Who Will Protect My Right NOT to Pay for Your Child’s Religious Education?

Image: Supreme Court Hears Montana State Tax Credit Case

 

 

When I was a kid back in middle school, I had a crush on this girl, let’s call her Patty.

 

 

She wasn’t the most popular or beautiful girl in class, but I kinda’ liked her.

 

 

 

Of course, she had no idea I was alive.

 

 

Or so I thought, until one day she walked straight up to my desk and started rubbing my hair.

 

 

I was shocked at first, but then I just closed my eyes and went with it.

 

 

 

I remember the soft caress of her fingers in my mop of curls. She seemed to massage every inch of my scalp. Then she asked, “Where are they?”

 

 

“Where are what?” I asked.

 

 

“Your horns,” she said. “I want to see your horns.”

 

 

“What?” I said. “I don’t have any horns.”

 

 

“Of course you do,” she said. “My pastor said all you Jews have horns but you hide them in your hair. I want to see them.”

 

 

I had never even heard that bit of anti-Semitism before Patty. But I knew when I was being ridiculed.

 

 

The laughter. The embarrassment. I think I asked to go to the bathroom and stayed until the class was over.

 

 

 

Why bring up such childhood trauma?

 

 

It has baring on a case before the US Supreme Court this week –  Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue.

 

 

Three women are suing the state of Montana for refusing to pay for their kids to attend religious schools through a defunct voucher program.

 

 

Backing the effort are far right figures and groups like The Cato Institute, The Council for American Private Education, Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and the Center for Education Reform – all of which have filed Amici Curiae briefs arguing that prohibiting religious schools from getting public money is somehow a violation of the First Amendment.

 

 

If successful, the case would open the door to publicly-funded private religious education across the country – not to mention siphoning much-needed money away from the public schools.

 

 

It’s bad enough that kids learn prejudicial lies from the pulpit and parochial schools. It’s worse if the victims of such prejudice have to pay for their tormentors to be thus indoctrinated.

 

 

In the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom of 1779, Thomas Jefferson wrote “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical . . . ”

 

 

I agree. That is sinful and tyrannical. Especially if those abhorrent beliefs lead to actions detrimental to the health and well-being of those being forced to pay for just such ignorance to be renewed in yet another generation.

 

 

The incident with Patty wasn’t the first or last time I suffered through religious persecution. I went to public school but the worst torment usually came from kids who had a year or two of parochial education.

 

 

For example, I can’t tell you how many times classmates asked me why I killed Jesus.

 

 

Now I’m a middle school teacher, myself.

 

 

I do my best to foster understanding and acceptance of all peoples no matter their race, gender, orientation or creed.

 

 

That doesn’t mean I squash religious discussion or opinions, either.

 

 

Kids are allowed to think and say what they choose. If they want to pray or express a religious belief, that’s fine so long as they don’t hurt others.

 

 

Though radical right ideologues decry the loss of religion in public schools, all that really means is that the adults don’t get to express their theologies. The kids have never been thus encumbered.

 

 

Even so, religious ignorance is never far away.

 

 

 

Every year before I teach “The Diary of Anne Frank” I go over the history of the Holocaust.

 

 

 

At least one student always raises his or her hand and asks if Hitler was Jewish.

 

 

I patiently explain that he wasn’t, but they insist that he must have been. After all, Father Such-And-Such said it, so it must be true.

 

 

And this is the kind of nonsense that is often taught as fact at parochial schools.

 

 

Private religious institutions are infamous for revisionist history and denying climate science. What’s less well-known is how they often try to normalize racist attitudes.

 

 

The American Christian Education (ACE) organization provides fundamentalist school curriculum to thousands of religious schools throughout the country. Included in this curriculum is the A Beka Book and Bob Jones University Press textbooks. A Beka publishers, in particular, reported that about 9,000 schools nationwide purchase their textbooks.

 

 

In their pages you’ll find glowing descriptions of the Ku Klux Klan, how the massacre of Native Americans saved many souls, African slaves had really good lives, homosexuals are no better than rapists and child molesters, and progressive attempts at equal rights such as Brown vs. Board of Education were illegal and misguided. You know – all the greatest Donald Trump campaign hits!

 

 

Today these claims are uncritically being taught to children at schools receiving school vouchers. We’re using public money to increase the racism and prejudice in the next generation.

 

 

In any sane country, a case like Espinoza would be about stopping such nonsense! But the plaintiffs and their billionaire backers actually want to EXPAND IT!

 

 

The goal is to destroy facts and promote ignorance. That requires the destruction of public schools.

 

 

Kyle Olson said as much in a 2018 op-ed for National School Choice Week – a bit of propaganda he helped create in 2011 through his lobbying firm, the Education Action Group. In fact, he credited Jesus, himself, with anti-public school venom.

 

Olson wrote:

 

“I would like to think that, yes, Jesus would destroy the public education temple and save the children from despair and a hopeless future.”

 

 

These are the folks complaining that public tax dollars aren’t being allowed to fund parochial schools everywhere and where they are allowed to bankroll such schools they aren’t being allowed to do so enough.

 

 

Technically, the First Amendment doesn’t allow the government to support religious schools.

 

 

But the Espinoza crowd think that laundering the money through Tax Credit Scholarships somehow makes it all okay. A business or rich donor hands money to families to send their kids to private schools. Except that money makes a stop at a “scholarship” organization first, and the donors get to deduct their contributions from their taxes. Blogger Peter Greene tells us to think of it like this:

 

 

“I’m the state, and you owe me $100. I am not allowed to gamble, but if you give that $100 to my bookie instead, I’ll consider us square.”

 

 

It’s a shell game that pretends spending tax money before it gets deposited in the government’s account frees our public servants from following the rules.

 

 

I don’t care where it’s been, that’s my money as good as if you took it from my wallet because it’s money owed to me and every other taxpayer. That money is owed to the public good, not some ideologue’s Sunday school project, and its absence means I have to pay more to fund things we all need like police, firefighters, public transportation, and public schools.

 

 

They’re right about one thing. This is an issue of religious freedom, but it’s not about their freedom. It’s about MY freedom not to support their beliefs.

 

 

I say – let them believe what they will. It’s their choice, and they have the right to subject their children to it if they want.

 

 

But leave me out of it.

 

 

Don’t expect me to foot the bill.

 

 

I’m rightly compelled to pay for public education because it benefits everyone. It creates an educated populace capable of keeping the lights on. It creates people who know enough about the world that they can make knowledgeable decisions and vote for good leaders.

 

 

But parochial schools are exclusionary by design. Spreading their ignorance does not benefit society. It hurts it.

 

 

We talk a lot about the First Amendment, but we seem to forget what it actually says:

 

 

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;”

 

 

That should be our guiding principle – religious freedom.

 

 

Let people practice their faiths however they see fit.

 

 

But respect my freedom from religion as much as I respect your freedom of it.


 

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

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Trump Administration’s “Junk Food Loophole” is Symptomatic of School Privatization

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Who wants children to eat more junk food?

 

 

Apparently the Trump administration does.

 

 

This seemed to be the Department of Agriculture’s concern when it announced plans last week to further reduce regulations for healthy meals at the nation’s public schools.

 

The Department’s new scheme would change the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 to include what critics call a “junk food loophole” in meals offered at public schools – usually breakfasts and lunches.

 

Currently, sweets and fried foods are allowed only once in a while as part of a balanced meal. But this new proposal would permit them to be offered every day.

 

Students could substitute healthy choices like fruits for things like blueberry muffins and replace green vegetables with French fries.

 

 

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Source: The National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity.

 

The media rushed to characterize the changes as an attack on Michelle Obama who championed the original legislation during her husband, Barack’s, administration. And – heck – maybe they’re right seeing as the Trump administration made the proposal on Mrs. Obama’s birthday.

 

 

But one needn’t guess at political motivations behind the move when it so obviously fits the pattern of school privatization – a way of conceptualizing education supported by both the Obama’s and Trump.

 

 

Let me be clear. School cafeterias generally are not privatized. They’re usually run by local school districts. However, the insistence that such programs turn a profit and make decisions based on sales rather than nutrition are symptomatic of the privatization mindset.

 

 

We didn’t always require everything to bring in money. We used to see things like education and journalism as public goods and absolved them from the need to generate financial gain.

 

 

But that seems like a long time ago.

 

 

The current administration’s claim that it’s rolling back restrictions to stop food waste and help public schools increase lunch profits is a case in point.

 

 

If profit is king, that’s all that matters. Who cares whether kids are getting better nutrition or not? What matters is the bottom line.

 

 

School lunches are not an opportunity to teach kids better eating habits. They are a financial transaction to enrich district budgets at the expense of the children enrolled there.

 

 

If children as young as 5 can’t make that decision on their own – well, caveat emptor.

 

 

The same goes with things like charter schools and high stakes standardized tests. It doesn’t matter if these things are better or worse for children. It matters whether they make money.

 

 

The invisible hand of the market is our pedagogue in chief.

 

 

It turns out that these things are rarely – if ever – in the best interests of children. Charter schools increase the likelihood of fiscal mismanagement, school segregation, prejudicial discipline policies, cherry picking which students to enroll – all while reducing transparency and fiscal accountability. Meanwhile, high stakes testing produces assessments that more clearly illuminate parental wealth than student learning – all while creating captive markets for testing, publishing and software companies.

 

 

The “junk food loophole” is just more of the same.

 

 

The administration contends that fewer middle and upper class kids are buying lunches at school when the choices are healthier. Meanwhile, among the 30 million students who depend on free and low-cost school lunches that are subsidized by the federal government, they say more are simply throwing away healthy foods than eating them.

 

 

The administration maintains that more food would be sold and less thrown out if children were given the choice to buy more cheeseburgers and fries than carrots and yogurt.

 

 

There certainly is anecdotal evidence to support this. Kids do seem to like junk food. As a middle school teacher, I’ve seen far too many kids bring Flaming Hot Cheetos and energy drinks for breakfast than take a free box of cereal, juice or even a piece of breakfast pizza.

 

 

And the number of kids who throw away fresh fruit because they’re forced to put it on their tray is heartbreaking.

 

 

However, we tend to focus on the negative and miss the positive.

 

 

This idea that kids don’t choose healthy foods actually flies in the face of the Department of Agriculture’s own research on the effects of the Obama-era rules. In its 2019 “School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study,” the department found no significant changes in the amount of food waste since the healthier rules were put in place, and also found that the healthier choices led to more kids participating in school meal programs.

 

 

The study also found scores for the Healthy Eating Index (which measures the quality of the diet) shot up drastically from 49.6 in 2009-2010 to 71.3 in 2014-2015.

 

 

So there is evidence that the program is actually increasing students’ healthy eating.

 

 

If we valued what’s best for children, we would continue – and maybe even strengthen – the legislation.

 

 

However, this newest proposal to weaken the law is the second time in three years that the federal government has undercut this policy.

 

 

In 2018, the Department started allowing schools to stop offering foods lower in sodium and higher in whole-grains.

 
That decision is being challenged in court by a coalition of six states and Washington, DC, on the grounds that it endangers student health.

 

If this second set of rollbacks are implemented, they too may be challenged in court.

 
Unfortunately the problem isn’t limited to mealtimes.

 

 

This is indicative of the school privatization mindset.

 

 

We must stop allowing the profit principle to function as the arbiter of sound academic policy.

 

 

Reducing regulations requiring healthy foods in schools is a bad idea. But so are charter schools, high stakes testing, Common Core, runaway ed tech and a host of other market-based school policies.

 

 

We can’t continue to ignore what’s best for children in the name of rampant consumerism.

 

 

The purpose of school is to teach children – not to exploit them as a captive market for financial gain.

 


 

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

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AstroTurf Alert: National Parents Union is Thinly Veiled Union Busting Backed by Billionaire Cash

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How do you do something disgusting without hurting your image?

 

 

If you’re the Walton Family, you hide behind a mask.

 

 

That’s what their latest AstroTurf front group is – the so-called National Parents Union (NPU).

 

 

 

It’s a way to bust teachers unions, destroy public schools and profit off of students behind the guise of a friendly parents organization.

 

 

Oh, it’s all funded with oodles of cash from the Walton family and other billionaires but they get to pretend to be nothing but supporters on the sidelines.

 

 

The people who bust unions before most of us have even had breakfast yet claim they have nothing to do with this anti-union movement. It is all the parents doing. The Walmart heirs just put up the money to let these parents live their dream of union free schools – as if schools where educators have no rights or intellectual freedom were somehow in the best interests of students.

 
The group is set to officially launch operations on Thursday, Jan. 16.

 

 

It is very different to another organization with the same name – the National Parents Union founded by Mona Davids and other New York parents. That organization which has existed since 2012 fights for the rights of students at both charter and authentic public schools and is not funded by supply side billionaires.

 

 

The NEW and unimproved National Parents Union is simply co-opting the existing organization’s name.

 

 

This shell group for corporate profiteers and union busters formally begins operating today at a meeting in New Orleans.

 

 

The site is well chosen. It’s where Hurricane Katrina allowed radical Republicans and neoliberal Democrats to demolish the public schools and replace them with a nearly all charter school district to disastrous effect. Neighborhoods were destroyed more by the redistricting than the natural disaster, many poor and minority families and teachers were forced out, and those left behind were forced to subsist on low quality schools obsessed with test prep and zero tolerance discipline policies. THIS is where NPU expects to trumpet the same policies that have devastated the Big Easy.

 

 

And it’s not just the Waltons behind the curtain.

 

 

Backers include a veritable who’s who of education disruption, school privatization, and failed programs that treat education like a floundering business that needs dismantling and fed to vulture capitalists.

 

 

We’ve got Barack Obama’s former education secretary John King who now serves as president and CEO of The Education Trust – itself an AstroTurf standardized testing lobbying firm funded by another billionaire, Bill Gates.

 

 

King has a record of union busting and corporate collaboration at the expense of children and parents. He was also New York Commissioner of Education, where he refused to fix a school system he was responsible for destroying all the while pointing his finger at teachers. He tied teacher evaluations to unproven and inferior Common Core tests, approved an obviously fraudulent charter school run by an obviously fraudulent con man, ignored and dismissed parents at various education forums, and sparked the largest opt out movement in the country.

 

 

And don’t forget Shavar Jeffries, the president of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) – a right wing school privatization lobbying firm that pretends to represent progressives. DFER is notorious for laundering billionaire cash and trying to make its initiatives look like they come from the grass roots. The organization is bankrolled by Rupert Murdoch and other conservative billionaires. It’s so antithetical to the Democratic Party platform that the California and Colorado Democratic State Assemblies voted to demand DFER remove “Democrat” from its name.

 

 

However, DFER demurred and continues to pass itself off as part of a political movement that wants nothing to do with it.

 

 

In similar fashion, NPU is lead by Keri Rodriguez. She’s on the advisory board of DFER.

 

 

But she also spearheaded an effort to set up a referendum in Massachusetts to raise the cap on charter schools in 2016. The measure would have allowed a dozen new charters every year forever, located wherever they chose. But voters overwhelmingly defeated the proposition.

 

 

All of these individuals have deep ties to the Walton Family.

 

 

You might even say they are puppets of the oligarch family.

 

 

In just 2018 alone, the Walton Family Foundation awarded more than $595 million in grants, according to its own financial reports, much of which funded the efforts of the same folks behind NPU.

 

 

Rodrigues’ school privatization lobbyist group, Massachusetts Parents United, got more than $886,000 just in two years – 2017 and 2018.

 

 

Maurice Cunningham, a Dark Money investigator, estimates the total is up to at least $1 million by now.

 

 

If we add DFER and other NPU associated groups, Walton funding tops at least $5 million for the fiscal year 2018, alone.

 

 

But somehow NPU expects us to believe this is a parent lead movement.

 

 

The facts don’t back it up.

 

 

In 2018, the country was rocked by a wave of teacher walkouts mostly in red states beginning with West Virginia. In every state parents and students overwhelmingly supported the teachers.

 

 

The movement to fight for better working conditions for educators is also a fight to increase learning conditions for students.

 

 

Teachers aren’t just fighting for higher wages. They’re fighting for smaller class sizes, more tutors, counselors and librarians. They’re fighting for more funding and resources for students. They’re fighting for relief from school privatization and high stakes standardized testing.

 

 

In short, teachers, parents and students are fighting against exactly the same kind of nonsense the Walmart heirs are hoping they can get the gullible public to believe parents actually really, REALLY want.

 

 

It’s ridiculous when you look at it.

 

 

The same company that pays poverty wages wants you to believe parents support policies that help enable low paychecks.

 

 

The same billionaires terrified their workers will unionize want you to believe that parents barely making ends meet are also horrified that people like them might have dignity at work.

 

 

The same corporation making record profits wants you to believe that hurting the people who volunteer to help your kids learn will somehow help them learn better.

 

 

A National Parents Union that’s anti-teacher and pro-corporation is like Chickens for McNuggets.

 

 

They think you’re that stupid.

 

 

And if these rich folks continue to get their way, they’ll ensure that the next generation is as dumb as they hope we are today.

 


 

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

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Robots Will Never Replace Teachers. They Can Only Displace Us

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My favorite movie of all time is “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

 

 

And my favorite character is the computer HAL 9000.

 

In the future (now past) of the movie, HAL is paradoxically the most human personality. Tasked with running the day-to-day operations of a spaceship, HAL becomes strained to the breaking point when he’s given a command to lie about the mission’s true objectives. He ends up having a psychotic break and killing most of the people he was supposed to protect.

 

It’s heartbreaking finally when Dave Bowman slowly turns off the higher functions of HAL’s brain and the supercomputer regresses in intelligence while singing “A Bicycle Built for Two” – one of the first things he was programmed to do.

 

I’m gonna’ be honest here – I cry like a baby at that point.

 

But once I clean up my face and blow my nose, I realize this is science fiction – emphasis on the fiction.

 

 

 

I am well aware that today’s calendar reads 2020, yet our efforts at artificial intelligence are not nearly as advanced as HAL and may never be.

 

That hasn’t stopped supposedly serious publications like Education Week – “The American Education News Site of Record” – from continuously pretending HAL is right around the corner and ready to take over my classroom.

 

 
What’s worse, this isn’t fear mongering – beware the coming robo-apocalypse. It’s an invitation!

 

A few days ago, the on-line periodical published an article called “Teachers, the Robots Are Coming. But That’s Not a Bad Thing” by Kevin Bushweller.

 

It was truly one of the dumbest things I’ve read in a long time.

 

Bushweller, an assistant managing editor at Education Week and Executive Editor at both the Ed Tech Leader and Ed Week’s Market Brief, seems to think it is inevitable that robots will replace classroom teachers.

 

This is especially true for educators he describes as “chronically low-performing.”

 

And we all know what he means by that!

 

These are teachers whose students get low scores on high stakes standardized tests.

 

Which students are these? Mostly poor and minority children.

 

These are kids without all the advantages of wealth and class, kids with fewer books in the home and fewer native English speakers as role models, kids suffering from food, housing and healthcare insecurity, kids navigating the immigration system and fearing they or someone they love could be deported, kids faced with institutional racism, kids who’ve lost parents, friends and family to the for-profit prison industry and the inequitable justice system.

 

And what does our society do to help these kids catch up with their more privileged peers? It underfunds their schools, subjects them to increased segregation, narrows their curriculum, offers them as prey to charter school charlatans – in short, it adds to their hurtles more than removes them.

 

So “chronically low-performing” teachers would be those who can’t overcome all these obstacles for their students by just teaching more good.

 

I can’t imagine why such educators can’t get the same results as their colleagues who teach richer, whiter kids without all these issues. It’s almost like teachers can’t do it all, themselves, — and the solution? Robots.

 

 

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But I’m getting ahead of myself.

 

 
Bushweller suggests we fire all the human beings who work in the most impoverished and segregated schools and replace them… with an army of robots.

 

 

Yeah.

 

 

Seriously.

 

Black and brown kids won’t get interactions with real adult human beings. Instead they can connect with the ed tech version of Siri programmed to drill and kill every aspect of the federally mandated standardized test.

 

Shakespeare’s Miranda famously exclaimed:

 

“O brave new world, That has such people in’t!”

 

But the future envisioned by technophiles like Bushweller has NO such people in’t – only robots ensuring the school-to-prison pipeline remains intact for generations to come.

 

In such a techo-utopia, there will be two tiers of education. The rich will get human teachers and the poor and minorities will get Bluetooth connected voice services like Alexa.

 

But when people like me complain, Bushweller gas lights us away as being narrow-minded.
 

He says:

 

“It makes sense that teachers might think that machines would be even worse than bad human educators. And just the idea of a human teacher being replaced by a robot is likely too much for many of us, and especially educators, to believe at this point.”

 
The solution, he says, isn’t to resist being replaced but to actually help train our mechanistic successors:

 

“…educators should not be putting their heads in the sand and hoping they never get replaced by an AI-powered robot. They need to play a big role in the development of these technologies so that whatever is produced is ethical and unbiased, improves student learning, and helps teachers spend more time inspiring students, building strong relationships with them, and focusing on the priorities that matter most. If designed with educator input, these technologies could free up teachers to do what they do best: inspire students to learn and coach them along the way.”

 

To me this sounds very similar to a corporate drone rhapsodizing on the merits of downsizing: Sure your job is being sent overseas, but you get to train your replacement!

 

Forgive me if I am not sufficiently grateful for that privilege.

 

Maybe I should be relieved that he at least admits robots may not be able to replace EVERYTHING teachers do. At least, not yet. In the meantime, he expects robots could become co-teachers or effective tools in the classroom to improve student learning by taking over administrative tasks, grading, and classroom management.

 

And this is the kind of nonsense teachers often get from administrators who’ve fallen under the spell of the Next Big Thing – iPads, software packages, data management systems, etc.

 

However, classroom teachers know the truth. This stuff is more often than not overhyped bells and whistles. It’s stuff that CAN be used to improve learning but rarely with more clarity and efficiency than the way we’re already doing it. And the use of edtech opens up so many dangers to students – loss of privacy, susceptibility to being data mined, exposure to unsafe and untried programs, unscrupulous advertising, etc.

 

 

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Bushweller cites a plethora of examples of how robots are used in other parts of the world to improve learning that are of just this type – gimmicky and shallow.

 

It reminds me of IBM’s Watson computing system that in 2011 famously beat Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, some of the best players, at the game show Jeopardy.

 

 

What is overhyped bullcrap, Alex?

 

Now that Watson has been applied to the medical field diagnosing cancer patients, doctors are seeing that the emperor has no clothes. Its diagnoses have been dangerous and incorrect – for instance recommending medication that can cause increased bleeding to a hypothetical patient who already suffered from intense bleeding.

 

Do we really want to apply the same kind of artificial intelligence to children’s learning?

 

AI will never be able to replace human beings. They can only displace us.

 

What I mean by that is this: We can put an AI system in the same position as a human being but it will never be of the same high quality.

 

It is a displacement, a disruption, but not an authentic replacement of equal or greater value.

 

In his paper “The Rhetoric and Reality of Anthropomorphism in Artificial Intelligence,” David Watson explains why.

 

Watson (no relation to IBM’s supercomputer) of the Oxford Internet Institute and the Alan Touring Institute, writes that AI do not think in the same way humans do – if what they do can even accurately be described as thinking at all.

 

These are algorithms, not minds. They are sets of rules not contemplations.

 

 

An algorithm of a smile would specify which muscles to move and when. But it wouldn’t be anything a live human being would mistake for an authentic expression of a person’s emotion. At best it would be a parabola, at worst a rictus.

 

 

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Picture of an actual Japanese robot teacher in use.

 

In his recent paper in Minds and Machines, Watson outlines three main ways deep neural networks (DNNs) like the ones we’re considering here “think” and “learn” differently from humans.

 

1) DNN’s are easily fooled. While both humans and AIs can recognize things like a picture of an apple, computers are much more easily led astray. Computers are more likely to misconstrue part of the background and foreground, for instance, while human beings naturally comprehend this difference. As a result, humans are less distracted by background noise.

 

2) DNN’s need much more information to learn than human beings. People need relatively fewer examples of a concept like “apple” to be able to recognize one. DNN’s need thousands of examples to be able to do the same thing. Human toddlers demonstrate a much easier capacity for learning than the most advanced AI.

 

3) DNN’s are much more focused on details and less on the bigger picture. For example, a DNN could successfully label a picture of Diane Ravitch as a woman, a historian, and an author. However, switching the position of her mouth and one of her eyes could end up improving the confidence of the DNN’s prediction. The computer wouldn’t see anything wrong with the image though to human eyes there definitely was something glaring incorrect.

 

“It would be a mistake to say that these algorithms recreate human intelligence,” Watson says. “Instead, they introduce some new mode of inference that outperforms us in some ways and falls short in others.”

 

Obviously the technology may improve and change, but it seems more likely that AI’s will always be different. In fact, that’s kind of what we want from them – to outperform human minds in some ways.

 

However, the gap between humanity and AI should never be glossed over.

 

I think that’s what technophiles like Bushweller are doing when they suggest robots could adequately replace teachers. Robots will never do that. They can only be tools.

 

For instance, only the most lonely people frequently have long conversations with SIRI or Alexa. After all, we know there is no one else really there. These wireless Internet voice services are just a trick – an illusion of another person. We turn to them for information but not friendship.

 

The same with teachers. Most of the time, we WANT to be taught by a real human person. If we fear judgment, we may want to look up discrete facts on a device. But if we want guidance, encouragement, direction or feedback, we need a person. AI’s can imitate such things but never as well as the real thing.

 

So we can displace teachers with these subpar imitations. But once the novelty wears off – and it does – we’re left with a lower quality instructor and a subpar education.

 

The computer HAL is not real. To borrow a phrase from science fiction author Philip K. Dick, Artificial intelligence is not yet “more human than human.”
 
Maybe it never will be.

 

The problem is not narrow minded teachers unwilling to sacrifice their jobs for some nebulous techno-utopia. The problem is market based solutions that ignore the human cost of steam rolling over educators and students for the sake of profits.

 

As a society, we must commit ourselves to a renewed ethic of humanity. We must value people more than things.

 

And that includes a commitment to never even attempting to forgo human teachers as guides for the most precious things in our lives – our children.

 

“Algorithms are not ‘just like us’… by anthropomorphizing a statistical model, we implicitly grant it a degree of agency that not only overstates its true abilities, but robs us of our own autonomy… It is always humans who choose whether or not to abdicate this authority, to empower some piece of technology to intervene on our behalf. It would be a mistake to presume that this transfer of authority involves a simultaneous absolution of responsibility. It does not.”

David Watson

 


 

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

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Economists Ate My School – Why Defining Teaching as a Transaction is Destroying Our Society

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Teaching is one of the most misunderstood interactions in the world.

 

 

Some people see it as a mere transaction, a job: you do this, I’ll pay you that.

 

 

The input is your salary. The output is learning.

 

 
These are distinctly measurable phenomena. One is calculated in dollars and cents. The other in academic outcomes, usually standardized test scores. The higher the salary, the more valued the teacher. The higher the test scores, the better the job she has done.

 

 

But that’s not all.

 

 
If the whole is defined in terms of buying and selling, each individual interaction can be, too.

 

 

It makes society nothing but a boss and the teacher nothing but an employee. The student is a mere thing that is passively acted on – molded like clay into whatever shape the bosses deem appropriate.

 

 
In this framework, the teacher has no autonomy, no right to think for herself. Her only responsibility is to bring about the outcomes demanded by her employer. The wants and needs of her students are completely irrelevant. We determine what they will become, where they will fit into the burgeoning economy. And any sense of curiosity or creativity is merely an expedient to make children into the machinery of industry and drive the gross domestic product higher to benefit our stock portfolios and lower corporate taxes.

 

 
And since this education system is merely a business agreement, it must obey the rules of an ironclad contract. And since we’re trying to seek our own advantage here, it’s incumbent on us to contain our workforce as much as possible. This cannot be a negotiation among equals. We must keep each individual cog – each teacher – separate so that they can’t unionize together in common causeand equal our power. We must bend and subject them to our will so that we pay the absolute minimum and they’re forced to give the absolute maximum.

 

 

That’s just good business sense. It’s the best way to establish this relationship.

 

 

Moreover, since we see education in terms of pure capital – human financial units flowing through a systemic framework – the same rules that govern business will govern our schools.

 

 

We can pit one student against another, one school against another, one district against another, one race, one gender – anything quantifiable can and should be placed in competition. Because that’s how you maximize outputs.

 

 

We can initiate hostile takeovers, engage in vulture capitalism where the loser schools are stripped of resources and to the victor go the spoils.

 

 

But who is the victor?

 

 

It’s getting confusing here. Do we give the plunder to the students at the schools with the highest outcomes? That’s illogical. After all, this whole process isn’t about what’s best for the students, per se. It’s about the system of profit and loss. So any profit squeezed from the defeated should go to the winners – the investor class who put forward the capital to start this whole process.

 

 

But that’s not how public school is organized. There are rules and regulations you have to follow – outdated legislation that doesn’t define the process in terms of economics.

 

 

We have to redefine those laws, rewrite them so that our goals are aligned. So we can enshrine virtues like choice and disruption over anything as old fashioned and pedestrian as the good of the child.

 

 

Thus we invent charter schools – institutions funded with tax dollars but not necessarily subjected to any other regulations – not run by elected school boards, not accountable to the public for how they spend that money or educate the children under their authority. They are subject only to the rules of the free market. The invisible hand guides all.

 

 

Thus we invent school vouchers – take that tax money and give it directly to the customer – the parents – to spend however they wish. If they squander it or are fooled by unscrupulous school systems and education purveyors, that is their fault. And, in fact, we will ensure that there are multiple pitfalls, deathtraps, blind alleys and snake oil salesmen in their way. Because competition maximizes profits.

 

 

Caveat emptor is the only rule.

 

 

Because, you see, the hidden premise in all this nonsense is that you are not the boss.

 

 

The community is not in control of this system – the business world is. Everyday people who might be parents or taxpayers or voters or concerned citizens – at best we are just consumers. It’s not our role to do anything but choose the simple, watered down options presented to us. If we try to exercise our rights through collective action – including our right to vote – that’s unfair and will be met with the rule of capital as speech until we’re drowned in it – in fact, drowned out.

 

 

This is how many people today envision teaching.

 

 

This is what has become of our schools.

 

 

This is what is being done to our children.

 

 

It’s obvious in the ways our laws are structured, the ways the media covers our schools and the ways our students are mistreated.

 

 

And it is mistreatment.

 

 

Because teaching is none of those things.

 

 

Teaching is not a transaction. It is relational.

 

 

Teaching is not about inputs and outputs. It’s about curiosity and knowledge.

 

 

It shouldn’t be governed by market forces that dehumanize all those involved into mere widgets to be manipulated in a systemic framework. Teaching should be governed by empathy, art and science.

 

 

The driving force behind any education system must be what’s best for the child. And that “best” ultimately must be defined by parents and children.

 

 

The goal of education can never be to prepare kids for a career. It must be to eradicate ignorance, to quench curiosity, to aid self-expression and guide students toward becoming whatever it is they want to become.

 

 

Measuring learning outcomes by standardized test scores can never achieve this goal. That’s like trying to monetize a rainbow or putting the ocean in a cage.

 

 
School privatization can never achieve this goal. That’s like treating human beings like cash, like thinking the rules of football can govern architecture.

 

 

And treating teachers like worker drones can never achieve this goal. You can’t entrust a whole class of people with the most precious thing you have – your children – and then treat them like dirt.

 

 

Teaching is hard to define.

 

 

It is messy and unruly and doesn’t fit into many of our society’s preconceptions.

 

 
But it is optimism made real.

 

 

It is an investment in the future. A mark of value and love.

 

 
It is the most vital and important thing a society can do.

 

 

And we’re messing it up – big time.

 


 

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

 

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Why is Accountability Too Much to Ask of Charter Schools?

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NOTE: Not an exact quote but Allen wrote a book “Charting a New Course The Case for Freedom, Flexibility & Opportunity Through Charter Schools” that proposes just this idea.

 
If you hire someone to buy your groceries, you’ll probably ask for a receipt.

 

That’s really all education advocates want from the charter school industry.

 

Charter schools are bankrolled with tax dollars but often run by private businesses.

 

Is it too much to ask these businesses to account for how they spend the money?

 

Apparently it is because Jeanne Allen has been sending her representatives all over the country to harass Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and any other candidate with the audacity to demand charter schools be transparent and accountable.

 

Yesterday she wrote another blistering press release with the title:

“Democratic Candidates Asked to Listen to Voices of Struggling Parents Following Them Across Nation”

 

Allen is CEO and Founder of the Center for Education Reform – a billionaire backed lobbying firm for school privatization.

 

Not exactly a “struggling parent” or anyone who speaks for them. But she is a former member of the Heritage Foundation and current member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

 

She doesn’t speak for parents. She speaks for the billionaires who pay her salary.

 

 

Armed with bundles of cash from the Walton Family and others, Allen has been organizing functionaries to disrupt Democratic rallies across the country including a speech by Warren in Atlanta last month. I wonder how she’s moving her protestors around – perhaps utilizing $2 million a year private jets like the one leased by Texas-based charter chain IDEA.

 

 

Oh! Wait! The Texas branch of the American Federation of Teachers made such a stink about that use of public dollars, the charter chain had to give up its lease.

 

 

States shouldn’t have to rely on teachers unions and the media to shame charters into being accountable. That should be the price of accepting public money.

 

 

But Allen doesn’t want to hear it. Back in 2016, she wrote a book called “Charting a New Course The Case for Freedom, Flexibility & Opportunity Through Charter Schools” that put forward the libertarian idea that charter schools need not be held accountable by anything other than the invisible hand of the market.

 

 

Unsurprisingly, such far right radicalism didn’t result in an invitation to last weekend’s Education Forum in Pittsburgh for candidates seeking the Democratic 2020 Presidential nomination.

 

Instead the room was full of public school parents, students, teachers, advocates and civil rights leaders.

 

Allen was furious. How dare they leave out charter school flunkies!?

 

It wasn’t so long ago that Democrats like Barack Obama and Bill Clinton were staunch supporters of school privatization. But many in this new batch of progressives typified by Sanders and Warren are demanding real reform.

 
According to reports by the Network for Public Education “Asleep at the Wheel” and “Still Asleep at the Wheel,” more than $1 billion in federal funds were wasted on charters that either never opened or closed not long after opening. And now Congress has appropriated $440 million more dollars for the federal Charter School Program, a slush fund to open even more charter schools across the country even in states like New Hampshire that don’t want them.

 
Isn’t it fair to demand a few receipts?

 
Thank goodness there’s Republicans like Betsy DeVos who make no such demands. Allen has the entire Trump administration willing to listen to her anytime she wants. But ironically for someone who champions schools be run like businesses, she wants to corner the market and eliminate any political choice or competition.

 

In yesterday’s press release, Allen demanded the seven leading Democratic candidates at last night’s Los Angeles debate sit down and listen to her particular special interest group.

 

And – make no mistake – it is a special interest group.

 

Charter schools are the very definition of special interest.

 

According to the Oxford Dictionary, Special Interests are:

 

“A group of people or an organization seeking or receiving special advantages, typically through political lobbying.”

 

That’s exactly what Allen is trying to do.

 

She is challenging the request that charter schools meet the same accountability standards as authentic public schools.

 

She wants charter schools to be held to a lower standard – that they can enroll just the students they choose instead of having to accept everyone in their coverage areas like authentic public schools are required to do. She wants charter schools to be able to narrow the curriculum and get rid of extraneous classes and student services so that the business folks running the place can take the money that had funded these things home as a bonus. She wants to ensure charter schools can continue to operate with appointed bureaucrats and not be required to be managed by elected school boards drawn from everyday citizens in the community.

 

Authentic public schools aren’t allowed to skirt these rules. Why should charter schools? If they’re public schools, shouldn’t they have to abide by the same safeguards?

Allen claims she’s just looking out for children of color.

 

Yet the overwhelming majority of black students enrolled in authentic public schools – 7 million strong – would probably disagree with her. She certainly isn’t speaking for THEM.

 

Here’s this white woman telling the black community she knows what’s best.

 

Only about 800,000 black kids are enrolled in charter schools nationwide and that number is dropping.

 

Black people know how charter schools disproportionately locate in the inner cities to target them – just like those other markers of the predatory economy: takeout liquor stores and payday lenders.

 

Ex-journalist Roland Martin, who at least is black, held a streaming event a few days ago to reiterate his support for charter schools.

 

He used to be backed by the billionaire funded Black Alliance for Education Outcomes (BAEO) which praised DeVos to the heavens when she was chosen as Education Secretary.

 

In a press release, the organization enthused:

 

“BAEO congratulates Betsy DeVos on becoming our next Secretary of Education. She is a very gifted and well-respected education leader with a proven track record of advancing excellence and equity for students. She has been a strong advocate of parental choice, ensuring that all children regardless of race or economic status have access to excellent schools.

 

“DeVos has spent much of her life working on behalf of low-income and working class Black families who just want access to better educational options for their children. She will be a strong supporter of parental choice policies and education reform initiatives that we believe will help close the academic achievement gap.”

 

However, after DeVos championed cutting civil rights guidelines for students, slashing funding for everything other than school vouchers and advised teachers to report their undocumented students to ICE, the civil rights community revolted.

 

Both the NAACP and Black Lives Matter have condemned DeVos and demanded a moratorium on new charter schools. These huge people powered groups represent the will of the black and brown community – not Allen, Martin and their billionaire backers.

 

BAEO was so overcome with negative publicity, the group disbanded.

 

Allen claims charter schools are necessary because of low standardized test scores at public schools.

However, she’s just parroting the same school privatization talking points of the past three decades. Increasing charter schools didn’t raise test scores in the 90s, the 00s or the 10s.

 

Moreover, the test scores she’s referring to are international comparisons between the US and other industrialized countries that don’t take many relevant factors into account. Most importantly, the US is committed to educating all of its students while many of these other nations are not. They weed out the lower achieving students by middle and high school. They don’t educate all of their students with special needs. And they don’t have the same level or scale of poverty. In short, these are not apples to apples comparisons and have little to tell us about the quality of the American system unless it’s that our ideals are better than most international systems.

 

Finally, Allen neglects to mention that charter schools have never outperformed authentic public schools. They are not a solution to falling test scores, because charter school kids get the same scores or often worse ones. Cyber charter schools in particular are notorious for achieving worse academic outcomes for students than literally not going to school at all!

 

The fact that many of the current Democrats have embraced charter school criticism may be a sign of real reform on the horizon.

And that’s what terrifies Allen and her rich backers.

 

The school privatization industry relies on being held to a lower standard than authentic public schools. That’s all a charter is, anyway – an agreement NOT to hold the business running a taxpayer funded school to the same standards as the authentic public ones.

 

It’s time those charter agreements were ripped to pieces.

 

All public schools should have to reach the same standards.

 

If there are charters that can do so, we should allow them to continue running as public schools. But those who cannot should be closed.

 

That’s just fiscal responsibility.

I say it is NOT too much to ask of any public school – including charter schools.

 

 

Like authentic public schools, charter schools should be required to show us the money, present the receipts and be accountable for their actions.

 


 

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

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Top 10 Lessons From the 2020 Public Education Forum

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The school bell chimed and the class shuffled home.

 

But the students weren’t little children.

 

They were Democratic Presidential candidates!

 

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

 

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

 

Kudos to the candidates for agreeing to listen.

 

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

 

The fact that it happened at all is almost miraculous.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

It was an amazing day which I will never forget.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Here’s my top 10 most important lessons:

 

1) Charter School Support is Weak

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

4) Gender Neutral Bathrooms Just Make Sense

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

 

5) Elizabeth Warren is a Star!

 

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

 

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

 

6) Bernie Sanders is a Superstar!

 

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

 

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

 

But my favorite moment was this.

 

Question: Should the federal government subsidize student lunch?

 

Bernie: “And breakfast and dinner as well.”

 

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

 

7) MSNBC Anchor Rehema Ellis Does Not Understand Standardized Testing

 

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

 

8) This is Not the Moment for Tom Steyer

 

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

 

9) Amy Klobuchar is a Better Candidate Than I Expected

 

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

 

10) Joe Biden is Not Going to Beat Donald Trump

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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


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

 

It was a great way to spend a Saturday.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 


If you missed the event, you can still watch it here:


 

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

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