Forgotten Pre-Covid Report Reveals Standardized Testing Weaknesses in PA

The majority of teachers and principals in Pennsylvania hate standardized tests.

An increasing number of parents are refusing to allow their kids to take the tests.

And there may be better alternatives to the state’s Keystone Exams.

These were just some of the key findings of a blockbuster report from June 2019 by the state General Assembly’s Legislative Budget and Finance Committee.

The report, “Standardized Tests in Public Education” was published about 9 months before the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

It effectively got lost in the chaos that followed the global pandemic.

However, now that things are returning to some semblance of normalcy, it seems that bureaucrats from the state Department of Education (PDE) are taking the wrong lessons from the report while the legislature seems to have forgotten it entirely.

The report was conducted because of legislation written by state Sen. Ryan P. Aument (R-Lancaster County). It directed the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee to “study the effectiveness of standardized testing, including the Keystone Exams and SATs, and their use as indicators of student academic achievement, school building performance, and educator effectiveness.”

The key findings are as follows:

1)The majority of principals and teachers disapprove of the state’s standardized tests – both the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests given in grades 3-8 and Keystone Exams given in high school. They think these tests are ineffective, expensive and harmful to district curriculum and students.

2) State law allows parents to opt their children out of testing for one reason only – religious grounds. Parents are using this religious exemption in increasing numbers. This puts districts in danger of violating federal participation and accountability standards.

3) It has been suggested that the state allow two additional reasons for parents to opt their children out of testing – philosophical grounds and health concerns. It is unclear whether doing so would increase overall opt outs or not.

4) The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) passed in 2015 allows the use of the SAT and/or ACT test to take the place of high school standardized testing. It has been suggested the Commonwealth replace the Keystone Exams with these tests. The report finds the ACT and/or SAT would successfully determine college readiness and reduce the overall amount of standardized testing. However, this would not allow other uses of current state tests like evaluating teacher effectiveness and school building performance.This may not matter though because the report also casts doubt on whether the current tests (PSSA and Keystone Exams) do an adequate job of assessing teacher or building performance now or even if student tests can be accurately used to evaluate teachers and schools.

There’s a lot of information here. Let’s look at each finding in turn.

1) PA Educators Hate Standardized Tests

When it comes to the PSSAs, 67% of principals and 76% of teachers said the tests were ineffective indicators of student achievement.

There was slightly more support for the Keystone Exams. This time 45% of principals said the test was an ineffective indicator of student achievement (with 27% saying the tests were effective). Meanwhile, 60% of teachers said the test was ineffective.

Both principals and teachers said their curriculum had been narrowed to prepare students for PSSAs and Keystone Exams. Instead of going into more depth on regular classwork or learning new skills, the focus shifts to teaching to the tests.

Most principals (approximately 80-90%) said that students are taught test-taking skills, and their schools administered practice tests, bench-mark tests, and/or diagnostic tests to prepare students for the PSSA exams. This held for teachers, too, with 81-88% saying they teach test-taking skills and administer practice tests. Principals also said the costs of this additional test prep varied from $200 to more than $100,000.

Taking the tests also eats up valuable class time. Administering the assessments takes between 5.7 to 8 days for each kind of test – the PSSA and the Keystone Exams, according to Principals.

In addition, the report details the cost of giving these tests. In fiscal year 2017-2018, PDE paid $42.17 million for these tests. This is part of a national trend:

“Standardized tests and test preparation have subsequently become big business and that multibillion dollar business continued to grow since the enactment of NCLB and the subsequent enactment of ESSA. According to the Pew Center on the States, annual state spending on standardized tests increased from $423 million before the NCLB (enacted in 2002) to upwards of $1.1 billion in 2008 (to put this in perspective this reflects a 160 percent increase compared to a 19.22 percent increase in inflation during the same time period). A more recent study by the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brooking put the cost at upwards of $1.7 billion in 2011 related to state spending on standardized tests.”

2) Opt Outs on the Rise

Many states allow parents to opt their children out of standardized testing. Some do so in cases of a physical disability, medical reasons, or emergencies. A few allow opt-outs based on religious objection – like Pennsylvania. Some states allow opt-outs for any reason whatsoever.

The religious exemption is not used widespread throughout the state and most schools meet the 95% participation rate required by the federal government. However, use of the religious exemption is definitely on the rise – enough so that the authors of the report find it alarming:

“Meanwhile, as previously indicated in this section, schools throughout the country are experiencing and grappling with an increase in the number of parents seeking to have their children opt-out of standardized testing now that new state assessments have been implemented pursuant to the federal requirements. Pennsylvania is no exception to this trend and is also experiencing an increase in the number of parents utilizing the religious opt-out.”

For the PSSA tests, opt outs increased from 2013-14 to 2016-17. However, total numbers in school year 2017-18 decreased sightly.

Opt outs went from 1,886 to 6,425 to 15,644 to 19,012 to 16,961.

During the same time period for the Keystone Exams, opt outs steadily increased each year but were at lower overall rates.

For the high school test, opt outs went from 382 to 666 to 1,000 to 1,313 to 1,633.

These are vitally important figures because opt out data is rarely tabulated and released to the public. Many media accounts actually state the opposite of the data in this report – in particular that opting out has decreased since Congress passed the ESSA in 2015. Apparently the media got this one wrong.

Though the religious opt-out is the only reason specifically allowed in state Chapter 4 regulations, PDE reports there are five additional ways that students end up not taking the tests:

1) Other Parental Request – parents simply refusing to let their kids participate but not objecting based on specifically religious reasons.

2) No Attempt and No Exclusion Marked – students who are given the test but do not answer enough questions to receive a score.

3) No Test – no test record on file for unknown reasons.

4) Extended Absence – a student missed the testing and make-up window due to absences.

5) Other – does not fit any of the other categories.

Federal law – in particular No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and subsequent reauthorizations of that legislation – requires states to use student participation in standardized testing as a factor in a state’s accountability system. According to the report, any district with less than 95% of students taking the test should be “addressed.”

The report does not go into any further detail about what this means, other than to say that falling under 95% can:

“…ultimately result in a reduced achievement/proficiency measure… If the student participation rate falls below 95 percent, states are required to calculate student achievement/proficiency by dividing the number of students scoring proficiently by no less than 95 percent of the total students (which effectively assigns a score of “0” to all nonparticipants once the participation rate has fallen below 95 percent).”

In effect, the district gets a bad mark on a piece of paper. So what?

Under NCLB, schools with poor performance could receive sanctions like state takeover or lower funding. However, this is extremely unlikely – especially since the passing of ESSA. This newest reauthorization of the law gives states leeway in designing their accountability systems. It leaves the enforcement of this 95% participation rate up to the states, requiring them to develop an accountability plan in the event that a school or district fails to meet this standard.

So a school would only be punished if the state decided to do so. If a state legislature decided to allow parents to opt their children out for any reason at all, they would not have to take any punitive measures. Since the ESSA, the buck stops at the state house door on this one. California, for example, takes note of low participation rates but these rates are not factored into a school’s rating. On the other hand, Florida mandates direct intervention from the state’s Department of Education until participation rates are met.

3) Impact of New Reasons to Opt Out

This is where things get a bit sticky.

The report mentions the idea of expanding the options for opting-out of statewide assessments (e.g., PSSA and Keystone Exams) to include objections based on philosophical grounds or due to health issues.

On the one hand, the authors write “The impact of adding opt-out categories may be minimal.” They don’t know if more people would use the expanded options or if the same numbers who use the religious exemption today might simply divide themselves up among all three options.

The authors worry, however, that new pathways to opt out may increase the total number of people refusing the tests for their children and would reduce Pennsylvania’s participation rate in standardized testing.

This is a particularly troubling paragraph:

“The existence of opt-outs (religious or otherwise) has the potential to negatively impact a state’s participation rates and may potentially impact a state’s [Local Education Agency (LEAs)] and schools achievement/proficiency rate and ultimately the ability of a state to be in compliance with federally required assessments and accountability measures. Furthermore, providing opt-outs and giving parents notice of such has the potential to conflict with the message about the importance of standardized testing. Ultimately placing the state departments of education and local school districts in the potentially awkward position of having to explain why it is important for students to participate in testing (given the federal requirements), while also giving and notifying parents of the opt-out options for their children. In 2015, US Department of Education sent out letters to a dozen states flagging their low participation rates (statewide, or at the district or subgroup level) on the 2014-15 school year assessments and indicated that they needed to create a plan to reduce opt-outs due to low participation rates.”

This seems to be the order of the day at PDE. It’s why earlier this year, school administrators were advised by state officials to crack down on parents opting their children out of standardized tests.

For the first time in 8 years, I, myself, had to jump through several hoops to opt my own daughter out this year when in the past a simple phone call had sufficed.

I was asked to send in a letter, sign a confidentiality statement and go to the school to examine the test before they would excuse my little girl from the tests. It was an unnecessary hassle meant to discourage parents from doing what they thought was right and exercise their rights through state law.

And all of it is based on a cowardly and incomplete understanding of federal law. If Commonwealth schools fall below 95% participation in the test and get a bad mark on a worthless metric, it doest have to matter. No matter how many letters the federal government sends to the state legislature or PDE, the law is clear. The state is in charge here. Our legislature can choose to side with taxpayers, residents, and citizens or with civil servants and strongly worded letters.

4) Replacing the Keystone Exams

There’s not much more to add to this than the initial finding.

The authors of the report say there would be no problem with replacing the Keystone Exams with the ACT or SAT because these national tests would properly assess students’ college and career readiness.

The report is actually pretty shoddy in this regard not really examining the claims of the College Board which makes both tests. The authors just pretty much accepted the College Board’s word wholesale. Nor was their any evaluation of what teachers and principals thought about these tests like there had been for the PSSA and Keystone Exams.

However, the report does make a good point about test reduction. Many students already take the SAT or ACT test, so eliminating the Keystones would reduce the over all amount of tests they had to take.

Also the authors deserve credit for writing about how using student test scores to evaluate teachers and schools is seriously bad practice.

According to the report, 77 percent of principals and 93 percent of teachers said PSSA tests were not effective indicators for teacher evaluations, with similar figures for the Keystone Exams and building performance evaluations.

While everything in the report may not be 100% accurate, it includes important information that should be wider known.

In particular, it matters that the majority of teachers and principals throughout the state disapprove of standardized testing. If we trust our educators at all, we should take steps to reduce or abolish high stakes testing – not continue the same dismal policy that has achieved nothing positive in 20 years of NCLB.

In addition, the report has trustworthy data about opt outs throughout the Commonwealth. Unlike what has been reported in the media, opting out is not on the decline, it is on the rise.

If we value parents and their autonomy to make decisions for their own children, we should at very least expand their ability to refuse the test for their children without having to give anyone a reason. Being parents is reason enough.

The Keystone Exams should be thrown in the trash, because that’s what they are – trash. At very least they should be replaced with the SAT or ACT. Even better to remove any requirement for standardized tests wholesale – and that includes the PSSA.

The ESSA allows states a lot of leeway about how and what accountability system they use. There is no need to worry about some imperial federal power invading Pennsylvania to force our hand with standardized testing. We should call their bluff on this. I’ll bet that if we did so, many other states would do the same.

Standardized testing is another failed education policy. Our legislators would do good to read this report and make up their own minds about it.

Though a few years and disasters have happened since its publication, it doesn’t deserve to be forgotten by the very people who ordered it to be written in the first place.


 

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Lobbyists Congratulate Themselves for 20 Years of NCLB Standardized Testing

It’s hard to learn your lesson – especially if doing so costs you money.

Case in point: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, the largest lobbying organization in the country, issued a new report examining the impact of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the George W. Bush era law making standardized testing the centerpiece of K-12 education.

So an organization representing oil companies, pharmaceutical giants and automakers just opined on public school policy as if it were made up of experts.

And guess what?

Business folks don’t know what the heck they’re talking about in education.

Because after sorting through 20 years of NCLB controversy, political shenanigans and factual mistakes, the supply side cabal thinks the law is just fine.

It’s kind of like a judge watching a driver plow his car into a brick wall repeatedly and then instead of taking away his license, awarding him a safe driver certificate.

It doesn’t take a political scientist to figure out why.

Think about it. These are supply side cultists. If our education policy is working just fine as is, then there’s no need to raise taxes on all the business interests the free market fan club represents to fix the problem.

And, moreover, we can keep funneling the education dollars we do spend to corporations (many of whom are represented by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation) who profit off the law by making tests, grading tests and selling test prep material.

The only thing shocking here (maybe) is the way the media publishes the Foundation’s results as if they were truths handed down from on high.

What’s the matter, journalists? You’ve never heard of a conflict of interest?

An organization like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation with proven ties to the Koch Brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is somehow the epitome of unbiased advocacy!?

The organization’s own report describes the Foundation as “tireless advocates for high-quality academic standards, assessments, and accountability as tools for educational equity.”

By its own admission, then, this is the testing industry evaluating itself. And – surprise – it gave itself a high score!

The report was written by Dan Goldhaber and Michael DeArmond of the Center for the Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER) at the American Institutes for Research with a qualitative analysis by Brightbeam CEO Chris Stewart and his staff.

CALDER is a federally-funded nonprofit organization with several testing industry-funded and conservative think-tank members in management, on the advisory board, and working as independent researchers – in case, you thought anything they produced might be fair and balanced.

Brightbeam is a corporate education reform think tank financed by the usual billionaires such as Michael Bloomberg, Alice Walton, Jim Walton, Laurene Jobs Powell and Mark Zuckerberg. And Stewart is a long-time standardized testing and school privatization cheerleader – not exactly the kind of people who can afford to find much fault in NCLB because doing so would put them out of work.

The report highlights eight key findings – four positive and four negative.

First, the authors of the report pat each other on the back because NCLB collected so much yummy data that had been unavailable previously. In particular, the law extracted data from the nation’s schools based on race, socioeconomics and special needs. “No longer were school districts able to hide the performance of some students behind an average,” the report states.

It’s certainly true that NCLB collected a mountain of data. However, such information conceivably could have been gathered without making standardized testing the fulcrum around which schools turn. It could just as easily have been collected based entirely on classroom grades. It’s just that doing so might have been considered invasive and a violation of privacy. You might have had to explain why you wanted such data first – but why explain when you can just take?

Moreover, it’s strange to celebrate NCLB for disallowing hiding student performance behind an average when that’s exactly what it does. Everything is an average now! Average test scores, aggregate passing scores, whether your school made adequate yearly progress… it’s all averages! Oh to go back to the times when you could look at a single student’s academic record without having to compare it to anyone else!

Second, the authors claim student test scores increased because of NCLB especially among Black, Hispanic, and low-income students. However, this depends on how you massage the data.

Test scores have stayed relatively the same throughout the last 20 years with dips here and rises there. No matter the test, the overall trajectory has been pretty flat. You can focus here or focus there to create a picture that supports whatever narrative you want, but taken as a whole, there has not been any significant progress as shown by test scores.

But even if there had been, let’s not forget that no one has ever proven standardized test scores actually have anything to do with real academic progress. Just because you get a good score on a multiple choice test, it doesn’t mean you’ve actually learned to do anything but take a very limited and artificial test that is far removed from the circumstances where anyone actually uses the skills the test purports to be assessing.

Third, the report celebrates the production of “more reliable, comparable education data.” This is a suspect claim.

Are test scores more reliable than classroom grades? That has never been proven. In fact, when it comes to predicting future success in college or careers, there is plenty of evidence that classroom grades do a better job than test scores. After all, tests are based on work done over a relatively few number of days. Grades are based on an entire year’s worth of work.

However, it is true that test scores are more easily comparable because they come from the same assessments. Why this is so important is unclear. Learning is not the same as sports statistics. It is not a competition. Students learn when they’re ready to learn – not based on anyone’s schedule. What matters is if they learn at all.

Fourth, the authors admit “Reforms in teacher evaluation and school turnaround initiatives did not consistently improve student outcomes at scale, in part due to significant variation in quality of implementation.”

It is interesting that even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce can’t spin NCLB into an unquestionable success. But it is almost a cliche among the standardized testing industry that any failures of the big tests are always excused as failures solely of “implementation.” If teachers and districts just tried harder to put the testing industry’s plans into effect, everything would be working perfectly. It’s these darn teachers and schools! Whine! Cry! Sob!

For the negative findings, the report concluded there were unknowns about the impact of NCLB that should be further studied.

First, they were unsure if schools serving minorities and the poor ended up getting more money to improve than they otherwise would have done. SPOILER ALERT: they did not.

The original Elementary and Secondary Education Act passed under Lyndon B. Johnson was focused on equity – the exact concern the authors of the report pretend to be all about. However, when the law was reauthorized as NCLB in 2002 (and reauthorized again in 2015 as the Every Student Succeeds Act) it focused instead on test scores as a gatekeeper to equity. Instead of looking at needs, you had to pass the tests to get the money to meet your needs. And if you had needs, that meant your district and teachers were failing so they had to lose funding to punish them, first. Somehow you were supposed to end up with more funding after all that nonsense.

Second, if schools did get more funding because of test scores, the authors of the report were unsure what schools did with it. SPOILER ALERT: It went to test prep and charter school expansion.

NCLB refocused education on test scores, so if students did badly on the assessments, they needed test prep material. And if the teachers and districts weren’t miraculously overcoming social, economic and special needs of students in impoverished areas, money was given to open competing charter schools.

Did this help? Just the opposite. Now you have two schools vying for an even smaller pot of funding but one of these schools (the charter) doesn’t have to follow the regulations the others school must. So anyone with no background in education can open a school, hire uncertified teachers, make decisions on how to spend tax dollars without an elected school board, etc. Not helpful.

Third, the authors of the report were unsure how many struggling schools became successful under NCLB. SPOILER ALERT: Not many.

You don’t help a malnourished person by starving him even further or making him compete for food. The same with school districts. In almost every case where a school miracle is proposed in which kids simply pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, the reality turns out to be a byproduct of creative accounting or selective data.

That was the entire foundation of NCLB – George W. Bush’s fairy tale about Texas schools during his time as Governor which miraculously improved when you tested the heck out of them. That never happened, and neither did it happen when his dream became national policy.

Take New Orleans, a district often held up by the testing and privatization industry as a success. This is the only all-charter school district in the country. After 2005 and Hurricane Katrina, a predominantly white Republican legislature forced the district’s public schools to become charters – outright experimenting on a majority African American city. The result? School enrollment declined from 65,000 before the hurricane to 48,000 a dozen years later. The most recent state scores rated 49% of the city’s charter schools as D or F, based on their academic performance. The New Orleans district scores are below the state average, and that’s saying something since Louisiana is one of the lowest performing states in the nation.

Not exactly an overwhelming success.

Fourth, the authors wondered if NCLB might have resulted in non-academic improvements – things like a reduction in chronic absences, school climate, etc. SPOILER ALERT: Nope.

A focus on standardized testing does not convince more kids to come to school. Few kids get excited about taking tests. They get excited about broad academic curriculum, arts and extra curricular activities – the kinds of things districts had to cut back on because of NCLB.

So there you have it. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation is proud of their little report about the impact of NCLB. They give themselves a gold star.

The reality though is much different than what you’ll find on this bit of propaganda.

Any reasonable examination of the last 20 years in education would show this policy is ripe for repeal. We need to forgo standardized testing entirely in our public schools – not double down on them for yet another decade of failure.

Not only should it not be required to determine which schools need what funds, it should be kicked out of our schools like foxes from the henhouse.

And charter schools should be abolished in all 45 states plus the District of Columbia that have been duped into passing laws allowing them.

We need to put the focus back on equity, back on student need.

Let’s get real. Poverty and wealth are the most important factors determining test scores. This shows up on every standardized test. In fact, that’s what the name means – STANDARDIZED test – these assessments are normed on a bell curve reflecting family income and education. Kids from families from higher socioeconomic brackets are at the top of the curve and poor kids are on the bottom.

And consider this: nearly half the students in the U.S. now qualify for free or reduced lunches – the federal measure of poverty. So if we really want to help kids achieve academically, we need to first reduce the impact of poverty on children and families by making sure that they have access to nutrition, medical care, and good housing. Ensure pregnant women get medical care so their children are born healthy.

That’s how you improve education. The federal government should fully fund the schooling of students with disabilities and at least triple the funding for low-income schools. Pay teachers the kinds of wages that will keep them on the job and stop the steady stream of educators out of the field. Teachers should be treated like professionals and never have to work at second or third jobs to make ends meet. Assessment should be a teacher’s job – they should write their own tests as we trusted them to do for generations. And we can use the billions in savings now wasted on standardized testing instead to reduce class sizes so children can get individualized help from their teacher.

In short, don’t give students corporate canned tests. Give them well-maintained schools with nurses, counselors, and libraries with flesh-and-blood librarians. These are just some of the ways we could actually make things better.

It’s been two decades already. People know high stakes testing has failed despite whatever public relations reports are issued by lobbyist organizations. It’s time we had the courage to admit NCLB was a mistake and acted to finally put things right.

It may hurt some businesses that rely on testing to make a buck. It may require big corporations to pay their fair share of taxes. But that is the only way to improve education.

We must put our money where our mouths are – or else be quiet.


 

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Fact Checking Propel Charter Schools – Do They Live Up to Their Own Hype?

The Propel Charter School network has a history of making fabulous claims for its schools – claims not always backed up by reality.

The non-profit chain of 13 schools based in Pittsburgh, Pa, boasts high academics, safe campuses and certified teachers.

At least, that’s what its advertising blitz proclaims from every grocery store cart, newspaper page, radio announcement and billboard. Which just goes to show that anyone will tout your virtues if you pay them enough money – taxpayer money, that is.

Take Propel McKeesport – the franchise located in my own neighborhood.

The other day I saw a bus advertisement bragging:

“Catch Your Star!

#1 Elementary Charter School in the Nation – Just Blocks Away!

Propel McKeesport”

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any support for this claim anywhere.

When I went to Propel’s own Website, in fact, there was nothing about it. Instead, it claimed Propel McKeesport was:

“…ranked as ONE OF THE BEST charter schools in the nation by U.S. News World Report” (Emphasis mine).

One of the best is not THE best. But it’s still good. Let’s call it embellishing the school’s resume.

According to Propel’s Website, in 2021, the McKeesport location was #11 in the state’s charter elementary schools and #7 in the state’s charter middle schools.


I suppose that is impressive, too, though being one of the best CHARTER SCHOOLS isn’t the same as being one of the best SCHOOLS.

In fact, when compared with all schools in the state, Propel McKeesport is in the bottom half for standardized test scores in both math and reading – one of the main metrics used to calculate its rank by US News and World Report.

The percentage of students achieving proficiency in math was 7% (which is lower than the Pennsylvania state average of 38%) for the 2020-21 school year. The percentage of students achieving proficiency in reading was 34% (which is lower than the Pennsylvania state average of 55%) for the 2020-21 school year.

Moreover, test scores in both subjects were higher at the McKeesport Area School District, the local authentic public school – 17% higher in math and 3.5% higher in reading at the elementary level and 6% higher in math and 2% higher in reading at the middle school level. Propel McKeesport does not teach beyond 8th grade.

So what exactly is Propel celebrating?

Maybe it’s the fact that its McKeesport location achieved these standardized test scores while teaching an intensely racially segregated student body – 86% minority (mostly Black). By comparison, the authentic public schools range from 52-71% minority students (mostly Black).

I’m not sure that’s much of a victory. Wasn’t one of the major tenants of the civil rights movement having racially integrated schools – that doing so would help students of color achieve academically because resources couldn’t be horded away from them?

That still sounds like a worthy goal – and one that is being actively worked against by Propel’s business model.

Moreover, Propel McKeesport is the only school in the charter chain where students of color outscore white students. Across the Propel system, white kids do anywhere from 17.6% better in math at Propel Pitcairn to 32.6% better in science at Propel Braddock Hills.

Not exactly a civil rights victory.

So what about the rest of Propel’s claims?

Since charter schools are paid for with tax dollars but can be privately operated (like Propel), they are free from many of the safety regulations that make authentic public schools great – like elected school boards, and transparent curriculum and finances.

The corporation runs the following schools in Allegheny County: Propel Andrew Street High School, Propel Hazelwood K-8, Propel Montour Middle School, Propel Braddock Hills Elementary School, Propel Homestead K-8, Propel Northside K-8, Propel McKeesport K-8, Propel Pitcairn K-8, Propel Braddock Hills High School, Propel Montour Elementary School, Propel Braddock Hills Middle School, Propel Montour High School, and Propel East K-8.

According to an advertisement in mass circulation, each of the schools in the charter chain provides:

“Safe Learning Environment

Individual Attention


Small Class Size

100% Certified and Qualified Teachers

Award Winning Arts Programs

Leaders in Technology Integration

Uniforms

Tuition Free”

Let’s take a look at each claim in turn.

-Safe Learning Environment

What exactly does that mean?

Propel schools are no more safe than other schools in the area. There certainly isn’t any evidence they are somehow MORE safe.

There have been numerous incidents of arrest, criminality and danger in and around Propel Schools.

In 2021, a security guard at Turtle Creek, Pitcairn and McKeesport Propel Schools was fired after being charged with open lewdness and indecent exposure, according to court documents. North Versailles Police said the suspect was captured on video exposing and fondling himself inside a Walmart. When confronted by police, he allegedly showed officers his Propel School ID badge.

In 2015, two teenagers at Propel Braddock Hills High School were arrested after one allegedly tried to sell guns to another in a bathroom during the school day. Two guns were recovered by police and the students were taken into custody on campus. The rest of the students were placed on lockdown until police cleared the area.

In 2015, a visiting dance instructor at the Propel Middle School in Braddock was fired and arrested after allegedly sexting a 13-year-old female student. He allegedly told the girl not to tell anyone about it. In a statement from Propel, school officials say it happened “after school hours and off of Propel property.”

In 2019, Pitcairn Propel was evacuated when fumes made three teachers and four students nauseous. Roughly 280 teachers and students were evacuated from the school and the affected people were taken to nearby hospitals. Monroeville Borough was doing work on a sewer when fumes got into the school.

In 2019, police arrested four people in connection with a scheme to steal nearly $23,000 from Propel Schools by forging checks in the charter school operator’s name. The Propel Schools Foundation filed a report with police after discovering nearly two dozen fraudulent checks in Propel’s name had been cashed at various places, a Pittsburgh Public Safety spokeswoman said. At least 28 checks drawn against the school’s bank account were counterfeit, the complaint said. The fake checks were cashed using the forged signature of the school’s co-founder, Jeremy Resnick.

So does Propel provide a safe learning environment? Maybe. But not more so than any other district.

Individual Attention and Small Class Size


The problem here is verification.

Charter schools are not nearly as transparent as authentic public schools. They are not required by law to provide as much information about their operations as neighborhood public schools. For instance, nearly every authentic public school district is run by an elected school board which has open meetings and open records.

For Propel it is unclear exactly how members are chosen for its corporate board, but it is difficult for parents and community members to be appointed.

According to an article in Public Source, individuals can only become board members if they are already members of the “Friends of Propel,” but the charter chain did not provide information on this group or how its members are selected.

So for most details we’re really left with just taking Propel’s word without any method of verifying it.

When it comes to class size, most Propel schools report having student-to-teacher ratios slightly smaller or the same as at neighborhood authentic public schools. But who knows? There’s no way to tell whether classes may actually be larger.

However, individual attention is even harder to verify.

Most schools focus on more individual attention these days.

Unfortunately, the network provides very little detailed information about its curriculum.

Even in 2018 when Propel had submitted applications to the state to consolidate its network into a Multiple Charter School Organization, it did not submit its entire curriculum which had been requested to see if it was aligned to state academic standards. The state ultimately denied this request due to insufficient information.

So does Propel provide individual attention? Your guess is as good as mine.

-100% Certified and Qualified Teachers

Authentic public schools need to have certified and qualified teachers by law. To teach math, for example, you usually need someone with at least a 4-year teaching degree or more. Only in the case of shortages can positions by temporarily filled by individuals with emergency certifications. Not so with charter schools. They only have to have certified and qualified teachers in core content areas – English, Math, Science and Social Studies.

So this claim by Propel is a way of bragging that the network doesn’t have to have certified and qualified teachers, but it does so anyway.

Unfortunately, it is definitively false.

According to those US News and World Report spotlights that the charter school network likes to highlight, several Propel schools do not have all certified teachers. For instance, Propel McKeesport only has 92% full-time certified teachers, Propel Homestead only has 94%, Propel Pitcairn only has 96%, etc.

Moreover, a state audit of the Propel network conducted in 2016, found that even in core content areas, Propel charter schools did not have “highly qualified” teachers in accordance with state law.

So does Propel have 100% Certified and Qualified Teachers? Absolutely not.

Award Winning Arts Programs

Kudos to Propel for recognizing that arts are an important part of the curriculum. Or at least using it as a selling point on its advertisements. However, without details of its curriculum submitted to the state and verifiable by audit, there is nothing to back this claim up factually.

In fact, on Propel’s own Website, the only reference I see to awards for art is a brief mention in its after-school program which they label as “award-winning.”

What award did it win? The ‘Propel Presents Itself with an Award’ Award? Is there anything more substantial to this claim?

-Leaders in Technology Integration

Some Propel charter schools do claim to provide laptops to students. However, details are pretty sketchy beyond this point.

Moreover, technology in school is a terrible end in itself. It really matters how it’s being used. There are very few details on this that I can find.

-Uniforms

Yes! Propel does require students to wear blue, black or khaki clothing of a particular type. And you can even buy clothing on the network’s Website.

But is this really such a positive? Standardized testing is bad enough? Do we have to standardized dress, too?

Certainly every school should have a dress code, but can’t students express themselves freely anymore? I just don’t see why emulating the worst qualities of private schools is a great thing – especially when it adds an unnecessary cost for parents.

-Tuition Free

Charter schools are funded with public tax dollars. So, yes, you don’t have to pay a tuition to attend. However, you do have to pay for extras like school uniforms.

Also having multiple schools that provide duplicate services is instrumental in raising your local taxes.

Think about it. You already have an authentic public school you pay to operate. Now here comes Propel, a charter school network, demanding to open up shop. That means an additional tax burden on all residents and a reduction in resources for the neighborhood schools already in service.

In fact, overcoming the unpopularity of charter schools because of the increased expense for taxpayers is cited by Droz Marketing – the company that made all those glossy Propel advertisements – on its Website portfolio as an obstacle the company had to overcome to sell Propel to the masses.

Which brings us back to the beginning.

Does Propel go beyond the facts in its claims for itself?

Certainly.

Many businesses do that these days. And make no mistake – Propel IS a business. If it can cut a corner or find a loophole to put more money in operators’ pockets, it will.

Don’t let its non-profit status fool you.

For instance, in 2016 the state caught Propel stealing $376,922 of your tax dollars to pay for rental fees on properties it already owns. It was literally charging itself an unnecessary fee and paying itself with your money.

Technically, this is not illegal. But it certainly doesn’t help educate children. It just goes to enrich the charter school operators.

Non-profit? Yeah, in name only.

However, let me end with what may be the most telling indicator of what it is like at Propel’s charter schools.

indeed.com is a Website workers use to decide if they should apply at a given job site. Employees anonymously review their current place of employment to let prospective job applicants know what it is like there and if they should consider seeking a job there.

The site has many entries on schools in the Propel network. Some are positive. Some are glowing. But most are incredibly negative.

Here in their own words is what it’s like inside the Propel network from the people who work (or worked) there.

Propel Schools – Insiders’ Accounts:

 

 

Students rule.

Para Educator (Former Employee) – Propel East, Turtle Creek – July 19, 2020

Pandering to the cultural climate and using all the right talking points still doesn’t provide a quality education because of the many behavior problems.

 

 

 

Educator (Current Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – August 4, 2022

Management verbalizes a desire, but does not actively seek to improve diversity within the ranks of educators. The lack of diversity directly impacts how the student body is educated.

 

Stressful, consuming place to work with little support from administration.

First Grade Teacher (Former Employee) – McKeesport, PA – April 15, 2022
I worked at Propel McKeesport for 9 days before I realized it would negatively affect my mental health greatly if I stayed. Everything about the school was chaotic and unorganized. There is so much asked of the teachers, and they are given little to no support in the process. The people that are put in place to act as supports are spread so thin, that you aren’t able to receive the support necessary. I would have to get to work early and stay late in order to get all of my tasks done. I had no time for my personal life, and I was constantly overwhelmed. Leaving was the best decision I could’ve made for myself and my well being.
Pros
Higher than average starting pay for new teachers, healthcare benefits
Cons
Unorganized, consuming, little support/structure

 

 

Hope you have a good therapist if you get hired at the Hazelwood location.

Elementary School Teacher (Former Employee) – Hazelwood, PA – February 3, 2022
My time at Propel Hazelwood was the worst experience I have ever had in a professional setting. The principal, at the time, had all sorts of big ideas, and no clue how to make them actionable. Behavior was managed through a failed token economy… so I’m sure you can imagine what behavior looked like. But good news, they’ll just fire you before you qualify for benefits, and trick the next poor sap. For reference, I was the 3rd of 5 teachers to go through that position in 2 years.

In summary, I hope you line up a therapist before you sign your soul away to Propel. I know I needed one.
Pros
There were no pros. I can’t even make one up.
Cons
Pitiful everything. People, leadership, attitudes, slogans, curriculum (or lack there of). Run away… fast.

 

 

Teacher (Former Employee) – McKeesport, PA – September 3, 2021
Propel McKeesport cannot keep their staff members. They have so many open positions because their lesson plan template is 6 pages long, and the work pile-up is more than loving your scholars. The wonderful scholars don’t get a chance to love who you are because you (if you are not a favorite) are swamped with work. The job is a nightmare.
Pros
There is not one pro I can think of.
Cons
Flooded with work. Lies and says it is “Propel-Wide”

 

Don’t work for them

Janitor (Current Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – January 3, 2022

Hr treats you bad
Teachers treat you bad
You are less then nothing to everyone even your bosses
Never work for Braddock propel worst school I’ve seen
Pros
Nothing
Cons
You will be treated like you are worthless

 

Pure and total chaos

Teacher (Former Employee) – Braddock Hills, PA – September 27, 2021
Wow. It sounds good from the outside but is terrible in the inside. High school students were out of control. Administration offered little help. The parents were just as aggressive as their children. The teachers will throw anyone under the bus as soon as possible.
Pros
Great pay. Amazing benefits. Stellar retirement and health insurance.
Cons
Terribly behaved students, aggressive parents, woke and offended staff

 

Long school day, longer school year, longest time spent working outside of contractual hours

Educator (Current Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – May 21, 2021
Even though I went in knowing the hours would be long and the school year would be longer, I was not prepared for the lack of work life balance. I have worked with Propel for 3 years and I will say that it is all consuming. I have been expected to not only do my job during building hours, but outside of work as well. This would be fine if it was occasional, but especially during COVID, it has become constant. Not only is the work never ending, but in my buildng we are not given adequate time to eat (25 minutes) or plan (50 minutes, but this time is often taken up by meetings almost daily). On top of limited planning time and expectations that never seem to stop coming, many of us have been forced into taking on additional, unpaid roles that we did not ask or agree to, and “no thank you” is not accepted as an answer. The district struggles to employee substitutes, so teachers are often expected to split classes when other grade level members are out. This has resulted in 30+ students in classrooms during non-COVID times, with one educator.
Pros
Good benefits, reasonable pay for the area, great curriculum
Cons
Short breaks, underqualified building administration, limited support

 

Schools care for kids but profit can get in the way

Teacher (Current Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – January 13, 2021
Propel staff does care a lot about the students, but it doesn’t feel like those who are higher up care as much about them. Having a CEO/Superintendent may be the reason for this.
Pros
Dedicated cohorts
Cons
Work-life balance off

 

Administration had a lack of trust for teachers and lack of discipline for students.

teacher (Former Employee) – Montour, PA – July 24, 2020
There was always a feeling of being watched in a critical way throughout the day. Administration was constantly evaluating teacher performance in the classroom which created a negative work environment.
When a student became disruptive in the classroom administrators were difficult to locate. If an administrator did come to the classroom he/she would coddle the student with candy or a fun activity before returning him/her to the classroom. Needless to say the disruptive behavior would continue within an hour. Positive effective leadership was nonexistent.

 

Not very friendly

Accounting Manager (Former Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – March 4, 2020
Did not get the job I was hired to do. Turnover was high. Cannot speak to majority of the the issues that I had due to a clause in my severance package.

 

Ehhh.

Educator (Former Employee) – Pitcairn, PA – February 3, 2020
Challenging work environment, burn out is high, little support from administration. Propel varies from building to building, but overall its sounds great in theory and in their “plans”, but they’re not able to carry out what they promise to students or staff.

 

This is a good ole boys system

Principal (Former Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – January 26, 2020
Pros: Let me start by saying, the students are amazing! The parents can be challenging but they truly want what’s best for their children. Cons: If you aren’t LIKED by the superintendent and assistant superintendent your days with Propel are numbered. From the onset, I was deceived by this organization. I spent 4-months interviewing for a High School principal position. I was offered the position of high school principal only to find out I would be a K-8 principal. This was the first red flag of many. Unfortunately, I wasn’t well liked therefore I received very little of what I needed to effectively lead the school. Instead, I got the unhelpful support they thought I needed and none of which I requested. By Feb. I had lost both my APs – one by choice and the other by force. In March I was given a replacement AP that wasn’t a good fit. Work-life balance does NOT exist at Propel Charter Schools. On average, I worked 12 -14-hour days. Sadly, this is the norm for principals in this network. If you are considering Propel for a position as a school administrator, I would not recommend it.
 
 
Teacher (Former Employee) – Hazelwood, PA – September 18, 2019
The staff is wonderful and very supportive. However, the students there are very disrespectful, rude, and have major problems with authority. As a teacher walking into the classroom, they refuse to listen, talk over you, cuss you, and not a lot is done about it.

Cons

Being cussed at and put down by students daily
 
 
 

Poor working place

Teacher (Former Employee) – Homestead, PA – August 10, 2019
Propel is not ran like a school, it is ran like a business. They do not give the students a fighting chance for a bright future. They are more worried about the name ‘propel’ than anything. The work-life balance is awful. They expect way too much of your own time and when they don’t get it, you are looked down on for it. They create cliques and if you are not in the clique, consider yourself gone. They place you wherever they want, certified or not, and will watch you fail. There is lack of help and support from the administration. The only decent people around are your co-workers. I would never recommend this as a work environment nor for parents to send their kids there. No learning takes place. You constantly deal with behavior problems while the children who want to learn are put on the back burner. They change rules half way into the school year and fudge their data. At the rate they are going, they will never compare to peers across the state for PSSAs due to behavior issues and poor management. Not to mention, your lunch is 20 minutes so I hope you can eat fast and 9X out of 10, your planning time to taken away from you for meetings! Be prepared for meetings!!!

Pros

Good benefits

Cons

Everything
 
 
Teacher (Current Employee) – Pitcairn, PA – May 6, 2017
There was little time to be able to practice individualized teaching practices and spend time working with students. Leaders were only focused on enrollment and test scores, and did not focus on the important needs of the child. Work/Home life balance did not exist, as emails and texts were sent at 9:00 PM at night. Money is the number one focus, and for a school system, it was not what was expected.

Pros

Teaching children, benefits and compensation

Cons

Bad work/home life balance

 


 

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No, Public School Teachers are Not Turning Their Students into Communists

Have you heard the latest Republican lie?

There are so many it’s hard to keep track, but here’s the newest one.

Public school teachers are turning their students into communists.

I’m not kidding.

That’s what they’re saying on far right blogs, podcasts and TV shows.

Everyone from Betsy DeVos to Ron DeSantis and the sober fellows of the Heritage Foundation are up in arms.

All because Mr. Singer wore a red sweater vest one day to class.

Not really, but that might have been a better provocation than the reality – which is all in far right pundits’ heads.

So for the GOP, it’s all about fear – what can you scare voters to believe that will shepherd them to support your agenda?

So to start with, Republicans want you to be terrified of public schools.

The reason?

They want you to have to pay to get your kids educated – but public schools give learning away for free to everyone – just for paying taxes.

Right-wingers would much rather make it all a business where the more you pay, the better the education your kids get. There’d be poor quality charter schools for those who can’t afford the entry fee, but the best of everything would be reserved for the kids of the rich and powerful whose parents would use school vouchers to offset some of their tuition at private institutions.

Public schools would undo all that – especially if they were adequately funded.

Can you imagine a country where EVERYONE was fully educated!?

People might become informed voters and demand freedom and justice for all!

Lawmakers might have to create real policies, a platform, solutions – to actually govern!

So GOP operatives spread hysterical lies about public schools. They call them “government schools” as if that meant some imposed bureaucracy of outsiders and not what it actually does – schools governed by elected members of the community.

The lies and innuendo are never ending. Public school educators teach fake history where the civil rights movement was a good thing. They refuse to instill the truth of Creationism over fake Evolution. Teachers are pedophile groomers – never mind the actual Republican lawmakers charged with pedophilia and rape. And on and on and on.

Which brings us to the latest one – the new red scare that public school teachers are raising the next generation to hate Adam Smith and love Karl Marx.

The whole idea seems to have started with DeVos, the billionaire heiress and former Secretary of Education under President Donald Trump.

Robert Bluey, vice president of publishing for the Heritage Foundation, asked her a question on The Daily Signal Podcast (a Heritage Foundation mouthpiece) about the growing popularity of socialism among young people.

And it’s true, according to a 2018 Gallup poll, Americans aged 18 to 29 are almost as positive about socialism (51%) as they are about capitalism (45%).

So on behalf of the right-wing think tank behind the critical race theory brouhaha, transphobic legislation, climate change denial and a host of other regressive causes, Bluey asked DeVos why young people aren’t as firmly championing capitalism as previous generations.

DeVos, of course, blamed teachers. She responded:

“I recall visiting a classroom not too long ago where one of the teachers was wearing a shirt that said “Find Your Truth,” suggesting that, of course, truth is a very fungible and mutable thing instead of focusing on the fact that there is objective truth and part of learning is actually pursuing that truth.”

This is a rather strange answer. It may be the case that there are absolute truths in the world, but economic theories certainly don’t qualify. In matters of opinion, isn’t it better to tell students the facts and let them think for themselves about their relative virtues?

Not for DeVos. Indoctrination apparently is just fine so long as you’re indoctrinating kids into the right things.

Tell them capitalism is great. Tell them socialism is terrible. Screw critical thinking.

The Heritage Foundation, at least, liked her answer, using it as a template to fund a plethora of stories about public schools – not just leaving the matter up to students to decide – but actually bullying kids into championing communism.

Douglas Blair, a Daily Signal producer, codified the idea in his article “I’m a Former Teacher. Here’s How Your Children Are Getting Indoctrinated in Leftist Ideology.”

In the text of article, Blair admits he was only “in education” for 4 years, but it seems he was not a full-time classroom teacher for most of that time. According to his Linked-In account, he was a French teacher for 9 months in a school in Portland, Oregon. Before that he was an Extracurricular Aide, an English Language Assistant and Language Immersion Counselor at various schools in the US and France.

His evidence of indoctrination reads like “Kids Say the Darndest Things – Republican Edition.”

For example, he says he asked an elementary school girl if she liked Winston Churchill, and she frowned calling Churchill racist.

I’m not sure why that’s so upsetting. Churchill led Great Britain through WWII, but he undeniably WAS a racist, too. Churchill said that he hated people with “slit eyes and pig tails.” To him, people from India were “the beastliest people in the world next to the Germans.” He admitted that he “did not really think that black people were as capable or as efficient as white people.”

So Blair’s examples of indoctrination come out to complaining that kids learned accurate history.

If only the GOP could use history and education to change minds instead of decrying them.

Florida Gov. DeSantis is giving it a try. In 2022, he signed a law requiring schools in the sunshine state to actively teach about the horrors of communism.

That’s right. Whether teachers need to or not, they have to spend at least 45 minutes on it every November.

“We want to make sure that every year folks in Florida, but particularly our students, will learn about the evils of communism. The dictators that have led communist regimes and the hundreds of millions of individuals who suffered and continue to suffer under the weight of this discredited ideology,” DeSantis said, adding that “a lot of young people don’t really know that much” about the political ideology.

At first blush, this may sound like a good idea. More historical knowledge is a good thing, but it’s the context that makes this troubling.

Florida Republicans already have passed a battalion of laws telling educators what they CANNOT teach.

So you can’t teach about racial issues including the history of slavery if it makes any student “feel uncomfortable.” Math books are censored from depicting “prohibited topics.” You can’t talk about a wide range of human sexuality including LGBTQ people because of the infamous “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

But you’d better teach about how bad communism is! Or else!

First, this is the very definition of a GOVERNMENT SCHOOL the legislature dictating what teachers teach on a given day and not trusting them to do their own jobs.

Second, why single out communism? Certainly it has lead to horrors and misery, but so has capitalism. Are we to teach about the terrors of rampant greed, sweatshops, wars for oil, runaway inequality? After all, students in impoverished neighborhoods going to underfunded schools are actual victims of free enterprise, not collectivism. The free hand of the market is soaked in blood, too.

Third, there’s the subtext. This sounds to me like an invitation to conflate communism with socialism (which are two different ideas with different histories) and to champion one ideology over another.

Finally, let’s not forget this all comes from state law. It’s politics, not pedagogy, and in politics it’s only indoctrination when someone else does it.

So are public school teachers really molding their students into young Bolsheviks?

I seriously doubt it.

Economic theory rarely comes up in math, reading or science. Maybe it comes up occasionally in social studies.

In my middle school language arts classes, we discuss all kinds of things that come out of the books we’re reading.

Sometimes economic inequality comes out of S. E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders” or Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” When we read Lois Lowry’s “The Giver” the concept of distribution of resources is broached.

In each case, I encourage my students to think about the problems from the stories, the solutions offered in the narratives and to discuss the matter with classmates. We hold Socratic Seminars and write critical essays. For “The Giver,” students work in groups to create their own utopias – you’d be surprised how many are socialist, though there are also a number of capitalist republics, dictatorships and anarchies. Kids love anarchy.

And I admit it – I encourage my students to think for themselves. I try not to give them my answers – my truths.

Facts are facts and opinions are opinions.

I would be a bad teacher if I forced my conclusions on my students.

So why ARE young people increasingly more critical of capitalism these days and more friendly toward socialism?

I’d say it’s because of the income inequality they see in the world around them.

Despite Republican’s claims, capitalism is not a perfect system. To be fair, no system is. But criticizing capitalism is not a bad thing, and finding value in aspects of socialism is no crime.

To achieve a better world, we have to do more than simply recreate the one in which we live.

That’s why education is so important. It is one of the chief engines of change, and nothing can truly stop that.

If Republicans think they can, they’re in for a shock.

Perhaps they should have paid more attention in school.

Or exposed their opinions to more rigorous critical thinking…

Nah!

I wonder what lie about public school they’ll try next.


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An Open Letter to Josh Shapiro Asking Him to Reject School Vouchers 


 

Dear Josh Shapiro, 


 
Are you for public education or not?

I only ask because as the Democratic candidate for Governor in Pennsylvania, you come off as the savior of schools and children on the campaign trail.

You say you want to increase state funding to public schools. Wonderful!

You say you want to reduce standardized testing. Excellent!

You want to guarantee every student has access to technical and vocational courses and make sure every school building has at least one dedicated mental health counselor on staff. Outstanding!

But in interviews and on your campaign Website, you say you’re in favor of school vouchers!

Wha-Wha-What!?

Did Charles Koch just hack your election headquarters? Is Betsy DeVos impersonating you in the media?

Because supporting school vouchers does not fit in at all with someone who claims to champion public education.

Public education means public schools. It means tax dollars being used to fund public schools and those schools being run by elected school boards.

It does not mean tax dollars going to private and parochial schools. It does not mean our money going to institutions where we get no say in how it’s spent. It does not mean circumventing duly elected school boards. It does not mean the public paying for religious indoctrination or the kind of right wing biased education routinely provided at private schools.

But that’s what school vouchers do.

They steal taxpayer dollars from authentic public schools and allow them to be wasted on private and parochial schools. They destroy any accountability for how our collective money is spent and do serious harm to thousands of the most struggling authentic public school students while lining the pockets of private companies and religious institutions.

And the separation of church and state – forget about it!

This doesn’t sound like the candidate teachers like me have been backing since before this election cycle began. Frankly, it’s almost what your gubernatorial opponent, MAGA Republican Doug Mastriano, champions.

Mastriano – a Trump insurrectionist – says he wants to use state education funding to give EVERY student a school voucher they can use at almost any school in the Commonwealth – public, private or parochial.

You seem to want vouchers ONLY for students at the most underfunded and struggling schools.

Well that’s some distinction!

Instead of providing more support to the most inequitably funded schools, you want to slash their funding even more in the name of some old time Republican plan to let a few escape a bad situation while the rest all drown!?

That is repulsive!

On your your campaign Website it says


 Josh favors adding choices for parents and educational opportunity for students and funding lifeline scholarships like those approved in other states and introduced in Pennsylvania. 


 
In an interview in the Patriot News you say


 “And I’m for making sure we add scholarships like lifeline scholarships to make sure that that’s additive to their education. That it gives them other opportunities…to be able to help them achieve success”  

These so-called Lifeline Scholarships are a Republican lead measure to give direct-to-student tax-funded scholarships that parents and guardians in the state’s most neglected public schools could use for a variety of options including going toward tuition at a different school.

The GOP sponsored bill passed the state House of Representatives in April on a 104-98 vote and cleared the state Senate Education Committee in June. However, because of an amendment to protect low performing charter schools from losing their funding, it would still need final passage votes in both chambers before getting to current Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk where he would almost certainly veto it.

It would affect about 191,000 students in 382 schools, across 76 of the state’s 500 school districts. However, Two-thirds of the cost of the program (63.1%) is born by four districts – Philadelphia (43.9%), Reading (8.9%), Allentown (5.8%) and Pittsburgh (4.5%).

This would create another taxpayer funded system of education. Affected districts would lose so much funding it would ultimately force them to reduce programs, services, and staffing and/or raise property taxes to compensate.

Moreover, these would be the most neglected districts, and thus the least able to support the cost.

It’s a terrible idea, and I can’t understand why you would buck the overwhelming majority of your party and would-be constituents to support it.

Is it because you send your own kids to a faith-based private school, and that you are the product of just such an education, yourself?

This is how you lose votes, Sir.

Your opponent is perhaps the most odious person to ever run for Governor in the state. He looks to usher in an era of theocratic fascism, curtail human rights and take the Commonwealth back to the Middle Ages.

But that doesn’t mean you should run closer to his positions in the vain hope of stealing some of his base.

The MAGA Republicans will never vote for you. Dressing yourself up in their clothing will not help you do anything but disgust your own supporters until some can’t bring themselves to vote at all.

As election day nears, the polls get closer and closer between Mastriano and you.

Pennsylvanians can’t afford losing their only chance at self rule because of demoralization and despair at a candidate too weak to support the platform he began this campaign on – championing public education.

I urge you to reconsider this flirtation with Republican values and school vouchers.

I hope you are better than this.

We deserve a governor who is better than this.

Please have the courage to stand by authentic public schools.

Yours,

Steven Singer


Tell Josh Shapiro what you think. Email him here: contact@joshshapiro.org


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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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What my PA Public School Classroom Would Look Like under Gov. Doug Mastriano

Just one teacher. And 33 kids.

That’s what my classroom would look like if Pennsylvanians vote for Doug Mastriano as our next governor.

The Republican state representative wants to slash education budgets in half – yes, IN HALF!

And that means doubling class size – at least.

Honestly, I don’t know how we’d cram all the desks in the room. I can barely fit 15 in there now.

Where would we put the books, computers and cabinets? The students, alone, would be wall-to-wall.

Just imagine that many middle school kids stuffed into the room arguing about who’s touching who and which classmate stole their pencil or book. Not to mention the children striving to get my attention to solve disputes, get help with classwork, ask permission to use the bathroom – and a thousand other issues!

I’d try my best to meet their needs but under Mastriano we just wouldn’t have the resources we used to have.

For example, there’s no way we could afford a school nurse at each building like we have today. We’d be lucky to have one nurse for all four buildings in the district – elementary schools, middle schools and the high school. If a student feels sick, there’s not much I could do except send the child to the office to try to call home and get a parent or guardian to pick the kid up early. And if the parents can’t make it, just let the kid put his or her head down?

What if the issue’s more psychological? There might be a school counselor somewhere in the district so a student can talk out an issue he or she is having – perhaps conflict resolution with a former friend, discuss peer pressure to try drugs or maybe deal with suicidal thoughts. But there’s probably a long waiting list to see this mythical counselor. Hopefully, the problem is not too urgent.

I feel especially bad for the special education students. Aides would be almost non-existent so many kids with special needs would have to struggle through issues with which we’d normally help them. All the individual Education Plans (IEPs) would have to be rewritten to take this new normal into account.

Even lunch would be disrupted. After all, there would be fewer cafeteria workers so it would be harder just to cook a hot meal and make sure it gets onto a tray in time for students to eat it.

There’s no doubt about it.

My classroom would be very different if Mastriano wins the gubernatorial election in November.

The former US Army Colonel who participated in the January 6 insurrection proposes slashing education funding from $19,000 on average, per student, to $9,000.

According to an analysis by the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), the plan would mean a 33 percent overall cut in public school revenue, or a $12.75 billion loss. It would require approximately 118,704 layoffs – 49 percent of all employees in schools around the state.

At my district of Steel Valley in Munhall on the western side of the Commonwealth, the situation probably would be much like I described.

I can’t imagine how any teacher could adequately tend to double the students, but I might not have to imagine it.

I’d probably be laid off.

More than half of Steel Valley’s staff would be out of a job – 92 of our current 172 school nurses, counselors, aides, cafeteria workers and teachers would be looking for work.

And that’s just where I’m employed.

Things would be even worse for my daughter where she attends McKeesport Area School District.

According to PSEA estimates, the nearby McKeesport district would lose 281 of 521 staff – a 54% reduction. Classes would go from an average of 17 students to an average of 46. That’s an increase of 29 students per class!

How can she learn in that kind of environment!? She isn’t in college yet. She isn’t in some University of Pittsburgh survey class that meets in an auditorium. She’s in middle school!

But it would be pretty similar at public schools, charter schools, career and technical centers and intermediate units across the state.

From one side of the Commonwealth to the other, we’d go from 239,902 staff to 121,198. Class size would go from an average of 16 students per class to 33. That’s an increase of 17 students per class or 109%.

However, the PSEA estimate is actually a best case scenario for Mastriano’s proposal.

Like so many wannabe big time policymakers, he is very light on the details of how we would educate the state’s 1.7 million students. This whole proposal was just something he blurted out during a March 2022 WRTA radio interview.

It’s his plan to completely eliminate local school property taxes. Funding would be provided directly to parents via “Education Opportunity Accounts,” and families could then decide whether they want a public, private, charter or home school option.

To go from a statewide average funding level of $19,000 a student to $9,000 a student requires a cut of $17.6 billion, or 53%.

But if the remainder isn’t being paid by property taxes, that’s a roughly $15.3 billion a year expenditure by the state that used to be paid by local property taxes. Where is he getting that money from? And if the state can afford to pay that much, why not just pay the full $19,000 per student and make none of these unnecessary cuts? Or why not just pay half and reduce property taxes by that much? Mastriano is not exactly forthcoming on any of this.

PSEA admits that to come up with its own estimates of the damage the organization filled in a few details. The union assumes the state would fully fund the $9,000-per-student voucher and leave other local non-property taxes and federal revenues untouched.

That might not happen. We could be looking at an even more draconian situation.

The biggest question the PSEA is sidestepping is the impact of allowing taxpayer dollars to fund so many different types of schooling.

Even under Mastriano’s plan, nontraditional educational providers like charter schools would suffer because like traditional public schools they would be receiving less funding from the state than they do now. And parents using their vouchers to pay for private schools for their children would still have to make up a pretty big gap between the amount of the voucher and the cost of private school tuition.

However, since traditional public schools serve the overwhelming majority of the state’s students, they would take the biggest hit financially. If more parents use their voucher to pay for private, charter or home schools, that’s less funding for our public school system. That means even greater cuts to student services and more staff layoffs.

Moreover, what if parents use the voucher for a fly-by-night educational option that doesn’t meet it’s obligations?

For example, according to reports by the Network for Public Education, about half of all charter schools close in 15 years. And 27% close in five years.

And when it comes to charter schools that took federal funding, 12% never even opened. They just gobbled up the cash with nothing to show for it.

What will happen to students whose parents lose their vouchers in schools like these? Who will pay for these kids to be educated? Or will they have to go without?

And when it comes to private schools, does Mastriano mean only secular private schools or does he include parochial schools? Will your tax dollars be used to pay for students religious education?

And what about the curriculum at these private schools or some home school programs? Many use texts published by Bob Jones University Press, Accelerated Christian Education, or A Beka.

The books are riddled with counter factual claims and political bias in every subject imaginable such as abortion, gay rights and the Endangered Species Act, which one labels a “radical social agenda.” They disparage religions other than Protestant Christianity and cultures other than those descended from White Europeans.

They teach that humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time, some dinosaurs survive into the present day (i.e. the Loch Ness monster), evolution is a myth disproved by REAL science and homosexuality is a choice.

Teaching these things in school is not just educational malpractice, it’s exactly the kind of indoctrination the right is claiming without evidence happens at public schools.

If someone wants to pay for such an education out of their own pocket, that’s one thing. But to ask taxpayers to fund such propaganda is something else entirely!

Thankfully, Pennsylvania voters don’t have to accept this. Not yet anyway.

There are still more than three months before the election. Voters can choose the Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro. He has promised to INCREASE education funding and not just blow up the whole system.

To see an interactive map of how Mastriano’s education cuts would affect your school district, click here.

For now this is only a bad dream. We still have time to wake up and vote accordingly.

Students should not have to submerge themselves in a sea of classmates and hope the teacher will have time to educate them.

We should cut class size, not increase it.

We should hire more teachers, not rely on a skeleton crew.

We should invest in education, not sell off our future for a fast buck today.


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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!

A Teacher’s Wish

 

People often ask me what I’d change about education if I could change just one thing.

But they don’t seem to realize that our schools are kind of like Jenga – if you change one thing, you might set off a chain reaction and it all comes tumbling down.

Change one thing – the RIGHT thing – and you may change all of them.

Maybe even for the better!

Why worry about that now?

Monday is my birthday. I’ll be 48.

Old enough to know that birthday wishes don’t come true. Unless maybe you wish for cake and ice cream.

But I can still see myself staring into the candles as friends and family sing the obligatory tune.


The orange flames wave back and forth atop tiny wax fingers threatening to burn down the whole chocolatey confection.  

But before they do, I just might give in and make a wish – a birthday wish – and….

You never know!!!

So here goes.

Candle burn, candle bright,

Let me strive to make things right,

I wish I may, I wish I might,

Have the wish, I wish tonight…

 
I wish there were no more standardized tests.  


 
No more judging kids entire academic year based on their performance in a few hours of multiple choice Hell.  


 
No more assessments where a multiplicity of nonacademic factors like parental income, childhood trauma and corporate bias are hidden behind a numeric label.  


 
No more evaluations based on eugenics and pseudoscience. No more tests supported by the bottom line of corporations who make money creating the tests, grading the tests and selling us the remediation materials to retake the tests.  


 
That, alone, would make such a difference.  


 
No more teaching to the test. No more narrowing the curriculum. No more pressure to increase test scores.  


 
Just the freedom to teach.  


 
To empirically observe a classroom of students, see what they need and try to help them get it.  


 
And since I’m overturning that stone, I’ll topple another one. 


 
I wish schools were budgeted fairly.  


 
Not equally, mind you, but fairly.  


 
I wish every student got all the resources necessary to meet his or her needs. No! I wish they got MORE than enough.  


 
I wish we funded schools the way we fund the military! I wish schools had money flowing through them like a river of gold. I wish school buildings were marble palaces where the community could come together and learn and play and talk and interact. 

Imagine how that would impact class size.

No more 20-30 kids stuffed into a single classroom with just one teacher between them.

No more trying to differentiate, grade, instruct, counsel, and inspire until there’s nothing left of you at the end of the day.

No more being on stage every moment but instead having dedicated times untethered to students where you can actually think about things – how to teach this or that, what students really meant when they made certain comments, how to best help parents…

But wait there goes another pebble!

I wish there was no school privatization!

And I do mean NO school privatization.

There shouldn’t be schools for some kids and schools for others.

We should differentiate by need but not by income bracket. We shouldn’t divide kids up based on race, ethnicity or their parents biases.

No more prep schools. No more parochial schools. No more prestigious academies. No more charter schools. No more home schools.

Just public schools of every shape and size.

Schools funded by everyone to teach everyone’s kids. No place to hide money for some and deprive it from others.

Oops! There goes another stone overturned!

I wish there were no more segregated schools.

No more districts or buildings or classes focusing mostly on white kids, or black kids, or rich kids or poor kids.

Silly privatizer, schools are for ALL kids. All kids mixed together. Because only then can we ensure they all get equity and that they learn the true face of America.

Only then will they learn how to get along, how to understand where they’re coming from and how to embrace their differences.

Uh-oh! Did you hear that!? There went a whole mountain of stones!

No more profiteering off children!

No more data mining!

No more developmentally inappropriate standards!

No union busting!

Teaching could become a calling again.

Educators would no longer be seen as overpaid babysitters but trusted pillars of the community.

They’d be respected – their opinions sought after in educational issues like diamonds.

And the pay! No longer would any teacher need to work more than one job! They’d be compensated like professional athletes. Maybe there’d even be a draft in each state where the most promising prospects out of college would be fought over by schools with children who they think would best be served by their hire.

Imagine a country like that! One that put children first by putting education first!

Imagine how it would change the landscape. Adults who grew up in such a system would be pretty hard to fool because they’d be critical thinkers.

No political charlatan could come in and bamboozle them with nonsense and charisma. No corporation could trick them into pyramid schemes and tax evasion.

No wars for oil.

No climate denial.

No banning books.

No gun ownership without strong regulations.

No lack of social services, public healthcare, public goods!

Ah! It would be a much better world I think if my wish came true.

But…

Oh…

Sigh!

I don’t see it happening.

No even a little of it.

After two decades in the classroom, the wind always seems to be blowing against such things.

But then again, I have a chance to change the wind come Monday.

We all do.

If you’ll help me blow out the candles.


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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!

If Pittsburgh Council Really Wants to Help City Schools, There’s an Obvious Solution

Ricky Burgess and Daniel Lavelle really have some nerve.

Back in February, the two Pittsburgh City Council Members proposed an “Education Emergency” at city schools due to Covid-19.

It died.

Now that the pandemic is on the wane, the two were back Wednesday to propose another “Education Emergency” but this time because the schools are “failing.”

I wonder what Fall’s crisis will be.

Let’s get something clear. Pittsburgh Public Schools are NOT in an education emergency, and the district certainly is not failing – though the students, teachers and administrators do have very real problems.

Namely money.

These are inner city schools serving students from very different neighborhoods. Some kids have every benefit possible before they even enter the schoolhouse doors. Others bring more traumas and developmental deficits with them than school books.

Yet Burgess and Lavelle – who aren’t even on the school board (and Bugress’ kids and grandkids attend or attended parochial schools) – want to continually characterize this as something the district is doing wrong.

Fellas, it’s not a matter of the district willfully withholding anything from students. It’s the district not having the resources to provide every student with the help they need.

Even James Fogerty of the sometimes corporate minded A+ Schools organization backed this up.

The district spends about the same on every child regardless of their needs, according to A+ Schools data. However, students with greater needs require more funding to keep up with those who have fewer academic deficits.

It’s like if you have two cars, one already with half its tank full and the other running on fumes. If you give them both an additional half a tank of gasoline, one car is going to go much further than the other one.

That doesn’t mean one car is better than the other. It simply means, you didn’t give BOTH what they needed.

Burgess and Lavelle like grand standing on this issue every few months despite the fact that running the district isn’t in their job description. That’s for the school board to do.

However, as luck would have it, there is something these two City Council Members could do to make a real difference in the lives of students at Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Pay back the $20 million in wage taxes that city schools loaned city government every year since 2004.

That’s right. The City of Pittsburgh continues to take money from the district that the city didn’t get originally and that it doesn’t need.

When the city was on the verge of financial collapse 17 years ago, the school district agreed to help by diverting a portion of its tax revenue to the city.
 


 
Now that the city is out of financial distress (and has been since 2018), some folks such as Superintendent Dr. Anthony Hamlet have suggested the city should return that money – not back payments, just stop taking the additional tax revenue. Administrators estimate that would bring in another $20 million for the city school district.


 
 
It wouldn’t solve all the district’s financial shortfalls, but it would certainly make a difference.

So Burgess and Lavelle don’t have to continue making these symbolic resolutions. Just do your job and stop the City of Pittsburgh from leeching off of school children.

They could do it today. They could do it tomorrow. They could have done it years ago. But they didn’t. They don’t. They won’t.

Why?

Because they aren’t interested in helping the schools.

They just want an opportunity to hear themselves speak.

This kind of trash talk from City Council used to be kindled by outgoing Mayor Bill Peduto. However, with Ed Gainey beating him in the primary, it looks like Gainey will be the next mayor.

Unfortunately, Gainey has not yet made a statement about returning the wage tax revenue to the district.

Nevertheless, there are encouraging signs. As a State Senator, he served on the Education Committee.

And he has said the following about the relationship between city and district governance:

“I want to be able to come in and begin to build a relationship where we’re working together and we’re building a level of cohesiveness. You can’t build if you’re not talking and so that’s one of the major issues … let’s talk and find out how we can help each other.”


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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!

Public Schools Are Not Indoctrinating Kids About Racism. Voucher Schools ARE

Republican frenzy has reached a fever pitch with attacks in at least 16 states on schools that allegedly teach Critical Race Theory.

Right-wingers claim public schools are indoctrinating America’s youth in lies and deception about race and racism – namely the “lie” that these things remain problems.

They grudgingly concede that racism was a (slight) problem in this country before the civil rights movement, but then Rosa sat down and Martin stood up and – POOF – racism was over.

End of story. Let’s move on.

However, there are several things wrong with this besides its basic reductivism.

First, no public school actually teaches Critical Race Theory.

Second, racism is not over in the US, and talking about the facts of history and how they led to our current situation is not indoctrination. It’s education – the job of public schools.

And finally, if you really want to see taxpayer funded indoctrination, look at private and parochial schools accepting taxpayer funding through voucher and tax credit programs.

Let’s start with Critical Race Theory.

It is entirely absent from public school curriculum.

Laughably so.

Critical Race Theory is a legal framework that’s been taught for decades in law schools around the country. And just like torts, contract law, civil forfeiture and a host of other valid topics in law school, the K-12 public schools really don’t cover them much.

But right wing lawmakers and the billionaire funded think tanks that provide their propaganda ideas want to turn Critical Race Theory into a scare tactic to close down discussions of race and racism in America’s classrooms.

Which brings us to the second point – racism is not over in America.

Facts are facts.

In a country where the average Black worker earns just 62% of what the average white worker makes, and where black people are 3.23 times more likely than white people to be killed by police – racism is not over.

One out of every three Black boys born today can expect to be sentenced to prison, compared to 1 out 6 for Latino boys, and one out of 17 for White boys.

Black people are convicted at higher rates and given longer sentences than white people for the same crimes – 5% of illicit drug users are African American, yet Black people represent 29% of those arrested and 33% of those incarcerated for drug offenses. Moreover, African Americans and White people use drugs at similar rates, but the imprisonment rate of African Americans for drug charges is almost 6 times that of White people.

And on and on.

One has to live in a factually neutral bubble to insist that racism no longer exists in this country, but that’s exactly where these right wing lawmakers are coming from.

The GOP is terrified they might actually have to protect voting rights or provide equitable school funding for black kids up to par with white kids, so they have to keep creating scary monsters to frighten the populace into believing their bogus world view.

After all, their base is almost exclusively White. If they can’t find something to rile up these people and make them feel unduly put upon, they won’t come to the polls. And nothing gets people more eager to vote than fear and anger.

Except maybe ignorance.

Which brings us to the third point – indoctrination doesn’t happen at public schools; it happens at taxpayer funded voucher schools.

The last decade has seen a steady, incremental increase in taxpayer funding in most states for private and parochial schools as public school budgets have been robbed and raided to pay for it.

In some states, this comes from outright school voucher programs. In others like Pennsylvania, this comes from tax credit programs like the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) programs.

In essence, they all do the same thing. They take taxpayer money that was (or would have been) put aside for public education and funnel it to parochial or private schools.

The schools that accept this money have little to no oversight in how they spend it nor do they have to follow any of the rules that public schools do.

And many of these schools actually do indoctrinate their students into untruths about science, history and politics. On our dime.

How do we know that? We know which books they use in their curriculum. And many of them are filled with factually incorrect bigotry and bias.

For example, here’s a few justifications of slavery from America: Land I Love, an A Beka Book:

“The slave who knew Christ had more freedom than a free person who did not know the Savior…”

“…Although the slaves faced great difficulties, many found faith in Christ and learned to look to God for strength. By 1860, most slaveholders provided Christian instruction on their plantations.”

“To help them endure the difficulties of slavery, God gave Christian slaves the ability to combine the African heritage of song with the dignity of Christian praise. Through the Negro spiritual, the slaves developed the patience to wait on the Lord and discovered that the truest freedom is from the bondage of sin…”

And here’s a defense of the kindness of most slave owners from United States History for Christian Schools published by Bob Jones University Press (BJU):

“A few slave holders were undeniably cruel. Examples of slaves beaten to death were not common, neither were they unknown. The majority of slave holders treated their slaves well.”

And here’s another excerpt from the same book teaching that black people were just as responsible for slavery as white people and that white people suffered from slavery just as much:

The story of slavery in America is an excellent example of the far-reaching consequences of sin. The sin in this case was greed – greed on the part of the African tribal leaders, on the part of the slave traders, and on the part of slave owners, all of whom allowed their love for profit to outweigh their love for their fellow man. The consequences of such greed and racism extended across society and far into the future. It resulted in untold suffering – most obviously for the black race but for the white race as well.(emphasis mine)

Here’s another excerpt from the same book about the benefits of the KKK:

“[The Ku Klux] Klan in some areas of the country tried to be a means of reform, fighting the decline in morality and using the symbol of the cross. Klan targets were bootleggers, wife-beaters, and immoral movies. In some communities it achieved a certain respectability as it worked with politicians.”

Meanwhile, the Teacher’s Resource Guide to Current Events for Christian Schools published by BJU wrote this about how liberal Democrats and desegregation were bad:

“While the end was a noble one – ending discrimination in schools – the means were troublesome. Liberals were not willing to wait for a political solution.”

As bad as these excerpt are, they focus only on racism.

The books are riddled with counter factual claims and political bias in every subject imaginable such as abortion, gay rights and the Endangered Species Act, which one labels a “radical social agenda.” They disparage religions other than Protestant Christianity and cultures other than those descended from White Europeans.

They teach that humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time, some dinosaurs survive into the present day (i.e. the Loch Ness monster), evolution is a myth disproved by REAL science as is the claim that homosexuality is anything but a choice.

Teaching these things in school is not just educational malpractice, it’s exactly the kind of indoctrination the right is claiming without evidence happens at public schools.

And this kind of brain washing is common at voucher schools.

Along with publisher Accelerated Christian Education, A Beka and BJP are being used in countless taxpayer-funded schools. Nearly 6 million students attend private schools in the United States and about three-quarters of those are Christian schools. And that doesn’t even count the roughly 1.7 million American children who are homeschooled many of whom use these texts.

These books are used almost exclusively at religious schools or through homeschooling. However, that’s the majority of the school voucher program – even the tax credit scholarship programs.

Nearly 80 percent of scholarship students attend religious schools, and most of those institutions are Christian, according to an investigation by the Orlando Sentinel. The books mentioned above all come from a Protestant point of view. However, roughly 16 percent of scholarship schools are Catholic and use their own curriculum as do other schools including Islamic or Jewish institutions (which combined make up about 5 percent of the schools).

It is clear then that this controversy is worse than a tempest in a teacup.

It’s misdirected anger.

Political indoctrination IS going on in the United States, but it is not happening at our public schools.

It is happening at our private and parochial schools through school voucher programs.

If we ban anything, it shouldn’t be Critical Race Theory – It should be school vouchers.

For more on this subject, see the short documentary film, “School Choice: Taxpayer-Funded Creationism, Bigotry and Bias” by Rachel Tabachnick.


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