Can Unions Defang Charter School Vampires?

What if a vampire suddenly lost its fangs?

Would it still be a vampire?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the reason is pretty obvious.

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

Though publicly financed, they are often privately operated.

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

They can legally cut services and pocket the savings.

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

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

So how do unions change this system?

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

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

How much will union power beat back charter bosses?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But will it?

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

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

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

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



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Covid-19 Has Eroded My Faith in Public Schools

I am a public school advocate.

I teach at a public school.

My daughter goes to a public school.

I have spent most of my professional career fighting for public schools against every form of school privatization imaginable.

But since the beginning of this school year and the incredibly reckless way many public schools have dealt with reopening and keeping students and staff safe, I feel much of that enthusiasm drying up.

It’s not something I’m proud of feeling.

I’m actually kind of embarrassed about it.

But there are so many people I will never be able to look at the same way ever again.

There are so many organizations, unions, school boards, administrators, policy makers who have lost my trust – perhaps forever.

I’m not saying I love charter schools or private schools.

I don’t.

I still think they’re mostly scams bent on using the laws to cash in on kids while taking our tax money and running.

But the idea that public schools are fundamentally better – that idea has suffered tremendously.

I used to believe that local control was something to cherish, that a board made up of neighbors duly elected by the community would more often than not have the best interests of that neighborhood at heart when making decisions.

And, frankly, I just don’t feel that way anymore.

How can you preserve such an ideal in the face of so much evidence to the contrary – so many school boards who vote to open classrooms – and keep them open – despite raging infection rates? Despite students and teachers getting sick? Despite quarantines and warnings from epidemiologists?

SCHOOL BOARDS

McKeesport Area School District, where I live, has had more than 14 cases of Covid among students and staff since September and the school board isn’t even considering closing.

In fact, in October when most of these cases were coming to light and Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines suggested schools should temporarily close to ensure the virus wasn’t running out of control, administration chose to ignore the CDC on the basis of advice by the Allegheny County Health Department.

Seriously.

Administrators prioritized local officials telling them what they want to hear over national experts in infectious disease with hard truths. In short, keeping the doors open was considered more important than student safety.

Meanwhile, the district where I work, Steel Valley Schools, smartly decided to open with virtual learning in September. However, the board decided to change to a hybrid model in November to test the waters.

Yes, the board decided to make students and teachers guinea pigs in an experiment to see if they could somehow avoid getting sick while cases surged throughout the country and state.

And after only five days, a high school student tested positive and numerous kids and staff had to quarantine.

Yesterday the state Website announced that our county, Allegheny County, – which had been considered moderate in terms of infections – is now in the substantial category. The incidence rate is 138.7 per 100,000.

Also in the substantial category are nearby Armstrong, Butler, Beaver, Washington, and Westmoreland counties.

Will Western Pennsylvania schools do the right thing and go to remote learning? Will Steel Valley finally give up this in-person experiment? Will McKeesport?

Without a strong leader like a Governor or President to order a shut down and take the heat, I’m not sure local school directors will have the courage to act.

They keep blaming everything on academics, saying they have provide what is best to help students learn – never mind the dangers to child, parent and teachers’ bodies. But even more hypocritically they ignore the well being of huge swaths of their students who refuse to take part in their in-person experiment.

In both districts, about 60% of parents favor in-person schooling and 40% prefer remote.

So the boards are doing what the majority wants, but it’s a slim majority.

There is a significant portion of parents who feel these in-person plans are unsafe and very little is being done to educate their children.

At McKeesport, parents can enroll their kids in the district cyber program. No live teachers. No synchronous lessons on-line. Just a canned credit recovery program through the Edmentum company.

It’s terrible, and administration knows it’s terrible.

I’ve heard Superintendent Dr. Mark Holtzman say as much at school board meetings. But he and most of the board feel they have done all they need to do by providing this option.

They are actually betting that the poor quality of the cyber program will increase the number of parents sending their kids to in-person instruction.

And I’ve heard similar comments among administration at Steel Valley.

There at least we don’t force kids into our (likewise crappy) cyber program. We just have classroom teachers post assignments on-line.

Remote students in K-5 get live teachers instructing on-line. But remote students in 6-12 only get one half day of synchronous instruction on-line a week. The rest is asynchronous worksheets, etc. And somehow that’s supposed to be enough.

We have enough teachers that we could provide more, but why encourage remote learning? Might as well let them eat asynchronous and hope their parents will lose hope and just make them come to school during a global pandemic.

I have zero respect for administrators who think this way. I have zero respect for school board members who vote for it.

So how do I keep my respect for local control and the school board system?

This is very personal to me.

I have heart disease and Crohn’s Disease. My doctors tell me I can’t risk my life going into the school buildings to teach as infections run rampant through the state.

But my district has refused to allow me a safe work environment.

I am not allowed to teach remotely.

I have to burn my sick days so I can stay safe at home. But at the same time, I’m encouraged to take overtime hours to put up remote lessons, grade papers and contact parents.

I’m ready to do that as part of my job, but they won’t let me. They’d rather pay me and a sub who babysits my students in-person while I do what I’m allowed to do remotely at the same time.

So how do you look an administrator in the eye who refuses to lookout for his own employee’s safety?

Answer: you can’t. Ever, ever again.

UNIONS

And the same goes for many in my union.

Let me tell you, I love my union. I’m a union man. I believe in collective bargaining and worker solidarity.

I just wish my local did, too.

Because the leadership is perfectly fine with agreeing for the staff to work in unsafe conditions and no special protections for those like me who are more likely to contract the disease.

Leaders throw up their hands and say “We’re an association not a union,” and “If the boss says you come back to work, you have to come back to work.”

It’s even worse that I work in Homestead – the site of the historic strike.

So how do I look union leaders in the eye who have no problem throwing me to the wolves?

Answer: I can’t. Never, ever again.

And the state and national unions aren’t much better.

To be fair, I was pleasantly surprised when Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) President Rich Askey called for schools in areas with substantial infection rates to follow state guidelines and go to remote learning.

This after months of…. Nothing.

And what is PSEA threatening if districts don’t comply?

Nothing…. So far.

But I guess saying something about it is better than what they were doing before.

The national unions – the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) – certainly haven’t taken any hardline stances.

No one wants to rock the boat, but we’re talking about human life here.

There is no place further back to draw the line. We can compromise on salary and benefits but not on health and safety!

My God! That’s a human right!

We’re either unions in solidarity with our members – all our members – or we’re not.

And right now there is no solidarity, no leadership, nothing.

When I say things like this, people tell me I’m angry.

OF COURSE I’M ANGRY!

How many lives are we going to put at risk before it’s enough?

How many children? How many parents? How many staff?

Even if healthy people catch this thing, even if they get over it, they could have lifelong debilitating injuries from it.

That is not worth risking.

EDUCATION ACTIVISTS

And even the education activist community has been complicit in it.

When I tell some of my fellow grassroots organizers that schools should be open remotely, they complain about how that opens an opportunity for ed tech companies, charter and private schools.

They’re afraid teaching on-line will make ed tech companies an eternal part of school curriculum and replace real, live educators.

But that’s obviously false.

We’ve seen during lockdown periods that no one likes asynchronous teaching programs. No one likes these ed tech learning platforms. What works best in these times is curriculum created by classroom teachers taught by those classroom teachers to their students over online platforms like Zoom.

The technology should be merely a tool to connect students and teachers not as a provider of that learning.

The backlash against ed tech has been far greater than any embrace.

Yet some education activists decry how public schools going remote makes privatized schools who don’t look good.

That’s nonsense, too.

Teaching recklessly is bad – no matter who does it. If parents want to endanger their own kids, that’s their prerogative, but in the long run no one will earn brownie points for enabling such negligence.

However, where privatized schools will earn points with parents is for providing high quality remote learning when public schools refuse to do so.

I know all of them aren’t doing that. But some of them are.

And, frankly, they deserve any praise they get for it.

Look, I love public schools, too. But when public schools abandon their duties to their students as so many have done during this crisis, they deserve to have their students stolen. Even if these privatized schools often have more money to work with in the first place.

CONCLUSIONS

Bottom line: This is a crisis the school board system should have been able to overcome.

It’s a crisis the unions should have been able to battle.

It’s a crisis the activist community should have been able to see clearly.

But leadership has failed at every conceivable level. Time and again.

Strangely, that’s the only saving grace of the whole situation.

It isn’t the system that failed. It is the people in power in the system.

I know in my heart that the best way to run a school is still duly elected members of the community.

Just not THESE duly elected members.

I know that unions are vital to protecting workers rights. Just not unions lead by such wishy washy timid officers.

I know that education activism is necessary to keeping school privatization at bay. But activists can’t let their fears of what might be thwart people’s health and safety right now.

That’s the problem with Democracy. The leaders you get are representative of the community.

And our communities are perverted by one overwhelming belief – capitalism.

That’s why the schools are open. School boards are afraid keeping them closed will hurt business in the community.

That’s why administrators make such reckless reopening plans. They’re afraid that if we stay on remote it will become obvious how irrelevant they are to the running of a virtual school.

That’s why union leaders put up next to no resistance. They’re more afraid of furloughs than death or lifelong health consequences.

That’s why some parents support reopening schools – so they have someone to watch their kids while they’re at work. They never spare a moment for how the government is cheating them out of stimulus checks, mortgage relief, rent forgiveness, free testing, hazard pay and healthcare so they don’t have to put their own lives on the line working during a pandemic.

In all honesty, we were a sick country long before COVID-19 hit our shores.

We are sick with outdated and malicious economic ideas.

When you look across the ocean at the more socialist countries, you see much better plans to deal with the pandemic. Not perfect, but better.

When everything isn’t dependent on money changing hands, you can more easily prioritize human life.

So, yes, my faith has been shaken in our public schools.

I still think the idea of a public school is one to be cherished and fought to protect.

But the leaders we have – nearly all of them – should be rejected.

We need an army of citizen activists, parents and teachers to come forward at the first opportunity to replace them.

Anyone in a leadership role this year should have to explain themselves – what did you do to protect students and staff during the pandemic?

If they can’t prove they took real steps to keep people safe and not sacrifice the people they were charged to protect on the altar of capitalism – if they can’t do that they should step down.

They should step down with tears in their eyes and forever have their names sullied by their cowardice and stupidity.

They have failed us all.


 

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

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

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