Thank you, Gov. Wolf, for Reissuing a Mask Mandate for PA Schools. Time for Next Steps

My daughter’s school has been open for seven days so far this year.

The school where I teach has been open three days.

Masks optional at both.

Do you know how terrifying that is for a father – to send his only child off to class hoping she’ll be one of the lucky ones who doesn’t get sick?

Do you know how frustrating it is for an educator like me trying to teach while unsure how long your students will be well enough to stay in class? Unsure how long you will?

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) warns we should wear masks in school to protect from Covid-19, especially the more virulent delta variant.

So does the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Nationwide Children’s Hospitals Care Connection, the Allegheny County Department of Health…

And just about every doctor, immunologist and specialist at UPMC as well as the Pennsylvania State Education Association, and the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

Heck! Even the Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s editorial board – not always a bastion of good sense – called the decision to mask in schools a “no brainer.”

But somehow my duly elected school board couldn’t find the courage to enact that advice.

The school directors where I work refused to even explain their reasoning behind denying the precaution.

But BOTH groups promised to abide by any mandates handed down from on high.

It seemed that neither group had the courage to make the decision, themselves. They just passed it on to parents knowing full well that there would be no consistency.

Gather together a large enough group of anyone and it’s doubtful they’ll all agree on anything. And all it takes is one or two people to come to school unmasked to infect everybody there!

Thank goodness for Governor Tom Wolf.

Today he announced a mask mandate at all preK-12 schools, both public and private, and licensed child care centers beginning next Tuesday.

The mandate comes after three weeks of Wolf refusing to take this step.

At first, he said he was going to leave this up to the individual school boards – but they dropped the ball.

Only 36.8% of districts throughout Pennsylvania enacted some form of mass mandate on their own, though they serve 53.25% of students.

That’s 184 districts with some form of mask requirement, 307 optional and 9 unknown.

What a disgrace!

It just goes to show that the great majority of school directors in the Commonwealth are cowards, stupid or both.

If the voters don’t rise up and replace these fools, we will only have ourselves to blame.

They have betrayed the public trust.

They should be hounded from our midst, unfit to even show themselves in society.

To put kids lives at risk because you haven’t the guts to take the responsibility! Or worse, to be so idiotic as to distrust nearly every medical professional, scientist, immunologist or specialist!

As a state, and as a country, we have been given an intelligence test – and our leaders have mostly failed.

I am thankful Governor Wolf acted.

Finally.

Wolf’s emergency powers to sustain a state disaster declaration were curtailed by voters in the May election.

Another failure of voters to turn out and support one of the few people with the courage to protect our children.

However, May’s referendum did not affect the Wolf administration’s ability to implement a masking order or other public-health rules under the state’s disease-control law. The Pennsylvania Department of Health has the authority to issue a statewide mask order for K-12 schools under a state law that empowers the department to take appropriate measures to protect the public from infectious diseases.

To his credit, Wolf tried to work with the legislature to get this done.

He asked the Republican-controlled state House and Senate to come back in session and vote on the matter. But since they prefer politics to safeguarding children they refused.

We are fortunate to have at least one adult in Harrisburg – and he lives in the Governor’s mansion.

However, we can’t get complacent.

This mask mandate is only step one of what needs to be done.

As many other states have done, we need to require all school employees to get the Covid vaccine or provide proof of regular negative COVID tests just to enter educational buildings.

Right now children younger than 12 are not eligible to be vaccinated. We need to require those young people who are eligible to get the vaccine or provide them with an alternative like remote learning. And when the vaccine has been cleared for all children, we need to add it to the long list of other vaccines children already need to get to enter school.

We need an influx of funding to make it possible to keep kids in school and still keep them socially distanced. As it is now, this is nearly impossible – I speak from experience.

The school where I teach has hardly any social distancing, and frankly we can’t have in-person school without more classrooms, more teachers, more space.

We need to bring back cleaning protocols to make sure every classroom is properly disinfected between periods. We need to ensure that school buildings are properly ventilated.

Will this be expensive? Probably, but if we could waste $300 million a day for two decades in Afghanistan that resulted in NOTHING, we can afford to properly fund our schools for once!

But most of all, we have to come to an understanding – the pandemic is not over – and it will not be over until enough of the general population is vaccinated.

Are you frustrated by masks? Are you frustrated we have to keep going back to these safety precautions?

Me, too.

But these precautions can’t go away just because we’re frustrated. People have to understand that the only way they will go away is if everyone does their part.

Going out in public unmasked should bring severe social consequences.

People who recklessly put the lives of others in danger just because they don’t feel like being bothered deserve the cold shoulder.


They should be stigmatized, rebuffed and ostracized.

Let me be clear. I’m not talking about physical violence. I’m talking about social consequences for acting like an Asshole.

We need to grow up.

Actions have consequences.

We need a functioning society.

And communities that can’t even come together to protect their own children are nothing of the sort.

It’s way past time we took action.

Gov. Wolf has put us on the path, but this is not over.

This is just the beginning.


 

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School Leaders Refusing to Mandate Masks Are Responsible for the Coming Storm

I would love for this to be a normal school year.

I would relish the opportunity to teach my classes of middle school students without a mask covering my face and obscuring my voice.  


I would enjoy being able to see the expressions on their faces as I welcomed them to class and got to know them.

 

But I am not stupid.  

I know that doing so would not be worth the cost.

The pandemic is not over – not in Pennsylvania. Covid-19 cases are on the rise in my community and an increasing number of children have gotten sick, been hospitalized or died. 

Forgoing masks would risk more. It’s just not worth it.

Only a month ago child Covid cases numbered in the zeroes or low single-digits each day in my home of Allegheny County, according to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. During the past two weeks there have been as many as 30 to 40 new child cases a day. 


 
Some of these are kids 11 and younger who are not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. Some are  those 12 and older who have not been vaccinated. And a few are break-through cases among vaccinated kids, said Dr. Andrew Nowalk, clinical director of infectious diseases at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. 


 
Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) are recommending everyone in schools – students, staff, visitors, etc. – wear masks whether they’ve been vaccinated or not. 


 
As a school director, why would you take a chance with the children in your care? 


 
There are so many questions I have about this situation that all seem to boil down to variations on that one


 


Dr. Todd Wolynn, CEO of Kids Plus Pediatrics, an independent pediatrics practice with several locations in the region, put it this way: 


 
“We’re here to ask one question to school districts not doing universal masking: Why is your situation safer [without a mask mandate] than what is recommended by the AAP and the CDC?” 


 
Why is it safer to forgo this precaution?  


 
Wearing a mask is not all that hard. We all did it throughout most of the last year and a half. 


Why is it so hard to just continue doing it a little while longer? 


 
I asked a similar question of Bryan Macuga, Assistant Superintendent of Steel Valley School District where I work.  


 


He mentioned at a district wide meeting that the new health and safety plan approved by the school board makes masks optional this year. I asked him why.  


 
He refused to give me an answer. He simply said that’s what’s been decided and would say no more.  


 
Superintendent Ed Wehrer was there at the meeting wearing a mask to – as he put it – “model” that behavior. Wehrer said he was empowered by the school board to mandate masks if it became necessary. He hasn’t done so nor did he find it necessary to answer my question, either. 


 
I can’t imagine it.  
 


If these leaders really think it is better not to mandate masks, why not explain their reasoning. We may agree or disagree with them, but they can’t even show us the courtesy of a straight answer to a fair question. 


 
Whatever their reasoning, most Allegheny County school directors must disagree with it.  


 
The majority of the county’s 43 school districts – 70% – have mandated masks in their schools. It’s heartening to see so many school leaders putting children over politics this way. I just wish I lived and worked in one of their communities.  


 
Only 13 county districts are making masks optional and most of those are clustered on the southeastern border with more rural (and Republican) Westmoreland County. 


 

I don’t understand how ideology makes people risk the lives of their own kids.  


 


Masks and vaccines should not be political.  


 
They should be the purview of science and reason


 
Throughout the rest of the state, the situation seems even worse.  


 
Pennsylvania has 500 school districts. Of 474 that submitted health and safety plans by July, only 59 reported plans to mandate masks for the 2021-22 year. This number is certainly higher now as districts changed their plans based on increases in Covid cases through August. But the situation is still incredibly frustrating. 


 
This week Gov. Tom Wolf called on the legislature to reconvene and pass a motion to mandate masks in Commonwealth schools.  


 
However, Wolf is a Democrat and the legislature is controlled by Republicans so this request was soundly rejected.  


 
It’s unclear whether Wolf will try to do this on his own under his authority as governor especially since voters just limited his ability to do so in a referendum in May.  


 
Politics. Stupid politics while our children are in danger.  


 
Elections have consequences but so do boneheaded decisions by elected leaders.  


 
The choice to make masks optional needlessly puts so much in jeopardy.  


 
Not just healthy and safety but the ability of schools to function well.  


 
One of the major takeaways of the last pandemic year was how ineffective and frustrating remote schooling is. Even under the best of circumstances in-person classes are far superior.  


 


However, refusing to put in place safety precautions like universal masking puts in-person learning at risk.  


 
If Covid infections are high enough, schools must close and go back to remote instruction.  


 
Why would school directors risk that?  


 
If their main concern is academics, why not install the kinds of provisions that at least allow for the best method of instruction?  
 


There seems to be a cynical calculus here – various games of chicken with local government against higher state and federal authorities.  


 
Republicans refuse to legislate safety precautions. Democrats often are too afraid to do so.  


 
The result is our current fractured map of diverse reactions to the same disaster.  


 
In short, it may take a larger disaster to break the political gridlock.  


 
Certainly kids will get sick. Without a doubt they will bring the virus home to parents, friends and family.  


 
But will the net result be bad enough to force – and I do mean FORCE – lockdowns, quarantines and remote schooling? 


 
I don’t know the answer. And neither do anti-maskers, but they are recklessly betting that the consequences won’t be bad enough to force their hand.  


 
Honestly, in a sane society this careless attitude endangering children and families would be enough to bring condemnation and shame.  


 
But in our broken system it will take a true catastrophe of epic proportions. Judging from last year, mask optional districts will do whatever they can to obscure the level of damage their policies are doing and stay the course unless the explosion is so big as to be impossible to hide.

We’re talking kindergarten classes full of Covid patients, tiny tots attached to ventilators, lawsuits and funerals in equal measure.
 


I don’t know if it will come to that, but if it does, we know who to blame.  


 
Any disruptions in education, any illnesses, any long-term effects must be laid at the feet of the decision makers who could have protected us from it but refused to do so. 


 
They have a responsibility that is being ignored.  


 
I can only hope that one day they receive the justice their actions today make them so richly deserve.


 

The following is a list from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette of public school districts in Allegheny County and their position on universal masking for the 2021-22 school year (as of Wednesday, Aug. 25): 


MASKS REQUIRED 


Allegheny Valley (Cheswick and Springdale boroughs; Harmar and Springdale townships) 


Avonworth School District (Ben Avon, Ben Avon Heights, Emsworth, Kilbuck and Ohio Township) 


Bethel Park 


Carlynton (Carnegie, Crafton, Rosslyn Farms) 


Clairton City 


Cornell (Coraopolis, Neville Island) 


East Allegheny (East McKeesport, Wall, Wilmerding, North Versailles) 


Fox Chapel Area (Fox Chapel, Sharpsburg, Aspinwall, O’Hara, Blawnox, Indiana Township) 


Gateway (Monroeville, Pitcairn) 


Hampton 


Keystone-Oaks (Dormont, Castle Shannon, Green Tree) 


Montour (Kennedy Township, Robinson Township, Ingram, Thornburg, Pennsbury Village) 


Moon Area (Crescent, Moon) 


Mt. Lebanon 


North Allegheny — (Marshall, McCandless, Bradford Woods, Franklin Park); masks required as a result of legal action. 


Northgate — (Bellevue, Avalon) 


North Hills (Ross, West View) 


Penn Hills 


Pine-Richland 


Pittsburgh Public Schools (Pittsburgh, Mount Oliver) 


Quaker Valley (Sewickley, Leetsdale, Edgeworth, Glen Osborne, Sewickley Hills, Sewickley Heights, Bell Acres, Haysville, Glenfield, Leet, Aleppo) 


Riverview (Oakmont, Verona) 


Shaler Area (Shaler, Etna, Millvale, Reserve) 


South Fayette 


Sto-Rox (McKees Rocks, Stowe) 


Upper St. Clair 


West Allegheny (Findlay, North Fayette, Oakdale) 


West Mifflin Area (West Mifflin, Whitaker) 


Wilkinsburg 


Woodland Hills (Braddock, Braddock Hills, Chalfant, Churchill, East Pittsburgh, Edgewood, Forest Hills, North Braddock, Rankin, Swissvale, Turtle Creek, Wilkins) 


OPTIONAL 


Baldwin-Whitehall 


Brentwood 


Chartiers Valley — Optional but “strongly recommended”; (Bridgeville, Heidelberg, Collier, Scott) 


Deer Lakes (West Deer, Frazer, East Deer) 


Duquesne City 


Elizabeth Forward 


Highlands (Tarentum, Brackenridge, Fawn, Harrison) 


McKeesport Area (McKeesport, Versailles, South Versailles, Dravosburg, White Oak) 


Plum 


South Allegheny (Port Vue, Liberty, Glassport, Lincoln) 


South Park 


Steel Valley (Homestead, Munhall, West Homestead) 


West Jefferson Hills (Jefferson Hills, West Elizabeth, Pleasant Hills)   

 


 

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McKeesport School Board Makes Masks Optional as Covid Infections Rise Among Children

When I got to the McKeesport School Board meeting last evening, I was relieved to see a vote to follow the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Pennsylvania and Allegheny County Health Department mandates about wearing masks in schools.

“Finally,” I thought. “The board is doing something sensible to keep our kids safe from Covid-19.”

Later I found out this motion didn’t mean what I thought it meant.

The district wasn’t mandating masks to protect kids during a global pandemic. It was vowing to follow any mandates put forth by higher authorities IF such mandates were passed.

In the meantime – in the absence of such mandates – the district passed a health and safety plan where masks would be entirely optional for students and staff.

The motion was approved 6-3, with only Mindy Sturgess, James Brown and Steve Kondrosky voting against it. Joe Lopretto, Diane Elias, Dave Donato, Tom Filotei, Ivan Hampton, and Jim Poston voted in favor.

I spoke to the board before the vote, during the public comment section, asking them to BOTH mandate masks and require eligible students and staff to be vaccinated.

Here are my comments in full:

“Thank you for allowing me to speak today.

Being a school director is a hard job. You give up time with friends and family every month to consider what’s best for the community’s children.

It’s especially hard during Covid-19. Decisions concerning public health should be made by the
President, the Governor and – honestly – scores of people before it gets to you. But during this global pandemic, the big dogs have continually passed the buck on down the line until it was on your desks.

It’s unfair.

You may all be nice people, but you aren’t experts on immunology or public safety. Nor do you have ready access to those experts.

But you are tasked with making decisions that directly impact the health and safety of district students and staff. You have an OBLIGATION to safeguard every child and adult.

So what is the best way to reopen schools this year?

Don’t ask me. I’m not an expert, either.

But I have heard from those experts.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends all schools mandate masking and require vaccinations for all people 12 and older. The US Department of Education recommends the same. As does the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and a host of other organizations in prime positions to know what is best.

You have an obligation to listen to them.

Only 63% of Pennsylvanian adults are vaccinated against Covid-19.

Less than 30% of Americans ages 12 to 15, and only 41% of Americans 16 to 17 are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. And since they are not eligible yet, all children 11 and younger are not vaccinated.

This means our kids are in danger of catching this virus. Every elementary student and many in middle school are completely unvaccinated. And a good percentage of those older.

According to the district’s own Covid Tracker, 132 students and 89 staff were diagnosed with Covid since the pandemic began.

That’s 221 people. Far too many if you ask me – and with the more infectious delta variant, we can’t allow such numbers to continue.

Nearly 94,000 new child Covid cases were reported last week- a substantial increase, according to the AAP and the Children’s Hospital Association (CHA).

That’s not just Texas and Florida. That’s Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, too.

According to KDKA, the number of kids hospitalized with Covid at UPMC Children’s Hospital has nearly doubled in the last week.

That’s 50 hospitalizations in the past month including 20 in the last week.

“The only way to protect these younger children under 12 is for those of us over 12 to get vaccinated and wear masks,” said Dr. John Williams, UPMC Chief of Infectious Diseases.

“The decisions that those who are leading our schools’ policies, I want them to think about masking and distancing together as possibilities for keeping people safe,” said Dr. Graham Snyder, UPMC medical Director of Infection Prevention and Hospital Epidemiology.

Don’t listen to me.

Listen to these people.

Mandate masks in McKeesport Area School District (MASD). It is not difficult. You did it last year. You can do it this year, no problem.

It is absolutely the LEAST you can do.

You should also mandate that all people 12 and older in district buildings be vaccinated and submit proof of vaccination.


If they refuse, you have remote options available.

Please put your politics and pride aside. This is not about which school district is tougher or proving a point about your independence and autonomy.

This is about keeping children safe.

Please do the right thing. Mandate masks and vaccinations at MASD.

When I was done, there was absolutely zero response.

They just went on with the meeting.

Every other person who spoke during public comments got some kind of response. For me – nothing.

I was still under the impression that the board was going to vote in favor of a mask mandate. I thought I had been too hard on them even bringing it up.

Ha!

The issue was finally addressed when the health and safety plan came up for a vote. Board member Sturgess asked Superintendent Dr. Mark Holtzman to address the issues and my comments.

It lead to the following interaction between Holtman and Sturgess before the vote:

Holtzman: “We will continue mitigation strategies, social distancing, managing the way in which children transition into the building, the way they eat lunch, things of that nature. It is recommended in the plan that masks are highly recommended for staff and students but they are optional so it’s the family’s choice, the students choice to wear a mask if they so choose, and if a mandate comes down from the Allegheny County Health Director then obviously we’d have to shift gears at that point. Masks also must be worn on transportation. That is part of a mandate that exists – children riding school transportation must wear masks. Approximately half of Allegheny County Schools at this point are providing optional opportunities for staff and students to wear masks based on the needs of the community. We have not seen the numbers rise in Allegheny County yet above the substantial level. That may change or shift the mandate so at this particular point that’s what’s recommended so we will continue to provide hand sanitizer, one way hallways, forward facing children in the cafeteria, and do everything that we can to continue to socially distance children based on how many children are in the classroom.”

Sturgess: “[Director of Allegheny County Health Department] Dr. [Debra] Bogen did highly recommend masks. If masks are not required and we are not able to maintain social distancing what does a close contact look like? Are we going to be putting a lot more of our students and teachers in isolation without having a backup plan?”

Holtzman: “The CDC’s recommendation is 3 feet right now. We’re able to provide 3 feet between children in our classrooms whether they’re full or not. So that’s helpful. Also if children and staff are vaccinated, they do not have to quarantine. Also if children choose to wear a mask, they don’t have to quarantine. So the rules have shifted and changed a little bit. Because we’ve had the best practice of probably any school district in Pennsylvania. I think we’ll be able to manage. I think we may run into a problem where it does become a big deal, but now Allegheny County Health Department has decided that they are going to manage the contact tracing, and we know how that’s going to turn out. That’s overwhelming for them. At some point they’ve given up on some things.”

“The other thing is when you ask for vaccinations, you don’t have a right to ask for vaccinations so… if you ask for a vaccination and someone is dishonest with you there’s no way to prove that. They have a right to do how they see fit. So even our staff members we don’t have a document that says who’s vaccinated, who’s not, who ignored the round that was available at the AIU, who decided to do it over the summer. So there’s also lots of examples of people vaccinated that become ill anyway. I think we have a number of different equations and a number of different views. Dr. Debra Bogen is outstanding. Allegheny County Health Department is outstanding, and we’re going to continue to talk with them every Thursday in our superintendent group. They’re going to continue to guide us…”

Sturgess: “What was her recommendation last week?”

Holtzman: “Recommending masks. I think from her explanations of it, they don’t know enough. So there’s not enough studies or details but they will admit or say it’s not impacting children the way it impacts adults…”

Sturgess: “She kind of backtracked that a little bit… Something I like about this [health and safety plan] that we did not have last year is the opportunity for that synchronous live instruction for students who choose the virtual option. I know as an educator I’m much more comfortable with having that available to our students when we didn’t have that available last year… K through high school – there’s been some arrangement for that live instruction to occur.”

Holtzman: “I think one of the challenges we face was determining how much of a negative impact is the virus having on our children vs. the fact that they may have gaps in their education for the past two years. On-line experiences have not been very robust or meaningful even when you provide live instruction in synchronous learning… What’s more detrimental, the illness? Is it truly going to reach the level of hospitalizing children regularly and those types of things? Or is this something that can be overcome for a slight couple days? …Not having kids in school for two years – for most districts not McKeesport – has been more detrimental for most children. We were very fortunate that our children who did have the virus were not hospitalized. That doesn’t mean we’re always going to be that lucky but those are some of the things we have to consider.”

So they voted to make masks optional and do absolutely nothing about vaccinations.

In my opinion, it is a big mistake.


They are ignoring the recommendations of medical professionals and immunologists choosing instead to simply pass these recommendations on to parents. It makes every child susceptible to the recklessness of one or two.

It’s the cowards way out of a tough choice – simply pass it on to someone else and make them responsible.

As to requiring vaccinations, Holtzman is obviously wrong. The district already requires students to show proof of a plethora of vaccinations before they can start kindergarten. Measles, mumps, rubella… Covid is just one more.

And there IS a record of Covid vaccinations – the vaccine card you get when you are injected. I have mine, my wife has hers, my daughter has hers.

Holtzman is again taking the cowards way out.

And the worst part is he’s proud of it.

He’s proud of how long the district has stayed open during the pandemic and left it all to chance for district students.

I wonder if this reckless attitude is why a slight majority (5 of 9 members) had to resort to a special meeting last month to renew his contract early. He resigned and a day later was offered a new contract. Many of those voting for the contract are lame ducks who would not have a chance to vote when his current contract was up.

And far from showing any guilt over the matter, the same school directors did the same thing with Assistant Superintendent Dr. Tia Wanzo at this meeting. They accepted her resignation and then immediately rehired her with a new contract. The vote was nearly the same as that for Holzman – Lopretto, Elias, Hampton, Poston and Filotei voted in favor. Kondrosky, Brown, Sturgess and Donato voted against it.

Hampton, Poston and Filotei all will be replaced in January. They either lost re-election during the May primary or decided to step down. Of those voting in favor, only Lopretto and Elias will remain on the board in the new year.

Clearly many on the board are doing whatever they please and not letting issues of morality or legality stop them.

It is a sad statement on the nature of our district.

But even worse, it is the children who may have to pay the highest toll.

Video of the complete meeting:


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McKeesport Superintendent Gets 5 Year New Contract A Day After Resignation

McKeesport Area School Directors voted at a special meeting on Tuesday to give Superintendent Dr. Mark Holtzman a new five year contract – a day after he had resigned from the position.

A video of the entire five minute meeting was published on Youtube by the Pennsylvania district located just south of Pittsburgh.

The five board members who voted in favor of the new contract were Board President Joseph Lopretto, Vice President Diane Elias, Ivan Hampton, Jim Poston and Tom Filotei.

In fact, they were the only school directors at the meeting. Steven Kondrosky, James Brown and Mindy Sturgess walked out of the meeting before it was officially called to order. Dave Donato was absent.

Holtzman’s new contract goes from July 7, 2021, to June 30, 2026.

Solicitor Gary Matta explained on the video that according to the state school code, the board couldn’t extend Holtzman’s old contract because he had more than a year left on it. The only way was for him to resign and then be given a new contract.

However, much about Holtzman’s performance and his new contract remain unclear.

The board had not yet completed an evaluation for the Superintendent for this school year and much about his new contract was not disclosed.

Many are speculating that this move was done to circumvent a change in power on the board after November.

Three of the five school directors voting for Holtzman’s new contract will be stepping down from the board in 2022.

Hampton, Poston and Filotei all will be replaced in January. They either lost re-election during the May primary or decided to step down. The other two board members – Lopretto and Elias – will be up for re-election in two years.

With five new candidates still in contention for four seats, much could happen politically.

Even if Matthew Holtzman, the Superintendent’s brother, wins a seat on the board in the fall, he wouldn’t be able to vote on the Superintendent’s contract because it would be a conflict of interest.


There is also a question about whether this week’s special meeting was legal at all.

On the YouTube video, it is announced that the meeting was advertised as being about “personnel.” Nothing more.

While that is true, it certainly goes against the spirit of the Sunshine Act. Most districts at least give the public a chance to comment on renewing a Superintendent’s contract.

Holding a last minute meeting right after a holiday with hardly any information about what is being voted on is not what most people would call good governmental transparency.

If the board had been secure that the public approved of Dr. Holtzman’s performance and wholeheartedly wanted his contract extended, it is doubtful any of these shenanigans would have been necessary.

Whether Dr. Holtzman did a good or bad job in his first contract with McKeesport will forever be overshadowed now by the shady way in which mostly lame duck school directors forced through his new contract.

Voters in the McKeesport Area School District deserve better.


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PA Gov. Wolf Fires Charter School Appeals Board. Every. Single. Member.

Being Governor of Pennsylvania must be one of the most thankless but important jobs ever.

With a hopelessly gerrymandered legislature, a majority of Republican lawmakers representing a minority of voters stops nearly anything from getting done for the rest of us.

If it weren’t for a Democratic Governor to act as a check and balance on this lunatic fringe, the state would devolve into chaos.

Case in point: the Charter School Appeals Board (CAB).

It took Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, seven years to fire his predecessor’s appointments and nominate replacements to the CAB.

Yet the GOP legislature is crying crocodile tears that he’s exceeding his authority by doing so.

The board is supposed to be a place where charter schools can challenge decisions made by their local school boards.

Charters are schools that are funded by taxpayer dollars but can be privately operated.

They have to ask the local school board for permission to open a new school in their district. Since the new charter would double services already present at the existent public school and require both schools to split existing funding, there is little incentive for school boards to grant these requests.

But charters can bypass local government by going to the CAB. Or at least they could when the board still had sitting members on it.

The CAB consists of the Secretary of Education and six members who are appointed by the Governor and approved by the state senate.

However, closed door negotiations with the Republican controlled senate over who they would even consider approving over the years continually stopped Wolf from putting people forward as official nominees.

After all, why would Republicans work with Wolf? What incentive did they have to do so?

Refusing to work with the Democratic Governor kept the previous Republican Governor’s appointees in place long after their tenure should have expired.

This kept the CAB ideologically right wing so the members could rubber stamp charter schools left and right bypassing the will of duly elected school boards all over the Commonwealth.

Take the most recent approval in March of the Pennsylvania STEAM Academy – a school founded by Carolyn Dumaresq, former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s Education Secretary.

She literally sat on the board and worked with several sitting members of CAB when she was part of the Corbett administration. Now all these years later she appears before CAB for a hearing asking them to overrule the Harrisburg School Board that had originally denied her charter school’s application.

Guess who won?

The CAB unanimously sided with Dumaresq over elected members of the local community.

So Wolf finally gave these privatization zealots their walking papers.

It’s a pattern we’ve become sickeningly familiar with in Pennsylvania.

A problem arises. The GOP legislature does nothing or has no power so the Governor takes action to fix it. Then the GOP throws a hissy fit.

The house was just on fire and you doused the flames! You shouldn’t be allowed a bucket of water!

We saw the same thing with COVID. Wolf closed the state down to stop a global pandemic. And Republicans are still crying “Tyrant” over his use of executive power.

The far right love crying “Wolf” and blaming everything on the Governor, but make no mistake –  gridlock is exactly what they want.

That’s why Wolf’s action on CAB is so clever.

By firing the remaining members of the board, Wolf has functionally erased it from existence.

If the senate wants there to be a charter school appeals board, lawmakers need to vote on his nominees.

Wolf has nominated the following people to the board:

-Jodi Schwartz, a school board member from the Central Bucks School District

-Shanna Danielson, a teacher in the East Pennsboro School District in Cumberland County and former state senate candidate

-Stacey Marten, a teacher in the Hempfield School District in Lancaster County

-Ghadah Makoshi, a business owner and former candidate for Pittsburgh’s school board

-Nathan Barrett, superintendent of the Hanover Area School District in Luzerne County

 
One of the most exciting things about these nominees is how they might interpret the state’s 20-year-old charter school law.

Previous CAB members have refused to let school boards consider the financial impact of opening a new charter school. However, the state constitution requires public schools to provide a quality education to students in their district. Therefore, if opening a new charter school would adversely affect a districts finances, doesn’t the constitutional necessity to provide a quality education take precedence?

Many school privatization critics think it does. Will Wolf’s nominees?

Unfortunately, they have several hurdles to clear before the senate would vote on them and we’d find out.

Senate Republicans are already throwing a tantrum because Wolf placed Pennsylvania in a regional initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

How dare he endanger short term fossil fuel profits just to provide a cleaner environment for our kids and grandkids!

As a result, they’ve vowed to block the Governor’s appointment to a state utility commission. It’s doubtful they’d let CAB nominees through while blocking Wolf’s other appointment.

Moreover, there will doubtless be legal challenges to the Governor’s firing of previous CAB members.  

In the meantime, there are at least nine cases scheduled to be decided by CAB from Souderton, Southeast Delco, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Philadelphia. And that’s not even counting a recent pair of charter schools in Philadelphia where backers said they would appeal the local school board’s decision to deny their request to open.

Republicans may find themselves forced to choose between waiting out protracted legal challenges while their pet charters languish in appeals limbo or swallowing their pride, doing their damn jobs and voting on Wolf’s nominees!



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I’ve also 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!

Can Unions Defang Charter School Vampires?

What if a vampire suddenly lost its fangs?

Would it still be a vampire?

That’s the question at the heart of a major change in the largest charter school network in western Pennsylvania.

This week, staff at the Propel network of charter schools voted overwhelmingly to unionize.

So the money men behind the Allegheny County system of charter schools are probably wondering if they’re still investing in charter schools at all.

After all, when encumbered by the need to collectively bargain with employees, can a charter still do all its usual profitizing tricks?

Thursday, Propel teachers and other staff voted 236-82 to join the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA).

The drive took 9 months to achieve. Propel enrolls about 4,000 students at 13 schools in Braddock Hills, Hazelwood, Homestead, McKeesport, Pitcairn, Turtle Creek, Munhall, McKees Rocks and the North Side.

Though PSEA represents staff at about a dozen charters throughout the state, unionization is a rarity at charter schools.

And the reason is pretty obvious.

Charter schools are all about escaping the rules that authentic public schools have to abide by.

Though publicly financed, they are often privately operated.

They don’t have to be run by elected school boards. They don’t have to manage their business at public meetings. They don’t have to open their budgets to public review. Heck! They don’t even have to spend all the money they get from taxes on their students.

They can legally cut services and pocket the savings.

Nor do they have to accept every student in their coverage area. They can cherry pick whichever students they figure are cheapest to educate and those who they predict will have the highest test scores. And they can hide this discrimination behind a lottery or whatever other smoke screen they want because – Hey! The rules don’t apply to them!

I’m not saying every charter school does all this, but they all can. It’s perfectly legal to do so, and we rarely even see it happening until the school goes belly up and taxpayers are left paying the tab.

So how do unions change this system?

Most obviously, they put a check on the nearly limitless power of the charter operators.

Now you have to pay a living wage. You can’t demand people work evenings and weekends without paying them overtime. You have to provide safe working conditions for students and staff. And if you want to cut student services and pocket the difference, the staff is going to have something to say about that – AND YOU HAVE TO LISTEN!

How much will union power beat back charter bosses?

It’s hard to say. But there is no doubt that it will play a moderating influence.

And how much it does so may depend to a large degree on the individuals working at the school and the degree of solidarity they can exercise against their bosses.

One thing is for sure, with a union the gravy train is over.

Wall Street speculators often fawn over the charter industry because it’s possible to double or triple your investment in seven years.

This will probably not be the case in a unionized charter. And the impact of such a reality has yet to be felt.

Will the worst financial gamblers abandon school privatization because unions make it too difficult to make handfuls of cash? One can hope.

If it happened, the only charters left standing would be those created without profit as their guiding principle. The goal would really have to be doing the best thing for children, not making shadowy figures in the background a truckload of money.

Do such charter schools even exist? Maybe. With staff continuing to unionize, maybe there will be even more of them.

However, even if all of them become altruistic, there still remains a problem.

There still remains an authentic public school with which the charter must compete for limited funding.

Even a positive charter school that only does the best for its students still needs money to operate. And most districts barely have enough funding for one education system – certainly not two parallel ones.

This is a problem I don’t think unions can solve.

The state and federal government will have to find a better way to fund education. Relying on local property taxes to make up the largest share as we do in most parts of the country must come to an end.

But even if we figure out how to adequately, equitably and sustainably fund one education system, the presence of a charter school requires we do it twice.

Fiscal watchdogs may object to this as irresponsible, and one can certainly see their point.

However, in a country where we spend more on the military than the next ten nations combined, perhaps it isn’t so much to ask that we more than double spending on education.

Maybe there is something to be gained by having two parallel school systems. But there are certainly dangers.

Obviously the situation would be rife for de facto segregation. Charter schools already increase racial and economic segregation wherever these schools exist. However, if we regulated them to eliminate this risk, it is at least conceivable that these two systems could coexist.

It could certainly solve the problem of large class sizes by decreasing student to teacher ratios.

But will it?

Most of the people who work at charter schools are dedicated to their students and want them to succeed. They deserve every opportunity to thrive in a profession centered around children, not profit.

But can a system created to enrich the few ever be fully rehabilitated into one that puts children first?

When you defang a charter school, are you left with something harmless?

Or have you simply forced the beast to find other ways to feed?



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I’ve also 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!

How to Vote on Ballot Measures in Pennsylvania’s 2021 Primary Election

Can you feel it?

The primary election is just a few weeks away.

Voters will decide all kinds of things like who will represent their respective parties for school board, judges, magistrates, county council, etc.

However, that’s not all.

There also will be four statewide ballot initiatives. All Allegheny County residents will get a fifth. And Pittsburgh residents will get a sixth.

If you’re like me, you don’t want these questions to come as a surprise on May 18 or before (if you’re casting a mail in ballot).

These queries can change the state for better or worse in dramatic ways, yet for some reason, they don’t write these things in the way everyday people talk.

This is lawyer speak. You have to wear a long black robe and put on a white haired wig (called a peruke) just to understand these things.

But don’t get your gavel in a tizzy.

As a public service, I’m going to translate each question and make a suggestion on how you should vote.

QUESTION 1:

“Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law and increase the power of the General Assembly to unilaterally terminate or extend a disaster emergency declaration—and the powers of Commonwealth agencies to address the disaster regardless of its severity pursuant to that declaration—through passing a concurrent resolution by simple majority, thereby removing the existing check and balance of presenting a resolution to the Governor for approval or disapproval?”

Translation: Allow the legislature to second guess the governor and terminate an emergency disaster declaration without just cause

Suggestion: VOTE NO

This is yet another example of the endless far right hissy fit from science denying lawmakers still mad that Gov. Tom Wolf had the gall to close down the state because of the global Covid-19 pandemic. If passed, this would erode the powers of the governor and give them to our gerrymandered Harrisburg legislature.

We have three branches of government for a reason – checks and balances. Robbing the executive to boost a dysfunctional legislature would make the declaration of emergencies and natural disasters a matter or politics not facts.

Emergencies could be terminated at a moment’s notice without cause sending our first responders into chaos. Emergency managers could lose precious time and resources, communities could lose relief and recovery funding from the state and federal governments, all while our chuckleheaded legislature debates reality.

The Covid-19 pandemic may not be over yet. We’re working overtime to distribute vaccines and combat threats from emerging variants. The last thing we need is a political show prematurely eliminating masking, social distancing and other safety precautions so performative ideologues can win points on Fox News.

QUESTION 2:

“Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law so that: a disaster emergency declaration will expire automatically after 21 days, regardless of the severity of the emergency, unless the General Assembly takes action to extend the disaster emergency; the Governor may not declare a new disaster emergency to respond to the dangers facing the Commonwealth unless the General Assembly passes a concurrent resolution; the General Assembly enacts new laws for disaster management?”

Translation: Limit an emergency disaster declaration to 21 days regardless of the severity of the emergency

Suggestion: VOTE NO

Disasters do not come with time limits. But randomly limiting them all to 21 days again takes power away from the Governor and gives it to the legislature. The only way to extend emergency declarations would be passage of a resolution by the state House and Senate.

Do we really want our emergency responses tied to the endless back and forth of legislators who rarely even pass their annual budgets on time? This is unnecessary bureaucracy so politicians can grandstand while emergency personnel wait for the go ahead to save lives.


QUESTION 3:

“Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended by adding a new section providing that equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged because of an individual’s race or ethnicity?”

Translation: Make it illegal to deny or cut short anyone’s rights because of race or ethnicity

Suggestion: VOTE YES

This should be a no brainer. No one should be able to deny a person’s civil rights because of race or ethnicity. Or any other reason!

However, we just lived through four years of a reality TV show President who packed the federal courts with dozens of questionable and unqualified judges who made their careers discriminating against people of color, people of different creeds, religions, etc.

So it makes sense to enshrine equal protection for all at the state level and protect Commonwealth residents from federally sanctioned prejudice especially focused around workers’ rights, criminal justice reform, housing and healthcare.


Moreover, as a part of the state Constitution, this amendment would stop even our own state legislature from passing any laws inconsistent with it.

QUESTION 4:

“Do you favor expanding the use of the indebtedness authorized under the referendum for loans to volunteer fire companies, volunteer ambulance services and volunteer rescue squads under 35 PA.C.S. §7378.1 (related to referendum for additional indebtedness) to include loans to municipal fire departments or companies that provide services through paid personnel and emergency medical services companies for the purpose of establishing and modernizing facilities to house apparatus equipment, ambulances and rescue vehicles, and for purchasing apparatus equipment, ambulances and rescue vehicles, protective and communications equipment and any other accessory equipment necessary for the proper performance of the duties of the fire companies and emergency medical services companies?”


Translation: Allow municipal fire departments and EMS companies to apply for state loans to modernize critical safety equipment

Suggestion: VOTE YES

Both municipal fire departments and EMS companies with paid employees and volunteer departments and companies would be able to apply for state loans.

This vital funding could be used to modernize or purchase necessary safety equipment for first responders. It would keep fire fighters up to date and able to serve residents – especially those in rural areas. It would make sure every fire department could have up to date equipment.

Question 5 (Allegheny County Only):

“Shall the Allegheny County Code, Chapter 205. Allegheny County Jail, be amended and supplemented to include a new Article III, as set forth below, which shall set forth standards governing conditions of confinement in the Allegheny County Jail?”

Translation: Should we prohibit solitary confinement at Allegheny County Jail except in extreme emergencies?

Suggestion: VOTE YES!

Solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment. A lawsuit filed in September by ACJ inmates alleges that solitary confinement was being used as a punishment against inmates seeking mental health care. Recent research from Cornell University demonstrates that even a short amount of time in solitary confinement can increase recidivism rates, as well as unemployment rates.

Question 6 (Pittsburgh residents only):

“Shall the Pittsburgh Home Rule Charter be amended and supplemented by adding a new Article 10: Powers of the Pittsburgh Police, containing Section 1001, which shall bar employees of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police from executing warrants at any residence without knocking and announcing themselves?”

Translation: Should we eliminate no-knock warrants?

Suggestion: VOTE YES!

This would require all Pittsburgh Police to physically knock and announce themselves before gaining entry to execute a warrant.

No knock warrants are dangerous and often a component of racial discrimination in law enforcement.

Briana Taylor’s death in Louisville, KY, during the execution of a “no knock” warrant clearly shows how this practice recklessly endangers human life. Many municipalities now have banned no-knock warrants including Louisville, KY. Pittsburgh City Council also introduced legislation to ban the use of no-knock warrants by Pittsburgh Police officers.

So those are my suggestions for this race’s ballot initiatives.

NO. NO. YES. YES. YES.

And if you happen to be a Democrat living in Allegheny County’s District 9, please vote for me for County Council.

Together we can build a better world.


Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

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Just CLICK HERE.

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I’ve also 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!

Let the Children Play – My Prescription for Covid “Learning Loss”

Things are different in school these days.

The classes are smaller.

The kids are more subdued.

The teachers are exhausted.

But that’s life as we try to overcome the Covid-19 pandemic and somehow get back to normal.

I come into the room every day and sit behind a glass barrier.

My kids either stumble in from the hall wearing masks (often below their noses) or they log in to Zoom and participate on-line.


It’s far from ideal, but we get things done.

Right now we’re reading the play version of “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

The kids were reticent at first.

With the unreliable schedules of in-person vs remote learning, it took us months to get through our last text, “The Outsiders.”

Now we’re speeding through scenes of the play with each person required to read a part aloud.

The results have been amazing.

In any normal year, I have to stop the class at various points to discuss what’s happening in the play.

This week, the students, themselves, stop us with questions, comments, and more curiosity than I’ve seen since the pandemic hit last year.

It’s as if they’re starving to learn something, and this play is nourishing their hearts and minds.

I laugh because my first thought was to come down on the shouting out and side commenting until a deeper part of me realized this was all okay. They were on-task, if unrestrained.

It’s something, going from the near silence of a Zoom chat room with its black boxes instead of student faces to a classroom full of rambunctious teenagers getting excited by the lesson.

We’re having a great time as we discuss WWII, parental relationships, racism, dating etiquette, and Hitler’s genitalia.


(Hey! They brought it up!)

We only have about a month or so left of actual instruction time because the Biden administration is demanding we take standardized tests.

That’s weeks of class I could be teaching and they could be learning.

But whatever.

I’m tired of fighting for things that make sense in the classroom.

No one listens to teachers. That’s why I’m running for office.

I figure as a member of Allegheny County Council, people will have to listen to me. And I’ll bring all of the concerns of those around me out in the open, too.

But that brings me to the title of this piece:

Let the Children Play – My Prescription for Covid “Learning Loss”

As my students and I are racing to learn something in the classroom, the same folks who demand we waste that precious time on high stakes tests are also bemoaning kids learning loss.

“Oh, woe are the children!” They cry.

“How many years and months are they getting behind because of this pandemic!?”

It’s like a flat Earther complaining that we need to build a fence around the planet’s edges so no one can fall off.

What these fools fail to understand is that there is no learning loss.

Comprehension is not a race. There is no one ahead or behind. Everyone goes at their own pace. And if you try to force someone to go more quickly than is best for them, they’ll stumble and fall.

Or they’ll refuse to go forward at all.

These folks pretend that learning is all about numbers – test scores, specifically.

You need to hit this score before you’re ready for the next grade. That score’s required before high school. This one before college.

It’s all nonsense, and I can prove it with one question:

What do these numbers represent?

What are they measuring?

What is the basic unit of comprehension?

Okay. I lied. That was three questions. But you get the point.

Learning is not quantifiable in the way they pretend it is and teaching is not the hard science they want it to be.

You can’t look into someone’s mind and see what they’ve learned and what they still need to know.

You can give a test that tries to assess understanding of certain subjects. But the more complex the knowledge you’re testing for, the more tenuous the results of that test will be.

And an assessment made by someone miles away who never met the person taking it is less accurate – not more accurate.

But let’s be honest, these learning loss champions are not really worried about children. They’re representatives of the standardized testing industry.

They have a vested interest in selling tests, selling test prep materials, software, etc. It’s just a pity that so many of our lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are persuaded by their arguments (or the hefty campaign contributions that come with that persuasion).

So as the school year rapidly comes to a close, I have a suggestion to make.

I know I’m not qualified to do so.

I’m just a public school teacher with 17 years experience. I’ve never sat on any think tank boards. No testing corporation has ever paid me a dime to hawk one of their high quality remediation products.

But being in the classroom with kids day-in, day-out for all that time, I have observed some things about children and how they learn.

Most importantly – children are people.

I know that’s controversial, but I believe it to be true.

As such, they need down time.

They need time to regroup and recharge.

This pandemic has been hard on everyone.

As of April 1, nearly 3.47 million children have tested positive for COVID-19, most with mild symptoms, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. A few hundred have died, mostly children of color. Many more kids probably contracted the virus but were asymptomatic spreaders of the disease to adults.

As a result, between 37,000 and 43,000 children in the United States have lost at least one parent to COVID-19, according to USC research.

They have suffered through changes in routine, disruptions in learning, breaks in the continuity of their healthcare, missed significant life events like birthday parties, vacations and graduations. But worst of all they have suffered the loss of safety and security.

We should not be demanding they work harder at a time like this.

We should be providing them with kindness, empathy and love.

In the classroom, I no longer have a thing called “Late Work.”

If a student hands in an assignment passed the due date, there is no penalty. I just grade it. And if it isn’t done correctly, I give them a chance to redo it.

As many chances as they need.

I remediate. I tutor. I offer advice, counseling, a sympathetic ear.

It’s not that much different than any other year, except in how often children need it now.

Kids AND their parents.

I can’t tell you how many adults I’ve counseled in the last several months.

So when the last day of school arrives, I will close my books.

There will be no assignments over the summer from me.

No homework. No requirements. No demands.

The best things kids can do is go out and play.

Have fun.

Recharge.

The corporate testing drones will tell you that’s a waste of time. Our kids are getting behind doing things like that.

Nonsense.

Play is the best kind of learning kids can do.

It is an independent study in whatever they are curious to discover.

Play is the mind’s way of finding out how things work, what a person can do, how it feels to do this or that.

Honestly, there is not a second wasted in play.

Taken moment-by-moment, there is more learning done during play than in any classroom. Because play is self-directed and driven entirely by curiosity.

I want all of my students to go play this summer.

And I want the children who will be in my class next year to have had a fantastic summer of fun and excitement.

That way they’ll come into the classroom energized and ready to learn what I have to show them.

They won’t be ahead. They won’t be behind.

They’ll just be.

And that’s my prescription for a productive 2021-22.




Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

I’ve also 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!

A New Children’s Fund – Reducing Student Inequality Through Allegheny County Council

Public schools are not funded fairly.

Every child does not receive equitable resources or even close to what they need.

The state and federal government provide some funding, but they leave it up to each neighborhood to take the brunt of the burden.

So the majority of funding comes from local tax revenues – rich communities give their kids more than enough and poor ones struggle to give them enough to even get by.

This means things like class size, access to tutoring and remediation, extracurricular activities, advanced placement courses, field trips, counseling, even access to a school nurse often depends on how rich of a community kids live in.

It’s a backward and barbaric way of supporting children – a kind of economic Darwinism that gives the richest kids the most advantages from the very start while holding back everyone else.

It doesn’t have to be this way, but don’t look to the state or federal government to fix it.

No matter who has been in power in the Oval Office or held majorities in Congress, national lawmakers don’t seem to care much about public schools unless it has to do with standardized testing or school privatization – policies that only make things worse.

In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf has been working his entire tenure to make the system more fair, but the Republican controlled legislature has blocked him at nearly every turn. And given our hopeless gerrymandered legislative districts, this isn’t about to be rectified anytime soon.

So what are we to do? Give up?

No.

In the Pittsburgh area, we have a solution ready at hand to at least reduce the inequality among rich and poor kids. All we have to do is reach into the trash.

Three years ago we had a ballot initiative called The Children’s Fund. It would have created a voluntary 5% property tax hike to pay for early learning, after-school programs and healthy meals for kids. It was defeated by voters.

And for good reason.

The proposal was an absolute mess.

As a local teacher, education activist and blogger, I advised against the plan because it raised taxes without stipulating where the money would go, it was unclear who would have been in charge of the money and other reasons.

But that doesn’t mean there was nothing of value there.

The idea of county tax revenues being used to help balance the scales of public school funding is not a bad one.

We could fix the problems with the original children’s fund and create a new one.

In fact, that’s one of the reasons I’m running for county council. I want to increase our local investment in children and the future.

Here’s how we do it.

The 2018 Children’s Fund would have raised taxes by 0.25 mills of property tax — $25 on each $100,000 of assessed value. This would have generated an estimate $18 million a year and gone to a newly created government office under the supervision of the county manager. There would have been an advisory commission but it was really left under the discretion of the County Executive to figure out how all this would work. He’d get to pick who was in charge of the money and where it went.

This was a terrible idea.

We don’t need a big pot of money that a king gets to dole out as he chooses. Nor do we need to created unnecessary bureaucracy.

All we need is a funding formula. Collect X amount of tax revenues and send it to Y schools according to these guidelines prioritizing Title I schools and other institutions serving needy children.

Moreover, the fund doesn’t even need to include a tax increase. Council should first look to cut wasteful spending already in the budget to generate the money needed.

We already have a $2 billion budget. We spend $100 million of it to keep people locked up in the county jail, and 80 percent of them are nonviolent offenders who haven’t been convicted of anything. Many simply can’t pay cash bail, failed a drug test for something like marijuana or violated our ridiculously long parole period.

Finding $18 million might not be too difficult if we took a hard look at our finances and our priorities. And even if we couldn’t find the full amount, we could propose a lower tax increase. And if we do have to increase revenues, we can look to do so by making corporations and the wealthy pay their fair share before putting more burden on residents.

We should at least explore these options before jumping on another across the board tax increase even if the cause is a good one.

Another problem with the 2018 proposal was that it was too broad. For instance, it suggested some of this money be used to offer meals to children in school. However, much of that need has been met by a program called the Community Eligibility Provision which is available nationwide as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed in 2010.

While food insecurity remains a problem for low income students and their families, I think there are better solutions such as increasing the minimum wage and creating more well-paying union jobs.

We should limit the new children’s fund to increasing pre-K access to needy children, offering funding to school districts to create or fund existent after school tutoring programs, reduce class size and increase teacher salaries at low income schools.

Another problem with the 2018 proposal was that it worked around instead of with local government.

Though almost everyone agreed with the stated goals of the proposal, many organizations and government officials complained that they were not consulted and made a part of the process.

There’s an easy fix for that.

Before enacting any new legislation, County Council should seek input from school districts and pre-K programs. That way, the legislation can be best crafted to meet need.

I care about schools, students and families, but I don’t know everything and neither does County Council or the County Executive. We should be humble enough to listen to what stakeholders tell us they need and then find a way to meet it.

Finally, there’s the question of fraud and mismanagement of funds.

One of the biggest red flags around the 2018 campaign is that it was not grass roots.

Financial documents show that the whole initiative had been funded by various nonprofit organizations that could, themselves, become beneficiaries of this same fund.

We have to make sure that the money is going to help children, not corporate raiders or profit-obsessed philanthrocapitalists.


To ensure this does not happen, we should put some restrictions on how the money can be used.

For example, the federal government is infamous for offering money to schools with strings attached. President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top, for example, was a huge corporate welfare scheme to enrich standardized testing and school privatization corporations. Schools could compete for limited funds by increasing test scores, and then if they won, they’d have to spend that money on test prep or privatization.

We don’t need any of those shenanigans in Allegheny County.

The new Children’s Fund should be barred from use in standardized testing preparation programs, it should not be available to buy new technologies or apps, and it should be used at the K-12 level ONLY at strictly public schools.

County residents cannot afford to bankroll people’s kids to private schools.

This money should not be available at any private schools even if those schools use school vouchers, Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC), Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) programs or other tax scholarship programs that function like school vouchers.

Moreover, county residents shouldn’t be pouring our tax dollars into schools that don’t have the same high fiscal accountability requirements as our fully public schools even if these schools claim to be fully public.

Unlike public institutions, charter schools do not have to be run by elected school boards, do not have to have school board meetings open to the public or even open their budgets to annual public review.

That’s why this new funding should be available at charter schools ONLY if those schools charters are in good standing AND if the charter schools will admit to a yearly public audit of how the money has been spent. Any misappropriation or unaccounted for funding would disqualify the charter school from further funding and prompt an immediate full state audit.

I think if we enacted legislation along those lines, we could really make a difference for the children of our county.

We have to face the facts.

Pennsylvania is one of the worst states in the country when it comes to educational equity for poor and non-white students.

The commonwealth ranks 47th in the nation for the share of K-12 public education funding that comes from the state.

The state ranks 48th nationally in opportunity gaps for high school students of color compared with white students and 47th for Hispanic students, according to a 2018 report from the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Research for Action.

A separate 2016 study found that Pennsylvania has one of the widest gaps between students along racial and socioeconomic divides in the country.

And the list goes on and on.

Only the federal and state government can truly fix the problem long term. But that’s not going to happen anytime soon.

We can sit idly by as our children get left behind or we can stand up and do something about it.

If elected to county council, I will do everything in my power to right this wrong.

Our kids deserve more than governmental dysfunction, class warfare and de facto racism.

Please stand with me to enact a new children’s fund that helps support our kids.

Please help me gain a seat on Allegheny County Council.


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I’ve also 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!

 

Will PA Schools Ask Parents to Oversee CDT Testing at Home?

Should parents be asked to administer on-line tests to their own children at home?

Back in May someone at Data Recognition Corporation (DRC) had an idea.

Since a global pandemic had shuttered classrooms, no children were being forced to take the multi-billion dollar testing company’s products.

Federally mandated assessments like the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSA) and Keystone Exams – which are made by DRC – were cancelled.

And local districts weren’t even making students take assessments like the Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDT) – an optional test to determine if kids were ready to take the mandatory tests.

If someone at DRC didn’t act quickly, the Commonwealth might ask for a refund on the $1.3 billion it spent on standardized testing in the last eight years.


 The Minnesota-based DRC, a division of CTB McGraw-Hill, wasn’t about to issue any refunds.

So someone had to figure out a way to keep children testing even though they were currently at home sheltering in place.

But that’s it!

Tests like the CDTs are taken online anyway. Theoretically, kids could access them in their own homes, they just need someone to help them sign in, navigate the Web portal and make sure they aren’t cheating.

Normally, that would be the job of classroom teachers, but educators can’t do that AND have students test at the same time.

During the pandemic with most schools shuttered, teachers only communicate with students remotely – through applications like video conferencing sites such as Zoom. If teachers proctored the tests, too, that would require students to take the tests on one Web accessible device and have the teachers communicate with them on another.

Can you imagine a child taking a test on her iPad while participating in a Zoom meeting on her cell phone? If she even had both devices? And the bandwidth to run both simultaneously?

That’s where parents come in.

Students can test on their computers or devices with their parents, in-person, troubleshooting and monitoring their behavior.

Thus, a truly stupid idea was born.

To my knowledge, not a single district in the Keystone state has yet taken advantage of this scheme.

And why would they?

Even the most data driven local administrator or test obsessed school director knows that a sure way to infuriate parents is to ask them to do something that is essentially the school’s job.

Moreover, in these difficult times, parents have their hands full just keeping food on the table. If they can somehow get their kids to log in to their online classes every day, that’s a plus. If they can get their kids to actually turn in the assignments, it’s a miracle.

But to add proctoring a test on top of everything else!? Districts would have to be nuts to even try!

However, DRC and the state Department of Education aren’t giving up.

As an increasing number of schools go on-line, the state extended the program through the 2020-21 school year, and some districts are actively considering it.

Here’s how it’s supposed to work.

Classroom teachers would provide parents with testing materials including a log-in ticket for each child in the home taking the test. Students would have to access the test online through the Chrome Internet browser. Then they’d have to copy and past the URL into the browser (which would be provided in the testing materials), and input their usernames and passwords.

Normally, the test is given in writing, science and math, has 50-60 questions and can last between 50 and 90 minutes. However, DRC is recommending districts give a new shorter version of the assessment that has 15-18 questions and can last between 20-30 minutes (10-20 minutes longer for the reading test).

During this time, you should watch your children as they take the tests. It is up to you to make sure they aren’t copying down any information from the test or cheating.


 You can let your child have scratch paper, highlighters and calculators. But no preprinted graphic organizers, cell phones, dictionaries, thesauri, grammar or spell checkers, other computers or devices.

And if you have any technical issues, DRC wants you to know the company has your back. Meaning that they can’t and won’t help – call your local school district.

Here’s what DRC’s Parent/Guardian Test Administration Guide recommends for technical support:

“If technical issues arise during testing, parents/guardians are asked to contact the student’s teacher and/or the student’s school office for technical support. DRC customer service staff cannot directly support issues related to each home’s technology configurations.[Emphasis mine.]


 


 And this is true even if the test, itself, directs parents to contact the corporation:

“If a student receives an error message during the test administration that includes instructions to contact DRC for technical support, the parent or guardian who is assisting with the test administration should contact the student’s teacher or school office for additional instructions. Parents or students should not attempt to contact DRC’s customer service directly for technical assistance.

Teachers and/or a school’s technology staff will have the information needed to provide parents/guardians with the level of support to resolve most technology issues. If additional support is required, a school or district representative will reach out to DRC to determine a resolution.”


 However, technical problems are never much of an issue with the CDT – and by “never” I mean ALWAYS.

In the past five years that I’ve given the test to my students in the classroom, they are routinely kicked off the program, have trouble accessing it, and their answers are not always counted, requiring them to re-enter inputs numerous times.

Taking this test remotely is certain to put quite a strain on districts since these technological problems will occur not as they normally do within school buildings but potentially miles away in students’ homes.

Let’s be honest – this plan will not work well.

Few students will be able to take the tests and finish.

Of those that do, even fewer will give it their best effort outside of a classroom setting. In fact, there is no quicker way to turn off a student’s curiosity and motivation to learn than sitting them down in front of a standardized test.

Of those that do somehow manage to finish and score well, there will be no certainty that they didn’t cheat.

Many of my students have secondary electronic devices like cell phones that they use in addition to their iPads. In fact, that’s a part of my remote classes.

I often have them play review games like Kahoot where the questions are displayed through their Zoom screens and they input the answers on their cell phones.

A significant percentage of students will inevitably use these secondary devices to define unknown vocabulary, Google facts and anything else to get the right answers – if they care enough about the results.

In my own remote classes, tests are designed to either assess student skills or access information they already compiled in-class on several study guides which they are encouraged to use during the test. In short, cheating is more work than paying attention in class.

These CDTs will not be like that at all. The scores will be completely worthless – more so than usual.

And few parental proctors will be able to fully comprehend, control or participate in the process.

So why not just skip parents and have classroom teachers proctor the tests through Zoom?

Because of the physical distance involved.

On video conferencing sites, teachers can only see what their students are doing if the kids turn their cameras on. They rarely do.

And even if kids DO turn their cameras on, they have complete control over what those cameras are pointed at, how long they stay on, etc.

It would not take a very enterprising student to cheat while a teacher tried to monitor 20 students online at the same time.

So why not wait until in-person classes resume?

Because it is entirely uncertain when it will be safe to do so given rising infection rates across the country.

However, even if it were safe, most schools are running way below capacity and with hybrid schedules. Students have shortened periods or attend on alternate days. Giving a standardized test under these conditions would be piecemeal, disjointed, discourage kids from even attending school and eat up a tremendous amount of very limited class time.

It would be like taking a dehydrated person’s blood instead of giving him a drink of water.

No matter how you look at it, this is a project designed to fail.

Because it is not about academics. It is about economics.

This is about DRC saving its bottom line. That’s all.

And any administrator or school director who can’t see that is incredibly naive.

Why take these tests at all? Especially during a global pandemic?

We already know students are struggling.

Many are checked out and don’t participate in the remote instruction being offered. And many of those who do participate are having a hard time learning without as much social interaction and hands on activities.

We should be focusing on ways to improve remote instruction. We don’t need a standardized test to tell us that. We certainly don’t need a test before the test.

Most districts use CDT data to place kids in their classes the following year. Kids with high test scores are put in advanced classes, kids with low scores in remedial classes, etc.

We already have daily assessments of how kids are doing. They’re called classroom grades. We don’t have to halt all instruction to allow some corporation to take over for days at a time.

Parents should call their local administrators and school directors and demand the CDTs not be given this year.

In fact, not only should the CDTs not be given this year – they should not be given at all – any year. They’re a total waste of time that dampen kids curiosity and drive to learn.

Moreover, the federally mandated tests (in the Commonwealth, the PSSAs and Keystone Exams) should be cancelled again this year for the same reasons. In fact, they should be abolished altogether.

This is another reason why corporate education reformers have been so adamant that schools remain open during the pandemic. Remote learning means increased difficulty in giving standardized assessments. It’s not that pro-testing fanatics value schooling so much – they don’t want to have to go another year without testing companies making huge profits giving these assessments.

The worst school policies are driven by economics, not academics.

And that’s what we have here, too.

So will any district be stupid enough to attempt to save DRC by sacrificing students and parents?

Only time will tell.


 

Click here to see DRC’s Parent/Guardian Test Administration Guide

Click here to see DRC’s CDT Public Browser Option – Test and Technology Setup Guidance


Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

I’ve also 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!