Pittsburgh Mayor’s Tantrum About School Finances Proves He Doesn’t Understand Education or Equity

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Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto is steaming mad and he doesn’t care who knows it.

 

On Tuesday he raved that Pittsburgh Public Schools’ finances should be taken over by the state – the same fate the city had suffered during its own economic troubles from 2004-18.

 

The reason Peduto thinks the school should submit to a financial recovery plan overseen by a state appointed board? School Superintendent Dr. Anthony Hamlet is proposing a 2.3% tax increase in 2020 for a reserve fund while Peduto’s municipal government allegedly is managing with a surplus.

 

If the city can manage its finances without a tax increase, wonders Peduto, why can’t the school district?

 

However, the Mayor’s narrative conveniently leaves out a few pertinent facts.

 

Most importantly – during the city’s economic trouble 14 years ago, Pittsburgh Public Schools gave a portion of their tax revenue to the municipal government to help it pay the bills.

 

Now that the city is doing better, school officials are suggesting Peduto should give that tax revenue back to the schools. And that suggestion infuriates the mayor.

 

In addition, it’s not true that Pittsburgh’s 2020 budget includes no tax increase.

 

The city is raising taxes by about 6% to pay for upkeep at its parks. However, since this tax is the result of a referendum approved by the voters, it is being spun as a “no new taxes” budget.

 

The city has a surplus due to construction of new high-end apartments. City Council could have budgeted some of this money to pay for the parks. Instead, leaders like Peduto were too cowardly to take the blame, themselves, and put it out as a question to voters.

 

It is entirely unfair to criticize Pittsburgh Public Schools for raising taxes a smaller degree (2.3%) than the city is (6%).

 

Both entities spend about the same amount annually. In 2020, the city has a proposed $608 million budget, and the schools have a proposed $665.6 million budget.

 

Moreover, there is nothing unfair about school officials asking for the tax revenue back from the city that they generously offered it when the municipality was in need.

 

Now that the city is out of peril (and has been since 2018), it should pay back that money. To be honest, it should do so with 14 years worth of interest – but no one is suggesting that.

 

At least it is time for Pittsburgh to stop leeching off its schools and give this revenue back.

 

The fact that Peduto is whining about something so obviously fair and equitable makes him look like a spoiled child.

 

The same goes for his suggestion of state takeover of district finances.

 

Pittsburgh Public Schools already is audited by the state every year. It is not on the state watchlist for districts in financial distress.

 

District spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said, “There have been no significant issues raised related to how the district conducts its finances.”

 

Peduto just wants the schools to have to endure the same indignity the city did thereby putting municipal leaders in a better light.

 

After all, it was the school district which helped the city – not the other way round. And it was the city that needed the state to take over its finances, not the schools.

 

It was Pittsburgh Public School’s Chief Financial Officer Ronald Joseph who explicitly proposed a take-back of wage tax revenue that was diverted to the city in 2005.

 

City residents pay a 3% wage tax. Of this money, originally 2% went to the schools and 1% to the city.

 

When the city was placed under Act 47 state oversight, the formula was changed to give a quarter percent more to the city from the school’s allotment – thus 1.75% went to the schools and 1.25% went to the city.

 

Pittsburgh left Act 47 in 2018 but the wage tax distribution has remained the same.

 

“Why in the heck can’t the school board balance their budget?” Peduto said. “Where is all this money going?”

 

Answer: Some of it is still going unnecessarily to fill your municipal coffers.

 

Peduto added:

 

“If they are looking to have part of the city’s wage tax, then they should be willing to open the books and let the state come in and do exactly what we had to do through Act 47, which was difficult restructuring for the future. If we didn’t have that, the city would be bankrupt.”

 

So let me get this straight. In order to give back the revenue the schools generously loaned the city, you need a look at their finances? I sure wouldn’t lend you a dollar or else I’d have to show you my tax returns and checking account just to get the loan repaid.

 

Peduto went on:

 

“If they simply say, ‘We’re going to take your revenue to fix our hole,’ and not be the leaders that they were elected to be in making tough decisions like raising taxes, then I have no time for that, absolutely none, and I will fight them in Harrisburg.”

 

How generous! That’s like threatening to go to Mom and Dad to settle your dispute. A real leader would know he was in the wrong and just pay up.

 

This isn’t the first time Peduto has clashed with city schools.

 

He seems to think his role as mayor supersedes that of the school district which operates independently through an elected nine-member board.

 
He said as much in 2018 when district negotiations with the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers (PFT) threatened to spill over into the first teachers strike in more than 40 years.

 

Peduto wanted to mediate between the teachers and school administrators – a measure Dr. Hamlet patently refused.

 

Peduto said:

 

“They have to remember they’re a board. They’re not a government. They’re no different than the water board or the Port Authority board or the airport board. They’re a board of education. Their job should be solely making sure that kids are getting a good education. When there becomes labor strife in the city, labor strife that could affect the economic development of the city for years to come, they need to move out of the way and let [elected] leaders lead.”

 

Dr, Hamlet said this was a “bargaining process, not a political” one, and that Peduto needed to let administration continue the process of bargaining with the teachers – a process that resulted in a new contract without a strike.

 

The relationship has been chilly even before Hamlet was hired in 2016.

 

In a community where district funding is constantly at risk from unregulated and unaccountable charter schools, Peduto actually presided over a 2014 ribbon cutting ceremony at the Hill House Passport Academy Charter School.

 

 

Charter school costs are one of the largest expenses the district pays annually.

 

 

According to PennLive.com, the district paid $79 million (or about 12% of its budget) in 2017-18 to these institutions which are funded with public tax dollars but privately run.

 
Like many charter schools, the Hill District institution is incredibly segregated. According to ProPublica, 96% of students are children of color. It has no gifted program, offers no AP courses, has no students taking the SAT or ACT test, no calculus classes, no advanced math, no physics, geometry, chemistry or 8th grade algebra courses.

 

In short, this is not the type of school the mayor of a major metropolitan center should be promoting.

 

And Peduto would know that if he had any knowledge of how school systems actually work. Before entering city politics, the Democrat ran a consulting business and served as Chief of Staff to City Councilman Dan Cohen.

 

Since his first successful campaign for mayor in 2013, Peduto has had a history of making bold promises to the Pittsburgh Public Schools that have not always come to fruition.

 

Peduto said he would lobby for additional funding for city schools in Harrisburg but district solicitor Ira Weiss said the mayor never followed through.

 

 

Peduto proposed increasing school revenue by helping to rent out unused school space. That hasn’t happened, either, said Weiss.

 

Peduto suggested increasing student after school programs by working together with the district and others like the YMCA and the Student Conservation Association. While a few such programs do exist, there is no broad collaboration, said Errika Fearby Jones, the executive director of Dr. Hamlet’s office.

 

Peduto’s summer reading program with the city and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh likewise never materialized – though the library runs its own program.

 

Moreover, Peduto’s plan to restart the Generations Together program with the University of Pittsburgh to promote cross-generational learning never happened either. Pitt shut down the program in 2002.

 

Curtiss Porter, who served as Peduto’s chief education and neighborhood reinvestment officer during the first year of his administration, blames the problem on a disagreement about who should be in charge.

 

The city and school district had a good working relationship when he was there, he said, but there was “a clear demarcation” between the two bodies, which made it difficult to implement some of Peduto’s ideas.

 
“At critical junctures…the school district made it clear that they were willing partners but that they did not have to bow to the city,” he said. “[They] made it clear the city had no jurisdiction over education.”

 

And that disconnect appears to continue today.

 

Peduto is engaged in an ignorant and arrogant power struggle with city schools that helps no one.

 


 

 

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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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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Every Charter School Must Be Closed Down – Every. Single. One.

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The problem with charter schools isn’t that they have been implemented badly.

 

Nor is it that some are for-profit and others are not.

 

The problem is the concept, itself.

 

Put simply: charter schools are a bad idea. They always were a bad idea. And it is high time we put an end to them.

 

I am overjoyed that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are starting to hear the criticisms leveled against the charter school industry in the face of the naked greed and bias of the Trump administration and its high priestess of privatization, Betsy DeVos. However, I am also disappointed in the lack of courage displayed by many of these same lawmakers when proposing solutions.

 

Charter schools enroll only 6 percent of students nationwide yet they gobble up billions of dollars in funding. In my home state of Pennsylvania, they cost Commonwealth taxpayers more than $1.8 billion a year and take more than 25 percent of the state’s basic education funding. That’s for merely 180 schools with 135,000 students!

 

Charter schools are privately run but publicly financed. They are what happens when the public abrogates its responsibility to run a school and signs that right away (in a charter agreement) with another entity, usually a business or corporation.
As such, these schools are not held to the same standards as authentic public schools. Unlike your neighborhood school, charters are not required to be run by elected boards, to have public meetings, to have open records, or to spend all their money in the service of their students. Nor do they have to provide the same standard of services for students – even children with special needs. Nor do they have to accept all students within their coverage area who enroll. And that’s to say nothing of how they increase racial segregation, are susceptible to fraud and malfeasance, often produce much worse academic results, close without notice, hire many uncertified teachers, trample workers rights and destabilize the authentic neighborhood public schools.

 

These are not problems that can be solved by fiddling around the edges.

 

 

We cannot simply constrain them from stealing AS MUCH from authentic public schools and consider it a victory.

 

We need to address the issue head on – and that issue is the very concept of charter schools.

 

Why would the public give up its schools to a private entity? Why allow someone else to take our money and do whatever they want with it behind closed doors? Why allow anyone to give our children less of an education than we’re already providing at our own schools?

 

We must end this failed experiment. Nothing less will do. It will only provide more breathing room so  that this unjust situation can drag on for another generation.

 

In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed sweeping reforms via executive order that would make real progress toward holding charter schools accountable. He has asked that the state senate and house take the next step with legislation to finish the job.

 

Just this past week, Wolf visited Twin Rivers Elementary School in McKeesport along with state Senator Jim Brewster and state Reps Austin Davis and Jake Wheatley to listen to resident and teachers’ concerns and propose solutions.

 

Such a move is unprecedented and represents a seismic shift in the political landscape. However, I am concerned that lawmakers are too timid to fix the real problem here.

 

No one has the bravery to come out and say what I’ve said here.

 

Consider this statement from Brewster, my state Senator:

 

I have legislation to address some of these issues, but it’s not an indictment on charter school teachers. It’s not an indictment on the charter school concept. It’s an indictment on the process that was put in place 20 some years ago that has put in a playing field that’s not level. Together I believe if we get the charter school folks to the table we can iron this out, we can fix several things that need to be fixed – the funding formula, the capacity, the cap and those sort of things – and when we do that, then the mission statements of the charter schools and the public schools are the same – educate our children, bring their skill sets out, help them achieve their dreams.”

 

 

I am deeply grateful for Brewster’s support and willingness to take on the charter industry. And he is right about many things. But not all of them.

 

He is right, for example, about the financial impact of charter schools on authentic neighborhood public schools.

 

At the same meeting, McKeesport superintendent Mark Holtzman said, “Charter schools are depleting our resources with no accountability or without being financially responsible. Taxpayer money is being used to flood the media with commercials and billboards right before the start of school so that they can take our students.”

 

There are roughly 500 students living in the McKeesport district enrolled in brick-and-mortar charter schools and 100 students enrolled in cyber charters. The district spends about $7 million — or 10% of its budget — on charter school payments, according to Holtzman.

 

It’s roughly the same at other districts in the Mon-Valley. Steel Valley Schools, where I work as a middle school teacher, has budgeted a $6 million payment to charter schools this year – 16% of our spending plan.

 

Again, I am extremely grateful that Wolf and other state Democrats recognize this fact and are willing to take measures to make matters more fair. I hope many Republicans will join them in this.

 

However, fixing the way charters are funded alone will not correct the problem.

 

Charter schools are a parallel service to authentic public schools. If you’re suggesting we fund them both, you’re asking taxpayers to pay for two complete and separate school systems.

 

Why should we do that? Why should we waste our money on it? I don’t think the people of Pennsylvania – or any state of the union – have money to spare on a pointless duplication of services.

 

It is a politically impossible position that has zero justification – especially when you consider all the inequitable practices charter schools are allowed to get away with.

 

In his executive orders, Wolf proposes putting a stop to some of this.

 

For example, he wants to require charter schools to stop turning away students based on race, ethnicity, gender, disability, intellectual deficits, or other factors. He wants to make charter schools as transparent as authentic public schools. He wants to stop conflicts of interests for charter school board members and operating companies so that they can’t make decisions on behalf of the school that would enrich themselves, their families and/or friends.

 

These are excellent suggestions and I hope he is able to make them a reality.

 

However, these “fixes” are all things that authentic public schools already do. They don’t discriminate in enrollment. They are financially accountable and transparent. They aren’t allowed to engage in conflicts of interest.

 

Why bother making charter schools act like authentic public schools when we already have authentic public schools? That’s like genetically engineering your cat to have a longer snout and say “woof.” Why bother when you already have a dog?

 

The same could be said about for-profit and non-profit charter schools.

 

Apologists want to pretend that the former is the “bad” type of charter and the latter is the “good” type.

 

Wrong.

 

As Jeff Bryant, an editor at Education Opportunity Network, puts it, this is a “Distinction without a difference.”

 

These terms only define an organization’s tax status – not whether it is engaged in gathering large sums of money for investors.

 

With a knowledgeable accountant or hedge fund manager, almost anyone can claim nonprofit status while still enriching yourself. It happens all the time.

 

For instance, take the use of management companies.

 

A for-profit charter school can simply cut services to students and pocket the savings as profit.

A nonprofit charter school can do the same thing after engaging in one additional step.

All they have to do is start a “nonprofit” charter school and then hire a for-profit management company to run it. Then the management company can cut services and pocket the profits!

 

 

Yet we call such a school “nonprofit.” It’s meaningless.

 

 

It doesn’t even matter who owns the for-profit management company. It could even be the same people who own the nonprofit charter school.

 

The law actually allows you to wear one hat saying you’re nonprofit and then put on a different hat and rake in the cash! The only difference is what hat you’re wearing at the time! You get to claim to be a nonprofit while enjoying all the advantages of being for-profit.

 

You can even buy things with public tax dollars through your for-profit management company and then if your “nonprofit” school goes bankrupt, you get to keep everything you bought! Or your management company does.

 

So the public takes all the risk and you reap all the reward. And you’re still called a “nonprofit.”

 

 

But let’s not forget real estate shenanigans.

 

 

If I own property X, I can sell it to my own charter school and pay myself whatever I want. And I can do the same thing with a nonprofit charter school, I just need to sell it to my for-profit management company which will still buy my property for whatever I decide to pay myself.

 

 

Face it – charter schools are a scam.

 

They are a failed policy initiative.

 

It’s time they were ended.

 

But don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting we simply throw away the people who work there or the students who are enrolled there.

 

We need to look at each charter on a case-by-case basis and decide how best to transition them to an authentic public school system.

 

In some cases, it may make sense to rehabilitate charters into fully public schools with all the transparency and regulations that means. However, in most cases it will mean eventually closing them.

 

If there are any charters that actually provide valuable services for students and their families wish to keep children enrolled there, we should allow these students to finish their academic careers there. But let the present classes be the last.

 

In schools that do not offer better outcomes than the neighborhood public school (i.e. the overwhelming majority) students should be transitioned back to the neighborhood schools.

 

If there are any charters that do not wish to abide by such changes, they should have the opportunity to become what they already are except in name – private schools. The only difference is that taxpayers will no longer take up the tab.

 

And when it comes to charter school teachers, they should not be punished for having worked in the industry. In fact, we should find ways to bring them into the authentic public schools.

 

Our public schools need more teachers. Charter teachers who are fully certified should be given first chance to fill some of those vacancies. And charter teachers who are not certified should be given the opportunity to go back to school and complete their education degrees.

 

Any sane solution to the charter school mess would include these measures with the ultimate goal of ending school privatization in all its forms financed at public expense.

 

We don’t want privatized prisons. We don’t want privatized mercenary armies like Blackwater. We don’t want privatized schools.

 

Tax dollars should go to our authentic neighborhood public schools so that we can make them even better than they already are.

 

Our students deserve the best we can give them – and we can’t give them the best when we’re needlessly paying for two separate school systems and passing legislation with more of an eye on private investors than the welfare of the next generation.

 

It is my sincere hope that this push for real charter school reform becomes an effort to solve this problem once and for all.

 

Are we brave enough to do it?

 

 

Do we have the courage and conviction to take that on?


 

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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Gov. Wolf Tries to Stop Charter Schools Gorging on Public School Funding

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Sooey! Here Pig Pig Pig!

 

No one minds that healthy call at the hog farm when it’s time to feed the sows.

 

But taxpayers do take issue with it when it’s the call of the state legislature gathering a different kind of swine around public tax dollars.

 

Pennsylvania’s 180 charter schools gobbled up $1.8 billion last year from the Commonwealth’s public schools.

 

And Gov. Tom Wolf is refusing to let them continue to gorge on public funding meant to nourish everyone.

 
Last week, he took executive action to hold these schools accountable and force them to be more transparent – even if the legislature won’t.

 
Charter schools are publicly financed but privately run. Unlike authentic public schools, charters are often administered by appointed boards. They don’t have to provide the same level of services for children, don’t have to accept all students, can make a profit and don’t even have to be transparent about how they spend their money.

 

 

Yet that money comes from taxpayers.

 

For years fiscal watchdogs have complained that the state’s 22-year-old charter school law needs revising. However, after lining lawmakers pockets with charter school cash, the legislature continually refuses to do anything about it.

 

A few Democrats have offered plans that would increase accountability, but they’ve gotten no traction. And Republican plans have almost exclusively offered to make matters worse by dumping more money in the trough and putting up a thicker curtain so we don’t see the school privatizers eat.

 

So finally Gov. Wolf, a Democrat, took action on his own.

 

He has directed his Department of Education to circumvent the legislature to develop regulations that he says,  “will level the playing field for all taxpayer-funded public schools, strengthen the accountability and transparency of charter and cyber charter schools and better serve all students.”

 

His plan would:

 
•Allow districts to limit student enrollment in charter schools where students aren’t making academic gains.

 

•Require charter schools to stop turning away students based on race, ethnicity, gender, disability, intellectual deficits, lack of athletics or other student characteristics.

 
•Make charter schools as transparent as authentic public schools.

 

 

•Stop conflicts of interests for charter school board members and operating companies so that they can’t make decisions on behalf of the school that would enrich themselves, their families and/or friends.

 
•Make charters submit to financial audits to state regulators, make them publicly bid contracts for supplies and services and use fair contracting practices.

 
•Provide greater oversight of charter school management companies so they can’t profit off of the students enrolled in the schools they’re managing.

 
•Seek more information about how prospective charters will be run in a new model state application to be used when charters seek to open up shop or renew existing charters.

 

 

•Require charters to accurately document their costs.

 
•Prevent charters from overcharging for services they provide to students.

 

•Make charters pay to cover the state’s costs for implementing the charter school law.

 

•Recoup money from charter schools for the time and services the state provides when it reviews applications, distributes payments and provides legal and administrative support to them.

 
It’s a bold step for a governor, but apparently Wolf is tired of waiting on a dysfunctional legislature to actually legislate.

 

The problem is Wolf has to be more than a governor. He has to be a goalie.

 

The state House and state Senate are deeply gerrymandered and controlled by Republicans.

 
Every year, lawmakers pass mostly crap bills written by Koch Brothers proxies only to be vetoed by Wolf.

 

 

Occasionally, the GOP convinces enough right-leaning Democrats to go with them and Wolf can’t or won’t veto the bills.

 
And that’s pretty much how things work in Harrisburg.

 

However, this time Wolf wasn’t content to just guard the net. He actually took the puck down the ice, himself, and made a slap shot on the opposing team.

 

Can he do this? Is he still operating within the law?

 

Time will tell – though I’d argue that in the absence of legislative action, he is within his job description.

 

Moreover, this is only a first step.

 

Wolf, himself, has said that more needs to be done by the legislature. Even after his executive actions, much needs to be done to make charter schools function properly in the Commonwealth.

 

Specifically, Wolf asked the legislature to pass a moratorium on new cyber charter schools, cap enrollment in low-performing charter schools until they improve, subject charter management companies to the same transparency rules that districts must follow, and create a fair, predictable and equitable charter school funding formula.

 

I’d like them to go even further.

 

Frankly, I’d like to see charter schools ended as educational institutions.
Why should the public pay for schools that aren’t locally controlled? Why pay for privatized schools at all?

 

I suppose if there are some that are functioning well for students, they can be grandfathered in, but they should be funded separately. When two districts have to compete for the same funding, the students lose.

 

At least, we should not be opening up new charters. The public should not be in the business of funding privatized schools.

 

I am grateful to Gov. Wolf for finally having the guts to stand up to this powerful industry.

 

The state exists to further the public good – not enrich private corporations like those running many charter schools.

 

It’s time we admitted that charter schools are a failed experiment and shut them down.

 

It’s time to block these pigs from chowing down on public funding without public oversight.

 


See how much each charter school gets of Commonwealth tax dollars.


 

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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Who’s Trading Public School Funding for a Tax Credit?

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Ever wonder why our roads and public school buildings are crumbling?

 

Ever wonder why schools can’t afford books, buses and nurses?

 

Ever wonder why classroom teachers are forced to buy paper, pencils and supplies for their students out of pocket?

 

Because businesses like Giant Eagle, American Eagle Outfitters, and Eat’n Park aren’t paying their fair share.

 

It’s a simple concept – you belong to a society, you should help pay for the roads, bridges, schools, etc. that everyone needs to keep that society healthy.

 

After all, as a stockholder, CEO or business owner, you directly benefit from that society. If it didn’t exist, you wouldn’t have nearly as many customers – if any.

 

Many of us learned this kind of stuff in kindergarten or grade school.

 
But ironically programs that allow businesses to avoid paying their fair share are being used to short change many of those same kindergarten and grade schools.

 

In Pennsylvania, one such program is called the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC), and everyone from local banks to Duquesne Light to UPMC healthcare providers are using it to lower their taxes while stealing from the public school cookie jar.

 
Here’s how it works.

 
If you expect a tax bill of $X at the end of the year, you can donate that same amount to the state for the purpose of helping parents pay off enrollment at a private or religious school for their children. Then you get between 75-90% of that donation back.

 

So if your tax bill is $100 and you donate $100, you can get back $90 – reducing your total tax bill to a mere 10 bucks.

 

Heck! Since this money is classified as a “donation” you can even claim it on your taxes and get an additional refund – even to the point where you end up making money on the deal! Pennsylvania even allows a “triple dip” – so you get the EITC tax credit, a reduction in your taxable income, and a reduction in your federal taxable income. We actually pay you to shortchange us on your taxes!

 

Now I’m oversimplifying a bit since you can only use the EITC for up to $750,000 a year, but it’s still a sweet deal for businesses. It just really hurts nearly everyone else because it reduces the state’s general fund – by $124 million last year, alone.

 

When we give away hundreds of millions of dollars every year to religious and parochial schools, we have less money to spend on public schools, roads and all other services that benefit the majority of our citizens – especially the poor who rely more heavily on these services.

 
So why doesn’t the state just budget this amount of money directly to religious and private schools instead of ransacking the general fund after businesses donate it to the tax incentive program?

 

Because it’s illegal to give taxpayer dollars to religious and private schools. The establishment clause of the First Amendment forbids it.

 

The founders of our country didn’t want a state religion with schools teaching theological propaganda like we had in Great Britain. Moreover, they demanded tax dollars be spent with accountability to the whole public – something you cannot do in a private or religious school which isn’t set up for everyone but only those who choose and can afford to go there.

 

However, some smart ass thought of an alleged loophole. He said that if tax money is turned into a tax credit, it’s no longer tax money and it doesn’t violate the rules to spend it on religious and private schools.

 

So this is a fiscal sleight of hand meant to give businesses a tax break while boosting private schools.

 
Who’s guilty of hiding behind this loophole to bolster their bottom line while short changing ours?

 

Probably a lot of businesses you know.

 

Thankfully, their donations to the EITC Program are a matter of public record as is how much money returned to them as savings.

 

You can find a handy database of state businesses right HERE searchable by county compiled by Pennsylvania Capital-Star.

 

 

I happen to live in Allegheny County in the Pittsburgh region – the second highest area of the Commonwealth for these tax dodge…. I mean credits.

 

 

Across the county in 2017-18 (the most recent year for which data is available), Allegheny County businesses donated $15,741,544. They got back $14,180,261 in tax credits.

 
A quick search came up with these noteworthy businesses:

 
Fatheads – the Southside sports bar along Carson Street in Pittsburgh
Contribution: $ 10,000
Tax Credit: $ 9,000

 
AEO Management, Co. 
(American Eagle Outfitters Corporate Office in the South Side, Pittsburgh)
Contribution: $ 350,000
Tax Credit: $ 315,000

 
Apex Diamonds, Inc. (A Pittsburgh jeweler)
Contribution: $ 149,000
Tax Credit: $ 134,100

 
Cochran Motors, Inc. (car dealership in Monroeville)
Donation: $ 100,000
Tax Credit: $ 90,000

 
Deer Leasing Co. (freight and cargo business) THREE ENTRIES:
Donation: $ 444,444
Tax Credit: $ 400,000

 

Deer Leasing Co.
Donation: $ 221,111
Tax Credit: $ 200,000

 

Deer Leasing Co.
Donation: $ 388,888
Tax Credit: $ 349,999

 
-Dollar BankTWO ENTRIES
Donation: $ 225,000
Tax Credit: $ 202,500

 

Dollar Bank
Donation: $ 400,000
Tax Credit: $ 360,000

 
Duquesne Light CompanyTHREE ENTRIES
Donation: $ 10,000
Tax Credit $ 10,000
(So 100% return on investment!?)

 

Duquesne Light Company
Donation: $ 50,000
Tax Credit: $ 45,000

 

Duquesne Light Company
Donation: $ 240,000
Tax Credit: $ 216,000

 

-Eat’n Park Hospitality Group, Inc. (Corporate headquarters in Homestead)
Donation: $ 25,000
Tax Credit: $ 23,500

 

-Federated Advisory Services Company (Asset management company) – THREE ENTRIES
Donation: $ 111,111
Tax Credit: $ 100,000

 

Federated Investment Counseling
Donation: $ 111,111
Tax Credit: $ 100,000

 

Federated Investment Counseling
Donation: $ 222,222
Tax Credit: $ 200,000

 
Giant Eagle, Inc.TWO ENTRIES
Donation: $ 833,333
Tax Credit: $ 750,000

 

Giant Eagle, Inc.
Donation: $ 221,111
Tax Credit: $ 200,000

 
Glimcher Brokerage, Inc. (Real estate company) – TWO ENTRIES
Donation: $ 380,000
Tax Credit: $ 342,000

 

Glimcher Group, Inc.
Donation: $ 300,000
Tax Credit: $ 270,000

 
HM Health Insurance Company (Camp Hill, Pa) – THREE ENTRIES
Donation: $ 50,000
Tax Credit: $ 45,000

 

HM Health Insurance Company
Donation: $ 243,333
Tax Credit: $ 219,000

 

HM Health Insurance Company
Donation: $ 165,556
Tax Credit: $ 150,000

 
PNC Bank, N.A. – TWO ENTRIES
Donation: $ 685,000
Tax Credit: $ 616,500

 

PNC Bank, N.A.
Donation: $ 148,303
Tax Credit: $ 133,500

 
Rohrich Imports, Inc. (Luxury Pittsburgh Car Dealership)
Donation: $ 60,000
Tax Credit: $ 54,000

 
The Buncher Company (property management company) – THREE ENTRIES
Donation: $ 416,667
Tax Credit: $ 375,000

 

The Buncher Company
Donation: $ 416,667
Tax Credit: $ 375,000

 

The Buncher Company
Donation: $ 221,111
Tax Credit: $ 200,000

 

The Huntington National BankTWO ENTRIES
Donation: $ 549,556
Tax Credit: $ 494,600

 

The Huntington National Bank
Donation: $ 111,111
Tax Credit: $ 100,000

 
UnitedHealthcare of Pennsylvania, Inc.
Donation: $ 200,000
Tax Credit: $ 180,000

 

-UPMC Diversified Services, Inc. (Healthcare provider) – SIX ENTRIES
Donation: $ 200,000
Tax Credit: $ 180,000

 
UPMC Diversified Services, Inc.
Donation: $ 200,000
Tax Credit: $ 181,000

 

UPMC Diversified Services, Inc.
Donation: $ 190,000
Tax Credit: $ 171,000

 

UPMC Health Benefits, Inc.
Donation: $ 200,000
Tax Credit: $ 180,000

 

UPMC Health Benefits, Inc.
Donation: $ 200,000
Tax Credit: $ 181,000

 

UPMC Health Benefits, Inc.
Donation: $ 200,000
Tax Credit: $ 180,000

 

But this leaves out the largest and shadiest group donating to the EITC Program – Limited Liability Corporations (LLCs).

 

 

These “special purpose entities” are set up to represent individual donors so they can more easily divert tax dollars to private and parochial schools.

 

LLCs represent hundreds of individuals who allow the LLC to donate on their behalf and then they get the tax credits passed back to them. It’s a way to encourage the wealthy to get the tax cut and support school privatization without all the hassle of doing the paperwork themselves.

 

And most (if not all) of these LLCs are set up by religious organizations to boost their own parochial schools.

 

For instance, Business Leadership Organized for Catholic Schools is perhaps the largest LLC receiving EITC funds.

 

Across the state, these organization made $15.6 million in donations and claimed $14 million in tax credits.

 

In Allegheny County, the largest are CASTA-SOS LLC and Pittsburgh Jewish Scholarship LLC.

 

CASTA was set up by the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh Jewish Scholarship benefits Jewish schools in the city.

 

Here’s how much they took from the state general fund last year:

 

CASTA-SOS I LLC
Donation: $ 509,500
Tax Credit: $ 458,550

 

CASTA-SOS II LLC
Donation: $ 460,890
Tax Credit: $ 414,801

 
Pittsburgh Jewish Scholarship I LLC
Donation: $ 675,250
Tax Credit: $ 607,725

 

Pittsburgh Jewish Scholarship II LLC
Donation: $ 750,000
Tax Credit: $ 675,000

 

EITC money went to almost 1,170 different organizations across the state. A fraction were YMCA’s, the Salvation Army and preschools. But the vast majority were private and religious schools.

 

Defenders of the project claim this money goes to fund “scholarships” for poor children to help defray the costs of enrollment at these schools.

 

However, a family making as much as $100,608 per year can qualify for an EITC scholarship for their child. A family with two children could make up to $116,216 and still qualify.

 

Consider this: one of the largest single recipients of this money in Allegheny County was the exclusive Shady Side Academy in Pittsburgh. The private secular school took in almost $1 million last year so that its wealthy students didn’t have to spend as much on enrollment.

 

Why are we subsidizing the rich?

 

Why are we robbing the poor to do so?

 

Why are we using public money to fund the teaching of climate denial, creationism, indoctrination in religious and political ideologies?

 

The short answer – our politicians are spineless and indebted to the people this benefits.

 

Just this summer, the Pennsylvania legislature AGAIN increased the limit for the program by an additional $25 million.

 

That’s the pattern. Every year, the Republican-controlled (and heavily gerrymandered) legislature can’t get their regressive policies passed Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. They need some Democrats to support their spending priorities. So they entice right-leaning Democrats with increases to these tax incentive programs in order to reach compromises.

 

The result – every year we allow more tax dollars to fly away to private and religious schools while further undermining funding for public schools.

 

But it could have been worse. Earlier in the year, the legislature passed a measure to increase the EITC Program by $100 million. Thankfully it was vetoed by Gov. Wolf. Unfortunately, he let the $25 million increase get through.

 

This is a problem that is not going away.

 

We need to let our lawmakers know in no uncertain terms that we do NOT support these programs. And this isn’t just Republican lawmakers. We especially need to pressure Democrats and even run challengers to those who are not progressive enough in the primaries.

 

And we need to let businesses who partake of the smorgasbord of tax credits that doing so will lose them our business.

 

If we want to stop theft disguised as “tax credits,” we have to start hitting these businesses where it hurts – in the pocketbook.

 

Because they certainly don’t feel it in their hearts.


 

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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Pennsylvania Law Meant to Forbid Arming Teachers May Have Done Just the Opposite

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Pennsylvania teachers, don’t forget to pack your Glock when returning to school this year.

 

A new law meant to close the door on arming teachers may have cracked it open.

 

Despite warnings from gun safety activists, the bill, SB 621, was approved by the legislature and signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf this summer.

 

The legislation explicitly allows security guards – independent contractors who are not members of law enforcement – to carry guns in schools if they go through special training.

 

And that’s bad enough.

 

Why you’d want glorified rent-a-cops with guns strapped to their hips running around schools full of children is beyond me.

 

That’s not going to make anyone safer. It’s going to do just the opposite.

 

But that’s not even the worst of it.

 

Commonwealth law already allowed for armed police and school resource officers in school buildings.

 

The new bill just adds security guards to the accepted list – so long as they go through special training.

 

So some observers are asking what happens if teachers and administrators go through the same training? Wouldn’t they then qualify as “security personnel” and thus be eligible to be armed as part of their jobs?

 

Some say yes.

 

But others go even farther.

 

The bill only says who may be armed in schools. It doesn’t say anything about who may not be armed.

 

So if a district were to arm teachers – even without that special security guard training – it wouldn’t be specifically breaking the law. It would be operating in a huge loophole left open by the legislature and Gov. Wolf.

 

In fact, the original version of the bill would have covered just such an ambiguity. It included language saying that ONLY the people specifically mentioned in the law (police, resource officers and security guards) were allowed to be armed. However, Wolf could not get legislators to agree on it, so this language was stripped from the bill that was eventually passed.

 

This isn’t just theoretical.

 

Several school administrators have already taken advantage of it.

A handful of superintendents in rural parts of the state have already gotten permission from country law enforcement officials and are now carrying guns to school, according to a lawyer representing 50 Commonwealth districts.

 

Attorney Ronald Repak, of Altoona-based Beard Legal Group, gave a presentation at a school safety conference saying that his firm had secured permission from local district attorneys for administrators to carry firearms as part of their jobs. They cited ambiguity in the law that allowed for different interpretations.

 

Repak said that fewer than six superintendents had been approved, but he would not say which ones or which districts employed them.

 

Meanwhile, a district in the eastern part of the state between Hershey and Allentown has already passed a policy to arm teachers and staff.

 

Tamaqua Area School District in Schuylkill County, approved the policy last year but suspended it following litigation from the teachers association and a parent group.

 

Since Harrisburg passed this new measure, school board members and administration have been going back and forth about how it pertains to their policy and whether they can legally reinstate it even with pending litigation.

 
SB 621 was supposed to fix the ambiguity of previous statutes on the matter.

 

Title 18, Section 912 of the Pa. Crimes Code says that no one except recognized security personnel may bring a weapon onto school grounds, unless it is for a supervised school activity or “other lawful purpose.”

 

But again that leaves a huge loophole.

 

Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera wrote in 2016 that the Pennsylvania Department of Education considers “the scope of ‘lawful purpose’…unclear and unsettled.”

 

That’s what originally prompted Tamaqua school directors to pass their policy to arm teachers – the first of its kind in the state.

 

The Republican majority in the legislature has been trying to pass a law explicitly allowing teachers to be armed for years.

 

In June of 2017, the state Senate even passed just such a bill but it got nowhere in the House. Moreover, Gov. Wolf threatened to veto it.

 

And that has been the pattern in Harrisburg on most matters – a gerrymandered GOP-controlled legislature narrowly passing far right legislation checked by a popularly elected Democratic governor.

 

However, Republicans may have gotten one passed the goal with SB 621.

 

Wolf had hoped the bill would end the matter once and for all. When he signed it into law, he released a statement saying:

 

“The students, parents, and educators in this commonwealth can now be secure in the knowledge that teachers can dedicate themselves to teaching our children, and that the security of school facilities rests in the hands of trained, professional security personnel.”

 

Ceasefire Pennsylvania, a statewide gun safety organization, saw the danger and warned against it. The organization urged the legislature not to pass the bill and the governor not to sign it.

 

In a letter sent to lawmakers, the group wrote:

 

“…adding security personnel who do not have the same law enforcement background, training and experience of those personnel already authorized to serve as school security in the School Code is misguided.

[In addition] …although we understand that the legislation initially was intended only to address security personnel, we believe SB 621 could be manipulated by school districts intent on arming teachers as a ‘security’ measure… We hope you will Vote No on SB 621.”

 
The matter is bound to wind up in the courts where it will ultimately be decided.

 
Concerned citizens should probably go to their local school board and let directors know they don’t want school personnel – security guards or others – packing heat.

 

To be clear, the new bill doesn’t require security guards to be armed, but it does allow districts to arm them if they go through the necessary training.

 

The instruction outlined in the law required before guards can be armed costs less than $500 per person.

 

It includes lessons on developing relationships with diverse students, understanding special needs students, how to deal with violence, victimization, threat response and the prevention of violence in schools. It also includes Act 235 lethal weapons training on specifically how to carry and use lethal weapons.

 

Some legislators wanted security guards to have to go through the same training as police officers – a 900-hour municipal course. However, since this would include instruction school security officers would not need such as lessons on traffic laws and the vehicle code – not to mention its hefty cost of $9,000 per person – it was scrapped.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against security guards. There are several good ones at my district.

 

However, putting guns in their hands doesn’t make me feel any safer.

 

A few years ago, a security guard at my school lost his job because he slammed one of my students into a lunch table.

 

The child in question was certainly difficult and could be defiant. But he was a middle school age child. He didn’t deserve to have his head slammed into a table – nor would I want someone with so little impulse control to have to police his trigger finger during tense confrontations with students.

 

Arming security guards is just plain dumb. Heck! So is arming teachers and administrators!

 

This isn’t the wild west. It’s a classroom.

 

In real-world shootings, police officers miss their targets about 4-in-5 shots, according to Dr. Peter Langman, a psychologist who’s studied school shootings. Do you really expect rent-a-cops and teachers to be more accurate?

 

Even armed police don’t do much to stop school shootings.

 

The four high-profile school shootings in 2018 — including the one in Parkland, Florida and Santa Fe, Texas — had armed guards. All failed to stop the gunmen.

 

But research consistently shows that increasing the number of guns in schools increases the likelihood that students will get hold of them.

 

What we need are sensible gun regulations to limit the number of people who have access to firearms. We need mandatory background checks and a ban on assault weapons – the murder instrument of choice for mass shooters. We need buy back programs to reduce the ridiculous numbers of guns available.

 

This new law does none of that. It was a Faustian bargain at best – and like always happens when you try to best the Devil, you end up losing.

 

Only this time, the losers are our teachers and school children.


 

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