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

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

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

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

She gasps. He smiles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, history proves him wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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How Teachers Like Me Can Renew Ourselves This Summer

This school year was perhaps the most difficult one I’ve experienced in two decades in the classroom.

From constantly having to cover for sick or otherwise absent staff, to absorbing student traumas suffered in years of a pandemic, to increased student fights, social awkwardness and administrators demanding more paperwork and untried initiatives that get dropped for another fad next week…

It’s been rough!

Now that most K-12 schools have begun or are about to begin summer break, it can be hard to rest and renew yourself for the coming year.

To be honest, many teachers have already decided to leave.

At my district, more teachers have retired this year than at any time since I was hired – about 10% of the staff.

And some even quit in the middle of the year – something that hardly ever happens.

If things don’t change this year, it will be worse next year.

But for those like me planning on returning in the Fall, congratulations. You made it through.

Now what?

I don’t know about you, but I often find myself nibbled by stress and anxiety.

I try to sleep, I try to rest, but worry and hopelessness settle down on me like a shroud.

If you’re like me, you may need some help getting through it all.

So here’s a list of five things we can do – not just you, but me, too – that hopefully will help us rejuvenate ourselves somewhat in the next few months and set us up for a successful year with our students.

1) Be Present with Friends and Family

Teachers often live in their heads.

We’re always planning a new lesson or thinking about how to help a student or improve something from the year before.

But this is summer break.

It’s time to tune out and turn off.

You’re home and hopefully you can find some time to spend with friends and family.

Just remember to try to be there. Actually be there.

Don’t live in your head. Live in the moment.

Let the present open up in front of you and actually enjoy the things you’re doing.

Our professional lives often demand we sacrifice so much time with our significant others, our kids, and the people we care about. Now is the time to balance the scales and enjoy their company. And nothing else.

This can be easier said than done, but it’s worth a try.

2) Don’t Focus on Things You Can’t Change

There is so much going on in the world, and we’re teachers. We’re problem solvers.

We want to fix broken things, and there is so much broken out there. The news is often not our friend.

I’m not saying to ignore what’s going on. We do so at our peril. But we have to try to put it all in context.

We’re just people – individuals caught in nets of complexity. We can’t solve all these problems ourselves.

A horrible regressive monster is running for Governor in the Fall who would destroy your profession and endanger your child’s future. Got it.

The government still hasn’t passed any meaningful measures to keep guns out of the hands of school shooters. Got it.

Politicians are still attacking your profession, history, science, math and enlightenment values. Argh!

And they’ll still be doing it at the end of August.

Take a break from it all.

Worrying will not change anything. And it will all be there for you later.

Just try to focus your mind elsewhere – for a little while.

3) Let Go of Resentments

This can be really hard but important.

There are a lot of people who have probably said or done things that made your life difficult this year.

It could be that parent who screamed at you on the phone over an assignment their child didn’t turn in.

It could be an administrator who made another stupid initiative that makes him/her look good while increasing your work load but does nothing to help the students.

It could be a sincerely stupid politician accused with pedophilia and insurrection who thinks taking pot shots at teachers will win him votes from the lowest common denominator.

It could be… so many people.

Take a deep breath and let it go.

You don’t need that baggage weighing you down.

As Nelson Mandela is supposed to have said:

“Having resentment against someone is like drinking poison and thinking it will kill your enemy.”

Leave that behind.

There will be plenty more next year.

4) Don’t Expect Too Much of Yourself

Often our harshest critic is ourselves.

We try so hard to be kind to everyone all year. This summer, be kind to yourself.

It’s break time. You don’t have to clean the whole house top to bottom. You don’t have to finally rearrange the utility drawer or any of a million other things that have been waiting around for you to get to them.

By all means, make those doctor’s appointments you’ve been waiting on. Buy a new pair of shoes. Cut the grass.

But if something doesn’t get done, don’t feel like it’s a failure.

You are allowed to simply do nothing.

Sometimes that’s the best thing we can do.

Be as productive as you want. Sometimes that helps alleviate stress, too – the satisfaction of getting things accomplished.

However, this break is not all about crossing things off your TO DO list.

It’s about rest and renewal.

Cut yourself some slack.

No one else will.

5) Remember Why You Got into Teaching

When you feel ready to turn your mind back to the job, try not to think of all the negative things waiting for you.

Don’t even let your mind rest on the uncertainties and anxieties ahead.

Focus on why you’re still a teacher.

You’re not chained to this profession. You probably had the chance to leave if you’d wanted.

Why did you get into education in the first place?

What are the things about it that you still love and enjoy?

For me, it’s nearly everything in the classroom, itself.

It’s interacting with students.

It’s helping them succeed and then seeing the look of joy on their faces when they do.

I love everything about my job – the subject I teach, the students, being there when there’s no one else.

It’s just all the stuff outside the classroom that I can’t stand.

I make a file during the year full of Christmas cards, goodbye messages from parents and students, positive emails, etc. During the summer is a perfect time to read through them and remember the good things.

At least, that’s what I try to do anyway.

So there’s my list. I hope you found it helpful.

Health, relaxation, calm. Be warned – I’m certainly no expert on the subject.

Remember the words of author Nakeia Homer:

“You are not lazy, unmotivated, or stuck. After years of living your life in survival mode, you are exhausted.”

Finding ways to recharge and renew is something I know I desperately need – maybe as you do, too.

Here’s hoping we can find the peace we need this summer.

The new academic year will be here before we know it.


 

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

Federal or State Legislatures May Raise Teacher Salaries so Schools Have Enough Staff to Reopen

What will we do when schools reopen and there aren’t enough teachers to instruct our kids?

People complain when there aren’t enough servers at restaurants or baggers at the grocery store.

What will they say in August if school buildings in many districts remain closed or the only viable option is online remote schooling?

Lawmakers at the state and federal level are taking the matter seriously with measures to increase teacher salary or provide one-time bonuses.

Alabama, New Mexico, and Mississippi have already boosted teacher pay, with Florida, Iowa and Kentucky potentially set to do the same. Meanwhile, even US Congress could pass a nationwide measure to heighten teacher salary and encourage educators to stay in the classroom.

After decades of neglect only made worse by Covid-19, we’re missing almost a million teachers.

And we only have about 3.2 million teachers nationwide!

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 567,000 fewer educators in our public schools today than there were before the pandemic. And that’s on top of already losing 250,000 school employees during the recession of 2008-09 most of whom were never replaced. All while enrollment increased by 800,000 students.

Meanwhile, finding replacements has been difficult. Across the country, an average of one educator is hired for every two jobs available.

So what are we doing about it?

Surprisingly, something!

Congress has at least one bill under consideration that would raise teacher salaries nationwide.

The Respect, Advancement, and Increasing Support for Educators (RAISE) Act would provide teachers with a minimum of $1,000 in refundable tax credits and as much as $15,000.

The more impoverished the school where teachers work, the higher the tax credit available to increase their salaries. The bill would also double the educator tax deduction to offset the cost of school supplies, and expand eligibility to early childhood educators.

The bill was introduced by Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and U.S. Representatives Adam Schiff (D-CA), Jahana Hayes (D-CT), John Larson (D-CT), and Mark Takano (D-CA). It is supported by a broad coalition of organizations including the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA).

Such a measure is long overdue.

Teachers are paid 20% less than other college-educated workers with similar experience. A 2020 survey found that 67% of teachers have or had a second job to make ends meet.

Why would you go into debt earning a four year degree in education and serve an (often unpaid) internship in the classroom just to earn little more than a fry chef or Walmart greeter?

Why enter a field where you can’t buy a home or even rent an apartment in most metropolitan areas? Why volunteer for a job where you won’t be able to afford to marry, raise children, or eke out a middle class existence?

Thankfully, Congressional proposals aren’t the only attempt to make teaching more attractive.

Some states have already taken action.

The Alabama Senate passed a budget that would raise minimum salaries for teachers with nine or more years experience. The raises would range from 5% to nearly 21%, depending on years of experience.

A teacher with a bachelor’s degree and 20 years of experience would see their salary rise from $51,810 to $57,214. A teacher with a master’s degree and 25 years experience would see their pay rise from $61,987 to $69,151.

In New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a bill that would increase base salary levels by an average of 20 percent. This advances minimum salary tiers for educators by $10,000 to $50,000, $60,000 and $70,000. 

In Mississippi, Gov. Tate Reeves signed off on an average increase of $5,100 that will raise educator salaries by more than 10 percent.

According to Politico, both Republican and Democratic Governors are proposing teacher salary increases or one-time bonuses as part of budget proposals and legislative priorities.

Even Governors like Iowa’s Kim Reynolds and Florida’s Ron DeSantis are promoting teacher bonuses while also stoking classroom culture wars. On the other side of the aisle, Kentucky’s Democratic governor Andy Beshear is trying to push through a teacher pay plan through opposition by the state’s GOP-controlled legislature.

Such measures are even being proposed in Pennsylvania. Sen. Judith Schwank (D-Berks) recently introduced Senate Bill 1211 to boost starting pay for teachers from the current minimum of $18,500 listed in state law. She proposes increasing it to $45,000 a year. However, the bill sent to the Senate Education Committee has several Democratic co-sponsors but no Republicans, making it doubtful it will progress anytime soon.

The main factor behind these plans seems to be the $350 billion in state and local recovery funds under the American Rescue Plan. These federal dollars have few strings attached and only about half of the money has been spent so far.

After decades of neglect, these plans may not be enough and they may not even come to fruition. However, at least lawmakers seem to understand the problem exists.

It’s gratifying that politicians finally seem to feel a sense of urgency here.

Because this problem didn’t spring up overnight and it won’t go away in a flash.

If we don’t do something to make teaching more attractive, the problem will only be compounded in coming years.

Not only are we having a hard time keeping the teachers we have, few college students want to enter the field.

Over the past decade, there’s been a major decline in enrollment in bachelor’s degree programs in education.

Beginning in 2011, enrollment in such programs and new education certifications in Pennsylvania — my home state— started to decline. Today, only about a third as many students are enrolled in teacher prep programs in the Commonwealth as there were 10 years ago. And state records show new certifications are down by two-thirds over that period.

And it’s not just classroom teachers – substitutes are even harder to find.

The shortage of substitute teachers has gotten so bad in 2021-22, it forced some schools across the country to temporarily move to remote learning. Even Pittsburgh Public Schools was forced to go to cyber learning on Nov. 29 because of a staffing shortage and a lack of substitute teachers.

And it doesn’t look to get better next year.

Last June almost a third of working educators expressed a desire to leave the profession.

According to a survey in June of 2,690 members of the National Education Association, 32% said the pandemic was likely to make them leave the profession earlier than expected. So we don’t have enough teachers now and one in three educators we do have are ready to walk out the door.

What could we do about it?

In the long term, we need structural solutions to the problem:  

 Money

 Autonomy

 Respect.  

And in the short term we need: 

 Less Paperwork

 Reduced case load

 Dedicated planning periods

But don’t take my word for it.

A survey by the RAND Corp. reported that the pandemic has increased teacher attrition, burnout and stress. In fact, educators were almost twice as likely as other adult workers to have frequent job-related stress and almost three times more likely to experience depression.

The CDC Foundation in May released similar results – 27% of teachers reporting depression and 37% reporting anxiety.

However, the RAND survey went even deeper pinpointing several causes of stressful working conditions. These were (1) a mismatch between actual and preferred mode of instruction, (2) lack of administrator and technical support, (3) technical issues with remote teaching, and (4) lack of implementation of COVID-19 safety measures. 

It’s a problem of exploitation and normalization. 

 Exploitation is when you treat someone unfairly for your own benefit. 

 Our schools have been doing that to teachers for decades – underpaying them for the high responsibilities they have, expecting each individual to do the work of multiple people and when anything goes wrong, blaming them for it. 

 We piled on so many extra duties – online teaching, hybrid learning, ever changing safety precautions – these became the proverbial straw that broke educators’ backs.  

There are things we can do to alleviate this situation – reducing nonessential tasks, eliminating unnecessary paperwork, refraining from excess staff meetings, forgoing new initiatives, letting teachers work from home on professional development days – anything to give them a break and an opportunity to heal from the years of overburdening.

But we also have to start paying teachers more.

Thankfully our lawmakers are taking this matter to heart and actually getting some results.

Hopefully this trend will continue until every teacher in the nation is adequately, equitably and sustainably compensated for the work done in the classroom.


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!

‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is Still Relevant Because it Forces Us to Confront Ourselves 

 
 
Parris is peering into a crumpled paperback with a huge smile on his face. 


 
“Mr. Singer, I love this book…” he says.  


 
He stops, pauses and adds, “I hate what’s happening, but I love the book.” 


 
In my middle school classroom, that’s a pretty routine reaction to Harper Lee’s classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” 


 
My 8th grade students approach the climax and resolution with equal parts dread and delight.  


 
But it doesn’t always start that way. 


 
No book I teach has gone through a greater change in cultural opinion than “Mockingbird.” 


 
It used to be considered a bastion of anti-racism. Now some folks actually consider it to be racist. 


 
The story is about Scout and her brother Jem as they grow up in Alabama during the Great Depression. Most of the drama centers on their father, Atticus, who defends a black man, Tom Robinson, in court against trumped up charges of raping a white woman.  


 
Ever since its publication in 1960, people have tried to ban the book from school libraries and from school curriculum.  


 
And that’s still true today. However, this used to be the work of the far right. Today there are almost as many objections from the far left – though for very different reasons. 


 
For 50 years, the biggest complaints came from conservatives about the book’s strong language, discussion of sexuality, rape, and use of the n-word. Though today you’ll find almost as many on the left proclaiming that the book actually perpetuates the racial intolerance it purports to be against. 


 
Republicans have become more extreme than ever. They see any discussion of race as “Critical Race Theory” – a conflation of a legal framework not actually taught in K-12 schools with any substantive discussion of racial inequality. It’s really just a simple dog whistle to try and shut down any discussion of the racial status quo. 


 
Teachers have become accustomed to conservatives hyperventilating that discussing racism and prejudice might mean having to admit these things still exist and therefore requiring us to do something about them. They’re terrified their kids might come to different conclusions about the world than their parents, and instead of confronting their own views with the facts, they prefer to sweep reality under the rug to preserve the fictions underlying their ideologies. 


These sort of complaints are typified by the Biloxi Public School Board in Mississippi which in 2017 removed Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from its curriculum because, “It makes people uncomfortable.” 


 
What they don’t seem to realize is that the discomfort is part of the point. 


 
On the other side of the coin are people on the other pole of the political spectrum. Writers like Kristian Wilson Colyard don’t object to a discussion of racism and prejudice. They think “Mockingbird” doesn’t go far enough – or at least that the discussion it has is framed incorrectly. 


 
Colyard doesn’t think the book should be banned or removed from libraries, but instead insists it isn’t a good teaching tool.  


 
She writes


“Lee’s is not the best book to teach white kids about racism, because it grounds its narrative in the experiences of a white narrator and presents her father as the white savior.” 


While I think Colyard has a fair point of literary analysis, I don’t agree with her conclusion.  


At first glance, there is something strange about approaching racism through the lens of white people, but that doesn’t make it invalid. In fact, racism is a product of whiteness. In this country, white people are the ones doing it. Therefore, it makes sense to speak directly to and from the experience of white people. 


 Oppression, after all, is relational. It takes both the experience of the oppressed and the oppressor to fully understand it. And if we want to help end the cycle, it makes sense to show the oppressor how to bring that about. 


Moreover, the book sneaks up on its themes. There’s very little about outright intolerance on the first page or even the first few chapters. The idea creeps up on you as the narrator slowly becomes aware of the prejudices around her and the trial comes deeper into focus. 


As to the question of white saviorism, I think this is more often a buzzword than a legitimate criticism. White people are not heroes for attempting to put right something they put wrong. It is their responsibility, and seeing someone do that in fiction is a really powerful thing.  


Atticus doesn’t think he’s saving his client Tom Robinson. He doesn’t think he’s special for doing so. He’s doing what he thinks is right. Now Scout certainly views this through rose-colored glasses and lionizes him for it, but that’s a character’s point of view. It’s up to the reader to look at all this critically and come to your own judgement about it.  


Frankly, I think that’s one of the real values of the book. It provides a deep narrative, well told, for readers to examine and discuss very complex issues.  


 
If you think Atticus is given too much credit for what he does, that’s something you can discuss with other readers. I don’t see how doing so cheapens or hurts the cause of antiracism.  


In addition, the problem of centering the story on the white people is rectified by reading more widely in the literature. “Mockingbird” shouldn’t be the only book on the topic you read. To be well-rounded, you should read more from the point of view of people of color subjected to white people’s intolerance. And there are so many wonderful books to choose from – Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Ralph Ellison’s “The Invisible Man,” Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” etc.  


However, teachers shouldn’t be made to feel like they’ve wasted an opportunity by using “Mockingbird” in the classroom – even if it’s the only book that year they read on this topic. There must be more opportunities in years to come. Racism and prejudice should not be a one-and-done topic in US schools. It is too important for that. 


In my classroom, this book is far from our first discussion of the issue.  


We talk about Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party. We talk about the 1968 Olympics Black power fist. We talk about Black cowboys like Bass Reeves. We talk about Bessie Coleman, Angela Davis, James Baldwin, and so many others.  


When we read S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders,” – a book that almost entirely eschews the topic – I make sure to point out that the narrative takes place in and around Tulsa, Oklahoma, and we discuss Black Wall Street and the massacre of Black people perpetrated by their White neighbors.  


And so when we get to “Mockingbird,” the discussions we have of the text is rich and deep. Students of color feel seen because of the book’s portrayal of the kind of racial injustice they experience in their own lives. Likewise, white students feel empowered to join in the struggle against it. 


When the verdict of the trial comes down, there are real tears and stares of disbelief.  


One of my students this year, Mya said, “I shouldn’t be surprised, but I thought it was going to turn out differently.” 


Me, too. Every time I read it. 


The book confronts students with the world as it is and challenges them to do something about it.  


White or Black, it holds up the reality of injustice and demands we take a side.  


And that’s why this book remains relevant and just as important today as it ever was. 


 

 

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!

Holtzman Resigns as MASD Superintendent After Questions Over Contract Shenanigans

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

However, this time his resignation appears to be permanent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apparently Holtzman couldn’t continue to work with them.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holtzman’s controversies predate the pandemic.

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

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

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

Not everything Holtzman did in the district was contentious.

He had a talent for getting donations from large companies.

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

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

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

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


 

 

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If You Don’t Support Gun Control, You Support School Shootings

I drove my daughter to school today.

She thanked me for the ride, I wished her a good day, and she toddled off to the middle school doors.

Her khaki pants needed ironing, her pony tail was coming loose and she hefted her backpack onto her shoulder like a sack of potatoes.

All I could do was smile wistfully.

Parents and guardians know that feeling – a little piece of your heart walking away from you.

Imagine what the parents of the 19 children who were killed yesterday at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, might have felt.

I wonder if the parents of the two adults killed in the shooting gave a thought to their grown children during what may have seemed like just another busy day at the end of the academic year.

We’re all so preoccupied. We tend to forget that every goodbye could be our last.

This marks the 27th school shooting with injuries or deaths so far in 2022.

It comes just 10 days after a shooting at a Tops supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y., where 10 people were killed.

There’s hardly enough time anymore to mourn one disaster before the next one hits.

One would think we would have done something about these tragedies by now.

After all, they aren’t unpredictable. They aren’t inevitable. They’re man-made.

There have been 119 school shootings since 2018, according to Education Week, a publication that has been tracking such events for the last four years.

This only includes incidents that happen on K-12 school property or on a school bus or during a school sponsored event when classes are in session.

If we broaden our definition, there is much more gun violence in our communities every day.

According to The Gun Violence Archive, an independent data collection organization, there have been 212 mass shootings so far this year.

There were 693 mass shootings last year, 611 the year before and 417 the year before that.

Why don’t we do anything about this?

In Scotland 26 years ago, a gunman killed 16 kids and a teacher in Dunblane Primary School. The United Kingdom (UK) responded by enacting tight gun control legislation. There hasn’t been a school shooting in the UK since.

After 51 worshippers were killed in mass shootings at Christchurch and Canterbury in New Zealand in 2019, the government outlawed most military style semiautomatic weapons, assault rifles like AK15’s, and initiated a buyback program. There hasn’t been a mass shooting there since.

In Australia, following a 1996 mass shooting in which 35 people were killed in Tasmania, Australian states and territories banned several types of firearms and bought back hundreds of thousands of banned weapons from their owners. Gun homicides, suicides, and mass shootings are now much less common in the country.

This is not hard.

The rest of the world has cracked the code. Just not us.

Not the U.S.

Guns are the leading cause of death for American children –  1 out of 10 people who die from guns in this country are 19 or younger.

Firearm deaths are more than 5 times higher than drownings.

But still we do nothing.

There have been 2,032 school shootings in the US since 1970, and these incidents are increasing. We’ve had 948 school shootings since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.

And those who were killed or physically injured aren’t the only young people affected by this. Since the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, nearly 300,000 students have been on campus during a school shooting.

Imagine what that does to a child.

Imagine what it would do to an adult.

Since Sandy Hook, the only change in policy has been to have lockdowns and school shooter drills in our classrooms. Children have been instructed to throw books at would-be-attackers and cause a distraction so some of them might have a greater chance of escaping.

We’re told to buy bullet-proof backpacks, arm school teachers, and have gun-wielding police patrol our buildings – but our lawmakers refuse to do anything about the firearms, themselves.

The gun industry is making billions of dollars off this cycle of gun violence: mass shooting, fear of regulation, increase in sales. Repeat ad infinitum.

We’re told that gun control is useless because new laws will just be pieces of paper that criminals will ignore. However, by the same logic, why have any laws at all? Congress should just pack it in, the courts should close up. Criminals will do what they please.

We may never be able to stop all gun violence, but we can take steps to make it more unlikely. We can at least make it more difficult for people to die by firearm. And this doesn’t have to mean getting rid of all guns. Just regulate them.

According to the Pew Research Center, when you ask people about specific firearm regulations, the majority is in favor of most of them – both Republicans and Democrats.

We don’t want the mentally ill to be able to buy guns. We don’t want suspected terrorists to be able to purchase guns. We don’t want convicted criminals to be able to buy guns. We want mandatory background checks for private sales at gun shows.

Yet our lawmakers stand by helpless whenever these tragedies occur because they are at the mercy of their donors. The gun industry owns too many elected officials.

In short, we need lawmakers willing to make laws. We need legislators who will represent the overwhelming majority of the public and take sensible action to protect the people of this country.

What we need is real gun control legislation. We need an assault weapons ban. We need to close the gun show loophole. We need buyback programs to get the mountains of firearms off the streets and out of the arsenals of a handful of paranoid “survivalists”.

We don’t need anyone’s thoughts and prayers.  

We need action.  

And we need it yesterday.

At this point there is simply no excuse.

If you don’t support gun control, you support school shootings.


 

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Social-Emotional Learning vs. Classroom Culture 

 


 
A student accidentally drops her books in the hall.  


 
Another student stops and helps her pick them up.  


 
Then a teacher homes in on the two and gives the helper a little yellow card which can be redeemed for candy.  


 
This is what social-emotional learning (SEL) looks like in my school. 


 
Teachers instruct on proper behaviors and then reward students they see going above and beyond to achieve them.  


 
Here’s another example. 


 
A student at his lunch table is yelling and throwing food. Nearby another student is sitting quietly and reading a book.  


 
Then a teacher walks over and gives the quiet child a yellow card which can be used to enter a raffle for a special prize. He might win an Oculus VR game system or tickets to a baseball game.  


 
That’s social-emotion learning, too.  


 
Instead of just cracking down on the negative behaviors, we try to reward the positive ones.  


 
To be fair, it works to a degree.  


 
But most of the time, it doesn’t. 


 
The same kids end up with huge stacks of yellow cards and the rest get just one or two. Few students actually change their behavior. They just become virtue signalers whenever an adult is present.  


 
Moreover, there’s an incredible amount of pressure on teachers to not just instruct but to closely observe every student’s behavior and constantly give positive reinforcement to those doing what should be the norm.  


 
And that’s not even mentioning the frequent disruptions necessary to reward those children who can best navigate the system. 


 
But that’s only one way of addressing the problem of bad behavior.  


 
Especially now (most student’s first full year of in-person classes after the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic), students don’t seem to know how to interact.  


 
Snubs, insults and instigation seem to be their defaults ways of relating to each other. Some definitely need explicit boundaries and reinforcement.  


 
But it only goes so far in the halls, the cafeteria and during unstructured times.  


 
Inside the classroom is another beast altogether – as it always has been. 


 
Ever since I first started teaching more than two decades ago, it’s been necessary to work to achieve a classroom culture. 


 
The teacher has to expend significant time and energy with the students as a whole and each student individually to set up a mini-society where each member gets respect by giving respect. 


 
We try to set up the environment so everyone feels safe and involved, everyone is accepted for who they are, comfortable to be themselves and feels empowered to take the chances necessary to learn. 


 
It’s not easy, but it’s more about relationships than behaviorism. The reward isn’t something extrinsic – it’s participation in the classroom culture, itself.  


 
Both approaches attempt to do the same thing – create an environment in which learning is possible.

 
 
It reminds me of the famous quote by conductor Leopold Stokowski


 
“A painter paints pictures on canvas. But musicians paint their pictures on silence.” 


 
In the same way, you might say that learning in a group requires a canvass of positive behaviors or beneficial social interaction.  


 
This has always been the case, though today the concept has become elevated to buzzword status – SEL. 


 
It’s not so much a single program but a loose conglomeration of ideas that have been around forever. 


 
However, like so much about school these days, the work of teachers and students has become both monetized and demonized. 


 
For those on the far right, SEL is code for teaching kids how to think and feel.  


 
They fear leftwing teachers will instill the values of accepting LGBTQ people, different races and cultures.  Why that’s something to be avoided, I don’t know. Perhaps if you want your child to share your own bigotries, public school isn’t for you, no matter what you call the offending programs.  


 
However, for me the worst part is monetization.  


 
An army of corporate education consultants are looking for ways to give shallow professional development to teachers (at a cost to the district) and then run complicated programs from afar.  


 
This means: (1) testing students’ abilities in SEL, (2) holding teachers accountable for student behaviors, and (3) pretending educators are developmental psychologists.  


 
The problem with testing is multifaceted. First, it almost always comes down to more standardized assessments. Nothing is easier to measure but less accurate than multiple choice assessment created by psychometricians far removed from the reality of the classroom. Kids hate it, this wastes class time and makes the entire educational experience sterile and bland. 


 
Holding teachers responsible for the way 20 or more kids act at one time is ridiculous. Even parents with one or two children can’t control how they act – nor should that be the ultimate goal. School isn’t the military. It shouldn’t be about obedience. It should be about critical thinking and cognitive growth.

 
 
Finally, there is something incredibly unfair about expecting teachers who are already overloaded with jobs and responsibilities to suddenly become psychologists, too. Sure, we have some training in childhood psychology as part of our coursework to get our degrees, but we aren’t experts. We’re practitioners. We’re like auto-mechanics at your local garage. We can fix your car if something’s busted, but we can’t rewire the whole thing for greater efficiency. 


 
So when it comes to SEL, educators role should be focused and limited.  


 
We should be fully engaged in the creation of classroom culture.  


 
That is where we can have the greatest impact in the construction of our own interpersonal relationships with classes and students.  


 
When it comes to the way students interact outside of the class, teachers should be part of the planning process but the main responsibility of conducting it should be with administrators.  


 
And, finally, we mustn’t ignore the responsibility of parents and guardians.  


 
Roughly 60% of academic achievement can be explained by family background – things like income and poverty level. School factors only account for 20% – and of that, teachers account for 15%.  


 
We must free parents from overwork and professional pressures so they can do more to teach their children how to interact with others.  


 
It takes a village to raise a child – a village that knows how to communicate with each other and respect each member’s role. 

 


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Back to the Past with the US Supreme Court 

“Daddy, are gay people not allowed to get married?” 

My daughter was looking at me in confusion as we sat together on the couch watching an old episode of “Top Chef.” 

In Season 6, episode two, the chefs were asked to cook for a bachelor party. One of the contestants, Ashley, was indignant that she had to participate in a challenge centered on  marriage when she, herself, couldn’t marry another woman.  

I was surprised.  

It hadn’t occurred to me that the show was so old. It first aired in 2009. Was that really so long ago? 

We’ve only had marriage equality in all 50 states since 2015. That’s just seven years ago.  

So I explained to my daughter that gay people can marry today, but that it wasn’t always the case.  

My 13-year-old thought the idea that people couldn’t marry whoever they wanted to was just too crazy to be believed. And I agreed. 

It was later that night that I read the article in Politico about Roe v. Wade.  

Apparently, the landmark 1973 decision that expanded access to abortion nationwide is about to be overturned by the Republican majority on the Supreme Court. 

Some folks are even speculating that this could mean the roll back of similar rulings such as ones allowing same sex marriage and even interracial marriage.  

What the heck!?  

Did I just sleep through a monologue by Rod Serling?  

I’m still seeing things in color but they’re starting to feel very black and white.  

These are issues of settled law.  

Roe v. Wade is older than I am. Women have been able to terminate unwanted pregnancies for my entire life and the world hasn’t come to an end. In fact, if you read about what life was like before this decision, things have improved.  

Women have freedom over their own bodies. They aren’t trapped by the Catch 22 of whether to submit to a forced birth or risk their lives with a back alley procedure.  

I remember having a similar moment of cognitive dissonance as my daughter did when I was in high school.  

I read the book “An American Tragedy” by Theodore Dreiser and was shocked at what life was like in the 1920s before women had such freedoms. In the book, a couple get pregnant and have to choose between an unwanted marriage while raising an unwanted child or a black market abortion and the freedom to move on. When they can’t agree, the protagonist, Clyde, murders the poor woman.  

At the time, the whole situation seemed entirely quaint. It was a series of arguments, examples, and counter examples on an issue that had been decided long ago.  

That anyone could think differently struck me as absurd.  

In my high school public speaking class, we debated the issue. I argued in favor of reproductive rights, and a girl I had a crush on argued against them. 

She was certainly passionate about the rights of the unborn. But she seemed startlingly unconcerned with the rights of the already born.  

She wasn’t concerned about the child’s welfare or even the rights of a woman to make decisions about her own body – assuming those decisions were different than those my crush might make for herself.  

As I got older, I met others who felt the same way. For them the guiding principle was a religious fairy tale that didn’t even connect with the Bible but instead some fundamentalists view of gender politics.  

That’s fine if you want it to be the deciding factor in your own life, I guess. But leave the rest of us out of your faith-based world view. 

That such folderol is actually being considered by the highest court in the land is hard to believe. 

This is not the future I imagined back in high school when it occurred to me that I’d probably live into the sci-fi era of the 2000s.  

It’s more like getting stuck in Doc Brown’s Delorean and sent back to the past.  

And that’s exactly what it is.  

So-called conservatives want to return us to a mythical time when all was good with America.  

It says so on their precious red hats.  

But things were never that good in America for most people – unless you were white, Protestant and male. 

Let’s cut to the chase. None of this really is about stopping abortions. (If that was the concern, we’d be talking about free birth control, neonatal care and making a better world to raise children in.) Nor is it about safeguarding marriage between a man and a woman – or a white man and a white woman.  

It’s about strengthening white supremacy. It’s about bolstering the patriarchy.  

This is politics – pure politics.  

And there is a political solution.  

As Sen. Bernie Sanders has already suggested, Congress can codify reproductive rights into the law. There’s nothing the courts could do about it then.  

Democrats have a majority in both the House and the Senate and we have the Presidency.  

If we can’t get 60 votes in the Senate (and we probably can’t) we can end the filibuster and pass it with 50 votes. 

I hope with all my heart that we do this.  

I will push and organize and protest and electioneer. But I fear it will not be enough. 

Just making it to this regressive moment in time seems to indicate that our system is too broken to be fixed that way. 

This is not the world I wanted for my daughter. I fear it is the world she will have to fight to overcome.  

The battles of our grandparents have become our inheritance to our posterity.  

They deserve a much better world.  

But all we seem to have for them are reruns. 


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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!

 

Covid Has Hobbled Public Schools. Here’s Why They’re Worth Saving 

 
 
 
Is public education worth saving? 


 
That’s the question in the air these days.  


 
In the last century, the US academic system helped us reach the moon, defeat Communism and become the world’s largest super power.    


 
However, today our public schools are more damaged than ever before.  


 
An increasing number of families are leaving them for charter and voucher schools.  


 
Teachers are quitting their jobs in droves with few people willing to fill the vacancies they leave behind.

 
 
And above all, many people seem to think the schools, themselves, are failing


 
Isn’t it time to move on to something else? 


 
I’m here to tell you – no, it is not. 


 
In fact, we need to guard and cherish our public schools more than ever before. Because we face the real possibility of losing them for good.  


 
The Covid-19 pandemic on top of years of corporate sabotage and propaganda have obscured what public education really means and why it is absolutely necessary to the functioning of our society and any possibility of social, racial or economic justice. 


 
Let’s begin by looking at how the current disaster exacerbated an already difficult situation and then consider why we should care enough to fix the mess. 


 
 
The Pandemic Effect 


 
 
Public schools got a bloody nose from the Coronavirus crisis.

 
 
After decades of segregation, inequitable funding, incentives to privatize, and federally mandated standardized testing, it took a deadly virus to finally hobble the system.  


 
Being forced to contend with the uncertainties of Covid-19 damaged people’s faith in public education more than anything that had come before it. 


 
Issues of masking, contact tracing, safety of immunocompromised students and staff, and when to open or close buildings (among other issues) lead to inevitable dissatisfaction from all fronts.  


 
However, none of these issues should have been decided at the local level in the first place.  


 
These were issues of national significance. We needed a unified strategy to fight a global pandemic as it washed over our shores – not scattershot policies by part-time officials unequipped to deal with them


 
These problems should have been tackled by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and enforced by the federal government without deference to big business.  


 
Instead, the CDC made conflicting decisions based more on the needs of the economy than public health (many of which were roundly ignored anyway). Then federal and state governments either refused to decide safety protocols leaving it up to individuals or municipalities, or when they did decide matters, they were embroiled in partisan battles over any kind of restrictions.  


 
In fact, it was the failure of federal, state and even local municipal governments that often made public schools the de facto legislators of last resort. And this is something they were never meant to be. 


 
Public health should be decided by scientists not school directors


 
The result was widespread dissatisfaction no matter what school boards decided and an exodus of students and faculty. 


 
Many families, upset at local school board decisions, enrolled their children in charter, cyber or voucher schools.  


 
Overall, charters saw a 7% increase in enrollment – an influx of roughly 240,000 students -during the 2020-21 school year, according to a new report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. This is the largest increase in five years. By comparison, public school enrollment dropped by 3.3% – or 1.4 million students – in the same period. 


 
The biggest increases were in cyber charter schools. For example, in Pennsylvania 99.7 percent of the charter enrollment growth occurred in virtual charter schools. Enrollment at the Commonwealth’s 14 cyber charter schools swelled from about 38,000 students in October 2019 to more than 60,000 students in October 2020, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. 


 
But it wasn’t just students leaving our public schools. It was staff, too. 


 
Teachers and other school employees who felt unsafe or were crushed by the incredible pressure thrust on their shoulders either quit or retired in droves.  


 
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 567,000 fewer educators in our public schools today than there were before the pandemic. And finding replacements has been difficult. Nationwide, an average of one educator is hired for every two jobs available. 


 
 
This has left us with a weakened system suffering from more problems than before the pandemic hit.

 
 
 
Why Are Public Schools Important? 


 
 
Because of what they are and what they represent.  


 
We hear about public education so often – usually in deprecating terms – that we forget exactly what the term signifies.  


 
A public school is a school meant for everybody and anybody.  


 
It is a school where any child can go to get an education.  


 
You don’t have to pay tuition. You don’t have to have a special ability or qualification. You don’t have to be neurotypical, a certain race, ethnicity, belong to a certain faith or socioeconomic status. If you’re living in the US – even if you’re here illegally – you get to go there.  


 
That may seem simple, but it is vitally important and really quite special.  


 
Not all nations have robust systems of public education like we do in the US. 


 
This country has a commitment to every single child regardless of what their parents can afford to pay, regardless of their access to transportation, regardless of whether they can afford uniforms, lunch or even if they have a home.  


 
We simply define education differently. We look at it as a right, not a privilege. And for a full 13 years (counting kindergarten) it’s a right for every child, not just some. 


Perhaps even more significant is our commitment to children with special needs. 


We have developed a special education system to help children at the edges that many other countries just can’t touch. In some nations these students are simply excluded. In others they are institutionalized. In some countries it’s up to parents to find ways to pay for special services. The United States is one of the only countries where these children are not only included and offered full and free access, but the schools go above and beyond to teach these children well beyond their 12th academic year. 


In every authentic public school in the United States these students are included. In math, reading, science and social studies, they benefit from instruction with the rest of the class. And this, in turn, benefits even our neurotypical students who gain lessons in empathy and experience the full range of human abilities. 


That isn’t to say the system has ever been perfect. Far from it. 


 
There are plenty of ways we could improve. Even before the pandemic, we were incredibly segregated by race and class. Our funding formulas were often regressive and inadequate. Schools serving mostly poor students didn’t have nearly the resources of those serving rich students.

 
 
But at least at the very outset what we were trying to do was better than what most of the world takes on. You can’t achieve equity if it isn’t even on the menu. 


 
Without public schools, equity is definitely not on offer. 


 
 
 Public is Better Than Private 


 
 
That’s really the point.  


 
Charter, cyber and voucher schools are not set up around this ideal.  


 
They are not instruments of inclusion. They are instruments of exclusion.  


 
They are about who is sent away, not about letting everyone in.  


The United States is a big country – the third most populous in the world. We have 332,630,000 people and growing. That’s about 50 million students in public schools. 


 
No private system in the world has ever been able to work at that scale. If we lose our public schools, many kids will be left wanting.  


The market-driven approach does not guarantee an education. It guarantees competition for an education


 
It forces students to compete to get into schools and schools to compete for their very existence. Think of how that affects instruction. Schools have to spend a considerable amount of time and money attracting students to enroll. That’s time and money that doesn’t go to education. It goes to advertising. 


  
Moreover, any school that attracts a surplus of students can choose which ones its wants to enroll. The choice becomes the school’s – not the parents’ or students’. In fact, administrators can turn away students for any reason – race, religion, behavior, special needs, how difficult it would be to teach him or her. This is much different from authentic public schools. There, any student who lives in the district may attend regardless of factors such as how easy or difficult he or she is to educate. 


  
Another major change with this approach is how privatized schools are run. Many are operated behind closed doors without the input of a duly-elected school board, without transparency for how they spend tax dollars, without even the guide rails of most regulations


  
Like in the charter school sector, these schools get almost free reign to do whatever they want.  


This means corporate interests get to run charter schools while cutting services and increasing profits. In fact, administrative costs at charter schools are much higher than at traditional public schools. Students lose, the market wins. 


  
Moreover, many charter schools provide a sub-par education. To put it more bluntly, they do things that would be impossible for public schools to do. One in Philadelphia literally transformed into a nightclub after dark. Another funneled profits into the CEO’s personal bank account to be used as a slush fund to buy gifts and pay for rent at an apartment for his girlfriend. Another CEO used tax dollars to buy a yacht cheekily called “Fishin’ 4 Schools.”  


 
And virtual charter schools are even worse. A study found that cyber-charters provide almost less education than not going to school at all. Even brick and mortar charter schools can close on a moments notice leaving students in the lurch. 


  
It’s a Darwinian model made to benefit the predators, not the prey. It’s a boon for any unselfconscious businessman who doesn’t mind getting rich stealing an education from children. 


 
We Must Fight 


 
That’s why we must fight to keep our public schools.  


 
As flawed and bruised as they are, the public school model is far superior to the alternative.  


 
But many will look only at their own individual situation and stop there.  


 
They will say, “At MY charter school we do this…” Or “That’s not the way things are at MY voucher academy…” 


 
First of all, a well-functioning privatized school is like a castle built precariously on a cliff. Things may work well now, but they could change at any moment and there’s nothing you could do but vote with your feet. When authentic public schools go bad, you have a democratic process to fix the problem.

 
 
But you may luck out. Every privatized school isn’t a scam. Just most of them. So if you have found a charter, cyber or voucher school that is working for your child and doesn’t self-destruct in the time your child is enrolled, you may wonder why you should worry about the rest of us – the kids caught up in a web of privatized predation and neglect?  


 
Because it’s not all about you and your child. Selfishness cannot be the foundation of a just society.

 
 
Even a well-functioning charter or voucher school is publicly funded. It splits the funding that would normally go to one school and divides it among two or more. So students at both have to make do with less. 


You have to live in this society. Do you really want to live in a country with a large population of undereducated citizens who cannot figure out how to vote in their own interests? Do you really want to live in a society where crime is a better career choice for those who were not properly educated?  


 
That’s why we can’t let public education disappear.  


 
It is a necessary condition for democracy, shared economic prosperity and a just society.  


 
I know it may sound like an insurmountable task, but saving our public schools can be done.  


 
It will require collective action. 


 
We will need to actively participate in our school board elections, go to school board meetings and possibly even run to serve on the board, ourselves. 


 
Many people are upset with what local boards did during the pandemic, but the way to solve this isn’t to flee to schools without democratic principles. It is to seize those principles and make them work for you and your community. 


 
We will need to change the way our system treats teachers. If we want to encourage educators to stay on the job and even entice young people to enter the field, we need to make the profession more rewarding. That means higher salaries, more autonomy, more respect, smaller classes, less paperwork, and actually listening to educators on the subject of education.  


 
We also need to discontinue countless policies and programs that have been dragging our public schools down for decades. We need to eliminate high stakes standardized testing. We need to ensure every school is adequately, equitably and sustainably funded. We need to actively integrate our schools and classrooms. We need to stop supporting privatization through charter and voucher schools and instead support authentic public schools.  


 
And to do that, we need real political change at every level of government – local, municipal, state and federal.  


 
None of this is easy. All of it takes work.  


 
But it is the fight we must wage if we are ever to keep our democracy.  


 
It is the fight we must win to create the better world our children deserve.  


 
Public schools are worth saving, but it is up to you and me to do it. 


 

 


 

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

 

Top 5 Charter School Myths Debunked 

If there’s one thing people love to argue about, it’s charter schools.

Go to any school board meeting, PTA forum or editorial page, and you’re bound to see folks from all different walks of life getting red in the face over these institutions.

But what are they anyway? And why do they generate so much passionate disagreement?

To answer these questions and many more, I’m going to examine five of the most pernicious myths about charter schools, debunk the fallacies and come to the simple truths.

1. Charter Schools are Public Schools 

That’s what charter school supporters say, anyway. But it’s only partially true.

In short, charter schools are schools that were opened by special arrangement (or charter) with a state or authentic public school district that allows them to exist without having to abide by all the rules and regulations that govern all the other schools. Thus, the charter school can go without an elected board, it can pocket public money as private profit, hire uncertified teachers, refuse to admit special education students, etc. The degree of latitude depends on the special arrangement.

Is that a public school? In one way it most certainly is. All charter schools are funded by public tax dollars. Everything else is up for grabs.

They don’t even have to accept all the students in their coverage area like authentic public schools do. You still have to support them with your taxes though.

Is that a public school?

QUICK ANSWER: NO.

2. Charter Schools Save Money 

This is another claim by the charter school industry that has been in contention for their entire 30 year existence.

Charter schools were invented in 1991 and only exist in 43 states and the District of Columbia. They enroll about 6% of the students in the country – roughly three million children.

However, the idea that they could save money is pretty absurd. They duplicate services that already exist at neighborhood public schools. When you pay for two providers to do the same thing, that doesn’t lower the cost.

It drains money from the existing public schools and often forces school directors to raise taxes so they can continue to provide the same services as before.

However, not only do charter schools increase costs, they often waste the extra money taxpayers are forced to provide.

Consider that more than a quarter of charter schools close within 5 years of opening. By year 15, roughly 50% of charter schools close. That’s not a stable model of public education.

Moreover, 1,779 charter schools (37 percent that receive federal grants) never opened in the first place or were quickly shut down. Since 1994, the federal government has spent $4 billion on these types of schools. Think of how much money has been wasted that could have been put to better use in our much more dependable authentic public schools!

To be fair, some charter defenders will argue that since they are free from the same regulations as public schools, they can cut costs WITHIN their institutions and provide the same services for less. However, they never return that savings to the taxpayers. They simply cut services for their students and then pocket the savings. Lowering quality may be a way to cut costs, but it’s not exactly an innovation – and certainly not something to be envied.

This may be cost effective to the bureaucrats and profiteers running charter schools, but it is not a savings to you and me – to speak nothing of how it hurts the students hoping to receive a quality education.

So do charter schools save money?

QUICK ANSWER: NO!

 
 
3. Students do Better Academically in Charter Schools 

This is what it says on all those charter school advertisements you see popping up everywhere. But is it true?

The problem with answering that is one of apples and oranges. How do you fairly compare charter and public school students when each group is so different?

Charter schools can legally cherry pick their students. They serve far fewer students with disabilities and English Language Learners. If a student is hard to teach, they “convince” them to go somewhere else.

Meanwhile, authentic public schools can’t do that. They take all comers.

As a result, charter schools can APPEAR to do better for their students but that appearance is due to privileged rules not better teaching or academic programs.

However, even with such advantages, charter schools have failed to show consistent results over authentic public schools on comparative studies.

According to a 2010 Mathematica Policy Research study funded by the federal government, middle-school students who were selected by lottery to attend charter schools performed no better than their peers who lost out in the lottery and attended nearby public schools. This was the most rigorous and most expensive study of charter school performance commissioned by the US Department of Education, and it found no overall positive benefit for charter schools.

And there have been many others. A 2016 study found that Texas charter schools had no overall positive impact on test scores and, in fact, had a negative impact on students’ earnings later in life.

Even a 2020 study by the charter-friendly Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found that charter schools are not exceeding public schools in most areas of the country. In addition, the study found vast variations in the quality of charter schools – some being better and many being much worse than the norm.

So, taken as a whole, do charter schools outperform authentic public schools?

QUICK ANSWER: NO!

 
4. Charter Schools are About Innovation 

This was, in fact, one of the selling points of the charter school concept when it was first proposed. Being freed of the regulations that authentic public schools have to abide by would allow charter schools to be laboratories for innovation.

However, after 31 years, practices at charter schools can be seen as somewhat different than at authentic public schools, but are they innovative?

According to a 2018 report by IBM Center Visiting Fellow for Evidence-Based Practices, the practices connected with most positive academic outcomes at charter schools are:

1) Longer school days or academic years


2) Zero tolerance and other strict discipline policies associated with rewards and sanctions


3) Centering the curriculum on improving test scores and test prep.

These are pretty much the opposite of what developmental psychologists, education experts and civil rights activists want for children.

Forcing adolescents to spend more time in the classroom is the exact opposite of what other high achieving countries (like those in Scandinavia) do. Treating children like prisoners with harsh punishments for not conforming to strict rules is not considered best for developing young minds. And narrowing the curriculum to drill and kill reading and math test prep may improve scores but it certainly doesn’t create well-rounded adults with strong critical thinking skills.

Moreover, those few charter schools that do engage in creative practices such as organizing the curriculum around a theme like creative arts or racial justice issues aren’t doing anything that isn’t already being done at authentic public schools – specifically magnet and lab schools.

The creativity and innovation you find at most charter schools is in the accounting department – finding new ways to reduce the services students would find at the neighborhood public school and redefining the savings as profit. That and circumventing conflict of interest regulations to allow the corporation that manages the charter school to buy properties from itself at a hefty mark up.

Is any of this innovation?

QUICK ANSWER: NO!

 
5. Charter Schools Improve Civil Rights 

This is perhaps the most often cited benefit of charter schools. In fact, the impression has been that charters are the choice of people of color and serve them better than their neighborhood public school.

However, the facts show a somewhat different reality.

Yes, charter schools do serve a disproportionately high percentage of children of color. According to 2016 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, 26% of all charter school students are black (832,000) compared with 33% of Hispanics (1,056,000) and 32% of whites (1,024,000).

However, approximately 57% of charter schools are located in cities compared to only 25% of authentic public schools.

So black people aren’t selecting charter schools more often as much as charter schools are deciding to locate in areas where more black people live and are often marketing their services directly to black and brown populations.

Are these schools doing a better job of meeting the needs of these children? A 2016 report from UCLA casts doubt on this idea.

Charter schools are notorious for suspending their black students at much higher rates than their white students. While suspensions for students of color are high at public schools as well, they are much more extreme at charter schools.

More than 500 charter schools suspended Black students 10 percent more often than white students. Moreover, the same figure holds for students with disabilities at 1,093 charter schools. In fact, 374 charter schools suspended 25% of their entire student bodies at least once.

Charter schools are also notorious for increasing racial segregation in the neighborhoods where they locate. Nearly half of all Black secondary charter school students attended a charter schools that was hyper-segregated (80% Black) and where the aggregate Black suspension rate was 25%.

However, this increased segregation isn’t just something that affects Black charter school students. It affects white charter school students, as well.

A 2018 report by The Hechinger Report found that 10 percent of charter schools enrolled a disproportionately high number of White students as compared to the racial demographics of the district at large. Writer Kimberly Quick calls these “White-Flight Charters”. 

In the first case, the charter schools end up with a disproportionate percentage of Black students and the white students are left in the public schools. In the later case, the Black students are left in the authentic public schools and the white kids flee to the charter schools.

Both cases are not good for civil rights. They allow students of color to be targeted for disinvestment and reductive curriculum while further privileging the white students.

Don’t Black students deserve the right to an education where corporations can’t teach them on the cheap? Don’t they deserve educations free from developmentally inappropriate long days, harsh discipline policies and narrowed curriculum? Don’t their parents deserve the right to participate in the running of their schools through elected school boards?

The idea that it is somehow in the best interest of children of color to be provided with schools containing fewer safety precautions is kind of insulting.

Far from improving civil rights, charter schools too often violate them.

This is why the NAACP has repeatedly called for a moratorium on new charter schools. Members of the organization’s educational task force released a statement saying:

“With the expansion of charter schools and their concentration in low-income communities, concerns have been raised within the African American community about the quality, accessibility and accountability of some charters, as well as their broader effects on the funding and management of school districts that serve most students of color.”

Black Lives Matter organizers also called for a charter school moratorium. Charters, they wrote, represent a shift of public funds and control to private entities. Along with “an end to the privatization of education,” the Movement for Black Lives organizers are demanding increased investments in traditional community schools and the health and social services they provide.

Moreover, the Journey for Justice Alliance – a coalition of grassroots community, youth, and parent-led organizations in over 30 cities – has gone even further calling for an end to all school privatization.

The organization posted on it’s Website:

“The evidence is clear and aligns with the lived experience of parents, students and community residents in America’s cities: school privatization has failed in improving the education outcomes for young people. There is no such thing as “school choice” in Black and Brown communities in this country. We want the choice of a world class neighborhood school within safe walking distance of our homes. We want an end to school closings, turnarounds, phase-outs, and charter expansion.”

So do charters improve civil rights?

QUICK ANSWER: NO!


There are a lot of myths spread about charter schools – many of them being propagated by the charter school industry, itself.

Most of these are not facts; they are marketing.

While there are some charter schools that do a decent job educating children, the charter school concept is deeply flawed.

Authentic public schools are far from perfect, but taken as a whole they are much more effective, reliable, economical, transparent and democratic than the alternatives.

We should take steps to end the charter school model and transition those schools that are working back to the authentic public school system that has served our students well for more than a century.


 

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!