Public School Boards Need to Do Better at Embracing Transparency 

 


They say sunlight is the best disinfectant.  


 
So why do so many public school boards hide in the shadows?  


 
 
One of the shining virtues of public schools is the requirement that they be transparent and open to the public.  


 
And they are! 


 
But too often school directors do so in ways that are unnecessarily burdensome, equivocal or combative.  


 
Let me give you an example.  


 
I live in the McKeesport Area School District (MASD) – a community just south of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.  


 
When I heard my school board was considering a proposed district budget for 2022-23 without a tax increase, I wanted to take a look at it. So I went to the district Website and there was a link labelled:  


 
“Preliminary Budget Information for 2022-23 School Year.”
 


 
I clicked on it and got this: 


 
“The Board of Directors of the McKeesport Area School District has prepared a Preliminary Budget in the amount of funds that will be required by the School District for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2022. The Proposed Budget is on file in the Office of the Business Manager/Board Secretary, and is available for public inspection in the McKeesport Area School District Administration Building…” [Emphasis mine.


What the heck!?  


Why not just post the preliminary budget on the Internet!? Why make me go all the way to the administration building (during business hours) to see a copy? 


It’s not like I can even turn to my local newspaper to tell me about the district’s budget. With so many cutbacks in local media, our papers rarely even cover school districts anymore unless there’s a big story.  


If I want to know how my district proposes to spend the community’s tax dollars next year, I need to either go to the school board meeting or go to the administration office and look at a copy. Will I be able to take a copy with me to peruse at my leisure? Maybe or maybe not.  


We should be able to do better than this. 


Don’t get me wrong. 


 
Authentic public schools are way better than privatized schools.  


 
They’re preferable to anything you’d find at charter or private schools that take school vouchers.  


 
And one of the biggest reasons why is this requirement of local control, self-government, and a free exchange of information between representatives and the community who elected them.   


 
Authentic public schools HAVE TO hold public meetings to conduct their business.  


 
They HAVE TO take comments from the community. 


 
They HAVE TO make their documentation available to the public.  


 
And except under extreme circumstances, they HAVE TO be run by elected school boards.

 
 
None of that is a given at charter and voucher schools. 


 
The problem is how too many public school directors meet these obligations. 


 
MASD, for example, makes its proposed budget available – but not in the most convenient way that it could.  


 
Let’s be honest. It wouldn’t take much to improve this.  


 
Posting the full budget online would take just a few seconds. In fact, it’s actually more trouble to have it available in the administration building and task a secretary with presenting it to anyone who comes in-person and asks for it. 


 
The same thing goes for school board meetings.  


 
Before I became a public school teacher, I was a journalist often covering public schools.  


 
I’ve gone to a lot of school board meetings in my life. A LOT.  


 
And almost every board put unnecessary or onerous restrictions on public comments.  


 
Residents could come to the meetings and address the board but they often had to sign in before-hand. They couldn’t just show up and speak. They had to let the board know days in advance that they were coming and the subject they planning to speak on.  


 
If something came up during the meeting unplanned, technically residents weren’t allowed to comment – though I admit I’ve never seen a school board hold to such a policy in the case of unexpected events.

 
 
Also there are almost always time limits on public comments.  


 
Now I know it’s unreasonable to expect members of the public who volunteer to serve as school directors to spend all night listening to rambling or incoherent comments. But these time limits are often way too restrictive – especially when only a handful of people actually turn up to speak.  


 
Limiting people to two minutes of public comment in a month or even a two-week period is ridiculous.

 
 
Then we have the issue of audio visuals at board meetings.  


 
Many school boards have microphones for people to speak into during the proceedings. This is supposed to allow everyone present to hear what is being said. However, the equipment is often so bad that it actually ends up blurring the speaker’s voice until its incomprehensible or board members who don’t want to be heard simply don’t speak into the microphone.  


 
Sure – the entire proceedings are being taken down by hand by an administrator for an official written copy of the minutes. But this isn’t even available to the public until a month later when the board votes on last month’s minutes document. The public can’t get a copy of this material until more than a month has passed from it taking place. And it probably isn’t available on-line. 


 
Finally, we have recordings of the meetings.  


 
Many school boards now video tape their meetings and stream them live on YouTube, Facebook or some other social media site.  


 
This is a nice improvement from when community groups had to do this, themselves. And, in fact, it’s really a response to that phenomenon to gain control over what becomes public record. School boards began recording the meetings to discourage others from doing it so the district would have control over this material. And in most cases it worked. 


 
However, these recordings are almost always of exceedingly poor quality.

 
 
Cameras (and microphones) are placed so far away that it is almost impossible to tell what is happening, what is being said or who said it.  
 


Any teenager with a smart phone and a YouTube channel could do a better job.  


 
Moreover, these videos often don’t stay posted online for very long. They could easily remain posted so anyone could rewatch them and catch up with what happened at a school board meeting they were unable to attend in-person. But school boards make the express decision to take these videos down so that record is not available. 


 
Very few of these are accidents. In most cases these are intentional to push the public away at the exact time when they should be inviting them in.  


 
These are just some examples of how school boards comply with transparency requirements but do so in ways that are inconvenient, onerous or antagonistic. 


 
It is so unnecessary. 


 
Things don’t have to be this way.  


 
School boards should welcome transparency. They should embrace public participation in the process.  


 
After all, this is one of the major factors that distinguish authentic public schools from privatized ones.  


 
School directors complain about losing revenue to charter and voucher schools. If they treated the public more like valued members of the decision-making process, they would do a lot to boost their own reputation.  


 
President James Madison wrote


 
 “[a] popular Government, without popular information, or­ the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy.”  


 
School directors should take this to heart. 


 
Public schools should not be shadowy corners for school directors to try to sneak through policies under the nose of stake holders.  


 
They should be shinning centers of the community. 


 
The sooner school boards understand this, the better it will be for the state of public education and the students, families and communities we are supposed to be serving in the first place. 


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Teaching the War in Ukraine is Fighting the War at Home 

 
 
How does one teach about war?  


 
With pictures or words? 


 
With speeches or documentation? 


 
With prayers or curses? 


 
With laughter or tears? 


 
I began my class like I always do – with a question


 
“Has anyone heard about what’s happening in Ukraine?” I asked.  


 
A few hands, but they had only heard the words. They didn’t know what was happening.  


 
So I showed my 8th graders a short video that summarized events so far. I drew a map of Europe and Asia on the board. I outlined Ukraine, Russia and the European union. I explained about the Soviet Union and its collapse. I explained about NATO and the struggle for power and prestige.  


 
When I was done, there was a moment of silence. They were all staring up at me. It was one of those rare moments of stillness, a pregnant pause before the questions started raining down.  


 
A patter at first, then a storm. 


 
They asked about what they were hearing at home. They searched for corroboration, explanation and/or other viewpoints. 


 
One child asked if this was NATO’s fault. If it was President Biden’s doing. 


 
Another asked how it would affect us and why we should care. 


 
And yet another asked about nuclear proliferation and whether this war meant the end of the world.  


 
I couldn’t answer all of their questions, though I tried. When there was something I couldn’t say or didn’t know, I pointed them in a direction where they might find some answers.  


 
But it led to some interesting discussion.  


 
Then I asked them if they had talked about any of this in their other classes – perhaps in social studies. They all said no, that a few teachers had promised to get to it after finishing the 13 colonies or another piece of mandated curriculum.  


 
I was surprised but not shocked. I know the tyranny of the curriculum.  


 
I was only able to talk about this, myself, because of the scope and sequence of Language Arts. You see, it was poetry time and I was about to introduce my students to Alfred Lord Tennyson and “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” 


 
For those who don’t recall, the poem tells the true story of the battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. A cavalry regiment of British troops charged Russian gunners and were mostly shot to pieces.  


 
It’s a pillar of English poetry and a perfect opportunity to talk about warfare in general and Ukraine in particular since the battle took place in the same general area of the world. 


 
In the poem, a general mistakenly orders the soldiers on horseback armed only with swords to charge the enemy armed with cannons and guns.  


 
Tennyson writes


 
“Theirs not to make reply, 
   Theirs not to reason why, 
   Theirs but to do and die.” 


 
And after the result is graphically portrayed, the speaker extols their virtue: 


 
“When can their glory fade? 
O the wild charge they made! 
   All the world wondered. 
Honour the charge they made! 
Honour the Light Brigade, 
   Noble six hundred!” 


 
So I ask my students what they think about it. Is it a soldier’s duty to follow orders no matter what? Should they question those orders?  


 
Typically, most of them back up Tennyson.  


 
And then I present them with an 80s heavy metal video by Iron Maiden of the song “The Trooper.”

 
 
The video uses images from a silent movie version of the Tennyson poem while singer Bruce Dickinson wails the story of a single soldier of the Light Brigade being senselessly gunned down and dying alone, forgotten on the battle field. 


 
It certainly gives them something to think about as they watch black and white horses flung in the air and our spandex clad narrator commenting on the situation with hairspray piled locks.  


 
Students end up leaving the class continuing the debate with each other about heroism and the waste of war.  


 
I certainly have my own opinions on the matter, but I keep them to myself.  


 
The way I see it, this isn’t the time for me to insert my opinion into the class. It’s an opportunity for my students to think through the problem, themselves.  


 
And, frankly, that’s really the point of most of school.  


 
It’s not the transmission of knowledge. Teachers can’t magic information into children’s heads.  


 
Instead, we provide opportunities to learn. We encourage students to think. We’re more like gardeners than anything else. We water, we weed, we make sure the soil is fertile. But it is up to the child to grow and in which direction to strive.  


 
That’s why far right scare mongers are so ignorant and absurd when they try to constrain teachers from teaching about history or racism.  


 
These campaigns are not aimed at educators. They are aimed at students.  


 
The goal is to offer children only one path in which to grow.  


 
They want to stifle thought, stifle free expression, stifle intellectual freedom by removing the option to think.  


 
They want to remove the opportunity.  


 
It may not be as dramatic as Putin invading. “Shot and shell” may not be flying. But the forces of fascism are equally at work on the minds of our children.  


 
In teaching about the war in Europe, educators are waging a battle against the war at home. 

Zhyvitʹ revolyutsiyeyu!

 
Viva la revolución! 

Long live the revolution!


 

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Don’t Tread on Me, But Let Me Tread All Over You: The Credo of Personal Freedom and Limitless Greed

AR-801253793 

Every neighborhood has one.

 

A yellow flag showing a coiled spring of a snake above the motto, “Don’t Tread on Me.”

 

In my usually well-manicured suburb, you’ll find it waving bravely over the garbage house.

 

There’s three broken down RVs sitting on the lawn, a busted sofa in the back yard, a rotten picnic bench and several rusted out vehicles in various states of disrepair.

 

I’m not sure why the owners think anyone would want to tread on them. We’d much rather walk quickly on by without being seen or commented on.

 

Because in my experience that’s the thing about most of the people who fly this flag.

 

They’re indignant about anyone stepping on their rights but all too ready to step all over yours.

 

I remember it wasn’t really too long ago that this flag had no such connotations.

 

It was simply the Gadsen flag, a relic of the American Revolution. It was nothing more than a reminder of a time when we cherished our national independence from Great Britain and wanted to make sure they knew we didn’t want the King to come back and start ordering us around.

 

In fact, it was designed by American general and politician Christopher Gadsden in 1775. This “Sam Adams of South Carolina” modeled his patriotic statement first used by the Continental Marines on an earlier famous cartoon from Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette.

 

800px-Benjamin_Franklin_-_Join_or_Die

 

You’ve probably seen it. A snake is cut into several pieces – each representing one of the colonies – with the motto, “Join or Die.”

 

So originally it was a call for unity, perhaps even federalism. It was a way of framing the argument that we’d be stronger as one nation than as a group of separate states.

 

Gadsen’s version was really a continuation of that same thought. It was as if he were saying, “Here we are, one unified nation ready to strike to protect itself from tyranny.”

 

It wasn’t until 2009 that Gadsen’s flag became associated with the radical right.

 

Like so many hitherto nonpartisan symbols, it was appropriated by the Tea Party movement, which tried to cast their libertarian extremism as somehow harkening back to the American Revolution.

 

Even the name Tea Party is a misnomer. The original Boston members of the Sons of Liberty who threw British tea into the harbor in 1773 were protesting taxation without representation. Modern day Tea Partiers were protesting the taxes levied by their own duly elected representatives.

 

They were poor people duped into thinking the rich paid too much despite the fact of gross income inequality and the wealthy not paying their fair share.

 

It’s this willful ignorance that typifies the contemporary right.

 

The truth doesn’t matter. It only matters what can be spun into a pithy sound bite that can be broadcast on Fox News or some other propaganda source and then repeated ad infinitum in place of any real debate or conversation.

 

To be fair, the left does it, too, but not nearly to the same degree.

 

When a topic makes the rounds of the 24-hour news cycle, you can hear the same canned responses from right and left on just about every channel regardless of who is speaking. The only difference is that the left usually makes at least passing reference to reality while the right closes its eyes and says whatever it believes to be true with perfect conviction.

 

The Gadsen flag is a perfect example of this hypocrisy.

 

The motto “Don’t Tread on Me” has come to mean radical individual freedom.

 

I can do whatever I like and there’s nothing you can do about it.

 

I can own as many guns as I like. I can teach my kids whatever facts I like. I can discriminate against anyone I like.

 

But there’s never a mention about other people except to limit what they can do in relation to the speaker.

 

In short, there’s nothing explicit about making this rule universal – I won’t tread on you if you won’t tread on me.

 

It’s just don’t tread on me and I’ll do whatever I like in relation to you.

 

After all, many of these personal freedoms the radical right cherishes actually do impact the rest of us.

 

Unregulated gun ownership means more shootings, more suicides, more deadly instances of domestic violence, more kids coming to school with semi-automatic guns in their book bags and more malls and theaters slick with bystander blood.

 

Moreover, if you teach your kids whatever facts you like, that means you indoctrinate them into your worldview. You don’t give them the chance to see the real world for what it is in case they may have different views on it than you do. This impacts both your children and the country, itself, which will have to somehow run with a greater portion of ignorant and close-minded citizens.

 

And don’t get me started on discrimination! You think you should be able to say whatever you like to whomever you like whenever you like. It’s fine to wear a t-shirt calling Hillary Clinton a “cunt” but when late night comedian Samantha Bee does the same to Ivanka Trump, you’re up in arms!

 

You think you can support laws that allow bakers to refuse to make wedding cakes for gay couples but are raving mad when a restaurateur refuses service to Sarah Huckabee Sanders!

 

 

This kind of sanctimonious duplicity has real world consequences.

 

 

Unarmed black people are shot and killed by police at a much higher rate than white people. Yet you won’t tolerate any protest, condemnation or protest. People can’t assemble in the streets, athletes can’t kneel during the national anthem, you won’t even allow the slogan “Black Lives Matter,” because you say, “All Lives Matter,” while in reality you mean “All Lives Except Black Ones.”

 

You oppose abortion but no one is forcing anyone to have abortions. In your headlong crusade for individual freedom you want to ensure that others don’t have this choice because they might choose differently than you. Or at least they might choose differently than you SAY you do, because when the light of day is cast upon you, we find an alarming number of hypocrites here, too.

 

There are too many far right politicians who campaign on overturning Roe v. Wade who pressure their mistresses to abort the unwanted issue of their indiscretion.

 

The underlying cause of such myopia is a perverse focus only on the self.

 

You look at what you want for you and pay no attention at all to what others should likewise be allowed.

 

It is the underlying selfishness of post Enlightenment Western thought come back to haunt us.

 

Hobbes and Locke and Smith told us that greed was good.

 

It’s what makes the world go round.

 

You look to your self-interest, and I’ll look to mine, and that’s what’s best for everyone.

 

However, they forgot that everyone doesn’t have the same power – physical, social, financial or political. Some people are strong and some are weak. Some are rich and some are poor. If you pull the shortest straw at the lottery of birth, you won’t be able to get the same things for yourself as those who won it as soon as the doctor slapped their newborn bums.

 

So we have layers and layers of class and economics. We have social structures designed to keep black people here and Hispanics there and white people at the top. We have a society that worships the rich and bedevils the poor. We have belief systems that praise one kind of sexuality only and demonizes anything that diverges from that norm. And the most defining thing of any newborn baby is what you’ll find between its legs.

 

“Don’t Tread on Me” has become a farce.

 

It’s a maxim hoisted on those with very little individual power to convince them to join together and become powerful while guarding the door for the wealthy.

 

They sit atop their mountains of trash as if they were dragons on piles of gold.

 

And they point their pitchforks at the rest of us as if we wanted a piece of it.

 

In this way, they make themselves the willing patsies of the ruling class.

 

It’s a sad thing to behold.

 

Because if we all just stopped for a second and recognized our common humanity, we’d agree that the status quo is unacceptable.

 

If we were more concerned about the rights of all than just our own rights, we’d agree that the wealth of this great nation has not been fairly distributed.

 

The snake is coiled and ready to strike but it is pointed in the wrong direction.

 

It shouldn’t be pointed at 99% of us. And it shouldn’t be so solitary.

 

It should be a sea of snakes, a great slithering mass of humanity, hissing and spitting with venom, our reptilian eyes focused on the elites.

 

Don’t tread on me?

 

Don’t tread on USSSSSSSSSSS!


 

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 Best Charter School Cannot Hold a Candle to the Worst Public School

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There are good charter schools.

 

I admit that.

 

There are bad public schools.

 

I admit that, too.

 

But if one had to choose between the worst public school and the best charter school, you’d still be better off with the public school.

 

Does that sound crazy? Does it sound ideological, partisan, or close-minded.

 

I don’t think so.

 

Imagine if we said the same thing about tyrannies and democracies.

 

There are good tyrannies.

 

There are bad democracies.

 

Still, I’d prefer the worst democracy to the best tyranny.

 

Why?

 

Because even a badly run democracy is based on the principle of self rule. The government gets its right to make and enforce laws from the consent of the will of the governed.

 

Even if our representatives are corrupt and stupid, even if our federal, state and local agencies are mismanaged and disorganized – there is the potential for positive change.

 

In fact, the catalyst to that change is embedded in democracy, itself.  Egalitarian systems founded on the principle of one person, one vote tend toward fairness, equity and liberty much more than others.

 

Bad leaders will be replaced. Bad functionaries will be retrained or superseded. Bad agencies will be renovated, renewed, and made to serve the will of the people.

 

However, in a tyranny, none of this is true.

 

Even if you have a benevolent tyrant who does nothing all day but try to do whatever is best for his or her subjects, that is a worse state of affairs.

 

Eventually the tyrant will change. Absolute power will corrupt him or her absolutely. Or even if this bastion of human goodness is incorruptible, he or she will eventually be deposed, replaced or die.

 

And there is nothing – absolutely nothing – to ensure the next tyrant is likewise benevolent. In fact, the system is set up to increase the likelihood that the next ruler will be as selfish, greedy and malevolent as possible.

 

This is because it is the system of tyranny, itself, that is corrupt – even if those that fill its offices are not.

 

The same goes for good charter schools.

 

These are schools that are publicly funded but privately run.

 

As such, the overwhelming majority have no elected school board, their meetings are held in private, their documents are kept secret, they discriminate in enrollment and they take advantage of a plethora of legal loopholes and bad policy to embezzle funds, overcharge for nonexistent utilities and cut services for students while pocketing the “savings” as profit.

 

If you can find a charter school that does none of these things – congratulations! You have found a diamond in the rough! But it is a diamond that is more likely to turn to coal the second you turn away.

 

Let’s say you find the rare charter school run by an elected school board. THEY AREN’T REQUIRED TO DO THAT. Organizers could at any time revert to an appointed board. Community members could be making all the decisions when you send your child to school, but by dismissal time they could have all been replaced with flunkies appointed by the private business people who took out the charter from the state in the first place!

 

 

Let’s say your charter school has open meetings and public documents. They invite the public to their deliberations. They take public comment and share all their internal communications with taxpayers and the media.  THEY AREN’T REQUIRED TO DO THAT. They could close the doors any day they wanted. And there’s nothing you could do about it.

 

 

Why? Because that’s what a charter school is. Despite all the propaganda to the contrary, it is not fundamentally a public school. It is a private school at public expense.

 

 

All these things that are optional at a charter school are required at public schools. Not just some public schools – ALL OF THEM!

 

 

Public schools are required to have elected school boards (unless taken over by the state). They are required to have open meetings and public documents. They are essentially democratic, whereas even the best charter schools are only democracies because of someone’s goodwill. When the wind changes, so will their system of government.

 

 

But that’ not all.

 

 

Let’s say you find a charter school that has open enrollment. It accepts every student who applies from its coverage area. Or at least it does so until it runs out of room. If demand exceeds supply, it conducts a lottery to determine which students to let in and which it has to unfortunately turn away.

 

First of all, if the school doesn’t have open meetings and public documentation, you have no way of knowing whether these lotteries are fair and unbiased. Operators are often charged with cherry picking the best and brightest and denying students with disabilities or behavioral problems – they’ve even been known to discriminate based on race and class.

 

Second of all, even if your charter school is one of the magical few that just does the right thing with no oversight, THEY AREN’T REQUIRED TO DO THAT. Once they figure out how much money they can save by only accepting the cheapest students to educate, inclusive enrollment policies will be a thing of the past. And you’ll probably never even know the difference.

 

Public schools aren’t allowed to do that. They have to accept every student from their coverage area regardless of academic deficits, emotional needs, race, religion, class or creed. And if there isn’t enough space, they still can’t turn students away. They have to expand!

 

And what about the most salient feature of charter schools?

 

 

Unlike public schools where all the funding has to be spent on student services, most charter schools are run for profit. They are allowed to cut services for students and swipe the savings for their investors.

 

Some charter schools don’t do this. BUT THEY CAN! Any day now they could cut little Timmy’s gym class down to twice a week so a shady group of business people in a smoke filled room could stuff a bunch of bills in their own wallets.

 

Offering French AND Spanish? Adios muchachos. And bonjour to a fistful of dollars going directly into their bank accounts.

 

All of that is perfectly legal even though it’s your money they’re collecting – money you put aside to help your child learn – there’s not a thing you can do about it.

 

Sure, you can take your child out of the charter school. But the money funding the school isn’t just your child’s. You’re paying for every student enrolled there. Even if you don’t have kids, you’re footing the bill. And unlike the public school system where you get a voice in how that money is spent, here you don’t get to say a thing.

 

You just get to pay.

 

Call me crazy, but I think there’s something wrong with that.

 

I think that’s worse than even the most decrepit public school.

 

If a public school has a terrible school board, they can be replaced. In fact, they most certainly will be given time. With each bad policy and unpopular decision, bad school directors motivate taxpayers to vote them out.

 

This is the exact opposite of charter schools. There is more reason for a charter to replace an elected board with an appointed one so as to increase their autonomy and ability to make money.

 

Most of the problems with public schools aren’t located in the schools, themselves.

 

They are the result of strategic disinvestment – archaic funding formulas that allocate less to districts without a large tax base than those in richer neighborhoods. They are the result of segregation schemes that keep the poor and minorities in neighborhoods where they can be ignored and then blamed for their own underprivileged status. They are the result of national and state policies allowed to play the parasite on their budgets – high stakes testing, Common Core and – yes – charter schools.

 

So, no, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to be so positive about public schools and so negative about charter schools.

 

The problem with privatized education isn’t just specific to individual schools. It is a feature of the very kind of school we’re talking about in the first place.

 

Charter schools are at heart a less democratic system than public schools.

 

Therefore, public schools are always preferable.

 

I wouldn’t give up my country just because we have an idiot in the oval office. Nor would I give up my public school just because of inadequacies in my local district.

 

Democracy isn’t for wimps. You have to fight for it.

 

Those people who are telling you to switch teams are trying to pull the wool over your eyes.

 

Don’t fall for it.

 

Public school proud.

 

Today.

 

Tomorrow.

 

Always.


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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