What Happened to 2018 As The Year of the Teacher?

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This year teachers took their mission way beyond the classroom.

 

Starting in West Virginia, we staged half-a-dozen walkouts in red states across the country demanding a better investment in children’s educations and often getting it.

 

Then we took that momentum and stormed our state capitals and Washington, DC, with thousands of grassroots campaigns that translated into seats in government.

 

It was so effective and unprecedented that the story began circulating that 2018 would be known as “The Year of the Teacher.”

 

And then, just as suddenly, the story stopped.

 

No more headlines. No more editorials. No more exposes.

 

So what happened?

 

The gum in the works seems to have been a story in The Atlantic by Alia Wong called “The Questionable Year of the Teacher Politician.”

 

In it, she writes that the teacher insurgence was overblown by unions and marks little more than a moment in time and not an authentic movement.

 

It really comes down to a numbers game. Numerous sources cite high numbers of teachers running for office. Wong disputes them.

 

National Education Association (NEA) senior political director Carrie Pugh says about 1,800 educators – both Republicans and Democrats – sought seats in state legislatures this year. Likewise, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), a group that works to elect Democrats to state legislatures, puts the number at 1,456 educators.

 

Wong disputes these figures because she says most of these people aren’t currently K-12 classroom teachers.

 

She writes:

 

 “The NEA uses the word educator liberally, counting essentially anyone who currently works in or used to work in an education-related job, such as professors, guidance counselors, and school administrators.”

 

Maddy Will and others at Education Week agree with Wong’s assessment. According to their analysis, out of the thousands of education-related candidates, they could only prove that 177 were K-12 classroom teachers.

 

And there you have it.

 

A story about teachers taking over their own destinies is dead in the water.

 

However, this begs two important questions: (1) Is not being able to corroborate the facts the same as disproving them? And (2) Is being a K-12 classroom teacher a fair metric by which to judge education candidates?

 

First, there’s the issue of corroboration.

 

Wong, herself, notes that part of the disparity, “…may come down to the inconsistent ways in which candidate lists are compiled from state to state and organization to organization.” It’s unclear why that, by itself, throws doubt on the NEA’s and DLCC’s numbers. These are verifiable facts. Journalists could – in theory – track down their truth or falsity if their parent companies ponied up the dough for enough staff to do the hard work of researching them. The fact that this hasn’t happened is not proof of anything except low journalistic standards.

 

Second, there’s the question of whether Wong and Will are holding teachers up to a fair standard.

 

Since the Great Recession, more than 116,000 educators have been out of work. If roughly 1-2% of them decide to run for office, doesn’t that represent a rising tide of teachers striking back at the very representatives responsible for neglecting schools and students? Aren’t they seeking to right the wrongs that put them out of work in the first place?

 

Even if we look at just the people currently employed in an education field, why are college professors defined out of existence? Why are guidance counselors and principals not worthy of notice?

 

Certainly K-12 classroom teachers are at the heart of the day-to-day workings of the education system. But these others are by no means unrelated.

 

Carol Burris was an award-winning principal at South Side High School in the Rockville Centre School District of New York before becoming Executive Director of the Network for Public Education (NPE). Diane Ravitch, who co-founded NPE, is an education historian and research professor at New York University.

 

If Wong and Will are to be believed, the work of Burris and Ravitch on behalf of public education should be discounted because they are not currently working in the classroom. That’s just ridiculous.

 

This isn’t about logic or facts. It’s about controlling the narrative.

 

The Atlantic and Education Week are artificially massaging the numbers to support the narrative their owners prefer.

 

And let’s not forget, both publications are in bed with the forces of standardization and privatization that educators of every stripe have been taking arms against this year and beyond.

 

Though The Atlantic is a 162-year-old pillar of the journalistic establishment, it was purchased on July 28, 2017, by the Emerson Collective. This is Laurne Powell Jobs’ philanthrocapitalist cover organization which she’s been using in a media blitz to reinvent high schools by way of corporate education reform.

 

Likewise, Education Week has always had a corporatist slant on its editorial page and sometimes even in the way it reports news. Nowhere is this more blatant than the publication’s annual Quality Counts issue which promotes the standards-and-testing industrial school complex of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Common Core, etc.

 

It’s no wonder that these organizations would want to stop the narrative of insurgent teachers taking a stand against the very things these publications and their owners hold dear.

 

They want to cast doubt on the record-breaking activism of parents, students, citizens and, yes, teachers.

 

But the facts tell a very different story.

 

From West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky to Colorado and Arizona, educators took to the streets last spring to rally for adequate, equitable and sustainable K–12 funding.

 

All over the country, we’re demanding properly equipped classrooms, better wages, and stronger public schools.

 

In Connecticut we sent the first black woman to the legislature from the state, Jahana Hayes, a school administrator and Teacher of the Year.

 

We took down Wisconsin’s anti-education Governor Scott Walker. Not only that, but we replaced him with the state superintendent of public instruction, Tony Evers, on a platform centered on schools and learning.

 

And he wasn’t the only educator with a gubernatorial win. Tim Walz, a former high school teacher, became governor of Minnesota.

 

In Oklahoma, former teachers Carri Hicks, Jacob Rosencrants, and John Waldron all won seats in the state legislature, who along with others riding the pro-school tide increased the state’s “education caucus” – a group of bipartisan lawmakers committed to improving schools – from nine members to 25.

 

Even where candidates weren’t explicitly educators, mobilizing around the issue of education brought electoral victories. Democratic candidates were able to break the Republican supermajority in North Carolina because of their schools advocacy.

 

Even in Michigan – home of our anti-education Education Secretary Betsy DeVos – Gretchen Whitmer was elected governor after campaigning against public-school funding cuts.

 

In Illinois, anti-education governor Bruce Rauner got the boot, while Democrat J.B. Pritzker unseated him on a schools platform.

 

And in Kansas, not only did school districts successfully sue the state for more funding, Laura Kelly defeated conservative incumbent governor Kris Kobach on a platform of further expanding school funding.

 

These victories didn’t just happen. They were the result of grassroots people power.

 

The NEA says even beyond educators seeking office, members and their families showed a 165% increase in activism and volunteering during the midterm election over 2016. This is especially significant because participation tends to flag, not increase, around midterms.

 

So let’s return to the disputed numbers of teachers who sought election this campaign season.

 

Of the 1,800 educators the NEA identified, 1,080 of them were elected to their state legislatures. When it comes to the smaller American Federation of Teachers (AFT), 109 of 178 educators won.

 

If we go by Education Week’s numbers, just 43 of 177 won.

 

Clearly, this is not the whole picture.

 

The education insurgency was more than even getting candidates elected. It was also about changes in policy.

 

In Massachusetts, we successfully repealed the Ban on Bilingual Education so educators will be able to teach English Language Learners in a mix of the students’ native language and English as a bridge to greater English proficiency.

 

In North Carolina, we successfully lobbied state lawmakers to stop for-profit charter schools from taking over four of five public schools.

 

And everywhere you look the stranglehold of high stakes standardized testing is losing its grip.

 

Because of our advocacy, the amount of time spent on these deeply biased assessments has been cut in states like Maryland, New Mexico, West Virginia, Hawaii, and Pennsylvania.

 

The highly suspect practice of evaluating teachers on student test scores has been dropped in Connecticut and the weight it is given has been reduced in New Mexico.

 

Now with new policies in Idaho and North Dakota, 10 states have explicit laws on the books allowing parents to opt their children out of some or all of these exams.

 

Half of New Hampshire’s school districts have replaced standardized tests in most grades with local, teacher-made performance assessments.

 

I don’t care what corporate journalists are being forced to report by their billionaire owners.

 

These accomplishments should not be minimized.

 

Teachers are at the heart of communities fighting the good fight everywhere.

 

And in most places we’re winning!

 

We’re teaching our lawmakers what it means to support public education – and if they refuse to learn that lesson, we’re replacing them.

 

If that’s not “Year of the Teacher,” I don’t know what is.

 


 

Like this post? 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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Charter School Cheerleaders Elected to Leadership with PA House Dems

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Democratic gains in the midterm elections were a repudiation of the policies of Donald Trump.

 

Yet holding nearly the same views as Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos earned two Pennsylvania state representatives high leadership positions with House Democrats.

 

Rep. Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, was elected minority whip – the second highest position after floor leader. Rep. Joanna McClinton, another Philadelphia Democrat, was selected chair of the Democratic Caucus.

 

Even after making gains in the election, Democrats did not get control of either the state House or Senate from Republicans, but kept control of the Governor’s mansion.

 

New leadership positions will last for two years, but have many scratching their heads.

 

Both Harris and McClinton are staunch supporters of charter schools over and above traditional public schools just like DeVos, a Republican megadonor before being selected for Trump’s cabinet.

 

Harris and McClinton support school vouchers – just like DeVos – if labeled opportunity scholarships. In their relatively short time in Harrisburg they’ve pushed for charter school expansion and even state takeovers of struggling schools serving mostly children of color.

 

Such strong neoconservative values might make it hard to tell which party the two belong to if it weren’t for one thing – the color of their skin.

 

Both Harris and McClinton are African American.

 

In fact, McClinton will make state history as the first woman of color in her leadership position. Harris will be the first black whip since Rep. K. Leroy Irvis in the 1970s.

 

Even so, their views put them in direct opposition with many civil rights leaders.

 

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Black Lives Matter have called for a moratorium on new charter schools. Journey for Justice (J4J), a nationwide civil rights collective made up of more than of 38 organizations of Black and Brown parents and students in several cities including Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, has gone even further demanding more community based traditional public schools.

 

Jitu Brown, national director of J4J, put it this way:

 

“Who are these bankers and why are they concerned about my school? Isolation is defeat. Privatizers are not reformers. They are colonizers and settlers. We do not negotiate with our executioner. We need to kill the privatization movement. We have worked in silos and adopted the values of our oppressors. You want a seat at the table, but you are on the menu too. We have more in common with each other than any of us do with our oppressors. People will vote against their interest with hatred that they learned centuries ago – but we need to be different. We cannot adopt the language of our oppressors. We don’t have failing schools, we have been failed.”

 

Perhaps Harris and McClinton’s support has something to do with campaign finance. Both have accepted large sums from the charter school industry.

 

Harris’s 2012 campaign was funded 58% by school privation business interests – Students First PAC and its associates. That breaks down to $37,295 from Make a Difference PAC, $30,000 directly from Students First PAC and $2,000 from Economic Development PAC.

 

And he’s still bankrolled mostly by that industry. More recently, he has taken $25,000 from Excellent Schools Pa and $11,500 from Students First Pa PAC.

 

McClinton has taken $5,250 from Excellent Schools PA and $1,000 from Students First PAC. However, she also received $3,000 from the public school friendly Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers.

 

Students First PA and Students First PAC are Pennsylvania political action committees associated with the national school privatization lobbying firm American Federation for Children (AFC) which is chaired by DeVos.

 

What are Democratic House leaders doing taking large campaign contributions from Trump’s Education Secretary?

 

Moreover, both Harris and McClinton got their start in politics working for state Sen. Anthony “Tony” Williams, D-Philadelphia, the biggest recipient of school privatization money in the entire state. He took at least $5 million from the industry during his failed bid for governor in 2010, and an additional $7 million for a failed run at Philly Mayor in 2015.

 

Harris was an intern for Williams and McClinton was Williams’ chief counsel.

 

Even in Harrisburg, some question the two state reps ties to the far right billionaires bankrolling the school privatization industry. After all, these are the same people whose candidates just lost the midterms – and now fresh from an electoral victory Dems are elevating those of their own who are taking money from the same well!?

 

Student First PAC wasn’t just a main contributor to Harris and McClinton. It contributed $1 million to Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner before he was defeated by Democrat Tom Wolf. It also contributed boatloads of money to numerous GOP candidates in the Commonwealth running against Democrats just this last election cycle.

 

So why would the Democratic caucus vote for Harris and McClinton as new faces of party leadership?

 

Part of the reason seems to be a power struggle inside the party between the two halves of the state.

 

Leadership had been over-represented by lawmakers from the west – the Pittsburgh region and thereabouts. Harris and McClinton’s new positions go further to balancing the power with the east – the Philadelphia region.

 

Moreover, there was a legitimate concern that party leadership was too white and male.

 

However, there were other eastern Democrats, other women and people of color in the chamber who didn’t come with the baggage of Harris and McClinton.

 

Harris was asked point blank if he’d stop taking charter school money if elected to a leadership position, according to anonymous sources. He gave no indication that he would.

 

In his role as whip, Harris will have the greater opportunity to work for the charter school industry.

 

The whip is responsible for making sure that Democratic members attend sessions and generally understand the specifics of legislation and procedural votes in the House.

 

However, his comments on education policy are extremely biased.

 

For instance, he took exception when a report by the nonprofit Public Citizens for Children and Youth concluded that Pennsylvania’s charter schools are not outperforming traditional public schools, and the state’s 20-year-old charter law needs to be reformed.

 

The report says only 21 percent of Pennsylvania’s charters made the grade on the state School Performance Profile versus 54 percent of traditional district schools.

 

Harris response?

 

“I think it’s unfair to take all of the traditional public schools in the state and all of the charter schools in the state and compare them to each other.”

 

Really? Yet you propose we increase the number of charter schools BECAUSE they allegedly produce better academic outcomes. How can you know that if you’re unwilling to compare them? Or are you only unwilling to compare them when the results don’t support the policy positions you’re being paid to promote?

 

Harris also joined with Republican state Rep. John Taylor (another Philadelphia politician) to allow the state to takeover the lowest performing districts and give them over to charter school operators on the model of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

 

Almost a third of the state’s most struggling schools — 95, according to PA Department of Education — are located in Philadelphia. Taylor and Harris’s proposal was called the Educational Opportunity and Accountability Act.

 

Harris and McClinton, who represent adjacent areas of south Philadelphia, have rallied for charter schools and de facto school vouchers together.

 

“People have told me that I’ve been trying to dismantle public education,” said Harris. “No! I just know what it’s like to grow up in a neighborhood without options.”

 

The options he’s pushing for will greatly help corporations accepting public tax dollars to run schools at a profit, cherry pick enrollment, cut services and otherwise spend that money behind closed doors without accountability.

 

Payments to charter schools represent one of the fastest growing portions of the School District of Philadelphia’s budget. These costs are pushing the district toward fiscal uncertainty. Yet Harris and McClinton are pushing for a similar model throughout the Commonwealth.

 

 

Harris calls the push for more charter schools a “righteous movement.”

 

I’m sure Betsy DeVos would agree.

 

Education advocates in the Keystone state find themselves in a precarious position.

 

Though many of our candidates won in this midterm election, we will have to keep a close eye on Harrisburg.

 

Where will Harris and McClinton lead the party?

 

Will they encourage their colleagues to take money from the school privatization industry – the same industry bankrolling their opponents?

 

Or will they keep their biases to themselves and work for the betterment of the party and the communities it is sworn to represent?

 


 

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

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The World Mourns for Jews After Pittsburgh’s Synagogue Shooting. What About Other Targets of Hate?

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When a white supremacist killed 11 people and wounded 6 others at a Pittsburgh synagogue last weekend, the world took notice.

 

Lights dimmed at the Eiffel Tower and Empire State building.

 

Candlelight vigils were held nationwide – including in Boston, Houston, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, New Orleans, Atlanta, Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles.

 

A host of international leaders from the Pope to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed outrage, sadness and solidarity.

 

I’ll admit that as a native Pittsburgher and person of Jewish descent, it touched me deeply.

 

For a moment, it seemed like the whole world had stopped spinning and from every corner of the globe people were with us in our tragedy.

 

But at the same time, it was troubling.

 

After all, there were at least two other major hate crimes in the U.S. perpetrated within 72 hours of the shooting.

 

In Kentucky, a white man shot and killed two African-Americans at a Kroger grocery store following a failed attempt to break into a black church.

 

Only two days later, a deranged man who had railed against Democrats and minorities with hate-filled messages online was arrested for allegedly sending mail bombs to people who’d been criticized by President Donald Trump.

 

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Where were the candlelight vigils for those atrocities?

 

Where were the international landmarks going dark?

 

Where was the worldwide condemnation?

 

In the wake of Pittsburgh’s tragedy, these other violent acts have been almost forgotten.

 

Yet they’re all symptoms of the same disease – hate and bigotry.

 

Don’t get me wrong.

 

What happened in Pittsburgh was terrible.

 

The Anti-Defamation League estimates that the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue may be the most deadly attack on Jews on American Soil in our history.

 

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But me and mine do not have a monopoly on sorrow.

 

We suffer, but we are not the only ones hurting.

 

This all happened not far from my home.

 

I’ll admit that I am having a really hard time dealing with it.

 

I am not sleeping well.

 

I find myself zoning out in the middle of everyday activities.

 

And I feel this constant anxiety like part of me is expecting to hear a gunshot ringing down the hall at any time.

 

When the alleged shooter entered the sanctuary armed to the teeth and shouted “All Jews must die!” before carrying out his plan, he included me in his declaration.

 

All Jews.

 

That’s me.

 

That’s my daughter. My parents. My family.

 

It means something to me that so many people have come together to repudiate this crime.

 

The Islamic Center of Pittsburgh and other U.S. based Muslim groups donated more than $200,000 for funeral expenses. An Iranian refugee (who hadn’t even been to the three rivers) started a GoFundMe that brought in $1 million for the victims and their families.

 

You can’t go anywhere in Pittsburgh without a memorial, a moment of silence, a shared statement of solidarity and love.

 

At the symphony, musicians read two statements from the stage against hate before playing a Hebrew melody with string quartet.

 

At my school – I’m a teacher – the union decided to collect money for the victims.

 

 

I saw a barge floating down one of the rivers that had the message “Stronger Than Hate” on the side next to the modified Steelers logo where the top star had been replaced by a Star of David.

 

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I even saw a similar message on a Wendy’s sign: “PittsburghStrong/ Stronger/ Than Hate”.

 

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The community has come together in a way I’ve never seen before.

 

 

But I can’t help wondering why.

 

 

Even after Richard Baumhammers went on a racially motivated killing spree in 2000 murdering five people including two Jews, the response wasn’t this overwhelming.

 

 

Perhaps it’s just that this latest shooting is the final straw.

 

Perhaps it is the moment when our nation finally pulls together and says that enough is enough – We won’t tolerate this kind of hate and violence.

 

I hope that’s it.

 

However, in the shadows of my mind I wonder if it might not be a reflection of the same beast that struck us last weekend.

 

Could it be that we’re willing to put up with violence against brown people, but only draw the line when those targeted have lighter skin?

 

I guess my point – if I have one – is this: Thank you, But.

 

On behalf of Pittsburgh’s Jews, thank you for having our back.

 

If we’re going to survive this, we’re going to need your continued support and solidarity.

 

But it’s not just us.

 

Hate crimes have jumped from about 70 incidents a year in the 1990s to more than 300 a year since 2001. And after Trump was elected, 900 bias-related incidents were reported against minorities within the first 10 days.

 

Our country was built on the genocide of over 110 million indigenous Americans and the enslavement of 30 million Africans.

 

The idea of concentration camps didn’t originate with the Nazis. Hitler got the idea from U.S. treatment of Native Americans.

 

Racism didn’t end with the Civil Rights Movement. It just changed shape and is hidden in the way we practice health care, education, and policing all the way to mass incarceration.

 

 

The shock and solidarity in the wake of the synagogue shooting is appreciated, but it’s not enough to mourn only when 11 Jews are murdered in cold blood.

 

It’s not enough to take a stand against anti-Semitism.

 

We need to join together to fight all of it.

 

We need to be unified against school segregation, police brutality, xenophobia and prejudice in all of its forms.

 

The white supremacist who killed my friends and neighbors targeted us because he thought we were helping brown-skinned immigrants into the country.

 

We can’t just stand for the helpers. We need to stand for those in need of that help.

 

It just won’t work any other way.

 

We can’t just be against violence to light skinned minorities. We have to empathize and protect our brown skinned brothers and sisters, too. We have to love and cherish our LGBTQ neighbors, as well.

 

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We have to realize that our freedom, our safety, our very lives depend not just on what rights we have – but on what rights we give to all.

 

That is the only way any of us will ever feel safe again.

 

Through love and solidarity for every. Single. Human. Being.

 

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

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The Pittsburgh Community is Stronger Than the Synagogue Shooter’s Hate

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There’s a popular yard sign in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

 

In bands of green and blue and yellow, it projects the same message in Spanish, English and Arabic:

 

“No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.”

 

If the community had a motto, I think that might be it.

 

Though known for its high concentration of Jewish residents, the Pennsylvania locale is a multicultural crossroads.

 

That may have made it a target today when a shooter entered the Tree of Life Synagogue.

 

Though the alleged culprit has been captured, details are still being uncovered. The death toll has yet to be tallied.

 

Unconfirmed reports state that he shouted “All Jews must die,” before opening fire.

 

But I don’t believe that the Jewish community was his only target.

 

Or more precisely – it wasn’t just the Jewish part – it was the community that had grown up around it.

 

I know Squirrel Hill well.

 

I live close by. I grew up on those streets. I’ve been to services at that synagogue. I have family who are members.

 

Thankfully it seems that no one related to me was there this morning. But when victims names are released, I probably will know who they are.

 

I know this community.

 

I am an extended part of it.

 

And that’s something of which I am proud.

 

Just walk along Murray Avenue and you’ll see Indian, Italian, Jewish, African, Chinese – every nationality imaginable – offering the fruits of their culture for friendly commerce.

 

You’ll see Hasidic Jews in dark hats and flowing tzitzit walking next to women in colorful saris next to trans and lesbians, kids with every color skin playing together in harmony.

 

Whenever I want a good corned beef sandwich or a quality lox and bagel, I go there. Whenever I want a spicy curry or the freshest sushi or an authentic macaroon, that’s the place. If I want to hear a string quartet or a lecture from a visiting dignitary or even if I want to swim in a public pool, membership to the Jewish Community Center is open to all.

 

It’s like a few blocks of cosmopolitan life tucked away in a city more known for segregation. We have many ethnic neighborhoods but few where one culture flows so easily into another.

 

Heck. Even the Tree of Life Synagogue, itself, doesn’t serve one congregation. It serves three who all had services going on at different parts of the building this morning.

 

There’s just something very special about this place.

 

It’s where you can go to be yourself – in fact, you’re encouraged to be who you are and not conform to any particular norm. Yet in doing so, you’re somehow demonstrating unity.

 

Paradoxically, being you makes you one of us.

 

It’s weird.

 

I think it may have been that sense of community that made Squirrel Hill, in general, and the Tree of Life Synagogue, in particular, a target.

 

The hate-filled person who attacked us today was terrified of that unity.

 

He was so frightened of disillusion, of losing his sense of self, that he had to end the lives of those who could do what he couldn’t.

 

It’s pathetic, really.

 

If your sense of self is only a negative, only opposition to someone else’s otherness, you really don’t have much self to lose.

 

If you define yourself by your hate, what are you?

 

Do you even really exist?

 

Most of us are very different.

 

We are complex assortments of personality – a family identity, a cultural heritage, a work persona, a spirituality, a sense of justice.

 

Communities like Squirrel Hill nurture this multifarious nature.

 

They welcome and celebrate difference.

 

I wish America was more like Squirrel Hill and not the other way around.

 

If this community’s normal was our national ideal, think of the country we would be living in!

 

Being different wouldn’t be an obstacle, it would be cherished.

 

When meeting someone with an unfamiliar name, a heritage of which you were ignorant, a sexuality or gender identity of which you had little knowledge – your response wouldn’t be fear or discomfort. It would be a thrill of excitement that you are lucky enough to broaden your understanding of the many ways there are to be human.

 

It would be a country where no one grew up so stunted and afraid that the only solution they could imagine would be the death of others.

 

That’s the America I want to live in.

 

Squirrel Hill is stronger than this synagogue shooters hate.

 

I hope our country is, too.


 

Like this post? 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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Pennsylvania’s Keystone Exam – the Monster We Refuse to Let Die

 

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Let’s say there was a monster loose in Pennsylvania and you caught it.

 

Its days of wandering loose causing chaos and destruction were over.

 

But what would you do with such a beast now?

 

Would you kill it outright? Stop it from ever hurting anyone ever again?

 

Or would you simply neutralize it – place it perhaps in the center of a labyrinth, continue feeding it, and in fact create a whole religion based on worshipping it?

 

In the keystone state, we have just such a creature, and we’re going with the second option – the maze, nourishment and a cult.

 

The monster is, of course, the Keystone Exams. And like the Minotaur of ancient myth, we’re building a bureaucratic prison in which to house it.

 

Sure, we’ve spent billions of dollars on these unnecessary, badly written and biased graduation assessments.

 

And, heck, it would just make more sense to stop doing something that isn’t working, wastes money and causes legitimate problems for students.

 

But this is Pennsylvania! We’re not going to admit we made a mistake. Better to bury it under red tape and pretend like this is what we meant all along. Nothing to see here, folks. Nothing to see…

 

When lawmakers originally came up with this plan… correction: when testing companies bribed federal lawmakers to force state lawmakers to enact this cockamamey plan – it was supposed to function as a graduation requirement.

 

Pass these tests or no diploma for you.

 

However, somehow Harrisburg politicians couldn’t get up the nerve to actually bar tens of thousands of worthy students from graduating when they had already proven they deserved it by passing 12 years of grade school.

 

So after kicking the can down the road for more than 6 years, they came up with this solution. Make it a graduation requirement, but include a whole truckload of other options that could count instead.

 

In short, we’re creating endless corridors of paperwork, placing the tests in the center and going on with our day.

 

The good news: if students can make it through the labyrinth, they never need to take or pass the Keystone Exams!

 

The bad news: we’re still paying millions of dollars to support these tests and we’re still forcing our teachers to make all instruction about them.

 

And that’s what we in the Commonwealth call a “victory.”

 

Yippee!

 

The bill to circumvent the Keystone Exams by providing multiple means of getting a diploma was passed by the state house and senate. Gov. Tom Wolf is expected to sign it into law this week.

 

If he does, students will still be given the Keystone Exams (unless opted out) and could demonstrate they’re worthy of a diploma by passing them. But students will have many additional ways to prove they’re worthy of a cap and gown, such as:

 

  • Show proficiency on the SAT, PSAT or ACT;
  • Pass an Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exam;
  • Complete a dual-enrollment program;
  • Complete an apprenticeship program;
  • Get accepted to an accredited four-year nonprofit institution of higher education;
  • Complete a service-learning project;
  • Secure a letter of full-time employment;
  • Achieve an acceptable score on a WorkKeys assessment, an exam administered by the ACT which assesses workplace skills including math, reading comprehension and applied technology.

 

To sweeten the pot even further, this won’t even go into effect until the 2021-22 school year.

 

So in four years, high school seniors will be racing to submit their letters of college admission, or letters of employment or SAT scores or whatever to prove they actually deserve that diploma.

 

But that will not be the end of it.

 

Just because victims thrown into the labyrinth have an easy path to avoiding the monster doesn’t mean the monster won’t affect them.

 

Teaching evaluations are still based on test scores. Schools evaluations are still based on test scores.

 

This continues the tremendous state pressure for local districts to make instruction all about testing.

 

Kids don’t have to pass the test, but their everyday classroom experiences will still be largely determined by these test.

 

Heck, many districts will probably “voluntarily” decide to make passing the test a graduation requirement just to force their students to take them seriously.

 

So anyone who’s out celebrating that the Keystone Exams are dead is premature.

 

State Sen. Andy Dinniman, at least, understands this.

 

“Remember, the Keystones have been delayed and the graduation requirement associated with them has been stopped, but they will still be required in Pennsylvania schools for federal accountability,” he said in statement.

 

“Meanwhile, we know they are expensive, redundant and unnecessary and I will continue to work to end them once and for all.”

 

Dinniman, a Democrat, is minority chair of the Senate Education Committee.

 

It’s a problem all too typical in the state.

 

Most lawmakers are too timid to take any type of real stand. They’d rather support some half-measure so they can claim to be in favor of either or both sides of an argument.

 

For instance, consider the time it takes to finish the tests.

 

Parents, teachers and students have complained about how these assessments waste academic time that could be better used to teach the necessary skills needed to pass.

 

So Gov. Wolf cut the Keystone Exams and Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) test by a total of almost 2 hours a year.

 

However, at the same time, his administration suggests students take a series of additional pretests that are supposed to predict success on the PSSA or Keystone Exams – tests such as the Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDT) assessment.

 

If schools follow the state’s instructions and give students this exam in reading, math and science 3 to 5 times a year, that’s an additional 50-90 minutes per test. That comes to 22.5 hours of additional testing!

 

So 22.5 hours minus 2 hours equals… NOT A REDUCATION IN TESTING!

 

But it gives lawmakers plausible deniability.

 

They can claim to be cutting testing while actually suggesting we increase it.

 

And we see the same sort of thing here.

 

Lawmakers can claim to be reducing the power of the Keystone Exams while still enshrining it as the driving force behind all instruction in the state.

 

What we need are leaders and not politicians.

 

We need people willing to take a stand and do what’s right even if that puts them at odds with the moneyed special interests.

 

That takes more than polls and market analysis.

 

It takes moral courage.

 

But there’s no test for that.


 

Like this post? 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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Five Reasons to Vote NO on the Allegheny County Children’s Fund

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You can’t raise taxes without a plan of how to spend the money.

 

But that’s exactly what voters in and around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, are being asked to approve this Nov. 6.

 

Come election day, all voters in Allegheny County will be confronted with what’s been called the Children’s Fund, a referendum asking for a voluntary 5% property tax hike that allegedly would go to pay for early learning, after-school programs and healthy meals for kids.

 

But there are no details about who will provide these services, who will be responsible for the money, exactly what else the money might be used for or almost anything substantive about it.

 

It’s just a check with “For Kids” scrawled in the Memo and everything else left blank.

 

The plan is highly controversial drawing criticism from across the Mon Valley including school directors, education advocates and even progressive groups like the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN).

 

Here are the top five reasons you should vote NO on the referendum:

 

1) It Raises Taxes Without Stipulating Where the Money Goes

 

Here’s what we do know.

 

The Children’s Fund would be financed by 0.25 mills of property tax — $25 on each $100,000 of assessed value, beginning Jan. 1.

 

That’s expected to generate roughly $18 million a year that would begin to be distributed in 2020.

 

If approved, it would change the county Home Rule Charter to establish the fund as part of county government. It would create a new office under the supervision of the county manager.

A Citizens’ Advisory Commission would “review and advise” the work of the new office, according to the proposed charter amendment.

 

However, County Council and County Executive Rich Fitzgerald would have to do the work of actually creating all this stuff. They’d have to pass an ordinance establishing how this all works, what powers the advisory commission has, etc. They would have to determine whether the money goes to existing programs or new ones. They’d have to set up audits of the money every five years, conduct a study to recommend goals and a focus for how the funding is spent.

 

That’s an awful lot left undecided.

 

It makes no sense for voters to hand over the money BEFORE we figure all this other stuff out.

 

It’s not at all how good government works.

 

You’re supposed to define a problem or need and then come up with a plan to meet that need. You prepare a budget that justifies raising taxes and then you vote on it.

 

This is exactly the opposite. We’re getting the money before the plan of how to spend it.

 

That’s a recipe for fraud and financial mismanagement.

 

 

2) It’s Unclear Who Would Be In Charge of the Money

 

Who would be accountable for this money?

 

We know who gets to decide this – County Council and the Chief Executive. But we don’t know who they will pick or what powers they’ll delegate to these people. Nor do we know what kind of oversight there will be or what kind of regulations will exist for how it can be spent.

 

This is a blind statement of trust.

 

It’s like saying – “Here’s $18 million. Go buy us something nice.”

 

What if they mismanage the money? And what would that even mean for money with so few strings attached? And how would we know? How transparent would this process be?

 

It’s kind of hard to approve such a plan with so many variables up in the air.

 

3) The Campaign was Not Grass Roots

 

To hear supporters talk, you’d think this was a bottom up crusade created by, organized by and conducted by everyday citizens from our communities.

 

It wasn’t.

 

Sure, volunteers for the Children’s Fund went door-to-door to collect more than 40,000 signatures from voters last summer.

 

But they weren’t all volunteers.

 

 

Financial documents show that the whole initiative has been funded by various nonprofit organizations that could, themselves, become beneficiaries of this same fund.

 

 

According to the Children’s Fund’s own campaign finance report, as of June there were three nonprofit corporations who donated $427,000 to the campaign: the Human Services Center of Turtle Creek gave $160,000, Pressley Ridge Foundation gave $150,000, and Allies for Children gave a donation of $45,000 and another for $72,000.

 

That’s like McDonalds spending a hundred thousand dollars to fix up the school cafeterias so it could land a multi-million dollar annual contract!

 

It’s a huge conflict of interest.

 

At very least, it’s purposefully misleading.

 

Many of those “volunteers” gathering signatures weren’t working for free. They were part of the $100,000 spent by the campaign to hire Vote Goal Organizing for paid signature collectors.

 

That doesn’t look like charity. It looks like philanthrocapitalism – when corporations try to disguise grabs for power and profit as philanthropy.

 

Corporations – even so-called nonprofit corporations – rarely do things out of sheer goodness. They’re acting in the best interest of the company.

 

I see no reason to think this “Children’s Fund” is any different.

 

4) It Works Around Instead of With Local Government

 

Though almost everyone agrees with the stated goals of the Children’s Fund, many organizations and government officials complained that they were not consulted and made a part of the process.

 

 

Two Pittsburgh Public School directors went on record in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette about a lack of communication.

 

“First and foremost, we have not had any conversations with the organizers of the referendum,” board president Regina Holley said. “There are lots of ifs and whats that have not been answered.”

 

Kevin Carter, another city school director added, “In my role as a school board member, they didn’t talk to us about this at all.”

 

“When you leave your largest school district in the region out of this conversation, are you doing this around children?” he asked, citing that the district serves 25,000 students daily.

 

This has been a common thread among officials. No one wants to say they’re against collecting money that’s ostensibly for the benefit of children, but it’s hard to manage the money if you’re not part of the process.

 

And it’s not just protocol. Many are worried that this lack of communication may be emblematic of how the fund will be run. If organizers aren’t willing to work with local governments to get the job done, how will they know what each community needs? How will they meet those needs? Is that even what the fund will really be about?

 

Richard Livingston, Clairton school board president, noted concern that the money collected might not be spent evenly throughout the county. For all he knows, it could just be spent in the city or in select areas.

 

Indeed, this is not the best way to start any endeavor funded by all, for the benefit of all children.

 

 

5) It’s Redundant

 

While it’s true that the county could use more funding to meet the needs of students, numerous organizations already exist that attempt to provide these services.

 

 

There are a plethora of Pre-K, after school tutoring and meal services in the Mon Valley. In fact, much of this is done at the county’s various neighborhood schools.

 

If organizers were only concerned with meeting these needs, why form an office within county government that would have an appointed advisory commission? Why not just increase the funding at the local schools and/or organizations already doing this work?

 

In fact, this is exactly the reason the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network is against the initiative.

 

According to the organization’s statement:

 

 

“At PIIN, we believe that the faith community is a sacred partner with our public schools, and we have long been supportive of both the community schools model and increasing state funding to provide an excellent, high-quality education to every child in our region. We believe in funding for early childhood learning, after school programs, and nutritious meals. However, we cannot support a ballot initiative that creates an unnecessary entity, with an unknown advisory board, and an unclear process for directing our tax dollars.

 

This is why we are urging our membership to reject the Allegheny County Children’s Fund Initiative at the polls this November.”

 

 

 

Another related organization, Great Public Schools-Pittsburgh, also released a statement with “several specific concerns” about the potential fund. These include how the money would be distributed, which organizations would benefit from it, and questions about its redundancy.

 

Several pre-K programs already exist but are not fully funded, the organization noted. Why don’t we just fund them?

 

The group is a coalition of the Education Rights Network, One Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, PIIN, and the Service Employees International Union.

 

The group’s statement noted concerns but fell short of urging an outright NO vote.

 


The bottom line is that many people are concerned about inadequate funding for children’s programs.

 

But this “Children’s Fund” is not a solution to that problem.

 

This is the creation of another bureaucracy that can take our tax dollars and do almost whatever it wants with them.

 

There is no guarantee it will help kids.

 

In fact, it looks a lot more like a power and money grab by corporate interests, many of whom would prefer to privatize our school system.

 

This November, when you go to the polls, do the right thing for our kids.

 

Vote NO on the Allegheny County Children’s Fund.

 

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Like this post? 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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Want to Make a Difference? Canvass for Local Candidates You Believe In

 

 

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Knock! Knock! Knock!

 

I stood there on the porch staring at my own knuckles in disbelief.

 

My 9-year-old daughter was looking up at me with a look like “What did you just do?”

 

But there was no time to say anything.

 

The door was opening.

 

An older gentleman stood in the entryway looking like he had just been stirred from sleep.

 

“Hello! Is this…” I began and Pam, who was standing next to me filled in the name.

 

“Yes,” he grumbled.

 

I introduced the three of us and told the man that we were canvassing his neighborhood for two local candidates running for state legislature.

 

And then I stopped because I wasn’t sure what to say next.

 

Luckily Pam jumped in and told him what our candidates stood for – education, healthcare and working families.

 

“Are these Democrats?” he groused. “I’m done with them. After what they did to that judge, I’m done.”

 

“You mean Kavanaugh?” I said.

 

He nodded.

 

My mouth opened to say something but what do you say?

 

Brett Kavanaugh was accused by multiple women of sexual assault but was saved from a thorough FBI investigation by his buddy, Donald Trump. He cried, whined and spouted partisan conspiracy theories yet still was confirmed to a lifetime appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.

 

Really, what was this guy’s problem? Did he think we shouldn’t investigate Supreme Court Justices when credible accusers hurl accusation of abuse? Did he think Kavanaugh’s chief accuser – Dr. Christine Blasey Ford – made the whole thing up so that she could have her reputation forever tied to an attempted rape and her family displaced from their home and forced into hiding because of constant death threats? Did he think we should give privileged white guys lifetime judicial appointments based on what? Political affiliation? Skin tone?

 

 

Pam tried to bring up a few other topics – about how Republicans in our state of Pennsylvania are actively working to cut this man’s healthcare, calling this man’s generation “the greediest generation” and other topics.

 

But it did no good. Fox News had gotten there first.

 

So we handed him our campaign literature, thanked him and went on our way.

 

Sometimes that’s the best you can do.

 

And it’s not nothing.

 

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If you’re reading this blog, I’m assuming you’re a lot like me.

 

You see the madness of our modern age and wonder what the heck went wrong?

 

A reality TV show clown is President of the United States of America. And all over this country, the conservative clown car is spitting out candidates for major office.

 

Even here in the keystone state, we have Scott Wagner running for Governor on the leftover promises of our previous GOP Governorslashing education funding, firing teachers and lower taxes for the wealthy.

 

Meanwhile, the world is falling apart. The U.N. just released a major report finding that we have about a dozen years to make significant changes to our energy consumption or else global climate change will be irreversible. Yet our leaders complain there’s nothing they can do!

 

It’s enough to make one lose hope in the future.

 

As a father and a public school teacher, I can’t afford that despair.

 

There needs to be at least the slimmest glimmer of the possibility of a new day.

 

And I’m here to tell you, friends, it’s out there.

 

It starts with you.

 

If you want real progressive change, you have to go out there and make it – one day at a time.

 

We can turn back the tide of self-destruction. We can beat back the politics of bread and circuses. We can take back this country and build a better future.

 

But it will take more than one day.

 

It will take all of us, doing incremental good, every day we can.

 

So my suggestion is to make a commitment to voting this Nov. 6.

 

I know our electoral system is a mess. I know many people are being purged from the rolls and our districts are gerrymandered and the entire system is set up against us.

 

But if all of us try to vote, we can still win.

 

Find a candidate you can support and go out there and campaign for him or her.

 

I know there are a lot of phonies running for office. There are an awful lot of fake progressives who will talk nicely to your face and then sell you out to corporations and the wealthy at their first opportunity.

 

Just know that they’re not all like that.

 

Find yourself someone you can trust – probably someone new to the game coming on the scene to change things.

 

In the Pittsburgh area I found Lindsey Williams.

 

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Lindsey Williams and Me

 

She’s an amazing lady with real conviction running for State Senate in the 38th District – that’s most of Northern Allegheny County from Franklin Park eastward, as well as Highland Park and sections of East Liberty in Pittsburgh.

 

Her number one priority is the same as mine – education.

 

That should come as no surprise from a candidate who’s also the communications director for the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers.

 

But Williams actually lives her values.

 

Before coming to Pittsburgh, she was fired for union organizing at the National Whistleblowers Center. Ironically, she was working there to tell the story of people who were retaliated against for reporting waste, fraud, and abuse, and found herself a target for attempting to organize a staff union. She eventually won the resulting case with the National Labor Relations Board.

 

When her campaign literature says she “won’t back down” fighting for working families. That’s what it means.

 

And her priorities – education, healthcare and labor – aren’t pie in the sky promises. She has a fiscally responsible plan to support them by creating a severance tax on natural-gas drilling and closing a loophole that allows businesses headquartered in other states to avoid state taxes. She wants to keep taxes low for homeowners while making sure the wealthy and corporations pay their fair share.

 

Perhaps that’s why a conservative dark money organization aligned with her Republican challenger, Jeremy Shaffer, has created knockoff campaign signs that look just like Williams with the word “Socialist” emblazoned on them.

 

It’s a desperation tactic.

 

Shaffer is down in the polls. The district – once a Republican stronghold – went to Hillary Clinton in the last election.

 

Even Shaffer, a Ross Township supervisor, is a throwback – he’s a far right extremist who primaried incumbent state Sen. Randy Vulakovich (R-Shaler) in May.

 

And his platform is nothing but tax cuts for the rich and school privatization for the rest of us. In effect, he’s a mini-Trump come to bring the circus to town.

 

So not only is Williams a candidate I can believe in, her race really matters to the overall state picture. If the Democrats only pick up her seat in November and don’t lose any others, we’ll crush the GOP’s veto-proof majority!

 

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But I didn’t come out this weekend just for Williams.

 

I also was there to canvass for Betsy Monroe, a Fox Chapel medical professional at Highmark running for State House in the same North Hills area.

 

She was inspired to get into politics after Trump’s election and the subsequent 2017 Women’s March.

 

She noticed that state Rep. Hal English (R-Hampton) had run unopposed in the last two elections, so she decided to run against him, herself.

 

Monroe was particularly angered by English’s vote to criminalize abortions after 20 weeks for all women in the Commonwealth. (The bill was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf back before the GOP had a veto proof majority.) She thought it was unfair for lawmakers to decide what adult women can do with their own bodies.

 

However, there was one other woman I was there to support – my own daughter.

 

For someone in elementary school, she is incredibly interested in politics. I caught her on Saturday literally writing political stump speeches for her stuffed animals. Let me tell you, Eeyore the donkey from the Hundred Acre Wood has some mighty progressive views on women’s rights!

 

I wanted my little one to see real women in politics, fighting to make a difference.

 
The news is always so grim. I wanted her to see that there are people out there fighting for the good.

 

And you know what? It helped me, too.

 

At this point I need to pause and give a huge “Thank You” to two people – Pamela Harbin and Jodi Hirsch.

 

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Me and Pamela Harbin

 

Jodi is an amazing organizer who put together the event in the first place.

 

I wanted to get more involved in the election and Jodi knew exactly how I could do that and which candidates I’d be most interested in.

 

Pam is a local activist I’ve known for years. I fought with her side-by-side against the statewide education budget cuts, charter schools, standardized testing and a host of Corporations Gone Wild shenanigans.

 

I was new to this whole canvassing thing, so she agreed to go with my daughter and me to show us the ropes.

 

I couldn’t have done it without her.

 

Thankfully, not every door we knocked on went like the grumpy gentlemen described above.

 

Frankly, most people weren’t home or didn’t answer the door.

 

Some people – especially young folks – proudly responded that they don’t vote or have no idea what’s going on.

 

Others were energized by what was happening and were looking forward to going to the polls and being heard.

 

“You know I’ll be there!” said one gentleman. “I’m straight Dem. Right on down the line. I’ve had enough of this Trump crap.”

 

But more people than I’d expected took pride in their nonpartisanship.

 

They wouldn’t commit to anything – just took our literature, heard us out and said they’d decide at the polls.

 

I always wondered what an undecided voter looked like. I saw a lot of them this weekend.

 

But that’s why we were there – to help nudge the uncommitted.

 

Hopefully on Nov. 6 they’ll think of Pam, my daughter and me.

 

Maybe even the Fox News fan who thought Kavanaugh got a raw deal will have his resolved softened.

 

Maybe he’ll think of my daughter’s chubby cheeks and innocent eyes as he considers voting for people who’d gladly steal her future for the prospect of more tax cuts for the rich.

 

Then again, maybe not. But who knows?

 

We tried.

 


If you live in Pennsylvania and want to get involved, click HERE.


 

Like this post? 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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