Let Voters Fix Harrisburg School Board – Not State Takeover

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Pushing the self-destruct button is the ultimate measure of last resort.

 

But that’s how several Pennsylvania lawmakers are suggesting we fix the dysfunctional Harrisburg School Board.

 

An election that could oust most of the very school directors responsible for the district’s troubles is less than a month away. But Democratic Representative Patty Kim, Republican Senator John DiSanto and Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse all say we shouldn’t wait – The state should takeover the Harrisburg School District immediately.

 

This would effectively destroy all democratic government in a district located in the state capital.

 

While senators and representatives from all over the Commonwealth work to enact the will of their constituents from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, residents at city schools a few miles away would be robbed of their own voices.

 

Under state law, if the district were put into receivership, a court-appointed receiver would assume all the functions of a locally elected school board, except the power to raise and levy taxes. This appointee would effectively take charge of the district’s personnel and finances.

 

Oversight and public input essentially would be repealed. The receiver could do whatever he or she liked and there’s little anyone could do about it.

 

It’s a bad idea anywhere, though one can understand why state lawmakers have suggested it here.

 

Harrisburg Schools are a mess, and it’s largely because of the inept leadership of Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney and five of the nine-member school board who consistently support her every move.

 

Declining academic performance, high teacher turnover rates, and poor fiscal management – all are hallmarks of the way Harrisburg schools have been run.

 

The state even suspended more than $10 million in funding to the district after the board voted not to cooperate with an audit requested because of allegations administration had mismanaged federal grant funds.

 

But the district’s problems begin before the school board even enters into the picture.

 

Like nearly every urban district in the Commonwealth, Harrisburg has a history of being neglected and underfunded. One estimate puts the Harrisburg shortfall between $35 million and $38 million a year.

 

That’s why the district is already under a state-mandated recovery plan. It serves a poor community whose tax base simply cannot support the needs of its own children. Like other impoverished schools, the administration and board are required to work with a recovery officer.

 

This recovery plan has not miraculously fixed the district’s problems. It’s magical thinking to suppose that a court-appointed receiver would do any better.

 

If the state wants to help, it should provide equitable and sustainable funding. However, it is completely reasonable that state lawmakers wait until responsible adults have taken back the school board first.

 

A citizen-led school reform group called CATCH (Concerned About the Children of Harrisburg) has been pushing to oust the incumbents who have consistently supported the administration’s disastrous decisions, most of whom are up for re-election.

 

There are nine board members. Five invariably vote with the administration: Danielle Robinson, Ellis Roy, Lola Lawson, Patricia Whitehead-Myers, and Lionel Gonzalez.

 

 

Three unfailingly vote against the administration: Brian Carter, Judd Pittman and Carrie Fowler. There is one wild card: Joseph Brown, who was just appointed to take a vacant seat on the board this month and has mostly abstained from voting.

 

Of these, Brown and all of those supporting the administration but Robinson are up for re-election.

 

To flip these seats on the board CATCH is pushing for Gerald Welch, Doug Thomson-Leader, Steven Williams, and Jayne Buchwach. The local teachers union, the Harrisburg Education Association (HEA), and the local chapter of The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) endorsed all of them and an additional one – James Thompson.

 

If even two of the newcomers are elected, that will shift the balance of power away from those who have enabled an administration infamous for irresponsible errors and neglect purchased at the expense of personal favors to weak willed school directors.

 

This includes an accounting error that kept 54 former employees on its healthcare plan, an investigation into improper grading allegations at one of its high schools, rapid teacher turnover, and falling student test scores. Administrators haven’t even presented a budget for the 2019-20 school year yet!

 

Meanwhile, this same quintet of school directors rewarded administration by reappointed Superintendent Knight-Burney last spring, hiring controversial attorney James Ellison as solicitor despite a record of fraud, lawsuits and delinquent taxes, and three times refused to fill Melvin Wilson’s vacant board seat with a candidate who had broad public support and instead punted the decision to the courts.

 

Despite an almost laughable record of corruption in the district, voters have a chance to change course in less than a month.

 

All of the reform candidates are Democrats so the matter could be settled by the May 21 primary.

 

It would be beyond absurd for the state to step in and deny the public the right to correct its own ship.

 

However, though new candidates could be elected in a matter of weeks, they wouldn’t be sworn in until December. So even under the best of circumstances, city schools would remain under the dysfunctional board for the foreseeable future.

 

That’s not good. There’s a lot of damage a lame duck board could do in that time. However, the alternative of receivership is worse.

 

Once you take away a school district’s right to govern itself, it’s hard to get it back again. Plus there is no guarantee that appointed bureaucrats will do a better job. In fact, they rarely do.

 

Education Secretary Pedro Rivera has remained silent on the issue of receivership. But in a recent statement he said his department “will consider all actions allowable by law” to guide the district through a financial recovery plan.

 

Here’s hoping that democracy is allowed to flourish in the capital of Pennsylvania.


 

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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Schools That Hinder Opt Outs Are Participating in Their Own Demise

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You can’t be a public school and still ignore the will of the people.

 

That’s the problem at too many districts across the country where narrow-minded administrators are waging an all out war on parents opting their children out of standardized testing.

 

The federal government still requires all states to give high stakes tests to public school students in grades 3-8 and once in high school. So states require their districts to give the tests – despite increasing criticism over the assessments’ validity, age appropriateness, racial and economic bias and the very manner in which the scores are used to justify narrowing the curriculum, school privatization, funding cuts, teacher firings and closing buildings serving the most underprivileged children.

 

In response, parents from coast to coast continue to fight the havoc being forced upon their communities by refusing the tests for their children.

 

Yet instead of welcoming this rush of familial interest, at some schools we find principals, superintendents and every level of functionary in between doing whatever they can to impede parental will.

 

Most administrators don’t actually go so far as out right refusal of a parent’s demand to opt out their children.

 

That’s especially true in states where the right to opt out is codified in the law.

 

Three states – California, Utah, and Wisconsin – have enacted legislation permitting parents to opt their children out of standardized tests. However, at least five others, including my home of Pennsylvania, have laws respecting parents’ opt-out wishes for certain reasons. In others states there may not be specific legislation permitting it, but none have laws forbidding it either. At worst, test refusal is an act of civil disobedience like tearing down a confederate monument or freedom rides.

 

In Pennsylvania, the school code specifies that parents can refuse the test for their children for “religious reasons.” Those reasons and the religion in question never need be named. Citing “religious reasons” is rationale enough.

 

Consider:

 

“PA School Code Chapter 4.4(d):

 

(4)  …If upon inspection of a State assessment parents or guardians find the assessment to be in conflict with their religious belief and wish their students to be excused from the assessment, the right of the parents or guardians will not be denied upon written request that states the objection to the applicable school district superintendent, charter school chief executive officer or AVTS director.”

 

So when a parent provides just such an objection, it’s there in black and white that administrators must comply with that request.

 

However, some administrators are trying to game the system. When the other students are taking the state standardized test, the opt out students are rounded up and forced instead to take a district created assessment that just so happens to look almost exactly like the test their parents explicitly asked they not be subjected to.

 

So in my state, some parents have opted their children out of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) or Keystone Exams, but administrators are requiring them instead to take an assessment they cobbled together themselves that closely resembles the PSSA and/or Keystone Exam.

 

They take a little bit from the PSSA, a bit from the Partnership for Assessment of Reading Readiness for College and Careers (PARRC) test, a question or two from the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) and voila! A brand new Frankenstein’s monster of standardized assessment.

 

But that’s not all. Some districts go one step further. They tie the results of this bogus “district” assessment with class placement. The results of the faux test are used to determine whether students are placed in the remedial, academic or the honors class in a given subject (English Language Arts, Math or Science) in the next grade.

 

Does that violate the law? Parents did not want their children to be assessed with a standardized test, and that’s exactly what the school did anyway. The only difference is the name of the standardized test they used.

 

I am not a lawyer, but I’ve contacted several. The answer I’ve gotten is that this may not be technically illegal, but it does at least violate the spirit of the law.

 

Districts are given a certain latitude to determine their own curriculum and assessments. This kind of runaround is ugly, petty and possibly just on the line of legality.

 

But our administrators are not done. Not only are they requiring such students to take a cobbled together standardized assessment, when children are done, they are forced to do hours of test prep for the state assessment that their parents refused for them.

 

Imagine opting out of the PSSA and then being forced to spend that time preparing for that very test. Imagine refusing to allow your children to take the Keystone Exam but then having them forced to prepare for it instead.

 

Petty, small-minded, punitive and – in this case – possibly illegal.

 

The school code is specifically against this. From the same section (4.4):

 

“(d) School entities shall adopt policies to assure that parents or guardians have the following:

 

(3) …The right to have their children excused from specific instruction that conflicts with their religious beliefs, upon receipt by the school entity of a written request from the parent or guardians.”

 

Again, I am not a lawyer, but it seems pretty clear that this, at least, is a violation of the law.

 

They can request their children not be given specific instruction – in this case test prep. Yet that’s exactly what administrators are doing anyway.

 

So what are opt out parents to do? Should they lawyer up?

 

Possibly. Though no one likes to have to take their own school to court. Any monetary damages thus recovered come from the collective pot that should go to help all students learn. It’s unfortunate that some administrators play so freely with taxpayer dollars when it would be a simple matter to safeguard them AND respect parental rights.

 

A better course of action may be for opt out parents in such situations to seek redress directly from the school board.

 

School directors are elected officials, after all. They may not be appraised of the actions of the administrators in their employ.

 

And that is really where the buck stops. If school directors don’t approve of this sort of chicanery, they can easily put a stop to it.

 

These are public schools. They are supposed to be run by the public. Our democracy is supposed to be what defines us. We are run by the people, for the people.

 

We’re not some charter school where school directors are appointed to their positions, hold their meetings in private and rarely if ever have to account for their decisions.

 

It’s shocking that in an age when public schools are often set against privatized ones that we’d allow such foolishness.

 

We need to set ourselves apart. Instead of denying parental requests, we should go out of our way to accommodate them.

 

Parents could, after all, remove their children and try their luck elsewhere.

 

At charter schools, they would probably get an even worse welcome. After all, most such schools pride themselves on their test scores and test prep curriculum having kicked out any students who don’t score well.

 

However, parents of means could enroll their children in private or parochial schools that are not required by law to even take these high stakes tests.

 

I’m not recommending that course of action. These schools are expensive, restrictive, insular and extremely racially and economically segregated.

 

But how short sighted must public school administrators be if they play these sorts of games with parents and children in just such an environment?

 

Any public school leader who wars against opt outs is participating in their own schools demise.

 

This is doubly so at schools serving high poverty populations.

 

Children of the poor and minorities historically get lower test scores than those from wealthier families. These tests are used to justify budget cuts and firing school staff – including these administrators.

 

Opting out of testing is one way to deny this data to the state so that they can’t use it against the school.

 

Certainly having high numbers of students opting out can, itself, become an excuse for punitive action from the state. But nowhere in the country has it ever actually happened.

 

State legislatures, too, are run by majority rule. The same with the federal government.

 

Our lawmakers have no authority to tell voters they can’t opt their children out of testing. It is the voters who are the boss.

 

We’d all best remember 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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What Will It Take to Get Equitable School Funding in Pennsylvania – a Statewide Teachers Strike!?

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What if every public school teacher in Pennsylvania refused to come to work on Monday?

What if instead they took to the streets with signs and placards, bullhorns and chanted slogans.

Maybe:

“Hey! HEY! Ho! HO! This Unfair Funding Has to Go!”
Or:

“What do we want!? FAIR FUNDING! When do we want it? YESTERDAY!”

The problem is that from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and all places in between, the Keystone state has the most unequal school funding system in the country. And no one in Harrisburg seems able and/or willing to do a damn thing about it.

Nor is anyone going to do much again this year.

Gov. Tom Wolf didn’t mention it once last week during the Democrat’s first budget speech to the legislature after being re-elected.

Don’t get me wrong. He’s not exactly ignoring the issue. His newly proposed budget asks for a $200 million increase in education funding.

But that’s far from what’s needed to heal the billions of dollars schools lost during the massive budget cuts of Tom Corbett, the former Republican governor, nor does it address the underlying inequity of how we fund these schools in the first place.

Sadly, failing to fix education funding gaps is par for the course in Harrisburg.

Every year Democrats complain about the problem, suggest repairing it, and then are denied everything but an incremental increase by the Republican-controlled legislature.

Every year, that is, until this one.

This is the first time Democrats have seemingly given up on solving the problem and just proposed the incremental increase that they suspect Republicans will approve.

It’s a pitiful situation to accept as status quo.

One could argue that it’s the electorate’s fault. After all, if they keep voting for Republicans that make it clear they don’t support equity in education, that must represent the will of the people.

Except it doesn’t. Fair funding is popular among voters everywhere in the Commonwealth. And it’s one of the reasons they elected and re-elected Wolf. However, when it comes to state government, legislative districts are so gerrymandered, the will of the people gets ignored.

In November, Democrats got 381,000 more Pennsylvania votes than Republicans to represent them in the state House. But Republicans still kept the majority.

So what can you do when your voice is smothered by red tape?

You can turn to the Democratic governor who is the only thing stopping the opposition from gutting schools even further. You can ask him to push lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to get off their collective asses and do their jobs.

But Wolf does not seem ready to spend his political capital in this way.

According to an Associated Press article by Marc Levy:

 

“For his part, Wolf’s office says he remains open to a discussion with the Legislature on making school funding fairer. However, someone else may have to carry the torch.”

Just who could this “someone else” be?

As usual, it may have to be the Commonwealth’s teachers.

As in every state, when governments and communities can’t or won’t do right by their children, educators step up.

We buy classroom supplies, we feed the hungry, we dry the tears, and when all else fails we put our jobs on the line and strike until school boards, legislatures and governors do the right thing.

Some have suggested that’s what’s needed here.

There have been at least nine large-scale teachers strikes across various states in the last 12 months. This includes actions in Arizona, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Virginia, West Virginia, and – most recently – Los Angeles, California, and Denver, Colorado.

They began in Republican dominated states but have spread to those governed mostly by Democrats.

The Denver strike ended Thursday morning with an agreement between the Denver Classroom Teachers Association and Denver Public Schools. After three days on the picket line, teachers may be returning to their classrooms having achieved their goals.

In today’s climate of dark money and political gridlock, collective action seems the only way to get anything done.

Perhaps we need an army of the state’s 123,000 educators to walk out of their classes in unison demanding fair funding for our most vulnerable students.

Such a move would be unprecedented. To my knowledge, teachers strikes in the Commonwealth have always involved educators and staff at one of the hundreds of districts, not a unified action of teachers throughout the state. A movement on this scale would require cooperation and buy in from the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT). And union bosses are rarely motivated to endorse such measures without being forced to it by grassroots pressure from members.

Moreover, it would put teachers unions in a dangerous position. Each district contract has a no strike/no lockout clause guaranteeing that membership won’t walkout during the life of a contract. Where we’re seeing these major nationwide strikes either the contract has expired like in Denver and Los Angeles or they’re so-called “Right-to-Work” states without these explicit worker protections.

It’s doubtful the state could actually fire and replace the more than 100,000 teachers in its employ, but the worst case scenario for a state-wide strike in Pennsylvania would be the invalidation of all existing contracts, the loss of arbitration, grievances, collective bargaining and even putting retirement at risk.

That’s a lot to ask of educators – though creative organizers could find ways to avoid or mitigate the risk – for instance with a sick out or mass demonstrations on weekends or holidays.

I – for one – am sick of watching my middle school students overstuffed into classrooms with crumbling infrastructure and meager resources while a few miles down the road the rich kids have small classes and schools that look like palaces. I’ll bet there are a lot of teachers and parents who feel the same way.

Perhaps it’s time for us to take to the streets.

Perhaps it’s long past time.

When I say the state is the most inequitable in the country, that’s not hyperbole.

It’s according to several studies done over multiple years by groups like the Associated Press and the U.S. Department of Education.

More than any other, the Keystone State gives a boost to rich kids and a boot to poor ones.

Why?

You have to understand where the money comes from to educate kids in America.

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

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

Pennsylvania state government pays a ridiculously low percentage of the bill – 38%.  That’s the 46th lowest in the country. The national average is 51%.

In rich neighborhoods, this is no problem. In middle class communities, it’s not much of one. But in poor communities, there isn’t enough money to make up the difference. Their kids have no choice but to do without.

So kids from rich communities get everything. Kids from middle class communities get most of what they need. And kids from poor communities get whatever scraps are left at the bottom of the barrel.

It’s trickle down economics – Pennsylvania style.

And it’s an intolerable situation!

According to an Associated Press analysis of 2016-17 state data on school district spending, middle class districts spend as much as $673 more per student than poor districts. Rich districts spend about $4,300 more per student.

 

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According to the U.S. Department of Education, poor schools in the Commonwealth spend 33 percent less on their students than rich ones. That’s a significantly larger difference than the next-closest state, Vermont, where the spending difference between rich and poor schools is only 18 percent. Three other states — Illinois, Missouri and Virginia — have gaps of 17 percent.

 

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We can’t keep kicking minorities and the destitute to the curb. We can’t keep giving the rich and middle class every opportunity to succeed while depriving the poor of that same chance.

Wolf, the Democrats and a few Republicans have tried several times to fix the problem.

First, they attempted large increases in education funding to catch up to where funding would be if the Corbett cuts hadn’t happened coupled with the rising costs caused by inflation.

In 2015, the governor proposed a $400 million increase but funded it with a tax increase on the rich that almost all Republicans refused.

Then he tried to bring the state share of education funding up to 50% by using a more equitable tax plan. He proposed cutting property taxes in poorer districts and replacing them with higher state taxes elsewhere. However, Republicans saw it as an opportunity to completely eliminate property taxes and cut school funding even further. It ended in a stalemate and another incremental education increase.

If the legislature wouldn’t approve the necessary spending increases to heal the cuts it made under Corbett, Wolf at least wanted lawmakers to approve dividing the money up more fairly among the state’s 500 school districts.

A funding formula had been approved four years ago to reflect changes in school district attendance and wealth that had been ignored for a quarter century. This would result in more support for poorer schools and less for wealthier ones.

And there’s the sticking point. Lawmakers wouldn’t approve a plan that would provide less funding to 70% of the state’s districts – but neither would they increase school spending to make up the difference.

You’d think that such legislative gridlock might make voters lose hope. However, there is a mass movement of people at the grassroots level demanding change for our children.

Most notably, the parents of six school children, six school districts, the NAACP and a rural schools group are suing the state over education funding.

The lawsuit – now in its fourth year – is scheduled for trial before the state Supreme Court in 2020. So at best, relief is still a ways in the future. Many are hoping justices will order the legislature to dramatically increase its investment in public schools. But the outcome is certainly not a sure thing.

Could striking teachers in red and blue states be showing us in Pennsylvania the solution?

Might it be time to raise our teacher voices in the purple states, too?

And is there a path to equity through collective action that doesn’t hang teachers out to dry?

 


 

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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Ten of 15 Cyber Charter Schools in PA Are Operating Without a Charter – Close Them All

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Cyber charter schools are an experiment that failed.

 

 

It’s time to pull the plug and recoup our losses.

 

 

First, let’s get straight exactly what we’re talking about here.

 

 

Like all charter schools, these are contracted institutions. In fact, that’s what charter means – they’re independent businesses that sign a deal with the state to teach kids.

 

 

So they’re publicly financed but privately run. And in the case of cyber charters, they agree to educate children online without the benefit of a physical building.

 

 

Students access lessons via computer or other device, submit work electronically, get virtual feedback and assessment.

 

 

At best, these institutions are the grade school equivalent of the University of Phoenix – good only for independent, self-motivated learners. At worst, they’re the kiddie version of Trump University – a total scam.

 

 

In Pennsylvania, 10 of the state’s 15 cyber charter schools are operating with expired charters, according to a report by the Philadelphia Inquirer.

 

That’s incredibly significant – especially for an industry that enrolls about 35,000 students across the state.

 

These are charter schools operating without a charter. They only get the right to operate because a local school district or the state has signed a contract allowing them to do so.

 

If you hire a plumber to fix your toilet, you give him the right to enter your house and do what needs to be done. That doesn’t mean the plumber can walk in anytime he feels like it. There is a limited term of service. Once that term is up, the plumber needs to get out.

 

In the case of these cyber charters, the authorizer is the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE).

 

Charters are initially issued for three to five years. They are an essential contract between the schools and the supervisory body. The school details how it will operate, what curriculum and education strategies will be used, etc.

 

 

The state has the option to revoke the charter if the school violates its agreement or fails to meet requirements for student performance or fiscal management.

 

 

After the initial period, charters must be renewed every five years in the state.

 

 

Yet for the majority of the Keystone state’s cyber charter schools, this has not happened. The charter agreements have been left to lapse without any decision being made by state officials to renew or cancel them.

 

 

Some of the reluctance to decide may stem from the fact that the state Charter Appeal Board – the body which decides on appeals of charter applications – are all serving out expired terms, themselves.  They were all appointed by the previous governor, Republican Tom Corbett, a notable privatization ideologue.

 

 

The current Governor Tom Wolf, a Democrat now elected to his second term of office, still hasn’t gotten around to appointing new ones.

 

 

Another issue gumming up the works could be staffing issues at PDE that make it impossible to handle the reviews in a timely manner. It could be because the cyber charter schools have not provided all the data required of them by the state for the review to be completed on time. Or it could be because state officials are struggling with a fair and adequate metric with which to assess these schools.

 

 

CYBER CHARTER’S DISMAL ACADEMIC RECORD

 

 

To be frank, the latter option has to weigh heavily on state auditors. After all, it’s no secret that these schools are an educational disaster. On-line schools in Ohio, Georgia, Indiana, Nevada and New Mexico are all being closed by their respective states.

 

Study after study consistently shows that cyber charters are much less effective than traditional public schools – heck! They’re even less effective than brick and mortar charter schools!

 

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

 

Keep in mind that there are only 180 days in an average school year. So cyber charters provide less math instruction than not going to school at all.

 

 

The same study found that 88 percent of cyber charter schools have weaker academic growth than similar brick and mortar schools.

 

Student-to-teacher ratios average about 30:1 in online charters, compared to 20:1 for brick and mortar charters and 17:1 for traditional public schools.

 

 

Researchers concluded that these schools have an “overwhelming negative impact” on students.

 

And these results were duplicated almost exactly by subsequent studies from Penn State University in 2016 (enrolling a student in a Pennsylvania cyber charter school is equal to “roughly 90 fewer days of learning in reading and nearly 180 fewer days of learning in math”) and the National Education Policy Center in 2017 (cyber charters “performed significantly worse than feeder schools in both reading and math”).

 

Even the state’s own data shows lower graduation rates and standardized test scores at cyber charters than at traditional public schools.

 

According to a 2015-16 state PDE report, about 86 percent of public school students across the Commonwealth finished high school in four years. During the same time, only about 48 percent of cyber charter school students graduated in four-years.

CYBER CHARTER’S COST TOO MUCH

 

But providing such a poor service to Pennsylvania students is only one reason these schools are problematic. They’re also ruinously expensive.

 

 

They cost taxpayers more than $463 million in 2016-17 alone.

 

The state charter law grants these schools as much money per pupil as brick and mortar schools, yet their costs are much less having forgone a physical building and all that goes with it.

 

So cyber charters get whatever the local per-pupil expenditure is. It doesn’t matter if a district spends $8,000 on each student or $20,000. Whatever the amount, that goes to the cyber charter.

 

However, the cost of educating kids is drastically reduced online. Their programs are bare bones compared with what you get at a traditional public school. Most online charters don’t have tutors or teacher aides. They don’t offer band, chorus or extra-curricular activities. You don’t have to pay for any building costs, grounds, upkeep, large staff, etc. But the funding formula ignores this completely. Cyber charters get to keep the difference – whatever it is. In fact, they have an incentive to keep as much as possible because they can do almost whatever they want with it. That includes putting it into operators’ pockets as profit!

 

And when it comes to special education funding, it gets worse. In Pennsylvania, our funding formula is so out of whack that charters schools of all stripes including cyber charters often end up with more funding for students with special needs than traditional public schools get. However, because of this loophole in the Commonwealth, Pennsylvania online charters have been increasing the number of special education students they enroll and even working to label as many of their students as possible as needing special services on the flimsiest of pretexts.

 

According to a report by the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA), tuition for special education students is often twice as much at cyber charter schools than at traditional public schools.

 

CYBER CHARTER FRAUD

 

Unsurprisingly, these conditions have lead to rampant fraud and malfeasance.

 

Just this past year (2018) the head of the largest cyber charter chain in the state was sentenced to jail for siphoning $8 million from his school into his own pockets.

 

PA Cyber Charter founder Nicholas Trombetta was found guilty of tax fraud in relation to the theft of public funds. He used that money to buy an airplane, a $900,000 condo, houses for his girlfriend and mother, and nearly $1 million in groceries and personal expenses, according to the grand jury. Trombetta allegedly set up numerous for-profit and nonprofit businesses to provide goods and services to the cyber charter. Federal investigators filed 11 fraud and tax conspiracy charges against him and indicted others in the case.

 

Another cyber charter founder, June Brown, was also indicted for theft of $6.5 million. Brown ran the Agora Cyber Charter School, which was part of the K12 Inc. empire of virtual charters. She and her executives were indicted on 62 counts of wire fraud, obstruction of justice and witness tampering. She was well known for student test scores and had a reputation for claiming large salaries and filing suits against parents who questioned her, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.

 

WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT

 

It’s no wonder the state has been tardy renewing these schools’ charters!

 

Frankly, there is no good reason to continue lavishing taxpayer dollars on a system of education that provides  subpar services at an exorbitant expense and is subject to runaway fraud.

 

But lawmakers have always been reluctant to do the right thing.

 

After all, there are a slew of wealthy investors who want to make sure the money train of taxpayer dollars keeps flowing to their shady businesses. And lawmakers who enable them are assured hefty campaign contributions.

 

The only chance we have of saving our children from this monstrous abuse of power and saving our wallets from this shameful waste of funding is if voters make their intentions known.

 

The people of Pennsylvania need to stand up and demand an end to the cyber charter school experiment.

 

We need lawmakers with the guts to stand up to big money and rewrite the state’s charter school law.

 

And that’s part of the problem. The law is a joke.

 

It’s more than 20 years old and was only amended once in 2002 to allow cyber charters.

 

Subsequent attempts at requiring more accountability have resulted in horrible compromise bills that would have made the situation much worse and – ultimately – no vote.

 

With Ohio and California, Pennsylvania was in the “big three” cyber-charter states in 2016, accounting for half of cyber charter enrollment nationally, according to the industry’s authorizers’ association. While 35 states and the District of Columbia allow full-time cyber charter schools, eight do not, including neighboring New Jersey.

 

The right course is clear.

 

We just need a people-powered movement to force our lawmakers to do it.

 

Either that or replace them with those who will.


 

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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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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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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Wagner Spouts Trumpian Lie About Education at Gubernatorial Debate

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The defining moment of Pennsylvania’s one and only gubernatorial debate wasn’t made by incumbent Tom Wolf or his challenger Scott Wagner.

 

It was made by former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.

 

At least it was made by him seven years ago.

 

Before voters overwhelmingly choose the Democratic Wolf to replace him, Corbett told a whooper about his administration and education funding – namely that he DIDN’T cut almost $1 billion from the poorest schools in the Commonwealth.

 

Yes,  ten thousand teachers were furloughed. Class sizes ballooned. Children literally died for lack of nurses.

 

But Corbett wanted us all to believe it wasn’t him or his administration that took that money away.

 

It was untrue then, and it’s untrue now.

 

Yet that didn’t stop Wagner from dusting it off before 1,700 people and moderator Alex Trebek at the annual Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry dinner in Hershey:

 

Trebek: What you have not mentioned is education suffered immensely about seven years ago when Gov. Corbett knocked off about a billion dollars. And…

 

Wagner: That’s totally false.

 

Trebek: Oh, it’s false.

 

Wagner: That’s totally false. Those were federal stimulus dollars. Gov. Wolf went around and told that. It was a lie. Gov. Corbett … (Clapping)… And the stimulus money came in during Gov. Rendell’s administration. And so Gov. Corbett’s here tonight. People need to know that Gov. Corbett did as much for education as really any governor. (Clapping) And he needs to be remembered for that. He didn’t cut the billion dollars. It was a billion dollars of stimulus money that came in and they were told – the education system – I wasn’t there – Don’t hire teachers, don’t… They did all that. Guess what? Here’s the problem with the system, Alex. The billion dollars. It’s gone. We have nothing to show for it.”

 

Here’s the crux of the bedtime story he’s telling.

 

The big bad federal government gave us money, and when that money was spent, we didn’t have it anymore. So what mean ol’ Gov Wolf calls a budget cut was no one’s fault.

 

The problem is it’s baloney.

 

The federal government DID give Pennsylvania stimulus dollars for its schools for one-time infrastructure improvements. However, the state legislature reacted by reducing the amount of state money it used to fund schools at the same time forcing districts to use the stimulus for operating costs.

 

It’s as if someone gives you a couple hundred dollars for your birthday and then your boss stops paying you your salary. That may work this week, but next week you need your paycheck. Otherwise you don’t have money to pay the bills.

 

Your boss can’t say to you: I’m not cutting your wages. Look I gave you just as much money this week as last week.

 

That won’t fly. But it’s exactly what Corbett tried to sell voters almost four years ago and they weren’t buying it.

 

And now Wagner is pulling out the same moldy lie, brushing off the flies and trying to pass it off as the truth.

 

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This is troubling for two reasons.

 

First, it shows Wagner is as deceitful as his heroes Corbett and Donald Trump.

 

Second, it shows he’s playing from the same morally bankrupt playbook.

 

Corbett didn’t stop at saying he never cut the money he cut. He went so far as to say he actually RAISED school funding!

 

That’s like urinating on someone and telling them it’s raining.

 

And he did it with dishonest accounting – lumping pension funds for teachers in with classroom funding and pretending they were all the same.

 

He took a bill that was already due (pension costs) and pretended like that money was paying to run the state’s classrooms.

 

It wasn’t.

 

So children throughout the keystone state suffered and some even died.

 

Apply that to Wagner’s rapidly changing position on education funding.

 

He has long been an advocate for slashing school budgets. In fact, he was a popular surrogate for Corbett when this whole catastrophe was going down.

 

But now that his campaign has seen how unpopular that position is, very recently he’s changed his tune.

 

Suddenly he says we should increase education funding.

 

And good for him.

 

However, if he’s using the Corbett playbook, it seems that “increase” really won’t be anything of the sort.

 

It will just be more creative accounting and fantasy storytelling. He’ll pay for pensions and say he’s increasing school funding. Or maybe he’ll fudge something else from column A and pretend it’s funding column B.

 

It’s disingenuous, dishonest and Pennsylvanians aren’t going to put up with it.

 

Perhaps that’s why Wolf is leading in the polls.

 

Wagner may have found a way to get his supporters into the debate hall – they certainly clapped loud at his points – but they are a minority among voters.

 

I wish Trebek had called him out on it.

 

I wish Gov. Wolf had challenged him.

 

But time was running short and Wagner still had to complain about a college swimming coach with too high a pension, and he had to whine about mean old Wolf demanding the Marcellus Shale industry pay its fair share of taxes.

 

There were plenty of other sparks at the debate.

 

Wagner raged about this and lied about that. He thinks running a state like Pennsylvania is like managing his $75 million garbage hauling company. But if given the chance, it will be our children’s future’s that are left in the trash.

 

Meanwhile, Gov. Wolf looked like the adult in the room, soberly explaining the improvements he’d overseen in his term in office (a balanced budget, healing some of the Corbett education cuts, etc.) and outlining where we need to go in the future.

 

Every time Wagner slammed him for taking support from unions, I wished he’d spoken up. But he just let it pass like Casey at Bat looking for a perfect pitch.

 

“You keep talking trash on unions,” he’d say. “Yeah, many of my supporters are union workers, union teachers, nurses, letter carriers, construction workers. Yes, I’m supported by working people and I support them in turn. Labor is the backbone of this nation and that’s true here in Pennsylvania as it’s true everywhere.”

 

But, no. He didn’t say that.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I think Pennsylvania voters have a clear choice here – the sane, sensible Wolf vs. the blowhard and capricious Wagner. But how I wish Wolf had shown more fight!

 

The only thing the media seemed moved to report, though, were the antics of Trebek.

 

Twitter squeaky wheels thought the Jeopardy host’s moderation was weird. I’ll admit a tangent into the Catholic church and pedophile priests may not have been necessary. But he made the entire event more watchable and he called out Wagner’s lies more often than not.

 

The question is: What will voters do in November?


Watch the whole debate HERE.


 

Here’s a video I made about Corbett’s budget cuts – a story so simple even Wagner and Corbett could understand it:


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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