PA Legislature Plans Taking Away Teachers’ Sick Days

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Dear Pennsylvania legislators:

So now you want to take away teachers’ sick days.

Sabbatical, sick days, bereavement leaves – the Senate Education Committee voted 7-5 to strip them from the law and make teachers bargain for them with their districts.

So the next time I get sick, you don’t want to guarantee I can take the day off. If my mother dies, you don’t want to protect my right to attend her funeral.

The full legislature still has to vote on it, but that’s pretty cold.

Which brings me to my first question: Why do you hate public school teachers so much?

Seriously. What did teachers ever do to you? Did we give you a bad grade when you were kids? Did we give you detention? What did we ever do to earn such animosity?

You obviously must have something personal against teachers.

It’s understandable. Even though the majority of Pennsylvanians voted for Democrats, most of you are Republicans. You have gerrymandered the state so that you artificially have the majority, and as such you must espouse the most radical positions possible. Otherwise, you’ll be primaried by someone even farther right – a Tea Partier, a plutocrat, an anarcho-capitalist, a fascist.

We see the same thing playing out nationally. Hello, Donald Trump!

So it’s no surprise that after stripping public schools of almost $1 billion every year for the past five years, after tens of thousands of teachers have been laid off, after you’ve given away millions of dollars to private corporations to run fly-by-night charter schools or through tax credits to religious schools – well, it’s no surprise that you feel the need to continue the war on teachers.

It’s paying off for you big time.

Not so much for our school children. They have had to deal with increases in class size, narrowing of the curriculum, reductions in extra-curriculars, cuts in tutoring – just about every deprivation imaginable.

I wonder – do you realize that every attack against teachers is also an attack against students? Making sick teachers come to school won’t improve kids’ educations. Forcing educators to choose between work or seeing their loved ones off to their final resting places won’t boost test scores. Do you understand that or do you just not care?

Follow-up, if I may: do you realize that most public school teachers are women? Does that factor in at all? Which do you hate more, the gender of most teachers or the fact that we are unionized?

Oh, and Pennsylvania School Boards Association, don’t think we’ve forgotten you. We know you requested this mess, Senate Bill 229. Instead of standing with your teachers to fight for fair, equitable, sustainable funding, you’ve decided to ask the legislature if you can stiff teachers to make ends meet. We’re there for your kids everyday, and this is how you thank us. That’s gratitude.

It’s what we get for being one of the last workforces to be unionized. We have the temerity to demand fair treatment. You can’t just do whatever you like with us, you have to actually sit down with us at the bargaining table and talk.

Legislators, we know it’s something that infuriates your base. No, I don’t mean the people who vote for you. I mean your real base – the corporations, millionaires and billionaires who pay your real salaries – the unlimited and shadowy campaign contributions that, let’s be honest, are really nothing less than legal bribes.

We shouldn’t be surprised that you have prioritized taking away legal protections for teachers’ sick days. It is quite in line with what you want to do to the profession. You no longer want highly qualified teachers making a middle class income who then can stay in our schools for their entire careers. You want lightly trained temps who use teaching as a stepping stone to a job that pays enough to live.

After all, if we afford teachers the status of professionals, they might actually be able to jump all the other hurdles we’ve put in front of them and educate the poor.

That would be terrible.

Despite all the standardized testing, Common Core, value-added measures, budget cuts, and constant propaganda about “failing schools,” they might actually teach these kids to think. That’s the last thing you want.

A thinking public might see how much you’re screwing them over. They might actually rise up and fight. They might refuse to accept the status quo that you are so desperately trying to protect.

That’s your real endgame. And though it makes me sick, I suppose I will no longer be able to take off.

I’ll just spend the day, coughing and wheezing with the children.

Yours,

Steven Singer

The Gadfly on the Wall

Truth Bomb: Democrats Need to Embrace Progressivism or Else Move Out of the Way

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“Democrats: Are we the party of the donor class or the working class? This is value clarification time. It’s now or never!”

Nina Turner, former OH State Senator

Democrats, liberals and progressives of every stripe – you’re not going to want to hear this, but hear it you must.

We’ve gone around for too long thinking we’ve got all the answers, but obviously we don’t.

Hillary Clinton lost. Donald Trump won. There’s something seriously wrong with what we’ve been doing to get that kind of result.

There are some hard truths we’ve got to understand, that we’ve got to learn from. Hearing them may be painful. Many of us will fight against it. But we can’t keep fooling ourselves anymore. All that “hope” and “change” we’ve been waiting for – it has to start with us, first.
We’re stuck in a loop and we’ve got to break ourselves out of it. And the only way to get there is to break the track wide open.

It’s time to stop mourning.

Trump is President-elect.

Yeah, that sucks. Hard.

He’s going to protect us by enacting policies to hurt brown people. He’s going to make it harder to get healthcare. He’s going to trample the Constitution. He’s going to offer up our schools to private companies to do with as they please in secret using our tax dollars. He’s going to legitimize white nationalism and embolden racists, bigots, sexist, xenophobes, homophobes and every kind of hate group imaginable. He’s going to hand out tax cuts to his megarich campaign contributors and tax us with the loss of government services. He’s going to use the office as an opportunity to enrich himself and his billionaire buddies and then go on social media and tweet about how he’s fighting for working people.

I don’t like it any better than you. But it’s time to face it.

Sure, Clinton won the popular vote. Sure, there’s a recount going on in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. I’d love for it to overturn Trump’s victory. But I have zero confidence that it will. And I refuse to let it blind me to the urgent need for change.

The first thing we have to do is own up to one essential thing: Hillary Clinton was a bad candidate.

The people were crying out for a populist champion. We had one in Bernie Sanders. He would have destroyed Trump, but we blew it.

I’m not going to rehash it all again, but there’s no way you can honestly say the Democratic primary process was fair. Party leaders were clearly in the bag for Clinton. They ignored her negatives and what their constituency were trying to tell them.

This loss belongs squarely on the shoulders of establishment Democrats. It’s not the fault of the electorate. It was the party’s job to convince people to vote for their candidate. They didn’t do that. Instead they told people who to vote for – or more accurately who NOT to vote for. It was clearly a losing strategy. It lost us the Presidency, Congress and the Supreme Court. Own it.

Next we have to acknowledge that this problem is not new. The Democrats haven’t been what they were or what they could be for a long time.

Since at least President Bill Clinton, many Democrats have traded in their progressive principles for neoliberal ones. They have sold out their concern for social justice, labor and equity in favor of slavish devotion to the same market-driven principles that used to characterize the other side.

Bill Clinton approved NAFTA. He deregulated Wall Street paving the way for the economic implosion. He expanded the failing war on drugs, increased the use of the death penalty, used the Lincoln bedroom as a fundraising condo, ignored the genocide in Rwanda while escalating conflicts abroad in Russia and the middle east. He dramatically and unfairly increased the prison population. He pushed poor families off welfare and into permanent minimum wage jobs. And when people had clearly had enough of it and wanted a change, we gave them Al Gore a.k.a. Bill Clinton part 2.

THAT’S why an idiot like George W. Bush won in 2000. It wasn’t because of Green Party challenger Ralph Nader. It was because people were sick of the Democrats not being real progressives.

But we clearly didn’t learn that lesson, because we did the same damn thing in 2016.

President Barack Obama is just as neoliberal as Bill. He gets credit for bringing back 16 million jobs lost under Bush. But we haven’t forgotten that they’re mostly minimum wage jobs. He gets credit for reducing unemployment to only 4.7%. But we haven’t forgotten that nearly 50 million Americans aren’t included in those statistics because they haven’t been able to find a job in two years and have given up even looking for one.

Obama rolled back legal protections that used to stop the government from spying on civilians, that used to stop the military from being used as a police force against civilians, that used to stop the military from assassinating U.S. citizens, that used to protect whisteblowers, that guaranteed free speech everywhere in the country not just in designated “free speech zones.” Not only did he fail to close Guantanamo Bay, his administration opened new black sites inside the U.S. to torture citizens.

Obama continued the endless wars in the middle east. Sure, he had fewer boots on the ground, but infinite drone strikes are still a continuation of Bush’s counterproductive and unethical War on Terror.

And when it comes to our schools, Obama continued the same corporate education reform policies of Bush – even increasing them. He pushed for more standardized testing, more Common Core, more privatization, more attacks on unions, more hiring unqualified Teach for America temps instead of authentic educators.

Voters clearly wanted a change. We wanted a real progressive champion who would roll back these neoliberal policies. Instead we got Hillary Clinton a.k.a. Obama part 2.

The Democrats didn’t learn a thing from 2000. We just repeated the same damn mistake. And some of us still want to blame third party candidates like Jill Stein.

It wasn’t her fault, and it wasn’t voters faults. It was the Democratic establishment that refused to listen to their constituency.

So here’s the question: will we do it again? Will we let party insiders continue in the same neoliberal direction or will we change course?

Re-electing Nancy Pelosi to House Democratic leadership isn’t a good sign. She represents the same failed administration. But we’ve kept her in place for another term, repeating our mistakes.

Maybe we’ll make a change with U.S. Rep Keith Ellison as DNC chair. It would certainly be a good start to put a real progressive in charge of the party. What better way to challenge Trump’s anti-Muslim propaganda than by promoting the only Muslim representative in the House to the head of our movement! That’s a sure way of showing that Democrats include all peoples, creeds and religions in contrast to the Republicans insularity. But there’s no guarantee we’re going to do it, and even if we did, it would only be a start.

It’s time to clean house.

We need to take back what it means to be a Democrat. We can’t have organizations funded by hedge fund managers and the wealthy elite pretending to be in our camp while espousing all the beliefs of Republicans. We can’t have Democrats for Education Reform, a group promoting the policies of George W. Bush, the economics of Milton Friedman and prescribing laws crafted by the American Legislative Exchange council. We don’t need Cory Booker going on Meet the Press to defend Mitt Romney against income inequality and then pretending to champion working people while taking in contributions from the financial sector. The brand needs to mean something again.

The party needs to move in an authentic progressive direction. So we need to get rid of all the neoliberals. They can go become Republicans. All it would take is exchanging in their blue ties for red ones. They’re functional Republicans already.

We’ve got leaders who can take their place. We’ve got longtime progressives like Bernie and sometime progressives like Elizabeth Warren. We’ve got younger statesmen like Nina Turner, Tulsi Gabbard, Jeff Merkley, John Fetterman, and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, to name a few. But we need new blood.

Of course none of this matters if we don’t take steps to secure the validity of our elections in the first place.

We need to reform our entire electoral process. Ancient and hackable voting machines, voter suppression laws and efforts, rampant gerrymandering and, yes, that stupid relic of the slave states, the Electoral College – all of it must go. We’ve got to ensure that people can vote, people do vote and it actually counts. And if something goes wrong, we need a way to double check. Recounts in close races should be standard and automatic.

We’ve got to fight Citizens United and other Supreme Court rulings equating money with speech. We’ve got to run people-powered campaigns like Sanders did so our politicians aren’t so beholden to corporate and wealthy interests. We’ve got to make it easier for third parties to be part of the process, to include their candidates in debates, etc.

These are some of the many challenges ahead.

Sure, we have to fight Trump. But the best way to do that is to reinvent ourselves.

If the Democrats aren’t willing to do that, many of us will go elsewhere. The party cannot continue to exists if it continually ignores its base. It’s not enough to give us a charismatic leader to latch onto – we need real progressive policies.

The next four years are going to be hard. Trump is going to make things very difficult for the people we love. But in a way that’s a blessing.

We have a real opportunity to create an authentic resistance. People will be untied in their dissatisfaction and anger at what Trump is doing to the country. They’ll be looking for somewhere to turn, for a revolutionary movement to lead them through it.

We can give them another fake insurgency as we did against Bush. Or we can learn the lessons of history.

We can move forward. We can change. We can become a party of real progressives.

Or if we need – we can start a new one from the ground up.

The Measure of Citizenship isn’t an Exit Exam – It’s Participating in Our Democracy

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Pennsylvania legislators just flunked civics – big time.

Once again, instead of offering real solutions to eradicate the ignorance of the coming generation, they clothed themselves in their own.

A bi-partisan group of 47 state lawmakers is proposing forcing all public school students to pass a test on citizenship in order to qualify for a diploma.

House Bill 1858 would require all K-12 schools receiving tax dollars — including charters schools and cybercharters — to give their students the same 100-question test that immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship will have to pass starting in 2020. Any student who doesn’t get a sufficient score will not receive a diploma or GED equivalency.

While it is admirable that legislators are concerned that high school students don’t know enough about civics, it’s unfortunate that they think the solution is another standardized test.

After all, what does being a good citizen have to do with a multiple choice exam?

Citizenship is about political independence. It’s about exercising your rights, not memorizing them. It’s about engaging in the political process, not spitting back facts about what kind of tree George Washington chopped down. It’s about using the principals of self-determination to rise up to the level of personal and community involvement, of individual sovereignty and home rule.

This involves actually teaching civics, a subject that has been cut to the quick in our schools to make room for an increasing amount of test-prep in math and reading. It used to be common for American high schools to offer three civics and government courses. Two of them – “Civics” and “Problems of Democracy” – defined the role of a citizen in relation to current events and issues. However, in most districts now these have been condensed into one “American Government” course that spends hardly any time on how students can and should participate in their government. Moreover, this course isn’t even offered until junior or senior year – far too late to make much of a difference.

Maybe instead of  putting a metaphorical gun to kids heads and demanding they care about civics, you could actually provide some resources so teachers could… I don’t know… teach it!

How about actually funding our public schools? You well-meaning dunderheads slashed school budgets by almost $1 billion a year for the last six years, and your only solution to helping kids learn has been to put more hurdles in their way without offering anything to help them achieve.

That is a losing strategy. If you want to have a winning race horse, at some point you have to feed the freakin’ horse!

If lawmakers really want kids in the Keystone state to know something about civics, why not start by making it easier for schools to broaden the curriculum to include robust civics courses?

This means REDUCING the number of standardized tests, not increasing them. Inject some money into the system so schools can hire back some of the 25,000 teachers who have been furloughed. You want kids to learn how to be citizens? Provide them with excellent teachers who actually get to experience some meaningful professional development, teachers not overburdened with meaningless paperwork to justify their jobs at every turn, teachers encouraged with rewards for seeking National Board Certification, etc. And let’s reduce class size so kids actually have the chance to be heard by their teachers and might actually learn something.

Moreover, if you really want to assess if these lessons have been learned, assess whether students are actually participating in their Democracy.

That’s the thing about citizenship. It looks like a noun, but it’s really a verb. It only has meaning if you do it.

Have high school kids registered to vote? Have they volunteered to take part in the political process, to canvass or phone bank for a candidate they believe in? Have they attended a session of the state House or Senate? (Have you provided the funding for appropriate field trips?) Have they attended a rally or protest for a cause close to their hearts?

THESE are the measures of true citizenship. And there are things you can do to make it easier for students to take part.

But no one really wants that. Come on. This is still essentially the same legislature that passed a Voter ID bill a few years back to make it harder for people to participate in our Democracy. And it would still be on the books if the state Supreme Court hadn’t struck it down as Unconstitutional.

Citizenship!? This is the same legislature that redrew state districts to be so incredibly gerrymandered that the most radical factions of both parties are unchallenged each election cycle!

You know why children don’t know more about civics? Because they’re so disgusted and demoralized by the example you’ve shown them. When politics is nothing but a show, when hardly anything ever changes or actually gets accomplished in Harrisburg, you expect kids to get excited by citizenship!? HA!

All you know how to do is pretend. That’s what this is. Just throw another standardized test on the fire of our children’s education and you can act like you’ve done something.

May I remind you we’re still dealing with the last smoldering exit exam disaster you fostered on us – the Keystone Exams?

You spent $1.1 billion on these tests since 2008, and they’re a statewide joke! You required all students to pass these assessments in Literature, Algebra and Biology, but they’re so poorly constructed and confusing that only half of our students can pass all three. So you put them on hold for two years until you could decide what to do.

And before you even fix that mess, you actually have the gall to say, “Hey! Let’s make kids take ANOTHER test!?”

I know some of you mean well, but this suggestion is a disgrace.

It’s style over substance.

This isn’t a measure to reduce ignorance. It’s a measure conceived in ignorance that’s guaranteed to proliferate it.

Paying Back School Kids on the Installment Plan – PA Budget Shenanigans

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Hey, Kids!

 

We’re your Pennsylvania Legislature, and we’re here to help!

 

We just passed a new state budget that puts $200 million more in your classrooms! Isn’t that great!?

 

Yeah. We know. Your public schools are crumbling to dust, and your school books are falling apart, and you’re stuffed into overcrowded classrooms, and…

 

But here’s some more money so it’s all better now!

 

Um. No. It actually doesn’t heal that huge chunk of cash we slashed from public schools six years ago. We’ve been giving you back about $100-200 million a year for a while now, so with this new budget… uh… We’re actually about $150 million short. But we’re good for it!

 

No, that doesn’t take into account inflation. Or compounding costs. Or the billions you should have had but did without in the intervening years. Or the loans you had to take out to stay operational while we argued over all this.

 

Jeez. I guess that means your schools are still deep in the hole, huh?

 

Well, don’t you worry. Next year we’re bound to give you just a little bit more. At this rate, we should have paid you back all that money we took in about 20 years!

 

You’re welcome!

 

The 2016-17 budget was passed in two motions. A spending plan was ratified at the end of June, and a revenue package to pay for it was passed on Wednesday. That’s only 13 days beyond the state-mandated deadline for doing so. It’s a huge improvement over last year’s budget, which was 9 months late!

 

One of the largest sticking points was an initiative to allow charter schools to proliferate exponentially without oversight or state control. It was tabled until a later date. Legislators now go on summer break.

 

What’s that, sonny boy?

 

You wonder how Pennsylvania stacks up to other states in terms of education funding? Well according to federal education data, we’re number one!

 

No. Not number one as in the best. Number one as in the worst. Our state has the worst funding inequality in the nation!

 

You see, even though we’ve been adding more money into classrooms, it hasn’t been done equitably.

 

When our previous Governor, Corbett, and the Republican-controlled legislature slashed almost $1 billion annually in education funding back in 2011, we didn’t take it away from all schools equally. We took the lion’s share from the poorest schools. But when we started putting it back piece-by-piece, we didn’t give it all back to those impoverished districts.

 

It’s all kind of complicated, but since you asked…

 

We used to do something called the charter school reimbursement.

 

This was money set aside to help schools deal with the extra cost of having a charter school pop up in their neighborhood. Charter schools siphon off loads of funding so they can operate without actually reducing the operating expenses of traditional public schools all that much. So when a charter school opens, it usually means kids left in the traditional public school suffer.

 

When the Corbett cuts went through, we got rid of that charter school reimbursement all together. Now those schools – most of them in impoverished areas – have to make up that money some other way.

 

The funding formula? Yes, the legislature did create a new funding formula – a more fair way to distribute education monies across the Commonwealth. However, it’s got some kinks in it.

 

First, we didn’t want to take away any extra money rich schools were getting that they don’t need, so we made sure to grandfather that money in. I know it means less for schools that really need it, but… you know… rich people.

 

Second, the funding formula only adds $150 million for the poorest districts. Our current Governor, the guy who was elected after Corbett was kicked out of Harrisburg for shortchanging school children, Gov. Wolf, he wanted to include more. But the Republican controlled legislature wouldn’t allow it. They said it would send too much money to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and you know what kind of kids go there? Right? Blac… I mean, poor ones.

 

You know, the only way we get away with this is because Pennsylvanians aren’t very good at math.

 

You see, we’ve been playing a shell game with numbers. We add fixed costs like pensions into the mix to make it look like we’re spending more than ever on public schools. But when it comes to money that actually goes to the classroom, nope!

 

It’s like replacing your tires and wondering why you have no money for gas.

 

Specifically, you kids lost $841 million for your classrooms between 2010-11 and 2011-12. That’s why you lost 30,000 teachers, guidance counselors, nurses and other school staff. That’s why you lost extra-curriculars, arts and music, foreign language, field trips and why class size exploded. Heck! Several kids died for lack of having a full-time school nurse!

 

By the time voters booted Corbett, he and the Republican legislature were spending $579 million less in 2014-15 as opposed to 2010-11. And now with Gov. Wolf and the threat of voters booting lawmakers who thought they were safe even in their highly gerrymandered districts, we’ve got that gap down to about $150 million.

 

How are we paying for this? Uh. We’re taxing the poor and using one-time funding streams.

 

We’ve raised a $1 per pack tax on cigarettes. We’ve got liquor privatization, internet gaming, a licensing fee for a second Philadelphia casino, and a tax amnesty program.

 

More than half is made up of one-time sources. That means next year we’re going to have another budget deficit to fix just like we did this year. But our fiscal conservatives will just do the same thing and put it on the credit card. That’s what it means right? Fiscal conservative?

 

The good news is we didn’t have to raise taxes on rich people. We’re one of the “terrible ten” states that relies on the poor to pay a larger percentage of the tax burden than the rich, and we’re darn proud of it!

 

Sure we could have instituting a severance tax on natural gas; closed the Delaware tax loophole; and slightly increased taxes on those who are making bank, but those are our real constituents. Those are the ones who pay us the big bucks. You expect us to inconvenience them for you poor people!?

 

Ha!

 

Consider that a lesson, kiddos. We aren’t here for you or your parents. Now take this measly bit of education funding we owe you and be happy with it. If you’re lucky, next year we might give you back the last few hundred million we took. Then you’ll only be down due to rising costs, inflation and seven years of neglect!

 

PA House: Online Courses for the Poor. Teachers for the Rich.

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Pennsylvania has a long history of under-resourcing its public schools.

State Rep. Jason Ortitay has a solution.

The Republican representing Washington and Allegheny Counties envisions a world where poor kids learn from computers and rich kids learn from flesh-and-blood teachers.

It’s all in his proposed legislation, H.B. 1915, passed by the state House on Monday. It now moves on to the Senate.

The legislation would assign the Department of Education the task of organizing a collection of online courses for use by students in grades 6-12. Some classes might be created by the state and others would be made by third parties with approval for state use. If anyone so desired, the courses could be utilized by anyone in public school, private school, homeschool and beyond. The online learning clearinghouse thus created would be called the “Supplemental Online Course Initiative.”

But what does this have to do with impoverished schools?

According to the bill, itself, state education officials would:

“Upon request, provide assistance to school districts which have been declared to be in financial recovery status or identified for financial watch status under Article VI-A by facilitating the school districts’ search for low-cost or no-cost online course options.”

In other words, this bill provides an alternative for schools where the local tax base isn’t enough to fund traditional classes presided over by living, breathing teachers.

In the distant past, the state used to made up some of the slack to level the playing field for students born into poverty. However, for the last five years, the legislature has forced the poor to make due with almost $1 billion less in annual state education funds. This has resulted in narrowing the curriculum, the loss of extra-curriculars, increased class size, and plummeting academic achievement.

While the majority of voters are crying out for the legislature to fix this blatant inequality and disregard for students’ civil rights, Ortitay’s proposed bill lets lawmakers off the hook. It allows legislators to provide a low quality alternative for the poor without necessitating any substantial influx of funds.

Here, Jaquan and Carlos. You can learn from this YouTube video. Billy and Betty will be in the classroom learning from a trained professional with an advanced degree in the subject.

None of this bodes well for state budget negotiations going on right now to finalize a Commonwealth spending plan by the end of June. Those expecting a proposal to heal the funding cuts most likely will be disappointed – AGAIN.

Nevertheless, the bill still needs to clear the Senate and a signature from Gov. Tom Wolf before it can become law.

In the House, the bill passed 128-66 with 8 abstentions. Though lawmakers on both sides of the aisle supported the measure, it was opposed only by Democrats.

If the clearinghouse becomes a reality, it would be implemented in two phases. In the 2017-18 school year, it would only offer courses on subjects tested by state Keystone Exams at no cost to local districts. Then in the following year, it would expand to include courses not tested on state mandated exams that can be purchased by local districts.

If the Keystone-aligned courses are free to local districts, who pays for them? Certainly these online classes aren’t being constructed, monitored and graded as a public charity.

According to the bill, the Department of Education should:

“Explore the possibility for Federal and private funding to support the clearinghouse.”

However, if the state can’t find someone else to foot the bill, the cost will be born by Pennsylvania taxpayers.

Specifically:

“There is hereby established a restricted revenue account in the General Fund to be known as the Online Course Clearinghouse Restricted Account…”

“The funds in the account are hereby appropriated to the department on a continuing basis for the purposes of paying expenses incurred by the department in carrying out its duties relating to the administration of the clearinghouse under this article.”

How much taxpayer money will be allocated to this initiative? It doesn’t say. Will this money come from an increase in education spending or will it cannibalize other education line items? Again, it doesn’t say. Apparently such decisions would be made while drafting the state budget – presumably not the one being hashed out now, but the 2017-18 spending plan.

“This initiative will give public schools, which might not otherwise be able to afford similar educational opportunities, the flexibility and ability to make use of online learning [for] the betterment of their students,” Ortitay said in a press release.

However, online courses have an infamous history throughout the Commonwealth, and, indeed, the nation.

All courses collected in the clearinghouse would be subject to approval by the state Department of Education. But cyber charter schools fall under the same jurisdiction often with disastrous results.

Internet-based classwork – like that which would be collected in the clearinghouse – makes up the curriculum at cyber charter schools. Moreover, these online schools have a proven track record of failure and fraud.

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

In addition, researchers found that 88 percent of cyber charter schools have weaker academic growth than similar brick and mortar schools.

They have an “overwhelming negative impact” on students, according to researchers.

And THAT kind of curriculum is what the state House voted to increase using public money!

One of the biggest problem with online courses is the low quality of what’s being offered. Here’s how a cyber charter teacher describes the reading curriculum at his school:

“Most cyber schools get their curriculum from K12, a company started by William Bennett, a former federal Secretary of Education. My school gets the majority of its high school material from a mail order company called Aventa.

When Aventa creates a course it is fairly bare bones. They choose a textbook from one of the major textbook companies, and cut it up into lessons. The lesson will contain a few paragraphs introducing the topic, they will have the students read a section of a chapter, they will ask the student to do a few problems from the book, and lastly, there will be some form of graded assessment, taken from textbook review problems. That is all.”

This is like giving out nothing but worksheets and expecting high academic performance. Here. Read the book, answer the questions at the back, and call it a day.

Another problem is high turnover for students taking online classes. Though learning exclusively through the Internet seems novel at first, few students continue taking these courses more than a year or two.

This is especially true for younger students. It’s hard to imagine many 6th graders with the tenacity to persevere without anything but the most limited human interaction and adult supervision.

Advocates claim this is healthy experimentation. Students are trying out different means to accommodate their learning styles.

However, when students invariably fail at online education and return to their traditional public school hopelessly behind their peers, taxpayers bear the cost of remediating them. And their low academic performance becomes a reflection on the public school system where it is used as an excuse to denigrate teachers and close more brick and mortar buildings.

The online educational clearinghouse is supposed to be monitored and regulated by the state Department of Education – just as it does for state cyber schools.

Unfortunately, state budget cuts in K-12 education have left the department seriously understaffed and unable to do this job effectively.
Just look at the almost weekly news reports of fraud at state cyber schools.

For instance, PA Cyber Charter founder Nicholas Trombetta allegedly stole at least $8 million in public dollars only a few years ago. Federal investigators filed 11 fraud and tax conspiracy charges against him and indicted others in the case.

Another cyber charter founder, June Brown, was also indicted for theft of $6.5 million. Brown and her executives were indicted on 62 counts of wire fraud, obstruction of justice and witness tampering. She ran the Agora Cyber Charter School, which was part of the K12 Inc. empire of virtual charters.

Why would we want to increase the opportunities for such fraud by encouraging students to take more online classes?

This bill is at best a distraction.

It’s a Band Aid for the fiscal irresponsibility of our lawmakers toward our public schools. It’s an excuse so that we’ll let them continue short changing our children for at least another year with yet another budget lacking in education funding.

This does not compute.

Disenfranchised Berners Need to Push for Election Reform NOW!

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So we lost the Democratic primary.

Bernie Sanders is out and Hillary Clinton is in. She will almost definitely face Donald Trump in the general election for President.

If you’re like me, you’re still in shock.

She drew crowds of hundreds. He drew crowd of tens of thousands.

Exit polls consistently showed him winning, but when the votes were counted, he ended up losing.

There have been consistent reports of rampant tampering with voter registration resulting in hundreds of thousands of voters being removed from the rolls; party affiliations being changed without voter consent so they cannot cast a ballot; polling places being reduced significantly so voters have to wait for hours resulting in voters leaving before casting a ballot. And that’s not even counting the mainstream media’s portrayal of Clinton as inevitable by conflating superdelegate votes (which at this point are only non-binding polls of how these party insiders MIGHT vote in July) with actual votes that are already tallied and unchangable.

Really it shouldn’t be so shocking.

Our democracy has been a smoking shell of itself for a long time now.

In 2008 when Barack Obama beat John McCain, we saw some of these same shenanigans. We had language barriers, invented rules, long lines sometimes hours long, and, in some cases, voting machines that changed people’s votes.

By the end of election night, hours after victory was declared, Obama said to supporters in Chicago, “I want to thank every American who participated in this election. Whether you voted for the first time or waited in line for a very long time.” As the crowd roared, Obama declared: “By the way, we have to fix that.”

And now eight years later, we’ve done absolutely nothing to “fix that.”

If anything, the situation is much worse. While Obama voters met hardships, just as Al Gore supporters did in 2000, those were extra-party elections. They were examples of Republicans disenfranchising Democrats. But now we have something new – Democrats suppressing other Democrats!

From the beginning Sanders has said that his campaign was not about himself, it was about starting a real progressive movement. “Not me, us,” the slogan goes.

Now is the time to start cashing in on that idealism.

While Hillary supporters call for unity, we, Berners, must push the terms.

I don’t know if there is truly anything Clinton can do to get my vote short of stepping down. Like many Berners, the very idea of supporting someone so opposed to my views is repugnant. But if Clinton is going to have any shot, she and her supporters need to agree to finally fulfill Obama’s promise.

Let’s fix that. Let’s fix our broken and moldering election system.

It’s not like it’s any big secret how to do so.

Robert Steele, Jim Turner, Ralph Nader, Christina Tobin, Howard Zinn and a host of others have had available a series of common sense reforms for almost two decades. It’s time we push the Democrats to get behind them:

1) Open Ballot Access. Historically, third party candidates have had a harder time getting on the ballot than Democrats and Republicans. Even the popular Green Party Presidential candidate Dr. Jill Stein isn’t on the ballot in every state.

Open ballot access means that no matter what party a candidate represents, he/she has to do the same things to get on the ballot. No more can we accept only Democrats and Republicans to be on the ballot in every state. Ballot access requirements should be the same for every candidate, irrespective of party affiliation. This should also apply to initiatives and referenda, as well as primary and general elections.

2) Holiday Voting. Voter turnout in the land of the free is a disgrace. Much of that has to do with the fact that people are working too hard and too long to easily get to the polls. Election Day should be a national holiday. This way every voter should be able to vote easily and won’t have to worry about missing work and/or transportation issues. In addition, Early Voting should be universally available. No long lines. Vote at your leisure and even spend some time getting involved in the political process.

3) Paper Trail. ALL ballots must either be on paper or otherwise subject to physical re-count. It is too easy for votes to be miscalculated without any reliable recourse for reasonable challenges and/or recounts if there is no paper trail. Too many voting machines in use do not meet this standard. If voting machines are used, each vote must produce a physical paper footprint subject to recount. If there is any attempt at voter suppression, it should be easily provable and remedied.

4) Honest Open Debates. Americans demand choice in almost everything in their lives except politics. Go to the grocery store and there are 20 different kinds of frosted flakes, but go to the polls and you only have the choice of Dems or Repubs. Another way to end the current monopoly of the major parties is to mandate debates include all political parties – even third, fourth, and fifth parties.

5) Tightly-Drawn Districts. We must end the corrupt practice of gerrymandering, replacing it with compact computer drawn districts determined by independent non-partisan commissions. And we should expressly prohibited any voting district to be drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party.

6) Full Public Funding of Diverse Candidates. Get the money out of politics. Eliminate all corporate financing of campaigns, and all political action committees. No more PACS, Super PACS, Citizens United, all of it! Instead all state and national campaigns should only be publicly funded.

7) No Legislation Without Consultation. The most frustrating things for voters is when politicians pass legislation without reading it first. The next most frustrating thing is that this legislation isn’t easily available or accessible to their constituents. We can eliminate special interest dominance of the legislative process, by ending the practice of passing legislation such as the Patriot Act without its actually being read. Moreover, end all earmarks. All legislation without exception should be published on line with an easy to understand one-page summary, one week prior to its coming to a vote, to include explicit geospatial pointers for all “earmarks” each of which must be publicly announced and offered for amendment to the voters in the relevant district at least one week prior to the passage of national, state, or county legislation affecting them. Similarly, no public privileges should be granted to any corporation or other entity without full public consultation and public polling or balloting.

8) End the Electoral College, Superdelegates and every representative voting system where possible. When you go to vote for something that should be it. You’re not voting for someone else to vote for you. You’re voting for that candidate outright. Yes, our system of Republican government essentially involves people voting for us. But we don’t need to add extra levels of distance between us and our representatives. Eliminate the middleman. Eliminate the possibility of further disenfranchisement.

There are certainly other reforms we can add to this list. I do not mean it to be exhaustive. But I do think it represents a good start.

And we mustn’t wait. We need to push for it NOW!

Millions of people have just had their votes stolen from them. Clinton and the Democrats are calling out for unity.

Okay. If you want even the possibility of it, prove you’re on our side. Work with us to ensure that people like you can never again gain power in the manner that you just did.

If you want my vote, respect it.

Otherwise, I’ll just give it to someone else.

Dr. Stein, are you with me?

Unwilling to Help Schools, PA Legislature Attacks Teachers

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If you live in Pennsylvania, as I do, you must be shaking your head at the shenanigans of our state legislature.

Faced with a school funding crisis of their own making, lawmakers voted this week to make it easier to fire school teachers.

Monday the state Senate passed their version of an anti-seniority bill that was given the thumbs up by the House last summer.

Thankfully, Gov. Tom Wolf is expected to veto it.

As usual, lawmakers (or more accurately their surrogates at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) who actually wrote the bill) spent more time on branding the legislation than appealing to logic, sense or reason. The bill called HB 805 was given the euphemistic title “The Protecting Excellent Teachers Act.”

Yes, this is exactly how you protect excellent teachers – by making it easier to fire them.

Currently, if teachers are furloughed, those with least seniority go first. Under this new law, teachers would be let go based on their academic rating. Teachers can have one of four ratings: Distinguished, Proficient, Needs Improvement and Failing. Under the new legislation, teachers rated Failing would be furloughed first, followed by those under Needs Improvement, etc. Within those categories decisions would be made based on seniority.

It sounds great – if you know absolutely nothing about Pennsylvania public schools.

First off, in 2015 our rating system found 98.2% of state teachers to be in the highest two rating categories. So at best this bill is next to meaningless.

Second, like virtually all value added rating systems across the country, our rating system is pure bull crap. It’s a complicated measure of meaningless statistics, student test scores and mumbo jumbo that can be twisted one way or another depending on the whims of administrators, dumb luck and the phases of the moon.

A New York Supreme Court judge just ruled this week that the Empire state’s similar teacher rating system is “arbitrary” and “capricious.” But in Pennsylvania our legislators want to make it the axe that slices away teachers from the profession.

Third, the bill isn’t really about seniority at all. It’s about making it easier to fire teachers no matter how good they are at their jobs. Currently, state school districts are not allowed to furlough teachers based on lack of funds. This new legislation aims to remove that impediment.

It makes sense in a way. Pennsylvania lawmakers refuse to properly fund public schools so they have to make it easier to downsize. You’re welcome, taxpayers!

If this bill becomes law, school directors could fire whomever administrators want for whatever reason.

Admin: Mr. Smith, you’re fired.

Smith: Why?

Admin: Um. Financial reasons.

Smith: But I’m rated as Distinguished.

Admin: Not after we adjust the formula, mess with your class rosters and all around juke the stats to show you’re Failing.

Seniority is not perfect, but it avoids all these high jinks. It leaves no questions, nothing that can be easily altered. Either you have seniority or not. And if administrators have been doing their jobs by making sure good teachers stay and bad teachers are trained or let go, seniority correlates with good teaching. If you’ve been in the classroom for a long while, you’re probably a pretty descent teacher. Like anything else, practice makes perfect.

The public has to realize something about teaching at a public school. It is a deeply political job. You are subject to the whims of school directors, administrators, parents or anyone in the community with an axe to grind. You simply can’t do the job without some protections. How else can you fairly grade the school director’s child? How else can you exercise academic freedom to do what you think best if every decision is subject to committee?

This doesn’t mean teachers can’t be fired. They are fired every day. But administrators have to be able to make a valid case. They have to gather evidence to prove you deserve to be fired first.

It is highly ironic that Pennsylvania lawmakers are pursuing this legislation when they have done everything in their power to protect their own jobs first.

You want to talk seniority? Look to the legislature.

Incumbents are almost always re-elected. Why? Not because they do such a great job. They’ve made sure to gerrymander the state. Republicans reside in overwhelmingly Republican districts, Democrats in overwhelmingly Democratic ones.

This is no accident. A few years back, legislators redrew district borders to make sure they’d keep their jobs no matter how crappy they were at governance. It is deeply unfair and undemocratic. The majority of voters do not get a say. Instead, we cater to special interests and protect terrible legislators so they can pass crap like this bill without fear of repercussions during election season.

Do you think lawmakers would have refused to pass a state budget this year until 9 months after the deadline if they thought voters could actually hold them accountable? No way!

Do you think they’d withhold fair funding to the majority of public schools in the state if they thought the majority of voters had a say whether these knuckleheads stayed in power? Absolutely not!

And worst of all, even with Gov. Wolf’s promised veto, the crisis is far from over. When next year’s budget comes up for a vote in June and the Governor again asks for equitable funding for schools, legislators are bound to use HB 805 as a bargaining chip.

“You want some money for our kids’ schools? Then you’d better make it easier to fire teachers,” they’ll say.

Protect excellent teachers? Ha! They’re protecting terrible legislators.

We’ll never have good governance in this state again unless we find a way to redraw our gerrymandered districts. We need a voter referendum, a nonpartisan committee or – here’s a long shot – we need for extremist residents of these gerrymandered districts to revolt against the politicians hiding behind them.

Until then, we will be forever cursed with terrible lawmakers, execrable laws, under-resourced schools and a crumbling state.


Click HERE to find out how your representatives voted on HB 805.