investors. He doesn’t want to be remembered as the lord on a hill whose own children went to private school while he cut services and increased class size for black and brown kids. He’s trying to save a series of abysmal policy failures so that he and his neoliberal pals like Cory Booker and Arne Duncan can still hold their heads high in Democratic circles. In a time when authentic progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders have won the heart of the party, he wants to ensure there’s still room for that old time corporate education reform he is infamous for.

 

Like I said – dumb.

 

To quote the Principal in Billy Madison:

 

 

“…what you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.”

 
If only he’d respond like Madison:

 

Okay, a simple ‘wrong’ would’ve done just fine, but thanks.”

 

But like that straight man school administrator in an Adam Sandler movie, I’m going to give you the long answer. I’m going to explain why what Emanuel said was supremely stupid.

 

He begins the piece with a lengthy description of how he got one over on those darn teachers unions.

 

He wanted what was best for children, but those pesky teachers just wouldn’t do it until he twisted their arms and got them to play ball.

 

And keep in mind – this is the softer, gentler Emanuel who wants you to like him! This is the Emanuel who’s trying on progressive clothing to look more appealing!

 

Hey, Rahm, attacking working people while casting yourself as a savior is so two years ago. We’ve had a conservative Supreme Court hobble unions’ ability to stop free riders and a teacher uprising since then. Union educators from West Virginia to Oklahoma to Los Angeles, California, have gone on strike demanding Republican and Democratic chief executives like yourself make positive change for children.

 

No one’s buying your fairytales anymore.

 

But it leads into a series of important points he wants to make:

 

“For most of my career, I preached the old gospel of education reform. But now research and experience suggest that policy makers need to embrace a new path forward and leave the old gospel behind. Principals, not just teachers, drive educational gains. The brain-dead debate between charter and neighborhood schools should be replaced with a focus on quality over mediocrity. To get kids to finish high school, the student experience should center on preparing them for what’s next in life. Finally, classroom success hinges on the support that students get outside school. If other cities follow Chicago’s lead in embracing those ideas, they’re likely to also replicate its results.”

 

Oh and what results those are! But we’ll come back to that.

 

He reasons that principals drive educational gains. In fact, this is his a-ha moment. Don’t focus on teachers, focus on principals.

 

He pats himself on the back for raising principals’ salaries and recruiting only people who think and believe just like him. Then he didn’t have to watch over them so closely and they were even promoted to higher administrative positions.

 

Wow. What an innovation! Stack your school system with yes-people and your initiatives will get done. Great. No room for diversity of thought. No one who thinks outside of the box. Just functionaries and flunkies who do what you say.

 

This is sounding like a great case for progressive education reforms already! If you’re a fascist dictator.

 

Next comes my favorite – a further commitment to school privatization hidden behind the flimsiest rechristening in history.

 

Stop talking about charter schools vs. authentic public schools, he writes. Talk about quality schools vs. mediocre ones.

 

What bull crap!

 

Imagine if pirates were robbing ships on the high seas. Would you talk about good pirates and bad pirates? Imagine if vampires were attacking people in the night and draining their blood. Would you talk about good vampires and bad vampires?

 

I mean Dracula did suck Mina dry, but he spends the rest of his nights reading to orphan children. Long John Silver may have stolen hundreds of chests of gold from merchant ships, but he donates every tenth doubloon to fighting global warming!

 

Hey, Rahm, you can’t escape from the argument of whether school privatization is good or bad. Charter schools drain funding from authentic public schools and give it to private investors. They allow unscrupulous operators to cut services and pocket the profits. They increase segregation, decrease democracy and transparency, give choice mainly to business people who get to decide if your child is allowed to enroll in their school – all while getting similar or worse results than authentic public schools.

 

If you stopped taking corporate money for one second, maybe you could understand this simple point – no system will ever be fair that allows theft and then protects the thieves.

 

But on to your next point. You want to focus the student experience on what comes next in life. You want to focus on jobs and career readiness.

 

This is just dumbing down what it means to get an education. Going to school shouldn’t be reduced to a career training program. If we only teach kids how to manufacture widgets, what will they do when the widget factory closes?

 

We need to teach them how to think for themselves. We need to offer them real opportunities for self-discovery and challenge them to think deeply through an issue.

 

When kids graduate, we don’t want to have simply made a generation of workers. We need them to be thinking adults and citizens who can participate fully in our democratic process and help lead our country toward a better and brighter future – not just learn how to code.

 

Finally you talk about the support students get out of school. That’s stupid because…

 

Actually it’s not.

 

You’ve got a point there. We do need to support programs to help students succeed outside the classroom – summer reading, after school tutoring, etc. However, making kids sign a pledge to go to college in order to be eligible for a summer job? That’s kind of cruel when many have no way to pay for college in the first place. Moreover, it completely ignores the huge section of children who have no desire to go to college and would rather go to career or technical schools.

 

And that brings me to his dismal record of failure described by neoliberals as success.

 

Emanuel pushed forward a policy that in order to graduate, Chicago seniors must prove that after 12th grade they’re going to college, trade school, an internship, the military or would otherwise be gainfully employed. OR ELSE they can’t get a diploma!

 

Rahm’s all about adding more hoops for poor minority kids to jump through. Very rarely is he about providing any help for them to make the jump.

 

He’s a pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps Democrat. Or what we used to call – a Republican.

 

Emanuel wants to tout his record as “proof” that his methods worked.

 

Let’s look at them.

 

He has closed 50 public schools46 of which serve mostly black students. Southside residents had to resort to a month-long hunger strike to keep their last neighborhood school open. He laid off hundreds of teachers and staff – many just before school opened. Yet he always had money for state of the art charter schools like the $27 million new charter school for the University of Chicago as part of the Obama Presidential Library. In addition, his economic policy consisted of closing public health clinics for the poor and installing red light cameras to increase fines – none of which actually boosted the economy.

 

And then we get to the scandal that made a third term as mayor impossible. Emanuel actually covered up the police killing of unarmed black teen, Laquan McDonald, so it wouldn’t hurt his re-election campaign.

 

In October of 2014, Officer Jason Van Dyke shot the 17-year-old 16 times. Most of those bullets went into the teenager after he was already flat on the ground and the officer was at least 10 feet away.

 

Emanuel quickly issued a $5 million settlement to McDonald’s family on the condition they keep quiet about the incident. It wasn’t until after Emanuel had won re-election, that an independent journalist put two-and-two together and asked for the officer’s dashcam video to be released. It took the full power of the media and a lawsuit to accomplish this resulting in charges against Van Dyke for first degree murder. Just last year the officer was found guilty of second degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm, but was found not guilty of official misconduct. He was sentenced to 6.75 years in prison.

 

This is not a sterling mayoral record. It is not a proven record of success.

 

He says graduation rates are up as are rates of Chicago students who go on to college. He neglects to mention that they’re up nationwide. He neglects to mention that the quality of education these kids receive is often watered down to whatever will help them pass the federally mandated standardized test. He neglects to mention the loss of teacher autonomy, and the rise in class size.

 

Face it. Emanuel is a crappy mayor. Chicago and the nation will be better if he fades into the sunset.

 

His political career was backed by the same big money conservatives that back Republicans like Chris Christie, Mitt Romney and Bruce Rauner. He was a puppet of charter schools, hedge fund managers and the Koch Brothers.

 

In fact, his corruption was so bad that during the 2016 primary, he became an issue for Democratic Presidential contenders.

 

Bernie Sanders actually called him out in a tweet saying: “I want to thank Rahm Emanuel for not endorsing me. I don’t want the endorsement of a mayor shutting down schools and firing teachers.”

 

Emanuel had endorsed Hilary Clinton, and her education advisor Ann O’Leary wrote in a private email to senior campaign staff that this might actually hurt the candidate’s primary chances. She wanted Clinton to distance herself from the troubled mayor or at least explain how she differed from his troubled policies.

 

They eventually settled on saying nothing. That didn’t backfire at all!

 

Look. Democrats need to learn the exact opposite of the lesson Rahm is selling here.

 

Corporate education reform is poison. School privatization is not progressive. High stakes testing is not progressive. Hiring like-minded flunkies to run your schools is not progressive. Closing black kids’ schools is not progressive.

 

Emanuel has learned nothing. Have we?


 

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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The Trouble with Test-Obsessed Principals

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When I was a child, I couldn’t spell the word “principal.”

 

I kept getting confused with its homonym “principle.”

 

I remember Mr. Vay, the friendly head of our middle school, set me straight. He said, “You want to end the word with P-A-L because I’m not just your principal, I’m your pal!”

 

And somehow that corny little mnemonic device did the trick.

 

Today’s principals have come a long way since Mr. Vay.

 

Many of them have little interest in becoming anyone’s pal. They’re too obsessed with standardized test scores.

 

I’m serious.

 

They’re not concerned with student culture, creativity, citizenship, empathy, health, justice – they only care about ways to maximize that little number the state wants to transform our children into.

 

And there’s a reason for that. It’s how the school system is designed to operate.

 

A new research brief from the Tennessee Education Research Alliance concluded that the lowest rated principals generally work at schools with the most economically disadvantaged students.

 

So schools serving students with the highest poverty and lowest test scores often have the least experienced and least effective principals.

 

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Now the first question I had when reading this report was “How do they measure effectiveness?” After all, if they rate principals primarily on student test scores, then obviously those working at the poorest schools will be least effective. Poor kids earn low test scores. That’s all the scores consistently show – the relative wealth of students’ parents. If you define an ineffective principal as one who works in a building with low scoring students, it would be no shock that those principals worked in the poorest schools.

 

However, researchers didn’t fall entirely into this trap. According to the working paper:

 

“We measure principal quality in two ways: years of experience in the principal position and rubric-based ratings of effective principal practice taken from the state’s evaluation system.”

 

 

In Tennessee this means evaluating principals partially on student test scores at their buildings – 35%, in fact – higher than the 20% of classroom teachers’ evaluations. However, the remaining pieces of principals’ effectiveness are determined by an observation from a more senior administrator (50%) and an agreed upon score by the principal and district (15%).

 

 

Since researchers are relying at least in part on the state’s evaluation system, they’re including student test scores in their own metric of whether principals are effective or not. However, since they add experience, they’ve actually created a more authentic and equitable measure than the one used by the state.

 

It just goes to show how standardized testing affects nearly every aspect of the public education system.

 

The testing industrial complex is like a black hole. Not only does it suck up funding that is desperately needed elsewhere without providing anything of real value in return, its enormous gravity subverts and distorts everything around it.

 

It’s no wonder then that so many principals at high poverty schools are motivated primarily by test scores, test prep, and test readiness. After all, it makes up a third of their own evaluations.

 

They’ve been dropped into difficult situations and made to feel that they were responsible for numerous factors beyond their control. They didn’t create the problem. They didn’t disadvantage these students, but they feel the need to prove to their bosses that they’re making positive change.

 

But how do you easily prove you’ve bettered the lives of students?

 

Once again, standardized test scores – a faux objective measurement of success.

 

Too many principals buy into the idea that if they can just make a difference on this one metric, it will demonstrate that they’re effective and thus deserve to be promoted out of the high poverty schools and into the well-resourced havens.

 

Yet it’s a game that few principals are able to win. Even those who do distinguish themselves in this way end up doing little more for their students than setting up a façade to hide the underlying problems of poverty and disinvestment.

 

Most principals at these schools wind up endlessly chasing their tails while ignoring opportunities for real positive change. Thus they end up renewing the self-fulfilling prophesy of failure.

 

Researchers noticed the pattern of low performing principals at high poverty schools after examining a decade’s worth of data and found it to hold true in urban, rural and suburban areas. And even though it is based on Tennessee data, the results hold true pretty consistently nationwide, researchers say.

 

Interestingly enough, the correlation doesn’t hold for teachers.

 

Jason Grissom, an associate professor at Vanderbilt University and the faculty director of the Research Alliance, says that the problem stems from issues related specifically to principals.

 

For instance, districts are hiring lower-rated principals for high poverty schools while saving their more effective leaders for buildings with greater wealth and resources.

 

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As a result, turnover rates for principals at these schools are much higher than those for classroom educators. Think about what that means – schools serving disadvantaged students are more likely to have new principal after new principal. These are leaders with little experience who never stick around long enough to learn from their mistakes.

 

And since these principals rarely have had the chance to learn on the job as assistant principals, they’re more likely to be flying by the seat of their pants when installed at the head of a school without first receiving the proper training and mentorship that principals at more privileged buildings routinely have.

 

As such, it’s easy for inexperienced principles to fall into the testing trap. They buy into the easy answers of the industry but haven’t been around long enough to learn that the solution they’re being sold is pure snake oil.

 

This has such a large effect because of how important principals are. Though they rarely teach their own classes, they have a huge impact on students. Out-of-school factors are ultimately more important, but in the school building, itself, only teachers are more vital.

 

This is because principals set the tone. They either create the environment where learning can flourish or smother it before the spark of curiosity can ignite. Not only that, but they create the work environment that draws and keeps the best teachers or sends them running for the hills.

 

 

The solution isn’t complicated, says Grissom. Districts need to work to place and keep effective and experienced principals in the most disadvantaged schools. This includes higher salaries and cash bonuses to entice the best leaders to those buildings. It also involves providing equitable resources for disadvantaged schools so that principals have the tools needed to make authentic positive change.

 

I would add that we also need to design fair evaluation systems for both principals and teachers that aren’t based on student test scores. We need to stop contracting out our assessments to corporations and trust our systems of government and schools to make equitable judgments about the people in their employ.

 

Ultimately, what’s required is a change in attitude.

 

Too many principals look at high poverty schools as a stepping stone to working at a school with endless resources and a different class of social issues. Instead, the goal of every excellent school leader should be to end their career working where they are needed most.

 

Such professionalism and experience would loosen the stranglehold of test-and-punish and allow our schools not to simply recreate the inequalities already present in our society. It would enable them to heal the divide.

 

As John Dewey wrote in 1916:

 

“Were all instructors to realize that the quality of mental process, not the production of correct answers, is the measure of educative growth, something hardly less than a revolution in teaching would be worked.”

 

And that’s what’s needed – a revolution.


 

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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Teaching Through Lockdown

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“Excuse the interruption. We are under a lockdown.”

 

That was it.

 

Not an explanation of what caused it.

 

Not any idea of how much danger we were in.

 

Not any idea of how long it would last.

 

Just a vague warning that teachers knew meant to keep all their students in class until further notice.

 

As an educator, you’re expected to teach.

 

It doesn’t matter what’s happening around you. There can be yelling or screaming. There can be a scuffle in the next room. The lights may flicker off and on.

 

None of that matters.

 

If you have students and aren’t in immediate danger, you’re expected to teach them.

 

And that’s what I did. Even then.

 

I teach mostly poor and minority students in a western Pennsylvania school near Pittsburgh.

 

 

My 8th grade language arts class was in the middle of taking a final exam on The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton.

 

Most of my students were finished, but it was still quiet as two or three students struggled through their last responses.

 

Then the announcement came over the PA.

 

“…lockdown.”

 

 

The voice was the high school secretary. Since the middle and high school are connected, she rarely makes announcements in my building – only when something is important happening for both buildings.

 

The kids looked up at me with worried faces.

 

“What’s going on, Mr. Singer?” one of them asked.

 

I told them the truth – I really had no idea. There were no drills planned for today. In fact, it would have been a really poor time for one. We had just had ALICE training the day before where the resource officer and the principal had met with students to go over what to do in case of an active shooter. The program is named for the courses of actions it recommends – Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate.

 

So we were apparently in the L.

 

During the assembly, the resource officer had said quite bluntly that there would be no coded messages. If a school shooter entered the building, officials would tell us in plain language what was happening so we could make an informed decision what to do.

 

But there was no additional message over the PA. That was it.

 

I went over to my computer to see if there was an email. Nope. Nothing.

 

I pressed refresh a few times. Nothing.

 

I asked the students to hush and just listened.

 

It was extremely quiet. Even the hallway was silent and it’s never that silent except during standardized testing.

 

My room has no windows to the outside. It’s a brick box with one wooden door containing a sliver of window.

 

The door was already closed and locked. We’re told to keep it that way just in case. But there’s an additional deadbolt you can click to make it even harder to gain access to the room.

 

“It’s probably nothing,” I said as I walked over to the door and surreptitiously clicked the deadbolt.

 

I asked student to finish their tests.

 

It seemed the best course of action. We could either worry about an unknown that was extremely unlikely or else just take care of our business.

 

It was hard getting the students to calm down. They were scared, and, frankly, so was I.

 

But this seemed the best thing we could do – Seek normalcy but stay vigilant in case things changed.

 

“Mr. Singer, may I use the bathroom?” asked one child.

 

“I’m sorry, but no.” I said. “Not until the lockdown is over.”

 

Somehow I quieted them down and the remaining students finished their tests.

 

It seemed to take them forever.

 

I stood by those who were finalizing answers in the hope that my physical presence would get them to concentrate.

 

For the millionth time I pondered the wisdom of grouping kids into classes based on test scores. All you end up doing is sorting them by poverty, race, trauma and behavior problems.

 

But they were soon done.

 

So they handed in the tests and we went over the answers.

 

“May I use the bathroom?”

 

“No. Not yet. Sorry.”

 

For about five minutes things went as they would on any other day.

 

But as soon as there was a lull in the activity, the fear and worry returned.

 

Students wanted to take out their cell phones and call or text home.

 

I told them not to.

 

“Why?” asked a boy in the front.

 

I knew the answer. We had nothing we could tell parents other than that there was a lockdown. We didn’t know what caused it or what was happening. If there was something bad going on, having parents come to the school would only make things worse.

 

But I just told him to put it away. I didn’t want to debate the situation. I didn’t want them (or me) to think about what might be happening.

 

We hadn’t finished watching the movie version of “The Outsiders” so I quickly put that on.

 

We only had about 15 minutes to go. And watching Dally get shot down by police probably wasn’t the best choice under the circumstances.

 

Still, the kids were focused on the film and not the lockdown.

 

We discussed how the movie and the book differed for a few moments.

 

But inevitably there was a lull.

 

We all got quiet and just listened. Nothing.

 

No. Down the hall we could hear something. Maybe a scuffle. Voices. It was hard to tell.

 

I started thinking of options, what to do if someone tried to enter the room. But it got quiet again.

 

Still no email. No message. Nothing.

 

I could call the office on my school phone, but that just might make things worse.

 

“Mr. Singer, I’ve GOT to use the bathroom!”

 

I looked around. I wasn’t sure what to do. I couldn’t let him out there. It would literally be better if he peed his pants.

 

He must have seen my confusion. “Can I just pee in a bottle or something?”

 

“Do you have a bottle?”

 

“No.”

 

I was about to tell him to take the garbage can into the corner and pee into it but there was no empty corner in the room.

 

Before I could remark any further, he said, “It’s okay. I’ll just hold it.”

 

That’s when I noticed the time. We had already spent more than the 40 minutes in the allotted period. The bell should have rung to get students to move to another room. That meant the bells were off.

 

The students noticed, too.

 

I kept telling them that everything was probably fine and that I wouldn’t let anything happen to them.

 

Then we noticed something weird out of the window in the door.

 

One of the school custodians was standing right outside the room.

 

He didn’t seem alarmed. He appeared to be looking for something.

 

Then another custodian walked up to him and they conferred in the hall.

 

We heard talking. Perhaps the principal in the distance.

 

Whatever was happening they seemed to have it under control and didn’t appear worried.

 

I had nothing planned for my students to do. We were well off book here. I couldn’t just start a new unit. I had no idea how long we’d be here.

 

So I asked them to take out their self-selected books and read.

 

They groaned.

 

“How are we going to concentrate on that?” someone asked.

 

I didn’t really have an answer but it was better to try than to worry needlessly.

 

So after some cajoling, they dutifully took their books out. Most just stared around the room listening to every nonexistent sound. But some at least appeared to be reading.

 

“Mr. Singer…”

 

NO YOU CAN’T USE THE BATHROOM!

 

Then not long after, the announcement came that the lockdown was over and students could move to their next class.

 

There was no explanation. Kids just breathed a collective sigh and went to their classes.

 

I let anyone use the restroom who asked. And I tried to teach through another class.

 

I truly expected a printed letter from the superintendent to be hand delivered to the room so the kids could take it home. But no. Perhaps there hadn’t been enough time to write, print and disperse one.

 

After the students were dismissed, I expected administrators to announce a staff meeting to let the teachers know, at least, what had happened. But there was nothing.

 

I went into another teacher’s room and saw a group talking. THAT was when I found out about what had happened.

 

A group of students in the high school had been fighting.

 

Apparently it was pretty bad – almost a riot. One child had been knocked cold and taken out of the building on a stretcher. The others had been removed by police.

 

When teachers had broken it up, some of the kids had run and were hiding in the building. That’s why the lockdown.

 

There was more on the 11 O’clock News. Some of the kids had filmed the fight with their phones and put it up on Snapchat.

 

We eventually got a letter from the superintendent and an email from another administrator saying that it had just been a minor fight.

 

Parents were on the news saying that administration hadn’t handled it properly, but no one showed up at the next school board meeting to complain.

 

And so life goes on.

 

The threat of violence always hangs over our heads.

 

It probably won’t ever come down to the worst case scenario. Yet the fact that it might and that no one really seems to be doing much of anything to stop it from getting to that point – that changes what it means to be in school.

 

We live with this reality everyday now.

 

It’s not fair to students. It’s not fair to teachers or parents.

 

But when you live in a society so broken that it can’t even begin to address its own problems, this is what you get.

 


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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Children of the Gun: How Lax Firearm Legislation Affects My Students

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Tanisha was just 6-years-old the first time she was in a shooting.

 

She was home in the kitchen looking for a cookie when she heard a “pop pop pop” sound.

 

Her mother rushed into the room and told her to get down.

 

Tanisha didn’t know what was happening.

 

“Hush, Baby,” her mom said wrapping the child in her arms and pulling her to the floor. “Someone’s out there shooting up the neighborhood.”

 

That was a story one of my 8th grade students told me today.

 

And it was far from the only one.

 

For the first time, my urban school district in Western Pennsylvania had an ALICE training for the students.

 

The program helps prepare schools, businesses and churches in case of an active shooter. Its name is an acronym for its suggested courses of action – Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, and Evacuate.

 

In a district like mine where three separate gunmen went on sprees within 5 miles of each other during the last few years, this sort of training is becoming more frequent.

 

We’ve had numerous seminars for the teachers – even active shooter drills. With the students, we’ve had lockdown drills were the kids were basically instructed to duck and cover under their desks or in corners or closets.

 

But this was the first time the danger was made explicit in an assembly by grade level.

 

Our school resource officer and middle school principal stood side-by-side before the 8th grade going over in detail how someone might come into the building with the express purpose to kill as many of them as possible.

 

And then they told these 12 and 13-year-olds that it was up to them to do something about it.

 

That hiding wasn’t good enough. They needed to try to escape or incapacitate the attacker.

 

It still shocks me that we’ve gotten to this point.

 

We no longer expect society to keep us safe – to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people.

 

It’s up to the children to watch out for themselves.

 

I can tell you as a teacher with more than 15 years experience in the classroom, I have never seen kids so quiet as they were in that auditorium.

 

It makes me sick.

 

When I was their age I was playing with Luke Skywalker action figures and building space ships out of Legos. I wasn’t discussing with police how to avoid a bullet to the brain. I wasn’t advised to wear my backpack on my chest to help protect against being gut shot.

 

I wasn’t then going back to class and talking over with my teacher how we can best barricade the room against any would-be bad guys.

 

But that’s what we did today.

 

I tried to reassure my kids that they were safe, that we could secure the door and if worst came to worst I wouldn’t let anything happen to them.

 

But these children aren’t like I was at their age.

 

They were shocked by the directness of the assembly. But they were no strangers to violence.

 

Later in the day, so many of them came back to me to talk about their relationship to guns and how firearms impacted their lives.

 

“I know you can’t get an automatic rifle unless…”

 

“I have a friend whose brother…”

 

“You don’t know what it’s like to lose your best friend to a gun.”

 

One of them had been friends with Antwon Rose in East Pittsburgh friends with Antwon Rose in East Pittsburgh. They knew all the details about how he ran from police and was shot down.

 

Someone coming into the school with a gun? Heck! They experience that everyday with the police.

 

For many of my kids, law enforcement isn’t automatically a comforting thought. They don’t trust the uniform. Often with good reason.

 

And now they were being told that safety was just another one of their responsibilities – like doing their homework and picking up after themselves in the cafeteria.

 

I can’t shake the feeling that these kids are being cheated – that the world we’ve built isn’t worthy of them.

 

What point is a society that can’t keep its own children safe?

 

What point police and firefighters and lawmakers and courts and laws and even a system of justice if we can’t use them to protect our own kids?

 

Isn’t that our job?

 

Isn’t that what adults are supposed to do?

 

Keep the danger out there so that the little ones can grow up and inherit a better world?

 

But we don’t even try to do that anymore.

 

We’ve given up trying.

 

No more pushing for better laws and safer regulations.

 

Just look the kids straight in the eye and tell them that death may be coming and there’s nothing we can do about it.

 

It’s up to them.

 

If that’s the best we can do, then shame on us.


 

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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