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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Teachers Are Not Responsible for Student Growth or Achievement

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Earlier this week, I was rushed to another urgent early morning staff meeting at my school.

 

I had my laptop with me and was frantically trying to get everything ready that I’d need for the day.

 

Text dependent analysis question? Check.

 

Discussion guide to introduce the concept of science fiction? Check.

 

Questions on literacy, analogy, vocabulary and sentence structure suitable for 7th grade? Check.

 

The same suitable for 8th grade? Check.

 

And as I was anxiously trying to get all this together in time for me to rush to my morning duty when the meeting was over, I quickly took a sip of my tea and tried to listen to what my administrator was saying from the front of the room.

 

He handed out two white sheets of paper with a compilation of standardized test scores – last year’s and those from the year before.

 

He asked us what we noticed about these two sets of scores and I almost spit out my tea.

 

“THIS IS WHAT YOU BROUGHT US HERE FOR!?” I wanted to shout.

 

“THIS IS WHAT YOU’RE STOPPING US FROM DOING OUR WORK TO DISCUSS!?”

 

But I choked down my response and waited for someone to tell him what he wanted to hear.

 

The scores have gone down in the preceding year.

 
 
Nothing drastic but enough.

 

When he got his answer – actually he had to say it himself because none of us were ready to play this game so early in the morning – he offered us an olive branch.

 

Isn’t that the way of it? Shame then reconciliation. Blame then peace.

 

Those are just the achievement scores, he said. Admin. generously doesn’t expect us to be able to do much about those. They go up one year and down the next.

 

But look at these growth scores!

 

That’s where we can have an impact!

 

And again I felt my throat convulse and a mouthful of Earl Grey came back up my gullet.

 

Growth!?

 

It doesn’t make that much difference whether you look at growth or achievement. If you’re holding teachers accountable for either, you’re expecting us to be able to do things beyond our powers as mere mortal human beings.

 

I hate to break it to you, but teachers are not magical.

 

We cannot MAKE things happen in student brains.

 

Nothing we say or do can cause a specific reaction inside a human mind.

 

That’s just not how learning and teaching works.

 

We can INFLUENCE learning.
 
We can try to create some kind of optimum condition that is most likely to spark learning.

 

But we cannot make it happen like turning on a switch or lighting a candle.

 

Let me give you a real world example.

 

The day before the meeting I was conferencing with a student about his essay on Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” I pointed out that he had misspelled Christmas as “Crismist.”

 

He refused to fix it.

 

Literally refused.
 
I pointed out that the word was already typed out and spelled correctly in the prompt. All he had to do was erase what he had written and rewrite it correctly.

 

He said he didn’t care – that it didn’t matter.

 

So I tried to explain how people who don’t know him would read this paper and make snap judgments about him based on simple mistakes like this.

 

I told him that I knew he was smart, that I had heard his verbal discussion of the story and was impressed by his arguments about Scrooge’s character. He had made good points about Scrooge’s guilt being motivated by fear and that once the ghosts were gone he might return to his old ways.

 

But no one was going to get that far or give him the benefit of the doubt if he didn’t even try to spell Christmas correctly!
 
And he still wouldn’t do it.

 

That is literally where I was yesterday – yet today my administrator wanted to hold ME accountable for this kid’s growth!

 

As this child’s teacher, it IS my responsibility to try to reach him.

 

I am responsible for providing him with every tool I know how that can help him succeed.

 

I am responsible for trying to motivate, inspire and explain. I am responsible for knowing what are best practices and using them.

 

By all means – evaluate me on that.

 

But I can do nothing about what a student actually does with all I give him.

 

To paraphrase the old adage about horses, I can lead a student to knowledge, but I can’t make him think.

 

And, moreover, I shouldn’t be forced, myself, only to be able to acknowledge certain kinds of thinking. If a student’s ideas don’t fit neatly into a multiple choice framework, I shouldn’t be impelled to ignore or constrain them.

 

That may seem simple or even obvious with reflection, but it also goes counter to nearly every teacher evaluation system in practice in the United States.

 

Because that’s really what’s motivating my administrator’s directives here.
 
He’s just being real, he said. This is what we’ll be evaluated on and it’s something we can impact.

 

Then he asked us what each of us can do to better impact student growth.

 

Hands went flying into the air to offer suggestions about how administration could help us better accomplish these goals.

 

How about some consistency in which courses we’re instructed to teach from year-to-year?

 

How about not splitting up classes so that students leave one room to have a special and then return to finish a course already in progress?

 

How about mandating fewer diagnostic tests so there’d be more instruction time?

 

Well that last one was just too much. We were told that Admin. planned to do just the opposite – to make the Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDT) tests MORE invasive by changing the schedule to make them appear more like the end of the year state mandated tests.

 

He said eventually we could look at some of these other ways to change things administratively, but he wanted to put the onus on us. What can WE do to increase growth?

 

A hand went up.
 
If we help a student grow this year, won’t there be less room for him to grow next year – at least within a given academic standard? Don’t we reach a point of diminishing returns?

 

To which I wanted to add – where are we measuring growth from? One standardized test to another? That’s not authentic learning – it’s assessing how well students take a test and how well they think like the corporation that makes and grades it.

 

But the meeting was already over.

 

The bell rang and we had to rush to our duties.

 

I scrambled back to my classroom to deposit my computer before getting to the cafeteria just as student breakfast began.

 

This is madness, I thought.

 

Growth and achievement. It’s all just gas lighting educators for not being superhuman.

 

The decision makers either don’t understand how learning works or they don’t care to understand.

 

They are putting everything on teachers and students without providing either of us with the tools we need to succeed.

 

Students need more than another standardized test. And they need more than another teacher who only cares about their test scores – regardless of whether you measure them in growth or achievement.

 

These kids are stressed out, living under immense pressure, coping with poverty, prejudice, an unstable society, climate change, an uncertain future and an economy that promises them little more than crushing debt as a best case scenario.

 

Educators are supposed to wade into all that, say a few incantations and it will all just go away?

 

Many parents are struggling so much to provide for their kids they don’t have time to help with homework, provide guidance or support. And you think I’ve somehow got the secret sauce in my teacher’s bag?

 

Wake up, America.

 

It’s time we faced a truth about our schools.

 

Teachers can’t do it all alone.
 
Growth, achievement, whatever.

 

Until society commits to supporting its children with equitable resources, social justice and an evaluation system that’s more valid than standardized testing, the next generation will continue to struggle.

 

If you want to make an impact, a good place to start would be a realistic conception of what it means to be a teacher and what we actually can and should be held responsible for.

 


 

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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White Billionaires Cannot Buy the Charter School Debate

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Betsy DeVos is not woke.

 
Bill Gates has not been to the mountaintop.

 
Nor is the Walton Family Foundation concerned with promoting civil rights.

 
So when white billionaires pour cash to charter school lobbying groups – as the Walton’s did Thursday for charter school protestors at an Elizabeth Warren rally – it isn’t exactly convincing.

 
Speaking at the historically black college Clark Atlanta University, Warren, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for President in 2020, was interrupted by audience members chanting charter school slogans.

 

 

She eventually met with the protestors after the rally.

 

 

Strangely enough, Warren hasn’t suggested any policy position that would adversely affect the charter schools from which the protestors hail.

 

 

Along with Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, Warren has a progressive charter school platform calling for increased transparency and an end to federal funding of charters, which are paid for with tax dollars but privately run.

 

 

The Intercept journalist Rachel Cohen noted:

 

 

“Frankly suggesting that stronger transparency standards for publicly-funded charter schools would ‘limit parental choice’ is an incoherent talking point that really should not be taken seriously. Increased transparency only ‘limits choice’ if the charter schools themselves refuse to accept higher transparency standards.”

 

 

Intercept journalist Ryan Grim, who was present at the rally, noted that the group of protestors was funded by the Waltons.

 

 

The group was from Memphis Lift Parent Institute which bused in people from around the country. It was supported by a GoFundMe page showing numerous $1,000 donations from anonymous sources.

 

 

Published financial reports clearly show the Waltons backing Memphis Lift to the tune of $1.5 million since 2015. And since then, their 2017 filing shows $375,200 more, with a mere $200 coming from other public contributions. That’s pretty close to 100%. The Walton’s Website makes the connection even more undeniable.

 

 

Support also came from Nashville education consulting firm Strategy Redefined, the Tennessee’s chapter of Democrats for Education Reform and Chris Barbic, the original head of Tennessee’s disastrous Achievement School District.

 

 

That is not grassroots.

 

 

That is astroturf.

 

 

Both the NAACP and Black Lives Matter have called for a moratorium on new charter schools primarily because of how they increase school segregation and adversely affect children of color.

 

 

These are huge national organizations making decisions based on democratic input of their members. They are not solely representative of the tiny fraction of parents (6%) who send their kids to charter schools nationwide, nor are they funded primarily by corporations and billionaire investors who, in turn, make a profit off of the school privatization industry.

 

 

While it’s true that you’ll find polls showing strong support for charters among people of color, the overwhelming majority of these polls are conducted by pro-charter groups. They’re like the American Apple Foundation finding high support for U.S. apples – little more than paid advertising.

 

 

However, even a poll conducted by charter school lobbying organization Democrats for Education Reform found that both black and white respondents support a moratorium on new charter schools.

 

 

Billionaires like DeVos, Bill Gates and the Waltons have spent incredible amounts of money to convince the public that school privatization is grassroots, but we have the receipts.

 

 

The Walton foundation has promised $1 billion since 2018 to expanding charter schools.

 

 

Andre Perry, an education policy expert at the Brookings Institution, describes the Walton foundation as hiding behind black faces to obscure who’s really in charge – they’re exploiting black people for a “white agenda.”

 

 

“It’s a sad thing that education reform is about how much money you have and not about what connection you have with black communities,” Perry said.

 

 

The Walton Foundation gave $9 million to the United Negro College Fund for a scholarship to the organization’s fellowship program for students interested in education reform. They are literally paying to indoctrinate black people to the ideology that school privatization is in their best interests.

 

 

This also includes $530,000 to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation to sponsor an affiliated education policy advocacy and campaign training workshop and an additional $170,000 to sponsor events.

 
Walton money has also gone to two other pro-charter groups – nearly $2 million to the 100 Black Men of America campaign and $7.3 million to the National Urban League.

 

 

And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

 

 

Charter schools are not required to provide the same basic services that authentic public schools must.

 

 

To suggest that providing fewer services to black and brown children is somehow in their best interest should insult Americans of every race.

 

 

Black children – just like white children – deserve schools run by elected school boards.

 

 

Black children – just like white children – deserve schools that accept all comers, not institutions that cherry pick which kids to enroll and which to counsel out to other institutions.

 

 

Black children – just like white children – deserve schools that will provide them with robust services and don’t try to cut programs and pocket the savings as profit.

 

 

None of this is controversial.

 

 

It is common sense.

 

 

The problem is that after decades of misinformation, people are becoming ever more aware of how charter schools are scamming the public in general and black communities in particular.

 

 

The billionaires funding this industry are using their vast wealth to try and buy the debate.

 

 

It is up to every thinking American to look at the facts and understand the extent to which we are being bamboozled by white elites at the expense of our black and brown brothers and sisters.

 


 

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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GUEST POST: How Charter Schools Trick Parents into Thinking They are Private Schools

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By Lisa Lightner

 

 

If you take a walk through any Costco on a weekend afternoon, you can see that Americans LOVE to get free stuff, no matter how small it is. Why else would we wait in line for a morsel of food that likely has lots of germs on it?

 

 

Because, it’s FREE.

 

 

So, what if I offered you the chance to send your child to private school, for free? You’d likely jump at the chance, right? After all, our perception is that private schools are exclusive. Private schools are much better than public schools, right?

 

 

You must pay for private schools, which puts them out of reach for many families. So, the chance to attend one for free? Sure!

 

 

But much like you might regret eating that bite of bacteria-laden food from the sample lady at Costco, you might want to really examine that “free” private school before you send your child.

 

 

Because that “private” school is not a private school at all. It’s a charter school. And charter schools are public schools. Besides, except for a few exceptions (that charter supporters never miss an opportunity to point out), they do not perform as well as traditional public schools. In fact, right here in Pennsylvania, we do not have one cyber charter school that is performing at an acceptable level per our own Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) reports.

 

 

First, let me be clear. I have never once heard a charter school say that they are a private school. However, they use smoke and mirrors to trick parents into thinking that they are a private school. And, they usually refer to themselves as “charter schools” instead of “public charter schools” and many taxpayers do not even know what a charter school is.

 

 

So, the lack of the word “public” combined with a few tricks leads parents to believe that they are getting something special, something exclusive, when in fact they are not.

 

 

School Uniforms: Now, mind you, I’m not against the idea of school uniforms. There certainly is a lot of value in the concept. But I think we’d all agree that school uniforms are not a public school kinda thing. Right? If I say the words “school uniform” my guess is that the first vision that pops into your brain is dark blue, dark green, maybe even plaid….but the vision of a Catholic/private school uniform.

 

 

“Tuition Free”: Look at any magazine or TV advertisements for charter schools, and you’re likely to see the phrase “tuition free.” Wow! Free! I love free! But guess what? It’s a public school. There never was any tuition. Again, another trick to make parents think that they are getting a private school for free.

 

 

Advertising: When was the last time you saw a television commercial for your local elementary school? Yeah, me neither. The very fact that they advertise on TV, billboards and magazines leads you to believe that they are private schools. After all, a public school wouldn’t spend millions of dollars on advertising, would they? No, traditional public schools wouldn’t, as the community likely would have a meltdown over it. But it’s standard practice with the public charter schools. Millions of taxpayer dollars are spent on advertising, much of it deceitful to attract students. And take note: one thing that is absent from the advertising is mention of how well that charter school is performing. Because it’s nothing to brag about!

 

 

Tricky Words: In their advertising and promotions, charter schools use tricky words to persuade parents into believing something, without outright saying it. Here are a few examples.

 

 

The most obvious is the lack of the word “school” in many of the names. I perused a list of all the charter schools in Pennsylvania. Almost a third of them contain the words “preparatory,” “academy,” “institute” or “center” in their name. When you see or hear those words, you don’t think about public education, do you?

 

 

“Specialized” or “tailored” curriculum are a few others. The words are actually pretty meaningless, but lead parents to believe that this school must be better than a public school, right?

 

 

Wrong.

 

 

Admissions Process: When you want to put your child in your local public school, it usually is called enrollment or registration. Charter schools call it an “admissions” process, which gives it an air of exclusivity about it. Truth is, they do get to pick their students. The lottery admissions process they use are not transparent, and they’re not accountable to telling anyone how they enroll students. But using the word ‘admissions’ is very much a loaded and slanted word, compared to enroll or register.

 

 

Marketing Exclusivity: Some charters like to promote themselves as exclusive or only being for a select group of students. Again, these are public charter schools using taxpayer dollars to operate. Allowing taxpayer money to promote exclusivity in our schools is a dangerous path to go down, in my opinion. After all, minorities and disabled children have only been in public schools for a few decades. Excluding groups of children, or insinuating that you do, is backwards progress.

 

 

Charter schools are public schools. Many parents and taxpayers do not know this due to deceptive marketing tactics. Charters in PA have been allowed to play by their own set of rules, and that has to stop.

 

 

I’ll be the first to stand up and say that our traditional public schools need some assistance. But diverting funds away from them and to charters with little accountability is not the way to improve our schools.

 

 


Lisa Lightner is a Special Education Advocate who lives in southeastern PA with her family. Her blog, A Day in our Shoes, offers free (yes really, free) IEP advice for parents.

 

 

 

 

 

Pittsburgh Mayor’s Tantrum About School Finances Proves He Doesn’t Understand Education or Equity

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Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto is steaming mad and he doesn’t care who knows it.

 

On Tuesday he raved that Pittsburgh Public Schools’ finances should be taken over by the state – the same fate the city had suffered during its own economic troubles from 2004-18.

 

The reason Peduto thinks the school should submit to a financial recovery plan overseen by a state appointed board? School Superintendent Dr. Anthony Hamlet is proposing a 2.3% tax increase in 2020 for a reserve fund while Peduto’s municipal government allegedly is managing with a surplus.

 

If the city can manage its finances without a tax increase, wonders Peduto, why can’t the school district?

 

However, the Mayor’s narrative conveniently leaves out a few pertinent facts.

 

Most importantly – during the city’s economic trouble 14 years ago, Pittsburgh Public Schools gave a portion of their tax revenue to the municipal government to help it pay the bills.

 

Now that the city is doing better, school officials are suggesting Peduto should give that tax revenue back to the schools. And that suggestion infuriates the mayor.

 

In addition, it’s not true that Pittsburgh’s 2020 budget includes no tax increase.

 

The city is raising taxes by about 6% to pay for upkeep at its parks. However, since this tax is the result of a referendum approved by the voters, it is being spun as a “no new taxes” budget.

 

The city has a surplus due to construction of new high-end apartments. City Council could have budgeted some of this money to pay for the parks. Instead, leaders like Peduto were too cowardly to take the blame, themselves, and put it out as a question to voters.

 

It is entirely unfair to criticize Pittsburgh Public Schools for raising taxes a smaller degree (2.3%) than the city is (6%).

 

Both entities spend about the same amount annually. In 2020, the city has a proposed $608 million budget, and the schools have a proposed $665.6 million budget.

 

Moreover, there is nothing unfair about school officials asking for the tax revenue back from the city that they generously offered it when the municipality was in need.

 

Now that the city is out of peril (and has been since 2018), it should pay back that money. To be honest, it should do so with 14 years worth of interest – but no one is suggesting that.

 

At least it is time for Pittsburgh to stop leeching off its schools and give this revenue back.

 

The fact that Peduto is whining about something so obviously fair and equitable makes him look like a spoiled child.

 

The same goes for his suggestion of state takeover of district finances.

 

Pittsburgh Public Schools already is audited by the state every year. It is not on the state watchlist for districts in financial distress.

 

District spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said, “There have been no significant issues raised related to how the district conducts its finances.”

 

Peduto just wants the schools to have to endure the same indignity the city did thereby putting municipal leaders in a better light.

 

After all, it was the school district which helped the city – not the other way round. And it was the city that needed the state to take over its finances, not the schools.

 

It was Pittsburgh Public School’s Chief Financial Officer Ronald Joseph who explicitly proposed a take-back of wage tax revenue that was diverted to the city in 2005.

 

City residents pay a 3% wage tax. Of this money, originally 2% went to the schools and 1% to the city.

 

When the city was placed under Act 47 state oversight, the formula was changed to give a quarter percent more to the city from the school’s allotment – thus 1.75% went to the schools and 1.25% went to the city.

 

Pittsburgh left Act 47 in 2018 but the wage tax distribution has remained the same.

 

“Why in the heck can’t the school board balance their budget?” Peduto said. “Where is all this money going?”

 

Answer: Some of it is still going unnecessarily to fill your municipal coffers.

 

Peduto added:

 

“If they are looking to have part of the city’s wage tax, then they should be willing to open the books and let the state come in and do exactly what we had to do through Act 47, which was difficult restructuring for the future. If we didn’t have that, the city would be bankrupt.”

 

So let me get this straight. In order to give back the revenue the schools generously loaned the city, you need a look at their finances? I sure wouldn’t lend you a dollar or else I’d have to show you my tax returns and checking account just to get the loan repaid.

 

Peduto went on:

 

“If they simply say, ‘We’re going to take your revenue to fix our hole,’ and not be the leaders that they were elected to be in making tough decisions like raising taxes, then I have no time for that, absolutely none, and I will fight them in Harrisburg.”

 

How generous! That’s like threatening to go to Mom and Dad to settle your dispute. A real leader would know he was in the wrong and just pay up.

 

This isn’t the first time Peduto has clashed with city schools.

 

He seems to think his role as mayor supersedes that of the school district which operates independently through an elected nine-member board.

 
He said as much in 2018 when district negotiations with the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers (PFT) threatened to spill over into the first teachers strike in more than 40 years.

 

Peduto wanted to mediate between the teachers and school administrators – a measure Dr. Hamlet patently refused.

 

Peduto said:

 

“They have to remember they’re a board. They’re not a government. They’re no different than the water board or the Port Authority board or the airport board. They’re a board of education. Their job should be solely making sure that kids are getting a good education. When there becomes labor strife in the city, labor strife that could affect the economic development of the city for years to come, they need to move out of the way and let [elected] leaders lead.”

 

Dr, Hamlet said this was a “bargaining process, not a political” one, and that Peduto needed to let administration continue the process of bargaining with the teachers – a process that resulted in a new contract without a strike.

 

The relationship has been chilly even before Hamlet was hired in 2016.

 

In a community where district funding is constantly at risk from unregulated and unaccountable charter schools, Peduto actually presided over a 2014 ribbon cutting ceremony at the Hill House Passport Academy Charter School.

 

 

Charter school costs are one of the largest expenses the district pays annually.

 

 

According to PennLive.com, the district paid $79 million (or about 12% of its budget) in 2017-18 to these institutions which are funded with public tax dollars but privately run.

 
Like many charter schools, the Hill District institution is incredibly segregated. According to ProPublica, 96% of students are children of color. It has no gifted program, offers no AP courses, has no students taking the SAT or ACT test, no calculus classes, no advanced math, no physics, geometry, chemistry or 8th grade algebra courses.

 

In short, this is not the type of school the mayor of a major metropolitan center should be promoting.

 

And Peduto would know that if he had any knowledge of how school systems actually work. Before entering city politics, the Democrat ran a consulting business and served as Chief of Staff to City Councilman Dan Cohen.

 

Since his first successful campaign for mayor in 2013, Peduto has had a history of making bold promises to the Pittsburgh Public Schools that have not always come to fruition.

 

Peduto said he would lobby for additional funding for city schools in Harrisburg but district solicitor Ira Weiss said the mayor never followed through.

 

 

Peduto proposed increasing school revenue by helping to rent out unused school space. That hasn’t happened, either, said Weiss.

 

Peduto suggested increasing student after school programs by working together with the district and others like the YMCA and the Student Conservation Association. While a few such programs do exist, there is no broad collaboration, said Errika Fearby Jones, the executive director of Dr. Hamlet’s office.

 

Peduto’s summer reading program with the city and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh likewise never materialized – though the library runs its own program.

 

Moreover, Peduto’s plan to restart the Generations Together program with the University of Pittsburgh to promote cross-generational learning never happened either. Pitt shut down the program in 2002.

 

Curtiss Porter, who served as Peduto’s chief education and neighborhood reinvestment officer during the first year of his administration, blames the problem on a disagreement about who should be in charge.

 

The city and school district had a good working relationship when he was there, he said, but there was “a clear demarcation” between the two bodies, which made it difficult to implement some of Peduto’s ideas.

 
“At critical junctures…the school district made it clear that they were willing partners but that they did not have to bow to the city,” he said. “[They] made it clear the city had no jurisdiction over education.”

 

And that disconnect appears to continue today.

 

Peduto is engaged in an ignorant and arrogant power struggle with city schools that helps no one.

 


 

 

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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Vulture Voucher Bill Latest in Mike Turzai’s Quest to Please Betsy DeVos in PA

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The best way to help a struggling public school is to cannibalize it.

 

 

At least that’s what Betsy DeVos thinks – and so does her Pennsylvania puppet Mike Turzai.

 

 

The Republican Speaker of the state House is expected to propose a school voucher bill Monday that will treat Harrisburg Schools as nothing more than carrion fit for plunder by school privatization vultures.

 

 

Sure the district is in state receivership after decades of neglect and bad decisions by five members of the elected school board and administrators.

 

 

But instead of helping the school and its students get back on their feet, Turzai proposes siphoning away as much as $8.5 million in state funding set aside for the school’s aide. Alternatively, that money would go to help offset some of the cost of sending Harrisburg students to private or parochial schools if they so desire.

 

 

There are already 612 children living in district boundaries who attend nonpublic schools who would immediately benefit. So even if no additional students decided to take advantage of the program, that’s a $2.5 million cost to cover partial tuition for students the state is not currently paying to educate. If any additional students decided to take advantage of the program, the cost would increase.

 

 

However in lieu of any safeguards to make sure these children fleeing from the public system receive the same quality of services required by state law, Turzai’s bill goes out of its way to protect the vultures!

 

 

Under House Bill 1800, private or parochial schools won’t be held as accountable for how they spend the money they plunder from Harrisburg nor will it force them to enroll all comers like authentic public schools are required to do.

 

 

Specifically, non-public schools would be allowed to take public tax dollars but refuse any students they wished – based on gender, race, religion, even special educational needs.

 

 
It’s bad policy and bad politics.

 

 
Essentially Turzai is proposing we swoop in and tear the district to pieces – for its own good.

 

 

The bill would force state taxpayers to pay for half the cost of the voucher program – essentially making us shell out our hard earned money for two parallel education systems.

 

 

It’s unclear where the other half of the money would even come from that the state is supposed to match.

 

 
Thinking people know this is nonsense on so many levels. If the public schools have problems, there’s no reason to believe school vouchers hold the answer. After all, the best way to save yourself from drowning is to patch up the boat you’re already on. You shouldn’t jump to a lifeboat willy-nilly with no assurance that your escape craft is more seaworthy than the one you’re already sailing on.

 

 

And in fact, there is no evidence that voucher schools are better than authentic public schools.

 

 

Countless academic studies back this up. A recent 25-year meta analysis from Stanford University concluded that school vouchers do nothing to improve student achievement and distract from real solutions that could yield better results.

 

 

A 2018 Study from the University of Virginia found that once you take family income out of the equation, there are absolutely zero benefits of going to a private school. The majority of the advantage comes from simply having money and all that comes with it – physical, emotional, and mental well-being, living in a stable and secure environment, knowing where your next meal will come from, etc.

 

 

A 2018 Department of Education evaluation of the Washington, D.C., voucher program found that public school students permitted to attend a private or parochial school at public expense ended up getting worse scores than they had at public school.

 

 

Their scores went down 10 points in math and stayed about the same in reading.

 

 

The results of these studies were so damaging that school voucher lobbyists no longer even try to make the argument that sending kids to private or parochial schools has academic benefits. Instead they rely on the ideological belief that privatization is always better than public services.

 

 

Turzai is literally proposing legislation on an outdated far right talking point. But his whole plan isn’t exactly fresh. We’ve seen versions of it almost every legislative session.

 

Once Turzai introduces the bill next week, it’s expected that his Republican colleagues who have a majority in both the House and Senate due to grossly gerrymandered districts will vote to pass it. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has promised to veto it.

 

While Republicans have the numbers to overturn any veto, it is doubtful they would actually do so. Historically they only need to show DeVos and her billionaire friends like the Koch Brothers that they tried to pass their ALEC-written legislation. They don’t actually have to pass it. In fact, doing so would make them responsible for it and could result in voters – even in such gerrymandered districts – turning against them.

 

After all, school vouchers are incredibly unpopular. Every time the issue has been left to a popular vote, it has been turned down.

 

And Republicans know that. This is just theater to please the wealthy donor class.

 

Unless people stop paying attention. Then they may try to sneak it through.

 

Because there’s a lot more at stake than just disrupting the recovery process at Harrisburg schools.

 

The bill as drafted would only currently apply to Harrisburg – specifically when a receiver is appointed in a school district of the second class located in a city of the third class, within a county of the third class.

 

But all it would take is a receiver to be appointed for the following districts to be affected:

 

Allentown City, Bethlehem Area, Coatesville Area, Easton Area, Erie City, Hazleton Area, Hempfield Area, Lancaster, Penn-Trafford, Reading, Wilkes-Barre Area and York City school districts.

 

So this could easily become a backdoor voucher initiative for our poorest districts to become the next course on the buzzards’ menu.

 

 

But perhaps the strangest turn in this whole concern is Turzai’s apparent ambition.

 

 

He seems to be trying to position himself once again as the next gubernatorial challenger to Democrat Wolf.

 

 

And how is he planning to define that challenge? As a clone of the last dope who tried it – Scott Wagner.

 

 

Republicans don’t seem to get the message. Voters – regardless of political affiliation – care about public schools.

 

 

They ousted Tom Corbett when he slashed school funding. They voted against Wagner in droves. And the best Turzai can think to do is ape these two fools?

 

 

DeVos, herself, is perhaps the most unpopular Education Secretary in history – and that’s even with the stiff competition of Arne Duncan and John King.

 

 

School privatization is a political loser.

 

 

No one wants to violate the separation of church and state just to give private businesses a larger cut of our tax dollars.

 

 

We want equity for our public schools so all our students can learn.

 

 

Why can’t birdbrains like Turzai get that through their skulls?

 

 

Perhaps if they stopped picking through the bones of struggling schools they would.

 

 


If you live in Pennsylvania, please click here to ask your state representative to vote against the bill.


 

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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