Covid-19 Has Eroded My Faith in Public Schools

I am a public school advocate.

I teach at a public school.

My daughter goes to a public school.

I have spent most of my professional career fighting for public schools against every form of school privatization imaginable.

But since the beginning of this school year and the incredibly reckless way many public schools have dealt with reopening and keeping students and staff safe, I feel much of that enthusiasm drying up.

It’s not something I’m proud of feeling.

I’m actually kind of embarrassed about it.

But there are so many people I will never be able to look at the same way ever again.

There are so many organizations, unions, school boards, administrators, policy makers who have lost my trust – perhaps forever.

I’m not saying I love charter schools or private schools.

I don’t.

I still think they’re mostly scams bent on using the laws to cash in on kids while taking our tax money and running.

But the idea that public schools are fundamentally better – that idea has suffered tremendously.

I used to believe that local control was something to cherish, that a board made up of neighbors duly elected by the community would more often than not have the best interests of that neighborhood at heart when making decisions.

And, frankly, I just don’t feel that way anymore.

How can you preserve such an ideal in the face of so much evidence to the contrary – so many school boards who vote to open classrooms – and keep them open – despite raging infection rates? Despite students and teachers getting sick? Despite quarantines and warnings from epidemiologists?

SCHOOL BOARDS

McKeesport Area School District, where I live, has had more than 14 cases of Covid among students and staff since September and the school board isn’t even considering closing.

In fact, in October when most of these cases were coming to light and Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines suggested schools should temporarily close to ensure the virus wasn’t running out of control, administration chose to ignore the CDC on the basis of advice by the Allegheny County Health Department.

Seriously.

Administrators prioritized local officials telling them what they want to hear over national experts in infectious disease with hard truths. In short, keeping the doors open was considered more important than student safety.

Meanwhile, the district where I work, Steel Valley Schools, smartly decided to open with virtual learning in September. However, the board decided to change to a hybrid model in November to test the waters.

Yes, the board decided to make students and teachers guinea pigs in an experiment to see if they could somehow avoid getting sick while cases surged throughout the country and state.

And after only five days, a high school student tested positive and numerous kids and staff had to quarantine.

Yesterday the state Website announced that our county, Allegheny County, – which had been considered moderate in terms of infections – is now in the substantial category. The incidence rate is 138.7 per 100,000.

Also in the substantial category are nearby Armstrong, Butler, Beaver, Washington, and Westmoreland counties.

Will Western Pennsylvania schools do the right thing and go to remote learning? Will Steel Valley finally give up this in-person experiment? Will McKeesport?

Without a strong leader like a Governor or President to order a shut down and take the heat, I’m not sure local school directors will have the courage to act.

They keep blaming everything on academics, saying they have provide what is best to help students learn – never mind the dangers to child, parent and teachers’ bodies. But even more hypocritically they ignore the well being of huge swaths of their students who refuse to take part in their in-person experiment.

In both districts, about 60% of parents favor in-person schooling and 40% prefer remote.

So the boards are doing what the majority wants, but it’s a slim majority.

There is a significant portion of parents who feel these in-person plans are unsafe and very little is being done to educate their children.

At McKeesport, parents can enroll their kids in the district cyber program. No live teachers. No synchronous lessons on-line. Just a canned credit recovery program through the Edmentum company.

It’s terrible, and administration knows it’s terrible.

I’ve heard Superintendent Dr. Mark Holtzman say as much at school board meetings. But he and most of the board feel they have done all they need to do by providing this option.

They are actually betting that the poor quality of the cyber program will increase the number of parents sending their kids to in-person instruction.

And I’ve heard similar comments among administration at Steel Valley.

There at least we don’t force kids into our (likewise crappy) cyber program. We just have classroom teachers post assignments on-line.

Remote students in K-5 get live teachers instructing on-line. But remote students in 6-12 only get one half day of synchronous instruction on-line a week. The rest is asynchronous worksheets, etc. And somehow that’s supposed to be enough.

We have enough teachers that we could provide more, but why encourage remote learning? Might as well let them eat asynchronous and hope their parents will lose hope and just make them come to school during a global pandemic.

I have zero respect for administrators who think this way. I have zero respect for school board members who vote for it.

So how do I keep my respect for local control and the school board system?

This is very personal to me.

I have heart disease and Crohn’s Disease. My doctors tell me I can’t risk my life going into the school buildings to teach as infections run rampant through the state.

But my district has refused to allow me a safe work environment.

I am not allowed to teach remotely.

I have to burn my sick days so I can stay safe at home. But at the same time, I’m encouraged to take overtime hours to put up remote lessons, grade papers and contact parents.

I’m ready to do that as part of my job, but they won’t let me. They’d rather pay me and a sub who babysits my students in-person while I do what I’m allowed to do remotely at the same time.

So how do you look an administrator in the eye who refuses to lookout for his own employee’s safety?

Answer: you can’t. Ever, ever again.

UNIONS

And the same goes for many in my union.

Let me tell you, I love my union. I’m a union man. I believe in collective bargaining and worker solidarity.

I just wish my local did, too.

Because the leadership is perfectly fine with agreeing for the staff to work in unsafe conditions and no special protections for those like me who are more likely to contract the disease.

Leaders throw up their hands and say “We’re an association not a union,” and “If the boss says you come back to work, you have to come back to work.”

It’s even worse that I work in Homestead – the site of the historic strike.

So how do I look union leaders in the eye who have no problem throwing me to the wolves?

Answer: I can’t. Never, ever again.

And the state and national unions aren’t much better.

To be fair, I was pleasantly surprised when Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) President Rich Askey called for schools in areas with substantial infection rates to follow state guidelines and go to remote learning.

This after months of…. Nothing.

And what is PSEA threatening if districts don’t comply?

Nothing…. So far.

But I guess saying something about it is better than what they were doing before.

The national unions – the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) – certainly haven’t taken any hardline stances.

No one wants to rock the boat, but we’re talking about human life here.

There is no place further back to draw the line. We can compromise on salary and benefits but not on health and safety!

My God! That’s a human right!

We’re either unions in solidarity with our members – all our members – or we’re not.

And right now there is no solidarity, no leadership, nothing.

When I say things like this, people tell me I’m angry.

OF COURSE I’M ANGRY!

How many lives are we going to put at risk before it’s enough?

How many children? How many parents? How many staff?

Even if healthy people catch this thing, even if they get over it, they could have lifelong debilitating injuries from it.

That is not worth risking.

EDUCATION ACTIVISTS

And even the education activist community has been complicit in it.

When I tell some of my fellow grassroots organizers that schools should be open remotely, they complain about how that opens an opportunity for ed tech companies, charter and private schools.

They’re afraid teaching on-line will make ed tech companies an eternal part of school curriculum and replace real, live educators.

But that’s obviously false.

We’ve seen during lockdown periods that no one likes asynchronous teaching programs. No one likes these ed tech learning platforms. What works best in these times is curriculum created by classroom teachers taught by those classroom teachers to their students over online platforms like Zoom.

The technology should be merely a tool to connect students and teachers not as a provider of that learning.

The backlash against ed tech has been far greater than any embrace.

Yet some education activists decry how public schools going remote makes privatized schools who don’t look good.

That’s nonsense, too.

Teaching recklessly is bad – no matter who does it. If parents want to endanger their own kids, that’s their prerogative, but in the long run no one will earn brownie points for enabling such negligence.

However, where privatized schools will earn points with parents is for providing high quality remote learning when public schools refuse to do so.

I know all of them aren’t doing that. But some of them are.

And, frankly, they deserve any praise they get for it.

Look, I love public schools, too. But when public schools abandon their duties to their students as so many have done during this crisis, they deserve to have their students stolen. Even if these privatized schools often have more money to work with in the first place.

CONCLUSIONS

Bottom line: This is a crisis the school board system should have been able to overcome.

It’s a crisis the unions should have been able to battle.

It’s a crisis the activist community should have been able to see clearly.

But leadership has failed at every conceivable level. Time and again.

Strangely, that’s the only saving grace of the whole situation.

It isn’t the system that failed. It is the people in power in the system.

I know in my heart that the best way to run a school is still duly elected members of the community.

Just not THESE duly elected members.

I know that unions are vital to protecting workers rights. Just not unions lead by such wishy washy timid officers.

I know that education activism is necessary to keeping school privatization at bay. But activists can’t let their fears of what might be thwart people’s health and safety right now.

That’s the problem with Democracy. The leaders you get are representative of the community.

And our communities are perverted by one overwhelming belief – capitalism.

That’s why the schools are open. School boards are afraid keeping them closed will hurt business in the community.

That’s why administrators make such reckless reopening plans. They’re afraid that if we stay on remote it will become obvious how irrelevant they are to the running of a virtual school.

That’s why union leaders put up next to no resistance. They’re more afraid of furloughs than death or lifelong health consequences.

That’s why some parents support reopening schools – so they have someone to watch their kids while they’re at work. They never spare a moment for how the government is cheating them out of stimulus checks, mortgage relief, rent forgiveness, free testing, hazard pay and healthcare so they don’t have to put their own lives on the line working during a pandemic.

In all honesty, we were a sick country long before COVID-19 hit our shores.

We are sick with outdated and malicious economic ideas.

When you look across the ocean at the more socialist countries, you see much better plans to deal with the pandemic. Not perfect, but better.

When everything isn’t dependent on money changing hands, you can more easily prioritize human life.

So, yes, my faith has been shaken in our public schools.

I still think the idea of a public school is one to be cherished and fought to protect.

But the leaders we have – nearly all of them – should be rejected.

We need an army of citizen activists, parents and teachers to come forward at the first opportunity to replace them.

Anyone in a leadership role this year should have to explain themselves – what did you do to protect students and staff during the pandemic?

If they can’t prove they took real steps to keep people safe and not sacrifice the people they were charged to protect on the altar of capitalism – if they can’t do that they should step down.

They should step down with tears in their eyes and forever have their names sullied by their cowardice and stupidity.

They have failed us all.


 

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Five Reasons to be Cautiously Optimistic About the Biden Presidency

President-elect Joe Biden.

Go ahead and say that aloud once.

“President-elect Joe Biden.”

How does it feel?

If you’re like me, it feels pretty good.

And to be honest I never expected that it would.

Sure, I voted for Joe. I gave money to the campaign. I volunteered.

But Biden was far from my first choice. In fact, looking over the field of Democrats seeking the party’s nomination, he might have been my last pick.

I was a Bernie Sanders guy and probably will be until the day I die.

But damn if it doesn’t feel good to say “President-elect Joe Biden!”

Before today, I would have said the best thing about Joe was that he isn’t Trump. And, frankly, I think that is mainly the fact that won him the election.

It was a repudiation of Trump more than a celebration of Biden.

However, now that the dust has cleared and all the states but Georgia, Alaska and North Carolina have been called, I’m starting to have some thoughts about what a Biden administration might actually look like.

And it might not be too bad.

So here are what I see as the five main hurdles coming up for the Biden administration and why we might be cautiously optimistic about their outcomes:

1) Trump Will Fail to Successfully Challenge the Election Results

As of this writing, Biden has 290 electoral votes to Trump’s 214.

Alaska will probably go to Trump and North Carolina is a bit of a toss up. Georgia will almost certainly go to Biden.

It actually doesn’t really matter.


The world and the media have already accepted the results.

Biden has been elected the 46th President of the United States.

In the absence of solid evidence of massive voter fraud in multiple states – many of which are controlled by Republican governments – it is unlikely that these results can be successfully changed.

Many Republican leaders like Pat Toomey, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney have already accepted this fact. Far right leaders of other countries like Boris Johnson and Benjamin Netanyahu have already congratulated Biden.

It’s over.

And if there were any doubt about it, the Trump administration accidentally booking a press conference at Four Seasons Total Landscaping in Philadelphia instead of the Four Seasons hotel – and then pretending that’s what they intended all along – should put the final nail in the coffin.

You don’t know Four Seasons Total Landscaping? It’s a landscape gardeners located between a crematorium and a dildo shop.

That is not the work of people capable of running an effective challenge to a national election.

Yes, there are enough far right justices on the Supreme Court to pull off this Coup d’état. But I don’t think even they would have the guts to do it in light of the world’s acceptance of Biden, the acceptance of many in the GOP and the blatant incompetence of the Trump administration.

I admit that I could be wrong. And I certainly don’t think we should underestimate these neofacists.

Trump is a cornered rat, and that is when rats are at their most dangerous.

However, I think there is good reason to think he will not be able to steal this election no matter how many tantrums he throws on the floor of the Oval Office or Mar-a-Lago.

2) Control of the Senate Rests on Georgia

It appears that the election will not, by itself, change the balance of power in Congress.

The Democrats have lost seats in the House but not enough to lose a majority. They do not appear to have picked up enough seats in the Senate to rest control away from the GOP.

However, on January 5th there will be runoff elections for both U.S. Senate seats in Georgia.

Yes, you read that right – Georgia!

If Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Osoff both win, Joe Biden will have a congressional majority to actually get his policies passed.

No more Mitch McConnell as Senate Majority Leader.

No more obstruction.

It would be HUGE.

And it is incredibly positive that this is taking place in Georgia where Stacey Abrams has done an amazing job organizing grassroots efforts to turn the state blue.

We have a real chance here.

No doubt Republicans will try to throw whatever they have left to stopping the Dems in these races. But how much do they really have after being beaten nationwide?

Will momentum and an existent grassroots network be enough to flip the script for Dems?

Chances are good. It all depends on what we do in the next few months.

3) Progressives Will Not Let Neoliberals Ignore Them

A huge hurdle for the Biden Administration and the Democratic Party will be how we try to move forward together.

Biden won a huge national majority of votes – 75 million – the most any candidate ever has received.

However, a similar record was true of Hillary Clinton in 2016 and she still lost because of the electoral college.

Thankfully things are not playing out that way in 2020. But they could have very easily.

Frankly, the fact that Biden didn’t beat Trump by an even greater margin is extremely troubling.

Almost half of the voting public – 71 million – support this racist, neofacist, incompetent fool. And only a slight majority oppose him.

I believe firmly that this is because of the Democrats’ strategy in this campaign.

Both this year and in 2016, there was very little positive policy being offered – very little popular positive policy positions that would have directly impacted the majority of Americans.

Many folks voted for Trump out of despair. They wanted a change – any change – burn it all down if necessary.

Had Medicare For All or the Green New Deal been on the ballot, things might have gone differently – or more emphatically – our way.

But, instead, it was all about getting rid of Trump.

Thankfully, that was enough. But had the party actually offered voters something more – things that are overwhelmingly popular with everyday people but unpopular with party elites and their wealthy backers – the results could have been a landslide in Biden’s favor.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke for many progressives in a New York Times interview.

She said that every candidate that co-sponsored Medicare for All in a swing district was reelected. Even Mike Levin, who many thought had committed political suicide by co-sponsoring the Green New Deal, kept his seat.

Supporting progressive policies did not sink anyone’s campaigns. In fact, that’s how insurgent Democrats have been unseating centrists across the nation.

“I’ve been unseating Democrats for two years,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “I have been defeating D.C.C.C.-run campaigns for two years. That’s how I got to Congress. That’s how we elected Ayanna Pressley. That’s how Jamaal Bowman won. That’s how Cori Bush won. And so we know about extreme vulnerabilities in how Democrats run campaigns.”

This is a fight for the heart and soul of the Democratic party.

We cannot continue to move to the right and expect the base – which are much further left – to continue to vote for increasingly conservative candidates.

There is already a party for that – it’s the Republicans.

“I need my colleagues to understand that we are not the enemy,” she said. “And that their base is not the enemy. That the Movement for Black Lives is not the enemy, that Medicare For All is not the enemy. This isn’t even just about winning an argument. It’s that if they keep going after the wrong thing, I mean, they’re just setting up their own obsolescence.”

We will see if the Biden administration learns these lessons or not.

I think there is good reason to be cautiously optimistic here. It is in the party’s own self interest.

But only the future will tell.

4) Biden will Take Steps to Control the Coronavirus

Unlike his predecessor, Biden has been a consistent voice of sanity on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yesterday, he tweeted:

“We cannot repair the economy, restore our vitality, or relish life’s most precious moments — hugging a grandchild, birthdays, weddings, graduations, all the moments that matter most to us — until we get this virus under control.”

And true to his word, this appears to be the first thing on his agenda.

Tomorrow he is expected to name a group of leading scientists and experts as transition advisers so his administration can get started combating the virus on inauguration day, Jan. 20, 2021.

The Coronavirus Task Force is expected to be led by former Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy and Dr. David Kessler, who led the Food and Drug Administration during the 1990s.

Specifically, Biden’s plan calls for empowering scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to help set national guidance based on evidence to stop outbreaks, work on a vaccine, testing, contact tracing and other services.

His administration would use the CDC to provide specific guidance — based on the degree of viral spread in a community — for how to open schools and businesses, when to impose restrictions on gathering sizes or when stay-at-home orders may be necessary.

He would create a national “pandemic dashboard” to share this information with the public.

He would work with every governor to make mask-wearing in public mandatory in their state – a measure that, alone, could save more than 100,000 lives.

He would make sure that everyone has access to regular, reliable, free testing.

He would hire 100,000 additional public health workers to coordinate with local organizations around the country to perform contact tracing and other health services. These people would help with everything from food insecurity and affordable housing to training school officials about when and how to make it safe to reopen buildings.

He proposes the federal government cover 100% of the cost of Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) coverage for the duration of the crisis for people who get sick from the virus. If someone loses employer-based health insurance, they would still have health insurance through this plan.

He also will push to strengthen the Affordable Care Act, expanding coverage by making more people eligible.

He’d use the Defense Production Act to increase production of masks, face shields and other personal protective equipment so that supply exceeds demand.

I don’t know about you, but to me this seems a breath of fresh air. It is what the federal government should do and what it hasn’t been doing under Trump.

And I see no reason why the Biden administration can’t get it done.

5) Biden Can’t Afford to Re-up Betsy DeVos’ Education Policies

When it comes to public education, neither party has really been an ally to teachers and students.

Betsy DeVos was worse than President Obama’s Education Secretaries – Arne Duncan and John King. But let’s not fool ourselves that these Democratic functionaries were any good, either.

They all supported charter schools, high stakes testing, increased segregation, the school-to-prison pipeline, evaluating teachers on student test scores, targeted disinvestment to schools in poor neighborhoods serving mostly students of color, and more.

Duncan and King were competent at destroying public education while hiding behind neoliberal rhetoric. DeVos was incompetent in every conceivable way and could barely hide her glee at the prospect of destroying public education.

Since Biden’s wife, Jill, was an actual teacher, he has more to lose than previous chief executives if he gets this wrong. He can’t take schools for granted and he can’t appear to be doubling down on the same policies of Trump and DeVos – which to be honest were mostly the same as those of Obama and Bush but on steroids.

Biden promised a public school teacher would be his next education secretary and Politico is already making predictions. The media outlet suggests ex-National Education Association (NEA) President Lily Eskelsen Garcia, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten or Stanford Education Professor Linda Darling-Hammond.

Frankly, we could do much worse than any of these people. Hammond, in particular, was Obama’s education policy advisor UNTIL he was elected and changed courses to the neoliberal set.

Of all the hurdles coming his way, I have the least hope Biden will overcome this one.

Pressure will be huge for him to pick another supply side hack with little actual education experience.

But who knows? The stakes are high. Jill has his ear.

We can make our voices heard, cross our fingers and hope for the best.

At a time when teachers are struggling just to have a safe environment in which to work, actual education policy is almost a distant luxury.

For the meantime, I’ll give Joe a chance and remain cautiously optimistic.

The ball is in Biden’s hands. He deserves the right to make a shot.

And if he misses, at least we can celebrate the end of the Muslim ban, reinstating the DREAM Act, rejoining the Paris Climate Accords, rejoining the World Health Organization and the restoration of a functioning federal government to the USA.


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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!

Save Our Schools From Coronavirus Budget Cuts

 

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America is one dumbass country.

 

We don’t do the metric system.

 

We don’t do universal healthcare.

 

And during a global pandemic, we don’t demand the government pay us to stay home and stop the spread of the disease.

 

Instead, we demand the government let us go out and get sick.

 

It should come as no surprise, then, that we deeply under-fund our public schools.

 

There’s always money for a new war or to subsidize fossil fuels or give billionaires another tax cut, but when it comes to teaching kids how to think critically about their world – time to take out the scissors and slash some budgets.

 

And now with the inevitable loss of taxes after shutting down the economy to save lives during the global Coronavirus outbreak, experts are expecting the deepest budget cuts to schools – well, ever.

 

Sixty two district superintendents from urban districts wrote to Congress in April warning of a 15-25% loss in revenues next fiscal year.

 

The school leaders from cities like New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami, say that a 20% loss in both state and local taxes, alone, would result in laying off about 275,000 teachers.

 

And this would come after students had already suffered significant academic losses during the current (2019-20) school year because of school closings and distance learning initiatives that could not possibly meet the needs of students as well as in-person learning.

 

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They ask legislators to enact a plan devised by the Albert Shanker Institute – a policy organization aligned with the American Federation for Teachers (AFT) – in which the federal government would give billions of dollars to districts in several phases to keep schools open. Then states would increase funding to levels before the Great Recession (2009-13), build up budget reserves and more equitably distribute capital.

 

How much money would be necessary?

 

It’s hard to say at this point.

 

Most districts get about 90% of their funding from state and local taxes and these haven’t been tallied yet for March, when social distancing began.

 

Some experts expect to have a better picture of the damage by the end of the first or second week of May.

 

There has been no mass evictions (though that may eventually happen), so property taxes are probably stable at this point. But it’s unclear how much shuttered storefronts and skyrocketing unemployment will affect the picture.

 

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The National Governors Association and non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, though, are expecting the worst.

 

They estimate a possible $500 billion state shortfall mostly concentrated in the 2020-21 fiscal year.

 

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That’s less than three months away.

 

Even if you subtract fiscal aide already provided by Congress and state rainy day funds (if present), legislatures would still be at least $360 billion short.

 

The National Association of Teachers (NEA) is calling for an additional $175 billion just to stabilize the country’s schools.

 

“The seniors graduating this spring started kindergarten in the fall of 2007,” says Bruce Baker, professor at the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University and co-author of the Shanker Institute report.

 

“Most of these students have spent almost their entire K-12 careers in schools with less funding than there was when they started. If this happens again, it will be because we let it happen.”

 

And that’s just it.

 

This Coronavirus crisis is a wake-up call for all of us about the elements of our society that had to fail for us to get to this point.

 

Everything from how we deal with climate change, to infrastructure, to healthcare, to economic inequality needs to be reconsidered if we are to survive.

 

Education is an essential piece of that puzzle.

 

We cannot continue to consume resources like there is no tomorrow – or there will be none.

 

We cannot continue to treat billionaires like the most vital part of our society when they are really nothing but parasites on it.

 

And we cannot continue to undercut our public education system and expect our next generation to be in a better position than we are today. In fact, doing so ensures that it won’t be.

 

Not only do we have to pay for our kids to be educated, we have to pay for ALL kids – black, white, brown, girls, boys, Christians, Jews, Muslims, immigrants, native born — all of them.

 

We have to integrate, educate and eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline.

 

And we have to stop wasting the money we do allocate on pointless profit-making endeavors for corporations that give little to nothing back to the children they are meant to be serving. That means no more privatized schools, no more high stakes standardized testing, no more shady ed tech, corporate written academic standards and union busting initiatives.

 

We have to ask ourselves – will we continue to support a culture of death where war and inequality are prioritized over nurturing and care? Or will we finally engage in a culture of life, where education and equity are the driving forces of society?

 

We can continue to be the laughing stocks of the world with our guns and superstitions, or we can get off our asses and start working toward a better world for all.

 

The old ways will not work in this new millennium.

 

It is entirely unclear whether we will heed the call from this crisis or hide our heads in the sand.

 

But the future of our nation and the well-being of our children are being decided right here, right now, this very minute.

 

Time to invest.

 


Email your members of Congress and tell them to keep students learning and educators working.


 

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!

book-2

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

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Let’s not mince words.

 

The last Presidential election was a cluster.

 

And we were at least partially to blame for it.

 

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

 

This time we have a chance to get it right.

 

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

 

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

 

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He’s being snarky.

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

 
But fairness. Evenhandedness. Moderation.

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

That’s about .00006% of the membership.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

We can’t do that again.

 

The process at the AFT was likewise perplexing.

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

 

This much seems certain:

 

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

 

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

 

3) The executive committee voted to endorse Clinton.

 

4) THEN the interviews were released to the public.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

According to the AFT press release, they were:

 

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

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

 

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

 

But did they really?

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 
We need to be able to trust our unions.

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

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

 
I want a union that represents me and my colleagues.

 
We must do better this time around.

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

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

 
What questions will you ask potential candidates?

 
How will members have a democratic voice in the process?

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

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

 

 

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Do you know your NEA Board Members?

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

 

NEA Leadership Contact INFO here:

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

 

AFT Leadership:

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

 

AFT Contact Info:

https://www.aft.org/contact

 
Let’s get it right this time.

 
Everything is riding on it.

 
Our vote is our future.


Special Thanks to Susan DuFresne for inspiring this article.


Still can’t get enough Gadfly? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Report: US Shortchanged Public Schools by Hundreds of Billions of Dollars Over Decades

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Fun Fact: Between 2005 and 2017, the federal government withheld $580 billion it had promised to spend on students from poor families and students with disabilities.

 

Fun Fact: Over that same period, the personal net worth of the nation’s 400 wealthiest people ballooned by $1.57 trillion.

 

So, rich people, consider this the bill.

 

A new report called “Confronting the Education Debt” commissioned by the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS) details the shortfall in minute detail.

 

For instance:

 

  • $347 billion owed to educate low-income students most of whom are children of color.

 

  • $233 billion owed to provide services for students with disabilities.

 

And this is just the shortfall of the last dozen years! That’s just money due to children who recently graduated or are currently in the school system!

 

We’ve been cheating our children out of the money we owe them for more than half a century!

 

Federal education funding levels were first established in 1965 as part of Pres. Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty in the landmark education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

 

That law, which has become little more than a boondoggle for the standardized testing and school privatization industries, originally was passed to address inequality in America’s education funding.

 

Now this report from a coalition of groups including the Education Justice Research and Organizing Center, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, Center for Popular Democracy and the Action Center on Race and the Economy points out the multifarious ways we have failed to live up to the standards we set in that original legislation and beyond.

 

One of the most glaring examples of neglect is Title I funding.

 

The Johnson administration admitted that schools with a high concentration of students living below the poverty line needed extra support to succeed at the same levels as students from middle class or more affluent backgrounds. So the law promised to provide an additional 40 percent for each poor child above what the state already spent per pupil.

 

And then it promptly failed to fund it. In 1965 and every year since!

 

These are not just numbers. With this money, high poverty schools could provide:

 

  • “health and mental health services for every student, including dental and vision services; and

  • a full-time nurse in every Title I school; and

  • a full-time librarian for every Title I school; and

  • a full-time additional counselor in every Title I school, or

  • a full-time teaching assistant in every Title I classroom.”

 

A decade later, in 1975, the same thing happened with The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

 

Congress told local districts they’d have to do more to help disabled students succeed academically. However, doing so costs money. Lawmakers admitted that disabled students cost more to educate and that local districts often struggle to find the funding to help them succeed.

 

Once again, Congress pledged to pay up to 40 percent of that additional cost, with local and state funds covering the remainder.

 

Once again, Congress failed to fund it.

 

STATE AND LOCAL FAILURE

 

But it’s not just the federal government that has shirked its duties to school children.

 

State and local governments also stiffed generations of students out of the resources they deserved – especially if those students have black or brown skin.

 

Beside the federal government, public schools are funded by their local municipalities and the state. Local governments pay for about 45 percent of school budgets.

 

However, since most of this allotment is determined by property tax revenues, it ensures the poor get fewer resources than the rich. Kids from rich neighborhoods get lots of resources. Kids from poor areas get the scraps. Inequality is built into the funding formula to ensure that students don’t start out on an even playing field and that economic handicaps are passed on from one generation to the next.

 

State governments are no better. They provide about 47 percent of school budgets.

 

As such, they are in the position to right the wrongs of the local community by offsetting the inequality of local governments – but only 11 states do so. Twenty states close their eyes and provide the same funding to each school – rich and poor alike – regardless of need or what each community can afford to provide for its own children. But 17 states are even worse. They actually play Robin Hood in reverse – they funnel more money to wealthier districts than to poor ones.

 

As a result, schools nationwide serving mostly students of color and/or poor children spend less on each child than districts serving mostly white and/or affluent children.

 

TAX CUTS

 

And while our federal, state and local governments have failed to meet their responsibilities to students, they have required fewer taxes from business and industry.

 

In the late 1940s and 1950s, the top marginal tax rate was more than 90 percent. Today it is 37 percent.

 

Congress just passed a series of whooping tax cuts that go into effect in 2019. More than half of the benefit of these cuts will go to the richest five percent of taxpayers. The law is expected to cost the federal treasury as much as $1.5 trillion in lost revenues over the next decade.

 

Nearly every state levies a much greater share of taxes from low- and middle-income families than from the wealthy.

 

And that’s before we even start talking about corporations!

 

While the US federal corporate tax is 35 percent, the effective tax rate that corporations pay after loopholes and deductions is only about 14 percent. This costs the federal government at least $181 billion in annual revenue, based on 2013 estimates by the Government Accountability Office. Local and state corporate tax and abatement programs make it even worse.

 

This is a choice. We are not requiring the rich to pay their fair share.

 

SCHOOL-TO-PRISON

 

Instead of investing in ways to help educate children, one of the only areas we’ve increased funding is incarceration.

 

The private prison industry is booming, fueled in part by a lack of opportunities in schools.

 

According to the report:

 

“In 2017, the National Association of School Resource Officers claimed that school policing was the fastest-growing area of law enforcement. The school safety and security industry was reported to be a $2.7 billion market as of 2015. Most of that $2.7 billion is public money now enriching the private security industry instead of providing real supports to students.”

 

According to the US Department of Education, 1.6 million students go to a school that employs a law enforcement officer but not a guidance counselor.

 

That is not an unalterable economic reality. It is a failure of priorities. It is the mark of a society that is not willing to help children but will swoop in to punish them if they get out of line.

 

SCHOOL PRIVATIZATION

 

 

Finally, the report identifies school privatization as a contributing factor to this systemic neglect.

 

Charter schools are legal in 44 states plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico. They have “systematically stripped public school budgets through the creation of parallel structures of privately-operated, publicly-funded schools.”

 

Cost studies in San Diego, Los Angeles, Nashville, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Durham and other localities have come to the same conclusion: “the privatization of schools has contributed to austerity conditions in traditional public schools.”

 

Yet Congress continues to appropriate millions of dollars to the Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program (CSP), which funds new charter start-ups and expansions. The program has a budget of $500 million this year, alone. It is the largest single backer of charter schools in the nation.

 

According to the report, “In other words, the U.S. Department of Education is operating a program that directly undermines public schools.”

 

SOLUTIONS

 

But the report isn’t just about what’s wrong. It outlines how we can make it right.

 

It outlines three policy initiatives:

 

1)      “Full funding of Title I and IDEA to target federal support to low-income children and students with disabilities.

2)      The creation of 25,000 Sustainable Community Schools by 2025.

3)      A new focus for the U.S. Department of Education, on ensuring and incentivizing equity in public schools across the country.”

 

And we can pay for it by:

 

A. “Make the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes.

  • Rescind the 2017 tax code changes, which overwhelmingly favor the top 1 percent of income earners.
  • Close the federal carried interest loophole, a step that could increase federal revenues by between $1.8 and $2 billion annually or, according to some researchers, by as much as $18 billion annually.
  • If the carried interest loophole is not closed at the federal level, states can impose a surcharge on carried interest income at the state level, raising millions for state budgets.
  • Enact so-called “millionaire’s taxes” that increase the tax rate on a state’s highest earners. New York and California have already passed such law.

 

B. Require wealthy corporations to pay their fair share.

  • End or reduce corporate tax breaks that cost the federal government at least $181 billion annually.

  • Reduce state and local subsidies to businesses for economic development projects and hold school funding immune from tax abatements.

  • Enforce and strengthen programs like Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) to ensure that wealthy institutions pay their fair share towards local budgets.

 

C. Divest from the school-to-prison pipeline.

  • School safety and security is now a $2.7 billion industry. Much of that money is public money, going to profitable corporations instead of schools.
  • Divest from expensive security systems, metal detectors and legions of school-based police officers and instead invest in counselors, health and mental-health providers and other supports that make schools safer.

 

D. Place a moratorium on new charter schools and voucher programs.

  • A moratorium on the federal Charter Schools Program would free up $500 million annually, which could be used to support the creation of Sustainable Community schools.”

 

The executive summary concludes with the following statistic.

 

Even a 10 percent increase in funding for each high poverty student maintained through 12 years of public school can dramatically change the likelihood of academic success. It can boost the chances that students will graduate high school, achieve 10 percent higher earnings as adults and a 6 percentage point reduction in the annual incidence of adult poverty, according to a 2015 report.

“Ten percent is pocket-change for a nation that has orchestrated the rise of an unmatched billionaire class. In the richest nation in the world, it is possible to fully fund all our public schools, and to provide Black, Brown and low-income children with the educational resources and additional supports and services they need to achieve at the highest levels.”

 

The facts are in, folks.

 

We can no longer gripe and complain about a public education system we fail to support without recognizing the cause. We have failed to meet our responsibilities to our children – especially our children of color.

 

The solution is simple – equity.

 

We need to demand the rich do the right thing.

 

We cannot achieve greatness as a nation when wealth and privilege continue to shirk their duties and our lawmakers do little more than enable greed and corruption.

 

The bill is here.

 

Time to settle up.


READ THE WHOLE REPORT.


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School Voucher Industry Strikes Back: We’re Segregated!? No, You’re Segregated!

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In what must count as another new low in American discourse, the school voucher industry is striking back against claims that their products lead to greater segregation of students.

 

Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), had the audacity to voice the truth:

 

“Make no mistake: This use of privatization, coupled with disinvestment are only slightly more polite cousins of segregation,” she said a week ago during a speech at the AFT’s yearly convention.

 

To which school privatization mouthpieces quickly countered with the truth:

 

“If vouchers are the polite cousins of segregation, then most urban school districts are segregation’s direct descendants. The vast majority of our urban public school districts are segregated because of white flight and neighborhood neglect.”

 

This was from a statement by Kevin Chavous, founding board member of the American Federation for Children, the school privatization advocacy group that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos used to lead.

 

So there you have it.

 

A nation of more than 325 million people, with a more than 241-year history reduced to – I Know You Are But What Am I?

 

The sad fact is that they’re both right.

 

School vouchers do lead to increased segregation (and so do charter schools, by the way, the method preferred by corporate Democrats). But many traditional public schools are, in fact, deeply segregated both racially and economically.

 

Does that mean that both systems – privatized and public – are equally at fault? Does it mean that both somehow get a pass for reprehensible behavior?

 

No and no.

 

First, we must explain why segregation is bad.

 

Peter Cunningham, former assistant secretary for communications and outreach at the Education Department under Obama, wagged his finger at Weingarten on the privatization propaganda Website, the 74.

 

He called out Weingarten’s hypocrisy, which takes some cojones for a man who only last year pondered aloud and in public whether segregation was really such a bad thing.

 

He had this to say last September:

 

“Maybe the fight’s not worth it. It’s a good thing; we all think integration is good. But it’s been a long fight, we’ve had middling success. At the same time, we have lots and lots of schools filled with kids of one race, one background, that are doing great. It’s a good question.”

 

Funny, isn’t it?

 

He calls out Weingarten because of public school segregation but defends charter schools because their segregation is somehow just swell.

 

Keep in mind. Cunningham is the executive director of the Education Post, a well-funded charter school public relations firm that packages its advertisements, propaganda and apologias as journalism. And he’s not about to poop where he eats.

 

So, yes, Mr. Cunningham, segregation is worth fighting.

 

When you have schools made up mostly of minority and/or economically disadvantaged students, it makes it easier to provide fewer resources and less funding to those children while sending the lion’s share to the white and wealthy.

 

That’s why in Brown v. Board the U.S. Supreme Court struck down “Separate but Equal” – because when races are kept separate, their schools are rarely equal.

 

This game of excusing one system based on the deficiencies of the other is pure sophistry.

 

You can’t defend voucher and charter schools from being segregated by reference to public school segregation. Nor can you ignore public school segregation by reference to the same at privatized schools.

 

They’re both bad, and they both need fixing.

 

To be fair, Weingarten seems to tacitly admit this about public schools.

 

She acknowledges the disinvestment in public education, how public schools have been systemically undermined by politicians and lobbyists, many of them advocating for privatized schools, so that they could use this disinvestment as an excuse for their own for-profit education schemes.

 

“…no amount of facts or evidence will sway voucher proponents from their agenda to starve public schools to the breaking point, then criticize their deficiencies and let the market handle the rest, all in the name of choice,” she said in a statement.

 

The fact of the matter is this: public schools have become more segregated not because teachers or administrators want it, but because of local, state and federal law; a series of subsequent Supreme Court decisions allowing it within district boundaries; the continuation of racist redlining in the loan and insurance industry; and the xenophobia of wealthy and middle class whites who prefer their kids be educated separately from those they consider undesirable.

 

These policies could be changed. The system could be fixed. All it would take is the will to do it.

 

Charter and vouchers schools, on the other hand, will never solve the problem of segregation, because they have turned that problem into a “solution.”

 

Schools serving poor and minority students aren’t getting the proper resources. So they propose further segregating them.

 

That’s a terrible idea. It’s like escaping from a leaky cruise ship by jumping into a leaky lifeboat. You’ll sink in both, but the lifeboat will sink quicker.

 

Yes, our public schools are segregated by race and class and therefore poor and minority students receive inequitable funding and resources. Charters and vouchers cannot possibly remedy that. They will always make it worse. Only a robust and integrated public school system can be truly equitable. A system that deifies choice cannot combat racism if it is freely chosen.

 

What Weingarten is getting at is this: if we want to help the nation’s children – all of the nation’s children – we must support and reform public schools.

 

We must also acknowledge that many of the problems of systemic disinvestment are caused by those who want to privatize in the first place.

 

We have let the wolf write our education policy. It should be no shock that his solution isn’t to build more houses of bricks but to process our little piggies into bacon.

 

Full disclosure: I am no fan of Weingarten.

 

I recently called for both her and National Education Association (NEA) President Lily Eskelsen Garcia to voluntarily step down because of undemocratic practices and mismanagement in both teachers unions.

 

However, I’ll stand up for her when she’s right, and in this instance, she is.

 

If anything, maybe she should have included charter schools in her criticism. I laid into her in June for writing an op-ed with Jonah Edelman, an anti-union activist, specifically praising charter schools over vouchers.

 

But I get it. Now that some charter school teachers have unionized and joined the AFT, she’s stuck between a rock and a hard place.

 

Frankly, it makes her ineffective in speaking out on this matter. I have nothing against charter school teachers. I know, personally, several very good educators who work at charter schools. In this job market, sometimes you have to take what you can get. However, the sad fact of the matter is that by their very structure, charter schools are inferior to public schools. They are less democratic, less transparent, less accountable and more easily subject to fraud and abuse of children. That’s not to say all charters are guilty of this, but just by being a charter school and being subject to the deregulated rules governing them, they are more susceptible to these errors than their traditional public school brethren.

 

But, of course, the same can be said of voucher schools. It’s just that you can’t criticize one privatization scheme without also criticizing the other.

 

Perhaps the biggest mistake Weingarten made was in glossing over the worst abuses of public schools. If she was going to call out the segregation at voucher schools, she also should have explicitly called it out at public schools.

 

But that’s something even our first black President Barack Obama refused to do. You’d think he’d make that a priority for his administration, but instead he favored the same school privatization schemes that just made it worse.

 

Currently, you’ll find no political party that actively champions integration. Democrats will give it more lip service than Republicans, but both parties either ignore it in practice or actively work against it.

 

The only use they have for it is as a club with which to hit the other side when issues like this come up.

 

You’re segregated!

 

No, YOU’RE segregated!

 

And so we are all lead over the cliff by partisans and fools.

National Education Association Seems to Endorse Replacing Teachers With Computers

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When all the teachers are gone, will America’s iPads pay union dues?

 

It’s a question educators across the country are beginning to ask after yet another move by our national unions that seems to undercut the profession they’re supposed to be supporting.

 

The National Education Association (NEA), the largest labor union in the U.S., published a shortsighted puff piece on its Website that seemingly applauds doing away with human beings working as teachers.

 

In their place would be computers, iPads, Web applications and a host of “devices” that at best would need human beings to serve as merely lightly trained facilitators while children are placed in front of endless screens.

 

The article is called, “As More Schools Look to Personalized Learning, Teaching May Be About to Change,” by Tim Walker.

 

Teacher-blogger Emily Talmage led the charge with a counter article on her site called “Anatomy of a Betrayal.” She outlined the NEA’s change from being critical of such initiatives to joining with the likes of Jeb Bush and various foundations, tech firms and school voucher advocates in celebrating it.

 

Make no mistake.

 

This is not merely an examination of changing teaching practices. It is a movement by tech giants to further standardize and privatize America’s public schools.

 

This isn’t to say that technology can’t enhance learning. But classroom teachers with any kind of experience know that simply plopping a child in front of a computer screen is a terrible way to do it. It’s the equivalent of having all your questions answered by an automated voice on the telephone versus being able to ask questions of a living, breathing person.

 

And they have the gall to call it “personalized learning” as if it were meeting all the needs of students one-on-one. It isn’t.

 

It’s one-on-one, but it isn’t meeting anyone’s needs except bankers, hedge fund managers, charter school operators and tech investors.

 

It’s a way to drastically reduce the cost of education for poor and minority students by removing the need for a teacher. It’s the educational equivalent of an automated cashier in the grocery store, but unlike at Giant Eagle, it doesn’t just tally your bill, it pretends to teach.

 

This is the definition of a McEducation. It’s the logical extension of policymakers who think that 5-week trained Teach for America recruits are equivalent to education graduates with four-five year degrees and years of classroom experience. They’re just replacing TFA recruits with Apps.

 

Don’t get me wrong. America’s public schools have a lot of problems. They’re segregated by both economics and race. The poor and minority schools are inadequately funded and inequitably resourced. They are forced to compete for what little money remains with charter school vampires who are allowed to spend it however they like with little to no accountability or transparency. More money disappears down the gullets of voucher schools to subsidize the rich and indoctrinate Christian fundamentalists. And to top it all off, our public schools are forced to give scientifically invalid standardized assessments that are incentivized to fail as many students as possible so the same corporations that make the tests can sell districts remediation materials. Meanwhile, a large portion of these profits earned off public schools are reinvested in lawmakers reelection campaigns so they’ll pass legislation that continues to treat our children as golden geese for business and industry.

 

The NEA should know that. We have more than enough enemies to fight. But instead of taking arms, our national unions have been racing toward the bottom to compromise and keep that proverbial seat at the table. They’ll fight for teacher tenure. They’ll fight right-to-work legislation. But policies that undermine the very fabric of the profession? NAH.

 

 

We saw the same thing with Common Core. Educators knew you can’t teach higher order thinking skills to children without first doing the groundwork of process. But the book publishers had new textbooks to market so the NEA backed a horse they knew was dead at the starting gate.

 

And now we have the tech giants – the Zuckerbergs and Gates – slobbering over the profits they can make by callously removing teachers from the equation.

 

I’ve seen this first hand.

 

My district has a one-to-one iPad initiative. For two years, each of my students has had a device in every class. It hasn’t dramatically improved learning. At best, it’s increased students’ computer literacy. At worst, it’s a toy that actually distracts from authentic learning.

 

They allow me, the teacher, to give all assignments digitally. But that requires the network to function perfectly, the devices to be fully charged, the assignments to be entered precisely, the students to engage with them correctly and creatively – when handing students a paper and having them hand it back is actually much more efficient.

 

They allow students to look up unfamiliar vocabulary quickly, but they rob students of the context skills necessary to know which definition is appropriate, and experience using prefixes, suffixes and roots.

 

They allow students to easily access infinite information but without the skills to critically read it. More kids read the summary on the Internet than read the book – and even then, they don’t understand it.

 

They allow students to make colorful Keynote presentations and iMovies, but do nothing to prepare them how to intelligently organize the materials.

 

And – worst of all – they convince number crunching administrators that assignments, tests and lessons can be given digitally with hours of screen time. As if that was equivalent to authentic learning.

 

That is the end goal.

 

Everyone knows it. Isaac Asimov wrote about it in 1954 with his classic science fiction story “The Fun They Had” about a future where computerized home schooling was the norm. But even in his story, kids felt like they were being cheated out of something important that their ancestors had experienced in a traditional public school setting.

 

Instead of heeding his warning, our unions are rushing to make that world a reality.

 

You don’t strengthen unions by undercutting the professionals they’re supposed to represent.

 

Somebody needs to tell our union leaders – preferably by replacing them.

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Randi and Lily, For the Good of Our Unions, Please Step Down. You Are a Distraction

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Dear Randi Weingarten and Lily Eskelsen Garcia:

Unions are facing hard times.

We are under attack by the new fascist wing of the Republican party.

So-called “right to work” laws are being drafted at the national level to strip us of our rights and transform us into the factory slaves of The Gilded Age. New court challenges at the state and federal level could make it next to impossible to collect dues without allowing countless free riders. And in the mass media criticism of teacher tenure is mounting despite widespread ignorance of what it even means.

More than ever we need to be united in our efforts to fight the forces of regression and tyranny. We need each other to protect our public schools and our students from those who would do them harm. But the biggest obstacle to doing that isn’t Donald Trump. Nor is it Mike Pence, Steve Bannon or even Betsy DeVos.

It is you. Both of you.

Frankly, as Presidents of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA), you have become a distraction.

When DeVos was blocked by protesters from entering a Washington, D.C., school this week, Randi actually took her side. She tweeted:

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“Just heard a protester blocked & almost knocked Secy @BetsyDeVos down at Jefferson.We don’t condone such acts.We want her to go to pub schls.”

How dare you dictate to protesters what “we” want!?

This action may not have been something you, personally, condone. But DeVos just got away with purchasing her position as U.S. Secretary of Education. She and her billionaire family paid off mostly Republican lawmakers to the tune of $200 million allowing her to become the titular head of our nation’s public schools. This despite having never attended a public school, refusing to protect special education students, refusing to hold charter and voucher schools to the same standards, even refusing to keep guns out of our children’s classrooms! Well, Betsy, your money may buy you the title, but it buys you zero respect!

Randi, your statement just goes to show how tone deaf you and Lily are to the spirit of the rank and file.

We are not somewhat distressed at what is happening to our schools and our profession. We are enraged! We are taking to the streets! We are occupying our lawmakers offices and marching through community thoroughfares! And we aren’t throwing shade on other protesters behind the safety of Twitter.

For many of us, you both represent everything wrong with unionism. We are a people powered movement. We get our strength from the grassroots up, but you both try to rule from the top down.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the early endorsements by both unions of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

Neither one of you made an honest effort to gauge member opinions on these endorsements before going ahead. You thought you knew better. You pushed through these endorsements despite a strong vein of support for Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders.

Sanders was much more in-line with our needs and values. And he had much more support among progressives and independents. He had a much better chance of winning! Meanwhile, Clinton was just another neoliberal in a long line of neoliberals like President Barack Obama who would offer us only the back of their hands.

You wanted a seat at the table, and you didn’t mind how much it would cost the rest of us.

Lily, when you took the reins of the NEA in 2014, you famously said “We are what Democracy looks like.” I was never more proud of my union than at that moment. But that pride has turned to ashes in my mouth.

Many of us will never forgive either of you for the results of this election. We blame you for Trump.

Had you not dictated to us that we must support Clinton, had you supported a candidate with a real chance of wining, there is little doubt that we could have defeated the clown currently in the Oval Office. Moreover, under a President Sanders we would have had a real chance at a progressive future that benefits everyone – $15 minimum wage, universal healthcare, sanctuary cities, justice reforms, fair trade, free college tuition.

Trump did not win alone. Unwittingly, you were his biggest supporters. It was your hubris – along with that of corporate Democrats deaf to the voices of their base – that gave us these next four years. And none of you have learned your lesson.

Lily, your three-year term is up this year. Randi, your two-year term is up in summer 2018.

We can wait you out if we must. But do what’s best for the people you claim to represent. Step down now.

Otherwise, you can look for opposition in our Representative Assemblies.

Let me be clear. I don’t think either of you have broken any by-laws. I don’t think there is evidence for impeachment (if our by-laws even allow it). But members could easily make a motion from the floor for a vote of no confidence.

Support may already be mounting for such positions at the Region level. It could go to the State House of Delegates as a New Business Item and get a majority vote from the floor. Or perhaps at our next Representative Assembly, someone will just make a motion.

I don’t know if it would pass. But I know that this division among us is holding us back from being the force we can be. I know that it has stopped many of us from talking about how we fight external forces, because we are instead focused on enemies from within.

We want to transform our unions. We no longer want to focus solely on collective bargaining. We want to focus on social justice and the needs of our students and communities. To be sure, our labor rights are essential to this fight, but they cannot be everything nor can we be willing to give up on the needs of our students if the powers that be will only leave our salaries and benefits intact.

We want a union that is more at home in the streets than in the boardroom. We want leaders who mobilize us to fight not tell us what to think. We need leaders that listen to us – not the other way around.

As a classroom teacher and education activist, I make this request in no official capacity for any of the various groups to which I belong. I ask as merely another member of the NEA. I have no affiliation with the AFT.

Moreover, I have nothing personal against either of you. We met briefly at the Network for Public Education conference in Chicago two years ago. You were both congenial and inspiring. It may not seem like it now, but I hold tremendous respect for both of you. I think in your own ways you have accomplished much that benefits our members.

But the time has come to step down. You believe in accountability. Hold yourselves accountable.

Put the strength of our unions first. Let it no longer be about you. Let it be about us.

Here’s hoping you’ll do the right thing.

Yours,

Steven Singer

NEA and PSEA member

P.S. – If any NEA or AFT member reads this open letter and agrees with the sentiments expressed here, please add your name and union affiliation in a comment on my blog.

My Election Day Heart Attack: Lessons for Moving Forward

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I had a heart attack on Election Day.

This is not hyperbole.

I literally went to the polls, went to my doctor and then went to the hospital.

I didn’t know Donald Trump would win. Like most of us, I thought the nation would heave a big sigh, eat its vegetables and vote for Hillary Clinton.

But the election had been weighing on my mind (and apparently my body) for a long time.

How can we have narrowed it down to these two candidates nobody wants? How can these really be the only choices we get here in America? If either one of them wins, we all lose just in different ways.

So as I write this from my hospital bed, I’m left pondering lifestyle changes. I’ve got to start eating healthy. I need to exercise. I need to start taking care of myself.

But this kind of introspection is also what we need as a nation. After a disastrous election like the one we just had, the country is at least as sick as my ailing heart. We need to sit down with each other and decide how we’re going to move forward, how we’re going to prevent a national disaster like this from ever happening again.

Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

1) Admit Who’s to Blame

Donald Trump was just elected President of the United States. That is unbelievable! This clown, this buffoon is now the “leader of the free world.” How did this happen?

There are many factors leading up to this, but politically the blame must be placed with the Democratic Party.

They put up a candidate – Hillary Clinton – who could not beat someone as odious as Trump. The people made it clear during the primary that they wanted a populous candidate, someone who wasn’t part of the establishment, yet the DNC ignored them. In fact, party elites did everything they could to tip the scales in Clinton’s favor.

We must always remember this lesson: when you rig the primary, you lose the general.

Bernie Sanders packed stadiums while Clinton could barely pull together rallies. He polled double digits ahead of Trump while Clinton was much less competitive. He would have beaten Trump in a landslide.

So if you want someone to blame, blame the DNC. Every party leader should immediately be fired. We must regain control of the party. If the Democrats refuse to be a real progressive institution, they will continue to lose and we will have to look elsewhere for political affiliation.

So admit the truth, it wasn’t third party voters with 3-4% of the vote, it wasn’t 45% of registered voters who didn’t show up at the polls because we gave them no one to vote for. It was the DNC. Period.

2) Understand the relationship between Race and Class

There are lots of folks out there blaming the election results on the racism of Trump voters. There are lots of folks blaming it on working class people choosing Trump over Hillary.

They’re both right.

Racism has always been a tool of the rich in this country. It’s a way of throwing a bone to poor whites so they will support the 1%.

Don’t go after us as we cheat you out of a living wage, they say. We’ll give you whole swaths of people you can lord it over.

White privilege is the grease that keeps our economy running. Without it, poor whites might look to the rich and see how much they’re being swindled.

Heck yeah Trump ran as a racist. Heck yeah he ran as a populist. But the only thing poor whites will get from him is a license to be racist.  No jobs. No better wages. No better education. Just go ahead and subjugate brown people.

We must understand this relationship. As anti-racists we must also fight for the middle class. As activists for the middle class we must also fight racism. These are two sides of the same coin, and we must address both if we are ever to achieve real positive change.

3) Acknowledge Sexism

That a nation of grown adults would pick a boorish misogynist against an educated, intelligent woman speaks wonders. Hillary Clinton was far from my first choice,  but compared to Trump she was obviously less odious.

There is no doubt that sexism played a part in this. Even white women chose Trump over Clinton. So many of Trump’s policies were anti-woman. He was an admitted serial groper. He’s on trial for child rape!

And if that’s not enough, I can’t even recall how many times I heard women tell me that a person of their gender doesn’t belong in the Oval Office.

This is something we have to overcome, and frankly I think we are. Millennials are not nearly as sexist as the rest of us. As the population ages and today’s kids become tomorrow’s adults, I think sexism will be left behind. Trump’s election is the last gasp of this antiquated prejudice. But we must recognize it for what it is.

4) Unions need to represent the rank and file

I’m a big supporter of labor unions, but in many cases they let us down in this election. Trump was no champion of the working stiff, but he got an awful lot of union votes. Why?

Many of our unions prematurely endorsed Clinton even though she has a spotty relationship with them and didn’t support many natural union initiatives like the fight for 15.

On the other hand, Sanders was the union candidate. He was the natural fit, yet union leadership like the American Federation of Teacher’s Randi Weingarten offered to attack other unions that didn’t fall in line behind Clinton. Both big teachers unions, the AFT and the National Education Association endorsed Clinton early in the primary without truly democratically polling membership. It doesn’t matter if they broke by-laws or not. If unions really represent the rank and file, these leaders should be held responsible.

In short, we should fire leaders like Weingarten and the NEA’s Lily Eskelsen Garcia immediately. Our union leaders must show a healthier respect for the rank and file or else they jeopardize the entire enterprise of workers’ rights.

 

These are just some of the ways we can move forward in the days and weeks ahead. It will be a rough road  but I’m sure we can come out of it together.

Just like my aging body, our nation is ill. For me, the result was a heart attack. For us, the result is President Trump.

Will we turn it around?

I’m sure going to try.

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FULL DISCLOSURE: I didn’t vote for either Clinton or Trump. I happily voted for Jill Stein.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do Unions Belong in the Fight Against Corporate School Reform?

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In the fight for public education, the forces of standardization and privatization are running scared.

 

They’ve faced more pushback in the last few years – especially in the last few months – than in a decade.

 

The Opt Out movement increases exponentially every year. Teach for America is having trouble getting recruits. Pearson’s stock is plummeting. The NAACP and Black Lives Matter have both come out strongly against increasing charter schools.

 

So what’s a corporate education reformer to do?

 

Answer: Change the narrative.

 

They can’t control the facts, so instead they try to control the story being told about the facts.

 

It’s a classic propaganda technique. As Malcolm X put it:

 

“If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”

 

Their story goes like this – yes, there is a battle going on over public education. But the two sides fighting aren’t who you think they are.

 

The fight for public schools isn’t between grassroots communities and well-funded AstroTurf organizations, they say. Despite the evidence of your eyes, the fight isn’t between charter school sycophants and standardized test companies, on the one hand, and parents, students and teachers on the other.

 

No. It’s actually between people who really care about children and those nasty, yucky unions.

 

It’s nonsense, of course. Pure spin.

 

They want you to believe that the corporate vultures preying on our public schools are really just misunderstood philanthropists. And those demanding a fair shake for their own children and communities are really just paid shills from a monolithic and uncaring bureaucracy.

 

In essence, they want you to believe two things:

 

1) Despite profiting off the system and zero evidence supporting the efficacy of corporate school policies, they’re motivated purely by empathy.

 

2) Unions are evil by definition and they pervert everything they touch.

 

I’m not going to bother with the first claim here. There is an inherent bias from those who wish to change the laws so they can more easily profit off of schools without actually helping students learn and in fact exist at the expense of that learning. If you can’t see through the propaganda wing of the Walmart corporation, the Broad Foundation and Big Daddy Bill Gates, you probably won’t be very receptive to anything else I have to say.

 

Instead I will focus on the second claim, because it is the more pernicious of the two.

 

Put simply, unions are not perfect, but they are not evil. In fact, they are essential to the health of public education.

 

Many progressives are upset with teachers unions because of the current Presidential election. Both the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) endorsed Hillary Clinton in the primary election without what many would consider adequately polling rank and file members. For better or worse, the endorsements were top-down affairs reflecting the preference of union leaders.

 

That’s not how unions are supposed to work. And it’s having consequences for the way both members and non-members view teachers unions.

 

Critics infer from this that unions don’t represent membership. They are de facto arms of the waiting Clinton administration and the neoliberal agenda.

 

There may be some truth to this, but it does not represent the whole picture. Not nearly.

 

Unions are like any other democratic organization. The larger the association, the further from the grassroots the decision making body.

 

In the mammoth national unions, decisions are made by representatives most removed from our schools. They probably were teachers or support staff at some point in the past, but that may be ancient history. Now they are professional leaders and therefore at a remove from the grassroots.

 

By contrast, in our local chapters, leaders are most often working classroom teachers. Decisions are made by those still meeting students’ needs on a day-to-day basis. As such, they retain an authenticity and expertise that may be more cloudy in the large bureaucracies.

 

This isn’t to say the national unions are by definition unconcerned with the needs of teachers and students. I’m sure that most of the NEA and AFT leadership who decided to endorse Clinton did it because they honestly believe doing so will help public education. And – who knows – they may be right. But what they forgot in this case was the democratic process they were tasked with preserving. As such, they may have to pay a price for their hubris when their terms are up.

 

In most cases, the leaders of national teachers unions are at too much of a remove to see what is best for our schools. And they usually know that. It is up to the rank and file to tell them what to do, and that’s what happens every year at representative assemblies through various caucuses made up of work-a-day members. And if leaders overstep their authority it is members’ duty to hold them accountable at election time.

 

So even though the national organizations are most likely to go astray, they often don’t. Usually even these giants are trying to improve the situation in our public schools.

 

However, it can’t be denied that the most intense and passionate activism happens a bit closer to where the rubber hits the road. It’s those local chapters that are there everyday and make the most difference. They are the heart and soul of unionism.

 

So when corporate education reformers sneeringly deprecate their opponents as mere unions, they’re glossing over an important distinction. Opposition to privatization and standardization policies doesn’t come from the leadership of the NEA and AFT. It comes from the grassroots. This is not a top down initiative. It is bottom up.

 

This is how it’s always been. There is no political organization directing the fight to save public education. The Democrats certainly aren’t overly concerned with reigning in charter schools. It was grassroots Democrats – some of whom are also union members – who worked to rewrite the party platform to do so. The Clinton campaign is not directing anyone to opt out of standardized testing. However, voters are demanding that Clinton be receptive to their needs – and some of them are union members.

 

There is no great union conspiracy to fight these policies. It’s called public opinion, and it’s changing.

 

That’s what scares the standardizers and privatizers. They’ve had free run of the store for almost two decades and now the public is waking up.

 

They’re desperately trying to paint this as a union movement when it’s not. Unions are involved, but they aren’t alone. And moreover, their involvement is not necessarily an impediment.

 

The needs of the community and the needs of teachers are the same.

 

Both want excellent public schools.

 

Both want the best for our students.

 

Both want academic policies that will help students learn – not help corporations cash in.

 

And both groups want good teachers in the classroom – not bad ones!

 

The biggest lie to have resonated with the public is this notion that teachers unions are only concerned with shielding bad teachers from justice. This is demonstrably untrue.

 

Unions fight to make sure teachers get due process, but they also fight to make sure bad teachers are shown the door.

 

In fact, in districts with strong unions, MORE bad teachers are fired – not less, according to a new study by economics Prof. Eunice Han from the University of Utah.

 

The study entitled The Myth of Unions’ Overprotection of Bad Teachers concludes that when unions are strong and successfully bargain for higher salaries, they have an incentive to help ensure ineffective teachers don’t receive tenure. In short, it costs too much to keep bad teachers on staff. It is in the interests of the collective bargaining unit to ensure those unfit to teach move along.

 

Moreover, Han also concludes that strong unions actually help reduce the dropout rate. It just makes sense. When you treat people like the professionals they are, when you give them autonomy and respect, they’re free to concentrate more energy into their jobs than fighting to keep those jobs.

 

But unions stand in direct opposition to the efforts of corporate vultures trying to swoop in and profit off of public education. Teachers provide a valuable service to students. If your goal is to reduce the cost of that service no matter how much that reduces its value to students, you need a weak labor force. You need the ability to reduce salary so you can claim the savings as profit.

 

THAT’S why corporate education reformers hate teachers and their unions. We make it nearly impossible to swipe school budgets into their own pockets.

 

So do unions belong in the fight against corporate education reform?

 

Answer: Heck yeah! In fact, they are essential to it.