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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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!

 

Pennsylvania Legislators Want You to Foot the Bill for Unimpeded Charter School Growth With Little Accountability

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Fund my charter school.

Come on, Pennsylvania.

Let me just swipe tax dollars you set aside to educate your children and put them into my personal bank account as profit.

Please!

I’ll be your best friend. Or at least I’ll be your legislator’s best friend.

Chances are, I already am.

That’s why lawmakers in Harrisburg are once again looking to pass a school code bill (House Bill 530) that would let charter schools expand exponentially almost completely unchecked and without having to do any of that nasty, sticky accountability stuff you demand of your traditional public schools.

Sure there are a few provisions in there to make charters fill out more paperwork, but the benefits for privatization and profitization of your child’s education are huge!

For me, that is. For your child, not so much.

For instance, the proposed legislation would set up a charter school funding advisory commission. This august body would have many duties including the ability to authorize charter schools in your local school district.

No longer would prospective charter operators have to come before your duly-elected board members and plead and beg to set up shop and suck away hard to come by education funding. They could just appear before the commission and sidestep your local democracy completely.

Who will be on this commission? I’m glad you asked.

We’ve got eight legislators. Got to give THEM a voice. But they’re usually pretty cheap. A few bucks in the re-election campaign and we’ll be golden. We’ll also have the state secretary of education and the chairman of the state board. We’ve got to make the thing look legit, right?

But here’s the best part! We’ll have four public education representatives and FIVE representatives of the charter school industry!

Isn’t that great!? There are significantly more traditional public schools throughout the state, but they’ll have less representation on the commission! It’s stacked with charter friendly votes! The forces of privatization have a built-in majority! Ring the dinner bell, Baby! Once this bill gets passed, it’s charter school time all across the Commonwealth!

Okay. There is a downside. Commissioners can’t be outright voting members of charter boards or their families. And if they’re being paid by charters they have to sign a sworn statement admitting that fact. Also, no criminals – no one convicted of fraud, theft, malfeasance.

Sucks, I know, but we’ll find a way around it. Don’t you worry.

However, the best is yet to come. Once a charter school has been given the go-ahead to exist, the proposed bill allows it to expand without getting permission from anyone!

That’s right! No commission, no local school board, nobody.

If there are children on the waiting list to get in, we have to take them first, but then we can start enrolling kids from outside the district!

Yes! Outside the district!

Here’s what the bill actually says:

“If a charter school or regional charter school and the school district from which it is authorized have voluntarily capped enrollment or the district attempts to involuntarily cap enrollment of resident students and the charter school or regional charter school has enrolled the maximum number of resident students, the charter school or regional charter school may enroll students residing outside of the district.”

This would appear to allow charters to enroll kids outside of the district and still charge the district to pay for them!

But wait, there’s more! If charter operators want to expand in any way, they can – unless they agree not to. If operators want to add more grades, they can. If we want to consolidate one charter school with another, we can! Meanwhile all this expansion sucks away local tax dollars to pay for students that don’t even live there!

I drink your milkshake,” traditional public schools!

So while public schools are shrinking due to loss of funds to unchecked charter expansion, this proposed bill adds insult to injury. If a traditional public school has to close a building or even has a few empty classrooms, charter schools get the right to buy or rent them out before anyone else!

I see you’ve got 7 empty class rooms in your school building. Charter School X will rent those from you. Maybe next year, we can rent out the rest of the floor once we’re done slurping up all your funding!

But wait! There’s more!

We now get to my favorite part of the proposed bill. (Do I keep saying that? It’s just such a gorgeous piece of legislation. ALEC has really outdone themselves writing it!)

We get educational tax credits. That’s school vouchers, folks!

I know, I know. The state legislature tried to pass a voucher system (Senate Bill 1) in 2011, and it was soundly defeated because it was so unpopular.

Three out of Four Pennsylvanians didn’t like that it gave state tax dollars to charters, private and parochial schools without any accountability. Well, guess what folks!? There’s hardly any accountability in this here bill, too!

Here’s how it works. You donate $X to a voucher school and we just take that off of your taxes. And if that’s the same or more than you’d normally pay for, let’s say, public school taxes, then all of your money goes to voucher schools.

It’s not really new. We’ve been quietly encouraging this kind of thing for a while now. This bill just expands it.

It allows public tax dollars to be used by religious schools – a clear violation of the Separation of Church and State. But who cares? Let’s leave that up to the courts. How dare they try to violate state’s rights. And all that. Etc. Etc.

But it’s not all robbing public schools and enriching corporate charter school operators. There are a few sticking points.

For the first time, the proposed bill allows local school boards access to charter financial and personnel records. We even have to submit to full audits. And our teachers will be subject to the same pseudo-scientific evaluations as traditional public school teachers.

In addition, charter schools will have to undergo a whole new evaluation “matrix” to show that they’re doing a good job.

I know. It sounds a lot like what traditional public schools have to undergo right now. It sounds absolutely untenable.

But here’s the difference. This new evaluation system for charters carries absolutely no consequences!

Tee-Hee!

That’s right! Even if charters fail these evaluations, the state can’t do diddley squat to them! Not so with traditional public schools. If THEY fail to show progress, they can be closed down and turned into… charter schools!

Oh! It is a beautiful time to be alive!

If this bill passes, charter school operators will have it made in the shade.

Cut student services and increase corporate profits? Check!

Kick out special education and other hard to teach students? Check!

Escape almost any kind of accountability for our actions? YOU BET!

Pennsylvania lawmakers could bring this bill to the floor anytime now.

It’s up to you, lawmakers. Do you want to keep getting tons of campaign cash from our industry or do you represent those – yuck – voters?

Do the right thing. Or should I say, do the right cha-ching!

Did you see that? Did you see what I just did there?

I am a cad. I mean… card.


In all seriousness, if you live in Pennsylvania, please, contact your legislators and ask them to oppose this terrible bill. The Network for Public Education has made it very easy. Just click HERE and you can shoot off a letter to your representatives in moments.

Oppose HB 530. Fight for public education.

Big Money Fails to Oust In-Coming Pittsburgh Schools Superintendent

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Democracy 1, Oligarchy 0.

That might be the score in the latest contest between corporate education reformers and the Pittsburgh Public School Board.

Special interest groups and the media had stirred up controversy for months over one line in newly hired superintendent Anthony Hamlet’s resume.

Last night the board voted to let the 46-year-old African American start his job as planned Friday morning.

The board voted 7-2 not to cancel his contract. He will be sworn in tomorrow to start a 5-year commitment in the city.

He had been unanimously hired May 18 from the Palm Beach County district in Florida where he had distinguished himself with an excellent record of leadership and enacting authentic reforms.

Though critics cited one line in his resume as too similar to a statement in a Washington Post article, the real reasons for the dispute are ideological.

Put simply, Hamlet favors reforms that have nothing to do with teaching to the test, charter school expansion, closing schools and other market driven policies.

This put him at odds with the usual gang of corporate sycophants:

1) The Campaign for Quality Schools Pittsburgh – a PAC recently formed to Make City Schools Great Again by promoting charter schools and other failed neoliberal reforms.

2) A+ Schools, an advocacy organization that used to champion the same kinds of authentic reforms school directors are trying to enact with Dr. Hamlet’s help. However, after getting a fat check from the Gates Foundation, the group has became a cheerleader for privatization and disaster capitalism.

3) Various foundations who immediately offered to pay for a new superintendent search if the district dismissed Dr. Hamlet – a measure that probably would have meant paying him at least a year’s salary to sit at home.

Why?

In short, they want a superintendent who thinks like them who they can control. They want to undermine our elected school board and community input process. They want to further THEIR agenda – not the education of our children.

Pittsburgh school directors are to be congratulated for not giving in to the monied interests.

Even the two directors who voted to remove Hamlet did so for good reasons. Though I thoroughly disagree with them, I think Terry Kennedy and Lynda Wrenn truly have the best interests of students at heart. They have always voted that way before.

It’s easy to write a blog about a district where you don’t live, as I do. They, however, are accountable to their constituents. I’m just a doofus with a WordPress account. They had a lot of information to process and made a tough decision. Thankfully, the other seven board members didn’t see it their way.

But that’s the beauty of it. This was democracy at work! At so many other urban districts throughout the country – even in similarly troubled Philadelphia – decision making “by and for the people” has become disbarred.

Many schools like Pittsburgh’s with a shrinking tax base, large pockets of crippling poverty and a history of state disinvestment are taken over by the state. Bureaucrats and flunkies make these decisions not members of a duly elected school board held accountable by the voters.

In fact, many calling for Hamlet’s dismissal were surely cheerleading just such a move in Pittsburgh. They were hoping to show that democracy doesn’t work in the Three Rivers community and must be replaced with … THEMSELVES.

The defeat of that position is the biggest victory here.

Now Hamlet and the board will get a chance to enact authentic reforms to help the children of Pittsburgh get the best possible education.

Now Hamlet will get to strengthen the restorative justice project already under way at 20 city schools. Instead of simply assigning detention or suspension for student misbehavior, administrators are encouraged to make students set things right after doing wrong.

In Florida Hamlet made a name for himself partnering with the criminology department at Florida Atlantic University on this same project.

It’s widely acknowledged in education circles that suspensions can have lasting impacts especially on black students making them more likely to enter the school-to-prison pipeline. Finding an approach to increase discipline without adversely affecting students’ prospects is imperative. This is especially true since Pittsburgh Public Schools have been known to suspend black students at a rate four times higher than white students.

Hamlet also will get to enact measures to transform Pittsburgh’s schools into a central part of the community and not apart from it. Like many on the board, he is an advocate for community schools. That means pushing for social services to help students and the community to make the schools the center of the neighborhood.

Hamlet has received support from all over the city including from the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers.

However, in an unexpected move, some educators came out individually in favor of Dr. Hamlet even though doing so might mean putting targets of their backs from corporate forces.

High School teacher Jon Parker even wrote a blog about the issue where he pulled no punches:

“While the [Pittsburgh] Post-Gazette is complicit in this scheme to defame and destroy Dr. Hamlet, the real enemy here, as always, is A+ Schools. They simply cannot pursue their Gatesian agenda with a superintendent who believes in community schools. They need one who believes in firing teachers. They can’t pursue their agenda if the superintendent believes in collaboration rather than stacked ranking. And they can’t pursue their agenda of closing schools and turning them into charter profit factories if the narrative in our schools shifts away from “achievement” being measured by high stakes tests. Simply put, Anthony Hamlet is not their style, and they can’t stand that Pittsburgh’s community, through real grassroots activism and real community empowerment, elected a school board which genuinely engaged its community in a selection process that produced a once-in-a-lifetime superintendent selection.”

 

Erin P. Breault, a district teacher with three children who graduated from Pittsburgh Public, wrote to the Post Gazette to praise Dr. Hamlet:

“First, he will be a fine superintendent who will work to foster community schools, increase student learning outcomes and graduation rates. He will be an especially welcome breath of fresh air, not beholden to corporate “reformers” agenda. Second, I am especially alarmed about growing calls for his contract to be dissolved and if it is not, that our democratically elected school board be replaced by an appointed system.

This is outrageous. These attacks on Mr. Hamlet and on the process of the search need to be viewed in context. There are powerful interests including the Pittsburgh foundations, A+ Schools and Students First who are upset that their vision of privatization of our public schools has been challenged by our school district.

They have leapt into action, using their money, and political clout to engage into what amounts to character assassination.”

 

Kathy M. Newman, an associate professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University, wrote to the Post Gazette to school them on the definition of plagiarism:

“Mr. Hamlet’s resume is not a copyrighted work of art or nonfiction, such as a novel or a work of history. Nor is it a work of journalism. He was not trying to “pass off” (a legal term) the work of another artist or historian or journalist as his own.

…the outrage over Mr. Hamlet’s resume doesn’t acknowledge why it is that we demand citations from students and historians, or why artists might sue those who have appropriated their work. As the scholar Steven Dutch has argued, in an article called “Sense and Nonsense about Plagiarism,” citations “allow readers to check the accuracy of facts, gauge the credibility of the ideas being presented, know whether an idea is solidly established, controversial or hypothetical, and find further information.” When Mr. Hamlet borrowed a sentence from a Washington Post editorial to express his educational philosophy he did not, to use another phrase from Mr. Dutch, diminish the “credibility of the ideas being presented.”

Finally, the furor over Mr. Hamlet’s resume has had a tone of moral outrage so hysterical that I have been concerned about the toxic mixture of sanctimony and glee expressed by many people I otherwise like and respect. Again, according to Mr. Dutch, “the institutional hysteria over plagiarism [can become] a ‘witch-hunt.’ … Charges of plagiarism are fast becoming the blood sport of choice among academic bottom-feeders.”

Ouch. But perhaps the most incendiary remarks came from Churchill resident Lorraine Turner. In the Post Gazette, she accused the paper of outright racism in its criticism of Dr. Hamlet:

“As an African-American, we are taught this particular lesson many moons ago (along with the talk about police) growing up in, “Pittsburgh, Mississippi.” That lesson is: Black people must run twice as fast and jump twice as high as their white competitors. Black people must be exceptional with every “i” dotted and every “t” crossed. The comparison of President Barack Obama and Donald Trump will highlight this lesson…

…The editorial goes on using language to highlight nearly every antiquated, racist stereotype referencing black men: Mr. Hamlet made a “perfunctory apology” (he didn’t bow his head and say, “I’se so sorry), Mr. Hamlet “sounded like a nervous student” (just call him boy), then “a bad superintendent” (black is bad), “a good superintendent” (one approved by someone white), Mr. Hamlet “prefers recalcitrance to transparency’ (recalcitrance is when one is stubbornly resistant to authority or guidance — he thinks he’s actually going to have the power of the superintendent!)…

… I hope the board quotes a line from “The Wizard of Oz,” and tells your good ol’ boy editorial staff what the Good Witch of the East told the Bad Witch of West: “Go away, you have no power here!”

In the end, the power of the monied elites evaporated against the power of good ol’ fashioned democracy.

Because the fight against corporate education reform is a fight for representative government.

And the winners of today’s battle are as always our children, our grandchildren, our posterity.