Pam Harbin Wants to Go From Pittsburgh School Board Watchdog to School Board Member

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My friend Pam Harbin is trying to undergo a startling metamorphosis.

 

 

She wants to transform from an education activist into a Pittsburgh School Director.

 

 
Now that Board President Lynda Wrenn is stepping down after 4 years, city voters in District 4 will have to decide whether Harbin can make the change. The election is on May 21.

 

 

Residents in parts of Squirrel Hill, Point Breeze, Shadyside and North Oakland already know Harbin as a fierce warrior for children’s civil rights, the plight of disabled kids and authentic public schools.

 
I’ve known Pam, personally, for years in my own role as an education activist. Though I don’t live in the city, I’ve participated in numerous collective actions to fight for the schools all our children deserve. And right beside me in every case – often in front of me – was Pam.

 

 

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I may not live in the district, but I wish I could vote for her. Harbin is an amazing leader with boundless energy, piercing intelligence, a deep knowledge of education policy, an advanced degree in finance and marketing, and an impressive track record of education justice achievements.

 
“I am deeply concerned for our system of public education,” she says. “The status quo isn’t working for all children. Thankfully, there are many people here in Pittsburgh and across the country who are fighting for investment in, and transformation of, our public schools. Unfortunately, their efforts are hindered by the well-funded organizations who fight for public school disinvestment, privatization, and for the elimination of teachers’ right to unionize.”

 

 

 

For the past 12 years, Harbin has been at the forefront of every major battle for the future of Pittsburgh’s public schools and the rights of its students.

 
Harbin was instrumental in pushing city school board directors to enact a suspension ban from Pk-2nd grade for minor non-violent conduct. She successfully fought to stop the district from implementing a physical restraint protocol that wasn’t trauma informed. She successfully fought against a policy that would have allowed school police officers to carry guns. She supported a successful Sanctuary Schools Policy for immigrant students. She also supported changes to the districts policies that would better welcome and include Pittsburgh’s LGBTQ students, including a change that allows students to use the bathroom that best fits their own gender identity.

 
Harbin and her coalition of local activists even made national news when they stopped the district from contracting with Teach for America, stopped the closing of 10 schools (after 23 were previously closed), pushed the board to hire a new Superintendent using an inclusive process that relied heavily on community input, and led the fight for a Community School Policy and the creation of 8 Community Schools.

 
Harbin has two challengers in the election: Anna Batista, a corporate consultant at Highstreet Consulting and Ashley Priore, a 19-year-old first year student at the University of Pittsburgh studying Business and English, who started a successful after school chess program for girls.

 
But despite facing a crowded field, Harbin has earned every organizational endorsement she has sought thus far, including the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, the Young Democrats of Allegheny County, the Stonewall Democrats and the Network for Public Education—an organization that frequently reposts my own writing as an education blogger and which is on the frontlines of education justice nationwide.

 

 

 

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Harbin is one of the most experienced education leaders ever to run for school board in the city. She co-founded the Education Rights Network (ERN), a parent-led organization working for fully resourced, inclusive and quality education for students throughout Pennsylvania. The ERN is part of One Pennsylvania, an organization that unites low income and working class activists to tackle the fundamental economic justice and political problems of local communities.

 
“Our members are workers, students, parents, seniors, people with disabilities, and retirees who are excited to learn, collaborate, and build power,” she says. “We follow the money, confront the power, and make the change.”

 

 

ERN is a member of Great Public Schools Pittsburgh, a coalition of community, faith, and labor organizations working together to create sustainable public schools in Pittsburgh—an alliance which Harbin also helped to found in 2013. Great Public Schools is affiliated on the national level with the Journey for Justice Alliance, the Dignity in Schools Campaign, and the Alliance to Reclaim our Schools.

 
Harbin is also a member and past Co-Chair of the Pittsburgh Local Task Force on the Right to Education (LTF), a parent-majority organization that works with administrators of Pittsburgh Public Schools and community agencies to improve services for students with disabilities.

 
And she serves on the board of directors and was past President of Evolve Coaching (formerly Arts for Autism Foundation of Pittsburgh), supporting individuals with disabilities and their communities through education, employment, and the arts.

 
No one else in the race—and maybe in the whole city—has a resume like Harbin’s.

 
Harbin believes her years of leadership for and service to Pittsburgh students and families have provided her with the needed foundation for a transition from community leader to school board member. She has attended or streamed more than 2,000 hours of school board meetings. She has served on Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) district-wide advisory committees, including the Community Schools Steering Committee, Envisioning Educational Excellence Advisory Committee, Parental Involvement Policy Committee, Excellence for All Steering Committee, and the Special Education Delivery Model Advisory Committee. And through these many committees and organizations Harbin has helped more than 100 individual families secure an IEP or a 504 plan for their children—in part because she understands better than most the byzantine world of public school special education services.

 
No one is better suited to this position than Harbin. I literally wish we could clone her and have her fill every vacancy on the board. She is that qualified, that experienced, and that effective.

 
If this sounds a bit like a love letter, it kind of is.

 

 

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I have many fond memories of fighting the power alongside Pam Harbin. I remember organizing events through Yinzercation with Pam, even canvasing local candidates door-to-door with her and my (then) 9-year-old daughter. No matter what, you could always count on Pam to be there for children.

 
“When our public schools are strong, our children and community thrive,” she says. “We have many great Pittsburgh Public Schools, teachers, and programs. But, in each school, there are children who can’t excel because their individual needs have not been met. We must do better.”

 

 

“We must remove the barriers that keep all of our children from fulfilling their dreams. This requires transformational, sustainable change in policy and practice at the local, state, and national level.”

 

 

If anyone can make that change happen, it’s Harbin. As someone who has a degree in finance, who is an experienced negotiator and a proven coalition builder, she is uniquely qualified to do so from within the board as she has been successful doing so from outside of it.

 

 

She has an ambitious set of goals and priorities if elected:

 

 

-Strengthening relationships between all stake-holders with an emphasis on child wellness.

 

-Defining success beyond standardized test scores to include authentic education practices, addressing trauma, disengagement, hunger, the quality of school food programs, the condition of our buildings and bathrooms, and children’s need for exercise and play.

 

 

-Achieving smaller class sizes and a smaller ratio of kids to adults in each building with more teachers, counselors, social workers, paraprofessionals, nurses, librarians, and other staff that keeps the building functioning at its best.

 

 

-Restoring funding to art, music, physical education, and other programming that keep kids wanting to come to school.

 

-Stopping criminalization and over-policing of students, and stopping the use of ineffective punishments that keep children away from their learning and put them on the track to drop out, to jail, and to poverty.

 

 

-Intentionally recruiting, retaining, and supporting educators of color and those who identify as LGBTQ.

 

 

-Working to make teacher mentoring, new teacher induction, and professional development better to make the very best use of teachers’ time and address key gaps in preparation to teach the wide spectrum of students in the district.

 

 

-Making teacher evaluation fair and consistent, not based solely on test scores or value added models.

 

 

-Ensuring teachers (and all school staff) are well paid, treated fairly, and valued for the critical work they do for children every day.

 

 

-Protecting collective bargaining rights so teachers (and all staff) have a voice to improve their schools – because teaching conditions are students’ learning conditions.

 

 

-Investing in the proven Community Schools model and work collaboratively with community partners to bring resources to each school.

 

 

-Working at the state level to force our legislators to finally provide adequate, equitable, and sustainable funding for public education and stop efforts to dismantle public education through vouchers and other privatization schemes.

 

 

-Building coalitions to improve the flawed state Charter School Law – Charter Schools must have more accountability for the delivery of education to all students, including disabled children, English Language Learners, and kids who are homeless or who are in foster care.

 

 

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I could literally go on about Pam for another 10,000 words. Easy.

 

 

But let me close with this.

 

Harbin began her journey as an education leader when she started advocating for her own children at their first elementary school—Liberty elementary in the Shadyside neighborhood of Pittsburgh. She found that she could make a difference for a few children at a time by throwing herself into volunteer work at the school.

 

 

But then she realized that if she wanted to make a difference for more than just a few children that she needed to work with others. Indeed, to do this work effectively Pam has had to work with people of different backgrounds, races, opinions and ideologies. She has had to listen to others, to compromise, to build bridges, and to prioritize common goals in each of her coalitions. In short, she gets things done.

 

 

And she’s been doing that for more than a dozen years.

 

 

Not because she has no choice. Not because anyone is paying her to do so. Not because doing so is bringing her any riches or fame.

 

 

But because it has been the right thing to do.

 

 

And that’s the best endorsement I can imagine.


NOTE: Special thanks to Professor Kathleen M. Newman who helped edit this article.

 

Click HERE to join Pam’s campaign!


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Pittsburgh Christian Academy Tries to Become a Charter School to Cash in on Taxpayer Funding

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The line between public and private school is getting awfully thin in Pittsburgh.

 

City public school directors received a request from Imani Christian Academy, a religious school in the East Hills, to be allowed to transform into Imani Academy Charter School for the Fall term of 2019.

 

Though parochial schools have metamorphosed into charter schools in Florida, Tennessee and Washington, D.C., this would be the first such transformation in Pennsylvania, according to Ana Meyers, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.

 

The change would require Imani to give up its religious curriculum in exchange for being fully funded by taxpayer dollars.

 

However, there are numerous red flags in the school’s application that make one wonder if operators are being entirely honest about giving up a faith-based curriculum.

 

First, there is the proposal by the school, itself.

 

The application does not specify that religious values will be taught in the classroom. However, its personnel budget lists a comparative religion teacher on staff. The list of proposed teachers also includes a middle/high school religious studies teacher.

 

That’s not exactly common practice at most public schools though teaching about religion in a secular context is allowed.

 

According to the Anti-defamation League’s Website:

 

“Public schools may not teach religion, although teaching about religion in a secular context is permitted. The Bible may be taught in a school, but only for its historical, cultural or literary value and never in a devotional, celebratory or doctrinal manner, or in such a way that encourages acceptance of the Bible as a religious document.”

 

Even so, it’s awfully convenient that a school whose mission statement currently includes “We share Christ with our children daily and seek to help them grow into mature Christians” would somehow magically become secular overnight.

 

If Imani’s charter is approved, it would be required to discontinue any religious component in its curriculum. The state school code requires even charter schools to be “nonsectarian in all operations.” The proposed academy would not be permitted to display any religious objects or symbols on the premises.

 

Yet one wonders who will check to make sure this actually happens.

 

Charter schools are not required to be nearly as transparent as fully public schools. They are not required to have open meetings of school directors, release their documents for public inspection or any of a host of other safeguards that you’ll find standard at the state’s hundreds of fully public districts.

 

Pennsylvania charter schools have had operators embezzle millions of dollars from taxpayers to buy private jets, apartments and jewelry. It took investigators years to uncover such graft.

 

Will the few auditors tasked with keeping charter schools honest even be equipped to determine whether parochial schools suddenly turned charter actually refrain from ministering to students?

 

According to Public Source, a nonprofit digital newspaper covering the Pittsburgh area, one of the qualities Imani is looking for in an operator for its charter school is the ability to use the school building after-school hours for religious instruction and activities.

 

So during the day, there will be an entirely secular K-12 school at the site of the present day parochial school that just happens to teach comparative religious studies. Then at a certain time of day, it will transform into an optional religious school offering church functions!?

 

This is a violation of the Separation of Church and State waiting to happen.

 

But it’s not only the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution that is in danger of being trampled.

 

Imani’s proposal is not fiscally responsible.

 

The charter application proposes its CEO/head of school be paid a salary of $145,000 a year for an institution that would enroll merely 230 students.

 

Pittsburgh Public School Superintendent Dr. Anthony Hamlet earns a salary of $210,000 a year and he oversees a district with 24,652 students!

 

The proposed academy would also employ a principal at $85,000 annual salary.

 

That’s not exactly good reimbursement of services for the outlay of cash taxpayers are expected to pay.

 

Imani has struggled financially for several years.

 

In 2014, the school had more than $400,000 in additional expenses over its revenue, according to its form 990 filed with the IRS. The very next year, it had a budget surplus of almost the same amount. By 2016 – the most recent year on file – its expenses again were more than its revenue – this time by more than $500,000.

 

Imani CEO and Head of School Paulo Nzambi explained  the up and down budgeting to state officials in 2017 this way. The parochial school relied on the state’s defacto school voucher program – the Education Improvement Tax Credit. However, payments were delayed resulting in the use of a line of credit to pay bills.

 

It’s just such financial uncertainties that are pushing Imani to become a charter school in the first place. Even with school vouchers, parochial schools rely heavily on tuition from parents. However, you always know where the money is coming from in a charter school. Like religious and private schools, these institutions are privately managed – but like public schools they’re funded entirely by taxpayers.

 

Before setting up shop, any new charter school in Pennsylvania must get the approval of the school board from the district where it would be located. If the board does not approve the application, charter school administrators can appeal to the state Charter Appeals Board.

 

Pittsburgh school board held a public hearing on Imani’s application in December and earlier this month. Next, the district’s review team will offer its suggestions on the application. District solicitor Ira Weiss says the board is scheduled to vote on the matter at its Feb. 27 meeting.

 

If approved, the district would be required to pay for each student at the new charter school based on the district’s per-student spending formula.

 

The Pittsburgh district already pays approximately $82.8 million – about 13 percent of its total budget – for charter school tuition.

 

Imani Christian Academy currently operates out of the former East Hills Elementary School building, which it purchased from the city school district for $1 million in 2008.

 

The objections brought up here are really just the tip of the iceberg.

 

The proposal leaves many questions unanswered. For instance, though the new academy would be located within the geographical boundaries of the Pittsburgh Public School District, where would it get its students from? Would current students at the religious school get preferential enrollment – and what if they don’t already live in and pay taxes to Pittsburgh?

 

Let’s hope Pittsburgh school directors do the right thing and deny this request.


 

Still can’t get enough Gadfly? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Five Reasons to Vote NO on the Allegheny County Children’s Fund

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You can’t raise taxes without a plan of how to spend the money.

 

But that’s exactly what voters in and around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, are being asked to approve this Nov. 6.

 

Come election day, all voters in Allegheny County will be confronted with what’s been called the Children’s Fund, a referendum asking for a voluntary 5% property tax hike that allegedly would go to pay for early learning, after-school programs and healthy meals for kids.

 

But there are no details about who will provide these services, who will be responsible for the money, exactly what else the money might be used for or almost anything substantive about it.

 

It’s just a check with “For Kids” scrawled in the Memo and everything else left blank.

 

The plan is highly controversial drawing criticism from across the Mon Valley including school directors, education advocates and even progressive groups like the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN).

 

Here are the top five reasons you should vote NO on the referendum:

 

1) It Raises Taxes Without Stipulating Where the Money Goes

 

Here’s what we do know.

 

The Children’s Fund would be financed by 0.25 mills of property tax — $25 on each $100,000 of assessed value, beginning Jan. 1.

 

That’s expected to generate roughly $18 million a year that would begin to be distributed in 2020.

 

If approved, it would change the county Home Rule Charter to establish the fund as part of county government. It would create a new office under the supervision of the county manager.

A Citizens’ Advisory Commission would “review and advise” the work of the new office, according to the proposed charter amendment.

 

However, County Council and County Executive Rich Fitzgerald would have to do the work of actually creating all this stuff. They’d have to pass an ordinance establishing how this all works, what powers the advisory commission has, etc. They would have to determine whether the money goes to existing programs or new ones. They’d have to set up audits of the money every five years, conduct a study to recommend goals and a focus for how the funding is spent.

 

That’s an awful lot left undecided.

 

It makes no sense for voters to hand over the money BEFORE we figure all this other stuff out.

 

It’s not at all how good government works.

 

You’re supposed to define a problem or need and then come up with a plan to meet that need. You prepare a budget that justifies raising taxes and then you vote on it.

 

This is exactly the opposite. We’re getting the money before the plan of how to spend it.

 

That’s a recipe for fraud and financial mismanagement.

 

 

2) It’s Unclear Who Would Be In Charge of the Money

 

Who would be accountable for this money?

 

We know who gets to decide this – County Council and the Chief Executive. But we don’t know who they will pick or what powers they’ll delegate to these people. Nor do we know what kind of oversight there will be or what kind of regulations will exist for how it can be spent.

 

This is a blind statement of trust.

 

It’s like saying – “Here’s $18 million. Go buy us something nice.”

 

What if they mismanage the money? And what would that even mean for money with so few strings attached? And how would we know? How transparent would this process be?

 

It’s kind of hard to approve such a plan with so many variables up in the air.

 

3) The Campaign was Not Grass Roots

 

To hear supporters talk, you’d think this was a bottom up crusade created by, organized by and conducted by everyday citizens from our communities.

 

It wasn’t.

 

Sure, volunteers for the Children’s Fund went door-to-door to collect more than 40,000 signatures from voters last summer.

 

But they weren’t all volunteers.

 

 

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

 

 

According to the Children’s Fund’s own campaign finance report, as of June there were three nonprofit corporations who donated $427,000 to the campaign: the Human Services Center of Turtle Creek gave $160,000, Pressley Ridge Foundation gave $150,000, and Allies for Children gave a donation of $45,000 and another for $72,000.

 

That’s like McDonalds spending a hundred thousand dollars to fix up the school cafeterias so it could land a multi-million dollar annual contract!

 

It’s a huge conflict of interest.

 

At very least, it’s purposefully misleading.

 

Many of those “volunteers” gathering signatures weren’t working for free. They were part of the $100,000 spent by the campaign to hire Vote Goal Organizing for paid signature collectors.

 

That doesn’t look like charity. It looks like philanthrocapitalism – when corporations try to disguise grabs for power and profit as philanthropy.

 

Corporations – even so-called nonprofit corporations – rarely do things out of sheer goodness. They’re acting in the best interest of the company.

 

I see no reason to think this “Children’s Fund” is any different.

 

4) It Works Around Instead of With Local Government

 

Though almost everyone agrees with the stated goals of the Children’s Fund, many organizations and government officials complained that they were not consulted and made a part of the process.

 

 

Two Pittsburgh Public School directors went on record in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette about a lack of communication.

 

“First and foremost, we have not had any conversations with the organizers of the referendum,” board president Regina Holley said. “There are lots of ifs and whats that have not been answered.”

 

Kevin Carter, another city school director added, “In my role as a school board member, they didn’t talk to us about this at all.”

 

“When you leave your largest school district in the region out of this conversation, are you doing this around children?” he asked, citing that the district serves 25,000 students daily.

 

This has been a common thread among officials. No one wants to say they’re against collecting money that’s ostensibly for the benefit of children, but it’s hard to manage the money if you’re not part of the process.

 

And it’s not just protocol. Many are worried that this lack of communication may be emblematic of how the fund will be run. If organizers aren’t willing to work with local governments to get the job done, how will they know what each community needs? How will they meet those needs? Is that even what the fund will really be about?

 

Richard Livingston, Clairton school board president, noted concern that the money collected might not be spent evenly throughout the county. For all he knows, it could just be spent in the city or in select areas.

 

Indeed, this is not the best way to start any endeavor funded by all, for the benefit of all children.

 

 

5) It’s Redundant

 

While it’s true that the county could use more funding to meet the needs of students, numerous organizations already exist that attempt to provide these services.

 

 

There are a plethora of Pre-K, after school tutoring and meal services in the Mon Valley. In fact, much of this is done at the county’s various neighborhood schools.

 

If organizers were only concerned with meeting these needs, why form an office within county government that would have an appointed advisory commission? Why not just increase the funding at the local schools and/or organizations already doing this work?

 

In fact, this is exactly the reason the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network is against the initiative.

 

According to the organization’s statement:

 

 

“At PIIN, we believe that the faith community is a sacred partner with our public schools, and we have long been supportive of both the community schools model and increasing state funding to provide an excellent, high-quality education to every child in our region. We believe in funding for early childhood learning, after school programs, and nutritious meals. However, we cannot support a ballot initiative that creates an unnecessary entity, with an unknown advisory board, and an unclear process for directing our tax dollars.

 

This is why we are urging our membership to reject the Allegheny County Children’s Fund Initiative at the polls this November.”

 

 

 

Another related organization, Great Public Schools-Pittsburgh, also released a statement with “several specific concerns” about the potential fund. These include how the money would be distributed, which organizations would benefit from it, and questions about its redundancy.

 

Several pre-K programs already exist but are not fully funded, the organization noted. Why don’t we just fund them?

 

The group is a coalition of the Education Rights Network, One Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, PIIN, and the Service Employees International Union.

 

The group’s statement noted concerns but fell short of urging an outright NO vote.

 


The bottom line is that many people are concerned about inadequate funding for children’s programs.

 

But this “Children’s Fund” is not a solution to that problem.

 

This is the creation of another bureaucracy that can take our tax dollars and do almost whatever it wants with them.

 

There is no guarantee it will help kids.

 

In fact, it looks a lot more like a power and money grab by corporate interests, many of whom would prefer to privatize our school system.

 

This November, when you go to the polls, do the right thing for our kids.

 

Vote NO on the Allegheny County Children’s Fund.

 

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Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Pittsburgh Public Schools Advised to Repeat Same Mistakes Over and Over and Over…

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“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

-Albert Einstein (attributed)


“AAAUUURGH!”

-Charlie Brown

 

 

If I crash my car right into a wall, the worst thing to do would be to get into another car and crash it right into the same wall!

 

But that’s what the Pittsburgh Post Gazette thinks city school administrators should do.

 

A new comprehensive report about Pittsburgh Public Schools concludes that standardization and Common Core have produced zero progress in the district over the last decade.

 

And the editorial board of the city’s largest remaining newspaper says this means administrators should stay the course – indeed, double down on test prep and uniformity.

 

The 175-page report by The Council of the Great City Schools affirms that the district showed little to no improvement in the last 10 years.

 

“In fact, analysis of student achievement trends shows little to no improvements since 2007,” the report went on. “Although some scores went up and others went down over the period, achievement gaps are about the same — if not wider — than they were when the work started.”

 

You would think this would be a scathing indictment of administrators during this time who focused on test prep and uniformity to the exclusion of more student-centered reforms. In particular, during the same time covered in the report, administrators paid for new curriculum designed to standardize instruction across schools and grade levels. They instituted a value-added bonus system rewarding principals who run the schools with the highest test scores. They even increased the length of the school day to drive achievement.

 

They did all this, and it didn’t help a bit.

 

Some might see that as proof of the error of past ways.

 

But not the Post Gazette.

 

In the minds of the editorial board, this is a ringing endorsement of those policies that got us nowhere.

 

Mark Roosevelt, superintendent from 2005 to 2010, and Linda Lane, superintendent from 2010 to 2016, are actually singled out by the paper as heroes of reform!

 

Wait a minute. These are the people in charge when the district apparently was stalled. If anything, these functionaries should bear the blame, not get a pat on the back. We should do anything BUT continuing their work which lead to this dismal report.

 

But instead, the editorial board writes, “[T]he work of Mr. Roosevelt and Ms. Lane was not in vain. They inaugurated a coherent system of reforms, made the federal benchmark known as ‘adequate yearly progress’ twice in three years, restored the district’s credibility with the foundation community, forged a closer relationship with the teachers union and generated a new sense of optimism. The course they charted is worth revisiting.”

 

What!?

 

Voters are fed up with number-worshipping flunkies who don’t see kids as anything but data points. That’s why the community has consistently replaced number crunching school directors and administrators with people who have a new vision of education – a community schools approach.

 

The editorial board may look down their noses at current Superintendent Dr. Anthony Hamlet who took over just this summer and the positive changes he’s been making with the new progressive school board, but he’s only doing what the public wants. And given this new report, a new direction is exactly what Pittsburgh Public Schools needs!

 

In the ivory tower of big media, they don’t see it this way.

 

In fact, the PG goes so far as to imply that Dr. Hamlet and the new board are somehow responsible for Roosevelt and Lane’s failures.

 

“It may be that they [Roosevelt and Lane] did not stay long enough for their efforts to take root,” writes the Post Gazette, “that the reforms became too cumbersome to manage or that they were unable to fully impose their will on a sprawling school district with many constituencies.”

 

Please. Dr. Hamlet’s presence has not halted Roosevelt and Lane’s march toward progress. This report demonstrates that they achieved very little. Moreover, Dr. Hamlet has only been in office since June. He hasn’t been in the district long enough to flush student test scores down the toilet – especially when for more than nine of those years he was working in Florida.

 

Neither can you blame the community for being fed up with corporate education reforms that apparently don’t work.

 

No. If this report by a consortium of the nation’s 70 largest urban school districts shows failure in ‘burgh schools, that belongs to the bosses at the top during the last 10 years. If this is a failure, it is Roosevelt’s and Lane’s, not Dr. Hamlet’s. Nor can you place it at the feet of school directors, most of whom are new to the board.

 

But the media mavens can be forgiven slightly for coming to such an odd conclusion, because it’s supported by the organization that wrote the report – the Council of the Great City Schools. After all, the Council suggested this push toward standardization in the first place.

 

 

In February 2006, this same Council advised Pittsburgh to “recommit to a standardized, districtwide curriculum to ensure that every classroom is focused on a common set of rigorous expectations for student learning.”

 

And now that same Council is saying that doing so resulted in a fat goose egg.

 

Great advice, Guys!

 

Pittsburgh residents spent $156,545 of taxpayer money to find that out.

 

Still, it’s not a total waste. It’s probably the most comprehensive look at the district in recent history and drew expertise from two dozen executives from eight different city school systems. It also included interviews with 170 staff and community members.

 

The third-party review was part of Dr. Hamlet’s transition plan and “acts as a blueprint” to transform the district, he said. It includes a detailed review of the district’s organization structure, staffing levels, instructional programs, financial operations, business services, disciplinary policies, and research and data functions.

 

Of particular interest is school discipline data showing that the district has an “extraordinarily high” suspension rate compared with other cities and that its disciplinary actions disproportionately affect students of color. In fact, this seems to justify moves by Dr. Hamlet to enact a restorative justice disciplinary program instead of a strict zero tolerance policy.

The report includes numerous suggestions for improvements across the board including revamping the district’s central office structure and updating the district’s outdated PreK-5 literary curriculum – initiatives that are already underway.

 

But when it comes to a repeated call for standardization and canned curriculum across the district, it should be ignored.

 

Put simply, we’ve tried that crap. It doesn’t help.

 

We’ve got to get beyond our love for standardized tests. We know that poor students don’t do as well on these types of assessments as middle class or wealthy students. It should be no surprise, then, that an urban district like Pittsburgh with a high percentage of impoverished students will also have low test scores.

 

It’s the poverty, stupid!

 

We need to do something to address that directly, not attack a district that’s lost almost $1 billion annually in state funding for the last five years.

 

Moreover, this obsession with Common Core is completely unfounded. It has never been demonstrated that aligning curriculum to the Core will increase test scores or increase learning. In fact, there is mounting research to show that these academic standards are developmentally inappropriate and actually prevent authentic learning – especially in reluctant learners.

 

The Council of the Great City Schools is enamored with these policies because the organization has taken millions of dollars in donations from the Gates Foundation and other organizations connected with the testing industry. Even many charitable foundations have aligned themselves with this lucrative business model where corporations cash in when students fail and then cash in again by selling them the remediation and Common Core texts they convince us we need to pass the tests.

 

The editorial board of the Post Gazette is likewise blinded by dollar signs and data.

 

Like far too many non-educators, they give far too much credence to a person’s bank account than her expertise. The same people pushing testing and new academic standards also benefit financially from them. They have created at least one PAC in the city with deep pockets looking to unseat unsympathetic board members and discredit Dr. Hamlet so that they can install their own representatives.

 

This is a battle with plain sense and logic. It’s also a battle for control of Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Does Eating a Free School Lunch Give Kids “an Empty Soul?”

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Just about everyone admits the importance of eating lunch – especially for growing kids in school.

But if you get that lunch for free, does it leave you with “a full stomach and an empty soul”?

Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Paul Ryan thinks so.

He famously made these remarks at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference:

“Take Obamacare—not literally, but figuratively here OK? We now know that this law will discourage millions of people from working. The Left thinks this is a good thing. They say, ‘hey, this is a new freedom—the freedom not to work.’ But I don’t think the problem is too many people are working — I think the problem is not enough people can find work. And if people leave the workforce, our economy will shrink—there will be less opportunity, not more. So the Left is making a big mistake here. What they’re offering people is a full stomach—and an empty soul. The American people want more than that.”

So, for Ryan, having affordable healthcare somehow has discouraged people from working. He seems to think there are millions of poor people out there who could get a job but have decided not to because their medical bills are too low.

It’s preposterous. Most poor people are working several minimum wage jobs just to get by. Very few people are sitting at home on the public dole, and those that are need help to find jobs, as he admits. They need help finding better jobs that pay higher wages. They need help getting the skills and training necessary to get those jobs. And they need for those jobs to actually exist! They don’t need condemnation or starvation to motivate them.

If Republicans like Ryan had offered a single jobs bill, perhaps such remarks would be excusable. If they had offered an alternative to Obamacare, likewise it might be excusable. In the absence of those things, his comments seem to be nothing more than a thinly veiled excuse for doing nothing to help the less fortunate.

But Ryan goes on:

“This reminds me of a story I heard from Eloise Anderson. She serves in the cabinet of my friend Governor Scott Walker. She once met a young boy from a poor family. And every day at school, he would get a free lunch from a government program. But he told Eloise he didn’t want a free lunch. He wanted his own lunch—one in a brown-paper bag just like the other kids’. He wanted one, he said, because he knew a kid with a brown-paper bag had someone who cared for him.”

There are several problems with these remarks. First of all, Anderson later admitted that it never happened. She never met a boy who said this. She got the whole thing from “The Invisible Thread,” by Laura Schroff, either from the book, itself, or a TV interview about the book.

Second, Anderson’s cherry picking this example from the book goes completely against what the author was trying to say. The book is the true story of a business executive and an 11-year-old homeless boy who partnered together with an organization called No Kid Hungry to fight child hunger. One key part of the program is connecting hungry kids with federal programs such as school lunches and food stamps. The group also opposed Ryan’s 2013 budget for its proposed reductions in the food stamp program. In short, Schroff was trying to show how important it was to provide free lunches to students – not that we should let them go hungry. Using Schroff’s book to justify cutting school lunch programs is like using Nelson Mandela’s autobiography as a justification for apartheid.

Getting a free lunch doesn’t mean no one cares for you. On the contrary, it means that everyone does, that your community has pitched in to make sure you are fed.

Many politicians and media talking heads refuse to see the realities of modern American life. Deregulation of the banking and corporate sector along with outsourcing and rampant union busting have resulted in an economy where most of the good paying jobs are gone. This puts a tremendous strain on our education system. As a result, more than half of public school students live below the poverty line. But how to meet their needs without stigmatizing kids for circumstances beyond their control?

Many communities around the country including my own, have stepped up with a solution. For the last two years, hundreds of districts throughout my state of Pennsylvania and throughout the nation have offered free lunches to all of their students regardless of family income. Rich kids, poor kids, all kids eat for free. Though students can still bring a lunch from home, having the option to eat at school removes the dichotomy of brown bags vs. cafeteria lunches. All are the same.

The program, called the Community Eligibility Provision, is available nationwide as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed in 2010. Its goal is to provide healthy lunches and breakfasts to millions of students nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Previously only low-income students or students from families receiving federal assistance received free breakfasts and lunches.

Now, only 40 percent of a single school or an entire district’s population must come from families receiving federal assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and/or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). They may also be homeless or come from foster homes. Once that 40 percent threshold is reached, all students receive free lunch and breakfast. Districts are compensated by the state and federal government.

Before this program, providing school lunches, even at cost, was a losing proposition. Most districts end the year with students owing them large sums for lunches. For instance, two years ago, $25,000 of debt remained with Pittsburgh schools because some students didn’t pay for their meals.

Districts could stop letting these children eat the school lunch, but no one wants to refuse a child a meal. Under the previous system, the extra cost for unpaid lunches and the cost to complete mountains of paperwork involved in collecting the money was put on the backs of local taxpayers. Under this new program, all of this disappears. Moreover, we create a community of children who are better fed and thus better ready for the demands of school.

And mark my words, this IS helping kids become better prepared for class.

As a teacher, I used to have to buy snacks and meals for my students. I had a drawer full of Ramen noodles for children who came to me hungry. Many kids suffer from food insecurity but don’t qualify for SNAP. This program solves that problem.

My own second grade daughter has never known anything else but this system. Though I can afford to pay or pack her a lunch, she prefers to eat what her friends are eating. My wife and I are often baffled that she’ll try new foods at school that she would never give a chance had we made them at home.

And the food is actually pretty good. It’s not gourmet, but it’s better than what you’d get at most fast food restaurants. I even eat it, myself, from time-to-time. I have to pay two bucks, but it’s still a bargain. I particularly like the baked chicken.

People complain about new federal guidelines that have made school lunches healthier, but what they’ve really done is made them better. Whole grain bread and buns taste pretty much the same and are better for you. Using less salt and grease is better all around.

I’ve even noticed the kids learning new things about food from the increased menu. When all this began, I remember many of the middle schoolers expressing disgust at the chicken because it was in whole pieces. They had only seen chicken in nugget form.

Now kids will walk up to the cafeteria ladies and ask to try this or that. Many times they discover something new that they like. It’s really cool to see. Even their manners have improved.

Just today little 5th graders were remarking at how soft and delicious the croissant was on the breakfast sandwich. They had never seen a bun like that before. I literally heard comments like “delicious” and “mouth-watering.”

That’s incredibly high praise for children. Sure some of them still find the food is disgusting, but they are in the minority.

Do the kids who eat these lunches have “an empty soul”?

No, that’s just Paul Ryan.

Pittsburgh School Director Donates Kidney to 7-Year-Old Student

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Moira Kaleida represents the best of public service.

 

 

Some people would give you the shirt off their backs.

 

 

She gave a sick child a kidney out of her body.

 

 

The Pittsburgh School Board Director isn’t related to the 7-year-old student. She is barely an acquaintance. She doesn’t even represent the ward in which he and his family live. But when she read a Facebook request asking for donors, she says it was a “no-brainer.”

 

“I thought if it were my kid, I’d want to know someone was out there trying,” Kaleida says.

 

“It really doesn’t affect my everyday life beyond the couple of weeks of recovery. But for him, it’s something that changes his life drastically.”

 

The child, Laith Dougherty, had already undergone two heart transplants, one when he was 3 months old and another when he was 3 years old. But in 2012, a test showed his kidneys were working at only 35 percent capacity. After a series of illnesses in the fall, they were down to 6 percent and he was on dialysis.

 

None of his immediate family was a match and his B blood type made finding one difficult. He was looking at a wait of between 6 months and two years before a donor could be found.

 

That’s when the family reached out to Facebook. Kaleida saw it, privately investigated to see if she was a match and when she was, she contacted Ghadah Makoshi, the child’s mother.

 

“It’s shocking to me because I had only met her once or twice,” Makoshi says. “It’s sacrifice to say, ‘I’m going to go through surgery and pain to make sure your kid survives.’ Most people wouldn’t do that.”

 

The surgery was done in June and the kidney began working immediately. Laith is expected to make a full recovery.

 

Kaleida is a woman of high ideals.

 

 

The 32-year-old mother of two doesn’t just talk the talk. She walks the walk.

 

 

Though she’s only been on the board since November, she has been on the right side of just about every issue.

 

 

She was the impetus behind the district’s newly approved transgender student policy. After principals and legal experts alerted her to the need for procedures to protect students’ rights and provide supports, she successfully lobbied her fellow school directors to take action.

 

 

“We’re moving forward on the right side of law and history,” she said at the time.

 

 

She’s also an advocate for community schools and the restorative justice discipline policies currently being enacted district-wide. She supports the idea that Pittsburgh schools should be at the center of the community providing medical care, wraparound services, before- and after-school programs, etc. to help keep children in the classroom. She favors a discipline policy not focused on punishing students but ensuring they make things right for their misbehavior.

 

To that end, she is a firm supporter of new Superintendent Dr. Anthony Hamlet. When Hamlet was attacked by corporate education reformers and big money interests earlier this summer, she stood by him.

 

 

She may be one of the most progressive members of a very high-minded board.

 

 

Though city schools struggle to keep afloat because of underfunding from the state and federal government plus an increasingly impoverished local tax base, the district has one of the best boards in the state.

 

 

In fact, in many similar urban districts like Philadelphia City Schools, there is no elected school board.

 

 

If a Political Action Committee (PAC) has its way, the same thing will happen here. Deep-pocketed investors are gathering funds to unseat as many Pittsburgh School Directors as possible and – if possible – push for the district to be run by government appointees, not duly elected representatives.

 

 

Kaleida’s story shows exactly why this would be a mistake.

 

 

Corporate cronies would never look out for the needs of the community the way actual residents do. People who live in the community, know the community and relate to the families and children living there are far superior to anyone making decisions based on a spreadsheet.

 

 

Kaleida is a lifelong resident and graduate of the district. When she ran for office, even the privatization-loving Pittsburgh Post Gazette couldn’t help but endorse her due to “her superior detailed knowledge of the city schools and their challenges.”

 

 

Kaleida dedicates herself to raising her children and volunteering for various organizations. She has given time to the International Cesarean Awareness Network (ICAN); NurturePA, which supports new mothers; and various neighborhood efforts. She also tries to find more funding for the district’s Pre-K initiative so it can provide services to even more children.

 

 

She represent District 6 neighborhoods including all or parts of Brookline, Beechview, Banksville, Mount Washington and Duquesne Heights.

 

 

Laith is lucky his school is represented by a woman like Kaleida. So are all the parents and children of Pittsburgh.

 

 

We need more school directors like her and her colleagues. And more than anything we need more local control of public education.

Paying Back School Kids on the Installment Plan – PA Budget Shenanigans

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Hey, Kids!

 

We’re your Pennsylvania Legislature, and we’re here to help!

 

We just passed a new state budget that puts $200 million more in your classrooms! Isn’t that great!?

 

Yeah. We know. Your public schools are crumbling to dust, and your school books are falling apart, and you’re stuffed into overcrowded classrooms, and…

 

But here’s some more money so it’s all better now!

 

Um. No. It actually doesn’t heal that huge chunk of cash we slashed from public schools six years ago. We’ve been giving you back about $100-200 million a year for a while now, so with this new budget… uh… We’re actually about $150 million short. But we’re good for it!

 

No, that doesn’t take into account inflation. Or compounding costs. Or the billions you should have had but did without in the intervening years. Or the loans you had to take out to stay operational while we argued over all this.

 

Jeez. I guess that means your schools are still deep in the hole, huh?

 

Well, don’t you worry. Next year we’re bound to give you just a little bit more. At this rate, we should have paid you back all that money we took in about 20 years!

 

You’re welcome!

 

The 2016-17 budget was passed in two motions. A spending plan was ratified at the end of June, and a revenue package to pay for it was passed on Wednesday. That’s only 13 days beyond the state-mandated deadline for doing so. It’s a huge improvement over last year’s budget, which was 9 months late!

 

One of the largest sticking points was an initiative to allow charter schools to proliferate exponentially without oversight or state control. It was tabled until a later date. Legislators now go on summer break.

 

What’s that, sonny boy?

 

You wonder how Pennsylvania stacks up to other states in terms of education funding? Well according to federal education data, we’re number one!

 

No. Not number one as in the best. Number one as in the worst. Our state has the worst funding inequality in the nation!

 

You see, even though we’ve been adding more money into classrooms, it hasn’t been done equitably.

 

When our previous Governor, Corbett, and the Republican-controlled legislature slashed almost $1 billion annually in education funding back in 2011, we didn’t take it away from all schools equally. We took the lion’s share from the poorest schools. But when we started putting it back piece-by-piece, we didn’t give it all back to those impoverished districts.

 

It’s all kind of complicated, but since you asked…

 

We used to do something called the charter school reimbursement.

 

This was money set aside to help schools deal with the extra cost of having a charter school pop up in their neighborhood. Charter schools siphon off loads of funding so they can operate without actually reducing the operating expenses of traditional public schools all that much. So when a charter school opens, it usually means kids left in the traditional public school suffer.

 

When the Corbett cuts went through, we got rid of that charter school reimbursement all together. Now those schools – most of them in impoverished areas – have to make up that money some other way.

 

The funding formula? Yes, the legislature did create a new funding formula – a more fair way to distribute education monies across the Commonwealth. However, it’s got some kinks in it.

 

First, we didn’t want to take away any extra money rich schools were getting that they don’t need, so we made sure to grandfather that money in. I know it means less for schools that really need it, but… you know… rich people.

 

Second, the funding formula only adds $150 million for the poorest districts. Our current Governor, the guy who was elected after Corbett was kicked out of Harrisburg for shortchanging school children, Gov. Wolf, he wanted to include more. But the Republican controlled legislature wouldn’t allow it. They said it would send too much money to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and you know what kind of kids go there? Right? Blac… I mean, poor ones.

 

You know, the only way we get away with this is because Pennsylvanians aren’t very good at math.

 

You see, we’ve been playing a shell game with numbers. We add fixed costs like pensions into the mix to make it look like we’re spending more than ever on public schools. But when it comes to money that actually goes to the classroom, nope!

 

It’s like replacing your tires and wondering why you have no money for gas.

 

Specifically, you kids lost $841 million for your classrooms between 2010-11 and 2011-12. That’s why you lost 30,000 teachers, guidance counselors, nurses and other school staff. That’s why you lost extra-curriculars, arts and music, foreign language, field trips and why class size exploded. Heck! Several kids died for lack of having a full-time school nurse!

 

By the time voters booted Corbett, he and the Republican legislature were spending $579 million less in 2014-15 as opposed to 2010-11. And now with Gov. Wolf and the threat of voters booting lawmakers who thought they were safe even in their highly gerrymandered districts, we’ve got that gap down to about $150 million.

 

How are we paying for this? Uh. We’re taxing the poor and using one-time funding streams.

 

We’ve raised a $1 per pack tax on cigarettes. We’ve got liquor privatization, internet gaming, a licensing fee for a second Philadelphia casino, and a tax amnesty program.

 

More than half is made up of one-time sources. That means next year we’re going to have another budget deficit to fix just like we did this year. But our fiscal conservatives will just do the same thing and put it on the credit card. That’s what it means right? Fiscal conservative?

 

The good news is we didn’t have to raise taxes on rich people. We’re one of the “terrible ten” states that relies on the poor to pay a larger percentage of the tax burden than the rich, and we’re darn proud of it!

 

Sure we could have instituting a severance tax on natural gas; closed the Delaware tax loophole; and slightly increased taxes on those who are making bank, but those are our real constituents. Those are the ones who pay us the big bucks. You expect us to inconvenience them for you poor people!?

 

Ha!

 

Consider that a lesson, kiddos. We aren’t here for you or your parents. Now take this measly bit of education funding we owe you and be happy with it. If you’re lucky, next year we might give you back the last few hundred million we took. Then you’ll only be down due to rising costs, inflation and seven years of neglect!