With the Death of Queen Elizabeth II, the US Should End Its Biggest Colonial Enterprise – Charter Schools

In the United States, colonialism isn’t just something we do to other people – we do it to our own citizens.

A prime example of this is the charter school industry.

Now that the UK’s longest-reigning monarch has died, perhaps we can admit that.

To many people, Queen Elizabeth II is more than just a 70-year figure head – she remains a symbol of the British colonial empire — an institution that enriched itself through violence, theft and oppression.

But one needn’t look solely at European nations pillaging Africa and Asia to condemn the practice.

Nor should we limit ourselves to United States’ hegemony in the Caribbean, Pacific and Middle East.

We’ve got colonialism right here – down the street, in our own neighborhoods.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, colonialism is:

“the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically.”

That’s a pretty good description of the relationship between charter schools and the communities where they insert themselves.

Consider what a charter school does.

It is a school funded by taxpayer dollars but free from regulations protecting the people it supposedly serves.


Like a colonial power, a charter school loots and pillages the local tax base but is not required to be governed by the local taxpayers.

This is fundamentally different from authentic public schools which are funded in the same way but subject to the leadership of an elected board of directors made up of members of the community. At charter schools, decisions can be made entirely by an appointed board who are not beholden to the public but to the organizers and investors who created the charter school in the first place.

And often those investors do not come from the community in question. They are outsiders come merely for personal profit.

These invaders are quite literally taking local, community resources and liquidating them for their own use – the maximization of personal profit. The public is removed from the decision-making process about how its own resources are utilized and/or spent.

To be fair, a charter school cannot exist in a community unless its operators can convince enough parents to enroll their children. However, no one needs to invite the charter school into the community in the first place.

Like with any business, these entrepreneurs can decide to set up shop pretty much anywhere, and though local public schools are tasked with approving or disapproving their request to locate within district boundaries, most state charter school laws provide very few resources to authentic public schools to turn charter schools away. Moreover, when charter applications are denied, the community that turned them away are often overruled by unelected privatization-friendly functionaries in state government.

Think about what a transformation has been thus accomplished.

Stakeholders such as students, families, teachers, and communities become merely economic resources ripe for hegemony – not free people with the right to control their own destinies.

After all, just because a small number of parents have decided to enroll their kids at a charter school, that doesn’t mean the community at large – which is far more numerous and will have to fund this endeavor – supports it. Moreover, the money taxpayers are expected to offload on the charter school come from their existent public schools – and the slight reduction in students does not equal a proportionate reduction in cost. Most expenses are fixed regardless of enrollment. You still have to heat and cool the building, staff the classes, etc. So the community has to decide whether to shortchange the majority of children who continue to be enrolled at the authentic public school or (as often is the case) pay more in taxes to make up the difference.

In this context, the colonizers aren’t foreign governments but hedge fund managers and other investors who treat the charter school in the same manner as real estate or stocks, playing a gambler’s game of speculation while local taxpayers are left with the tab and the lion’s share of risk. After all, if the speculators lose, they are out a certain dollar amount. If the charter school fails, the community loses a quality education for its children. Moreover, money that should have been spent according to community needs and priorities—hiring school nurses, keeping music programs, reductions in class size, etc. – is wasted.

Make no mistake – this is theft. It is pillaging and looting a community. The citizens lose their right to self government, how their land is used and how their resources are utilized. They become enslaved to the so-called free market.

Perhaps the most pernicious effect is the change in attitude, as Ohio social studies teacher Dr. Chuck Greanoff writes:

“Our minds are targets of colonization, the goal being the replacement of any sense of a common good and shared responsibly with the neoliberal axiom that economic self-interest is the only right and natural course of action. You are to think like consumers, not citizens. You are to shop for the best schools for your student, not invest your time and effort in improving them for everyone.” 

Others have gone even farther finding racism in the daily administration of charter schools, themselves. After all, many charter schools locate themselves around inner city black communities and therefore exploit the children of color they find there.

Bloggers Russ Walsh and Jonathan Pelto noted how similarly both colonialists and charter school operators often treat the people in the communities where they are located.

Colonialism is often white Europeans acting on brown indigenous people. The colonizers are going to “raise those savages up” or in the words of noted imperialist Rudyard Kipling, ease the “white man’s burden.”

Walsh notes that we see the same apparent motivation among charter school operators with regard to the often black and brown children enrolled in their schools. They use militaristic, highly autocratic systems of discipline to keep these children in-line.

He writes:

“The children of the inner city are being treated by their “benefactors” as inferiors. Charter schools are colonial enterprises.”

However, the most damning testimony comes from Julian Vasquez Heilig’s Cloaking Inequality blog. He published a guest piece written by a former New Orleans charter school dean of students decrying just such colonial practices.

He writes about the experience first hand:

“…while working as the Dean of Students for a charter school in New Orleans, it took me some time to realize that I had been enforcing rules and policies that stymied creativity, culture and student voice…

My daily routine consisted of running around chasing young Black ladies to see if their nails were polished, or if they added a different color streak to their hair, or following young men to make sure that their hair wasn’t styled naturally as students were not able to wear their hair in uncombed afro styles. None of which had anything to do with teaching and learning, but administration was keen on making sure that before Black students entered the classroom that they looked “appropriate” for learning. As if students whose hair was natural or those whose parents could not afford a uniform tie could not achieve like others who possessed these items…

…everything at the school was done in a militaristic/prison fashion. Students had to walk in lines everywhere they went, including to class and the cafeteria. The behavioral norms and expectations called for all students to stand in unison with their hands to their sides, facing forward, silent until given further instruction.”

Students should not be treated like prisoners. Children should not be forced to comply with such harsh rules of conduct. And no one should be compelled to give up their cultural heritage for any reason – but especially because those in charge don’t value them as human beings.

It’s way past time we admit it.

This is colonialism.

Charter schools are colonial enterprises.

We can and should criticize the UK for its history of violence and oppression. We can and should include many US international policies in the same condemnation.

But we mustn’t stop there.

Colonialism is on our streets and in our schools.

We have been colonized by the rich and powerful and our children of color have received the worst of it.

We must end the charter school experiment.

We must end the neighborhood colonialism that too few are willing to call by its rightful name.

Further Reading:

Fisher, David R.   Education in the Settler Colony: Displacement, Inequality, and Disappearance via Charter Schools. University of South Florida ProQuest Dissertations Publishing,  2019. 27548561.

-Vasquez Heilig, J., Khalifa, M., & Tillman, L. (2013). Why have NCLB and high-stakes reforms failed?: Reframing the discourse with a post-colonial lens. In K. Lomotey and R. Milner (Eds.), Handbook of Urban Education. New York: Routledge.


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Great Replacement Theory and School Choice

What do QAnon conspiracy theorists and school privatization promoters have in common?

Answer: ideology.

The two groups do everything they can to disassociate with each other in public.

But examine their ideas and you’ll see a lot of family resemblances.

For example, take Great Replacement Theory and School Choice.

Great Replacement Theory is the idea that people of color are replacing white people both numerically and politically. Adherents claim Democrats are overrunning native-born white people with brown skinned immigrants in order to wrest political power. The claims have no basis in fact, but that doesn’t stop the narrative from gaining traction in the darkest corners of the Internet and right wing circles.

It is a favorite of far right pundits, immigration catastrophists and mass shooters. In fact, several white men have used it as justification for mass murder.

In May a white teenager cited it as his motivation for killing 10 black people and wounding several others at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York.

In 2018, another white man claimed he was trying to stop Jewish people facilitating immigration by killing 11 Jewish people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

School choice, on the other hand, seems to be something much less extreme.

At least you don’t have to be a card carrying member of the lunatic fringe to espouse its supposed virtues.

It’s the idea that kids should be segregated into different school systems based on parental choice. This means that parallel systems will compete for students in a Darwinian marketplace where some will get better resources than others with profit being the prime motivator for school operators most of whom are private corporations. In practice, this usually means that the worst racial and economic segregation is justified and even preferable so long as consumers think doing so will get them some kind of advantage.

It’s quite a popular idea among certain market first ideologues. This includes both Democrats and Republicans, investment bankers, and even some social justice advocates.

These are not always the same people who publicly champion Great Replacement Theory. However, as Tucker Carlson proves on his Fox News platform, sometimes they are.

Carlson has used his media empire to promote both ideas.

For more than a year he’s been claiming on Fox News that there’s a deliberate effort by the Democrats to undermine Republicans by replacing native-born Americans with immigrants.

In July, he said:

“You can’t just replace the electorate because you didn’t like the last election outcomes. That would be the definition of undermining democracy, changing the voters… The great replacement. It’s not a conspiracy theory. It’s their electoral strategy.”

And when it comes to school choice, he goes even further. Not only has he promoted it on Fox News, he is co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Daily Caller, a media source that constantly promotes school privatization and other corporate education reform strategies – school vouchers, charter schools, etc.

So what do the two concepts have in common?

In short: racism and white supremacy.

Great Replacement Theory is a kind of grievance politics complaining about the steady loss of white privilege.

School choice is an attempt to recapture or maintain white privilege at the educational level and by extension into the adult economic and political world.

Great Replacement Theory has its roots in French nationalism books dating back to the early 1900s, according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

Chief among these is French Author, Jean Raspail, whose 1973 novel, The Camp of the Saints, told a fictional tale of migrants banding together to take over France. However, the concept’s more contemporary use is attributed to Renaud Camus, a French writer who wrote “Le Grand Remplacement” (“The Great Replacement”) in 2011.

White supremacists blame Jewish people for nonwhite immigration to the U.S., and the concept is closely associated with antisemitism, according to the ADL.

Adolphus Belk Jr., professor of political science and African American studies at Winthrop University, said white nationalist movements arise when people of color are seen as a threat politically and economically.

Belk said white nationalists are worried that, “whites will no longer be a majority of the general population, but a plurality, and see that as a threat to their own well-being and the well-being of the nation.”

What makes individual extremists and white nationalist groups so dangerous, according to Belk, are the lengths they are willing to go to in order protect their position in society:

“They are willing to use any means that are available to preserve and defend their position in society … it’s almost like a sort of holy war, a conflict, where they see themselves as taking the action directly to the offending culture and people by eliminating them.”

By contrast, school choice is a quieter ideology, but based on similar foundations.

School choice originated in America’s racially segregated past. Around the time when the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board ruling outlawed direct segregation in public schools, white lawmakers created programs for redirecting public money to private institutions so that white families didn’t have to send their children to schools with their Black peers.

And we see the same in charter schools and private schools accepting taxpayer funded vouchers today. The prime motivation behind sending children to these schools is often “white flight”. White parents use these options to flee schools with higher percentages of non-white students. And choice options tend to lure the more motivated and compliant students away from public schools.

This isn’t to say that the authentic public school system is unequivocally integrated, either. While there has been tremendous progress in many districts, unscrupulous school boards, administrators and lawmakers have drawn district lines in such a way as to limit integration even in a substantial number of public schools. However, the degree of segregation at privatized schools dwarfs anything you’ll see in public education.

School choice programs create the ideal situation for Black-white segregation. An analysis of high schools in more than 100 of the largest U.S. public school districts found a positive correlation between districts that offer school choice programs and the degree to which their high schools were racially imbalanced for Black and white students.

A national study of the trends in the racial makeup of nearly every school district in the U.S. found that charter expansions made segregation worse within school districts. An analysis of national enrollment data of charter schools, conducted by the Associated Press in the 2014-2015 school year, found more than 1,000 of the nation’s 6,747 charter schools had minority enrollments of at least 99%, and the number has been rising ever since.

We see the same effect with school vouchers. A 2018 study of Washington, D.C.’s voucher program found that 70% of voucher students were enrolled in heavily segregated schools with 90% or more minority students, and 58% were enrolled in all-minority schools.

So both concepts – Great Replacement Theory and school choice – center around increasing white supremacy.

Both seek to shore up white political and economic power regardless of white people’s numeric majority. In fact, as white people become less of the majority – not through any importing of people of color from other nations but as a natural consequence of birth rates – they seek to disempower people of color.

In education, this means keeping Black and white students separate and unequal. It’s a way to divert more resources to the white students and ensure the Black students do not receive the same opportunities.

Sadly, these ideas are not really new in this country. Both share the spirit of George Wallace who in 1963 proudly proclaimed:

“Segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever!”

As Malcolm X observed:

“America preaches integration and practices segregation.”

The question remains whether voters will support such artifacts of the past or turn to a future where our ideals of equality and fairness triumph over our reality of inequality and injustice.

QAnon and school privatization may share a family resemblance, but it is up to us whether we reject that family or not.


 

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Teachers are Being Spied on for Thoughtcrimes

Teachers, be careful.

Big Mother is watching you.

When you post a rainbow flag on your Facebook profile…

When you tweet support for Black Lives Matter…

When you like a YouTube video of someone punching a Nazi…

Big Mother is watching.

Or more specifically, Moms for Liberty is watching.


And, no, the group’s members probably don’t get the irony of their name.

Moms for Liberty (MFL) is a billionaire-funded front group dedicated to spreading disinformation and chaos at public schools across the country.

They’ve offered cash prizes for turning in teachers who dare to educate on topics that go against far right doctrine. They’ve demanded books on similar topics be removed from school libraries and curriculum. And they’ve even stormed school board meetings where they don’t necessary live to complain about every petty grievance Fox News is broadcasting this week.

Now they’re coming after teachers social media.

They’re creating workshops to encourage people to find public educators’ online accounts and report anything they don’t like at school board meetings or in the media, ultimately demanding the offenders be fired.

After all, if Miss Roosevelt has a rainbow flag on her personal Facebook account, what’s to stop her from making her students gay!?

If Mr. Kennedy tweeted in favor of Black Lives Matter, what’s to stop him from making our White children hate themselves because of the color of their skin!?

And if Mrs. Gore liked a YouTube video where a Nazi got punched in the face, how do we know she won’t condone such violence in the classroom!?

MFL is based in Florida, but operates on a county-by-county basis, claiming 200 chapters in 37 states including Pennsylvania (Allegheny, Eerie, Bucks, Lancaster counties, etc).

This is an image advertising one such workshop in Nueces, Texas, but they are popping up everywhere.

One of the many ironies about the situation is how the idea has been pulled almost directly from George Orwell’s dystopian novel, “1984.”

Orwell coined the term “thoughtcrime” to describe a person’s politically unorthodox thoughts – anything that runs counter to the party line. In criminalizing thought and even tasking the Thinkpol (i.e. thought police) with monitoring things people say, write or how they act, Orwell could be describing MFL.

In the fictional country of Oceania, the party controls all speech, actions and thoughts of citizens. This is pretty much what MFL is trying to do here.

It’s a strange way to love “liberty.”

These right-wingers actively harass people on the left for their politics, but cry foul when anyone dares to call them out on theirs.

The Florida-based organization claims to be just “moms on a mission to stoke the fires of liberty.” Yet it’s infamous for encouraging a “mass exodus from the public school system” while disrupting that same system at every turn.

Its members are using culture war shenanigans to intimidate and harass people into silence.

They’re weaponizing fear to coerce people into curtailing political speech of which they don’t approve.

As infuriating as this is, it’s not new.

There have always been a few petty people in nearly every community willing to scroll through teachers feeds looking for trouble. Frankly, it’s why new educators are warned to keep their personal lives off the Internet or to keep their information private.

The only difference now is how concentrated these spying efforts may become.

We’re not talking about just the local crank looking for photos of teachers drinking or engaged in the crime of living an adult life.

We’re talking about well-funded ideologues out to destroy the public school system, one teacher at a time.

Incorporated in 2021, MFL is a 501(c)4 corporation, so it doesn’t have to disclose its donors. However, one of the group’s founders is Bridget Ziegler, wife of the Florida vice chairman of the Republican Party. The organization is affiliated with at least three separate PACs, and has the funds to pay for keynote speakers like Megyn Kelly and Ben Carson at its fundraisers. Some of its biggest supporters are the Koch family, the DeVos family, former Trump officials and The Federalist Society. 

They have the money to go through your Web footprint with a fine toothed comb.

So what should teachers do about it?

As a public school teacher, myself, the way I see it, there are two things we can do:

1) Lock down or disengage from social media


2) Keep doing what you’re doing

Your response will depend on your own situation.

If you live in a so-called Right to Work state or where worker protections are few and far between, you should probably get a tight grip on your online presence.

Make sure your personal Facebook account and any groups you belong to are private and secure. Ensure that anyone invited into these groups is verified through either questions or personal invitation. Check that everyone has agreed not to screen shot any discussions happening – and even then be careful what you post because nothing is ever 100% secure.

Use a privacy audit to make sure you don’t have something embarrassing out there. This guide from Violet Blue is a good starting place to ensure your private information is not easily findable online.

On the other hand, if you live in a state with strong union protections, you have a reliable union at your school, etc., then you have less to worry about.

You can’t be fired for expressing your freedom of speech on your own time on your own social media accounts. As long as you’re not on school devices, using or sharing such accounts in school or with students, you should be fine.

That doesn’t mean someone won’t try to harass you over your digital presence. But if you understand the dangers and feel relatively safe, you probably are.

I’ve been writing on education and civil rights issues for 8 years. I actively TRY to get people to read this stuff.

In that time, there have been a lot of folks mad at me for what I write. I sometimes get hate mail (usually email) calling me everything you can think of and more you can’t. And when some of these folks find out where I work, they sometimes call up to complain and demand I be let go with haste!

Nothing has come of it.

That doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen tomorrow. But I refuse to live in fear.

I am who I am.

I shout it to the world.

And if someone wants to fire me for it, then fine.

There are lots of things I could be doing other than this.

We’re in a national crisis with teachers leaving the profession in droves at least in part because of fascist shenanigans like this.

Bottom line: I love teaching, but I’m not going to change who I am to do it.

Moms for Liberty can rage. They can spend all of Betsy DeVos’ billions trying to fire me and other educators who dare to have thoughts that may deviate from the right-wing.

Big Mother is not MY mom. And I don’t owe her anything.


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

 

Dr. Tia Wanzo is the First Black Superintendent at McKeesport Area School District

It only took 138 years, but McKeesport Area School District finally has a Black Superintendent.

Dr. Tia Wanzo was sworn in yesterday at a well attended special meeting of the board.

Dr. Wanzo had been Assistant Superintendent under outgoing Superintendent Dr. Mark Holtzman who left the district for a corresponding position at Beaver Area School District at the end of June.

The McKeesport district, established in 1884 and located just southeast of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has had a sizable Black population for decades. According to the National Center of Education Statistics, the district is 71 percent white and 23 percent Black. It serves the City of McKeesport, and boroughs of Versailles, Dravosburg and White Oak as well as a small portion of South Versailles Township.

“It’s an honor to sit on the board at this time as history was made,” Board Member LaToya Wright Brown wrote on a Facebook post.

“Dr. Wanzo is the first African American to be appointed in the role of superintendent at MASD. I look forward to working in collaboration with our central administration teams, MASD staff and communities to give our students what they deserve.”

Dr. Wanzo will be paid $165,000 per year – $25,000 more than Dr. Holtzman had been paid in his original contract from March 29, 2017.

The board voted unanimously to hire Dr. Wanzo as Superintendent though School Director Matt Holtzman – the former Superintendent’s brother – was absent.

During the previous administration, Dr. Wanzo was often put in difficult positions.

In 2019 when the ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the district on behalf of 11 district students, she had the difficult job of defending her boss, Dr. Holtzman, while still advocating for the students.

Dr. Holtzman, who was named in the suit, refused to let the students create a Black Student Union. He claimed his objection wasn’t due to the organization’s content but the participation of one of the student’s mothers – Fawn Montgomery Walker who was running for McKeesport Mayor at the time and who is lead organizer of Take Action Mon Valley, a community action group.

Dr. Wanzo was quoted in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review on the matter as follows:

“The frustrating part is the students clearly did not understand that they’re in the middle of this. And also, it’s frustrating that they feel that we are telling them they cannot do that, you’re not allowed to have this club, because that was never ever stated by any of us.”

The district eventually reached a settlement agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union and the students.

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

Dr. Wanzo was also put in a difficult position more recently when the previous school board voted to extend Dr. Holtzman’s contract two years before it expired – a potential violation of state law.

Dr. Holtzman resigned and was rehired at the same board meeting. When this proved contentious, the previous board did the same thing a month later for Dr. Wanzo and then claimed any criticism of what they did for Holtzman was either unfair for not including Wanzo or racially motivated because Dr. Wanzo is a person of color.

The matter concluded with Dr. Holtzman leaving the district.

Unlike her predecessor, Dr. Wanzo spent her entire career at MASD. She was a fifth grade teacher at Francis McClure Middle School, a second grade teacher at White Oak Elementary School, a fourth grade teacher at Cornell Intermediate School, Assistant Principal at Founders’ Hall Middle School, and ninth grade principal at the high school.

She graduated from the district and still lives in its borders. As a student, she attended Centennial Elementary, Cornell Middle School, and graduated from McKeesport High School in 1997. 

She has a BA in Elementary Education from Clarion University, a degree in Educational Leadership from Carlow University, and a Doctorate in Educational Leadership from Duquesne University.

Hopefully she will be able to lead the district to a brighter future.

To many students she may appear a beacon of representation as well as proof that a student from McKeesport can rise to the top.

WATCH DR. WANZO BEING SWORN IN:


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I Will NOT Lead My Students in Prayer and Neither Should You

As a public school teacher, I have a responsibility not to bully my students into believing as I do.

In fact, I go out of my way to respect their right to form their own opinions – to think, not just to accept what they’re told.

The US Supreme Court apparently has no idea how this works.

The six Republican members (I refuse to call them justices) paved the way for organized prayer in public schools by ruling this week in support of a high school football coach who lead his team in prayer on the field.

Anyone who has ever been in the minority knows that when an authority figure leads students in an activity, it is not optional – no matter what they say.

I know this from personal experience.

When I was in elementary school, I was one of a handful of Jewish kids in a building of mostly Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, etc.

In December, the kids were preparing for a choral concert where we’d sing a slew of holiday songs.

I loved to sing and enjoyed Frosty the Snowman, Jingle Bells and all the other classics…

Except one – Silent Night.

I just didn’t feel right singing things like “Round yon virgin mother and child” and “Christ the savior is born.”

So when we practiced that song, I’d stop singing.

I’d enthusiastically belt out all the other tunes, but I just stood there when it was time for Silent Night.

I didn’t think it would make a difference. There were hundreds of others kids. No one would notice me.

But the choral teacher did.

She pulled me out of line and demanded to know why I wasn’t singing. I told her I was Jewish and didn’t want to sing that song.

She chided me for making everyone else look bad and told me to just move my mouth during the song so it looked like I was singing.

I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want people to even THINK I was singing things I didn’t believe.

It’s not that I really accepted Santa and his reindeer, either, but this was somehow different. I didn’t want my parents to go to the concert and see me participating in this farce. I didn’t want to be forced to go onstage and before everyone profess the opposite of all I had been taught – to declare myself other than what I really was.

But the other kids were right there listening to this whole conversation and giggling. It was yet another way I was being marked as an outsider, as different – so I gave in and did what she demanded.

In retrospect, I now know I could have complained to my parents and gone to the principal and we could have even taken the matter to court like the aforementioned coach.

However, when you’re a little kid in elementary school you usually just listen to what the adults tell you to do. At least I did.

It took me decades to get over it. Really.

Whenever that song would come on the radio or I’d hear it in a department store, I’d get all tense and upset. Like something had been stolen from me.

So it was with some trepidation many years later that I attended my daughter’s first winter concert when she was in elementary school.

It was with some relief that I noticed no holiday songs like Silent Night. They were all pretty secular and even multicultural.

And my daughter goes to the same district I went to as a child.

We’ve come a long way in the past three decades.

By and large, public school teachers today make an effort not to force their ways onto their students.

It’s a lesson I take to heart, myself, in my middle school classes.

When we discuss things – as you must in Language Arts – I encourage students to agree OR disagree with me or anyone else. Either option is okay so long as they try to explain why they think the way they do.

Moreover, I encourage them not to just speak but to also listen to what their classmates have to say and even be open to revising their original thoughts based on what they’ve heard.

And this includes discussions of religion.

When something Biblical or theological comes out of a book like “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “The Outsiders,” we give it our full attention.

I tell my kids that they can say or think whatever they want about it. If they want to talk about God or religion, that is fine. It’s just me who is constrained. I am not allowed to give them my own opinion on these matters.

Often I tell them that this isn’t necessarily what I believe, but I’ll propose one idea or another to get them thinking.

I remember one year my students were particularly interested in religion, and they complained that they couldn’t pin me down on anything – they couldn’t tell if I was religious or an atheist.

And that’s how it should be.

Kids have never been forbidden from talking about God or praying in school.

It’s just that teachers have been forbidden from telling them what to think or leading them in prayer.

Until now.

However just because an increasingly illegitimate Supreme Court makes a regressive ruling doesn’t mean teachers have to change.

Even if we CAN lead kids in prayer, that doesn’t mean we SHOULD.

I don’t plan on altering a single thing in my classroom, and I don’t think my colleagues should, either.

But there are 3.2 million teachers in public schools. There are bound to be some who will use this ruling as an excuse to give in to their worst tendencies.

So here’s what I suggest we do.

We should not coerce our students to do anything, but we damn well can and SHOULD pressure our colleagues not to indoctrinate their students.

Principals should give crappy assignments to teachers who break this taboo. Keep them away from students if at all possible. After all, they don’t belong in the classroom if they’re going to misuse the trust students have in them.

Teachers should give them the cold shoulder in the faculty room and at the copier.

Want to borrow my grammar unit? Not if you’re going to subject your classes to your faith and encourage them to follow along.

Consenting adults can do what they like on their own time, but this is public school.

When it comes to undue influence, inculcation and alienation of kids who are different, we cannot be bystanders.

We may not have dark money and Christian Nationalists behind us, but until we have a rational Supreme Court to overturn this decision or a Congress with enough guts to codify freedom from religion into law, teachers still have some modicum of power.

We should use it to protect our children.


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Overturning Abortion Rights is Fascism – Pure and Simple

The US Supreme Court is a fascist organization.

Let me cut right to the chase to explain why.

This week the conservative majority (I won’t call them justices) overturned Roe v. Wade – the landmark 1973 decision that expanded access to abortion nationwide.

This is on top of decisions deeply wounding state’s rights to make gun regulations, to hold police civilly accountable for reading suspects their Miranda rights, and even the separation of Church and State in regard to public funding of parochial schools.

Let me be very clear – this is not about consistency based on legal precedent or interpretation of the law. It is ideology – pure and simple.

In the case of abortion, these four men and one woman did it because they wanted to. That’s all.

And they wanted to for a while now. They each lied to Congress during their confirmation hearings.

Maybe money exchanged hands. Maybe they were influenced by powerful pundits, politicians and ideologues.

But their rulings were certainly not based on logic. After all, in the same week they decided states CAN’T regulate guns but states CAN regulate women’s bodies.

This is inconsistent and irrational.

The right to an abortion is one of the most fundamental rights a person can have.

It is central to the very idea of personal freedom and autonomy.

And no argument based on the rights of the unborn can support this travesty of justice.

Look at the facts.

At the beginning of pregnancy, a fetus is nothing but a cluster of cells.

This cluster is alive but so is cancer. So are insects. So are bacteria.

Being alive is not enough to give it rights over-and-above the person these cells are clustered inside.

Electrical impulses in these cells do not constitute a heartbeat. Nearly every cell has such electrical impulses – the brain, muscles, organs, etc. That doesn’t make them separate organisms.

Your belief that a cluster of cells is a person is not a compelling argument for anything.

There are no facts behind it.

It is purely a matter of a faith.

There is no way to prove either position right or wrong. It is definitional.

It is purely something you believe without any evidence.

It is religion, and in a free society one person’s religion cannot compel someone of another faith or someone of no faith whatsoever.

Catholics can’t make Jews attend midnight mass before Christmas. Jews can’t make Baptists refrain from eating pork. Muslims can’t stop atheists from drawing cartoons of religious figures.

Doing so would be theocracy.

So using your belief as a justification to force people who do not share it to take that cluster of cells to term is a textbook example of fascism.

It clearly violates the First Amendment establishment clause of the Constitution. It forces others to be compelled by your faith-based claims.

Moreover, it violates a person’s right to bodily autonomy.

If you have a right to anything, it is to do whatever you want with your own body. After all, that is you at its most essential.

Without this right, you are the same as livestock or an enslaved person.

No one should be able to force you to do anything with or to your body that you don’t want.

Obviously that right has limits – for example if you intend to use your body to hurt or kill someone else.

But we’ve already established that a fetus – a glob of cells – cannot be assumed to be someone else.

Doing otherwise would be absurd.

So someone has beliefs about what’s happening inside your body. So what?

Imagine if some cult thought your kidneys have souls and must be kept inside you at all costs. Should they be able to pass a law forbidding you from removing one if it gets infected? If you want to donate it to save another person’s life?

They’re your kidneys. And that fetus is your cluster of cells. You can do with it what you want.

Eventually, if you let that cluster of cells develop long enough, it may become something else. It may become viable to live on its own and what almost everyone would agree is a person. But it is not a given at all that this conglomeration of tissue is one yet.

And your insistence that your beliefs about it must compel my actions violates my rights.

Moreover, this argument has been predicated on the believer in the personhood of a clump of cells acting in good faith.

In point of practice, we do not even see that.

The same people in favor of repealing a person’s right to abortion may be in favor of the knot of tissue developing through birth, but they do not support doing anything to help it once it has unequivocally reached personhood.

No universal healthcare. No universal daycare. No neonatal care. No robust education funding. And no protection against gun violence.

This shows that most people professing this belief in the personhood of something inside your body is pure balderdash.

It’s not about that mass growing inside a woman. It’s about the woman, herself – controlling her actions, making her bend to your will, making it harder for her to exercise her autonomy and benefit from her own economic power.

It is about upholding patriarchy. It is about subjugating women – especially poor women and women of color who are more likely to be impacted.

Make no mistake.

This is fascism.

Our Supreme Court is fascist.

And whether you are likely to ever have an abortion or not is beside the point.

Every woman, every man, every person is impacted.

We must fight this kangaroo court and the political power behind it.

We must make them regret such blatant autocracy and totalitarianism.

This is everyone’s fight.

Every PERSON. Everywhere.


 

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

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


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


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


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


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


 
But it doesn’t always start that way. 


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


 
She writes


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Me, too. Every time I read it. 


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


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


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


 

 

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

Holtzman Resigns as MASD Superintendent After Questions Over Contract Shenanigans

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

However, this time his resignation appears to be permanent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apparently Holtzman couldn’t continue to work with them.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holtzman’s controversies predate the pandemic.

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

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

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

Not everything Holtzman did in the district was contentious.

He had a talent for getting donations from large companies.

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

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

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

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


 

 

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Back to the Past with the US Supreme Court 

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

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

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

I was surprised.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the heck!?  

Did I just sleep through a monologue by Rod Serling?  

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

These are issues of settled law.  

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

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

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

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

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

That anyone could think differently struck me as absurd.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s exactly what it is.  

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

It says so on their precious red hats.  

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

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

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

This is politics – pure politics.  

And there is a political solution.  

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

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

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

I hope with all my heart that we do this.  

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

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

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

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

They deserve a much better world.  

But all we seem to have for them are reruns. 


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

 

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

 
 
 
Is public education worth saving? 


 
That’s the question in the air these days.  


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


 
 
The Pandemic Effect 


 
 
Public schools got a bloody nose from the Coronavirus crisis.

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


 
Public health should be decided by scientists not school directors


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

 
 
 
Why Are Public Schools Important? 


 
 
Because of what they are and what they represent.  


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


 
Without public schools, equity is definitely not on offer. 


 
 
 Public is Better Than Private 


 
 
That’s really the point.  


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


 
We Must Fight 


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


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


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


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


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

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


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

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


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


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


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


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


 
It will require collective action. 


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


 

 


 

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