Charter School Cheerleaders Elected to Leadership with PA House Dems

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Both Harris and McClinton are African American.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

However, his comments on education policy are extremely biased.

 

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

 

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

 

Harris response?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

I’m sure Betsy DeVos would agree.

 

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

 

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

 

Where will Harris and McClinton lead the party?

 

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

 

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

 


 

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Proposed Pennsylvania School Code is Massive Giveaway to Charter Schools

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Accountability.

Fiscal responsibility.

Every lawmaker says these things are extremely important – unless we’re talking about charter schools. Then they pass laws handing out stacks of cash with little to no oversight.

That’s exactly what the Pennsylvania School Code will do if the legislature passes it.

Schools in the Keystone State have had a rough year.

After a nine-month battle with the Republican controlled legislature, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf let a woefully inadequate budget passed by the legislature become law without his signature. However, he vetoed the fiscal code, which includes public school’s funding formula – how state money will be distributed to the Commonwealth’s 500 public school districts. Wolf still holds out hope that almost $1 billion in school budget cuts made by the GOP can be healed before a new funding formula locks them in.

Everything else about how our public schools are to be run is included in the school code. It was approved by the Senate but remains in committee in the House.

Back in February, both Democrats and Republicans supported some terrible provisions in the school code as a compromise to pass a state budget that would have healed much more of the spending cuts than what has now become law. Since an inferior budget was passed, there’s no reason for Democrats to continue to support a school code that basically rings the dinner bell for the most nefarious charter school practices imaginable.

If approved, charter schools across the state could open new buildings, add new grades, and expand their enrollment with almost no limitations. In Philadelphia, where the district is already under state control and more than a third of students already attend charter schools, the proposed school code would force many schools to be controlled by a new state operator – the Pennsylvania Department of Education – and convert many of them into charter schools – all still without ensuring those schools have adequate funding.

The Senate-approved school code reads like a smorgasbord of dishes to empower and shield charter schools from accountability.

Currently, charter schools are only allowed to operate after having a contract approved by the local school district where they’re located. Elected school boards get to decide if charters can operate and under what conditions. The proposed school code would change that. It would allow charter schools to amend their own contracts without the permission of the local district. So existent charters could do whatever they liked regardless of what they promised local school boards they were going to do in order to be approved in the first place.

The proposed school code would also allow for uncontrolled charter expansion. It would permit charter schools to add as many new schools and students as they please without permission of the local district. This is in effect a license for charters to expand without any oversight. They could gobble up their parent district and there’s nothing anyone could do about it.

Moreover, the proposed school code would allow charter schools to expand beyond district boundaries into neighborhoods that never approved them in the first place. It would create new Multiple Charter School Organizations (MCSOs) that can cross school district boundaries and expand across the entire state, all without any criteria for revocation or accountability.

When disagreements occur with charter schools and local school districts, the matter goes before the state Charter Appeals Board. However, the proposed school code would stack the board with members in favor of charter schools and against local districts.

As it stands, new charter schools get five years before they are subject to any accountability measures at all. Once approved, they have that time to operate any way they want before anyone comes around to make sure they’re doing a good job. The proposed school code doubles that grace period to ten years. New charters – including notoriously fraudulent cyber charters – would have a decade of free reign before undergoing a thorough review of their performance by their authorizers.

And then we come to special education. Since at least 2013, the legislature has known the way the state determines special education funding at charter schools is broken. It’s skewed so that charters get more money for special needs children than local districts. Moreover, this allotment has nothing to do with how much charters spend on their special education students or the severity of the disabilities. For example, in Philadelphia, charter schools get $23,000 for each special education student while the traditional public schools get $5,000. A bipartisan bill was drafted to fix the inequality, but it was killed by charter school lobbyists.

The proposed school code – which could have fixed the problem – just continues it for another year. It explicitly exempts charter schools from the rational and fair special education funding formula used by school districts.

And speaking of funding, the proposed school code continues the perverse practice of ensuring cyber charter schools get paid before local school districts. It was this provision that made sure even with statewide education budget cuts cyber charters didn’t suffer the same loss of funding.

As bad as all that is, it’s nothing compared to what the proposed school code does to Philadelphia City Schools.

The Senate bill implements a “State Opportunity Schools” program that only applies to Philadelphia schools. It mandates that up to 15 city schools a year would go from one majority state-controlled entity – the School Reform Commission (SRC) – to a different entirely state-controlled entity – the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE). Moreover, at least six traditional city public schools would have to become charter schools in three years.

It’s a boneheaded move done for no reason other than to punish poor, black students living in Philly. For instance, the proposed school code doesn’t grant any additional authority to PDE that the SRC doesn’t already have – so why make the change? What will PDE be able to do differently? If the SRC is doing a terrible job (Spoiler alert: it is) then why not give control of the district back to residents? Why not reestablish local control?

Moreover, the proposed school code provides no additional resources or funding to any Philadelphia schools. That’s been the problem with the district from the beginning. When you force schools to rely heavily on local property taxes to run, poor communities suffer. The proposed school code continues the proud Pennsylvania tradition of ignoring reality and blaming black and brown children for their parents poverty.

Much of this nonsense came from negotiations between the Democrats and Republicans to ensure a better budget for schools across the state. Republicans demanded increasing charter school handouts, fewer accountability measures and sacrificing Philadelphia Schools. And Senate Democrats agreed – even those serving Philadelphia.

However, since the GOP reneged on that budget deal, there is no reason on Heaven or Earth why the Democrats should continue to support this proposed school code. Republicans can pass this turd without them. If the GOP wants to give away mountains of taxpayer money to the charter industry, let them own it. That’s been something they have been increasingly unwilling to do.

And if this terrible school code does somehow make it through the legislature, Wolf should do the same thing with this steaming pile of feces that he originally did with the budget and recently did with the fiscal code – veto it.

Pennsylvania lawmakers need to stop serving special interest groups and start representing the taxpayers. Giving away a larger portion of our shrinking education funding makes no sense.

It is not accountable. It is not fiscally responsible. It is dereliction of duty.

United Opt Out Conference Highlights Dual Role of Technology in Education

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Technology is the most powerful weapon we have against corporate education reform.

 

It is also our greatest foe.

 

Such were the remarks of Dr. Stephen Krashen at the United Opt Out Conference on Friday.

 

The linguist, educational researcher and activist gave the opening keynote address to hundreds of people who traveled to Philadelphia for the conference.

 

Krashen, who is known for his work on second language acquisition and bilingual education, has been a strong critic of the test and punish policies of the Barack Obama administration.

 

He warned the assembly of parents, students, teachers, professors and activists about the dangers of Competency Based Education (CBE), the next big thing in the movement to dumb down public schools.

 

CBE is touted as a way to reduce high stakes standardized testing by allowing students to work at their own pace while on various computer programs. However, Krashen sees this is an increase in testing.

 

In effect, it’s testing everyday. The computer programs used in CBE are little more than the same kinds of questions you’d see on a standardized test. An emphasis on CBE would replace a robust school curriculum with never-ending test preparation and multiple-choice assessment.

 

In the hands of a classroom teacher, technology can be an excellent tool to help kids learn. However, top-down policies like CBE only take away educators’ autonomy and turn them into mere facilitators of prepackaged materials of dubious quality.

 

He noted that the National Governors Association – an organization promoting CBE and Common Core State Standards – admits that there is no research supporting this new policy. But they’re suggesting we do it anyway. In fact, provisions to increase CBE are embedded in the new federal education law – the Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA).

 

He sees this as a massive boondoggle to swipe the $600 billion we spend on technology in schools. After all, CBE will require increasingly newer computers at every school that will need to be constantly replaced as they become obsolete.

 

Krashen quoted Gerald Bracey: “There’s a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things we shouldn’t be doing at all.”

 

There is light at the end of the tunnel though.

 

The same technology that is being used to pervert the education system can be used to help save it.

 

Krashen advised activists to use the power of social media to spread the word about CBE and other Trojan Horse reforms – policies that look like they’re helping children while actually hurting them.

 

“The Internet is our underground,” he said, “Facebook and Twitter are our weapons.”

 

Though policymakers and journalists rarely listen to experts like classroom teachers, the Internet allows us to spread our message. We don’t need anyone’s permission to speak up. We are all free to do so and should do it more often.

 

I know many people are scared to speak up, he said, but we can all educate ourselves about what’s happening and then share it and retweet it. We need to do more of this. We need to reach a critical mass. We need to show the world the truth and that it can’t be ignored and buried under the dominant media and political narrative being sold to the public as if it were truth.

 

These policies, while dangerous in and of themselves, also overshadow the real needs of our school children – namely devastating, generational poverty.

 

When Congress passes No Child Left Unfed, No Child Without Healthcare, and No Child Left Homeless, then when can talk about No Child Left Behind and Every Child Succeeds, he said.

 

Dr. Martin Luther King spoke about this issue, claiming that solving poverty would in turn solve any problems with education.

 

Krashen’s keynote was an exciting beginning to a conference that promises to be eye-opening, exciting and energizing to the community of people fighting to take back our schools from the oligarchy.


 

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