Efforts to Legalize Child Labor are the Next Logical Step After Corporate Education Reform

 
Standardized testing


 
Privatizing public schools. 


 
Defunding poor students.  


 
What’s next? 


 
Republicans across the United States have an answer – legalizing child labor


 
Since 1938 with the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration restricted children younger than 14 from being employed, and put strict rules in place on when those younger than 18 may be employed, for how many hours and in what fields. 


 
Today Republicans across the country seem poised to repeal those protections. 


 
In Wisconsin, Republicans want to allow 14-year-olds to work in bars and restaurants serving alcohol. These kids aren’t legally allowed to drink the beverages they’re pouring but I’m sure that won’t cause any problems. Nooooo! 


 
In Ohio, the GOP majority legislature is trying to allow kids ages 14 and 15 to work until 9 p.m. during the school year with their parents’ permission. Those teens better make sure their homework is done before their work-WORK because there won’t be anytime before bed. (No matter that this is illegal under federal law. I guess the rest of the country will have to change to accommodate the Buckeye State.) 


 
Donald Trump’s former press secretary, nepo baby, and current Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a law in March eliminating permits that employers used to have to check to verify a child’s age and their parent’s consent before hiring a minor. Without this, it’s much easier for companies caught violating child labor laws to claim ignorance. But, hey, freedom. Right? 


 
And that’s not even counting measures to loosen child labor laws that have been passed in New Jersey, New Hampshire and Iowa. (Iowa Republicans were even going to let 14- and 15-year-olds work in dangerous fields including mining, logging and meatpacking, before coming to their senses!) In the last two years, GOP Lawmakers have proposed loosening child labor laws in at least 10 states, according to a report published last month by the Economic Policy Institute. Some of these bills became law and others were withdrawn or vetoed. 


 
Make no mistake. These are not aberrations. This is the thrust of the mainstream Republican party today. 


 
National business lobbyists, chambers of commerce and well-funded conservative groups such as Americans for Prosperity – a conservative political network – and the National Federation of Independent Business – an organization that typically aligns with Republicans – are backing the state bills to increase teen participation in the workforce.  


 
Meanwhile, child labor violations have increased by almost 70% since 2018, according to The Department of Labor. The agency is increasing enforcement and asking Congress to allow larger fines against violators. 


 
How did we get here? 


 
Corporate education reform. 


 
It’s like the old adage: if a frog is suddenly dropped into a pot of boiling water, it will jump out and save itself from impending death. But, if the frog is gently placed in lukewarm water, with the temperature rising slowly, it will not perceive any danger to itself and will be cooked to death. 


 
That’s what our national education policy has been for the last two decades. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been slowly raising the temperature and now the water is boiling over. 


 
We’ve been increasingly treating children less as individual humans who are ends in themselves and instead as cogs in the machine, widgets, things to be molded and manipulated for the good of the economy. 


 
Here we have an entire industry of standardized testing that makes its money as a parasite on the public school system. The same multi-billion dollar corporations design the tests, grade the tests and then offer remediation when kids don’t pass the tests. It’s a classic captive market where the provider has no incentive but to perpetuate the conditions that increase its bottom line. Students aren’t the consumers of this product – school districts are – and they have no choice but participate. It’s encoded in federal and state law. They have to play along and are, themselves, judged by the results of that compliance. 


 
Then we have privatization – charter and voucher schools. These are institutions ostensibly set up to educate students, but unlike authentic public schools, these organizations are allowed to turn a profit. Some of them get to hide behind the label “non-profit” but the result is the same. And once you allow financial gain of this sort into the system, that’s what it’s all about. Kids become a means to an end, not an end in themselves.  


 
And let’s not forget how all of this enters into the finances of public schools. Unlike most countries across the globe, education in the US is supported primarily by local taxes. So rich neighborhoods invariably have robust public schools that provide students with all the resources they need. And poor communities have impoverished schools where students get only whatever parents and teachers can scrounge together. In this country, children are not a worthy cause all by themselves – we only care about them if they’re OURS


 
The entire apparatus of corporate education reform is focused around jobs. In this ideology, the function of school is to prepare students for employment – that is all. It is not to make students good citizens, knowledgeable voters or even fully realized human beings. Rich kids are prepared for the jobs that will keep them rich. Poor kids are prepared for the service industry – so the rich have someone to wait on them in restaurants and stock grocery store shelves. 


 
The fact that the Covid pandemic has reduced adults willing to continue working in these fields for such low wages has only motivated the wealthy and powerful to fill those vacancies with younger-and-younger people who won’t understand how much they’re being taken advantage of and won’t complain. 


 
For example, take this quote from Rex Tillerson, former ExxonMobil CEO

“I’m not sure public schools understand that we’re their customer—that we, the business community, are your customer. What they don’t understand is they are producing a product at the end of that high school graduation. Now is that product in a form that we, the customer, can use it? Or is it defective, and we’re not interested? American schools have got to step up the performance level—or they’re basically turning out defective products that have no future. Unfortunately, the defective products are human beings. So it’s really serious. It’s tragic. But that’s where we find ourselves today.” 


We find the same rhetoric on the left as well as the right. 


 
The Center for American Progress (CAP) – a so-called liberal Washington think tank lead by Barack Obama  and Hillary Clinton minions like John Podesta – repeat the same conservative talking points. For example, CAP published and article called “Preparing American Students for the Workforce of the Future” which read like a companion piece to Tillerson’s diatribe. They did concede that being ready for “civic life” is important as well as being “career ready,” though. 

So far, few Democrats have taken the next logical step along with their Republican colleagues.

And they ARE colleagues. Don’t let the hyped up media culture war distract you. When you take out social issues, America’s two parties are as different as milk chocolate and dark chocolate. They’re the same basic thing separated only by intensity and bitterness.

Republicans are ready to undo child labor protections. Democrats will only take away kids’ rights at school.


 
This is what you get when you dehumanize students. This is what you get when you signal it is okay to be a predator on student needs to help fulfill the needs of the economy. 


 
Money comes first. Students – children – are a distant second.  


 
So finally the chickens of corporate education reform are coming home to roost. I don’t think we’re going to like the eggs. 


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Come Visit Your Wasted Tax Dollars at Commonwealth Charter Academy’s Waterfront Luxury Office Space

There’s plenty of fun to be had if you go to the Waterfront in Homestead, Pennsylvania.

There’s a Dave and Busters, Primate Bros, and even an AMC Loews’s multiplex movie theater.

But right across from the Barnes and Noble is a building with a neon green sign advertising its tenant – Commonwealth Charter Academy (CCA).

This is the newest satellite office of the biggest cyber charter school network in the entire state! One of 51 locations statewide.

These are not your typical brick-and-mortar charter schools. They’re remote schools where students are taught at a distance via computer.

Like other charters, they’re still publicly financed, often privately run, and free from most safety precautions that ensure kids get a quality education at authentic public schools – things like being run by elected school boards, requiring entirely certified teachers, etc. But cyber charters don’t have to house children during the school day. They just need computers and Internet access.

Unfortunately, since Minnesota passed the first charter school law in 1991, they have spread through at least 45 states. However, only 27 states also allow CYBER charters like this – schools that teach mostly (or entirely) distance learning through the Internet.

Nationwide, Pennsylvania and Ohio have the largest cyber charter enrollment. In 2020-21, the Keystone State enrolled 61,000 students in 14 cyber charters – and roughly 21,000 attend CCA!

Who would have thunk it?

Sometime since the deal was signed in 2021, the mega giant headquartered in Harrisburg opened a luxury charter school office during the Covid pandemic right here south of Pittsburgh – by Starbucks and the Venetian Spa!

Oh, sure! There’s an authentic public school in this neighborhood, too, right up the hill. It’s not located in nearly as trendy a spot though. Moreover, its four buildings were constructed around the 1970s and are crumbling down in places. But the new cyber charter school building looks like a palace!

According to Shannon Construction, the 62,000 sqft. space converted from a former Macy’s Department Store has:

“administrative offices, conference rooms, seminar areas, production labs and live session rooms. Some features include state of the art exterior lighting and signage, high-quality audio/visual and security equipment and 52 new perimeter windows to allow for ample natural lighting. The interior is complete with custom wall graphics, acoustical panels, wood plank ceilings, a fireplace and a Techworks room that provides users with a full digital experience.”

Wow! We paid for that!

It’s hard to imagine why a glorified office building where students don’t attend school needs to be so fancy. Or why it needs to be located on such prime real estate. With such high rents. On the public dime.

I teach at Steel Valley Middle School nestled among residential homes on top of the hill. There’s no Panera nearby, but there is Munhall MiniMart just up the street.

We have no wood plank ceilings or Techworks rooms, but my classroom has fluorescent lights, a wipe board that doesn’t fully erase, wobbly tables and chairs, and no windows.

CCA doesn’t sound like a school. It sounds like a tech company. And I guess it kind of is.

The K-12 cyber network’s Homestead building isn’t designed for students – it’s designed for executives. The people who make the big bucks work here – though maybe there are a few teachers holed up here and there behind computers typing away to their students through screens across the state.

Much of the responsibility for these students doesn’t seem to rest with teachers. It belongs to their “learning coaches,” adults responsible for assisting kids at home – usually parents or guardians.

According to CCA’s Website, learning coaches are expected to spend five hours each school day helping elementary students with coursework and monitoring lessons, and between two and three hours a day with students in middle school.  

Why are we paying CCA again?

And how much are we paying them?

It turns out the so-called non-profit business, which in 2020 posted almost $39 million in net income, gets at least $10,000 per student. So given its enrollment figures, that’s at least $210 million a year – not counting additional money some districts have to provide. For each child from a district that enrolls in a cyber charter, the sending district pays the cyber a rate based on what the district spends on average per pupil – one rate for students in regular education and another for students with disabilities. This means that tuition rates paid to a particular cyber school can be vastly different.  

But since online charters have far lower operating costs than brick-and-mortar schools of any stripe, we end up overpaying them nearly every time.

I guess that’s why CCA has enough money to pay $19 million on marketing from 2019 – 2021, including getting a promotional TV spot in a Thanksgiving Parade, according to Education Voters of Pennsylvania.

CCA spends millions of dollars each school year on advertising. For example, in its 2018-19 IRS Form 990, a required disclosure for all nonprofits, CCA reported that it paid $8.5 million to Bravo Group, an advertising, marketing, and lobbying firm.  

CCA is sitting on so much extra money, it can afford to offer families cash reimbursements of $200 for monthly field trips.

But, of course, these trips aren’t always of much educational value. They’ve gone to petting zoos, laser tag, bowling and kayaking. A parent of a CCA student even bragged on Facebook about using these funds for Dave and Busters Arcade, a Motley Crue concert, Eagles tickets, and family vacations to Universal Studios and Disney, according to Education Voters of Pa.

Can you imagine taking your kids to an expensive theme park, or going to see an NFL game, or seeing Motley Crue play “Shout at the Devil” on the public dime?

Does that sound nice? Absolutely.

But is it fair to all the other schools in the state starving for enough money just to keep the lights on? Is it fair to kids in extra large classes, without new textbooks, and dealing with mold in the bathrooms?

Moreover, is it a good learning strategy to get kids to sit in front of a computer for 30 days with the promise of a field trip at the end of the month?

One thing’s for sure – it doesn’t seem to be getting academic results. CCA’s 4th and 8th grade reading scores in 2018-19, for example, were the worst in the state. 

Only 28.8% of CCA students achieved proficiency on English Language Arts and Math PSSA exams on a two-year, combined basis, according to state Department of Education data. The school’s growth score was negative – so they actually regressed academically. They would have done better not to have even gone to school! 

Moreover, the school’s graduation rate falls well below statewide averages and state goals. Its four-year cohort graduation rate is 53%; its five-year rate is 67%; and its six-year rate is 70%. For the 2018-19 school year, more than 10% of CCA students dropped out. That’s about twice as many as the average rate for charter schools and seven times as many as the average rate for authentic public school districts.

 

In short, the school’s performance ranks among the bottom 5% of schools statewide.

In the commonwealth, cyber charters were first allowed in 2002. They are authorized by the state Department of Education and operate statewide.

Which begs the question – has the state been doing its job to hold this cyber charter network accountable? According to the Times Tribune, CCA hasn’t been audited by the state in a decade, though the school disputes this fact and a press release claimed it has independent audits.

I don’t know about you, but as a teacher, parent and taxpayer in the Commonwealth, none of this makes me happy.

The best I can do is come down to the Waterfront and see the result of all this tax money – mine and yours – in a beautiful new building that isn’t doing anything to help students learn.

If you want an even closer look inside CCA, indeed.com has you covered. The site allowed employees or former employees of companies to review their places of work.

While there were a few reviews that were entirely positive of CCA schools across the state, the overwhelming majority were incredibly negative.

Take an unfiltered look at the inside of CCA:


Stressful, not flexible  

Teacher (Current Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – September 24, 2022 

CCA has changed for staff. They are no longer flexible and change requirements and hours with no notice. Staff need to read the administration’s mind to determine the new rules and regulations that changed continually. Work life balance is a struggle with this school.  

I’d pass on this one. 

High School Special Education Teacher (Former Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – December 2, 2022 

CCA started out as a great place to work. Unfortunately, it quickly went down hill. Management had little spies that taught among us and reported back. I felt like I was in grade school all over again. The number of students on any given caseload is 60+ students. It was almost impossible to progress monitor, make phone calls, and complete all necessary paperwork on time. The expectation was to work 12 hour days as well as nights and weekends. No life for you. As time went on management became very top heavy. If you had a target on your back you might as well hang it up. They don’t really help you to improve even though they say they do. Burn out comes quickly and upper management could careless. Professionalism does not exist in this place especially from upper management. CCA does not support you as a teacher. You can easily be replaced and they will. 
Pros 
Flexible Schedule 
Cons 

Everything else….Management, Caseload numbers, Professionalism, etc. 

2 Stars

Teacher (Current Employee) – Pennsylvania – October 12, 2022 

What is the best part of working at the company?
Teaching students and coworkers. 

What is the most stressful part about working at the company?
Middle and upper management lack of communication, lack of flexibility, low pay.

What is the work environment and culture like at the company?
Not healthy. Upper management claims to listen but they don’t implement any suggestions. 

What is a typical day like for you at the company?
8-4 pm teaching, phone calls, grades, etc. 

Poor communication and lack of professionalism  

Administrative Assistant (Former Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – August 9, 2022 

Upper management at CCA is unprofessional, some downright rude, and has extremely poor communication. No training or onboarding process, upper management doesn’t seem to know or care what most employees do on a day to day basis, and the environment is unhealthy both physically and mentally. Disappointing that when concerns were even expressed to the CEO, no response was even given at all. There seems to me a mindset that if given bonus money; $1,00 to $5,000 taxed money, periodically, that everything is great, which is not the case and it doesn’t reflect anything other than a means to disperse unused profits, especially since it’s been given to employees regardless of their length of employment or job performance. 
CCA is lacking integrity and are not what they claim to be in media advertising or to parents.  

Here is my view 

Administrative Assistant (Current Employee) – Allentown, PA – July 5, 2022 

“Equality” is not something that is known for the staff at this company. If you are not in the main office or a teacher you are treated like the “red headed step child”. They care more about money than making sure their staff is financially or mentally taken care of.  
Cons 
Pay, Flexibility 

 

A changing company/school that supports family. 

Family Mentor (Former Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – March 5, 2022 

This position can be fun but also compromising . You can be promised one area then it be changed to an impossible location. Taking too much time to be worth the pay. When location is favorable then the job is great. 

No Work Life Balance 

Teacher (Current Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – February 13, 2022 

Great benefits, but at the cost of your sanity and peace. No work life balance. A constant push for in office/ in person during a Pandemic. If you’re single with no kids and no life this is a great fit.  
Pros 
Benefits and shiny buildings 
Cons 

Literally no life. 

My manger changes 5 times in 6 months.  

Success coach (Former Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – December 16, 2021 

The new managers don’t know anything but are supposed to be your supervisor. You don’t get paid when the kids aren’t there so the job is like part time pay.  
Pros 
Benefits are amazing! 
Cons 
No advancement, very little direction. 

 

Not a good company to work for  

Teacher (Former Employee) – Homestead, PA – August 20, 2021 

Management says one thing and does another thing. Too many managers that don’t communicate with employees very well. Not understanding when personal issues arise  
Pros 
Great technology 
Cons 
Too many chiefs not enough Indians 

Not worth it 

Accounting Clerk (Former Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – March 4, 2021 

Never felt comfortable with coworkers from day one. Also management was very unpleasant and spent way more time than necessary watching employees at their desks. They had seriously ridiculous expectations on performance after only a few weeks on the job. It was expected that I would just know how to do something I had just been trained on and do that task perfectly. Not worth the stress and anxiety it caused. 
Pros 
Great benefits 
Cons 
Toxic work environment 

Collaboration but inconsistent management, disjointed and unqualified leadership, unprofessional behavior, no training, inappropriate expectations 

Teacher (Former Employee) – Pennsylvania – December 19, 2020 

Sounds and looks much better to work there than to actually work there. Stressful, lack of communication, no consistency, lack of professionalism, focus on avoiding legal issues is driving force, facade of supportive atmosphere and family like environment. Work life balance is zero.  
Pros 
Remote 
Cons 
Totally inconsistent and poor leadership 

Authentic Leadership Is Nonexistent at CCA 

Career Facilitation Coordinator (Former Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – June 29, 2020 

CCA cannot be great under current leadership. During my time there, it became evident that students are not at the center of this organization, but instead, the selfish interests of senior leadership prevails (note: I use the term leadership loosely). Among many things, the culture of micromanagement is toxic, resulting in unbelievably high turnover in certain positions. In a functional organization, senior leadership would work to mitigate this issue. Here, matters such as this are swept under the rug. For whatever reason, certain “Directors” are protected and there is no accountability. Professionals are not treated as such and their expertise is grossly undervalued. HR is not objective and gossipy…especially at the senior level, which is extremely unprofessional to say the least. If you’re searching for an innovative and inclusive organization which promotes growth and cohesion, KEEP LOOKING. If you decide to interview, do your best to find out the history of your position. If offered a position, run far and fast. 
Pros 
Nice building 
Cons 
Zero accountability, culture of nepotism, inauthentic leaders 

Save yourself the agony 

Unlisted (Former Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – April 19, 2020 

Horrible place to work, bad management, inadequate pay. There is no flexibility and employees are not valued at all. Every day of my time there was miserable. 
Pros 
None 
Cons 
Everything 

Teachers are micromanaged and required to complete tasks that do not improve students’ education. 

Teacher (Current Employee) – Pennsylvania – February 22, 2020 

The school’s administration is very top-heavy. Teachers’ salaries are low compared to peers in brick and mortar schools. Workload among teachers is not fairly distributed. Teachers are required to award grades to students that do not reflect their learning. Students are awarded up to 35% of their grades for ‘participation’ that does not assure that actual learning took place. 

The hardest part of the job is not being able to engage the many students who use the cyber-school setting to avoid going to school. The administration does not put adequate resources to removing these students from the school. 

 

Poor organizational structure doesn’t support teachers 

Teacher (Former Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – February 17, 2020 

Teachers aren’t valued much. Young and inexperienced administrators hand picked if they are yes-men to upper administrators push teachers to the limit. Upper administration has alternative agendas, and the ‘school’ is a company to them. Office cubes are loud and not conducive to work. 

Stressful, not flexible  

Teacher (Current Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – September 24, 2022 

CCA has changed for staff. They are no longer flexible and change requirements and hours with no notice. Staff need to read the administration’s mind to determine the new rules and regulations that changed continually. Work life balance is a struggle with this school.  

Little Guidance From School 

Instructional Assistant (Former Employee) – Ligonier, PA – July 7, 2019 

I worked as an in-home IA with a special needs student. There was almost no guidance from the school as far as coursework, deadlines, etc. All of my student’s goals came from the BCBA, and the school had very little to offer in terms of direction. The first paycheck came two months late, and there were no benefits involved , as it was an independent contractor position. On the plus side, though, with the relaxed approaches to education, it was quite easy to allow the student to work on subjects that interested him, and it was nice to have that kind of independence when it came to planning the school days. 
Pros 
Flexibility, relaxed environment, student home-based options, pay. 
Cons 
Little guidance, hard to contact the school, communication in general. 

Once Upon a Time, CCA was a Wonderful Company But Now…. 

Teacher (Former Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – June 8, 2019 

When I started at CCA back in 2009, the CEO was Dennis Tulli. He was a wonderful leader who truly cared not only about the students & their families but also every employee who worked for him. He made sure his staff was compensated fairly and provided free health care benefits (no monthly premium) for teachers & their families. Providing CCA met their yearly goals, generous monetary bonuses were given to all employees in September. When Dr. Tulli left and Dr. Flurrie took over, the culture slowly began to change. More and more responsibilities were added to all employees but especially teachers w/o any duties being removed. Night & weekend hours became mandatory but again, there was no compensation. Many veteran teachers, who were making a decent yearly salary, were forced out so they could be replaced by younger less experienced teachers at half the salary. Raises became smaller, w/the exception of this CEO & his senior leadership team, and bonuses all but disappeared. Dr. Flurrie made it known that all employees were replaceable so the theme became “be grateful you’ve got a job here”. Over a 2 year time frame, the culture slowly changed from a democracy, where you could voice your concerns or ideas and know you would be heard, to a micromanaged dictatorship, run from the top down. If you are an older woman, do not expect any advancement opportunities. This CEO primarily gives advancement opportunities to men and young, attractive women. Under Dr. Tulli and for the first year under Dr. Flurrie, there was very little turnover. Once Dr. Flurrie’s “honeymoon” period was over as a CEO, true colors began to show. From his second year to now, the turnover rate has continued to consistently increase. Keeping special education teachers has become a real challenge. We used to be able to work from home but the majority of those positions have been removed so plan to report to an office everyday. Bottom line, if you think CCA is better a option than the traditional brick/mortar schools, you are mistaken. This CEO has eliminated any incentives to choose this company over the traditional public school. –  
Pros 
New state-of-the-art building, travel expenses reimbursed, coworkers are generally very friendly/helpful people 
Cons 
CEO’s ever increasing ego, smothered by micromanaging administrators, no more work from home/bonuses, low salaries/negligible raises 

Stressful environment 

Success Coach Coordinator (Former Employee) – Philadelphia, PA – December 27, 2018 

This was a stressful and uninviting environment. No room for advancement. Would not recommend others to a position with this community. Management upgrades are needed. 

Workplace drone 

Teacher (Current Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – October 24, 2018 

As the company continues to grow, so does the ego of the CEO and management. Little thought is considered for the professional teaching staff and all teachers are “replaceable.” Don’t even ask for a work from home day. I miss the old management style of Connections Academy. 

Productive and great team atmosphere 

Teacher (Former Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – March 13, 2018 

CCA is a growing school but be very careful as they grow what do they forget? The special education and general ed caseloads are so high but the school will not increase staff as they leave. 
Pros 
Health insurance, team atmosphere with team 
Cons 
Micro managed every step, no voice, top down management, non elected school board 

Sucks the life out of you

Teacher (Former Employee) – PA – February 3, 2018
Coworkers were wonderful, but the company is not run well and is frustrating and takes advantage of their workers. The highest levels of management are unaware of what the underlings are doing and don’t send a message that employees are valued.

Pros

Collaborrating with coworkers, supporting one another.

Cons

The worst most incompetent employees are the ones who get promoted.

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Why Even the Best Charter Schools are Fundamentally Inequitable

Not MY charter school!

That’s the usual reaction from charter school fans to any criticism of the industry.

I say many of these institutions lack accountability about how tax dollars are spent…

Not MY charter school!

I say they waste millions of taxpayer dollars to duplicate services already in existence….

Not MY charter school!

I talk about frequent scandals where unscrupulous charter school operators use copious loopholes in state law to enrich themselves without providing services to parents, students and the community…

Not MY charter school!

I mention charter school lotteries, cherry-picking students, not providing adequate special education services, zero tolerance discipline policies, teaching to standardized tests, targeting black and brown kids for profit and feeding the school to prison pipeline….

Not MY charter school! Not MY charter school! Not MY…

Really!?

If the industry is subject to this much malfeasance and corruption, doesn’t that reflect badly on the entire educational model – even the examples that avoid the worst of it?

One model has daily scandals. The other – authentic public schools – is far from perfect but relatively tame by comparison. You can’t blame people for generalizing.

Not My….

Okay. We get it!

But sadly this defensiveness against any criticism hides an enormous ignorance of exactly what charter schools are and how they operate at the most basic level.

Yes, there is a difference between how the best and worst charter schools act.

Yes, there are some charter schools that are run much better, more humanely and responsibly than others.

But that doesn’t mean the very concept of a charter school isn’t rotten to the core.

It’s like colonialism.

Yes, there were colonies where the invaders treated the conquered with more respect and dignity than others.

But not a single colony was a good thing. Not a single colonial enterprise avoided subjugating people who should have been free to determine their own destinies.

The same goes with charter schools.

When I discuss the industry, it’s surprising how many people – especially supporters of the enterprise – don’t understand what charter schools really are.

Let’s start with a simple definition.

A charter school is a school with a charter.

Get it?

And a charter is a contract – a special agreement with the state or some other governmental entity that this school can exist.

Why is that necessary?

Because there are rules laid out by each state in their school codes detailing what schools must do in order to qualify for taxpayer funding.

For example, under normal circumstances they must have an elected school board made up of members from the community where the school is located.

All authentic public schools must follow these rules. But not Charter schools.

Instead, they get to follow whatever rules are set down in their charter.

So without even examining exactly which special rules are stipulated in that charter, these schools are founded on the very concept of privilege.

They get to abide by their own rules tailor-made just for them.

Why does that matter? Because they get public funding.

And, yes, ALL charter schools are publicly funded – they get at least part of their money from taxpayers, usually all or the majority of their funding.

That opens a huge divide in accountability between types of schools.

On the one hand, authentic public schools are publicly funded but required by law to be run by elected members of the public. You pay your taxes and you get a say in how those taxes are spent.

However, many states allow charter schools to avoid this stipulation. They can be run by appointed boards or other functionaries that taxpayers have no say in hiring.

It’s a common feature of most charter agreements and often exploited.

You pay taxes and have no say in how that money is spent at these charter schools.

Parents of students enrolled in the school can vote with their feet and remove their kids if they don’t like the direction the school is taking. But the overwhelming majority of taxpayers don’t have kids in the charter school – they might not have kids at all. But their money is still being collected and their voice is silenced.

That is fundamentally unjust.

In fact, it’s one of the main reasons given for the American colonies fighting a war with Great Britain. No taxation without representation.

And most charter schools are guilty of it.

But not all!

There are charter schools run by elected school boards. They either choose this management system though it is not required by their charter or their charter explicitly requires it – like any other taxpayer funded school.

Does this excuse these charter schools from the same inequities as their more privileged brethren?

No.

And this is an important point.

How does a charter school open in the first place?

Most authentic public schools were started many years ago by the communities where they operate.

Community members got together, agreed they needed a school, elected board members to manage it, collected tax money, etc.

Charter schools are much newer inventions that come about differently.

Instead of starting with a community, they start with a charter operator. This could be a single individual, a group, an organization or a corporation.

The operator then goes to the state, community or usually school district where they propose to open the charter (it depends on the state charter law) and puts forward a proposal. Then the state, community or board decides to approve or deny that proposal.

However, nearly every charter school law does not give local communities an unlimited right of refusal. After all, if they did, there would be hardly any charter schools in existence.

Think about it.

When an authentic public school district decides to open a charter school inside its borders, it is agreeing to give a portion of the tax dollars it already receives to the charter school. It is agreeing to run its existing schools on less money so the charter can open up.

Why would any authentic public school do this? Only if it saw a real need for a new school and did not want to open a new school, itself. That’s a pretty rare situation.

However, nearly every charter school law gives very narrow reasons that new charter applications can be refused. So most of the time, the district has no choice but to approve these proposals. And if a district does refuse, the matter often goes to a state charter approval board which almost always reverses the decision. The community says no – state functionaries say yes.

So even when one of these so-called good charter schools managed by an elected school board opens up, it does so by overruling the decisions of the community it serves.

Charter schools create burdens for their communities. They siphon tax dollars from the existent public schools without reducing costs by much at all. So the authentic public school board is forced to make a hard decision – cut services for students and run with their reduced tax revenue or increase taxes to make up the difference.

Charter schools equal higher taxes in districts that can afford it and a reduction in educational quality in those districts that can’t.

This is a situation the community did not ask for. The community did not demand a new charter school. A handful of charter operators did to enroll a handful of students.

This is not fair.

And, yes, it applies to every charter school.

School choice is based on lack of choice in the first place.

However, my favorite response from charter school fans is that their school doesn’t have any special agreement at all.

Their school has no charter.

It’s like saying your ice cube isn’t cold, or your fire isn’t hot.

What is a charter school without a charter? Not a charter school.

If there really is such an institution out there, I would say it is a charter school in name only. Best to rename it as an authentic public school just for the sake of accuracy.

And if anyone does find a yellowed document for one of these schools labeled “charter,” best to tear it up. You don’t need it since your charter school has no need of special agreements.

Keep in mind, this is long before we get into the specifics of how charter schools can (and often do) exploit children and communities.

If the very existence of your school is predicated on the existence of a charter agreement, that is inequitable.

It does not need to follow all of the rules that authentic public schools must.

These are rules about being accountable for how you spend tax dollars, having minimum academic standards, hiring qualified staff, etc.


If there really are some rules that charter schools should be freed from obeying, why not just free all taxpayer funded schools from these rules? You don’t need a special agreement. You need to renegotiate the state school code.

Otherwise, this is giving special treatment to some schools rather than others.

That is the point.

Charter schools – ALL CHARTER SCHOOLS – are inequitable by definition and design.

It is an unjust system.

And no amount of defensiveness will avoid this truth.


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Virtual Instruction: Top 5 Pros & Top 5 Cons

Teaching today is not the same as it was just a year ago.

The global Coronavirus pandemic has forced schools to change the way they do almost everything.

With infection rates moderate to high in most areas of the country, many schools have resorted to full virtual instruction while others have adopted a hybrid model incorporating a mix of cyber and in-person classes.

Only in the most sparsely populated, secluded or reckless areas have schools been allowed to reopen 100% without safety precautions.

For many districts trying to juggle both in-person and virtual classes, the online component has been left to ed tech companies like Edmentum often specializing in credit recovery.

These have been an absolute disaster.

Corporate America has no business educating our youth – and moreover they’re terribly bad at it.

However, in many districts, virtual instruction has come to mean something else entirely.

It has meant classroom teachers creating their own online instruction and assignments while teaching synchronously through applications like Zoom.

I want to be clear that I think this is the best possible model under current circumstances.

It is the best way to balance the needs of safety for students and staff with the needs of academics.

However, this isn’t to say it is trouble free or even preferable if the world were ever to snap back into the shape it was before the pandemic.

The people best situated to tell us this are classroom teachers.

Along with students whose input and experiences should not be ignored, it is our collective educator core who have been thrust into this strange experiment. But unlike children, they have the knowledge, maturity, skills and life experience to evaluate it best. And being one of those intrepid individuals, I here offer my thoughts.

After more than four months teaching this way, I’d say these are the top 5 pros and cons of virtual instruction:

Pros

1) There is Less Pressure Day-to-Day

Right off the bat there is something to be said for virtual instruction – it feels more low stakes.

You sleep longer, can more easily access amenities, the bathroom, food and drink.

For one, you sure can’t beat the commute.

Some students admit that they roll out of bed each morning and onto the computer. This is not always optimal for learning in that the mind needs time to wake up and focus itself. However, the fact that one has more choice over how to prepare for school, what to wear, more leeway about breaks and whether to eat or drink in class – all that leads to an increased casual feeling to the day.

And that’s not all bad.

As a teacher, I love being able to go to the restroom whenever I need – something that I cannot do in my school building. Back there, I have to literally train my bladder to be ready when I have breaks in my schedule.

Though I certainly don’t roll from my bed to class, the extra sleep I get from not having to drive to the building and the reduced stress of forgoing a commute, traffic, bad weather, etc. are extremely positive.

It helps me be more relaxed and ready to meet my students needs. It makes me a better teacher.

This doesn’t mean teachers aren’t incredibly stressed by the pressure to create new curriculum, using new technology and new district rules that are being rewritten by the hour. But at least the day-to-day instruction, itself, is more low key.

2) It is Harder for Students to Disrupt Class

We’ve all been there. An unruly student or two brings a dispute to class and picks on each other back and forth.

In the physical classroom, this can be a real problem requiring a lot of effort to resolve. You have to de-escalate the situation or else it could turn into an exchange of fists.

Online it’s a snap. You can simply mute the participants. The teacher has much more control over what communication enters the classroom space and physical violence is impossible.

True, a dedicated disruptor can find a way to cause a ruckus. He or she can try to use the chat or even the video camera. They may even have each others cell phone numbers and communicate back and forth that way.

However, few students are aggravated enough to take such measures. I haven’t noticed much beyond simple teasing.

Some of my students put pictures of each other as the backgrounds on their camera screens – but these have always been friends trying to get a laugh. A comment from me and it stops.

If worse comes to worse, I can still remove them from the Zoom meeting and alert the principal or dean of students for disciplinary action.

But I haven’t had to do that yet. I’ll bet disciplinary referrals have dropped to record lows. And without them, virtual learning may have all but dismantled the school-to-prison pipeline.

3) It’s Easier to Communicate with Parents and Students Individually

There are many reasons for this.

In the physical classroom, the most common form of communication is verbal. But digital spaces allow for several other methods.

You can email individual students messages, work, assignments, grades, etc. You can utilize the chat feature to send a private message. You can simply talk to them in the Zoom meeting. You can set up an individual Zoom meeting like office hours to answer questions. You can ask or answer questions about assignments in the stream function of Google Classroom.

All these options allow for students to talk with their teacher one-on-one more easily than in the physical classroom.

Consider this: let’s say a student has a question about the homework after class. In the physical classroom environment, there may be little they can do but wait until the next day. Before last March, I’d had students send me emails, but I never checked them as regularly as I need to now.

In the digital world, students can easily send a message through email or stream at any time. This certainly puts a strain on educators but most questions I receive are during school hours and easily answerable in a timely fashion.

When it comes to parents, just having the contact information at your fingertips is a plus. Also teachers have more time to communicate with them when you remove lunch duty, hall duty, in-school suspension and other necessities of the physical classroom. When teachers don’t have to function as security guards, we get more time to be teachers.

I find that in the virtual classroom, I have the time to communicate with every parent at least once a week – or at least I try. Even in the digital world, some parents are incommunicado.

4) It’s Easier to Read a Text Together


As a language arts teacher, this is really important to me.

For more than 15 years, I’ve read texts aloud with my students and asked them to follow along. I tell them to take their index fingers, put them in the text and move along with where we are in the passage.

Few actually do it, and there’s really nothing I can do to make them. Except beg.

In the virtual classroom, I can easily put the text on all their screens, place the cursor under the words and follow with the reader or the audio recording.

Students can try to ignore it, but that’s harder than just following along. It also allows me to point to specific parts of the text.

If a student is reading and struggling with a word, I can point to prefixes, suffixes, roots, etc. to help them. And I’ve honestly seen improvements in some struggling readers fluency.

5) It’s Easier for Students to Work at Their Own Pace

This isn’t really a core value of the physical classroom.

Teachers give assignments, set due dates and students have to get things done in the time frame.

Online it isn’t such a straight line.

Teachers instruct in a Zoom meeting, but students are not required to attend. They can catch up with a video of the meeting if they need or prefer.

And since we all anticipate students may have issues throughout the day with connectivity, the technology, home responsibilities, distractions, etc. teachers haven’t been so firm on those due dates.

I freely give extensions and tell my students that assignments can still be made up for full credit well past the deadline. It’s about getting the work done, not so much about when.

I find myself explaining assignments more often than usual, but it’s somehow not as annoying as it sometimes is in the physical classroom.

We’ve created a culture of care and understanding. I think that’s a positive thing even if it doesn’t emphasize due dates and time frames as much.

Cons

1) Student Absences

No matter how you look at it, there are an alarming number of students absent throughout the day.

For my own classes, this was much worse in the spring when we first went online. Starting in September, more students have been attending regularly.

However, there are two important points to be made.

First, there are some students who do not attend the live Zoom meetings but instead watch the videos and do the assignments. Their work is not worse than those who attend – in fact, it is sometimes much better.

I suppose it’s possible students in the Zoom meetings could feed information to those not attending, but with the videos and the ability to communicate with me at will, it’s almost more work to cheat.

Second, though some students have neither attended many (or any) Zoom meetings or handed in many (or any) assignments, this was true in the physical classroom, too.

Some parents do not provide the structure necessary to ensure their children are doing their school work. This is true no matter how that work is presented – physically or virtually.

In my classes, about 20% are regularly absent. Of those, 10-15% are not participating much at all.

That’s about the same as I would expect to see in the physical classroom.

We need to identify these students and provide them with the resources necessary to succeed. But that’s always been true.

2) The Camera Conundrum

To turn your camera off or not? That is the question.

Zoom meetings can be an awfully lonely place for teachers when every student has their camera off.

The general consensus is that we should allow them this freedom. It encourages them to attend the Zoom meetings on their own terms and avoid the stress of seeing themselves constantly on their own screens. It allows them to avoid the fear of being judged for their surroundings.

Allowing them this latitude certainly does increase attendance and create a more positive attitude. But the teacher is in a worse position to monitor student engagement.

Most days I feel like a medium at a seance asking if so-and-so is here. Give me a sign.

I try to pose questions to get students involved – even more than I would in the physical classroom – and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

There are times when I yearn just to be able to look at my students again and see what they’re doing. Because I know some of them are not paying attention.

Some are texting on their cell phones. Some are playing video games on another screen. Some are talking with brothers, sisters, friends or parents in their house.

There’s not much I can do except try to keep my classes as engaging as possible. Most of the time, I think it works.

But not always.

3) It’s Harder to Monitor/Push Students with Special Needs

This is related to the previous point.

The problem of the camera is particularly pernicious for students with special needs. I can’t tell you how many IEPs and service plans want me to monitor students with ADHD and bring them back when they lose focus.

This is nearly impossible for a student with his or her camera off. I can try verbal queues, but students don’t always answer. I can ask them to turn on their cameras if that has been added to their IEPs, but they rarely comply. And if they do, they just point the camera at the ceiling or otherwise away from their faces.

The human contact of actually being present in a physical space has many advantages – especially for students with special needs.

I try my hardest and do everything I can to help them. But I feel that some of them are falling through the cracks – at least more than they would be in a physical classroom.

4) Technological Issues

Even under the best of circumstances, there are always technological issues.

Students do their assignments and their devices don’t save the work. Their batteries run low. They haven’t downloaded the proper apps. They’re using the wrong emails to access a google form.

The list is endless.

Thankfully, my district has a help desk students can access. But teachers need to be aware and permissive about technology issues. We have to air on the side of letting them get away with something rather than being too strict.

And the technology issues aren’t limited to the students.

One Friday I found the wi/fi in my home was down. I had class in 30 minutes and had to find someway to connect online to teach.

I still don’t quite understand what happened. The Today Show was in the neighborhood doing a live broadcast that morning. Perhaps that had an effect.

For whatever reason my Mac laptop could not connect to the Internet. I had a barely functional PC that for reasons I cannot explain was able to connect.

So that’s what I did. I connected with the PC and taught my classes. The connection was still spotty and I got kicked out of my own Zoom meeting once.

When I got back on moments later, the students were terrified. But we got on with it and managed.

I don’t know why, but the issue seemed to fix itself about 2 hours later and I was able to get onto my laptop and experienced no further problems.

I suppose the point is that we have to realize technology issues will crop up. We need contingency plans. Lots and lots of contingency plans. For ourselves, as teachers, and for our students.

5) Danger of a New Normal

This is particularly scary.

Ed tech companies have been trying to take over public education for years.
Unscrupulous business people have been trying successfully to privatize and profitize education.

The pandemic has made that possible to degrees never before imagined.

Charter and private schools are packed with students these days. This is partially because their smaller size and greater resources allows them to more easily meet in-person safety standards. Where public schools have recklessly reopened, cyber schools have swooped in to provide a safer option, too.

When even many public schools become less focused on doing the right thing than on doing the popular thing, they open the door to privatization.

It’s the wild west out there and no one can really tell how this will all affect what the future of education will be.

If the pandemic ended tomorrow, I would like to return to the physical classroom. But I can’t say I’d willingly leave every innovation of virtual instruction on the cutting room floor.

I like giving tests through Google Forms.

I like giving paperless assignments on Google Classroom.

I like being free to contact parents and students easily and not being tied to duties more suited to school security officers.

I like being able to pee whenever I need.

But I don’t want to lose the best aspects of the physical classroom.

I don’t want to lose autonomy and have everything micromanaged and predetermined by ed tech companies.

I don’t want ridiculously large class sizes justified by a digital space.

I don’t want to have to teach live on-line and in-person at the same time, curating and managing the virtual space and the physical classroom.

I don’t want to be under constant digital surveillance.

These are all dangers of the new normal.

I don’t know what the future will be, but I know it will not be what it was before all this started.

That’s equal parts scary and exciting.

But right now teachers really can’t afford to worry about it too much.

We’re too busy trying to get through the current crisis.


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Pittsburgh Charter Schools Take Federal Bailout Money Meant for Small Businesses

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Are charter schools small businesses or public schools?

 

They can’t be both.

 

Several Pittsburgh area charter schools took a bailout meant for small businesses after already getting monetary relief meant for public schools.

 

Environmental Charter School at Frick Park, Hill House Passport Academy Charter School, Manchester Academic Charter School and Penn Hills Charter School of Entrepreneurship all applied for and received substantial low-interest loans from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).

 

The $660 billion federal initiative was intended to help businesses keep employees on the payroll and off unemployment benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic. The loans will be forgiven if businesses meet certain conditions such as retaining or rehiring employees.

 

However, charter schools – including those in the Pittsburgh region – already should have received financial relief through the federal CARES Act.

 

Pennsylvania got $523 million to distribute to both authentic public schools and charters. However, of the two, only charters were eligible for additional PPP funds.

 

So these ‘Burgh charters are double dipping. They’re receiving aid from two different federal sources while authentic public schools only can get aid from one.

 

The Environmental Charter School at Frick Park got a $2 million – $5 million cash infusion from PPP.

 

The Environmental Charter calls itself a nonprofit organization but there are many reasons to be dubious.

 

First, nonprofits usually are dedicated to furthering some social cause like helping the poor and minorities.

 

However, The Environmental Charter actually caters to upper socioeconomic and white students.

 

It serves wealthier children than surrounding schools. Just one-third of Environmental Charter students are eligible for free or reduced lunches compared to 71% at Pittsburgh Public schools.

 

Moreover, only 30% of the charter’s students are minorities. Pittsburgh Public serves a student body of which nearly half are African American.

 

Next, there’s the issue of who runs the institution.

 

All charter schools in the Commonwealth have to be designated as nonprofits. However, many like the Environmental Charter School hire for-profit companies to actually operate their day-to-day functions and make almost all of their major administrative decisions.

 

The Environmental Charter is run by Virginia-based Imagine Schools, one of the nation’s largest charter-management companies with more than 71 charters nationwide.

 

Since Imagine writes the Environmental Charter’s operating budget, the management company ends up paying itself for a number of services.

 

After the school gets funding from state, federal and community taxes (this year including bailouts from PPP and the CARES act), it pays 12 percent back to Imagine. This came to $406,000 in 2009, according to an independent financial audit.

 

The school also pays Imagine on a $250,000 loan that the charter operating company took out to launch the program. Payments come out to about $2,500 per month over 20 years with an interest rate of 10.524 percent.

 

The charter also pays Imagine rent on its building which was purchased in 2006 by Schoolhouse Finance – Imagine’s real estate arm – for $3 million.

 

The lease costs $526,000 annually and is binding until 2032 unless the school loses its charter.

 

Given such facts, it’s hard to imagine why we’ve allowed our tax dollars to prop up a business venture that could certainly afford to reduce its profit margins rather than rely on public support.

 
Hill House Passport Academy Charter School got a $150,000 – $350,000 bailout from PPP.

 

Unlike the Environmental Charter, Hill House does actually cater to low income and minority children. In fact, it was founded to help Pittsburgh students who are failing in another district and in danger of dropping out unless they receive some kind of academic intervention.

 

However, the results haven’t been stellar. Where the Environmental Charter was too white, Hill House serves almost exclusively black students. It is exponentially more segregated than neighboring authentic public schools (96% minority) and its students still have extremely poor academic performance.

 

The question remains whether these results are better than they would be at an authentic public school. Does the charter provide any value for these students or is it just a holding area?

 

Like the Environmental Charter, this so-called nonprofit hires a management company. In this case, it’s the infamous K12 Incorporated – a nationwide cyber charter network with a record of academic failure and financial shenanigans.

 

In 2016, the company reached a $168.5 million settlement with the state of California. The state claimed K12 had reported incorrect student attendance records and otherwise lied about its academic programs. The company ended up settling with the state for $2.5 million with an additional $6 million to cover the state’s investigation and K12 voided $160 million in credits it had given to the affiliated schools to cover the cost of their contracts.

 

Hill House offers a blended model with in-person teachers and virtual classes somewhat different than most K12 schools.

 

However, why the state should bailout such a dubious endeavor is beyond me.

 

Manchester Academic Charter School got a $350,000 – $1 million loan from PPP.

 

It is one of the oldest charter schools in the city, having started as a tutoring program in 1968 and becoming a full fledged charter school in 1998.

 

However, like Hill House, it is infamous for racial segregation and low academic performance. Approximately 99% of students are minorities.

 

In 2016-17,only 12% of the school’s students were proficient in math (state average is 46%) and 37% were proficient in language arts (state average is 63%).

 

Where Manchester fails at academics, it excels at administrative salaries. The school’s administrators take home beaucoup bucks while being responsible for fewer students than those at authentic public schools.

 

For example, Vasilios Scoumis, Manchester CEO for more than two decades, is given a $146,000 salary not counting a potential $15,000 yearly bonus though he is only responsible for 340 students.

 

Compare that with Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Anthony Hamlet. He earns a $210,000 salary for managing a district of about 24,000 students.

 

But such high salaries for relatively little work aren’t only a hallmark at Manchester.
Environmental Charter School CEO John McCann earned $120,000 with a school enrollment of 630 students.

 

Nice work if you can get it!

 

Speaking of which, Penn Hills Charter School of Entrepreneurship got $350,000 – $1 million from PPP.

 

This is another so-called non-profit school run by the Imagine Schools company. It is highly segregated with 82% minority children.

 

Only 32% of students are proficient in math and 57% in reading – again below state averages.

 

The school suffered a scandal in 2015 when the state Charter Review Board overruled Penn Hills School Directors decision to deny allowing the charter to expand into a second building.

 

But given that the Charter Review Board is made up of six members – charter school advocates chosen by former Republican Governor Tom Corbett – any pretense to impartiality is laughable.

 

Penn Hills School Board – a duly elected body, not government appointees – outlined criticisms of the charter that do not put the entrepreneurial venture in a positive light.

 

Penn Hills School Board said the charter had failed to produce current student rosters, failed in record management, failed to accurately maintain student tuition payments, improperly billed the school district for special education students, failed to maintain and develop Individual Education Plans (IEPs), had poor academic growth and is under a Department of Education Corrective Action Plan setting forth 31 areas of needed improvement.

 
Directors were also leery of the venture because the charter planned to use half of the new building for students and to lease the remainder as office space.

 

Finally, the charter school sucks away necessary funding from the authentic public school. The Penn Hills School District paid Imagine about $3 million in 2014-15. Costs increased to $12 million a year and continue to rise.

 

So one wonders why we’re throwing more money at these charter schools.

 

Nina Rees, executive director of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) has spoken out of both sides of her mouth on the issue. She has insisted that charter schools be regarded as public schools and eligible for emergency aid – all the while advising charter schools also to apply for federal rescue funds for small businesses devastated by the pandemic.

 

Carol Burris, Executive Director of the Network for Public Education, did not mince words.

 

“Once again, the charter sector, through the lobbying efforts of Nina Rees…worked behind the scenes to gain fiscal advantage for the privately operated schools they claim are public schools.”

 

Education historian Diane Ravitch agreed.

 

“Charters claim to be ‘public schools’ when that’s where the money is,” she said. “But when the money is available for small businesses, they claim to be small businesses.”

 

Charters go where the money is.

 

We get the privilege of paying the tab.

 

If it were up to U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, we wouldn’t even know about it.

 

Mnuchin only released the information to the public after 11 news organizations sued the Small Business Administration .

 

Even now, not all of it is available.

 

Moreover, the deadline to apply for a PPP loan has been extended to Aug. 8.

 

So if you haven’t seen some of the most infamous neighborhood charter schools taking advantage of the program, it may only be a matter of time.

 

ProPublica has put all the information into an easy to use search engine. Just enter a zip code and it will display all the businesses located there that received PPP loans.

 

This includes high tuition private prep schools like Sewickley Academy and Shady Side Academy both of which got $2 – $5 million, Winchester Thurston School which got $1 million – $2 million, and the charter schools listed above.

 

You can check it out here: https://projects.propublica.org/coronavirus/bailouts/


 

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Good News: Harrisburg is Not Cutting Education Funding! Bad News: Handouts for the Rich & Charter Schools

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If you live in Pennsylvania, you can breathe a sigh of relief now that the legislature has passed a stopgap budget that does not cut education funding.

 

But you can let out that breath in a cry of disgust when you see where much of that money is going and how many underprivileged kids will be left wanting.

 

GOOD NEWS

 

With the economy in tatters due to the Coronavirus pandemic, the state legislature never-the-less passed a budget this week providing flat funding for most state programs for five months.

 

The major exception is public schooling. That has been fully funded for the entire year.

 

So for 12 months, there will be no state cuts to basic and special education or block grant programs for K-12 schools. Nor will there be state cuts to pre-kindergarten programs or colleges and universities receiving state funding such as community colleges.

 

That’s really good news in such uncertain times.

 

School directors can get their own financial houses in order for 2020-2021 without wondering whether the state is going to pull the rug out from under them.

 

In any other year, flat funding would be a disappointment though.

 

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

 

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

 

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, the local tax base can pick up the slack. In middle class neighborhoods, they can try. But poor communities end up relying more on the state to help or else their kids (who already have greater needs growing up in poverty) have to do without.

 

Last year, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf was able to increase funding for K-12 schools by $160 million, $50 million more for special education and $25 million for Pre-K programs.

 

Even this victory was a baby step to healing the billions of dollars looted from our schools during Republican Tom Corbett’s administration which has never been fully replaced or outpaced with increased inflationary costs.

 

Flat funding is great in a time of a global pandemic.

 

But in the broader view, it still shirks our duties to subsequent generations.

 

BAD NEWS

 

The 2020-21 state budget also includes $200 million in one-time funds to help districts pay for additional costs incurred during the Coronavirus crisis.

 

This includes the price of new technology to allow for distance learning, as well as deep cleanings in school buildings, new materials, remodeling, etc.

 

This money includes $150 million received from the federal government’s CARES Act and $50 million from state taxpayers.

 

That’s good news. Districts need extra money to help with unforeseen costs during this health crisis.

 

Unfortunately, this money is not being allocated by need.

 

Those with greater problems are not given more money to deal with them. Instead, the money is being divided nearly evenly.

 

If you think that’s fair, imagine dividing $10 so a rich person, a middle class person and a poor person could get lunch. They’d each get $3 and change. The poor person can eat off the dollar menu at a fast food restaurant. The middle class person can use it to pay for tip at a sit-down restaurant. And the rich person can light his cigar with it on the way to a fine dining establishment.

 

In the case of theCOVID-19 stimulus money, each school district will get a minimum of $120,000 while each intermediate unit, career and technical center, charter school, regional charter school and cyber charter school gets $90,000. If there is any money left over, those funds will be distributed to school districts based on 2018-19 average daily membership.

 

However, why should cyber charter schools receive this money at all? They don’t have any extra costs for transitioning to distance learning. That is their stock and trade already. Moreover, they don’t have buildings that need deep cleaning or remodeling. This money is a no strings gift to such enterprises while other educational institutions go wanting.

 

Moreover, brick and mortar charter schools almost always serve smaller student populations than authentic public schools. Why should they receive a flat $90,000? Wouldn’t it be better to given them a portion of this money based on the number of students they serve and the degree of poverty these kids live in?

 

In fact, wouldn’t it make more sense to do the same among authentic public school districts, too? Why should a rich district where almost everyone already has wi-fi and personal technology devices get the same as a poor one where these services are much less widespread? Why should the state give the wealthy as much help as those who can’t meet their basic obligations to children without it?

 

It’s not like the Commonwealth doesn’t already have a measure to allocate funding more fairly. The legislature passed a bipartisan Basic Education Funding formula that we could have used to ensured districts would have received funding proportionate to the needs of their students.

 

The fact that the legislature neglected to use it here shows too many in the Republican majority are not committed to equity. In fact, they revel in being able to bring unnecessary money to their wealthier districts.

THE COMING STORM

 
These measures from the state legislature are a start at addressing the financial impact of the 
Coronavirus crisis.

 

But the worst is yet to come.

 

Across the nation with the inevitable loss of taxes after shutting down the economy to save lives during the global Coronavirus outbreak, local districts are bracing for a 15-25% loss in revenues next fiscal year.

 

In Pennsylvania, districts anticipate $850 million to $1 billion in revenue shortfalls.

 

That could result in massive teacher layoffs and cuts to student services just as the cost to provide schooling increases with additional difficulties of life during a worldwide pandemic.

 

The state legislature can’t fix the problem alone.

 

The $13.5 billion in CARES Act stimulus provided to states is a fraction of the $79 billion that the federal government provided during the Great Recession. U.S. Congress needs to step up federal aide to protect our children and ensure their educations aren’t forfeit for economic woes they played no part in causing.

 

At the same time, Harrisburg can do more to stop giving handouts to educational entities that don’t need or deserve it thereby freeing up that money to patching holes in funding streams to local districts.

 

At the top of the list is charter school funding reforms already proposed by Gov. Wolf.

 

It is way passed time to end gross overpayments to cyber charter schools and eliminate all charter schools ability to profit off of students with disabilities. Gov. Wolf estimates this would save districts more than $200 million while stopping wasteful spending by charters on advertising and other things that should not be bankrolled by taxpayers.

 

Another way to generate extra money is to stop letting businesses and the wealthy cut their own taxes to support private and parochial schools.

 

The Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program allows people and businesses to donate their expected tax bill to the state for the purpose of helping parents pay off enrollment at a private or religious school for their children. Then these same people or businesses get between 75-90% of that donation back.

 

So if your tax bill is $100 and you donate $100, you can get back $90 – reducing your total tax bill to a mere 10 bucks.

Heck! Since this money is classified as a “donation” you can even claim it on your taxes and get an additional refund – even to the point where you end up making money on the deal! Pennsylvania even allows a “triple dip” – so you get the EITC tax credit, a reduction in your taxable income, and a reduction in your federal taxable income. We actually pay you to shortchange us on your taxes!

Now I’m oversimplifying a bit since you can only use the EITC for up to $750,000 a year, but it’s still a sweet deal for those who take advantage of it.

 

Meanwhile, this is less money for the rest of us to pay for much needed services. We lost $124 million in 2018-19, alone, to this program. Yet the legislature still voted to increase the program by $25 million last year.

 

We cannot afford to give away hundreds of millions of dollars annually to private and parochial schools while our authentic public schools which serve more than 90% of our children are underfunded.

 

And this doesn’t even address the blatant unconstitutionality of the program which, itself, is an obvious workaround to the separation of church and state!

 

It’s high time we closed this and many other loopholes that allow unscrupulous people and businesses to get away without paying their fair share.

 

Societies only work when everyone pulls their weight.

 

The commonwealth will only weather this storm if we stop the fiscal shenanigans and pull together for the benefit of all.

 

We are all being tested here.

 

Will Pennsylvania pass or fail?


 

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Why High Stakes Testing Was Cancelled This Year (and Probably Will Be Next Year, Too)

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There are at least two silver linings to the current Coronavirus catastrophe for education.

 

One – with nearly all public schools closed, March was the first month since 2002 without a school shooting.

 

Two – districts nationwide cancelled high stakes standardized tests in April and May.

 

Taken together, these are two victories that no one could have predicted before November.

 

Gun safety restrictions remain laughably lax in the US compared to the rest of the world. And our system’s reliance on high stakes testing to hold schools and teachers accountable for economic inequalities and racially biased standards has been thoroughly criticized for nearly a century.

 

In short, the virus succeeded where policy did not.

 
The pandemic’s other effects have been more damaging as students, parents and teachers have struggled to move education online at home.

 

Teachers are seeing high absences especially among poor, underprivileged and special needs children. Not to mention worries about the quality and depth of education provided virtually and the stress it places on families.

 

To make matters worse, the situation seems likely to continue in some form when next school year begins in the fall.

 

With the COVID-19 virus likely to endure spreading unchecked due to a lack of adequate health screenings, the time it takes to make a vaccine, and an unwillingness by the government to save everyday people from the economic consequences of a nearly stopped economy, not to mention an increasing unwillingness among people to continue thorough social distancing procedures, schools may be left to solve the crisis themselves.

 

There’s been talk that when schools start up in August and September they may simply continue with cyber curriculum. Or they may open the physical buildings with safety protocols including half day classes of smaller size to keep students a safe distance apart.

 

In any case, the question of standardized testing arises again with a vengeance.

 

While there is some wiggle room, federal law (The Every Student Succeeds Act) requires all public school students be given standardized tests in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

 

The U.S. Department of Education waived that mandate this year because of the virus.

 

That was great news – a sound decision from a government agency known more for market solutions than rationality.

 

The question remains: why did the department do it?

 

Whether staffed by Democrats or Republicans, this doesn’t sound like them.

 

Why was this exception made and will it be extended again given that the circumstances may be little different in 2020-21 than they were in 2019-20?

 

The answer seems to be rooted in the tests, themselves, and the economic circumstances which create and sustains them.

 

WHY TESTS WERE CANCELLED

 
In late March, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said that her department would streamline the paperwork for states to request a waiver allowing them not to give high stakes testing this year and that the government wouldn’t use this year’s testing data in future school accountability ratings.

 

DeVos said in a statement:

 

“Students need to be focused on staying healthy and continuing to learn. Teachers need to be able to focus on remote learning and other adaptations. Neither students nor teachers need to be focused on high-stakes tests during this difficult time.”

 

How did we get here?

 

Well, imagine a world where this didn’t happen.

 

Before DeVos made her statement, some states like Colorado and Texas had already eliminated testing requirements without waiting for a response from DeVos.

 

If the federal government hadn’t answered these requests in the affirmative, it would have had to engage in an open power struggle with the states over control of public schooling.

 

This would be especially damaging for a Republican administration because of the party’s stance on state’s rights.

 

However, even if we put aside this power dynamic, the decision was inevitable.

 

CORPORATIONS FIRST

 

 

All of these assessments are the property of private corporations. These include Harcourt Educational Measurement, CTB McGraw-Hill, Riverside Publishing (a Houghton Mifflin company), and NCS Pearson.

 

States purchase the right to use these tests but assessment material is the ideological property of the parent corporation. And so they want it guarded from theft.

 

That’s why nearly all high stakes testing requires proctors – people whose job it is to set up, monitor and secure the testing environment. They make sure test takers don’t cheat, but they also are responsible for ensuring no information about specific test questions leaves the assessment environment.

 

This is true for standardized assessments at the K-12 level as well as college and certification tests.

 

I know because I’ve spent every year of my teaching career employed as a proctor throughout most of April as my students take the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSA) tests. But also when I got my degree I had to go to a designated testing center where I could be monitored as I took a series of assessments necessary to get my certification.

 

I had to sign in, empty my pockets including giving over my cell phone, and submit to being observed by the proctors and video surveillance. I even had to sign out and back in when I needed to use the restroom.

 

With physical classrooms closed, there was simply no way effectively to do this.

 

The College Board tried anyway with an abbreviated Advanced Placement test taken online from home this month to disastrous results – glitches, server issues and a failure by the organization to take responsibility.

 

However, the problem isn’t essentially technological. These assessments could be given online. Many districts do exactly that, but with teachers in the room acting as proctors.

 

The technological infrastructure may not yet be in place for widespread virtual testing, but that’s not an insurmountable hurdle.

 

Test security is a much stickier issue – without real, live people policing the environment, testing information would be at risk.

 

Rival companies could get access to trade secrets. The value of scores could come under scrutiny due to concerns of student cheating. And the tests, themselves, would for the first time be visible to parents and the general public.

 

TESTING SECRECY

 

 

As a classroom teacher, I get to see these infernal tests. I get to see the questions.

 

They are not good. They are not well-written, well considered, developmentally appropriate or even good at evaluating student understanding of the knowledge they claim to be assessing.

 

But up to this point, anyone who gets to see the tests is sworn to secrecy including the students.

 

The kids taking these exams – regardless of age – are no longer treated as children. They are clients entering into a contract.

 

At the start of these tests, they are warned of the legal consequences of violating the terms of this agreement.

 

THE PSSAS

 
In particular,the PSSAs require students to read the following warning on the first day of the assessment:

 

DO NOT PHOTOGRAPH, COPY OR REPRODUCE MATERIALS FROM THIS ASSESSMENT IN ANY MANNER. All material contained in this assessment is secure and copyrighted material owned by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Copying of material in any manner, including the taking of a photograph, is a violation of the federal Copyright Act. Penalties for violations of the Copyright Act may include the cost of replacing the compromised test item(s) or a fine of no less than $750 up to $30,000 for a single violation. 17 U.S.C. $ 101 et seq

 

So the first act of testing is a threat of legal consequences and possible fines.

 

In the commonwealth, we also force kids to abide by a specific code of conduct for test takers. They must enter a quasi-legal relationship before they are even permitted to begin.

 

Much of this code is common sense. Get a good night’s sleep. Fill in bubbles completely using a number two pencil.

 

But some of it is deeply disturbing.

 

For example, students are told to “report any suspected cheating to your teacher or principal.”

 

They have to agree to be an informer or snitch to a government agency. My students aren’t old enough to vote or even drive a car, but they are directed to collaborate with the government against their classmates.

 

In addition, they are told NOT to:

 

-talk with others about questions on the test during or after the test.

 

-take notes about the test to share with others.

 

Students are compelled into a legalistic vow that they won’t break this code. On the test, itself, we make them fill in a bubble next to the following statement:

 

By marking this bubble I verify that I understand the “Code of Conduct for Test Takers” that my Test Administrator went over with me.

 

As a test administrator, I am not allowed to move on until all students have filled in that bubble.

 

Technically, we are not making them promise TO ABIDE by the code of test takers. Perhaps we lack that legal authority. We are, however, making them swear they understand it. Thus we remove ignorance as an excuse for noncompliance.

 

As a proctor, I have to sign a similar statement that I understand the “Ethical Standards of Test Administration.” Again, much of this is common sense, but it includes such statements as:

 

DO NOT:

 
-Discuss, disseminate or otherwise reveal contents of the test to anyone.

 

-Assist in, direct, aid, counsel, encourage, or fail to report any of the actions prohibited in this section.

 

So even teachers technically are not allowed to discuss the test and should report students or colleagues seen doing so.

 

And according to the “Pennsylvania System of School Assessment Directions for Administration Manuel”:

 

Those individuals who divulge test questions, falsify student scores, or compromise the integrity of the state assessment system in any manner will be subject to professional disciplinary action under the Professional Educator Discipline Act, 24 P.S. $ 2070. 1a et seq, including a private reprimand, a public reprimand, a suspension of their teaching certificate(s), a revocation of their teaching certificate(s), and/or a suspension or prohibition from being employed by a charter school. [emphasis added]

 

CORPORATE VULNERABILITY

 

 

If students were allowed to take these tests unsupervised at home, all of this legal protection would disappear.

 

The corporations would be much more exposed and defenseless.

 

THAT’S why the tests were cancelled this year.

 

It wasn’t because anyone rethought the value of high stakes tests – though they should have. It wasn’t because anyone had considered standardized testing’s history in the eugenics movement – which they should have. It wasn’t because anyone was worried that giving these tests would take away precious academic time – though they should have.

 

It was to protect the business interests that would be at risk otherwise.

 

THE DYSTOPIAN TESTING FUTURE

 

 

The need for proctors is a problem that the testing companies know about and are working to eliminate.

 

In fact, they’ve been trying to line things up in their favor for years.

 

Their answer is something called Competency Based Education (CBE) or Proficiency Based Education (PBE). But don’t let these names fool you. It has nothing to do with making children competent or proficient in anything except taking computer-based tests.

 

Paradoxically, it’s sold as a reduction in testing, but really it’s about changing the paradigm.

 
It’s a scheme that ed tech corporations privately call stealth assessments. Students take high stakes tests without even knowing they are doing it. They’re asked the same kinds of multiple-choice nonsense you’d find on state mandated standardized assessments but programmers make it look like a game.

 

This safeguards the tests because kids aren’t aware of being tested. Constant micro-assessments blend in with test prep curriculum until there is little to no difference between the two. Academics gets dumbed down to the level of multiple choice and critical thinking is redefined as asking “What does the questioner want me to think?”

 

Yet the results could still be used to label schools “failing” regardless of how under-resourced they are or how students are suffering the effects of poverty. Mountains of data will still be collected on your children and sold to commercial interests to better market their products.

 

But that’s just how it is used in schools today.

 

The potential is to make this a replacement for physical schools.

 

It’s a disaster capitalism reform tailor made for the Coronavirus age, but not yet ready for large scale implementation.

 

Imagine a world where there are no schools – just free range children plopped in front of a computer or an iPad and told to go learn something.

 

No schools, no teachers, just gangs of students walking the streets, stopping along the way to thumb messages to each other on social media, play a video game or take an on-line test.

 

That’s the world many ed tech entrepreneurs are trying to build.

 

One thing they need is a pet policy of DeVos and the Trump administration – Education Savings Accounts (ESAs).

 

Normally, the federal, state and local government collect taxes to fund an individual child’s education, which is then spent at a public or charter school.

 

 

However, ESAs would allow that money to go elsewhere. It could go to funding the tuition at a private or parochial school like a traditional school voucher.

 

 

Or it could be used for discrete education services provided by the ed tech industry.

 

It’s almost like homeschooling – without a parent or guardian in charge.

 

The idea is often called a learning ecosystem.

 

 
But it’s just a single person cyber school with little to no guiding principles, management or oversight.

 

Education is reduced to a series of badges students can earn by completing certain tasks.

 
Reading a book or an article gives you a badge. Answering a series of multiple-choice questions on a reading earns you more badges. And if you’ve completed a certain task satisfactorily, you can even earn a badge by teaching that same material to others.

 

It’s the low wage gig economy applied to education. Children would bounce from a few hours of Khan Academy videos here to a software package there and Voila! “Modern” education!

 

And as an added benefit, the badge structure creates a market where investors can bet and profit off of who gains badges and to what degree on the model of crypto-currencies like Bitcoin!

 

 

Make no mistake, it’s not about improving the quality of education. It’s about providing the cheapest possible alternative and selling it to the rubes as innovation.

 

 

It’s school without the school or teachers.

 

 

CONCLUSIONS

 

 

This is where the testing industry is going.

 

This is where we would be today if the legal framework were in place and the technology were widespread, adequate and capable of safeguarding corporate intellectual property without the need for test proctors.

 

In the short term, this is good news.

 

As long as the pandemic keeps school buildings closed or keeps them running at less than capacity, the chances of mandating high stakes testing during the crisis goes down.

 

On the flip side that’s detrimental to student learning in the here and now, but it does offer hope for the future. It at least opens the door to cancelling high stakes testing in 2020-21 like we did this year. And the longer we keep those tests at bay, the greater likelihood they will go away for good.

 

However, the people at the testing corporations are far from stupid. They know that each year we forgo the tests proves how unnecessary they are.

 

A coalition of six neoliberal organizations warned against cancelling the tests nationwide in March.

 

“As the coronavirus pandemic evolves on a daily basis, it would be premature to issue blanket national waivers from core components of the law. Thus, case-by-case consideration of each state’s needs is, at this time, most appropriate,” said a letter signed by testing industry lobbyists including John King, the former secretary of education and head of the Education Trust.

 
They have the future mapped out – a future with immense earnings for their companies and shareholders.

 

We must be fully aware of what is happening and why if we are to have any chance of opposing the next disaster and coming out of the current crisis with better school policy than we went in.

 

If we are to safeguard an authentic education for our children, we must learn these lessons, ourselves, now.


 

 

 

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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!

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Mike Turzai is Willing to Sacrifice Pennsylvania’s Students and Families to the Economy

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Mike Turzai says he’s furious with Pedro Rivera.

 

Why is the highest ranking Republican in Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives so angry with the state Secretary of Education?

 

Rivera said the Commonwealth’s public schools, which have been closed since mid March due to the Coronavirus pandemic, would not reopen until it was safe to do so.

 

If that means schools don’t reopen on time in the Fall, so be it.

 

Specifically, on Wednesday, Rivera said:

 

“At the end of the day, we’re going to make sure that the health and welfare of our students is first and foremost, front and center. And we’re not going to allow and ask students to return to school in an unsafe environment. We’re preparing for the best, but we’re planning for the worst.”

 

Turzai was so infuriated by this statement that he wrote a letter to Rivera – which the Pittsburgh area representative immediately shared with the media – he went on right wing talk radio to complain, and he posted a video on his Facebook page.

 

You know a Boomer is really mad when he goes on the social media.

 

Though his comments include his usual greatest hits against public schools and those greedy teachers, Turzai’s main point was simply science denial.

 

On Facebook, after a long list of activities that he said kids enjoy doing like sports and lab experiments, he said this:

 

“All of those can be done safely, and [kids] are not at risk unless they have an underlying medical issue. The fact of the matter is kids can develop herd immunity, and if you [Rivera] have not yet developed a plan where we can safely educate kids in schools, then you are going to have to rethink education forward…”

 

 

 
So there you have it, folks.

 

Turzai wants Pennsylvania to reopen schools on time whether scientists and health experts think it’s safe or not because – Turzai knows best.

 

Pennsylvania’s village idiot thinks he knows best about schools.

 

And as usual he’s as wrong as you can get.

 

The COVID-19 virus is relatively new. That’s what the 19 in its name means. It was only discovered in 2019.

 

It’s already killed more Americans than the Vietnam War (69,579 vs. 58,220). There’s no vaccine. And we really don’t know with much certainty how it will affect people in the long term.

 

And as to herd immunity, Sweden tried that – eschewing social distancing and letting people just get the virus – and the result is a death rate twice that of the US.

 

While it is true that children seem to be mostly asymptomatic, thousands have contracted the disease and several have died.

 

However, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) points out the bigger issue in the organization’s April report on its Website:

 

“Pediatric COVID-19 patients might not have fever or cough. Social distancing and everyday preventive behaviors remain important for all age groups because patients with less serious illness and those without symptoms likely play an important role in disease transmission.”

So if we reopen schools before it is safe to do so, we run the risk of (1) kids dying, (2) kids becoming carriers and bringing the disease to any adults they come into contact with who are much more susceptible and (3) teachers and school staff getting sick and dying.

 

Turzai has no problem with any of that.

 

He thinks the risk is worth it.

 

Why?

 

Well, that’s the party line he’s been handed by the Trump administration, and he does whatever he is told by his bosses.

 

Oh? The taxpayers thought THEY were his bosses?

 

No. You are just the chumps who kept re-electing him.

 

He doesn’t work for you.

 

He works for the Republican Party machine which is trying to turn people against Democratic governors like our own Tom Wolf.

 

And, man, does he want to be the next GOP challenger to Wolf. That’s really what this whole business is about – casting Turzai as even more radical than Scott Wagner, the last far right dope who tried for the governors mansion and was soundly defeated by voters.

 

He’s trying to show he’s just as stupid as Donald Trump. The President says we should all drink bleach to get rid of COVID-19? Well Turzai says we should let our kids get sick and die or make us sick.

 

Republicans truly have become the party of stupid.

 

The media helps covidiots like Turzai by uncritically reprinting his outrageous lies.

 

Turzai is like a man who calmly says it’s not raining outside while a thunderstorm beats down on the neighborhood. Instead of pointing out the truth, the media simply reports what Turzai said and at most gives equal weight to a meteorologist. But there is no OPINION about facts! And whether scientific consensus holds with his crackpot conspiracy theories about how the Coronavirus spreads or not IS a fact.

 

 

Is social distancing fun?

 

No.

 

If I could push a button and magically make the Coronavirus go away, I would.

 

But you have to live in the real world.

 

We have to get rid of the virus.

 

We need real tests to be able to tell if people have the virus. The Trump administration has completely botched that. This is why countries like South Korea are seeing hardly any new cases at all while our numbers are still extremely high.

 

Not to mention the fact that we have a bunch of morons who value their freedom to put themselves at risk without any thought to their responsibilities to the rest of society who they will also be endangering.

 

Until we can truly tell who has the virus, who had the virus, who is immune, and how to cure it, the prospect of reopening schools or the economy will be grim.

 

We should not put people at risk unnecessarily.
And we certainly shouldn’t put children at risk.

 

Don’t let fools like Turzai use a global pandemic to hawk their political agendas.

 

He goes on in his video to say that if the state’s public schools don’t open on time, we should consider things like universal cyber schooling, and (non sequitur alert!) charter and voucher schools.

 

It’s his everyday wish list wrapped in a Coronavirus-bow.

 

That’s how dumb this dummy thinks Pennsylvanians are.

 

I sure hope he’s wrong about that, too.


MYTHBUSTERS: A quick rebuttal to the other lies spewed in Turzai’s Facebook video

 

-Does Pennsylvania spend more than most other states on education?

 

We’re in the top 10 for over all spending, but we don’t distribute it equally. Kids in rich districts get tons of money. kids in poor districts get scraps. That’s why there’s a lawsuit demanding the state ensure all kids get an equitable education.

 

-Are pension payments high?

 

Yes, because while teachers and schools paid into the program, the state legislature deferred to pay its share for years and years. Now it’s due. We agreed to give state workers benefits when we hired them. We can’t go back on that now.

 

-Do administrators know if teachers are teaching online during the pandemic?

 

Yes. Parents, students AND administrators know because it’s all online. Administrators can monitor teachers MORE closely via the Internet – not less. That’s why there’s an overwhelmingly increased appreciation of what educators are doing now – it’s out in the open.

 

-Should educators call special needs students for three hours everyday?

 

Only if they aren’t already spending the majority of their days actually teaching students on-line. I’m on ZOOM meetings most days interacting with students on video conferences for almost as much time as I would in person if schools were open. And if you add in the amount of time it takes to come up with new lessons on learning platforms we’re unfamiliar with, program them in and troubleshoot them, most teachers are putting in MORE hours than usual.

 

 


 

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!

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Adventures in Online Teaching: Reinventing the Wheel for a Handful of Students

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Today in our ZOOM meeting, one of my students tried to get one over on me.

 

I sat at the bureau in my guest bedroom, surveying a gallery of 7th grade faces lined up in little boxes on my laptop like the opening scene of the Brady Bunch.

 

Lilly was lying on her bed face up, almost definitely scrolling on her cell phone.

 

Pha’rrel was eating a cookie as he tried to fit his overgrown curls under a gray hoodie.

 

And Jimmy was smiling at me with the cheesiest close up you ever saw in your life.

 

The smile was so wide. The eyes were so glassy. The face was so still.

 

“Jimmy, did you put up a picture of yourself on your camera!?” I asked.

 

Somewhere miles away he laughed, apologized and took it down.

 

If we were back in the classroom, I probably would have come down on him.

 

He used to sit in the back of the room, face buried in his iPad, ear buds plugged into his brain and his work done in the most careless but high-speed fashion possible.

 

About once a week I had to take away some device just so his Internet-rattled mind could pay attention.

 

What am I to do now? Those apps and devices are the only thing connecting him to even the most rudimentary schooling.

 

He still wants to appear to be paying attention, appear to be done with whatever useless crap I am having him do so he can play Fortnite, watch YouTube videos or text – all behind a digital mask of innocent concentration.

 

So I moved on.

 

We read a passage together and I noticed Melanie had her eyes closed.

 

Not just that. She was in her comfy sweats, cuddled under the covers with a kitten curled under her elbow purring away.

 

“Melanie?” I say.

 

No response.

 

“Melanie, did you hear what we just read?”

 

Nothing.

 

She’d do that in class sometimes, too. She’d be zonked out, her head plastered to the desk in a puddle of quickly congealing drool. Sometimes it was pretty hard to wake her.

 

I remember conferencing with her and her mom trying to find out if there was anything wrong – but, no, she was simply misusing the privilege of picking her own bedtime.

 

How was I to keep her awake online? I couldn’t shake the desk, rattle her papers or even let my voice naturally get louder as it gained proximity.

 

I had to let her sleep.

 

Oh and what’s this? Was that Teddy finally joining the ZOOM Meeting 20 minutes in?

 

I clicked to let him join and immediately it was clear that he was missing something important.

 

“Teddy? Is that you?” I said.

 

“Yeah, hey, Mr. Singer.”

 

“Ted, you forget something?”

 

“Wha?”

 

“Ted, your shirt?”

 

He looks down at his naked torso.

 

“Oh, I haven’t gotten dressed yet.”

 

“Uh, we can see that, Buddy. Why don’t you turn your iPad around and put on a shirt and pants? Okay?”

 

These are just some of the hurdles you face as an online teacher.

 

Ever since the Coronavirus pandemic shuttered schools across the country, teachers like me have been asked to finish up the year with students via the Internet.

 

It’s not been exactly a smooth transition.

 

Getting kids attention is not an easy task under the best of circumstances. Online it’s nearly a Herculean labor.

 

Strangely the episodes related above aren’t even close to the worst of it.

 

More than students’ attempts to message each other through the lesson or the constant screaming in the background at some kids homes or the vacant stares of the child with ADHD whose IEP calls for teacher proximity and eye contact, but how do you do that from across town? – more than all of that is the silence.

 

The empty, deafening silence of the majority of kids who don’t even show up.

 

I’ve been doing this for three weeks now and I average about 40% participation.

 

Some days a class might be almost full. Another day there might be two kids.

 

I know it’s not necessarily the children or the parents’ fault.

 

We’re in the middle of a global catastrophe. Family members are sick, kids are scared, and many don’t have experience with Internet, the devices or certainly the learning platforms we’re using.

 

Districts can give out iPads and mobile hot spots, but not familiarity with technology, not a quiet place to work, not a safe and secure learning environment.

 

When a parent tells me her child is having trouble with something, I excuse him. I get it.

 

When a student tells me she doesn’t understand how to do something, I don’t penalize her. I try to fix the problem and ask her to give it another shot.

 

But when you’ve been tasked with creating almost entirely new curriculum on the fly for several different classes– and you do – it’s anticlimactic that so few kids show up to see it.

 

I almost don’t mind it when someone’s cat swaggers in front of the screen and flaunts its butthole for all to see.

 

That’s just life in the age of distance learning.

 

But when I design all these assignments and teach all these classes, I wish more students showed up.

 

My district doesn’t require me to do all this.

 

I could have just thrown a few worksheets up on Google Classroom and called it a day.

 

That’s kind of what administrators want, I think. Just review previously taught skills. Make it look like we’re doing something. And we’ll close the academic gaps next year.

 

But when the world shut down, my 8th graders were getting ready to read “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” You don’t really expect me to skip over that, do you?

 

My 7th graders were getting ready to read a gripping mystery story, “Silent to the Bone” by E.L. Konigsburg. You don’t really think I’m going to substitute that with grammar and vocabulary worksheets? Huh?

 

So I narrowed it all down to essentials.

 

I could have assigned my students to read the texts on their own and then made them write reader response journals. But I don’t think any but my most self-motivated students would have done it and even they would have lost a lot without being able to discuss it.

 

So I put a few assignments on Google Classroom, but most are through live ZOOM Meetings where the students and I talk through the texts together.

 

The 8th graders read the play version of “Anne Frank” together with me, and it’s actually going pretty well.

 

I’m able to display the text on the screen and move the cursor under what they’re reading.

 

I’ve even seen some reluctant readers improve right before my eyes.

 

I’ve always suggested that students put their index fingers under the words as they read, but few do it. Using ZOOM like this forces them to follow my advice.

 

Of course, the class is a tiny fraction of what it would be in person.

 

If we were still in the school building, I’m positive they’d be learning more. We’d be able to discuss more. I’d have a better read of the room. They would be less capable of hiding behind the technology.

 

But there is real life-long learning taking place.

 

It’s my most successful group.

 

My 7th graders are a different story.

 

They are the kind of class you have to explode a stick of dynamite under to get them to notice what’s right before their eyes.

 

And more of them actually show up. Yet much of what we’re reading seems lost on them.

 

They are much more dedicated to being present in body if not in spirit – and barring an exorcism, I’m unsure how to reach many of them through fiber optic cables.

 

Then we have my Creative Writing class – basically a journaling course taught to a different group of students every few weeks.

 

It’s particularly challenging because I’ve met very few of them in person before the school closed.

 

However the course also lends itself best to this distance learning format.

 

Back in the school building, I used to give students a prompt every day, explain it and then have them write. I’d go from desk-to-desk as they worked and give feedback. Once they were all done, we’d share the writings aloud.

 

Now online, I just give the prompts via Google Classroom, provide instruction or attach video links and leave them to it. Then I comment on what they produce.

 

The problem is it’s my least attended class. I have a handful of students who do all the work, but most have done nothing. And this is a traditional work-at-your-own-pace cyber class.

 

I’ve had much more difficulty planning the other courses. Everything had to be reinvented. You want to read along with students, you need (1) a platform where you can all talk (2) an online text, (3) a way students can catch up, (4) a way to hand in written work, (5) a way to give tests without allowing students to cheat or do the work together.

 

It’s been challenging especially because sometimes one online solution will simply disappear.

 

For example, the e-text I was using for 7th grade was taken down overnight. One day it was available. The next it was gone. So I had to scramble to find a way to make it work.

 

That kind of thing happens all the time.

 

And speaking of time, when I’m not in a ZOOM Meeting with students or programming next week’s lessons, I have to wait for assignments to come in. Back in the classroom, they used to be handed in mostly all at the same time. I could grade them and move on.

 

In cyber-land, they trickle in piecemeal. I’m NEVER done teaching. It could be 1 am and my phone dings that an assignment, comment or question was turned in. I could wait until later, but usually I trudge over to the computer and see what needs my attention.

 

Which brings me to the final challenge – managing my home and teacher-life.

 

I’m not just an educator. I’m a parent.

 

I don’t teach my daughter. I don’t assign her lessons or work. But I have to oversee what her teacher wants her to do and make sure it gets done – and done correctly.

 

I’ll tell her to go in the dinning room and do three BrainPop assignments, or sign on to Edmentum and finish this diagnostic test, etc.

 

She’s generally pretty good about things, but if I don’t watch her, she’ll play Mario Party on her Nintendo all day long.

 

With the wife working from home, too, I usually give her the living room, my daughter is someplace else or her room, and I’m in the office.

 

On the one hand, it’s nice to be busy, and the good moments where I connect with students are just as magical as in person.

 

But most of the time, I feel lost at sea, depressed about the news and unable to concentrate or sleep the night through.

 

I’ve resigned myself to this life for the next six weeks when school will end for the academic year.

 

Perhaps the summer will be better. Maybe we’ll be able to go out and life will get somewhat back to normal.

 

However, I am not blind to the possibility that I’ll have to pick up again online in August and September.

 

School could start up with distance learning in 2020-21. Or we could have to quickly rush back to the Internet after a second wave of COVID-19 crashes upon us.

 

I keep thinking of the opening of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”:

 

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

 
The fact that life and schooling will be different after this crisis ends is both encouraging and terrifying.

 

There’s so much we could fix and finally get right.

 

But from what I see us doing as the crisis unfolds, my hope dwindles with each passing day.

 

Stay safe and stay optimistic.

 

But let’s not stay cyber.


 

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You Can’t Have My Students’ Lives to Restart Your Economy

 

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It’s okay if a few children die to start up the economy.

 

That is literally the opinion being offered by media influencers and policymakers as Coronavirus social distancing efforts continue passed the 30-day mark.

 

In the midst of a global pandemic, we’ve closed down all nonessential businesses while people self quarantine at home waiting for the curve of infection to plateau and then drop off. Medical experts tell us this is the only way to ensure there are enough ventilators and hospital beds for those who get sick.

 

As it is, more than 700,000 Americans have tested positive for COVID-19 and 38,000 have died – more than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the September 11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the Oklahoma City bombing – combined. In fact, the United States has the highest number of Coronavirus deaths in the world.

 

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Yet there is a concerted effort by the Trump Administration and plutocrats everywhere to get business back up and running. And to do that, they need the schools to reopen so parents can return to work.

 

They literally want to reopen schools as soon as possible – even if it isn’t 100% safe.

 

And if that means students, teachers and parents die, at least their sacrifices will have been worth it.

 

“Schools are a very appetizing opportunity,” said Dr. Mehmet Oz as a guest on Fox News’ Sean Hannity show.

 
“I just saw a nice piece in [British medical journal] The Lancet arguing the opening of schools may only cost us 2 to 3%, in terms of total mortality. Any, you know, any life is a life lost, but … that might be a tradeoff some folks would consider.”

 
Dr. Oz walked back the comment after popular backlash, but I believed him the first time. Many people would find that acceptable.

 

Dr. Phil McGraw (who unlike Dr. Oz is not a licensed doctor) said the following on Fox News’ The Ingraham Angle:

 

“The fact of the matter is, the longer this lockdown goes on, the more vulnerable people get. And it’s like there’s a tipping point. There’s a point at which people start having enough problems in lockdown that it will actually create more destruction and actually more deaths across time than the actual virus will itself.”

 

He then compared coronavirus deaths to deaths from smoking, swimming pools and car crashes – which critics pointed out result from mostly voluntary behavior.

 

Once again, Dr. Phil walked back his comments after public outrage. And once again, I saw where he was coming from – because it’s clear where these celebrity talking heads are getting their information.

 

You find the same opinion tucked into many otherwise informative articles about the virus and education.

 

Education Next published a piece by Walton Family Foundation advisor and American Enterprise Institute fellow John Bailey with this precious little nugget tucked in its middle:

 

“Currently, the public health benefits of school closures and home quarantining outweigh the costs. But at what point does that equation flip? When do the economic, societal, and educational costs outweigh the public health benefits of these aggressive social distancing actions?”

 

The rich need the poor to get back to work. And they’re willing to put our lives on the line to do it.

 

What’s worse, they’re willing to put our children’s lives on the line.

 

I don’t know about you, but I’m not willing to risk my daughter’s life so that the stock market can open back up.

 

As a public school teacher, I’m not willing to bet my students lives so that the airlines and cruise industry can get back in the green.

 

Nor am I willing to gamble with my own life even if it means the NBA, NFL and MLB can start playing games and Hollywood can start premiering first run movies again.

 

There’s still so much we don’t know about COVID-19.

 

Initial reports concluded that older people were more susceptible to it, but as infections have played out worldwide, we’ve seen that 40% of patients are between 20-50 years of age. Children seem mostly asymptomatic. However, many immunologists suspect they are acting as carriers spreading the virus to the older people with whom they come into contact.

 
Children have a more difficult time with the constant hand washing and separating themselves at least 6 feet apart recommended by health experts. This is one of the justifications for closing schools in the first place. If we reopen schools too quickly, it could jumpstart another wave of infections.

 

In fact, that’s exactly what the Imperial College of London found in its own modeling study on likely U.S. and U.K. outcomes.

 

School closures can be effective to help suppress the transmission rates and flatten the curve, the report concluded, IF CONTINUED OVER FIVE MONTHS.

 

That’s a long time. But it gets worse.

 

In the absences of mass vaccinations – which may be as much as two years away – the study found the virus is likely to rebound for a second and third wave.

 

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So when would it be safe to reopen schools?

 

Honestly, no one really knows.

 
Former US Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb released a more optimistic answer in the “National Coronavirus Response: Roadmap to Reopening.”

 

The report maintains the need to continue social distancing including school closures until cases peak and we see sustained declines in new cases for 14 days.

 

That seems to be a fair minimum standard.

 

However, we are not there yet. The death toll continues to rise in the US and may continue to do so for some time yet.

 

Despite the science, every state has a different date in mind for when schools will reopen.

 

Since the beginning of April,a total of 21 state departments of education (including Pennsylvania’s) have decided to keep schools closed for the remainder of the academic year until at least August or September. Six states plus Washington, D.C., still have plans to reopen their schools before the end of the month.

 

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Beyond the question of WHEN to reopen schools is the even more complicated one of HOW or IF.

 

President and chief executive of the National Association of State Boards of Education Robert Hull said administrators across the country are asking not how – but if – schools will reopen in the fall.

 

“Everybody says we hope we return to normal,” Hull said. “It’s not going to return to normal anytime soon because the new normal is going to be different.”

 

Multiple possibilities are being considered.

 

A major factor will be how well districts can test incoming students for infection.

 

The best solution would be quick and cheap Coronavirus screenings. If we could mass produce such tests and distribute them to schools or have the results be a precondition to coming to school, things might be able to run pretty much as normal.

 

If US schools all had digital thermometers (as they do in Singapore), students temperatures could be taken before letting them in to the building. Anyone running a fever could be sent home.

 

Some policymakers are even considering spot checking students throughout the day with thermometers and using video cameras to trace the path of any students running a temperature to tell who they may have come into contact with before being identified. However, this seems pretty disruptive to me and – especially in the younger grades – might terrify students and make them conversely feel less safe in school because of the very efforts done to ensure their safety.

 

In all likelihood, policymakers see to think schools will probably have to run while engaging in some sort of social distancing. And that’s not easy. Nearly everything from the way the academic day is organized to the maturity level of most students goes against this need.

 

One thought provoking proposal is reducing class size to no more than 10 students.

 

This would also have educational benefits allowing teachers the ability to give more one-on-one instruction. However, most classes are double or triple this size now. Few school buildings are large enough to double or triple the number of classrooms needed at the same time.

 

One solution to this is that children could attend on alternate days or on a half day basis – one group in the morning, another in the afternoon. The drawback is that this would reduce the hours students are in class. Lessons would either have to be cut down to essentials or some part of assignments may have to go online.

 

This might also narrow the curriculum so that the arts, music, and other subjects would be eliminated. Gym classes would probably have to be cancelled and lunches might have to be in the classroom, itself, instead of allowing large groups of students to congregate in the cafeteria.

 

Just ensuring that students aren’t all in the hallway at the same time would be a challenge. Class dismissals might be staggered or perhaps the teachers would move from room-to-room while the students stay put.

 

Moreover, the simple act of busing students to-and-from school is likewise complicated. If students sit further apart on the bus, that means each district needs either more buses at the same time or double the time to transport students at arrival and dismissal.

 

None of this would be cheap. It could necessitate more money on transportation, support staff and teachers. In a country where education budgets haven’t yet recovered from the Great Recession of George W. Bush, reopening schools safely would require an influx of cash.

 

But without it, the economy cannot get back under way.

 

When schools closed in March, many districts switched to some kind of distance learning. Teachers put assignments on-line and even teach through Internet meeting sites like ZOOM. Continuing this in some form – for part or all of the day – is also being considered. However, it causes as many problems as it solves.

 

Parents need to be able to get back to work. Many can’t stay at home taking care of their children indefinitely. And they can’t leave their kids to their own devices while trying to learn via computer, device or app.

 

Moreover, these cyber schooling efforts come with educational drawbacks. Just about every educational expert acknowledges that learning in-person is preferable. Students with special needs are particularly at risk because many of their individual education plans (IEPs) cannot be met remotely. And even though efforts have been made to help impoverished students gain access to the necessary technology and Internet access, the problem has by no means been universally solved. Not to mention privacy concerns with student data being pirated by unscrupulous ed tech companies.

 

Another issue is high stakes standardized testing.

 

With the Coronavirus crisis, the tests were cancelled this year – and no one has really missed them.

 

If lessons have to be cut to essentials, standardized testing and the need for endless test prep should be the first things to go. In fact, students, educators, parents and college professors will tell you how useless these assessments are. They reflect basic economic inequalities and enforce them by tying education funding to the test scores.

 

Poor kids score badly and rich kids score well, so the funding becomes a reward for the privileged and a punishment for the underprivileged.

 

That’s why it’s laughable when Hull laments “issues of equity” including how to measure what students are learning and how to help those who have fallen behind.

 

Equity is a matter of funding and opportunities – not test scores. Regardless of the problems with reopening schools, we could solve a long standing issue by erasing high stakes testing from the academic map.

 

But that’s been the elephant in the classroom for a long time.

 

Economic interests have trumped academic ones for decades.

 

Will we continue to value money over children? Will we pave the post-Coronavirus future over the bodies of sick children and adults?

 

Like any crisis, COVID-19 is another opportunity to get things right.

 

Here’s hoping we have our priorities straight this time.

 

Here’s hoping schools stay closed until we’re certain reopening them won’t endanger students, teachers and the community.

 


 

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!

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