Charter School Cheerleaders Elected to Leadership with PA House Dems

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Democratic gains in the midterm elections were a repudiation of the policies of Donald Trump.

 

Yet holding nearly the same views as Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos earned two Pennsylvania state representatives high leadership positions with House Democrats.

 

Rep. Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, was elected minority whip – the second highest position after floor leader. Rep. Joanna McClinton, another Philadelphia Democrat, was selected chair of the Democratic Caucus.

 

Even after making gains in the election, Democrats did not get control of either the state House or Senate from Republicans, but kept control of the Governor’s mansion.

 

New leadership positions will last for two years, but have many scratching their heads.

 

Both Harris and McClinton are staunch supporters of charter schools over and above traditional public schools just like DeVos, a Republican megadonor before being selected for Trump’s cabinet.

 

Harris and McClinton support school vouchers – just like DeVos – if labeled opportunity scholarships. In their relatively short time in Harrisburg they’ve pushed for charter school expansion and even state takeovers of struggling schools serving mostly children of color.

 

Such strong neoconservative values might make it hard to tell which party the two belong to if it weren’t for one thing – the color of their skin.

 

Both Harris and McClinton are African American.

 

In fact, McClinton will make state history as the first woman of color in her leadership position. Harris will be the first black whip since Rep. K. Leroy Irvis in the 1970s.

 

Even so, their views put them in direct opposition with many civil rights leaders.

 

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Black Lives Matter have called for a moratorium on new charter schools. Journey for Justice (J4J), a nationwide civil rights collective made up of more than of 38 organizations of Black and Brown parents and students in several cities including Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, has gone even further demanding more community based traditional public schools.

 

Jitu Brown, national director of J4J, put it this way:

 

“Who are these bankers and why are they concerned about my school? Isolation is defeat. Privatizers are not reformers. They are colonizers and settlers. We do not negotiate with our executioner. We need to kill the privatization movement. We have worked in silos and adopted the values of our oppressors. You want a seat at the table, but you are on the menu too. We have more in common with each other than any of us do with our oppressors. People will vote against their interest with hatred that they learned centuries ago – but we need to be different. We cannot adopt the language of our oppressors. We don’t have failing schools, we have been failed.”

 

Perhaps Harris and McClinton’s support has something to do with campaign finance. Both have accepted large sums from the charter school industry.

 

Harris’s 2012 campaign was funded 58% by school privation business interests – Students First PAC and its associates. That breaks down to $37,295 from Make a Difference PAC, $30,000 directly from Students First PAC and $2,000 from Economic Development PAC.

 

And he’s still bankrolled mostly by that industry. More recently, he has taken $25,000 from Excellent Schools Pa and $11,500 from Students First Pa PAC.

 

McClinton has taken $5,250 from Excellent Schools PA and $1,000 from Students First PAC. However, she also received $3,000 from the public school friendly Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers.

 

Students First PA and Students First PAC are Pennsylvania political action committees associated with the national school privatization lobbying firm American Federation for Children (AFC) which is chaired by DeVos.

 

What are Democratic House leaders doing taking large campaign contributions from Trump’s Education Secretary?

 

Moreover, both Harris and McClinton got their start in politics working for state Sen. Anthony “Tony” Williams, D-Philadelphia, the biggest recipient of school privatization money in the entire state. He took at least $5 million from the industry during his failed bid for governor in 2010, and an additional $7 million for a failed run at Philly Mayor in 2015.

 

Harris was an intern for Williams and McClinton was Williams’ chief counsel.

 

Even in Harrisburg, some question the two state reps ties to the far right billionaires bankrolling the school privatization industry. After all, these are the same people whose candidates just lost the midterms – and now fresh from an electoral victory Dems are elevating those of their own who are taking money from the same well!?

 

Student First PAC wasn’t just a main contributor to Harris and McClinton. It contributed $1 million to Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner before he was defeated by Democrat Tom Wolf. It also contributed boatloads of money to numerous GOP candidates in the Commonwealth running against Democrats just this last election cycle.

 

So why would the Democratic caucus vote for Harris and McClinton as new faces of party leadership?

 

Part of the reason seems to be a power struggle inside the party between the two halves of the state.

 

Leadership had been over-represented by lawmakers from the west – the Pittsburgh region and thereabouts. Harris and McClinton’s new positions go further to balancing the power with the east – the Philadelphia region.

 

Moreover, there was a legitimate concern that party leadership was too white and male.

 

However, there were other eastern Democrats, other women and people of color in the chamber who didn’t come with the baggage of Harris and McClinton.

 

Harris was asked point blank if he’d stop taking charter school money if elected to a leadership position, according to anonymous sources. He gave no indication that he would.

 

In his role as whip, Harris will have the greater opportunity to work for the charter school industry.

 

The whip is responsible for making sure that Democratic members attend sessions and generally understand the specifics of legislation and procedural votes in the House.

 

However, his comments on education policy are extremely biased.

 

For instance, he took exception when a report by the nonprofit Public Citizens for Children and Youth concluded that Pennsylvania’s charter schools are not outperforming traditional public schools, and the state’s 20-year-old charter law needs to be reformed.

 

The report says only 21 percent of Pennsylvania’s charters made the grade on the state School Performance Profile versus 54 percent of traditional district schools.

 

Harris response?

 

“I think it’s unfair to take all of the traditional public schools in the state and all of the charter schools in the state and compare them to each other.”

 

Really? Yet you propose we increase the number of charter schools BECAUSE they allegedly produce better academic outcomes. How can you know that if you’re unwilling to compare them? Or are you only unwilling to compare them when the results don’t support the policy positions you’re being paid to promote?

 

Harris also joined with Republican state Rep. John Taylor (another Philadelphia politician) to allow the state to takeover the lowest performing districts and give them over to charter school operators on the model of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

 

Almost a third of the state’s most struggling schools — 95, according to PA Department of Education — are located in Philadelphia. Taylor and Harris’s proposal was called the Educational Opportunity and Accountability Act.

 

Harris and McClinton, who represent adjacent areas of south Philadelphia, have rallied for charter schools and de facto school vouchers together.

 

“People have told me that I’ve been trying to dismantle public education,” said Harris. “No! I just know what it’s like to grow up in a neighborhood without options.”

 

The options he’s pushing for will greatly help corporations accepting public tax dollars to run schools at a profit, cherry pick enrollment, cut services and otherwise spend that money behind closed doors without accountability.

 

Payments to charter schools represent one of the fastest growing portions of the School District of Philadelphia’s budget. These costs are pushing the district toward fiscal uncertainty. Yet Harris and McClinton are pushing for a similar model throughout the Commonwealth.

 

 

Harris calls the push for more charter schools a “righteous movement.”

 

I’m sure Betsy DeVos would agree.

 

Education advocates in the Keystone state find themselves in a precarious position.

 

Though many of our candidates won in this midterm election, we will have to keep a close eye on Harrisburg.

 

Where will Harris and McClinton lead the party?

 

Will they encourage their colleagues to take money from the school privatization industry – the same industry bankrolling their opponents?

 

Or will they keep their biases to themselves and work for the betterment of the party and the communities it is sworn to represent?

 


 

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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.

PA House: Online Courses for the Poor. Teachers for the Rich.

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Pennsylvania has a long history of under-resourcing its public schools.

State Rep. Jason Ortitay has a solution.

The Republican representing Washington and Allegheny Counties envisions a world where poor kids learn from computers and rich kids learn from flesh-and-blood teachers.

It’s all in his proposed legislation, H.B. 1915, passed by the state House on Monday. It now moves on to the Senate.

The legislation would assign the Department of Education the task of organizing a collection of online courses for use by students in grades 6-12. Some classes might be created by the state and others would be made by third parties with approval for state use. If anyone so desired, the courses could be utilized by anyone in public school, private school, homeschool and beyond. The online learning clearinghouse thus created would be called the “Supplemental Online Course Initiative.”

But what does this have to do with impoverished schools?

According to the bill, itself, state education officials would:

“Upon request, provide assistance to school districts which have been declared to be in financial recovery status or identified for financial watch status under Article VI-A by facilitating the school districts’ search for low-cost or no-cost online course options.”

In other words, this bill provides an alternative for schools where the local tax base isn’t enough to fund traditional classes presided over by living, breathing teachers.

In the distant past, the state used to made up some of the slack to level the playing field for students born into poverty. However, for the last five years, the legislature has forced the poor to make due with almost $1 billion less in annual state education funds. This has resulted in narrowing the curriculum, the loss of extra-curriculars, increased class size, and plummeting academic achievement.

While the majority of voters are crying out for the legislature to fix this blatant inequality and disregard for students’ civil rights, Ortitay’s proposed bill lets lawmakers off the hook. It allows legislators to provide a low quality alternative for the poor without necessitating any substantial influx of funds.

Here, Jaquan and Carlos. You can learn from this YouTube video. Billy and Betty will be in the classroom learning from a trained professional with an advanced degree in the subject.

None of this bodes well for state budget negotiations going on right now to finalize a Commonwealth spending plan by the end of June. Those expecting a proposal to heal the funding cuts most likely will be disappointed – AGAIN.

Nevertheless, the bill still needs to clear the Senate and a signature from Gov. Tom Wolf before it can become law.

In the House, the bill passed 128-66 with 8 abstentions. Though lawmakers on both sides of the aisle supported the measure, it was opposed only by Democrats.

If the clearinghouse becomes a reality, it would be implemented in two phases. In the 2017-18 school year, it would only offer courses on subjects tested by state Keystone Exams at no cost to local districts. Then in the following year, it would expand to include courses not tested on state mandated exams that can be purchased by local districts.

If the Keystone-aligned courses are free to local districts, who pays for them? Certainly these online classes aren’t being constructed, monitored and graded as a public charity.

According to the bill, the Department of Education should:

“Explore the possibility for Federal and private funding to support the clearinghouse.”

However, if the state can’t find someone else to foot the bill, the cost will be born by Pennsylvania taxpayers.

Specifically:

“There is hereby established a restricted revenue account in the General Fund to be known as the Online Course Clearinghouse Restricted Account…”

“The funds in the account are hereby appropriated to the department on a continuing basis for the purposes of paying expenses incurred by the department in carrying out its duties relating to the administration of the clearinghouse under this article.”

How much taxpayer money will be allocated to this initiative? It doesn’t say. Will this money come from an increase in education spending or will it cannibalize other education line items? Again, it doesn’t say. Apparently such decisions would be made while drafting the state budget – presumably not the one being hashed out now, but the 2017-18 spending plan.

“This initiative will give public schools, which might not otherwise be able to afford similar educational opportunities, the flexibility and ability to make use of online learning [for] the betterment of their students,” Ortitay said in a press release.

However, online courses have an infamous history throughout the Commonwealth, and, indeed, the nation.

All courses collected in the clearinghouse would be subject to approval by the state Department of Education. But cyber charter schools fall under the same jurisdiction often with disastrous results.

Internet-based classwork – like that which would be collected in the clearinghouse – makes up the curriculum at cyber charter schools. Moreover, these online schools have a proven track record of failure and fraud.

A recent nationwide study found that cyber charters provide 180 days less of math instruction than traditional public schools and 72 days less of reading instruction.

In addition, researchers found that 88 percent of cyber charter schools have weaker academic growth than similar brick and mortar schools.

They have an “overwhelming negative impact” on students, according to researchers.

And THAT kind of curriculum is what the state House voted to increase using public money!

One of the biggest problem with online courses is the low quality of what’s being offered. Here’s how a cyber charter teacher describes the reading curriculum at his school:

“Most cyber schools get their curriculum from K12, a company started by William Bennett, a former federal Secretary of Education. My school gets the majority of its high school material from a mail order company called Aventa.

When Aventa creates a course it is fairly bare bones. They choose a textbook from one of the major textbook companies, and cut it up into lessons. The lesson will contain a few paragraphs introducing the topic, they will have the students read a section of a chapter, they will ask the student to do a few problems from the book, and lastly, there will be some form of graded assessment, taken from textbook review problems. That is all.”

This is like giving out nothing but worksheets and expecting high academic performance. Here. Read the book, answer the questions at the back, and call it a day.

Another problem is high turnover for students taking online classes. Though learning exclusively through the Internet seems novel at first, few students continue taking these courses more than a year or two.

This is especially true for younger students. It’s hard to imagine many 6th graders with the tenacity to persevere without anything but the most limited human interaction and adult supervision.

Advocates claim this is healthy experimentation. Students are trying out different means to accommodate their learning styles.

However, when students invariably fail at online education and return to their traditional public school hopelessly behind their peers, taxpayers bear the cost of remediating them. And their low academic performance becomes a reflection on the public school system where it is used as an excuse to denigrate teachers and close more brick and mortar buildings.

The online educational clearinghouse is supposed to be monitored and regulated by the state Department of Education – just as it does for state cyber schools.

Unfortunately, state budget cuts in K-12 education have left the department seriously understaffed and unable to do this job effectively.
Just look at the almost weekly news reports of fraud at state cyber schools.

For instance, PA Cyber Charter founder Nicholas Trombetta allegedly stole at least $8 million in public dollars only a few years ago. Federal investigators filed 11 fraud and tax conspiracy charges against him and indicted others in the case.

Another cyber charter founder, June Brown, was also indicted for theft of $6.5 million. Brown and her executives were indicted on 62 counts of wire fraud, obstruction of justice and witness tampering. She ran the Agora Cyber Charter School, which was part of the K12 Inc. empire of virtual charters.

Why would we want to increase the opportunities for such fraud by encouraging students to take more online classes?

This bill is at best a distraction.

It’s a Band Aid for the fiscal irresponsibility of our lawmakers toward our public schools. It’s an excuse so that we’ll let them continue short changing our children for at least another year with yet another budget lacking in education funding.

This does not compute.