Top 10 Lessons From the 2020 Public Education Forum

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The school bell chimed and the class shuffled home.

 

But the students weren’t little children.

 

They were Democratic Presidential candidates!

 

And boy-oh-boy did they get sent packing with a ton of homework!

 

Teachers, students, parents and community members from all over the country sat them down with instructions on how to improve the public education system.

 

Kudos to the candidates for agreeing to listen.

 

It was billed as the MSNBC “Public Education Forum 2020: Equity and Justice for All” – and though it’s over now, its effects may be felt for months or years yet to come.

 

The fact that it happened at all is almost miraculous.

 

Who would have thought Presidential hopefuls would care enough about public schools to address education issues and answer our questions?

 

Who would have thought it would be broadcast live on TV and the Internet?

 

And – come to think of it – who would have EVER thought it would happen in my hometown of Pittsburgh!?
But it did.

 

I was there – along with about 1,500 other education activists, stakeholders and public school warriors from around the country.

 

It was an amazing day which I will never forget.

 

Perhaps the best part was getting to see so many amazing people in one place – and I’m not talking about the candidates.

 

There were members of the Badass Teachers Association, the Network for Public Education, Journey for Justice, One Pennsylvania, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and so many more!

 

I wish I could bottle up that feeling of commitment to our children and hope in the future.

 

Perhaps that’s kind of the point behind this article.
So much happened and there is so much worth noting, let me put my impressions down as a series of takeaways or lessons for us to savor between now and the primary election – maybe even until the general.

 

Here’s my top 10 most important lessons:

 

1) Charter School Support is Weak

 

When the forum was announced, Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform wrote a blistering memoabout how the charter school community would not put up with politicians listening to constituents critical of their industry. Allen is a far right Republican with close ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) who even used Donald Trump’s public relations firm to publicize her protest. But when we got to the forum, all it amounted to were a dozen folks with matching yellow signs trudging through the rainwho didn’t even stay for the duration of the forum. YAWN! Silly school privatizers, that’s not how you protest!

 

2) Michael Bennet Doesn’t Understand Much About Public Education

 

The Colorado Senator and former school superintendent really doesn’t get a lot of the important issues – even when they intersect his life. As superintendent, he enacted a merit pay initiative for teachers that resulted in a teachers strike. He still doesn’t comprehend why this was a bad idea – that tying teachers salaries to student test scores makes for educators who only teach to the test, that it demands teachers be responsible for things beyond their control, etc. Moreover, he thinks there’s a difference between public and private charter schools – there isn’t. They’re all bankrolled by tax dollars and can be privately operated.

 

But I suppose that doesn’t matter so much because few people know who Michael Bennet is anyway.

 

3) Pete Buttigeig is Too Smart Not to Understand Education – Unless He’s Paid Not to Understand

 

Mayor Pete came off as a very well spoken and intelligent guy. But he also seemed about as credible as wet tissue. He said a bunch of wrongheaded things. For instance, he said that “separate has never, ever been equal,” but he supports charter schools. Separate but equal is their business model.

 

It’s the kind of misunderstanding that only happens on purpose, and it’s not hard to see why. He’s taken so much money from anti-education billionaires like Netflix Founder Reed Hastings, no one else can trust him. How are we supposed to think he works for us when his salary comes from the super rich? You never recover from ignorance when it’s your job to be ignorant.

4) Gender Neutral Bathrooms Just Make Sense

I used a gender neutral bathroom for the first time at the forum. I figured I just had to pee so it didn’t matter. Inside were nothing but bathroom stalls – no standing urinals. People of all genders were in there using the facilities and it didn’t matter at all. In fact, it just made sense. It only seems strange because of what we’ve grown to expect. Gender neutral is just logical – no one uses the bathroom for anything but… using the bathroom. Try it and you’ll see – it’s the most logical and natural thing in the world.

 

5) Elizabeth Warren is a Star!

 

Warren simply electrified the room as soon as she entered it. She was at least as smart and well-spoken as Mayor Pete, but she was credible, too. She said all charter schools should have to meet the same requirements as authentic public schools. She said public school money should stay in public schools. She had detailed plans for how to fix what ails or school systemincluding a two cent wealth tax (three cents if you’re a billionaire) to pay for universal child care, universal pre-kindergarten, better pay for childcare workers, broader pell grants, and SO much more.

 

I was even more impressed with her in person and she got a standing ovation from the crowd. She would make a great President.

 

6) Bernie Sanders is a Superstar!

 

If Warren electrified the audience, Bernie was like a nuclear explosion. I don’t think anyone stayed in their seat when he entered. Fists pumping in the air, applause, chants of “Bernie! Bernie!” It was clear who the audience appreciated most.

 

And he was amazing. He said we need to break our dependence on property taxes to fund our schools. He said the problem with testing is we spend too much time teaching to the test. There are better ways to assess learning. He said we need a revolution in how we feel about education and learning. We’ve got to respect the educators who provide that education. He talked about criminal justice and unions and a broader range of issues and in more depth than any other candidate.

 

But my favorite moment was this.

 

Question: Should the federal government subsidize student lunch?

 

Bernie: “And breakfast and dinner as well.”

 

I think he solidified for most of us that he’s our number one candidate in this election. He would be a once in a lifetime President!

 

7) MSNBC Anchor Rehema Ellis Does Not Understand Standardized Testing

 

Throughout the forum, Ellis kept asking the same question over-and-over. She kept asking about America’s dismal standardized test scores compared to other countries. But we weren’t ignorant rubes. She was talking before an audience of teachers. It became clear she didn’t understand what these international test scores mean. First of all, she kept talking about US kids being behind grade level. Proficiency on tests like the NAEP isn’t the same as grade level proficiency. Moreover, comparing the US – which educates everyone – and other countries that do not is like comparing apples to oranges. But Ellis was part of NBC’s Education Nation initiative and has been spreading falsehoods and half-truths about testing for a decade. Maybe after educating the politicians we need to send the media back to school, too.

 

8) This is Not the Moment for Tom Steyer

 

Steyer is a billionaire self-funding his campaign in a time when voters are sick to death of the rich controlling our politics. He’s like a fox warning us all about foxes. It doesn’t make me want to vote for him. It makes me wonder if he thinks I’m lunch.

 

9) Amy Klobuchar is a Better Candidate Than I Expected

 

And the winner of most improved image is Klobuchar – by a mile. She came off so authentic and honest. She started with an emotional story about her mother – a teacher – which naturally lead into some really smart policy suggestions. And saying that she’d fire Betsy DeVos in seconds after becoming President and replace her with an educator was nice, too. I’m not saying I think she can or should win the nomination, but I’m glad she’s in the race and I hope we see more of her.

 

10) Joe Biden is Not Going to Beat Donald Trump

 

Biden came tottering onto the stage late like a friendly but lost old man. He flashed the charm and told us what his policies were but he couldn’t explain why he supported a single one of them.

 

He was the worst public speaker all day. His words rambled this way and that. At one point he told the audience to stop clapping so he could explain why he wanted to fully fund special education, but then he went off on a digression and got lost. At one point he rhapsodized about all the terrible teachers out there and said teachers touch students’ lives – “metaphorically speaking.”

 

Dr. Denisha Jones – an amazing activist and friend – asked him a pointed question about standardized testing and whether he was against it? He told her she was “preaching to the choir” but then rambled on for moments more about … something. I don’t know what.

 

Biden seems more like someone with Alzheimer’s Disease than aspirations to the chief executive. If he won, his wife or someone else would really be making the decisions. He isn’t well. And all you have to do is hear him speak for a few minutes to see it.

 

Bottom line: I don’t think he could beat Trump.

 

 

As terrible as Trump is, he can speak more coherently than Biden. That’s a horrible thing to admit, but it’s true.


So there you have it – my top 10 takeaways from the education forum.

 

It was a great way to spend a Saturday.

 

The candidates left knowing exactly where the education community stands. They know what they need to do to get our votes – and many of them are actively trying to do that.

 

We have several candidates that would make good Presidents – and several who stand a good chance against Trump.

 

Here’s hoping that we all learn our lessons and use them to win back our government in 2020.

 

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Mark Fallon and Me
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Network for Public Education buddies – Carol Burris, Dan Greenberg, me and Peter Greene.
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Pittsburgh strong – Kathleen Newman, me and Jesse Ramey
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Mitchell Robinson and me
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Keeping it Local – State Rep Summer Lee (Homestead), Mark Fallon and me.

 

 

 


If you missed the event, you can still watch it 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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Public School Teacher Questions for 2020 Dem Presidential Candidates

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What happens when you give a microphone to a public school teacher?

 

 

That’s not a rhetorical question. I really want to know, because we so rarely let educators speak in any context other than the classroom.

 

 

Maybe that’s why it’s so refreshing that MSNBC is hosting “Public Education Forum 2020: Equity and Justice for All”on Saturday, Dec. 14, in my hometown of Pittsburgh.

 

 

Public policy is usually made by billionaires who tell their think tanks what to write up and then give it to legislators to vote it into law.

 

 

But ask parents, students, community members or – God forbid! – school teachers about what we should do with something as mundane as education!? That’s crazy talk!

 

 

Well, the Democrats, at least, are taking it seriously.

 

 

The candidates who are expected to attend Saturday’s forum include: Former Vice President Joe Biden; Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana; billionaire businessman Tom Steyer; and Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

 

 

All the presidential candidates who either qualified for the October debate or hold statewide office were invited to attend, according to organizers.

 

 

And guess who else will be there?

 

 

ME!

 

 

Somehow your humble edu-blogger got an invite to the party – limited to an audience of about a thousand.

 

 

To be honest, I don’t know if I’ll get the chance to actually ask a question. I might spend the whole time listening, but that would be far from wasted.

 

 

Forcing candidates to tell educators to their faces what they intend for public schools is a worthwhile endeavor in itself.

 

 

But I must be honest – there is a possibility I may get the microphone and have the opportunity to ask something.

 

 

So I’ve prepared the following questions – one for each candidate expected to be at the forum:

 

 

 

Joe Biden

 

Biden

 

Your education plan triples the amount of money the federal government spends annually on low-income schools from about $16 billion to about $48 billion. That money is supposed to go to raising teachers’ salaries, Pre-K, and “more rigorous coursework.” My question is this: will you tie federal spending to standardized testing, Common Core and school privatization initiatives like your former boss Barack Obama did, and how does your position differ from Race to the Top and Obama’s other top down corporate education reforms?

 

 

Pete Buttigieg 

 

Mayor-Pete

 

You are infamous for taking money from some terrible people who want to destroy public schools – Reed Hastings, for example, the billionaire founder of Netflix, who wants to replace authentic public schools with charter-schools so that all schools are run by corporations and not elected school boards. Hastings has hosted fundraisers for you. He set aside $100 million to promote the privatization of public schools by charter-school expansion as well as served on the California State Board of Education, where he used his influence to minimize any regulation of charters. My question to you is this: how are any of us to take you seriously when you allow yourself to be bought and sold by the school privatization industry? How can we believe a thing you say when your vote has so obviously been up for sale to the highest bidder?

 

 

 

 

Amy Klobuchar

 

Amy-Klobuchar

 

You’ve said that you support national testing standards and that schools should be held to the highest benchmarks. You’ve also said you’ll work to help schools better measure comprehensive achievement. My question is this: how much and in what ways does your education policy differ from the reductive and corporate-driven policies of Barack Obama and George W. Bush? Would you continue to use biased and unscientific standardized assessments to measure student learningand then hold schools responsible for scores predicated on economic inequality and white supremacy?

 

 

Bernie Sanders

 

Bernie-Sanders

 

Along with Sen. Warren, you have one of the most progressive and comprehensive education plans of any candidate running in 2020. In fact, it’s one of the best any candidate who has sought the Democratic nomination has ever put forward. However, the weakest part of your plan concerns standardized testing. As recently as 2015, you voted to keep the same test and punish bogus accountability initiatives as Barack Obama and George W. Bush. My question is this: what happened to change your mind and would you please explain if and exactly how high stakes standardized testing fits in with your education policies?

 

 

 

 

Elizabeth Warren

 

 

Elizabeth-Warren

 

Along with Sen. Sanders, you have one of the most progressive and comprehensive education plans of any candidate running in 2020. In fact, it’s one of the best of any candidate who has ever sought the Democratic nomination. However, you seem to equivocate on standardized testing and national academic standards. On the one hand, you say that you’re against high stakes testing, but on the other you speak about putting an emphasis on student careers, and aligning high school graduation requirements with that of colleges. You even say you’d direct “the Department of Education to issue guidance on how schools can leverage existing federal programs to facilitate education-to-workforce preparedness.” This sounds a lot like Barack Obama’s Race to the Top which held school funding hostage to regressive reforms and Common Core which used standardized tests to determine what would be taught in schools. My question is this: please explain exactly if and exactly how high stakes standardized testing and Common Core fit in with your education policies?

 

 

 

Tom Steyer

 

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Your campaign Website takes no stand on many issues important to educators, families and students including charter schools and standardized testing. Yet you’re a hedge fund billionaire who has donated at least $100,000 through your foundation to Teach for America in 2009. My question is this: what is your position on these policies – standardized testing, charter schools and Teach for America? Do you still think that a few weeks of a crash course is equal to a full teaching degree? Do you still think we need fake temporary teachers who are only committed to the classroom for a few years? Or is it better to have teaching be a respected vocation with highly educated and valued professionals?

 

HONORABLE MENTION

 

 

Finally, here’s a question I could ask to any and all of the candidates:

 

 

I want to ask you about charter schools. Why do we need them at all? Why do we need schools that are publicly funded but privately run? Shouldn’t public schools that accept public money have to accept public administration – elected school boards, transparency and accountability? Shouldn’t all public schools be required to accept all student who live in their coverage areas and not be allowed to cherry pick students? Wouldn’t it be better to close all charter schools that can’t meet the same requirements as authentic public schools and transition those that can to becoming fully public schools?

 

 

Well, those are my questions.

 

If anyone has any other suggestions, please post them in the comments. And if someone else this weekend or later in the campaign season happens to get a chance to query one of the candidates, feel free to use one or all of what I have compiled here.

 

My hope is that this interest in education isn’t just a political stunt but will translate to better school policies no matter who wins the election in 2020.

 


Livestream the education forum here on Saturday, Dec. 14, beginning at 9:45 am.


 

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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Demand Reform to Pennsylvania’s Charter School Law – Before It’s Too Late

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If no one answers a question, was it even asked?

 
Way back on August 24, 2019, the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) quietly posted a little notice on the PA Bulletin Website asking for public comment on the state’s charter school law.

 

This is not exactly a high traffic site.

 

 

It’s a state-run page that includes proposed rules, notices, proclamations, court rulings, actions and executive orders.

 
Unless you work for the state, are a journalist or a policy wonk, you probably didn’t see it.

 

Since then, there has been little fanfare, no hoopla, nothing much in the media about the notice at all.

 

But this is a huge opportunity for residents fed up with the nonsense the school privatization industry has been getting away with in the Commonwealth for decades.

 

Pennsylvania has one of the worst charter school laws in the nation.

 

 

Charter schools are taxpayer-funded but privately operated.

 

 

Though there are about 180 of these privatized institutions throughout the state with more than 137,000 students, that represents only about 6 percent of the kids enrolled in public school.

 
Yet the state funding system pits authentic public schools against charter schools for the financing needed to stay open.

 

Charter schools siphon money from authentic public schools serving the neediest students creating a deficit spiral. Money gushes out of public districts which have to cut teachers and programs to patch budget gaps which in turn result in even more parents pulling their children out of the public schools and trying to enroll them in charters.

 

Though the legislature used to help authentic public schools by reimbursing them for 30% of the charter school costs, that funding has been eliminated.

 

Meanwhile, the charter school law has barely changed at all since it was enacted in 1997.

 

Gov. Tom Wolf has promised to correct that with sweeping reforms in 2020 – even if it means bypassing the gerrymandered and gridlocked legislature with executive orders.

 

But before he can begin, he needs to hear from commonwealth voters.

 

 

Charter schools are backed by billionaires like Betsy DeVos, Bill Gates and the Walton Family. To hold these privatized schools accountable, he needs tangible proof that he has voter support.

 
So the more comments he receives demanding action, the better the chances that gets done.

 

PDE has set no deadline for comments, but to make the most difference, we have until the end of the year – Dec. 31, 2019 – to make our voices heard.

 

There are two ways to do it. You can:

 

1) Write a letter to Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera at:

 

Pedro A. Rivera
Office of the Secretary
Pennsylvania Department of Education
333 Market St.
Harrisburg, PA 17120

 

2) Email your letter to Special Assistant to the Secretary Adam Schott at:

 

adschott@pa.gov

 

Comments can be as long or short as you want, but here are some suggestions to keep in mind when writing.

 

1) Begin by telling who you are.

 
2) Explain the problem with charter schools briefly. Use real world examples if you can. There’s nothing wrong with referring to a newspaper article or blog. And if you can mention specifics from your school district, all the better.

 
3) Make suggestions for reform. You can address anything, but PDE is specifically looking for comments on these topics:

 

· Charter school applications: Strong regulations would require the application be comprehensive, set high standards, ensure only operators with needed skills are approved and maintain maximum local control.

 

  · Admissions policies: Strong regulations would ensure charters conduct fair lotteries that don’t allow cherry picking. Schools should be located in areas that are accessible to poor students and those relying on public transportation. Charters should be required to create recruitment plans for specific groups of vulnerable students including EL students, students with disabilities, economically disadvantaged students and students in foster care.

 

     · Accountability for boards of trustees: Strong regulations would aim to prevent financial wrongdoing, eliminate conflicts of interest, and impose stronger penalties for the misuse of public funds.

 

  · Information on charter management companies: Strong regulations would end high fees paid to charter management companies and increase transparency of boards, budgets, costs and contracts.

 

· Insurance, financial and accounting standards: Strong regulations would ensure there were independent auditors and accountants as well as increased transparency.

 

  · Funding: This is about the subsidy redirection process that forces PDE to pay charters directly when they dispute a bill with a school district. Strong regulations would ensure all disputed funds go into an escrow account rather than just being paid.

 
   · Academic accountability: Strong regulations would ensure all charters should be part of a performance system that is used in renewal and revocation decisions. The lowest performing charter schools should be subject to closure without appeal.

 

 

Education Voters of Pennsylvania, a non-profit organization working to promote public education throughout the Commonwealth, published this suggestion:

 

 

 

“We are recommending that your comments include the following:

 

1. We strongly support the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s decision to develop these regulations.

 

2. The regulations must end the conflicts of interest, financial self-dealing and lack of transparency that occur in the charter sector today. Charters must be held accountable for their performance in operations, finance and academics.

 

3. We strongly support local control over charter school opening and closing. Elected school boards know the needs of the community the best and are responsible to taxpayers and families.

 

4. The charter school law acknowledges that charter schools have an impact on the finances of school districts. The districts should be able to consider that impact when making decisions to open or renew a charter.”

 

 

Here is the letter I will be sending:

 

 

Dear Pedro A. Rivera:

 

 

Thank you for seeking comments from Pennsylvania residents about our 22-year-old charter school law.

 

 

I live in the Pittsburgh area and am both a public school teacher and the father of a public school student.

 
I have seen the damage charter schools can do in my career at the Steel Valley School District in Munhall. We have a Propel charter school in our community. Just three years ago, the Propel franchise siphoned away $3.5 million from our district annually. This year, they took $5 million, and next year they’re projected to get away with $6 million. That’s about 16% of our entire $37 million yearly budget.

 

Meanwhile, enrollment at Propel has stayed constant at about 260-270 students a year since 2015-16. It’s only the amount of money that we have to pay them that has increased.

 

The state funding formula is a mess. It gives charter schools almost the same amount per regular education student that my district spends but doesn’t require that all of that money actually be used to educate these children.

 

In the 2015-16 school year, Steel Valley paid the 19th highest amount of its budget to charter schools in the state (9%) and that number is growing.

 

According to the state Department of Education, here’s how our charter school spending has increased:

 

Steel Valley Per Student Charter School Tuition:

2000-01 – 2012-13
Non-Special Ed: $9,321
Special Ed: $16,903

2013-14
Non-Special Ed: $9,731
Special Ed: $16,803

2014-15
Non-special Ed: $10,340
Special Ed $20,112

2015-16
Non-Special Ed: $12,326
Special Ed: $25,634

2016-17
Non-Special Ed: $13,879
Special Ed: $29,441

2017-18
Non-Special Ed: $13,484
Special Ed: $25,601

2018-19
Non-special ed: $14,965
Special ed: $32,809

 
All of this has real world consequences in the classroom. It means fewer teachers and larger class sizes. It means narrowed curriculum and fewer extracurricular activities. It means reduced options and opportunities for all children – just so a new business can duplicate the services already being offered but skim tax dollars off the top.

 

So here are the reforms I think we need to make.

 
There is zero reason why there should be charter schools at all. We do not need to spend public tax dollars on schools that are privately operated. If a school takes public money, it should be run by the public – specifically an elected school board. So we should repeal the charter school law in its entirety. We should be like Montana, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kentucky and West Virginia and have zero charter schools.

 

Of course, that leaves us with the question of what to do with the charter schools that already exist here. First, we have to commit to a complete moratorium on any new charter schools – ever. Then we need to decide what to do with those that already exist.

 

 

I think we should do a thorough audit of each of them. Any charter school that fails the audit, closes. They should have to prove they haven’t been wasting taxpayer funds and are providing a real service to students and families. They also should not be drawing any kind of profit from their efforts.

 

 

If we have any charter schools that meet these stipulations, we should reform them into fully authentic public schools. They should have to be run by elected school boards. They should have to abide by every rule authentic public schools already do – fully transparent, public meetings, accept all students in their coverage areas, etc.

 

 

Finally, any funding shortfall caused by keeping these schools in existence would have to be subsidized by the state. They would not get any funding that goes to the existing authentic public school. The charter schools that we are transforming into authentic public schools would have to be funded by an additional revenue stream from the state – and this may require an increase in state taxes. No one wants that but it’s the only fair way and will help reduce the number of ex-charter schools we rehabilitate.

 

 

I realize my suggestion goes against what we have always done and may provoke heated opposition. But I think it is what is best.

 

 

Moreover, if we have to find a compromise position, this is where we start from. If we must keep charter schools in Pennsylvania, they should be as transparent as authentic public schools, they should have to be run by elected school boards, they should not be able to make a profit (regardless of their tax status), they should have to accept all students in their coverage areas, and they should be fully funded by the state and not as parasites to authentic public schools.

 

 

Thank you for considering my position. There are thousands of parents, teachers, students and community members who feel as I do and we will work to support your efforts and/or push you to do right thing.

 

 

Thanks again.

 

 

Yours,

 

 

Steven Singer

 

If you live in Pennsylvania, I strongly encourage you to send a letter (whether by email or snail mail) today. Feel free to borrow as much as you like from what I have here.

 

 

Together we can make a difference for our children and our communities. Please share widely and encourage your commonwealth friends and family to raise their voices as well.

 

 

From Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and all places in between, it’s time we were heard.

 


 

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 Stink of Segregation Needs to End in Steel Valley Schools

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I am a teacher at Steel Valley Schools.

 

I am also an education blogger.

 

In order to belong to both worlds, I’ve had to abide by one ironclad rule that I’m about to break:

 

Never write about my home district.

 

Oh, I write about issues affecting my district. I write about charter schools, standardized testing, child poverty, etc. But I rarely mention how these things directly impact my school, my classroom, or my students.

 

I change the names to protect the innocent or gloss over the specifics with ambiguity.

 

In six years, it’s a maxim I’ve disregarded maybe once before – when writing specifically about how charter schools are gobbling up Steel Valley.

 

Today I’ll set it aside once more – specifically to talk about the insidious school segregation at work in Steel Valley elementary schools.

 
But let me be clear about one thing – I do this not because I want to needlessly agitate school board members, administrators or community members.

 

I do it because the district has specifically asked for input from stakeholders – and for the first time in years, teachers (even those living outside district boundaries) have been included in that designation.

 

School directors held a town hall meeting in October where 246 people crowded into the high school auditorium to present their views.

 

Last week there was a meeting with teachers and administrators to discuss the same matter.

 

I didn’t say anything at either gathering though I had many thoughts circling my head.

 

Instead I have decided to commit them here to my blog.

 

Maybe no one will read them.

 

Maybe that would even be best. I know that no matter what invitations are publicly presented, in private what I write could be used against me.

 

Yet I feel compelled to say it anyway.

 

So here goes.

 

Something stinks in Steel Valley School District.

 

It’s not the smell of excrement or body odor.

 

It’s a metaphysical stink like crime or poverty.

 

But it’s neither of those.

 

It’s school segregation.

 

To put it bluntly, we have two elementary schools – one mostly for white kids and one mostly for black kids.

 

Our district is located on a steep hill with Barrett Elementary at the bottom and the other schools – Park Elementary, the middle and high school – at the top.

 

The student population at Barrett Elementary in Homestead is 78% black. The student population at Park Elementary in Munhall is 84% white.

 

These schools serve students from K-4th grade. By 5th grade they are integrated once again when they all come to the middle school and then the high school. There the mix is about 40% black to 60% white.

 

But having each group start their education in distinctly segregated fashion has long lasting effects.

 

By and large, black students don’t do as well academically as white students. This is due partially to how we assess academic achievement – through flawed and biased standardized tests. But even if we look solely at classroom grades and graduation rates, black kids don’t do as well as the white ones.

 

Maybe it has something to do with the differences in services we provide at each elementary school. Maybe it has to do with the resources we allocate to each school. Maybe it has something to do with how modern each building is, how new the textbooks, the prevalence of extracurricular activities, tutoring and support each school provides.

 

But it also has to do with the communities these kids come from and the needs they bring with them to school. It has something to do with the increasing need for special education services especially for children growing up in poverty. It has something to do with the need for structure lacking in home environments, the need for safety, for counseling, for proper nutrition and medical services.

 

No one group has a monopoly on need. But one group has greater numbers in need and deeper hurts that require healing. And that group is the poor.

 

According to 2017 Census data, around 27% of our Steel Valley children live in poverty – much more than the Allegheny County average of 17% or the Pennsylvania average of 18%.

 

And of those poor children, many more are children of color.

 

Integrating our schools, alone, won’t solve this problem.

 

Putting children under one roof is an important step, but we have to ensure they get what they need under that roof. Money and resources that flow to white schools can almost as easily be diverted to white classes in the same building. Equity and need must be addressed together.

 

However, we must recognize that one of those things our children need is each other.

 

Integration isn’t good just because it raises test scores. It’s good because it teaches our children from an early age what the world really looks like. It teaches them that we’re all human. It teaches tolerance, acceptance and love of all people – and that’s a lesson the white kids need perhaps more than the black kids need help with academics.

 

I say this from experience.

 

I grew up in nearby McKeesport – a district very similar to Steel Valley economically, racially and culturally.

 

I am the product of integrated schools and have benefited greatly from that experience. My daughter goes to McKeesport and likewise benefits from growing up in that inclusive environment.

 

I could have enrolled her elsewhere. But I didn’t because I value integration.

 

So when Mary Niederberger wrote her bombshell article in Public Source about the segregated Steel Valley elementary schools, I was embarrassed like everyone else.

 

But I wasn’t shocked.

 
To be frank, none of us were shocked.

 

We all knew about the segregation problem at the elementaries. Anyone who had been to them and can see knew about it.

 

In fact, to the district’s credit, Steel Valley had already tried a partial remedy. The elementaries used to house K-5th grade. We moved the 5th grade students from each elementary up to the middle school thereby at least reducing the years in which our students were segregated.

 

The result was state penalty.

 

Moving Barrett kids who got low test scores up to the middle school – which had some of the best test scores in the district – tipped the scales. The state penalized both Barrett and the middle school for low test scores and required that students in each school be allowed to take their per pupil funding as a tax voucher and use it toward tuition at a private or parochial schoolas if there was any evidence doing so would help them academically.

 

Not exactly an encouragement to increase the program.

 

But school segregation has a certain smell that’s hard to ignore.

 

If you’ll allow me a brief diversion, it reminds me of a historical analogue of which you’ve probably never heard – the Great Stink of 1858.

 

Let me take you back to London, England, in Victorian times.

 

The British had been using the Thames River to wash away their garbage and sewage for centuries, but the river being a tidal body wasn’t able to keep up with the mess.

 

Moreover, getting your drinking water from the same place you use to wash away your sewage isn’t exactly a healthy way to live.

 

But people ignored it and went on with their lives as they always did (if they didn’t die of periodic cholera outbreaks) until 1858.

 

That year was a particularly dry and hot one and the Thames nearly evaporated into a dung-colored slime.

 

It stunk.

 

People from miles away could smell it.

 

There’s a funny story of Queen Victoria traveling by barge down the river with a bouquet of flowers shoved in her face so she could breathe. Charles Dickens and others made humorous remarks.

 

But the politicians of the time refused to do anything to fix the problem. They sprayed lime on the curtains. They even sprayed it onto the fecal water – all to no avail.

 

Finally, when they had exhausted every other option, they did what needed to be done. They spent 4.2 million pounds to build a more than 1,000 mile modern sewage system under London.

 

It took two decades but they did it right and almost immediately the cholera outbreaks stopped.

 

They calculated how big a sewage system would have to be constructed for the contemporary population and then made it twice as big. And the result is still working today!

 

Scientists estimate if they hadn’t doubled the size it would have given out by the 1950s.

 

This seems to be an especially important bit of history – even for Americans more than a continent and a century distant.

 

It seems to me an apt metaphor for what we’re experiencing here in Steel Valley.

 

Everyone knows what’s causing the stink in our district – school segregation.

 

Likewise, we know what needs to be done to fix it.

 

We need a new elementary complex for all students K-4. (I’d actually like to see 5th grade there, too.) And we need busing to get these kids to school regardless of where they live.

 

The excuse for having two segregated elementary schools has typically been our segregated communities and lack of adequate public transportation.

 

We’re just a school district. We can’t fix the complex web of economic, social and racial issues behind where people live (though these are matters our local, state and federal governments can and should address). However, we can take steps to minimize their impact at least so far as education is concerned.

 

But this requires busing – something leaders decades ago decided against in favor of additional funding in the classroom.

 

In short, our kids have always walked to school. Kids at the bottom of the hill in Homestead and West Homestead walk to Barrett. Kids at the top in Munhall walk to Park. But we never required elementary kids to traverse that hill up to the middle and high school until they were at least 10 years old.

 

We didn’t think it fair to ask young kids to walk all the way up the hill. Neighborhood schools reduced the distance – but kept the races mostly separate.

 

We need busing to remove this excuse.

 

I’ve heard many people deny both propositions. They say we can jury rig a solution where certain grades go to certain schools that already exist just not on a segregated basis. Maybe K-2 could go to Park and 3-4 could go to Barrett.

 

It wouldn’t work. The existent buildings will not accommodate all the children we have. Frankly, the facilities at Barrett just aren’t up to standard. Even Park has seen better days.

 

We could renovate and build new wings onto existing schools, but it just makes more sense to build a new school.

 

After all, we want a solution that will last for years to come. We don’t want a Band-Aid that only lasts for a few years.

 

Some complain that this is impossible – that there just isn’t enough money to get this done.

 

And I do sympathize with this position. After all, as Superintendent Ed Wehrer said, the district is still paying off construction of the high school, which was built in the 1970s.

 

But solutions do exist – even for financial problems.

 

My home district of McKeesport is very similar to Steel Valley and in the last decade has built a new 6th grade wing to Founders Hall Middle School and Twin Rivers, a new K-4 school on the old Cornell site.

 

I’m sure McKeesport administrators and school board members along with those at other neighboring districts could provide Steel Valley with the expertise we need to get this done. I’m sure we could find the political will to help us get this done.

 

And that’s really my point: our problem is less about what needs to happen than how to do it.

 

We should at least try to do this right!

 

We can’t just give up before we’ve even begun.

 

Debates can and should be had about where to build the new school, how extensive to have the busing and other details. But the main plan is obvious.

 

I truly believe this is doable.

 

I believe we can integrate Steel Valley elementary schools. And I believe we can – and MUST – do so without any staff furloughs.

 

We’re already running our classes with a skeleton crew. We can ensure the help and participation of teachers by making them this promise.

 

That’s what true leaders would do.

 

Sure, some fools will complain about sending their little white kids to class with black kids. We heard similar comments at the town hall meeting. But – frankly – who cares what people like that think? The best thing we could do for their children would be to integrate the schools so that parental prejudices come smack into conflict with the realities of life.

 

 

And if doing so makes them pull out of Steel Valley, good riddance. You never need to justify doing the right thing.

 

 
Again this will not solve all of our problems. We will still need to work to meet all student needs in their buildings. We will have to continue to fight the charter school parasites sucking at our district tax revenues.

 

But this is the right thing to do.

 

It is the only way to clear the air and remove the stink of decades of segregation.

 

 
So let’s do it.

 

 
Let’s join together and get it done.

 

Who’s with me?

 

 


 

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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Every Charter School Must Be Closed Down – Every. Single. One.

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The problem with charter schools isn’t that they have been implemented badly.

 

Nor is it that some are for-profit and others are not.

 

The problem is the concept, itself.

 

Put simply: charter schools are a bad idea. They always were a bad idea. And it is high time we put an end to them.

 

I am overjoyed that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are starting to hear the criticisms leveled against the charter school industry in the face of the naked greed and bias of the Trump administration and its high priestess of privatization, Betsy DeVos. However, I am also disappointed in the lack of courage displayed by many of these same lawmakers when proposing solutions.

 

Charter schools enroll only 6 percent of students nationwide yet they gobble up billions of dollars in funding. In my home state of Pennsylvania, they cost Commonwealth taxpayers more than $1.8 billion a year and take more than 25 percent of the state’s basic education funding. That’s for merely 180 schools with 135,000 students!

 

Charter schools are privately run but publicly financed. They are what happens when the public abrogates its responsibility to run a school and signs that right away (in a charter agreement) with another entity, usually a business or corporation.
As such, these schools are not held to the same standards as authentic public schools. Unlike your neighborhood school, charters are not required to be run by elected boards, to have public meetings, to have open records, or to spend all their money in the service of their students. Nor do they have to provide the same standard of services for students – even children with special needs. Nor do they have to accept all students within their coverage area who enroll. And that’s to say nothing of how they increase racial segregation, are susceptible to fraud and malfeasance, often produce much worse academic results, close without notice, hire many uncertified teachers, trample workers rights and destabilize the authentic neighborhood public schools.

 

These are not problems that can be solved by fiddling around the edges.

 

 

We cannot simply constrain them from stealing AS MUCH from authentic public schools and consider it a victory.

 

We need to address the issue head on – and that issue is the very concept of charter schools.

 

Why would the public give up its schools to a private entity? Why allow someone else to take our money and do whatever they want with it behind closed doors? Why allow anyone to give our children less of an education than we’re already providing at our own schools?

 

We must end this failed experiment. Nothing less will do. It will only provide more breathing room so  that this unjust situation can drag on for another generation.

 

In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed sweeping reforms via executive order that would make real progress toward holding charter schools accountable. He has asked that the state senate and house take the next step with legislation to finish the job.

 

Just this past week, Wolf visited Twin Rivers Elementary School in McKeesport along with state Senator Jim Brewster and state Reps Austin Davis and Jake Wheatley to listen to resident and teachers’ concerns and propose solutions.

 

Such a move is unprecedented and represents a seismic shift in the political landscape. However, I am concerned that lawmakers are too timid to fix the real problem here.

 

No one has the bravery to come out and say what I’ve said here.

 

Consider this statement from Brewster, my state Senator:

 

I have legislation to address some of these issues, but it’s not an indictment on charter school teachers. It’s not an indictment on the charter school concept. It’s an indictment on the process that was put in place 20 some years ago that has put in a playing field that’s not level. Together I believe if we get the charter school folks to the table we can iron this out, we can fix several things that need to be fixed – the funding formula, the capacity, the cap and those sort of things – and when we do that, then the mission statements of the charter schools and the public schools are the same – educate our children, bring their skill sets out, help them achieve their dreams.”

 

 

I am deeply grateful for Brewster’s support and willingness to take on the charter industry. And he is right about many things. But not all of them.

 

He is right, for example, about the financial impact of charter schools on authentic neighborhood public schools.

 

At the same meeting, McKeesport superintendent Mark Holtzman said, “Charter schools are depleting our resources with no accountability or without being financially responsible. Taxpayer money is being used to flood the media with commercials and billboards right before the start of school so that they can take our students.”

 

There are roughly 500 students living in the McKeesport district enrolled in brick-and-mortar charter schools and 100 students enrolled in cyber charters. The district spends about $7 million — or 10% of its budget — on charter school payments, according to Holtzman.

 

It’s roughly the same at other districts in the Mon-Valley. Steel Valley Schools, where I work as a middle school teacher, has budgeted a $6 million payment to charter schools this year – 16% of our spending plan.

 

Again, I am extremely grateful that Wolf and other state Democrats recognize this fact and are willing to take measures to make matters more fair. I hope many Republicans will join them in this.

 

However, fixing the way charters are funded alone will not correct the problem.

 

Charter schools are a parallel service to authentic public schools. If you’re suggesting we fund them both, you’re asking taxpayers to pay for two complete and separate school systems.

 

Why should we do that? Why should we waste our money on it? I don’t think the people of Pennsylvania – or any state of the union – have money to spare on a pointless duplication of services.

 

It is a politically impossible position that has zero justification – especially when you consider all the inequitable practices charter schools are allowed to get away with.

 

In his executive orders, Wolf proposes putting a stop to some of this.

 

For example, he wants to require charter schools to stop turning away students based on race, ethnicity, gender, disability, intellectual deficits, or other factors. He wants to make charter schools as transparent as authentic public schools. He wants to stop conflicts of interests for charter school board members and operating companies so that they can’t make decisions on behalf of the school that would enrich themselves, their families and/or friends.

 

These are excellent suggestions and I hope he is able to make them a reality.

 

However, these “fixes” are all things that authentic public schools already do. They don’t discriminate in enrollment. They are financially accountable and transparent. They aren’t allowed to engage in conflicts of interest.

 

Why bother making charter schools act like authentic public schools when we already have authentic public schools? That’s like genetically engineering your cat to have a longer snout and say “woof.” Why bother when you already have a dog?

 

The same could be said about for-profit and non-profit charter schools.

 

Apologists want to pretend that the former is the “bad” type of charter and the latter is the “good” type.

 

Wrong.

 

As Jeff Bryant, an editor at Education Opportunity Network, puts it, this is a “Distinction without a difference.”

 

These terms only define an organization’s tax status – not whether it is engaged in gathering large sums of money for investors.

 

With a knowledgeable accountant or hedge fund manager, almost anyone can claim nonprofit status while still enriching yourself. It happens all the time.

 

For instance, take the use of management companies.

 

A for-profit charter school can simply cut services to students and pocket the savings as profit.

A nonprofit charter school can do the same thing after engaging in one additional step.

All they have to do is start a “nonprofit” charter school and then hire a for-profit management company to run it. Then the management company can cut services and pocket the profits!

 

 

Yet we call such a school “nonprofit.” It’s meaningless.

 

 

It doesn’t even matter who owns the for-profit management company. It could even be the same people who own the nonprofit charter school.

 

The law actually allows you to wear one hat saying you’re nonprofit and then put on a different hat and rake in the cash! The only difference is what hat you’re wearing at the time! You get to claim to be a nonprofit while enjoying all the advantages of being for-profit.

 

You can even buy things with public tax dollars through your for-profit management company and then if your “nonprofit” school goes bankrupt, you get to keep everything you bought! Or your management company does.

 

So the public takes all the risk and you reap all the reward. And you’re still called a “nonprofit.”

 

 

But let’s not forget real estate shenanigans.

 

 

If I own property X, I can sell it to my own charter school and pay myself whatever I want. And I can do the same thing with a nonprofit charter school, I just need to sell it to my for-profit management company which will still buy my property for whatever I decide to pay myself.

 

 

Face it – charter schools are a scam.

 

They are a failed policy initiative.

 

It’s time they were ended.

 

But don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting we simply throw away the people who work there or the students who are enrolled there.

 

We need to look at each charter on a case-by-case basis and decide how best to transition them to an authentic public school system.

 

In some cases, it may make sense to rehabilitate charters into fully public schools with all the transparency and regulations that means. However, in most cases it will mean eventually closing them.

 

If there are any charters that actually provide valuable services for students and their families wish to keep children enrolled there, we should allow these students to finish their academic careers there. But let the present classes be the last.

 

In schools that do not offer better outcomes than the neighborhood public school (i.e. the overwhelming majority) students should be transitioned back to the neighborhood schools.

 

If there are any charters that do not wish to abide by such changes, they should have the opportunity to become what they already are except in name – private schools. The only difference is that taxpayers will no longer take up the tab.

 

And when it comes to charter school teachers, they should not be punished for having worked in the industry. In fact, we should find ways to bring them into the authentic public schools.

 

Our public schools need more teachers. Charter teachers who are fully certified should be given first chance to fill some of those vacancies. And charter teachers who are not certified should be given the opportunity to go back to school and complete their education degrees.

 

Any sane solution to the charter school mess would include these measures with the ultimate goal of ending school privatization in all its forms financed at public expense.

 

We don’t want privatized prisons. We don’t want privatized mercenary armies like Blackwater. We don’t want privatized schools.

 

Tax dollars should go to our authentic neighborhood public schools so that we can make them even better than they already are.

 

Our students deserve the best we can give them – and we can’t give them the best when we’re needlessly paying for two separate school systems and passing legislation with more of an eye on private investors than the welfare of the next generation.

 

It is my sincere hope that this push for real charter school reform becomes an effort to solve this problem once and for all.

 

Are we brave enough to do it?

 

 

Do we have the courage and conviction to take that on?


 

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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Pittsburgh School Board Candidate Anna Batista Takes Big Money From Special Interests

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“Few men have virtue to withstand the highest bidder.”

-George Washington

 

Anna Batista, a corporate consultant at Highstreet Consulting running for Pittsburgh School Board, is taking thousands of dollars in donations from big money interests.

 

A quick look at campaign finance reports on Allegheny County’s Website shows Batista took beaucoup bucks from school privatization lobbyists, real estate developers, lawyers, and financial advisors.

 

Meanwhile, her opponent Pam Harbin, a public school watchdog, is supported almost exclusively by grassroots donations.

 

 

Both candidates are running for District 4, which serves parts of Squirrel Hill, Point Breeze, Shadyside and North Oakland. Since they’ve cross filed and will appear on both the Republican and Democratic primary ballots, the seat should be decided in the May 21 primary.

 

Batista and Harbin have raised similar amounts for their campaigns. Harbin has $33,412.95 while Batista has $32,414.

 

Batista has support from at least two troubling industries – school privatizers and corporate crusaders – which are nowhere to be seen in her opponents financials.

 

Particularly troubling to me are the charter school and voucher advocates.

 

Someone shouldn’t be running for a public school board with backing from the same vultures demanding public schools be dismantled and their assets and funding siphoned away to private industry. Charter schools cost the Pittsburgh Public district more than $85 million per year in tuition payments. While the district has no plans to open new public schools, it is forced to open new charter schools every time one of these publicly financed but privately run institutions appeals to the state Charter Appeal Board, further draining resources away from remaining public schools.

 

In fact, Batista is using “Students First” as a title on her campaign mailers. This is the name of a well-known school privatization group founded by infamous public school saboteur Michelle Rhee. The education justice movement across the country and here in Pittsburgh has been fighting Students First for years. They are infamous for dumping money into Pennsylvania politics to back legislators friendly to school privatization. No one who is serious about education justice would use this title: either Batista does not know about Students First, she knows and doesn’t care, or she is being intentional in signaling to privatizers that she is on their side.

 

Students First merged with 50CAN, a national group focused on vouchers and school privatization that grew out of ConCAN, started by Connecticut hedge fund managers. Betsy DeVos, now U.S. Secretary of Education, praised the merger and has done similar work for years through her own organization with the same privatization agenda. Here in Pennsylvania, the local branch is PennCAN. Their director, who also sits on the board of a local charter school asking for approval to set up shop in Pittsburgh, is one of Batista’s donors.

 

The largest donations are noted below. Chief among these are:

 

-Rachel Amankulor, PennCAN and Catalyst Charter School board member. (Pittsburgh Public School Board denied Catalyst’s application citing problems with its plan to accommodate students with disabilities, among other issues, but the state Charter Appeal Board overturned the board’s decision and the case may now go to Pennsylvania Supreme Court.)

 

-Catherine Axtman, spouse of William Axtman who sits on the Propel Charter School Board

 

-Kirk Burkley ($500) and Robert Bernstein ($250), of Bernstein- Burkley, a Pittsburgh law firm specializing in Business Law, Creditors Rights, Oil & Gas, Bankruptcy, & Real Estate. (Burkley ran against school board member Lynda Wrenn in 2015 – a race fought in large part around privatization issues!)

 

-Allison McCarthy, Vice President of Teach for America; Catalyst Charter School Board Member; and Broad Academy graduate (Eli Broad is a major privatizer who started the Broad Academy of which Devos is a graduate.)

 

-Nathaniel Yap, spouse of Brian Smith, Catalyst Charter Founder and CEO ($1,000)

 

And then we come to the big business partisans.

 

Many of these advocate for tax deferment programs to entice businesses into the Pittsburgh area on the condition that they are allowed to escape paying taxes or pay at a reduced rate for a certain number of years. Programs such as Tax Incremental Financing (TIFs) put a heavier burden on the schools than other public resources. They cost the school district 50% as opposed to the county and city, which only lose 25% of their owed taxes each.

 

Local politicians like County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto  – though Democrats – are chief advocates of these types of neoliberal, business friendly programs. While the city and county have nothing to do with Pittsburgh Public Schools, they do often expect the School Board to rubber stamp TIFs. The School Board is an independent taxing body, but they are rarely brought to the table at the beginning of the process.

 

Corporate donors include:

 

-Friends of Rich Fitzgerald ($500)

 

-People for Bill Peduto ($2,000)

 

-Gregg Perelmann, Walnut Capital ($1,000)

 

-Todd Reidbord, Walnut Capital (Developers of Bakery Square and other projects that have received a number of TIFs)

 

-Helen Casey, CEO of Howard Hanna

 

-John Katz, Brandywine Agency ($1,000 plus in-kind) (His office in the Squirrel Hill business district is worth thousands)

 

-Paul Katz, Brandywine Agency ($250)

 

-Patricia Katz, Brandywine Agency ($1,000)

 

-Rod Werstil, McKinney Properties ($500)

 

-Kevin McKeegan, Meyer, Unkovic & Scott LLP (Pittsburgh Real Estate Law)

 

-Luke Meyers, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP and Affiliates (New York Real Estate Law)

 

-Nancy Finkelstein, Schulte Roth & Zabel (Finkelstein’s Linkedin Profile includes this quote: “I have concentrated my practice on representing private equity funds, investment banks, hedge funds, financial institutions, finance companies and high-net-worth individuals in a wide variety of transactions, including financings, debt restructurings, leveraged acquisitions, and collateralized loan facilities.”)

 

-Steven Massey, Federated Investors

 

-Richard Lerach, Gateway Financial

 

-William Sheridan, Reed Smith LLP (“Represented managed care defendants in obtaining dismissal of antitrust conspiracy and monopolization claims.”)

 

All of this is truly troubling for someone running to serve as a school board director.

 

Compare Batista’s financials with that of her opponent Harbin.

 

In at least two instances, Harbin won endorsements and donations from organizations Batista had been courting.

 

Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers gave Harbin $5,000 instead of Batista.

 

Likewise, Unite! Pittsburgh gave Harbin $1,500 over Batista. This is State Rep. Summer Lee’s PAC. The organization supports candidates running on a criminal justice slate who are committed to ending the school-to-prison, poverty-to-prison, and addiction-to-prison pipelines.

 

Other notable donations to Harbin’s campaign include:

 

-Women for the Future Pittsburgh ($500)

 

-Friends of Chelsea Wagner ($500) (Wagner is Allegheny County Controller and one of the founders of Women for the Future Pittsburgh)

 

-Michael Fine ($2,800) physician for the Veterans Administration

 

-Kathy Fine ($2,800)  Michael’s wife and long-time education justice activist who fought against the closing of Pittsburgh’s Schenley High School.

 

-Nancy Bernstein ($1,000) J Street Board Member (J Street organizes and mobilizes pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans who want Israel to be secure and democratic.)

 

These are exactly the kind of donations you’d expect from a grassroots candidate – labor unions, progressive political promoters and activists.

 

Full disclosure: Though I live just outside of the Pittsburgh area, I am not unbiased in this race. I consider Harbin a friend and fully support her run for school board.

 

However, the donations outlined in this article are all facts. Feel free to go to the county Website and see for yourself.

 

Our children deserve better than Batista – a school director in the employ of the same forces out to sabotage education and pick the remains clean for their own individual ends.

 

Call me crazy, but I think children should be an end in themselves.

 

School board candidates who put themselves up for sale like Batista don’t deserve your vote. They’ve already sold theirs to the highest bidder.


 

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.


 

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