What Democratic Midterm Victories Mean for Pennsylvania’s Schools

We can breathe a sigh of relief.

Fascism was defeated at the polls.

Christian nationalism, snake oil salesmen and angertainment all fell to the power of the ballot at this week’s midterm election in Pennsylvania.

Democrat Josh Shapiro beat far right Republican Doug Mastriano for Governor.

John Fetterman beat reality TV star Dr. Mehmet Oz for Senator.

And a host of local grassroots progressives triumphed from Summer Lee becoming the first black woman ever elected from our state to the House to Lindsay Williams retaining her seat in the state legislature. Even Austin Davis (my state representative) will become the first black Lt. Governor in the Commonwealth.

And most surprising, the state house may have even flipped to Democratic control after decades in Republican hands. (There are still a few races that are too close to call.)

All-in-all, it was a good night. Especially in an election cycle where Republicans had every advantage. The President’s party usually loses seats during the midterms, and just last week it seemed that Joe Biden would be no exception. However, now that the dust has cleared, the losses seem to be minimal to nonexistent.

So what does it all mean for our state’s schools and the future of our kids’ educations?

First, we can expect far fewer insane policy proposals and those that are put forward will have next to zero chance of passing.

No more worries about our already meager education funding being cut in half.

No more fears of Florida’s regressive “Don’t Say Gay” law restricting free speech coming to the Keystone state.

The Critical Race Theory panic (A.K.A. – teaching actual history) will fade to just another wing nut conspiracy theory thrown to the Republican base to generate support instead of an actual policy proposal to restrict academic freedom.

I suspect a lot of the baseless hysteria Republicans had been shouting from the rafters will decrease as pollsters show them how ineffective it was in getting votes that weren’t already staunchly GOP.

For the first time in years, Republicans may have to push toward the center instead of constantly to the lunatic fringe. Otherwise, they’ll continue to lose.

Second, we may actually see some positive education policies make their way through the state legislature.

Shapiro has promised to increase education funding. That and the still pending court decision on a lawsuit against the state demanding adequate funding may be enough to turn the funding faucet on a few cranks. With Democrats holding an increasing share of seats, all it takes is a few moderate Republicans (are they out there?) to join them to get things done.

However, it isn’t all wine and roses.

During the general election, Shapiro came out in favor of some school voucher programs. This puts him to the right of our current Governor Tom Wolf. So we can look forward to our new Governor supporting an increase for tax credit scholarships and other de facto voucher plans that will drain public education coffers just as we’re working to increase them.

It is also anyone’s guess whether a pro-voucher Governor would support charter school reform – something we desperately need and that Wolf championed during his tenure.

And though both Wolf and Shapiro criticized standardized testing, it would take a mightily informed and courageous state politician to go up against the economic powerhouse of the testing industry.

In short, the election mostly means we don’t have to worry about as many flaming meteorites crashing down on our schools.

Things might even get better here and there – especially with additional funding.

However, we will have to monitor our representatives as if they were little kids sulking by the cookie jar. They will almost definitely try to sneak in some garbage legislation to hurt our students and enrich their corporate buddies.

When we look at the national situation, it appears much the same. Even with Fetterman going to the Senate, it’s unclear whether Democrats will have control of either legislative body. Even if they do, the majority will be razor thin.

A robust Democratic Party determined to enact progressive legislation could make much of such a situation, but as we’ve seen in the past, that is not the case with the current leadership.

The most we can realistically hope for is that they put a stop to insane GOP legislation.

The question is whether we can build on such Democratic gains at both the state and national level. Usually that doesn’t happen. But it will have to be the goal moving forward.

Stopping the worst is a worthy aim but it cannot be everything. We must continue to push our representatives to make actual progress and fix the slow and steady drip of fascism, corporatism and Christian nationalism that has dominated our politics for far too long.

So let us celebrate a worthy election cycle while we prepare for all the political battles still to come.

A sigh of relief, a renewed fighting stance and back into the fray.


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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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Hope Grows as Argument Ends in PA School Funding Lawsuit 

Is it safe to hope?

That’s what I’m wondering as closing arguments are set to begin tomorrow in the historic Pennsylvania school funding lawsuit.

In my home state, public schools have had to band together and sue the legislature for adequate funding.

Though a final decision may not come until summer or fall, it actually seems possible that things could change for the better. 

I feel cautiously optimistic that Commonwealth Court will decide in favor of the state’s schools and not the legislature. 

But frankly I am also disgusted that it has even come to this.

The schools had to take our own government to court to force lawmakers to pay for kids to get an adequate education.

Can you imagine the kind of person who refuses to care about children?

As a public school teacher and father, I just can’t.

Pennsylvania is one of seven states with a Constitution that specifically requires the state to provide a sufficient education. Some of these other states – like New Jersey – have used similar Constitutional requirements to force their legislatures to increase state funding to public schools.

Specifically, our state Constitution says:

“The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.” 

“Thorough and efficient.”

Not lavish. Not extravagant. Just complete and productive.

Yet for nearly 8 years getting to court and for three months, 13 weeks, 48 days in court, the state has argued that it already does that.

It’s one of the most absurd assertions I have ever heard. They might as well argue that water is not wet and fire is not hot.

Walk into any wealthy school in the Commonwealth and look around. You’ll see the equivalent of the Taj Mahal. Now walk into any poor district and look around. You’ll see the equivalent of a slum.

One has brand new facilities, marble columns, and wood paneling scrubbed to a shine with a bustling staff moving to-and-fro. 

The other has badly maintained structures, exposed insulation, dusty corners, leaky ceilings and animal droppings while a skeleton crew of adults try their all to do the impossible without the tools to get it done. 

The Pennsylvania legislature has been paying less and less of public schools’ budgets over the last four decades. The state used to contribute 54% of all public school costs in the early 1970s. Today it pays just 38% of the cost. Only five states cover a smaller share with the national average at 47%. This leaves local taxpayers to take up the slack. Since districts are not equally wealthy, that increases the disparity of resources between rich and poor districts.

During the trial, the state had tried to argue that money doesn’t matter. Yet poor schools can spend $4,800 less per student than wealthy districts. What’s worse, impoverished students have greater needs than rich ones. They often don’t have books in the home or access to Pre-kindergarten. Poor students often suffer from food insecurity, malnutrition, a lack of neonatal care, worse attendance, are less well rested and have greater special needs and suffer greater traumas than wealthier students. Yet we provide them with fewer resources!?

According to a benchmark written into state law, public schools need $4.6 billion in additional funding just to give students a shot. And 277 districts – whether they be in cities, small towns or suburbs – need $2,000 in additional funding per student to get up to snuff.

This affects the great majority of our children – 86% of students attend schools that don’t receive adequate resources.

But it’s even worse for children of color. Half of the state’s Black students and 40% of the state’s Latino students go to schools in the bottom 20% for local wealth.

John Krill, a lawyer for the state, sees no problem with this disparity. In fact, he argued in favor of it.

In perhaps the most revealing moment of the trial, Krill, who represents GOP Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, asked:

 
“What use would a carpenter have for biology? […] What use would someone on the McDonald’s career track have for Algebra 1? […] The question in my mind is, thorough and efficient to what end? To serve the needs of the Commonwealth. Lest we forget, the Commonwealth has many needs. There’s a need for retail workers, for people who know how to flip a pizza crust.” 

So the Commonwealth actually argued that inequitable funding is okay because all kids don’t need a thorough education. Some just need the bare minimum to do whatever menial jobs they’re destined to have while the elite kids need more for the high skilled jobs they’re going to get.

I wonder which kids Krill and his defendants in the legislature think deserve less funding. I’ll bet it’s the black and brown kids already suffering most from this disparity.

Luckily, the school districts asking the courts to intervene feel differently.

Six school districts – William Penn, Lancaster, Panther Valley, Greater Johnstown, Shenandoah Valley, and Wilkes Barre Area – filed the suit along with the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, the NAACP PA State Conference, and families whose children attend under-resourced schools.

Essentially, they are asking for two things.

First, for the court to declare the current funding system unconstitutional.

Second, for the court to order the legislature to create and maintain a fair funding system.

You might say, wait. Didn’t the legislature adopt a new Basic Education Funding formula in 2016 that already provides a fairer way to allocate money based on need?

And the answer is – yes, it did, BUT this funding formula is hardly ever used. Lawmakers only apply it to distribute new money, and increases have been few and far between. So the lion’s share of education funding is still inequitably distributed. We need to change that, to make sure everyone is getting their fair share AND that the money is adequate for the task.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s 2022-23 budget proposal has already begun to address this.

He suggests a $1.75 billion down payment to schools on the $4.6 billion gap.

The state has the money to do this. It just needs to cut wasteful spending elsewhere and close tax loopholes.

For example, the state throws away $240 million a year to The Race Horse Development Fund. These are taxpayer funded subsidies to wealthy horse racing enthusiasts and hobbyists. Since 2004, the legislature has lavished $3 billion on the horse racing industry. Shouldn’t we prioritize school children over cash prizes and inflated pensions for wealthy horse owners, breeders, and trainers? Aren’t kids more important than paying to drug test horses and for racetrack marketing?

It’s these kind of shenanigans that forced 57% of school districts to increase taxes this year.

If the state was doing its job and looking after kids instead of giving handouts to wealthy oligarchs, you and I wouldn’t feel as much pain in our wallets.

Moreover, local school districts will pay $2.8 billion in charter school tuition this year. Why does the state keep opening these expensive privatized institutions that have less fiscal accountability than our authentic public schools? Again the ideology of far right lawmakers is funded by you and me with our tax dollars.

So what’s next after closing arguments this week?

Both parties in the case will file a series of post-trial briefs saying what they believe they proved during the testimony, the “conclusions of law” they are asking the judge to reach, and their analysis of the legal questions presented—such as the meaning of the state Constitution’s “thorough and efficient” education clause.

The final post-trial brief is due on July 6. Then — after oral argument on legal issues at a later date — the court will make its final decision weeks or months later.

In the meantime, the budget is supposed to have been approved by the legislature (one way or another) and signed by the Governor by June 30. If not, funding for some state programs may be delayed. But you never know. The legislature has been late on this before.

So what am I learning from all of this?

The value of hope?

The evil of lawmakers who want to continue shortchanging our children?

The bravery of public school districts that challenge the state to follow its own darn rules?

All of the above.


 

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Thank you, Gov. Wolf, for Reissuing a Mask Mandate for PA Schools. Time for Next Steps

My daughter’s school has been open for seven days so far this year.

The school where I teach has been open three days.

Masks optional at both.

Do you know how terrifying that is for a father – to send his only child off to class hoping she’ll be one of the lucky ones who doesn’t get sick?

Do you know how frustrating it is for an educator like me trying to teach while unsure how long your students will be well enough to stay in class? Unsure how long you will?

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) warns we should wear masks in school to protect from Covid-19, especially the more virulent delta variant.

So does the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Nationwide Children’s Hospitals Care Connection, the Allegheny County Department of Health…

And just about every doctor, immunologist and specialist at UPMC as well as the Pennsylvania State Education Association, and the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

Heck! Even the Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s editorial board – not always a bastion of good sense – called the decision to mask in schools a “no brainer.”

But somehow my duly elected school board couldn’t find the courage to enact that advice.

The school directors where I work refused to even explain their reasoning behind denying the precaution.

But BOTH groups promised to abide by any mandates handed down from on high.

It seemed that neither group had the courage to make the decision, themselves. They just passed it on to parents knowing full well that there would be no consistency.

Gather together a large enough group of anyone and it’s doubtful they’ll all agree on anything. And all it takes is one or two people to come to school unmasked to infect everybody there!

Thank goodness for Governor Tom Wolf.

Today he announced a mask mandate at all preK-12 schools, both public and private, and licensed child care centers beginning next Tuesday.

The mandate comes after three weeks of Wolf refusing to take this step.

At first, he said he was going to leave this up to the individual school boards – but they dropped the ball.

Only 36.8% of districts throughout Pennsylvania enacted some form of mass mandate on their own, though they serve 53.25% of students.

That’s 184 districts with some form of mask requirement, 307 optional and 9 unknown.

What a disgrace!

It just goes to show that the great majority of school directors in the Commonwealth are cowards, stupid or both.

If the voters don’t rise up and replace these fools, we will only have ourselves to blame.

They have betrayed the public trust.

They should be hounded from our midst, unfit to even show themselves in society.

To put kids lives at risk because you haven’t the guts to take the responsibility! Or worse, to be so idiotic as to distrust nearly every medical professional, scientist, immunologist or specialist!

As a state, and as a country, we have been given an intelligence test – and our leaders have mostly failed.

I am thankful Governor Wolf acted.

Finally.

Wolf’s emergency powers to sustain a state disaster declaration were curtailed by voters in the May election.

Another failure of voters to turn out and support one of the few people with the courage to protect our children.

However, May’s referendum did not affect the Wolf administration’s ability to implement a masking order or other public-health rules under the state’s disease-control law. The Pennsylvania Department of Health has the authority to issue a statewide mask order for K-12 schools under a state law that empowers the department to take appropriate measures to protect the public from infectious diseases.

To his credit, Wolf tried to work with the legislature to get this done.

He asked the Republican-controlled state House and Senate to come back in session and vote on the matter. But since they prefer politics to safeguarding children they refused.

We are fortunate to have at least one adult in Harrisburg – and he lives in the Governor’s mansion.

However, we can’t get complacent.

This mask mandate is only step one of what needs to be done.

As many other states have done, we need to require all school employees to get the Covid vaccine or provide proof of regular negative COVID tests just to enter educational buildings.

Right now children younger than 12 are not eligible to be vaccinated. We need to require those young people who are eligible to get the vaccine or provide them with an alternative like remote learning. And when the vaccine has been cleared for all children, we need to add it to the long list of other vaccines children already need to get to enter school.

We need an influx of funding to make it possible to keep kids in school and still keep them socially distanced. As it is now, this is nearly impossible – I speak from experience.

The school where I teach has hardly any social distancing, and frankly we can’t have in-person school without more classrooms, more teachers, more space.

We need to bring back cleaning protocols to make sure every classroom is properly disinfected between periods. We need to ensure that school buildings are properly ventilated.

Will this be expensive? Probably, but if we could waste $300 million a day for two decades in Afghanistan that resulted in NOTHING, we can afford to properly fund our schools for once!

But most of all, we have to come to an understanding – the pandemic is not over – and it will not be over until enough of the general population is vaccinated.

Are you frustrated by masks? Are you frustrated we have to keep going back to these safety precautions?

Me, too.

But these precautions can’t go away just because we’re frustrated. People have to understand that the only way they will go away is if everyone does their part.

Going out in public unmasked should bring severe social consequences.

People who recklessly put the lives of others in danger just because they don’t feel like being bothered deserve the cold shoulder.


They should be stigmatized, rebuffed and ostracized.

Let me be clear. I’m not talking about physical violence. I’m talking about social consequences for acting like an Asshole.

We need to grow up.

Actions have consequences.

We need a functioning society.

And communities that can’t even come together to protect their own children are nothing of the sort.

It’s way past time we took action.

Gov. Wolf has put us on the path, but this is not over.

This is just the beginning.


 

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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!

School Leaders Refusing to Mandate Masks Are Responsible for the Coming Storm

I would love for this to be a normal school year.

I would relish the opportunity to teach my classes of middle school students without a mask covering my face and obscuring my voice.  


I would enjoy being able to see the expressions on their faces as I welcomed them to class and got to know them.

 

But I am not stupid.  

I know that doing so would not be worth the cost.

The pandemic is not over – not in Pennsylvania. Covid-19 cases are on the rise in my community and an increasing number of children have gotten sick, been hospitalized or died. 

Forgoing masks would risk more. It’s just not worth it.

Only a month ago child Covid cases numbered in the zeroes or low single-digits each day in my home of Allegheny County, according to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. During the past two weeks there have been as many as 30 to 40 new child cases a day. 


 
Some of these are kids 11 and younger who are not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. Some are  those 12 and older who have not been vaccinated. And a few are break-through cases among vaccinated kids, said Dr. Andrew Nowalk, clinical director of infectious diseases at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. 


 
Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) are recommending everyone in schools – students, staff, visitors, etc. – wear masks whether they’ve been vaccinated or not. 


 
As a school director, why would you take a chance with the children in your care? 


 
There are so many questions I have about this situation that all seem to boil down to variations on that one


 


Dr. Todd Wolynn, CEO of Kids Plus Pediatrics, an independent pediatrics practice with several locations in the region, put it this way: 


 
“We’re here to ask one question to school districts not doing universal masking: Why is your situation safer [without a mask mandate] than what is recommended by the AAP and the CDC?” 


 
Why is it safer to forgo this precaution?  


 
Wearing a mask is not all that hard. We all did it throughout most of the last year and a half. 


Why is it so hard to just continue doing it a little while longer? 


 
I asked a similar question of Bryan Macuga, Assistant Superintendent of Steel Valley School District where I work.  


 


He mentioned at a district wide meeting that the new health and safety plan approved by the school board makes masks optional this year. I asked him why.  


 
He refused to give me an answer. He simply said that’s what’s been decided and would say no more.  


 
Superintendent Ed Wehrer was there at the meeting wearing a mask to – as he put it – “model” that behavior. Wehrer said he was empowered by the school board to mandate masks if it became necessary. He hasn’t done so nor did he find it necessary to answer my question, either. 


 
I can’t imagine it.  
 


If these leaders really think it is better not to mandate masks, why not explain their reasoning. We may agree or disagree with them, but they can’t even show us the courtesy of a straight answer to a fair question. 


 
Whatever their reasoning, most Allegheny County school directors must disagree with it.  


 
The majority of the county’s 43 school districts – 70% – have mandated masks in their schools. It’s heartening to see so many school leaders putting children over politics this way. I just wish I lived and worked in one of their communities.  


 
Only 13 county districts are making masks optional and most of those are clustered on the southeastern border with more rural (and Republican) Westmoreland County. 


 

I don’t understand how ideology makes people risk the lives of their own kids.  


 


Masks and vaccines should not be political.  


 
They should be the purview of science and reason


 
Throughout the rest of the state, the situation seems even worse.  


 
Pennsylvania has 500 school districts. Of 474 that submitted health and safety plans by July, only 59 reported plans to mandate masks for the 2021-22 year. This number is certainly higher now as districts changed their plans based on increases in Covid cases through August. But the situation is still incredibly frustrating. 


 
This week Gov. Tom Wolf called on the legislature to reconvene and pass a motion to mandate masks in Commonwealth schools.  


 
However, Wolf is a Democrat and the legislature is controlled by Republicans so this request was soundly rejected.  


 
It’s unclear whether Wolf will try to do this on his own under his authority as governor especially since voters just limited his ability to do so in a referendum in May.  


 
Politics. Stupid politics while our children are in danger.  


 
Elections have consequences but so do boneheaded decisions by elected leaders.  


 
The choice to make masks optional needlessly puts so much in jeopardy.  


 
Not just healthy and safety but the ability of schools to function well.  


 
One of the major takeaways of the last pandemic year was how ineffective and frustrating remote schooling is. Even under the best of circumstances in-person classes are far superior.  


 


However, refusing to put in place safety precautions like universal masking puts in-person learning at risk.  


 
If Covid infections are high enough, schools must close and go back to remote instruction.  


 
Why would school directors risk that?  


 
If their main concern is academics, why not install the kinds of provisions that at least allow for the best method of instruction?  
 


There seems to be a cynical calculus here – various games of chicken with local government against higher state and federal authorities.  


 
Republicans refuse to legislate safety precautions. Democrats often are too afraid to do so.  


 
The result is our current fractured map of diverse reactions to the same disaster.  


 
In short, it may take a larger disaster to break the political gridlock.  


 
Certainly kids will get sick. Without a doubt they will bring the virus home to parents, friends and family.  


 
But will the net result be bad enough to force – and I do mean FORCE – lockdowns, quarantines and remote schooling? 


 
I don’t know the answer. And neither do anti-maskers, but they are recklessly betting that the consequences won’t be bad enough to force their hand.  


 
Honestly, in a sane society this careless attitude endangering children and families would be enough to bring condemnation and shame.  


 
But in our broken system it will take a true catastrophe of epic proportions. Judging from last year, mask optional districts will do whatever they can to obscure the level of damage their policies are doing and stay the course unless the explosion is so big as to be impossible to hide.

We’re talking kindergarten classes full of Covid patients, tiny tots attached to ventilators, lawsuits and funerals in equal measure.
 


I don’t know if it will come to that, but if it does, we know who to blame.  


 
Any disruptions in education, any illnesses, any long-term effects must be laid at the feet of the decision makers who could have protected us from it but refused to do so. 


 
They have a responsibility that is being ignored.  


 
I can only hope that one day they receive the justice their actions today make them so richly deserve.


 

The following is a list from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette of public school districts in Allegheny County and their position on universal masking for the 2021-22 school year (as of Wednesday, Aug. 25): 


MASKS REQUIRED 


Allegheny Valley (Cheswick and Springdale boroughs; Harmar and Springdale townships) 


Avonworth School District (Ben Avon, Ben Avon Heights, Emsworth, Kilbuck and Ohio Township) 


Bethel Park 


Carlynton (Carnegie, Crafton, Rosslyn Farms) 


Clairton City 


Cornell (Coraopolis, Neville Island) 


East Allegheny (East McKeesport, Wall, Wilmerding, North Versailles) 


Fox Chapel Area (Fox Chapel, Sharpsburg, Aspinwall, O’Hara, Blawnox, Indiana Township) 


Gateway (Monroeville, Pitcairn) 


Hampton 


Keystone-Oaks (Dormont, Castle Shannon, Green Tree) 


Montour (Kennedy Township, Robinson Township, Ingram, Thornburg, Pennsbury Village) 


Moon Area (Crescent, Moon) 


Mt. Lebanon 


North Allegheny — (Marshall, McCandless, Bradford Woods, Franklin Park); masks required as a result of legal action. 


Northgate — (Bellevue, Avalon) 


North Hills (Ross, West View) 


Penn Hills 


Pine-Richland 


Pittsburgh Public Schools (Pittsburgh, Mount Oliver) 


Quaker Valley (Sewickley, Leetsdale, Edgeworth, Glen Osborne, Sewickley Hills, Sewickley Heights, Bell Acres, Haysville, Glenfield, Leet, Aleppo) 


Riverview (Oakmont, Verona) 


Shaler Area (Shaler, Etna, Millvale, Reserve) 


South Fayette 


Sto-Rox (McKees Rocks, Stowe) 


Upper St. Clair 


West Allegheny (Findlay, North Fayette, Oakdale) 


West Mifflin Area (West Mifflin, Whitaker) 


Wilkinsburg 


Woodland Hills (Braddock, Braddock Hills, Chalfant, Churchill, East Pittsburgh, Edgewood, Forest Hills, North Braddock, Rankin, Swissvale, Turtle Creek, Wilkins) 


OPTIONAL 


Baldwin-Whitehall 


Brentwood 


Chartiers Valley — Optional but “strongly recommended”; (Bridgeville, Heidelberg, Collier, Scott) 


Deer Lakes (West Deer, Frazer, East Deer) 


Duquesne City 


Elizabeth Forward 


Highlands (Tarentum, Brackenridge, Fawn, Harrison) 


McKeesport Area (McKeesport, Versailles, South Versailles, Dravosburg, White Oak) 


Plum 


South Allegheny (Port Vue, Liberty, Glassport, Lincoln) 


South Park 


Steel Valley (Homestead, Munhall, West Homestead) 


West Jefferson Hills (Jefferson Hills, West Elizabeth, Pleasant Hills)   

 


 

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McKeesport School Board Makes Masks Optional as Covid Infections Rise Among Children

When I got to the McKeesport School Board meeting last evening, I was relieved to see a vote to follow the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Pennsylvania and Allegheny County Health Department mandates about wearing masks in schools.

“Finally,” I thought. “The board is doing something sensible to keep our kids safe from Covid-19.”

Later I found out this motion didn’t mean what I thought it meant.

The district wasn’t mandating masks to protect kids during a global pandemic. It was vowing to follow any mandates put forth by higher authorities IF such mandates were passed.

In the meantime – in the absence of such mandates – the district passed a health and safety plan where masks would be entirely optional for students and staff.

The motion was approved 6-3, with only Mindy Sturgess, James Brown and Steve Kondrosky voting against it. Joe Lopretto, Diane Elias, Dave Donato, Tom Filotei, Ivan Hampton, and Jim Poston voted in favor.

I spoke to the board before the vote, during the public comment section, asking them to BOTH mandate masks and require eligible students and staff to be vaccinated.

Here are my comments in full:

“Thank you for allowing me to speak today.

Being a school director is a hard job. You give up time with friends and family every month to consider what’s best for the community’s children.

It’s especially hard during Covid-19. Decisions concerning public health should be made by the
President, the Governor and – honestly – scores of people before it gets to you. But during this global pandemic, the big dogs have continually passed the buck on down the line until it was on your desks.

It’s unfair.

You may all be nice people, but you aren’t experts on immunology or public safety. Nor do you have ready access to those experts.

But you are tasked with making decisions that directly impact the health and safety of district students and staff. You have an OBLIGATION to safeguard every child and adult.

So what is the best way to reopen schools this year?

Don’t ask me. I’m not an expert, either.

But I have heard from those experts.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends all schools mandate masking and require vaccinations for all people 12 and older. The US Department of Education recommends the same. As does the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and a host of other organizations in prime positions to know what is best.

You have an obligation to listen to them.

Only 63% of Pennsylvanian adults are vaccinated against Covid-19.

Less than 30% of Americans ages 12 to 15, and only 41% of Americans 16 to 17 are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. And since they are not eligible yet, all children 11 and younger are not vaccinated.

This means our kids are in danger of catching this virus. Every elementary student and many in middle school are completely unvaccinated. And a good percentage of those older.

According to the district’s own Covid Tracker, 132 students and 89 staff were diagnosed with Covid since the pandemic began.

That’s 221 people. Far too many if you ask me – and with the more infectious delta variant, we can’t allow such numbers to continue.

Nearly 94,000 new child Covid cases were reported last week- a substantial increase, according to the AAP and the Children’s Hospital Association (CHA).

That’s not just Texas and Florida. That’s Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, too.

According to KDKA, the number of kids hospitalized with Covid at UPMC Children’s Hospital has nearly doubled in the last week.

That’s 50 hospitalizations in the past month including 20 in the last week.

“The only way to protect these younger children under 12 is for those of us over 12 to get vaccinated and wear masks,” said Dr. John Williams, UPMC Chief of Infectious Diseases.

“The decisions that those who are leading our schools’ policies, I want them to think about masking and distancing together as possibilities for keeping people safe,” said Dr. Graham Snyder, UPMC medical Director of Infection Prevention and Hospital Epidemiology.

Don’t listen to me.

Listen to these people.

Mandate masks in McKeesport Area School District (MASD). It is not difficult. You did it last year. You can do it this year, no problem.

It is absolutely the LEAST you can do.

You should also mandate that all people 12 and older in district buildings be vaccinated and submit proof of vaccination.


If they refuse, you have remote options available.

Please put your politics and pride aside. This is not about which school district is tougher or proving a point about your independence and autonomy.

This is about keeping children safe.

Please do the right thing. Mandate masks and vaccinations at MASD.

When I was done, there was absolutely zero response.

They just went on with the meeting.

Every other person who spoke during public comments got some kind of response. For me – nothing.

I was still under the impression that the board was going to vote in favor of a mask mandate. I thought I had been too hard on them even bringing it up.

Ha!

The issue was finally addressed when the health and safety plan came up for a vote. Board member Sturgess asked Superintendent Dr. Mark Holtzman to address the issues and my comments.

It lead to the following interaction between Holtman and Sturgess before the vote:

Holtzman: “We will continue mitigation strategies, social distancing, managing the way in which children transition into the building, the way they eat lunch, things of that nature. It is recommended in the plan that masks are highly recommended for staff and students but they are optional so it’s the family’s choice, the students choice to wear a mask if they so choose, and if a mandate comes down from the Allegheny County Health Director then obviously we’d have to shift gears at that point. Masks also must be worn on transportation. That is part of a mandate that exists – children riding school transportation must wear masks. Approximately half of Allegheny County Schools at this point are providing optional opportunities for staff and students to wear masks based on the needs of the community. We have not seen the numbers rise in Allegheny County yet above the substantial level. That may change or shift the mandate so at this particular point that’s what’s recommended so we will continue to provide hand sanitizer, one way hallways, forward facing children in the cafeteria, and do everything that we can to continue to socially distance children based on how many children are in the classroom.”

Sturgess: “[Director of Allegheny County Health Department] Dr. [Debra] Bogen did highly recommend masks. If masks are not required and we are not able to maintain social distancing what does a close contact look like? Are we going to be putting a lot more of our students and teachers in isolation without having a backup plan?”

Holtzman: “The CDC’s recommendation is 3 feet right now. We’re able to provide 3 feet between children in our classrooms whether they’re full or not. So that’s helpful. Also if children and staff are vaccinated, they do not have to quarantine. Also if children choose to wear a mask, they don’t have to quarantine. So the rules have shifted and changed a little bit. Because we’ve had the best practice of probably any school district in Pennsylvania. I think we’ll be able to manage. I think we may run into a problem where it does become a big deal, but now Allegheny County Health Department has decided that they are going to manage the contact tracing, and we know how that’s going to turn out. That’s overwhelming for them. At some point they’ve given up on some things.”

“The other thing is when you ask for vaccinations, you don’t have a right to ask for vaccinations so… if you ask for a vaccination and someone is dishonest with you there’s no way to prove that. They have a right to do how they see fit. So even our staff members we don’t have a document that says who’s vaccinated, who’s not, who ignored the round that was available at the AIU, who decided to do it over the summer. So there’s also lots of examples of people vaccinated that become ill anyway. I think we have a number of different equations and a number of different views. Dr. Debra Bogen is outstanding. Allegheny County Health Department is outstanding, and we’re going to continue to talk with them every Thursday in our superintendent group. They’re going to continue to guide us…”

Sturgess: “What was her recommendation last week?”

Holtzman: “Recommending masks. I think from her explanations of it, they don’t know enough. So there’s not enough studies or details but they will admit or say it’s not impacting children the way it impacts adults…”

Sturgess: “She kind of backtracked that a little bit… Something I like about this [health and safety plan] that we did not have last year is the opportunity for that synchronous live instruction for students who choose the virtual option. I know as an educator I’m much more comfortable with having that available to our students when we didn’t have that available last year… K through high school – there’s been some arrangement for that live instruction to occur.”

Holtzman: “I think one of the challenges we face was determining how much of a negative impact is the virus having on our children vs. the fact that they may have gaps in their education for the past two years. On-line experiences have not been very robust or meaningful even when you provide live instruction in synchronous learning… What’s more detrimental, the illness? Is it truly going to reach the level of hospitalizing children regularly and those types of things? Or is this something that can be overcome for a slight couple days? …Not having kids in school for two years – for most districts not McKeesport – has been more detrimental for most children. We were very fortunate that our children who did have the virus were not hospitalized. That doesn’t mean we’re always going to be that lucky but those are some of the things we have to consider.”

So they voted to make masks optional and do absolutely nothing about vaccinations.

In my opinion, it is a big mistake.


They are ignoring the recommendations of medical professionals and immunologists choosing instead to simply pass these recommendations on to parents. It makes every child susceptible to the recklessness of one or two.

It’s the cowards way out of a tough choice – simply pass it on to someone else and make them responsible.

As to requiring vaccinations, Holtzman is obviously wrong. The district already requires students to show proof of a plethora of vaccinations before they can start kindergarten. Measles, mumps, rubella… Covid is just one more.

And there IS a record of Covid vaccinations – the vaccine card you get when you are injected. I have mine, my wife has hers, my daughter has hers.

Holtzman is again taking the cowards way out.

And the worst part is he’s proud of it.

He’s proud of how long the district has stayed open during the pandemic and left it all to chance for district students.

I wonder if this reckless attitude is why a slight majority (5 of 9 members) had to resort to a special meeting last month to renew his contract early. He resigned and a day later was offered a new contract. Many of those voting for the contract are lame ducks who would not have a chance to vote when his current contract was up.

And far from showing any guilt over the matter, the same school directors did the same thing with Assistant Superintendent Dr. Tia Wanzo at this meeting. They accepted her resignation and then immediately rehired her with a new contract. The vote was nearly the same as that for Holzman – Lopretto, Elias, Hampton, Poston and Filotei voted in favor. Kondrosky, Brown, Sturgess and Donato voted against it.

Hampton, Poston and Filotei all will be replaced in January. They either lost re-election during the May primary or decided to step down. Of those voting in favor, only Lopretto and Elias will remain on the board in the new year.

Clearly many on the board are doing whatever they please and not letting issues of morality or legality stop them.

It is a sad statement on the nature of our district.

But even worse, it is the children who may have to pay the highest toll.

Video of the complete meeting:


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PA Gov. Wolf Fires Charter School Appeals Board. Every. Single. Member.

Being Governor of Pennsylvania must be one of the most thankless but important jobs ever.

With a hopelessly gerrymandered legislature, a majority of Republican lawmakers representing a minority of voters stops nearly anything from getting done for the rest of us.

If it weren’t for a Democratic Governor to act as a check and balance on this lunatic fringe, the state would devolve into chaos.

Case in point: the Charter School Appeals Board (CAB).

It took Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, seven years to fire his predecessor’s appointments and nominate replacements to the CAB.

Yet the GOP legislature is crying crocodile tears that he’s exceeding his authority by doing so.

The board is supposed to be a place where charter schools can challenge decisions made by their local school boards.

Charters are schools that are funded by taxpayer dollars but can be privately operated.

They have to ask the local school board for permission to open a new school in their district. Since the new charter would double services already present at the existent public school and require both schools to split existing funding, there is little incentive for school boards to grant these requests.

But charters can bypass local government by going to the CAB. Or at least they could when the board still had sitting members on it.

The CAB consists of the Secretary of Education and six members who are appointed by the Governor and approved by the state senate.

However, closed door negotiations with the Republican controlled senate over who they would even consider approving over the years continually stopped Wolf from putting people forward as official nominees.

After all, why would Republicans work with Wolf? What incentive did they have to do so?

Refusing to work with the Democratic Governor kept the previous Republican Governor’s appointees in place long after their tenure should have expired.

This kept the CAB ideologically right wing so the members could rubber stamp charter schools left and right bypassing the will of duly elected school boards all over the Commonwealth.

Take the most recent approval in March of the Pennsylvania STEAM Academy – a school founded by Carolyn Dumaresq, former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s Education Secretary.

She literally sat on the board and worked with several sitting members of CAB when she was part of the Corbett administration. Now all these years later she appears before CAB for a hearing asking them to overrule the Harrisburg School Board that had originally denied her charter school’s application.

Guess who won?

The CAB unanimously sided with Dumaresq over elected members of the local community.

So Wolf finally gave these privatization zealots their walking papers.

It’s a pattern we’ve become sickeningly familiar with in Pennsylvania.

A problem arises. The GOP legislature does nothing or has no power so the Governor takes action to fix it. Then the GOP throws a hissy fit.

The house was just on fire and you doused the flames! You shouldn’t be allowed a bucket of water!

We saw the same thing with COVID. Wolf closed the state down to stop a global pandemic. And Republicans are still crying “Tyrant” over his use of executive power.

The far right love crying “Wolf” and blaming everything on the Governor, but make no mistake –  gridlock is exactly what they want.

That’s why Wolf’s action on CAB is so clever.

By firing the remaining members of the board, Wolf has functionally erased it from existence.

If the senate wants there to be a charter school appeals board, lawmakers need to vote on his nominees.

Wolf has nominated the following people to the board:

-Jodi Schwartz, a school board member from the Central Bucks School District

-Shanna Danielson, a teacher in the East Pennsboro School District in Cumberland County and former state senate candidate

-Stacey Marten, a teacher in the Hempfield School District in Lancaster County

-Ghadah Makoshi, a business owner and former candidate for Pittsburgh’s school board

-Nathan Barrett, superintendent of the Hanover Area School District in Luzerne County

 
One of the most exciting things about these nominees is how they might interpret the state’s 20-year-old charter school law.

Previous CAB members have refused to let school boards consider the financial impact of opening a new charter school. However, the state constitution requires public schools to provide a quality education to students in their district. Therefore, if opening a new charter school would adversely affect a districts finances, doesn’t the constitutional necessity to provide a quality education take precedence?

Many school privatization critics think it does. Will Wolf’s nominees?

Unfortunately, they have several hurdles to clear before the senate would vote on them and we’d find out.

Senate Republicans are already throwing a tantrum because Wolf placed Pennsylvania in a regional initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

How dare he endanger short term fossil fuel profits just to provide a cleaner environment for our kids and grandkids!

As a result, they’ve vowed to block the Governor’s appointment to a state utility commission. It’s doubtful they’d let CAB nominees through while blocking Wolf’s other appointment.

Moreover, there will doubtless be legal challenges to the Governor’s firing of previous CAB members.  

In the meantime, there are at least nine cases scheduled to be decided by CAB from Souderton, Southeast Delco, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Philadelphia. And that’s not even counting a recent pair of charter schools in Philadelphia where backers said they would appeal the local school board’s decision to deny their request to open.

Republicans may find themselves forced to choose between waiting out protracted legal challenges while their pet charters languish in appeals limbo or swallowing their pride, doing their damn jobs and voting on Wolf’s nominees!



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A New Children’s Fund – Reducing Student Inequality Through Allegheny County Council

Public schools are not funded fairly.

Every child does not receive equitable resources or even close to what they need.

The state and federal government provide some funding, but they leave it up to each neighborhood to take the brunt of the burden.

So the majority of funding comes from local tax revenues – rich communities give their kids more than enough and poor ones struggle to give them enough to even get by.

This means things like class size, access to tutoring and remediation, extracurricular activities, advanced placement courses, field trips, counseling, even access to a school nurse often depends on how rich of a community kids live in.

It’s a backward and barbaric way of supporting children – a kind of economic Darwinism that gives the richest kids the most advantages from the very start while holding back everyone else.

It doesn’t have to be this way, but don’t look to the state or federal government to fix it.

No matter who has been in power in the Oval Office or held majorities in Congress, national lawmakers don’t seem to care much about public schools unless it has to do with standardized testing or school privatization – policies that only make things worse.

In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf has been working his entire tenure to make the system more fair, but the Republican controlled legislature has blocked him at nearly every turn. And given our hopeless gerrymandered legislative districts, this isn’t about to be rectified anytime soon.

So what are we to do? Give up?

No.

In the Pittsburgh area, we have a solution ready at hand to at least reduce the inequality among rich and poor kids. All we have to do is reach into the trash.

Three years ago we had a ballot initiative called The Children’s Fund. It would have created a voluntary 5% property tax hike to pay for early learning, after-school programs and healthy meals for kids. It was defeated by voters.

And for good reason.

The proposal was an absolute mess.

As a local teacher, education activist and blogger, I advised against the plan because it raised taxes without stipulating where the money would go, it was unclear who would have been in charge of the money and other reasons.

But that doesn’t mean there was nothing of value there.

The idea of county tax revenues being used to help balance the scales of public school funding is not a bad one.

We could fix the problems with the original children’s fund and create a new one.

In fact, that’s one of the reasons I’m running for county council. I want to increase our local investment in children and the future.

Here’s how we do it.

The 2018 Children’s Fund would have raised taxes by 0.25 mills of property tax — $25 on each $100,000 of assessed value. This would have generated an estimate $18 million a year and gone to a newly created government office under the supervision of the county manager. There would have been an advisory commission but it was really left under the discretion of the County Executive to figure out how all this would work. He’d get to pick who was in charge of the money and where it went.

This was a terrible idea.

We don’t need a big pot of money that a king gets to dole out as he chooses. Nor do we need to created unnecessary bureaucracy.

All we need is a funding formula. Collect X amount of tax revenues and send it to Y schools according to these guidelines prioritizing Title I schools and other institutions serving needy children.

Moreover, the fund doesn’t even need to include a tax increase. Council should first look to cut wasteful spending already in the budget to generate the money needed.

We already have a $2 billion budget. We spend $100 million of it to keep people locked up in the county jail, and 80 percent of them are nonviolent offenders who haven’t been convicted of anything. Many simply can’t pay cash bail, failed a drug test for something like marijuana or violated our ridiculously long parole period.

Finding $18 million might not be too difficult if we took a hard look at our finances and our priorities. And even if we couldn’t find the full amount, we could propose a lower tax increase. And if we do have to increase revenues, we can look to do so by making corporations and the wealthy pay their fair share before putting more burden on residents.

We should at least explore these options before jumping on another across the board tax increase even if the cause is a good one.

Another problem with the 2018 proposal was that it was too broad. For instance, it suggested some of this money be used to offer meals to children in school. However, much of that need has been met by a program called the Community Eligibility Provision which is available nationwide as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed in 2010.

While food insecurity remains a problem for low income students and their families, I think there are better solutions such as increasing the minimum wage and creating more well-paying union jobs.

We should limit the new children’s fund to increasing pre-K access to needy children, offering funding to school districts to create or fund existent after school tutoring programs, reduce class size and increase teacher salaries at low income schools.

Another problem with the 2018 proposal was that it worked around instead of with local government.

Though almost everyone agreed with the stated goals of the proposal, many organizations and government officials complained that they were not consulted and made a part of the process.

There’s an easy fix for that.

Before enacting any new legislation, County Council should seek input from school districts and pre-K programs. That way, the legislation can be best crafted to meet need.

I care about schools, students and families, but I don’t know everything and neither does County Council or the County Executive. We should be humble enough to listen to what stakeholders tell us they need and then find a way to meet it.

Finally, there’s the question of fraud and mismanagement of funds.

One of the biggest red flags around the 2018 campaign is that it was not grass roots.

Financial documents show that the whole initiative had been funded by various nonprofit organizations that could, themselves, become beneficiaries of this same fund.

We have to make sure that the money is going to help children, not corporate raiders or profit-obsessed philanthrocapitalists.


To ensure this does not happen, we should put some restrictions on how the money can be used.

For example, the federal government is infamous for offering money to schools with strings attached. President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top, for example, was a huge corporate welfare scheme to enrich standardized testing and school privatization corporations. Schools could compete for limited funds by increasing test scores, and then if they won, they’d have to spend that money on test prep or privatization.

We don’t need any of those shenanigans in Allegheny County.

The new Children’s Fund should be barred from use in standardized testing preparation programs, it should not be available to buy new technologies or apps, and it should be used at the K-12 level ONLY at strictly public schools.

County residents cannot afford to bankroll people’s kids to private schools.

This money should not be available at any private schools even if those schools use school vouchers, Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC), Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) programs or other tax scholarship programs that function like school vouchers.

Moreover, county residents shouldn’t be pouring our tax dollars into schools that don’t have the same high fiscal accountability requirements as our fully public schools even if these schools claim to be fully public.

Unlike public institutions, charter schools do not have to be run by elected school boards, do not have to have school board meetings open to the public or even open their budgets to annual public review.

That’s why this new funding should be available at charter schools ONLY if those schools charters are in good standing AND if the charter schools will admit to a yearly public audit of how the money has been spent. Any misappropriation or unaccounted for funding would disqualify the charter school from further funding and prompt an immediate full state audit.

I think if we enacted legislation along those lines, we could really make a difference for the children of our county.

We have to face the facts.

Pennsylvania is one of the worst states in the country when it comes to educational equity for poor and non-white students.

The commonwealth ranks 47th in the nation for the share of K-12 public education funding that comes from the state.

The state ranks 48th nationally in opportunity gaps for high school students of color compared with white students and 47th for Hispanic students, according to a 2018 report from the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Research for Action.

A separate 2016 study found that Pennsylvania has one of the widest gaps between students along racial and socioeconomic divides in the country.

And the list goes on and on.

Only the federal and state government can truly fix the problem long term. But that’s not going to happen anytime soon.

We can sit idly by as our children get left behind or we can stand up and do something about it.

If elected to county council, I will do everything in my power to right this wrong.

Our kids deserve more than governmental dysfunction, class warfare and de facto racism.

Please stand with me to enact a new children’s fund that helps support our kids.

Please help me gain a seat on Allegheny County Council.


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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!

 

Hope During a Pandemic is Both Hard and Inescapable

I cried when I got my second Covid-19 shot.

Not a lot.

Just a few drops.

But the flood of emotions I felt that accompanied that tiny pinch in my arm was totally unexpected.

It was like I gasped for breath and hadn’t realized until then that I was suffocating.

I looked up at the volunteer who had injected me to see if she’d noticed, but it’s hard to read someone’s expression under a mask.

So I found myself shrugging the feeling off, giving her a brisk “Thank you” and heading off to file my paperwork, get another stamp on my vaccination card and plopping in a chair for 15 minutes of observation before heading on my way.

As I sat there, I started to feel this growing sense of excitement in my chest.

Two weeks, I thought.

In two weeks I will be fully vaccinated.

Moderna is 94.1% effective at preventing infection. That means I should be able to return to school and teach my students in-person. Safely.

Some of them have been back in the classroom for weeks now, but I’ve had to stay remote putting up assignments in Google Classroom for the sub to teach.

My pre-existing health conditions make me too susceptible to the virus to take chances with stuffy classrooms and interacting with tens of students for prolonged periods every day.

So instead I spend my daylight hours grading virtual papers and writing digital comments, but I only get to hear student voices on Fridays when all classes are conducted remotely.

Rarely do I get to see a face in one of those austere Zoom boxes.

It’s a lonely life being sidelined this way.

But there seems to be an end in sight.

I can actually plot it on the calendar.

THAT day I can return.

And I wonder, is this hope?

I haven’t really felt anything like it in quite a while.

The world has been such a mess for so long.

A global pandemic that’s infected nearly 29 million Americans and killed 523,000 is bad enough. But it’s the constant bungling of local, state and federal governments response to the virus that has been absolutely demoralizing.

In fact, my second shot was delayed a week because health officials accidentally gave out the dose that had been set aside for me to someone else.

Thankfully waiting an extra 7 days isn’t supposed to have any ill effects. But that’s a week more I have to be out of the classroom and burning my sick days, trying to do 40 hours worth of work in the handful of hours the district allows me.

It’s just that this isn’t an anomaly. All through this process those in charge have dropped the ball.

At every step – bungled, mismanaged, and carelessly misjudged.

The school board refused to value my health and reopened recklessly even putting the community’s own children in danger. The state refused to mandate almost anything to keep people safe, instead offering a truckload of take-it-or-leave-it suggestions.

Hope, I thought. Is it possible to believe in hope anymore?

Barack Obama made it a campaign slogan. Hope and change.

His book was “The Audacity of Hope.”

He wrote:

“Hope is not blind optimism. It’s not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It’s not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it. Hope is the belief that destiny will not be written for us, but by us, by the men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is, who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.”

These words ring so empty today after a presidency full of promises and very little else.

True, much of his domestic agenda was blocked by Republicans. But even when they couldn’t stop him from getting things done, the results were often disappointing. His foreign policy was hawkish full of drone strikes, his immigration policy unduly cruel and his education programs were the fever dreams of Milton Friedman made real – charter schools, high stakes testing and ed tech handouts.

You think Trump was bad!? He was the logical consequence of dashed hopes and neoliberal triumphs. You can’t run, as Obama did, as a once-in-a-lifetime transformational candidate and then legislate to support a status quo that is destroying the majority of Americans.

If you do, you get Trump.

At least now the pendulum has swung back the other way. We’ve got Biden.

Cool, smooth, dependable Biden.

He’s slowly reversing the catastrophes of Trump while quietly committing a few of his own along the way. (Reopening school buildings without mandating the opportunity for teachers to be vaccinated first!? Requiring standardized testing to tell if students have been affected by the pandemic!?)

How does one continue to hope in the wake of such disappointment?

The fabric of our society and our governmental institutions are frayed to the breaking point. They could fall apart any day now.

How does one continue to hope in light of all this?

My phone buzzes. I shake my head to dispel all these gloomy thoughts.

Well! Here’s some good news. Apparently there are no ill effects from the shot. Time to go.

I stand up and look around at the busy vaccination center.

Volunteers continue to welcome patients. They’re much more organized than when I got my first shot only weeks earlier.

Everyone is friendly and there’s even a sparkle in their eyes.

What is that sparkle?

Why does everyone smile?


Why did I cry?

There’s only one possibility.

It’s hope.

Goddamit.

It’s hope.

The teardrop that escaped my eye wasn’t a response to any pain from the injection. It was pain at the possibility that all this would end.

It was the feeling – the certainty – that the pandemic was only temporary and that I would come out the other side. We all would.

Because in the part of our hearts where hope grows, the past doesn’t matter.

What’s happened is always past.

The only thing that counts is the future.

And when you have a future you have to hope.

It’s simply built in. There’s no way around it.

It would be easier not to hope. But the only way to do that is to die, and apparently I’m going to live.

So you pick yourself up, you dust off your knees and you get to the work ahead.

Because no matter how disappointing the past, how demoralizing the events you’ve lived through, there is always the possibility that things will be better tomorrow.

If only you work to make it so.


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For Teachers, “Silence of Our Friends” May be Worst Part of Pandemic

“In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
-Martin Luther King Jr

Teachers want a safe place to work.

But in 2020 that is too much to ask.

As the global COVID-19 pandemic rages out of control throughout most parts of the United States, teachers all across the country want to be able to do their jobs in a way that won’t put themselves or their loved ones in danger.

In most cases that means remote instruction – teaching students via the Internet through video conferencing software like Zoom.

However, numerous leaders and organizations that historically are supportive of teachers have refused to support them here.

The rush to keep classrooms open and thus keep the economy running has overtaken any respect for science, any concern for safety, and any appeal to compassion.

Many Democratic lawmakers, school directors, union leaders and even public school advocates have repeatedly turned away, remained silent or promoted policies that would continue to put educators in danger.

Thankfully, some districts have been accommodating, worrying about the safety of children as well as adults.

But many others have refused to go this route even demanding educators with compromised immune systems and other increased risk factors either get in the classroom and teach or seek some sort of financially burdensome leave.

Affected teachers often wonder where their union is, where their progressive representative, where the grassroots activists who were willing to organize against charter schools and high stakes testing.

Answer: crickets.

As a result, more than 300 U.S. teachers and other school employees have died from the virus, according to the Associated Press.

In New York City, alone, 72 school employees died of the virus, according to the city Department of Education.

And since Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has refused to collect data on how the pandemic is affecting schools and school employees, this count is probably woefully under-representative of the full tragedy.

About 1 in 4 teachers – nearly 1.5 million – have conditions that raise their risk of getting seriously ill from the Coronavirus, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

In my own Western Pennsylvania community in the last few weeks, we buried high school employee Terri Sherwin, 60, of Greater Latrobe School District and elementary school employee Dana Hall, 56, of Jeannette City School District.

The assertion that children cannot get the disease, which was popularized by the Trump administration, has been proven false.

More than 1 million kids nationwide have been diagnosed with COVID-19 according to a report by the American Academy of Pediatrics .

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says most children who get the disease (especially those younger than 10) are asymptomatic or have only mild symptoms but are still capable of transmitting the virus to others. This – along with the lack of a national database – makes it incredibly difficult to accurately trace the source of an outbreak through the schools.

However, in November the CDC quietly removed controversial guidelines from its website promoting in-person learning, and instead lists it as “high risk.”

“As new scientific information has emerged the site has been updated to reflect current knowledge about COVID-19 and schools,” a spokesperson said.

Yet there has been no subsequent change in the policy positions of most lawmakers, school directors, union leaders or education activists.

A prime example of this is New York City’s plan to reopen most schools to in-person learning at the beginning of this month despite rising infection rates and an average of more than 2,000 new cases a day.

The plan has the full support of most teachers unions.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) said the plan “combines the best of what we have learned nationwide during COVID about how to keep staff and students safe and how to instruct young kids.”

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) agreed.

He said:

“We are supportive of a phased reopening of schools in other neighborhoods as long as stringent testing is in place. This strategy – properly implemented – will allow us to offer safe in-person instruction to the maximum number of students until we beat the pandemic.”

The plan is predicated on a bogus statistic that kids aren’t getting sick at school or spreading the virus from there, that only 0.2% can be traced back to school buildings.

But we know that contract tracing is inadequate. We know people are getting sick. Hospitals are filling up. People are dying.

Why aren’t the unions standing up more for their employees here? Why is the request for a safe work environment too much?

Answer: politics.

With President-elect Joe Biden about to announce his pick for Secretary of Education, few union leaders have the courage to go against the party line and disqualify themselves from consideration.

Biden’s plan right now seems to be keeping the schools open with an influx of cash.

Former President of the National Education Association (NEA) Lily Eskelsen García hasn’t said much recently on the issue to my knowledge.

But she was unafraid to contradict President Donald Trump before the election.

She appeared on CNN and challenged Trump to “sit in a class of 39 sixth graders and breathe that air without any preparation for how we’re going to bring our kids back safely.”

In late April, she took to Twitter saying the NEA is “listening to the health experts and educators on how and when to reopen schools — not the whims of Donald Trump, who boasts about trusting his gut to guide him. Bringing thousands of children together in school buildings without proper testing, tracing, and social isolation is dangerous and could cost lives.”

In an interview in May she said:

“The stakes of doing it wrong is that someone dies. It’s not just that someone doesn’t graduate or someone doesn’t learn their times tables — someone could die.”

I wonder what she would say today – and why she hasn’t spoken out as vocally.

In my neighborhood, Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) President Rich Askey has continually asked districts to follow state safety guidelines.

“The health and safety of students, staff, and our families must be our top priority,” Askey said. “We call on all school district leaders to follow the state’s guidelines to protect the health and safety of everyone in our school communities.”

However, state guidelines are pretty weak. They suggest mask wearing and that districts close when community infection rates are high. But districts can choose to keep buildings open if they promise to follow safety guidelines to the best of their ability.

Gov. Tom Wolf originally issued an order for all schools to close and go to remote learning last March. However, state Republicans challenged his authority to do so and their position was upheld in court.

Since then, Wolf has issued tons of guidance but not much else.

I assume Wolf would say he hasn’t done more because his hands are tied.

I assume Askey would say the same.

But such platitudes taste like ashes in your mouth when faced with the everyday reality that almost everyday the state is breaking its previous record for Coronavirus cases. Today we had nearly 13,000 new cases and 149 deaths! Yes, that’s just today!

Will their hands still be tied when daily cases reach 20,000? 50,000? 100,000?

The decision about whether to keep buildings open to in-person classes or go with remote instruction has mostly been left with school directors.

And their decisions have been all over the place.

These are not public health officials.

These are not people used to making life and death decisions.

They’re used to deciding whether to remodel the library, buy books from this or that vendor or declare Friday a holiday because the football team won the state championship.

I don’t mean to diminish what they do.

Some have been going above and beyond every day to ensure the health and safety of students, staff and the community.

But far too many pay lip service to that idea while making sure their local business gets to keep operating with employees who don’t have to sit home with their children.

And these are people from the community. How many times have teachers called them to let them know how their kids were doing in class? How many times have teachers gone with them and their kids on school field trips? How many times have teachers accepted invitations to graduation parties and school board meetings?

We should be on the same team, but too many school directors are far too willing to sacrifice our lives and safety to safeguard their own bank accounts.

When will school directors admit the cost is too high? How many staff have to get sick? 20? 50? 100? How many have to die?

However, as much as the silence and disregard of lawmakers, union leaders and school directors hurts – it is the reaction from many education activists that stings the most.

When our schools are attacked by charter schools and voucher schools, we organize and fight it together.

When high stakes testing unfairly labels our children and is used to defund and loot our budgets, we organize and fight together.

No matter what the issue – the school-to-prison pipeline, Common Core, racist discipline policies, value added teacher evaluations, runaway ed tech – we’ve come together to fight as one.

But suddenly when it’s an issue of teachers vs. the economy, our allies go silent.

They’re afraid remote learning will lead to more ed tech solutions, that it will embolden parents to enroll in charter or voucher schools, that it will hurt student learning. And to be fair there is reason to fear.

However, instead of standing together and fighting these new challenges as they come (as we’ve always done) many of our activist allies have abandoned us.

They champion articles about a non-existent consensus that it’s safe to reopen schools. They champion the work of a discredited economist over epidemiologists and virologists. They side with the same neoliberals and corporate education reformers we used to battle together.

Or they simply remain silent.

That’s the one that really hurts the most.

One day this pandemic will end.

One day – I hope it’s soon – it will be safe to return to the classroom and begin again.

But the wreckage of the virus will pale in comparison to the damage we have done to each other and our relationships.

Coalitions may crumble and fall.

Trust may disappear.

And the way forward – if any will be left – may be much different than it was only a year ago.

No one who refuses to defend your right to life is your true ally.

We won’t forget who spoke up and who remained silent.


 

Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

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!