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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 
It’s bad policy and bad politics.

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

School privatization is a political loser.

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 


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


 

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

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The Stink of Segregation Needs to End in Steel Valley Schools

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I am a teacher at Steel Valley Schools.

 

I am also an education blogger.

 

In order to belong to both worlds, I’ve had to abide by one ironclad rule that I’m about to break:

 

Never write about my home district.

 

Oh, I write about issues affecting my district. I write about charter schools, standardized testing, child poverty, etc. But I rarely mention how these things directly impact my school, my classroom, or my students.

 

I change the names to protect the innocent or gloss over the specifics with ambiguity.

 

In six years, it’s a maxim I’ve disregarded maybe once before – when writing specifically about how charter schools are gobbling up Steel Valley.

 

Today I’ll set it aside once more – specifically to talk about the insidious school segregation at work in Steel Valley elementary schools.

 
But let me be clear about one thing – I do this not because I want to needlessly agitate school board members, administrators or community members.

 

I do it because the district has specifically asked for input from stakeholders – and for the first time in years, teachers (even those living outside district boundaries) have been included in that designation.

 

School directors held a town hall meeting in October where 246 people crowded into the high school auditorium to present their views.

 

Last week there was a meeting with teachers and administrators to discuss the same matter.

 

I didn’t say anything at either gathering though I had many thoughts circling my head.

 

Instead I have decided to commit them here to my blog.

 

Maybe no one will read them.

 

Maybe that would even be best. I know that no matter what invitations are publicly presented, in private what I write could be used against me.

 

Yet I feel compelled to say it anyway.

 

So here goes.

 

Something stinks in Steel Valley School District.

 

It’s not the smell of excrement or body odor.

 

It’s a metaphysical stink like crime or poverty.

 

But it’s neither of those.

 

It’s school segregation.

 

To put it bluntly, we have two elementary schools – one mostly for white kids and one mostly for black kids.

 

Our district is located on a steep hill with Barrett Elementary at the bottom and the other schools – Park Elementary, the middle and high school – at the top.

 

The student population at Barrett Elementary in Homestead is 78% black. The student population at Park Elementary in Munhall is 84% white.

 

These schools serve students from K-4th grade. By 5th grade they are integrated once again when they all come to the middle school and then the high school. There the mix is about 40% black to 60% white.

 

But having each group start their education in distinctly segregated fashion has long lasting effects.

 

By and large, black students don’t do as well academically as white students. This is due partially to how we assess academic achievement – through flawed and biased standardized tests. But even if we look solely at classroom grades and graduation rates, black kids don’t do as well as the white ones.

 

Maybe it has something to do with the differences in services we provide at each elementary school. Maybe it has to do with the resources we allocate to each school. Maybe it has something to do with how modern each building is, how new the textbooks, the prevalence of extracurricular activities, tutoring and support each school provides.

 

But it also has to do with the communities these kids come from and the needs they bring with them to school. It has something to do with the increasing need for special education services especially for children growing up in poverty. It has something to do with the need for structure lacking in home environments, the need for safety, for counseling, for proper nutrition and medical services.

 

No one group has a monopoly on need. But one group has greater numbers in need and deeper hurts that require healing. And that group is the poor.

 

According to 2017 Census data, around 27% of our Steel Valley children live in poverty – much more than the Allegheny County average of 17% or the Pennsylvania average of 18%.

 

And of those poor children, many more are children of color.

 

Integrating our schools, alone, won’t solve this problem.

 

Putting children under one roof is an important step, but we have to ensure they get what they need under that roof. Money and resources that flow to white schools can almost as easily be diverted to white classes in the same building. Equity and need must be addressed together.

 

However, we must recognize that one of those things our children need is each other.

 

Integration isn’t good just because it raises test scores. It’s good because it teaches our children from an early age what the world really looks like. It teaches them that we’re all human. It teaches tolerance, acceptance and love of all people – and that’s a lesson the white kids need perhaps more than the black kids need help with academics.

 

I say this from experience.

 

I grew up in nearby McKeesport – a district very similar to Steel Valley economically, racially and culturally.

 

I am the product of integrated schools and have benefited greatly from that experience. My daughter goes to McKeesport and likewise benefits from growing up in that inclusive environment.

 

I could have enrolled her elsewhere. But I didn’t because I value integration.

 

So when Mary Niederberger wrote her bombshell article in Public Source about the segregated Steel Valley elementary schools, I was embarrassed like everyone else.

 

But I wasn’t shocked.

 
To be frank, none of us were shocked.

 

We all knew about the segregation problem at the elementaries. Anyone who had been to them and can see knew about it.

 

In fact, to the district’s credit, Steel Valley had already tried a partial remedy. The elementaries used to house K-5th grade. We moved the 5th grade students from each elementary up to the middle school thereby at least reducing the years in which our students were segregated.

 

The result was state penalty.

 

Moving Barrett kids who got low test scores up to the middle school – which had some of the best test scores in the district – tipped the scales. The state penalized both Barrett and the middle school for low test scores and required that students in each school be allowed to take their per pupil funding as a tax voucher and use it toward tuition at a private or parochial schoolas if there was any evidence doing so would help them academically.

 

Not exactly an encouragement to increase the program.

 

But school segregation has a certain smell that’s hard to ignore.

 

If you’ll allow me a brief diversion, it reminds me of a historical analogue of which you’ve probably never heard – the Great Stink of 1858.

 

Let me take you back to London, England, in Victorian times.

 

The British had been using the Thames River to wash away their garbage and sewage for centuries, but the river being a tidal body wasn’t able to keep up with the mess.

 

Moreover, getting your drinking water from the same place you use to wash away your sewage isn’t exactly a healthy way to live.

 

But people ignored it and went on with their lives as they always did (if they didn’t die of periodic cholera outbreaks) until 1858.

 

That year was a particularly dry and hot one and the Thames nearly evaporated into a dung-colored slime.

 

It stunk.

 

People from miles away could smell it.

 

There’s a funny story of Queen Victoria traveling by barge down the river with a bouquet of flowers shoved in her face so she could breathe. Charles Dickens and others made humorous remarks.

 

But the politicians of the time refused to do anything to fix the problem. They sprayed lime on the curtains. They even sprayed it onto the fecal water – all to no avail.

 

Finally, when they had exhausted every other option, they did what needed to be done. They spent 4.2 million pounds to build a more than 1,000 mile modern sewage system under London.

 

It took two decades but they did it right and almost immediately the cholera outbreaks stopped.

 

They calculated how big a sewage system would have to be constructed for the contemporary population and then made it twice as big. And the result is still working today!

 

Scientists estimate if they hadn’t doubled the size it would have given out by the 1950s.

 

This seems to be an especially important bit of history – even for Americans more than a continent and a century distant.

 

It seems to me an apt metaphor for what we’re experiencing here in Steel Valley.

 

Everyone knows what’s causing the stink in our district – school segregation.

 

Likewise, we know what needs to be done to fix it.

 

We need a new elementary complex for all students K-4. (I’d actually like to see 5th grade there, too.) And we need busing to get these kids to school regardless of where they live.

 

The excuse for having two segregated elementary schools has typically been our segregated communities and lack of adequate public transportation.

 

We’re just a school district. We can’t fix the complex web of economic, social and racial issues behind where people live (though these are matters our local, state and federal governments can and should address). However, we can take steps to minimize their impact at least so far as education is concerned.

 

But this requires busing – something leaders decades ago decided against in favor of additional funding in the classroom.

 

In short, our kids have always walked to school. Kids at the bottom of the hill in Homestead and West Homestead walk to Barrett. Kids at the top in Munhall walk to Park. But we never required elementary kids to traverse that hill up to the middle and high school until they were at least 10 years old.

 

We didn’t think it fair to ask young kids to walk all the way up the hill. Neighborhood schools reduced the distance – but kept the races mostly separate.

 

We need busing to remove this excuse.

 

I’ve heard many people deny both propositions. They say we can jury rig a solution where certain grades go to certain schools that already exist just not on a segregated basis. Maybe K-2 could go to Park and 3-4 could go to Barrett.

 

It wouldn’t work. The existent buildings will not accommodate all the children we have. Frankly, the facilities at Barrett just aren’t up to standard. Even Park has seen better days.

 

We could renovate and build new wings onto existing schools, but it just makes more sense to build a new school.

 

After all, we want a solution that will last for years to come. We don’t want a Band-Aid that only lasts for a few years.

 

Some complain that this is impossible – that there just isn’t enough money to get this done.

 

And I do sympathize with this position. After all, as Superintendent Ed Wehrer said, the district is still paying off construction of the high school, which was built in the 1970s.

 

But solutions do exist – even for financial problems.

 

My home district of McKeesport is very similar to Steel Valley and in the last decade has built a new 6th grade wing to Founders Hall Middle School and Twin Rivers, a new K-4 school on the old Cornell site.

 

I’m sure McKeesport administrators and school board members along with those at other neighboring districts could provide Steel Valley with the expertise we need to get this done. I’m sure we could find the political will to help us get this done.

 

And that’s really my point: our problem is less about what needs to happen than how to do it.

 

We should at least try to do this right!

 

We can’t just give up before we’ve even begun.

 

Debates can and should be had about where to build the new school, how extensive to have the busing and other details. But the main plan is obvious.

 

I truly believe this is doable.

 

I believe we can integrate Steel Valley elementary schools. And I believe we can – and MUST – do so without any staff furloughs.

 

We’re already running our classes with a skeleton crew. We can ensure the help and participation of teachers by making them this promise.

 

That’s what true leaders would do.

 

Sure, some fools will complain about sending their little white kids to class with black kids. We heard similar comments at the town hall meeting. But – frankly – who cares what people like that think? The best thing we could do for their children would be to integrate the schools so that parental prejudices come smack into conflict with the realities of life.

 

 

And if doing so makes them pull out of Steel Valley, good riddance. You never need to justify doing the right thing.

 

 
Again this will not solve all of our problems. We will still need to work to meet all student needs in their buildings. We will have to continue to fight the charter school parasites sucking at our district tax revenues.

 

But this is the right thing to do.

 

It is the only way to clear the air and remove the stink of decades of segregation.

 

 
So let’s do it.

 

 
Let’s join together and get it done.

 

Who’s with me?

 

 


 

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

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School Accountability Begins With the People Who Make the Rules: A Code of Conduct for Politicians and Test Makers

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Standardized testing is all about accountability.
 

We’ve got to keep schools accountable for teaching.
 

We’ve got to keep students accountable for learning.

 
It’s kind of a crazy idea when you stop to think about it – as if teachers wouldn’t teach and students wouldn’t learn unless someone was standing over them with a big stick. As if adults got into teaching because they didn’t want to educate kids or children went to school because they had no natural curiosity at all.
 

So we’ve got to threaten them into getting in linestudents, teachers: march!

 
But that’s not even the strangest part. It’s this idea that that is where accountability stops.

 
No one has to keep the state or federal government accountable for providing the proper resources.

 
No one has to keep the testing companies accountable for creating fair and accurate assessments.

 
It’s just teachers and students.
 

So I thought I’d fix that with a “Code of Conduct for Politicians and Test Makers.”

 
After all, that’s what we do when we want to ensure someone is being responsible – we remind them of their responsibilities.
 

You see, the state and federal government are very concerned about cheating.

 
Not the kind of cheating where the super rich pay off lawmakers to rig an accountability system against the poor and minorities. No. Just the kind of cheating where teachers or students try to untie their hands from behind their backs.

 
They’re very concerned about THAT.

 
When you threaten to take away a school’s funding and fire teachers based on test scores, you tend to create an environment that encourages rampant fraud and abuse.

 
So the government requires its public servants to take on-line courses in the ethics of giving standardized tests. We have to sit through canned demonstrations of what we’re allowed to do and what we aren’t allowed to do. And when it’s all over, we have to take a test certifying that we understand.
 

Then after we proctor an exam, we have to sign a statement swearing that we’re abiding by these rules to ensure “test security.”
 

This year, for the first time, I’m supposed to put my initials on the answer sheets of all of my students’ Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests to prove….  I don’t know. That I was there and if anything went wrong, it’s my fault. Burn the witch. That sort of thing.

 
Even our students have to demonstrate that they’re abiding by the rules. Children as young as five have to mark a bubble on their test signifying that they’ve read and understood the Code of Conduct for Test Takers.
 

I still don’t understand how that’s Constitutional.

 
Forcing children to sign a legal document without representation or even without their parents or guardians present – it sure looks like a violation of their civil rights.
 

But that’s what accountability looks like when you only require certain people to be accountable.

 
So back to my crazy idea.
 

Perhaps the corporate flunkies actually designing and profiting off these tests should be held accountable, too. So should lawmakers requiring all this junk.
 

Maybe they should have to sign a “Code of Conduct for Politicians and Test Makers” modeled after the one the rest of us peons have to use to sign our lives away.
 

Here’s how it might look:

 

CODE OF CONDUCT FOR POLITICIANS AND TEST MAKERS:

 

Do…

 

 

-Listen to the complaints, concerns and criticisms of parents, teachers and students about the questions and assessments you’re creating.

 
Ask advice from education researchers and all stakeholders to ensure the questions you’re designing are backed up by psychological, neurological, sociological and all associated research on child development.

 
-Read each question you create carefully to ensure it is not simply multiple choice and instead assesses deeper understanding of concepts and skills. Also be sure that all open ended items and writing prompts allow for a multitude of answers and don’t simply ask the test taker to guess what the test maker is thinking.

-Be careful when writing your questions to make sure you have NOT left misspellings or grammatical mistakes in place that would unnecessarily increase confusion for test takers and thereby invalidate the results.

 
Check and double check to make sure you have created a fair and accurate assessment before giving it to students to evaluate their learning.

 
-Report any suspected cheating to a certified watchdog group and the media if you find any evidence or have any suspicion that anyone has created test items purely to enrich the corporation you work for or the privatization-testing-prison industrial complex.

 
-If you’re a lawmaker who’s voted for annual testing, take the assessment annually yourself to prove that it is an adequate test of basic student knowledge of which as a duly elected representative you should clearly pass. Publish your score prominently in the media to prove the test’s efficacy.
 

DO NOT…

 

 

-Have notes in your possession from special interests such as (but not limited to) the testing corporations, the publishing industry and/or the ed tech industry before, during or after voting for legislation that promotes the very same standardized testing and testing remediation on which these industries profit.
 

-Have any (approved or otherwise) electronic devises that tabulate previous test questions and prescribe reusing those that have resulted in answer curves consistent with previous tests thereby continuing the trend of selecting against students of color, the poor and other groups and/or subgroups.

 
-Share inside information about the test or previous test questions with anyone that you do not also make freely available to the public. It is not your job to create a remediation market and/or cash in on the testing apparatus you are creating.
 

-Dissuade students from talking with others about  questions after the test. They are human beings with rights. It is perfectly natural for them to talk and harmless for them to do so after a testing session is over.

 

 
-Take notes on individuals criticizing or opting out of testing with the purpose of punishing them for their dissent. This is a democratic process and you will welcome discussion, criticism and dissent.
 
-Use the bubbles in the answer booklet for anything at all. In fact, throw them away. It’s 2019. Surely we can find a better way to assess children than multiple choice questions answered by filling in bubbles on a sheet of paper with a number 2 pencil!

 
Conduct an online testing session unless you are 100% positive that the information input by the students and collected about the students is secure, will be secure and cannot be shared with advertisers, corporations or any other entity, and only with a certainty that this data will not be put in any database in a manner that could identify individual test takers or otherwise violate privacy laws.
 
-In fact, you know what? Don’t use standardized tests at all to assess student learning – especially not connected to high stakes. Instead rely on classroom grades and teacher observations for student assessment. Use indexes and audits of school resources to determine whether they are doing their best to teach students and whether lawmakers have done enough to ensure they are receiving fair and equitable resources.
 

 

What do you think? Would any of them sign off on this?

 


 

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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What Will It Take to Get Equitable School Funding in Pennsylvania – a Statewide Teachers Strike!?

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What if every public school teacher in Pennsylvania refused to come to work on Monday?

What if instead they took to the streets with signs and placards, bullhorns and chanted slogans.

Maybe:

“Hey! HEY! Ho! HO! This Unfair Funding Has to Go!”
Or:

“What do we want!? FAIR FUNDING! When do we want it? YESTERDAY!”

The problem is that from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and all places in between, the Keystone state has the most unequal school funding system in the country. And no one in Harrisburg seems able and/or willing to do a damn thing about it.

Nor is anyone going to do much again this year.

Gov. Tom Wolf didn’t mention it once last week during the Democrat’s first budget speech to the legislature after being re-elected.

Don’t get me wrong. He’s not exactly ignoring the issue. His newly proposed budget asks for a $200 million increase in education funding.

But that’s far from what’s needed to heal the billions of dollars schools lost during the massive budget cuts of Tom Corbett, the former Republican governor, nor does it address the underlying inequity of how we fund these schools in the first place.

Sadly, failing to fix education funding gaps is par for the course in Harrisburg.

Every year Democrats complain about the problem, suggest repairing it, and then are denied everything but an incremental increase by the Republican-controlled legislature.

Every year, that is, until this one.

This is the first time Democrats have seemingly given up on solving the problem and just proposed the incremental increase that they suspect Republicans will approve.

It’s a pitiful situation to accept as status quo.

One could argue that it’s the electorate’s fault. After all, if they keep voting for Republicans that make it clear they don’t support equity in education, that must represent the will of the people.

Except it doesn’t. Fair funding is popular among voters everywhere in the Commonwealth. And it’s one of the reasons they elected and re-elected Wolf. However, when it comes to state government, legislative districts are so gerrymandered, the will of the people gets ignored.

In November, Democrats got 381,000 more Pennsylvania votes than Republicans to represent them in the state House. But Republicans still kept the majority.

So what can you do when your voice is smothered by red tape?

You can turn to the Democratic governor who is the only thing stopping the opposition from gutting schools even further. You can ask him to push lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to get off their collective asses and do their jobs.

But Wolf does not seem ready to spend his political capital in this way.

According to an Associated Press article by Marc Levy:

 

“For his part, Wolf’s office says he remains open to a discussion with the Legislature on making school funding fairer. However, someone else may have to carry the torch.”

Just who could this “someone else” be?

As usual, it may have to be the Commonwealth’s teachers.

As in every state, when governments and communities can’t or won’t do right by their children, educators step up.

We buy classroom supplies, we feed the hungry, we dry the tears, and when all else fails we put our jobs on the line and strike until school boards, legislatures and governors do the right thing.

Some have suggested that’s what’s needed here.

There have been at least nine large-scale teachers strikes across various states in the last 12 months. This includes actions in Arizona, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Virginia, West Virginia, and – most recently – Los Angeles, California, and Denver, Colorado.

They began in Republican dominated states but have spread to those governed mostly by Democrats.

The Denver strike ended Thursday morning with an agreement between the Denver Classroom Teachers Association and Denver Public Schools. After three days on the picket line, teachers may be returning to their classrooms having achieved their goals.

In today’s climate of dark money and political gridlock, collective action seems the only way to get anything done.

Perhaps we need an army of the state’s 123,000 educators to walk out of their classes in unison demanding fair funding for our most vulnerable students.

Such a move would be unprecedented. To my knowledge, teachers strikes in the Commonwealth have always involved educators and staff at one of the hundreds of districts, not a unified action of teachers throughout the state. A movement on this scale would require cooperation and buy in from the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT). And union bosses are rarely motivated to endorse such measures without being forced to it by grassroots pressure from members.

Moreover, it would put teachers unions in a dangerous position. Each district contract has a no strike/no lockout clause guaranteeing that membership won’t walkout during the life of a contract. Where we’re seeing these major nationwide strikes either the contract has expired like in Denver and Los Angeles or they’re so-called “Right-to-Work” states without these explicit worker protections.

It’s doubtful the state could actually fire and replace the more than 100,000 teachers in its employ, but the worst case scenario for a state-wide strike in Pennsylvania would be the invalidation of all existing contracts, the loss of arbitration, grievances, collective bargaining and even putting retirement at risk.

That’s a lot to ask of educators – though creative organizers could find ways to avoid or mitigate the risk – for instance with a sick out or mass demonstrations on weekends or holidays.

I – for one – am sick of watching my middle school students overstuffed into classrooms with crumbling infrastructure and meager resources while a few miles down the road the rich kids have small classes and schools that look like palaces. I’ll bet there are a lot of teachers and parents who feel the same way.

Perhaps it’s time for us to take to the streets.

Perhaps it’s long past time.

When I say the state is the most inequitable in the country, that’s not hyperbole.

It’s according to several studies done over multiple years by groups like the Associated Press and the U.S. Department of Education.

More than any other, the Keystone State gives a boost to rich kids and a boot to poor ones.

Why?

You have to understand where the money comes from to educate kids in America.

Public schools have basically three revenue streams – the federal government, the state and local neighborhoods.

The federal government pays about 10% of the cost across the board. The problem in Pennsylvania is that the state isn’t meeting its obligation thereby forcing local neighborhoods to shoulder most of the cost.

Pennsylvania state government pays a ridiculously low percentage of the bill – 38%.  That’s the 46th lowest in the country. The national average is 51%.

In rich neighborhoods, this is no problem. In middle class communities, it’s not much of one. But in poor communities, there isn’t enough money to make up the difference. Their kids have no choice but to do without.

So kids from rich communities get everything. Kids from middle class communities get most of what they need. And kids from poor communities get whatever scraps are left at the bottom of the barrel.

It’s trickle down economics – Pennsylvania style.

And it’s an intolerable situation!

According to an Associated Press analysis of 2016-17 state data on school district spending, middle class districts spend as much as $673 more per student than poor districts. Rich districts spend about $4,300 more per student.

 

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According to the U.S. Department of Education, poor schools in the Commonwealth spend 33 percent less on their students than rich ones. That’s a significantly larger difference than the next-closest state, Vermont, where the spending difference between rich and poor schools is only 18 percent. Three other states — Illinois, Missouri and Virginia — have gaps of 17 percent.

 

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We can’t keep kicking minorities and the destitute to the curb. We can’t keep giving the rich and middle class every opportunity to succeed while depriving the poor of that same chance.

Wolf, the Democrats and a few Republicans have tried several times to fix the problem.

First, they attempted large increases in education funding to catch up to where funding would be if the Corbett cuts hadn’t happened coupled with the rising costs caused by inflation.

In 2015, the governor proposed a $400 million increase but funded it with a tax increase on the rich that almost all Republicans refused.

Then he tried to bring the state share of education funding up to 50% by using a more equitable tax plan. He proposed cutting property taxes in poorer districts and replacing them with higher state taxes elsewhere. However, Republicans saw it as an opportunity to completely eliminate property taxes and cut school funding even further. It ended in a stalemate and another incremental education increase.

If the legislature wouldn’t approve the necessary spending increases to heal the cuts it made under Corbett, Wolf at least wanted lawmakers to approve dividing the money up more fairly among the state’s 500 school districts.

A funding formula had been approved four years ago to reflect changes in school district attendance and wealth that had been ignored for a quarter century. This would result in more support for poorer schools and less for wealthier ones.

And there’s the sticking point. Lawmakers wouldn’t approve a plan that would provide less funding to 70% of the state’s districts – but neither would they increase school spending to make up the difference.

You’d think that such legislative gridlock might make voters lose hope. However, there is a mass movement of people at the grassroots level demanding change for our children.

Most notably, the parents of six school children, six school districts, the NAACP and a rural schools group are suing the state over education funding.

The lawsuit – now in its fourth year – is scheduled for trial before the state Supreme Court in 2020. So at best, relief is still a ways in the future. Many are hoping justices will order the legislature to dramatically increase its investment in public schools. But the outcome is certainly not a sure thing.

Could striking teachers in red and blue states be showing us in Pennsylvania the solution?

Might it be time to raise our teacher voices in the purple states, too?

And is there a path to equity through collective action that doesn’t hang teachers out to dry?

 


 

Still can’t get enough Gadfly? 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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PA High Court Says, “Yes, Schools CAN Sue State Over Unfair Funding, After All!”

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It’s back on!

Two years ago a group of plucky Pennsylvania public schools took the state legislature to court because the body wasn’t allocating funding to all districts fairly – some got too much, many got too little.

A lower court threw the challenge out saying it wasn’t the court’s job to tell the legislature how to legislate. But now the state Supreme Court has overturned that lower court decision.

In effect, justices are sayingHell, yes, that is the court’s job! That’s why it’s called a system of checks and balances, Baby!

Or something like that.

Before going any further, there are a few pertinent facts you have to understand about the Commonwealth.

1) No other state in the country has a bigger gap between what it spends on rich vs. poor students than Pennsylvania, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

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2) 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 only 35% of the costs, leaving local taxpayers to take up the slack. Since districts are not equally wealthy, that increases the disparity of resources between rich and poor districts.

 

3) The state has only had a funding formula specifically legislating how to allocate money to its more than 500 districts for two years. Two years! For more than 15 years previous, the legislature just handed out money willy nilly based on political backroom deals that favored already rich districts and hurt the most impoverished ones.

4) The new funding formula still is not fair. Though it does take into account the poverty of a district, it doesn’t account for the years of systematic disinvestment the district suffered through previously. That’s like giving new sneakers to a racer who hasn’t been able to get out of the starting gate while others are already halfway to the finish line.

5) The legislature STILL hasn’t healed almost $1 billion in education cuts made under previous Republican Gov. Tom Corbett. Instead, under current Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, it has reluctantly increased funding a bit at a time but failed to bring spending up to what it was four years ago. And even once the cuts are healed, spending will be behind inflationary and cost of business increases. Meanwhile the Republican controlled legislature plays games approving the state budget separately from allocating money to the programs – including schools – that it already approved!

 

6) Pennsylvania is one of seven states with a Constitution that specifically requires the state provide a “thorough and efficient” system of 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.

So there you are.

Pennsylvania’s legislature is an absolute mess.

Hopelessly gerrymandered, controlled by the radical right, and opposed by a Democratic party nearly as beholden to big donors as their GOP counterparts and desperate for any area of bipartisanship so as to be able to claim they got anything done other than stop Republicans from burning the whole place to the ground.

That’s why today’s 5-2 Supreme Court ruling is a breath of fresh air.

It’s like someone finally called Mom and Dad to tell our bratty lawmakers to get back to work.

The case will now go back to Commonwealth Court.

Supreme Court Justice David Wecht wrote that the courts do have a responsibility to check the power of the legislature – both in regard to the requirements of the state Constitution and that poorer districts are being discriminated against.

“It remains for (the) petitioners to substantiate and elucidate the classification at issue and to establish the nature of the right to education, if any, to determine what standard of review the lower court must employ to evaluate their challenge,” Wecht wrote. “But (the) petitioners are entitled to do so.”

This may be a Herculean task for those suing the state. And it seems unlikely that Commonwealth Court will hear their arguments favorably.

Justices rarely have the courage to challenge other branches, and the history of Pennsylvania’s courts shows multiple times when the courts have simply refused to assert such power.

This is what happened back in the 1990s when the Philadelphia School District sued the state over the same issue – unfair funding.

Time and again, poor districts have asked for help from the courts when the legislature refused to do its job. And time and again the courts have refused.

But at least this ruling gets things moving again. It’s like a dose of Kaopectate for a constipated political system.

Another possible bit of good news comes from Common Core and high stakes standardized testing. Yes, that crap!

When Philadelphia sued the state, the courts refused to rule in the schools favor because it had no way of proving the state was hurting the quality of education students were receiving there through lack of funding. But that was before Pennsylvania adopted its new Common Core look-a-like standards, PA Core, and initiated aligned tests including the souped up Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSA) and Keystone Exams.

Ironically, the same “accountability” measures used to “demonstrate” poor schools are failing could be used to prove the common sense notion that unfairly funding schools leads to poor academic results.

In any case, far right demagogues like House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, are already whining that the Supreme Court is legislating from the bench. However, as a defendant in the case, and one of the most partisan hacks in Harrisburg, that’s exactly what the Koch Brothers probably told him to say.

Unfortunately, Gov. Wolf seems to kinda agree with him. Though he has yet to make a statement about today’s ruling, he was against the suit when it was originally brought up in 2015. Though he supports increasing education funding and has consistently pushed for it with every budget proposal, he is leery of the courts butting in.

Sadly, his strategy of incremental education budget increases has been failing. Or, to be fair, it’s succeeding at such a slow rate that it would take decades for it to catch up.

The fact of the matter is that it is patently unfair for rich districts to spend $10,000 to $20,000 on each student, while poorer districts can barely pull together $5,000-$6,000.

In addition, 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. Moreover, it is no accident that the group being privileged here is made up mostly of white students and those being underprivileged are mostly students of color.

The time is here when Pennsylvanians have to decide where they stand. Are they for a state that offers all children an equal start or do they prefer one where poor brown kids suffer so rich white ones can get ahead?

Today, the matter is in the court’s hands.

Paying Back School Kids on the Installment Plan – PA Budget Shenanigans

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Hey, Kids!

 

We’re your Pennsylvania Legislature, and we’re here to help!

 

We just passed a new state budget that puts $200 million more in your classrooms! Isn’t that great!?

 

Yeah. We know. Your public schools are crumbling to dust, and your school books are falling apart, and you’re stuffed into overcrowded classrooms, and…

 

But here’s some more money so it’s all better now!

 

Um. No. It actually doesn’t heal that huge chunk of cash we slashed from public schools six years ago. We’ve been giving you back about $100-200 million a year for a while now, so with this new budget… uh… We’re actually about $150 million short. But we’re good for it!

 

No, that doesn’t take into account inflation. Or compounding costs. Or the billions you should have had but did without in the intervening years. Or the loans you had to take out to stay operational while we argued over all this.

 

Jeez. I guess that means your schools are still deep in the hole, huh?

 

Well, don’t you worry. Next year we’re bound to give you just a little bit more. At this rate, we should have paid you back all that money we took in about 20 years!

 

You’re welcome!

 

The 2016-17 budget was passed in two motions. A spending plan was ratified at the end of June, and a revenue package to pay for it was passed on Wednesday. That’s only 13 days beyond the state-mandated deadline for doing so. It’s a huge improvement over last year’s budget, which was 9 months late!

 

One of the largest sticking points was an initiative to allow charter schools to proliferate exponentially without oversight or state control. It was tabled until a later date. Legislators now go on summer break.

 

What’s that, sonny boy?

 

You wonder how Pennsylvania stacks up to other states in terms of education funding? Well according to federal education data, we’re number one!

 

No. Not number one as in the best. Number one as in the worst. Our state has the worst funding inequality in the nation!

 

You see, even though we’ve been adding more money into classrooms, it hasn’t been done equitably.

 

When our previous Governor, Corbett, and the Republican-controlled legislature slashed almost $1 billion annually in education funding back in 2011, we didn’t take it away from all schools equally. We took the lion’s share from the poorest schools. But when we started putting it back piece-by-piece, we didn’t give it all back to those impoverished districts.

 

It’s all kind of complicated, but since you asked…

 

We used to do something called the charter school reimbursement.

 

This was money set aside to help schools deal with the extra cost of having a charter school pop up in their neighborhood. Charter schools siphon off loads of funding so they can operate without actually reducing the operating expenses of traditional public schools all that much. So when a charter school opens, it usually means kids left in the traditional public school suffer.

 

When the Corbett cuts went through, we got rid of that charter school reimbursement all together. Now those schools – most of them in impoverished areas – have to make up that money some other way.

 

The funding formula? Yes, the legislature did create a new funding formula – a more fair way to distribute education monies across the Commonwealth. However, it’s got some kinks in it.

 

First, we didn’t want to take away any extra money rich schools were getting that they don’t need, so we made sure to grandfather that money in. I know it means less for schools that really need it, but… you know… rich people.

 

Second, the funding formula only adds $150 million for the poorest districts. Our current Governor, the guy who was elected after Corbett was kicked out of Harrisburg for shortchanging school children, Gov. Wolf, he wanted to include more. But the Republican controlled legislature wouldn’t allow it. They said it would send too much money to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and you know what kind of kids go there? Right? Blac… I mean, poor ones.

 

You know, the only way we get away with this is because Pennsylvanians aren’t very good at math.

 

You see, we’ve been playing a shell game with numbers. We add fixed costs like pensions into the mix to make it look like we’re spending more than ever on public schools. But when it comes to money that actually goes to the classroom, nope!

 

It’s like replacing your tires and wondering why you have no money for gas.

 

Specifically, you kids lost $841 million for your classrooms between 2010-11 and 2011-12. That’s why you lost 30,000 teachers, guidance counselors, nurses and other school staff. That’s why you lost extra-curriculars, arts and music, foreign language, field trips and why class size exploded. Heck! Several kids died for lack of having a full-time school nurse!

 

By the time voters booted Corbett, he and the Republican legislature were spending $579 million less in 2014-15 as opposed to 2010-11. And now with Gov. Wolf and the threat of voters booting lawmakers who thought they were safe even in their highly gerrymandered districts, we’ve got that gap down to about $150 million.

 

How are we paying for this? Uh. We’re taxing the poor and using one-time funding streams.

 

We’ve raised a $1 per pack tax on cigarettes. We’ve got liquor privatization, internet gaming, a licensing fee for a second Philadelphia casino, and a tax amnesty program.

 

More than half is made up of one-time sources. That means next year we’re going to have another budget deficit to fix just like we did this year. But our fiscal conservatives will just do the same thing and put it on the credit card. That’s what it means right? Fiscal conservative?

 

The good news is we didn’t have to raise taxes on rich people. We’re one of the “terrible ten” states that relies on the poor to pay a larger percentage of the tax burden than the rich, and we’re darn proud of it!

 

Sure we could have instituting a severance tax on natural gas; closed the Delaware tax loophole; and slightly increased taxes on those who are making bank, but those are our real constituents. Those are the ones who pay us the big bucks. You expect us to inconvenience them for you poor people!?

 

Ha!

 

Consider that a lesson, kiddos. We aren’t here for you or your parents. Now take this measly bit of education funding we owe you and be happy with it. If you’re lucky, next year we might give you back the last few hundred million we took. Then you’ll only be down due to rising costs, inflation and seven years of neglect!

 

Pennsylvania Breathes Sigh of Relief As Crappy GOP Budget Becomes Law

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The majority won in Pennsylvania this week.

After 9 months of bipartisan bickering, the state finally has a 2015-16 budget.

And it’s almost exactly the same spending plan favored by the majority.

The majority of lawmakers, that is.

Voters, however, wanted something much different.

They wanted it to heal almost $1 billion in cuts to public schools. They wanted it to be balanced and not to spend more than it takes in. They wanted everyone to pay their fair share.

But lawmakers disagreed and took the entire Commonwealth on an extended game of chicken while schools had to scrimp and borrow just to stay open.

Like any public spectacle, the conflict centered around two teams: Republicans and Democrats.

The Republicans refused to raise taxes, even after they had previously reduced state revenue to a place where it could no longer provide the services taxpayers expect. The Democrats wanted to raise taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations who were getting away without paying their fair share, thereby increasing services to a point citizens have come to expect.

The result? Nine months of finger pointing.

The GOP-controlled legislature passed the same budget over-and-over again, while Gov. Tom Wolf (a Democrat) kept vetoing it.

There was a brief moment when they almost agreed on a compromise budget, but GOP lawmakers just couldn’t stomach a tax increase if it didn’t include an almost definitely Unconstitutional measure to shortchange state workers pensions.

This week Wolf agreed to let pretty much the same Republican budget become law without his signature. Otherwise, some of the state’s more than 500 school districts would have had to close. He said he hopes to focus on next year’s budget which is due at the end of June.

Wolf came into office on a tidal wave of support from across the state to unseat the previous Republican governor. The people couldn’t have been more clear – fairly fund education and get the fiscal ship in order. But since state legislative districts were redrawn under the previous administration to gerrymander lawmakers, voters were silenced.

Which brings us to the inescapable question: why are voters putting up with this?

“When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.”

The above quote, attributed to Thomas Jefferson, sums up the proper relationship between governors and governed.

Our lawmakers aren’t afraid of us. Are we afraid of them?

The budget passed this week does increase education by $200 million. but that’s still far below what Republicans cut five years ago. Apparently, they aren’t afraid voters will make them pay a price for this. They don’t think we have the guts to unseat them in their safe gerrymandered districts.

They figure that since most of the voters in their districts are registered Republicans, they won’t have to answer for shortchanging school children – especially those at poor districts which receive more state support.

They figure other Republicans like themselves don’t care about poor black kids. Are they right? You tell me, Pennsylvania!

Likewise, they think GOP constituents don’t care if the rich and corporations pay their fair share of taxes. They think we’ll buy the lie that business works kind of like getting pandas to mate at the zoo. We have to do everything we can to make them comfortable or else no little panda cubs.

So the rich and corporations get sweetheart deals while the rest of us – even Republicans – have to tighten our belts. What say you, Pennsylvania? You buying that?

While no one thinks the budget should be unbalanced, they are betting you will let them push the blame onto the other party. There is a $2 million deficit because Republicans didn’t want to raise taxes. Never mind that they opposed measures to fairly make up the difference. Never mind that they have no problem cutting services so that you don’t get your taxes worth from state government.

Well, Pennsylvania? Are you swallowing that whooper!?

We’ve become used to blaming our politicians. Both Democrats and Republicans love to rag on our elected officials.

But it’s not really their fault.

It’s ours.

We’ve let it get this way.

Sure, the odds are stacked against us. Corporate money floods legislators campaigns so they can buy endless ads convincing us to vote against our own interests. Legislative districts are drawn so that a minority of Pennsylvanians get a majority say.

But we still have the last vestiges of a functioning Democracy here. We still hold elections, and they still have consequences.

If lawmakers felt like they would be held accountable, it would change their actions. Why do you think they didn’t enact that terrible pension plan last year when the GOP controlled both the legislature and the governor’s mansion?

They were afraid of taking the blame. They were afraid voters of both parties wouldn’t put up with it. Republicans only had the guts to push it through if they could force Democrats to vote for it, too. That way, people would have no choice but to blame both parties and not just the GOP.

We need to make them feel that same fear for under-resourcing our schools. When Republican voters in gerrymandered districts show up to their legislators offices en mass and demand equitable school funding, that’s when things will change.

When Republican voters care as much about poor black kids as they do about rich white kids, that’s when things will change. When Tea Party citizens demand the rich pay as fair a share of the tax burden as they do, then things will change.

But so long as we pretend politics is a sporting event and you have to stand by your team, things will remain as they are.

Democrat. Republican. Tea Party. Progressive. These are nothing but labels that divide us. Throw them away.

Turn off the TV. Stop listening to talk radio. Crumble up the op-ed.

Go to the voting booth with the only thing that matters.

Vote with your heart.