Gov. Wolf, You Can’t Shirk Your Duty to Close PA Schools During the Pandemic

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“The Buck Stops Here!”

 

President Harry S. Truman famously displayed a sign on his desk saying exactly that.

 

It indicated that he didn’t pass the buck but accepted responsibility for the way the country was run.

 

What does it say on your desk, Gov. Tom Wolf?

 

Your latest Tweets don’t fill Pennsylvania residents with confidence:

 

“There are widespread rumors that I will soon be announcing a statewide school building closure or cancelling classes this fall. I want to be clear: I am not closing school buildings or cancelling classes.”

 

“School governing boards and administrators will determine if school buildings reopen and if classes resume in person, remotely, or a combination of the two. The best way to find out about these local decisions is to contact your school’s governing board or administration.”

 

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Well, that’s two things you now have in common with President Donald Trump.

 

First, you’re making policy by Tweet.

 

Second, you are side stepping your obligations.

 

“I don’t take responsibility at all,” Trump said when asked about his administration’s inability to test Americans for the Coronavirus during the outbreak.

 

That’s what you sound like today.

 

COVID-19 cases have been spiking throughout the Commonwealth since early June – especially in Allegheny, Philadelphia, Delaware and Montgomery counties.

 

Today in Allegheny County, where I live, the Health Department reported the second highest increase in new cases – 244.

 
That is the most new cases in the state. Philadelphia comes next with 130 new cases. Together, these two counties make up more than 38% of the state’s new COVID-19 cases.

 

And yet we have school directors looking at this same data and making different decisions.

 

In the Pittsburgh region, school boards at East Allegheny, Woodland Hills and Wilkinsburg districts have all decided to reopen schools with classes completely on-line – at least to start. Meanwhile, in neighboring districts like McKeesport Area School District and Steel Valley School District, they are moving forward with hybrid plans that incorporate on-line and in-person classes in the physical school buildings.

 

And those are the outliers.

 

The majority haven’t made decisions yet complaining of a lack of safety guidelines from the county and a lack of direction from you, the governor.

 

You don’t get to decide what schools teach or how local communities make educational decisions.

 

But whether school buildings physically reopen or not during a pandemic is not an educational decision. It is a public safety decision.

 
Back in March when the virus started spreading throughout the state, you choose to close down businesses and schools.

 

As chief executive of the state, you had an obligation to do that.

 

It’s a crying shame that many in government have politicized every aspect of this disaster and the response to it.

 

I know you have taken a lot of criticism from Republicans trying to score points off your quick and sound judgement in this matter. They call you a tyrant because you did what every previous governor has done during a statewide disaster – you made decisions to safeguard lives.

 

Nothing has changed. If anything, there are significantly more cases reported every day now than in March.

 

If schools needed to be closed to in-person classes and education needed to be conducted on-line back then, that is still true today.

 

Perhaps this doesn’t have to be statewide. Perhaps it can be decided county-by-county. But you need to work collaboratively with county officials and school boards to coordinate the response to the virus.

 

Otherwise, there inevitably will be outbreaks at schools that reopen to in-person schooling. And since most districts are not separated by wide open spaces and residents frequently travel between them to buy groceries or other necessities, those outbreaks will spread.

 

A district that wisely decides to keep children 100% online will be susceptible to infections from residents in neighboring districts and bring those infections home.

 

This is not the responsibility of local school directors. It requires an authority that goes beyond the neighborhood and provincial decision making.

 

This is YOUR responsibility.

 

Frankly, the federal government, too, should be playing a larger role to help coordinate state responses. After all, the virus is not limited by state lines either.

 

But just because this President has neglected his duties, that does not give you the right to do the same.

 

If you refuse to make this decision, many more people will get sick from COVID-19 than would otherwise. Many more people will eventually die.

 

These are teachers, mothers, fathers, grandparents, and – yes – even children.

 

You can do something about that.

 

You have a responsibility to do something about it.

 

Do your duty.


 

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The Hybrid Model of School Reopening is Not Safe Either

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Safety is in the eye of the beholder.

 

No matter what you do, life involves some risk.

 

The question is whether certain actions or courses of action involve acceptable risk and exactly what you consider to be acceptable.

 

These issues are not academic. School directors across the country are juggling such questions in their reopening plans.

 

With federal and state officials largely leaving the decision up to local elected school boards of how to hold classes in August and September, people used to choosing between bids for text books and whether to renovate the gymnasium are forced to make life and death decisions for hundreds or thousands of students, staff and their families.

 

There are three main options:

 

  • (1) Open schools completely to in-person learning with safety precautions
  • (2) Keep classes entirely on-line as they were in April and May
  • (3) Offer some kind of hybrid of the two

 

Many schools are opting for this hybrid model.

 

This means reopening to in-person classes part of the time and on-line learning for the rest.

 

There are many ways to do this.

 

In my home district of McKeesport, this means having half of the students attend in the morning and the other half in the afternoon with the balance of their class work being done via the Internet.

 

In Steel Valley, the district where I work as a middle school teacher, this means half of the students attending full days on Mondays and Tuesdays, half on Thursdays and Fridays and the building is deep cleaned while students are taught completely on-line on Wednesdays.

 

In either case, parents can opt-in to an entirely virtual plan, but it’s expected that most adults would choose the hybrid model with its partial in-person classes for their children.

 

Let me be clear – the hybrid plan is preferable to the completely in-person proposal.

 

It reduces exposure to other people and environments compared to the entirely in-person program.

 

For instance, being in class half the day reduces student exposure by half. Being in class two out of five days reduces it by 60%.

 

However, let’s be real.

 

Any in-person instruction during a global pandemic incurs some risk. And that risk is far from negligible.

 

Moreover, the amount of risk is greater for adults than it is for children – both because adults would experience much higher exposure under such systems and because COVID-19 seems to affect adults more severely than children.

 

The hybrid model, then, is tantamount to putting children, teachers and families at risk for a reduced amount of time.

 

Why take the risk? On the premise that in-person instruction is more robust than on-line learning. Students learn more in the classroom from educators who are physically present than they do on the Internet.

 

There is significant evidence to back that up. However, this premise ignores the fact that invasive but necessary safety measures like wearing masks and practicing social distancing throughout the day will inevitably have negative effects on learning.

 

In short, mask-to-mask learning will not be as productive as face-to-face learning. We are in uncharted territory. It is entirely up in the air whether the necessary safety precautions of in-person learning – even during a hybrid model – will be better or worse than distance learning.

 

So the hybrid model tries to balance the unproven and questionable promise of increased academics against the threat of increased danger of disease.

 

How much danger? Well that depends to a large degree on where you live and the rate of infection present there.

 
I live in western Pennsylvania just south of Pittsburgh.

 

When schools closed in Allegheny County last academic year, a handful of people got sick each day, a hundred or more a week. For instance, 23 new COVID-19 cases were reported on March 19, and 133 for the week.

 

Now there are hundreds of new cases in the county every day and a thousand a week – 198 on July 24, alone, and 1,363 for the week.

 

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Source: PA Department of Health
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Source: PA Department of Health

 

That is not an insignificant risk. We have an infection rate of nearly 10%. We have some of the highest numbers in the state.

 

I don’t know how anyone can look at those numbers and conclude anything except that the risk of infection is GREATER today than it was when we took more precautions against it.

 

Moreover, the situation is little better nationwide.

 

Not a single state has met guidelines for reopening schools issued by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in May.

 

Moving into Phase 1 would require a “Downward trajectory or near-zero incidence of documented cases over a 14-day period.” Moving to Phase 2 would require a “Downward trajectory or near-zero incidence of documented cases for at least 14 days after entering Phase 1.”

 

No state has experienced a “downward trajectory” for COVID-19 cases for 28 straight days. In most states, cases are increasing.

 

Nor does any reopening plan that I have seen – including McKeesport’s and Steel Valley’s – follow the 69-page CDC guidelines published by The New York Times earlier this month, marked “For Internal Use Only,” which was intended for federal public health response teams as they are deployed to hot spots around the country.

 

That document suggested several expensive and difficult safety measures such as broad testing of students and faculty and contact tracing to find people exposed to an infected student or teacher – none of which is being done locally.

 
The issue gets complicated though because this month the CDC bowed to pressure from the Trump administration and publicly softened its tone about reopening.

 
However, no matter how you look at it, reopening school buildings – even with a hybrid approach – increases risk significantly.

 
If school buildings are reopened with students and staff coming and going – even at a reduced rate through a hybrid plan – one would expect the virus already present in the community to gain access to our schools where it would be further spread to different segments of the community.

 

Schools are great meeting points. They are where local neighborhoods connect, learn, grow and share. Reopening them in a physical fashion allows for greater sharing of any easily communicable diseases in the area.

 

So exactly how communicable is COVID-19?

 

It’s often compared to influenza which infects millions of people every year yet these outbreaks rarely close schools.

 

Unfortunately, the consequences of getting COVID-19 are much more severe. So far the Coronavirus has shown itself to be 52 times as deadly as the flu.

 

Only about 0.1 percent of the people who got the flu in the US last year died of it, according to the CDC. Yet about 5.2 percent of those who came down with COVID-19 have died, based on the reported totals of cases and deaths.

 

During the 2018-19 flu season, about 34,000 people in the US died, according to the CDC. So far, 143,193 people have died of COVID-19 in the US, as of July 23.

 

And keep in mind there is a vaccine for the flu. There is nothing as yet that fights COVID-19.

 

Some say that even given such statistics, children are less susceptible than adults.

 

However, the virus was only discovered in 2019. So little is known about it – for instance, the low percentage of cases in children may be because schools were closed in April and May before many kids were exposed to it.

 

A recent South Korean study – the most in depth of its kind to examine how the virus affects children – found that it is especially active in older kids.

 

“For people who lived with parents between the ages of 10 and 19, 18.6% tested positive for the virus within about 10 days after the initial case was detected — the highest rate of transmission among the groups studied. Children younger than 10 spread the virus at the lowest rate, though researchers warned that could change when schools reopen,” wrote Stephen Stapczynski for Bloomberg News.

 

Jeffrey Shaman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University agreed.

 

“So long as children are not just a complete dead end – incapable of passing the virus on, which does not seem to be the case – putting them together in schools, having them mix with teachers and other students will provide additional opportunities for the virus to move from person to person,” he said.

 

Do such facts represent an acceptable risk for opening schools – even with a hybrid model?

 

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos says it does.

 

She said, “there’s nothing in the data that suggests that kids being in school is in any way dangerous.”

 

However, if even .02% of public school students were likely to die if school buildings were reopened, that’s 11,320 children!

 
Are we willing to risk the lives of tens of thousands – perhaps more – children on the unproven promise of a slight improvement in academics?

 
And keep in mind that doesn’t even take into account the cost to adults.

 
According to a new report from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), 1 in 4 teachers in the U.S. – roughly 1.5 million people – are at increased risk for complications if they become infected with the Coronavirus. This includes educators over the age of 65 and those – like myself – with a pre-existing health condition that makes them more vulnerable.

 
According to the CDC, death from COVID-19 is significantly more common in older adults. Though the median age of U.S. teachers is 42.4 years, nearly 19 percent of teachers are 55 and older, reports the National Center for Education Statistics.

 

Health conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and kidney disease also increase one’s risk for serious illness from the virus. The CDC warns that roughly 60 percent of American adults have at least one chronic medical condition, and about 40 percent have two or more.

 

The situation is even more dire when we look at parents and grandparents in students’ homes. The KFF issued a report in July concluding that 3.3 million adults 65 or older live in a household with school-age children.

 

And let’s not forget the racial component.

 

Most minorities are more susceptible to COVID-19 because of the higher rates of social inequality they are forced to live under.

 

According to the CDC, Native Americans and Black people are hospitalized from the Coronavirus five times more often than White people. Hispanic and Latino people are hospitalized four times more often than White people.

 

Physically reopening school buildings in communities that serve large populations of people of color, then, invites greater risk than in predominantly white communities.

 

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SOURCE: the CDC

 

In any case, though, reopening school buildings – even under a hybrid model – significantly increases the risk for all the people living there.

 

So in summary, it is clear that the three basic options for reopening schools each offer different levels of risk.

 

A full reopening of schools even with safety precautions brings the highest risk. However, the hybrid model also brings significant danger to students, teachers and families – even if somewhat less than full reopening.

 

Distance learning has the lowest risk of all. It keeps most children physically separate from each other and thus limits exposure to the virus to the greatest extent. Likewise, it limits jeopardy for educators and other adults because teachers would mostly come into contact with children through the internet and parents would not be further complicated through potential viral contacts of their children.

 

From an academic standpoint, distance learning certainly has its drawbacks compared with face-to-face learning. But compared with mask-to-mask learning, virtual instruction may actually be preferable.

 

In any case, increased risk of death or debilitating disease has a chilling effect on learning for all involved.

 

In most communities – perhaps all – a decision on school reopening that balances safety with academics would lean toward distance learning above anything else.

 

Even if on-line learning turns out to be less effective than that provided in the hybrid model, any deficiencies can be targeted and ameliorated once the pandemic ends.

 

As yet, death admits of no such remedies.


 

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Good News: Harrisburg is Not Cutting Education Funding! Bad News: Handouts for the Rich & Charter Schools

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If you live in Pennsylvania, you can breathe a sigh of relief now that the legislature has passed a stopgap budget that does not cut education funding.

 

But you can let out that breath in a cry of disgust when you see where much of that money is going and how many underprivileged kids will be left wanting.

 

GOOD NEWS

 

With the economy in tatters due to the Coronavirus pandemic, the state legislature never-the-less passed a budget this week providing flat funding for most state programs for five months.

 

The major exception is public schooling. That has been fully funded for the entire year.

 

So for 12 months, there will be no state cuts to basic and special education or block grant programs for K-12 schools. Nor will there be state cuts to pre-kindergarten programs or colleges and universities receiving state funding such as community colleges.

 

That’s really good news in such uncertain times.

 

School directors can get their own financial houses in order for 2020-2021 without wondering whether the state is going to pull the rug out from under them.

 

In any other year, flat funding would be a disappointment though.

 

Public schools have basically three revenue streams – the federal government, the state and local neighborhood taxpayers.

 

The federal government pays about 10% of the cost across the board. The problem in Pennsylvania is that the state isn’t meeting its obligations thereby forcing local neighborhoods to shoulder most of the costs.

 

Pennsylvania state government pays a ridiculously low percentage of the bill – 38%.  That’s the 46th lowest in the country. The national average is 51%.

 

In rich neighborhoods, the local tax base can pick up the slack. In middle class neighborhoods, they can try. But poor communities end up relying more on the state to help or else their kids (who already have greater needs growing up in poverty) have to do without.

 

Last year, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf was able to increase funding for K-12 schools by $160 million, $50 million more for special education and $25 million for Pre-K programs.

 

Even this victory was a baby step to healing the billions of dollars looted from our schools during Republican Tom Corbett’s administration which has never been fully replaced or outpaced with increased inflationary costs.

 

Flat funding is great in a time of a global pandemic.

 

But in the broader view, it still shirks our duties to subsequent generations.

 

BAD NEWS

 

The 2020-21 state budget also includes $200 million in one-time funds to help districts pay for additional costs incurred during the Coronavirus crisis.

 

This includes the price of new technology to allow for distance learning, as well as deep cleanings in school buildings, new materials, remodeling, etc.

 

This money includes $150 million received from the federal government’s CARES Act and $50 million from state taxpayers.

 

That’s good news. Districts need extra money to help with unforeseen costs during this health crisis.

 

Unfortunately, this money is not being allocated by need.

 

Those with greater problems are not given more money to deal with them. Instead, the money is being divided nearly evenly.

 

If you think that’s fair, imagine dividing $10 so a rich person, a middle class person and a poor person could get lunch. They’d each get $3 and change. The poor person can eat off the dollar menu at a fast food restaurant. The middle class person can use it to pay for tip at a sit-down restaurant. And the rich person can light his cigar with it on the way to a fine dining establishment.

 

In the case of theCOVID-19 stimulus money, each school district will get a minimum of $120,000 while each intermediate unit, career and technical center, charter school, regional charter school and cyber charter school gets $90,000. If there is any money left over, those funds will be distributed to school districts based on 2018-19 average daily membership.

 

However, why should cyber charter schools receive this money at all? They don’t have any extra costs for transitioning to distance learning. That is their stock and trade already. Moreover, they don’t have buildings that need deep cleaning or remodeling. This money is a no strings gift to such enterprises while other educational institutions go wanting.

 

Moreover, brick and mortar charter schools almost always serve smaller student populations than authentic public schools. Why should they receive a flat $90,000? Wouldn’t it be better to given them a portion of this money based on the number of students they serve and the degree of poverty these kids live in?

 

In fact, wouldn’t it make more sense to do the same among authentic public school districts, too? Why should a rich district where almost everyone already has wi-fi and personal technology devices get the same as a poor one where these services are much less widespread? Why should the state give the wealthy as much help as those who can’t meet their basic obligations to children without it?

 

It’s not like the Commonwealth doesn’t already have a measure to allocate funding more fairly. The legislature passed a bipartisan Basic Education Funding formula that we could have used to ensured districts would have received funding proportionate to the needs of their students.

 

The fact that the legislature neglected to use it here shows too many in the Republican majority are not committed to equity. In fact, they revel in being able to bring unnecessary money to their wealthier districts.

THE COMING STORM

 
These measures from the state legislature are a start at addressing the financial impact of the 
Coronavirus crisis.

 

But the worst is yet to come.

 

Across the nation with the inevitable loss of taxes after shutting down the economy to save lives during the global Coronavirus outbreak, local districts are bracing for a 15-25% loss in revenues next fiscal year.

 

In Pennsylvania, districts anticipate $850 million to $1 billion in revenue shortfalls.

 

That could result in massive teacher layoffs and cuts to student services just as the cost to provide schooling increases with additional difficulties of life during a worldwide pandemic.

 

The state legislature can’t fix the problem alone.

 

The $13.5 billion in CARES Act stimulus provided to states is a fraction of the $79 billion that the federal government provided during the Great Recession. U.S. Congress needs to step up federal aide to protect our children and ensure their educations aren’t forfeit for economic woes they played no part in causing.

 

At the same time, Harrisburg can do more to stop giving handouts to educational entities that don’t need or deserve it thereby freeing up that money to patching holes in funding streams to local districts.

 

At the top of the list is charter school funding reforms already proposed by Gov. Wolf.

 

It is way passed time to end gross overpayments to cyber charter schools and eliminate all charter schools ability to profit off of students with disabilities. Gov. Wolf estimates this would save districts more than $200 million while stopping wasteful spending by charters on advertising and other things that should not be bankrolled by taxpayers.

 

Another way to generate extra money is to stop letting businesses and the wealthy cut their own taxes to support private and parochial schools.

 

The Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program allows people and businesses to donate their expected tax bill to the state for the purpose of helping parents pay off enrollment at a private or religious school for their children. Then these same people or businesses get between 75-90% of that donation back.

 

So if your tax bill is $100 and you donate $100, you can get back $90 – reducing your total tax bill to a mere 10 bucks.

Heck! Since this money is classified as a “donation” you can even claim it on your taxes and get an additional refund – even to the point where you end up making money on the deal! Pennsylvania even allows a “triple dip” – so you get the EITC tax credit, a reduction in your taxable income, and a reduction in your federal taxable income. We actually pay you to shortchange us on your taxes!

Now I’m oversimplifying a bit since you can only use the EITC for up to $750,000 a year, but it’s still a sweet deal for those who take advantage of it.

 

Meanwhile, this is less money for the rest of us to pay for much needed services. We lost $124 million in 2018-19, alone, to this program. Yet the legislature still voted to increase the program by $25 million last year.

 

We cannot afford to give away hundreds of millions of dollars annually to private and parochial schools while our authentic public schools which serve more than 90% of our children are underfunded.

 

And this doesn’t even address the blatant unconstitutionality of the program which, itself, is an obvious workaround to the separation of church and state!

 

It’s high time we closed this and many other loopholes that allow unscrupulous people and businesses to get away without paying their fair share.

 

Societies only work when everyone pulls their weight.

 

The commonwealth will only weather this storm if we stop the fiscal shenanigans and pull together for the benefit of all.

 

We are all being tested here.

 

Will Pennsylvania pass or fail?


 

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Charter Schools, Harrisburg & Mayor Peduto Created Pittsburgh Public Schools’ Budget Deficit

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Where did all the money go?

 

 

Pittsburgh Public Schools will start 2020 with a $25.1 million budget deficit.

 

 

Superintendent Dr. Anthony Hamlet has asked for a 2.3% tax increase to cover the shortfall, but school directors ended up approving his spending plan without approving the tax increase.

 

 

The school board will meet on Friday to decide whether to ultimately raise taxes or make cuts including possible staff furloughs.

 

 

But in the meantime, city residents are left wondering why the measure was necessary in the first place.

 

 

After all, student enrollment has gone down at the second biggest district in the state after Philadelphia, yet spending is up 2.4% from 2019.

 

 

It really all comes down to three things: charter schools, retirement costs and tax revenue differed to the city.

 

 

CHARTER SCHOOLS

 

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Charter schools are funded with tax dollars but often privately run. As such, any student living within district boundaries takes funding away from the district.

 

 

And the amount of money keeps rising even though enrollment has not increased at these charter schools.

 

 

Since 2014, the amount the district has sent to these privatized schools has gone up by 88%.

 

 

In 2019, the district paid $95,129,023 to charter schools. In the proposed 2020 budget, new district projections put the expenditure at $102,150,444. That’s an increase of $7,021,421 in a single year.

 

 

 

So the cost of charter schools is 15% of the entire proposed budget. If it were eliminated, the district wouldn’t have a budget deficit at all – it would be running with a dramatic surplus.

 

 

And this is money that need not be spent.

 

 

Only about 6% of public school students state-wide are enrolled in these schools, and they duplicate services students are already receiving. Yet charter schools provide little value for students.

 

 

Nearly every study has found that charter schools do not produce better academic results than authentic public schools – in fact, many drastically underperform their public school counterparts.

 

 

For instance, a recent study of charter school students in Pennsylvania conducted by the school privatization friendly Center for Research on EDucation Outcomes (CREDO), found that charter students do about the same on reading exams but score worse in math than students in authentic public schools. The study also found major disparities between charter schools – with cyber charters performing especially poorly.

 

 

In addition they have been found to increase racial segregation, cherrypick students, increase administrative overhead and discriminate against students with special needs.

 

 

But the state passed a law in 1997 allowing charter schools and there is nothing Pittsburgh Public Schools can do but continue to pay for them.

 

 

School directors, administrators, teachers, students, parents and concerned citizens can lobby their representatives in Harrisburg to fix these problems, but until they do there is little local districts can do.

 

 

However, the fact that charter schools increase local taxes is beyond doubt.

 

 

According to a recent report by the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO), state charter schools are growing at a rate of 10 percent a year. The PASBO calculates at least 37 cents of every new dollar of property taxes in the fiscal year 2017-2018 went right to charters. And that percentage is only expected to grow.

 

 

RETIREMENT COSTS

 

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Another large expenditure beyond the district’s control is retirement costs.

 

 

In 2019, the district spent $73,769,809 on contributions to the Public School Employees’ Retirement System (PSERS). In 2020, that number is expected to increase to $76,770,577. That’s an increase of $3,000,768.

 

 

Why the increase?

 

 

Because our state lawmakers were fiscally irresponsible.

 

 

Basically, the legislature stopped paying the bills for nearly two decades.

 

 

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The state government, local school districts and commonwealth employees are responsible for paying into the pension system. Districts and state workers made all their payments. Employees put aside 7.5% of their salaries every year to pay for their retirement.

 

 

But the legislature didn’t make its payments. It pushed them off to the future, and now that the future’s here, a larger percentage of the cost has fallen on local school districts.

 

 

It’s a problem of Harrisburg’s making and – frankly – the legislature should be buckling down to find a solution.

 

 

But instead they’re planning on the cynical assumption that voters are too stupid to understand it all and will just blame public school employees for demanding what we promised them when they were hired. The legislature has continuously reduced benefits for future employees and tried to illegally cut benefits for current ones.

 

 

What they should do is increase taxes on the wealthy and pay their damn bills.

 

 

We had a contract with employees when they were hired. We can’t renege on it now that they’ve retired.

 

 

Once again this is something Pittsburgh Public school directors and administrators have no control over. It will take a combined effort by local communities across the Commonwealth to lobby Harrisburg to get off its ass and fix the problem it made.

 

 

MAYOR PEDUTO

 

 

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The final factor behind the proposed tax increase is Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto.

 

 

When the city was on the verge of financial collapse 15 years ago, the school district agreed to help by diverting a portion of its tax revenue to the city.

 

 

Now that the city is out of financial distress (and has been since 2018), Dr. Hamlet has suggested the city should return that money – not back payments, just stop taking the additional tax revenue. Administrators estimate that would bring in another $20 million for the city school district.

 

 

It wouldn’t heal the budget shortfall all by itself, but it would certainly help.

 

 

However, Peduto has furiously raged that he would not support such a measure and would fight it in Harrisburg.

 

 

Frankly, it’s a real dick move.

 

 

When asked about it he deflects to criticisms of the Hamlet administration that really have nothing to do with anything.

 

 

It’s really a simple matter. The schools lent the city money when it was in distress. The city is no longer in distress, so it should stop taking that additional money.

 

 

SOLUTIONS

 

 

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The first thing that has to be done is for Pittsburgh Public School directors to put on their grown up pants and raise taxes.

 

 

Look, I get it. No one wants to raise millage. But sometimes being an adult means doing things you don’t want to do.

 

 

And frankly, it’s not really that hard a call.

 

 

Pittsburgh Public Schools has the lowest tax rate in Allegheny County at only 9.84 mills. Most suburban districts range from 12 to 31 mils.

 

 

The proposed tax increase would mean paying an additional $23 for a property valued at $100,000.

 

 

This is not an unbearable burden.
Some complain that it would push city residents to move – but really anywhere else you move will have higher taxes! Anyone who packs up and moves away will not be doing it for financial reasons.

 

 

According to the district’s own Website, 67% of its students are non-white. Only 33% are white, with 53% African American and 14% other races.

 

 

Anyone complaining about money being spent on district students is upset about money being spent on THOSE KIDS. Just as so many of the criticisms of Dr. Hamlet, who is black, come down to an inability to accept a person of color in a position of power – especially if he isn’t going to simply give in to corporate interests looking to pick the district dry.

 

 

The fact is the majority of district students live in poverty. Though enrollment has gone down, that has allowed per pupil expenditures to increase and help heal the trauma of penury.

 

 

These kids need smaller class sizes, more tutoring, librarians, counselors, wider curriculum, etc. The money being spent on them is not wasted. In fact, in a perfect world it would be increased. We need to spend MORE on our poorest students than our most privileged ones to help them catch up.

 

 

I am thankful that board members Veronica Edwards, Pam Harbin, Devon Taliaferro, and Sylvia Wilson understood that by voting for both the proposed budget and the tax increase.

 

 

Kevin Carter, at least approved the spending plan, but he abstained from voting on whether the district should raise taxes, explaining later that he promised his constituents that was something he wouldn’t do.

 

 

Board members Cindy Falls, Bill Gallagher, Terry Kennedy, and Sala Udin voted against both measures.

 

 

Here’s hoping they find the courage to do what’s right after the holidays.

 

 

But even if they do, there is much more we must accomplish – and it requires everyone.

 

 

City residents need to rise up and demand their representatives put out the raging dumpster fires they keep lighting.

 

 

We need a state legislature willing to take on the charter school industry and at very least stop making it compete with authentic public schools for funding.

 

 

We need lawmakers willing to make the wealthy pay their fair share so the rest of us get the civil society we deserve – and that includes paying for the pension obligations we’ve already incurred.

 

 

And Pittsburgh needs a mayor who isn’t going to rage and foam at the prospect of FairPlay and will return the money Pittsburgh Public lent to the city.

 


 

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 Mayor’s Tantrum About School Finances Proves He Doesn’t Understand Education or Equity

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Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto is steaming mad and he doesn’t care who knows it.

 

On Tuesday he raved that Pittsburgh Public Schools’ finances should be taken over by the state – the same fate the city had suffered during its own economic troubles from 2004-18.

 

The reason Peduto thinks the school should submit to a financial recovery plan overseen by a state appointed board? School Superintendent Dr. Anthony Hamlet is proposing a 2.3% tax increase in 2020 for a reserve fund while Peduto’s municipal government allegedly is managing with a surplus.

 

If the city can manage its finances without a tax increase, wonders Peduto, why can’t the school district?

 

However, the Mayor’s narrative conveniently leaves out a few pertinent facts.

 

Most importantly – during the city’s economic trouble 14 years ago, Pittsburgh Public Schools gave a portion of their tax revenue to the municipal government to help it pay the bills.

 

Now that the city is doing better, school officials are suggesting Peduto should give that tax revenue back to the schools. And that suggestion infuriates the mayor.

 

In addition, it’s not true that Pittsburgh’s 2020 budget includes no tax increase.

 

The city is raising taxes by about 6% to pay for upkeep at its parks. However, since this tax is the result of a referendum approved by the voters, it is being spun as a “no new taxes” budget.

 

The city has a surplus due to construction of new high-end apartments. City Council could have budgeted some of this money to pay for the parks. Instead, leaders like Peduto were too cowardly to take the blame, themselves, and put it out as a question to voters.

 

It is entirely unfair to criticize Pittsburgh Public Schools for raising taxes a smaller degree (2.3%) than the city is (6%).

 

Both entities spend about the same amount annually. In 2020, the city has a proposed $608 million budget, and the schools have a proposed $665.6 million budget.

 

Moreover, there is nothing unfair about school officials asking for the tax revenue back from the city that they generously offered it when the municipality was in need.

 

Now that the city is out of peril (and has been since 2018), it should pay back that money. To be honest, it should do so with 14 years worth of interest – but no one is suggesting that.

 

At least it is time for Pittsburgh to stop leeching off its schools and give this revenue back.

 

The fact that Peduto is whining about something so obviously fair and equitable makes him look like a spoiled child.

 

The same goes for his suggestion of state takeover of district finances.

 

Pittsburgh Public Schools already is audited by the state every year. It is not on the state watchlist for districts in financial distress.

 

District spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said, “There have been no significant issues raised related to how the district conducts its finances.”

 

Peduto just wants the schools to have to endure the same indignity the city did thereby putting municipal leaders in a better light.

 

After all, it was the school district which helped the city – not the other way round. And it was the city that needed the state to take over its finances, not the schools.

 

It was Pittsburgh Public School’s Chief Financial Officer Ronald Joseph who explicitly proposed a take-back of wage tax revenue that was diverted to the city in 2005.

 

City residents pay a 3% wage tax. Of this money, originally 2% went to the schools and 1% to the city.

 

When the city was placed under Act 47 state oversight, the formula was changed to give a quarter percent more to the city from the school’s allotment – thus 1.75% went to the schools and 1.25% went to the city.

 

Pittsburgh left Act 47 in 2018 but the wage tax distribution has remained the same.

 

“Why in the heck can’t the school board balance their budget?” Peduto said. “Where is all this money going?”

 

Answer: Some of it is still going unnecessarily to fill your municipal coffers.

 

Peduto added:

 

“If they are looking to have part of the city’s wage tax, then they should be willing to open the books and let the state come in and do exactly what we had to do through Act 47, which was difficult restructuring for the future. If we didn’t have that, the city would be bankrupt.”

 

So let me get this straight. In order to give back the revenue the schools generously loaned the city, you need a look at their finances? I sure wouldn’t lend you a dollar or else I’d have to show you my tax returns and checking account just to get the loan repaid.

 

Peduto went on:

 

“If they simply say, ‘We’re going to take your revenue to fix our hole,’ and not be the leaders that they were elected to be in making tough decisions like raising taxes, then I have no time for that, absolutely none, and I will fight them in Harrisburg.”

 

How generous! That’s like threatening to go to Mom and Dad to settle your dispute. A real leader would know he was in the wrong and just pay up.

 

This isn’t the first time Peduto has clashed with city schools.

 

He seems to think his role as mayor supersedes that of the school district which operates independently through an elected nine-member board.

 
He said as much in 2018 when district negotiations with the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers (PFT) threatened to spill over into the first teachers strike in more than 40 years.

 

Peduto wanted to mediate between the teachers and school administrators – a measure Dr. Hamlet patently refused.

 

Peduto said:

 

“They have to remember they’re a board. They’re not a government. They’re no different than the water board or the Port Authority board or the airport board. They’re a board of education. Their job should be solely making sure that kids are getting a good education. When there becomes labor strife in the city, labor strife that could affect the economic development of the city for years to come, they need to move out of the way and let [elected] leaders lead.”

 

Dr, Hamlet said this was a “bargaining process, not a political” one, and that Peduto needed to let administration continue the process of bargaining with the teachers – a process that resulted in a new contract without a strike.

 

The relationship has been chilly even before Hamlet was hired in 2016.

 

In a community where district funding is constantly at risk from unregulated and unaccountable charter schools, Peduto actually presided over a 2014 ribbon cutting ceremony at the Hill House Passport Academy Charter School.

 

 

Charter school costs are one of the largest expenses the district pays annually.

 

 

According to PennLive.com, the district paid $79 million (or about 12% of its budget) in 2017-18 to these institutions which are funded with public tax dollars but privately run.

 
Like many charter schools, the Hill District institution is incredibly segregated. According to ProPublica, 96% of students are children of color. It has no gifted program, offers no AP courses, has no students taking the SAT or ACT test, no calculus classes, no advanced math, no physics, geometry, chemistry or 8th grade algebra courses.

 

In short, this is not the type of school the mayor of a major metropolitan center should be promoting.

 

And Peduto would know that if he had any knowledge of how school systems actually work. Before entering city politics, the Democrat ran a consulting business and served as Chief of Staff to City Councilman Dan Cohen.

 

Since his first successful campaign for mayor in 2013, Peduto has had a history of making bold promises to the Pittsburgh Public Schools that have not always come to fruition.

 

Peduto said he would lobby for additional funding for city schools in Harrisburg but district solicitor Ira Weiss said the mayor never followed through.

 

 

Peduto proposed increasing school revenue by helping to rent out unused school space. That hasn’t happened, either, said Weiss.

 

Peduto suggested increasing student after school programs by working together with the district and others like the YMCA and the Student Conservation Association. While a few such programs do exist, there is no broad collaboration, said Errika Fearby Jones, the executive director of Dr. Hamlet’s office.

 

Peduto’s summer reading program with the city and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh likewise never materialized – though the library runs its own program.

 

Moreover, Peduto’s plan to restart the Generations Together program with the University of Pittsburgh to promote cross-generational learning never happened either. Pitt shut down the program in 2002.

 

Curtiss Porter, who served as Peduto’s chief education and neighborhood reinvestment officer during the first year of his administration, blames the problem on a disagreement about who should be in charge.

 

The city and school district had a good working relationship when he was there, he said, but there was “a clear demarcation” between the two bodies, which made it difficult to implement some of Peduto’s ideas.

 
“At critical junctures…the school district made it clear that they were willing partners but that they did not have to bow to the city,” he said. “[They] made it clear the city had no jurisdiction over education.”

 

And that disconnect appears to continue today.

 

Peduto is engaged in an ignorant and arrogant power struggle with city schools that helps no one.

 


 

 

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 School Board Candidate Anna Batista Takes Big Money From Special Interests

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“Few men have virtue to withstand the highest bidder.”

-George Washington

 

Anna Batista, a corporate consultant at Highstreet Consulting running for Pittsburgh School Board, is taking thousands of dollars in donations from big money interests.

 

A quick look at campaign finance reports on Allegheny County’s Website shows Batista took beaucoup bucks from school privatization lobbyists, real estate developers, lawyers, and financial advisors.

 

Meanwhile, her opponent Pam Harbin, a public school watchdog, is supported almost exclusively by grassroots donations.

 

 

Both candidates are running for District 4, which serves parts of Squirrel Hill, Point Breeze, Shadyside and North Oakland. Since they’ve cross filed and will appear on both the Republican and Democratic primary ballots, the seat should be decided in the May 21 primary.

 

Batista and Harbin have raised similar amounts for their campaigns. Harbin has $33,412.95 while Batista has $32,414.

 

Batista has support from at least two troubling industries – school privatizers and corporate crusaders – which are nowhere to be seen in her opponents financials.

 

Particularly troubling to me are the charter school and voucher advocates.

 

Someone shouldn’t be running for a public school board with backing from the same vultures demanding public schools be dismantled and their assets and funding siphoned away to private industry. Charter schools cost the Pittsburgh Public district more than $85 million per year in tuition payments. While the district has no plans to open new public schools, it is forced to open new charter schools every time one of these publicly financed but privately run institutions appeals to the state Charter Appeal Board, further draining resources away from remaining public schools.

 

In fact, Batista is using “Students First” as a title on her campaign mailers. This is the name of a well-known school privatization group founded by infamous public school saboteur Michelle Rhee. The education justice movement across the country and here in Pittsburgh has been fighting Students First for years. They are infamous for dumping money into Pennsylvania politics to back legislators friendly to school privatization. No one who is serious about education justice would use this title: either Batista does not know about Students First, she knows and doesn’t care, or she is being intentional in signaling to privatizers that she is on their side.

 

Students First merged with 50CAN, a national group focused on vouchers and school privatization that grew out of ConCAN, started by Connecticut hedge fund managers. Betsy DeVos, now U.S. Secretary of Education, praised the merger and has done similar work for years through her own organization with the same privatization agenda. Here in Pennsylvania, the local branch is PennCAN. Their director, who also sits on the board of a local charter school asking for approval to set up shop in Pittsburgh, is one of Batista’s donors.

 

The largest donations are noted below. Chief among these are:

 

-Rachel Amankulor, PennCAN and Catalyst Charter School board member. (Pittsburgh Public School Board denied Catalyst’s application citing problems with its plan to accommodate students with disabilities, among other issues, but the state Charter Appeal Board overturned the board’s decision and the case may now go to Pennsylvania Supreme Court.)

 

-Catherine Axtman, spouse of William Axtman who sits on the Propel Charter School Board

 

-Kirk Burkley ($500) and Robert Bernstein ($250), of Bernstein- Burkley, a Pittsburgh law firm specializing in Business Law, Creditors Rights, Oil & Gas, Bankruptcy, & Real Estate. (Burkley ran against school board member Lynda Wrenn in 2015 – a race fought in large part around privatization issues!)

 

-Allison McCarthy, Vice President of Teach for America; Catalyst Charter School Board Member; and Broad Academy graduate (Eli Broad is a major privatizer who started the Broad Academy of which Devos is a graduate.)

 

-Nathaniel Yap, spouse of Brian Smith, Catalyst Charter Founder and CEO ($1,000)

 

And then we come to the big business partisans.

 

Many of these advocate for tax deferment programs to entice businesses into the Pittsburgh area on the condition that they are allowed to escape paying taxes or pay at a reduced rate for a certain number of years. Programs such as Tax Incremental Financing (TIFs) put a heavier burden on the schools than other public resources. They cost the school district 50% as opposed to the county and city, which only lose 25% of their owed taxes each.

 

Local politicians like County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto  – though Democrats – are chief advocates of these types of neoliberal, business friendly programs. While the city and county have nothing to do with Pittsburgh Public Schools, they do often expect the School Board to rubber stamp TIFs. The School Board is an independent taxing body, but they are rarely brought to the table at the beginning of the process.

 

Corporate donors include:

 

-Friends of Rich Fitzgerald ($500)

 

-People for Bill Peduto ($2,000)

 

-Gregg Perelmann, Walnut Capital ($1,000)

 

-Todd Reidbord, Walnut Capital (Developers of Bakery Square and other projects that have received a number of TIFs)

 

-Helen Casey, CEO of Howard Hanna

 

-John Katz, Brandywine Agency ($1,000 plus in-kind) (His office in the Squirrel Hill business district is worth thousands)

 

-Paul Katz, Brandywine Agency ($250)

 

-Patricia Katz, Brandywine Agency ($1,000)

 

-Rod Werstil, McKinney Properties ($500)

 

-Kevin McKeegan, Meyer, Unkovic & Scott LLP (Pittsburgh Real Estate Law)

 

-Luke Meyers, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP and Affiliates (New York Real Estate Law)

 

-Nancy Finkelstein, Schulte Roth & Zabel (Finkelstein’s Linkedin Profile includes this quote: “I have concentrated my practice on representing private equity funds, investment banks, hedge funds, financial institutions, finance companies and high-net-worth individuals in a wide variety of transactions, including financings, debt restructurings, leveraged acquisitions, and collateralized loan facilities.”)

 

-Steven Massey, Federated Investors

 

-Richard Lerach, Gateway Financial

 

-William Sheridan, Reed Smith LLP (“Represented managed care defendants in obtaining dismissal of antitrust conspiracy and monopolization claims.”)

 

All of this is truly troubling for someone running to serve as a school board director.

 

Compare Batista’s financials with that of her opponent Harbin.

 

In at least two instances, Harbin won endorsements and donations from organizations Batista had been courting.

 

Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers gave Harbin $5,000 instead of Batista.

 

Likewise, Unite! Pittsburgh gave Harbin $1,500 over Batista. This is State Rep. Summer Lee’s PAC. The organization supports candidates running on a criminal justice slate who are committed to ending the school-to-prison, poverty-to-prison, and addiction-to-prison pipelines.

 

Other notable donations to Harbin’s campaign include:

 

-Women for the Future Pittsburgh ($500)

 

-Friends of Chelsea Wagner ($500) (Wagner is Allegheny County Controller and one of the founders of Women for the Future Pittsburgh)

 

-Michael Fine ($2,800) physician for the Veterans Administration

 

-Kathy Fine ($2,800)  Michael’s wife and long-time education justice activist who fought against the closing of Pittsburgh’s Schenley High School.

 

-Nancy Bernstein ($1,000) J Street Board Member (J Street organizes and mobilizes pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans who want Israel to be secure and democratic.)

 

These are exactly the kind of donations you’d expect from a grassroots candidate – labor unions, progressive political promoters and activists.

 

Full disclosure: Though I live just outside of the Pittsburgh area, I am not unbiased in this race. I consider Harbin a friend and fully support her run for school board.

 

However, the donations outlined in this article are all facts. Feel free to go to the county Website and see for yourself.

 

Our children deserve better than Batista – a school director in the employ of the same forces out to sabotage education and pick the remains clean for their own individual ends.

 

Call me crazy, but I think children should be an end in themselves.

 

School board candidates who put themselves up for sale like Batista don’t deserve your vote. They’ve already sold theirs to the highest bidder.


 

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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Let Voters Fix Harrisburg School Board – Not State Takeover

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Pushing the self-destruct button is the ultimate measure of last resort.

 

But that’s how several Pennsylvania lawmakers are suggesting we fix the dysfunctional Harrisburg School Board.

 

An election that could oust most of the very school directors responsible for the district’s troubles is less than a month away. But Democratic Representative Patty Kim, Republican Senator John DiSanto and Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse all say we shouldn’t wait – The state should takeover the Harrisburg School District immediately.

 

This would effectively destroy all democratic government in a district located in the state capital.

 

While senators and representatives from all over the Commonwealth work to enact the will of their constituents from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, residents at city schools a few miles away would be robbed of their own voices.

 

Under state law, if the district were put into receivership, a court-appointed receiver would assume all the functions of a locally elected school board, except the power to raise and levy taxes. This appointee would effectively take charge of the district’s personnel and finances.

 

Oversight and public input essentially would be repealed. The receiver could do whatever he or she liked and there’s little anyone could do about it.

 

It’s a bad idea anywhere, though one can understand why state lawmakers have suggested it here.

 

Harrisburg Schools are a mess, and it’s largely because of the inept leadership of Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney and five of the nine-member school board who consistently support her every move.

 

Declining academic performance, high teacher turnover rates, and poor fiscal management – all are hallmarks of the way Harrisburg schools have been run.

 

The state even suspended more than $10 million in funding to the district after the board voted not to cooperate with an audit requested because of allegations administration had mismanaged federal grant funds.

 

But the district’s problems begin before the school board even enters into the picture.

 

Like nearly every urban district in the Commonwealth, Harrisburg has a history of being neglected and underfunded. One estimate puts the Harrisburg shortfall between $35 million and $38 million a year.

 

That’s why the district is already under a state-mandated recovery plan. It serves a poor community whose tax base simply cannot support the needs of its own children. Like other impoverished schools, the administration and board are required to work with a recovery officer.

 

This recovery plan has not miraculously fixed the district’s problems. It’s magical thinking to suppose that a court-appointed receiver would do any better.

 

If the state wants to help, it should provide equitable and sustainable funding. However, it is completely reasonable that state lawmakers wait until responsible adults have taken back the school board first.

 

A citizen-led school reform group called CATCH (Concerned About the Children of Harrisburg) has been pushing to oust the incumbents who have consistently supported the administration’s disastrous decisions, most of whom are up for re-election.

 

There are nine board members. Five invariably vote with the administration: Danielle Robinson, Ellis Roy, Lola Lawson, Patricia Whitehead-Myers, and Lionel Gonzalez.

 

 

Three unfailingly vote against the administration: Brian Carter, Judd Pittman and Carrie Fowler. There is one wild card: Joseph Brown, who was just appointed to take a vacant seat on the board this month and has mostly abstained from voting.

 

Of these, Brown and all of those supporting the administration but Robinson are up for re-election.

 

To flip these seats on the board CATCH is pushing for Gerald Welch, Doug Thomson-Leader, Steven Williams, and Jayne Buchwach. The local teachers union, the Harrisburg Education Association (HEA), and the local chapter of The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) endorsed all of them and an additional one – James Thompson.

 

If even two of the newcomers are elected, that will shift the balance of power away from those who have enabled an administration infamous for irresponsible errors and neglect purchased at the expense of personal favors to weak willed school directors.

 

This includes an accounting error that kept 54 former employees on its healthcare plan, an investigation into improper grading allegations at one of its high schools, rapid teacher turnover, and falling student test scores. Administrators haven’t even presented a budget for the 2019-20 school year yet!

 

Meanwhile, this same quintet of school directors rewarded administration by reappointed Superintendent Knight-Burney last spring, hiring controversial attorney James Ellison as solicitor despite a record of fraud, lawsuits and delinquent taxes, and three times refused to fill Melvin Wilson’s vacant board seat with a candidate who had broad public support and instead punted the decision to the courts.

 

Despite an almost laughable record of corruption in the district, voters have a chance to change course in less than a month.

 

All of the reform candidates are Democrats so the matter could be settled by the May 21 primary.

 

It would be beyond absurd for the state to step in and deny the public the right to correct its own ship.

 

However, though new candidates could be elected in a matter of weeks, they wouldn’t be sworn in until December. So even under the best of circumstances, city schools would remain under the dysfunctional board for the foreseeable future.

 

That’s not good. There’s a lot of damage a lame duck board could do in that time. However, the alternative of receivership is worse.

 

Once you take away a school district’s right to govern itself, it’s hard to get it back again. Plus there is no guarantee that appointed bureaucrats will do a better job. In fact, they rarely do.

 

Education Secretary Pedro Rivera has remained silent on the issue of receivership. But in a recent statement he said his department “will consider all actions allowable by law” to guide the district through a financial recovery plan.

 

Here’s hoping that democracy is allowed to flourish in the capital of Pennsylvania.


 

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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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!


 

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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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There is Virtually No Difference Between Nonprofit and For-Profit Charter Schools

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Stop kidding yourself.

 

Charter schools are a bad deal.

 

It doesn’t matter if they’re for-profit or nonprofit.

 

It doesn’t matter if they’re cyber or brick-and-mortar institutions.

 

It doesn’t matter if they have a history of scandal or success.

 

Every single charter school in the United States of America is either a disaster or a disaster waiting to happen.

 

The details get complicated, but the idea is really quite simple.

 

It goes like this.

 

Imagine you left a blank check on the street.

 

Anyone could pick it up, write it out for whatever amount your bank account could support and rob you blind.

 

Chances are you’d never know who cashed it, you’d never get that money back and you might even be ruined.

 

That’s what a charter school is – a blank check.

 

It’s literally a privately operated school funded with public tax dollars.

 

Operators can take almost whatever amount they want, spend it with impunity and never have to submit to any real kind of transparency or accountability.

 

Compare that to a traditional public school – an institution invariably operated by duly elected members of the community with full transparency and accountability in an open forum where taxpayers have access to internal documents, can have their voices heard and even seek an administrative position.

 

THAT’S a responsible way to handle public money!

 

Not forking over our checkbook to virtual strangers!

 

Sure, they might not steal our every red cent. But an interloper who finds a blank check on the street might not cash it, either.

 

The particulars don’t really matter. This is a situation rife with the possibility of fraud. It is a situation where the deck is stacked against the public in every way and in favor of charter school operators.

 

But most people don’t want to take such a strong stance. They’d rather find good and bad people on both sides and pretend that’s the same thing as impartiality.

 

It isn’t.

 

Sometimes one side is just wrong.

 

Policymakers may try to feign that there are good and bad charter schools and that the problems I’m talking about only apply to the nefarious ones.

 

But that’s a delusion.

 

There is no good way to write a blank check and leave it on the street to the whims of passers-by.

 

Most apologists want to draw the distinction between for-profit and nonprofit charters.

 

But as Jeff Bryant, an editor at Education Opportunity Network, puts it, this is a “Distinction without a difference.”

 

These terms only define an organization’s tax status – not whether it is engaged in gathering large sums of money for investors.

 

The law is full of loopholes that allow almost any organization – not just charter schools – to claim nonprofit status while enriching those at the top.

 

We live in an age of philanthrocapitalism, where the wealthy disguise schemes to enrich themselves as benevolence, generosity and humanitarianism.

 

So-called “nonprofit” charter schools are just an especially egregious example. No matter what label you pin to their name, they all offer multiple means to skim public funding off the top without adding any value for students.

 

For instance, take the use of management companies.

 

A for-profit charter school can simply cut services to students and pocket the savings as profit.

 

A nonprofit charter school can do the same thing after engaging in one additional step.

 

All I have to do is start a “nonprofit” charter school and then hire a for-profit management company to run it. Then my management company can cut services and pocket the profits!

 

It’s really that simple! I turn over nearly all of my public tax dollars to the management company that then uses it to operate the school – and keeps whatever it doesn’t spend.

 

 

Heck! It doesn’t even matter who owns the company! It could even be me!

 

The law actually allows me to wear one hat saying I’m nonprofit and then put on a different hat and rake in the cash! The only difference is what hat I’m wearing at the time!

 

SO I get to claim to be a nonprofit while enjoying all the advantages of being for-profit.

 

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SOURCE: Florida Sun Sentinel

 

I may even be able to buy things with public tax dollars through my for-profit management company and then if my “nonprofit” school goes belly up, I get to keep everything I bought! Or my management company does.

 

So the public takes all the risk and I reap all the reward. And I’m still graced with the label “nonprofit.”

 

Oh, and speaking of spending, being a “nonprofit” doesn’t stop me from the worst kind of real estate shenanigans routinely practiced by the for-profit charter schools.

 

Both types of privatized institution allow for huge windfalls in real estate. If I own property X, I can sell it to my charter school (or management company) and then pay myself with tax dollars. Who determines how much I pay for my own property? ME! That’s who!

 

And I can still be a nonprofit.

 

Think that’s bad? It’s just the tip of the iceberg.

 

Thanks to some Clinton-era tax breaks, an investor in a charter school can double the original investment in just seven years!

I can even get the public to pay for the same building twice! And even then taxpayers still won’t own it!

 

But that’s the complicated stuff. There’s an even easier way to get rich off the public with my “nonprofit” charter school, and operators do it all the time: write myself a fat check!

 

After all, I’ve gotta’ pay, myself, right? And who’s in charge of determining how much I’m worth? ME!

 

I can even pay myself way more than my counterparts at traditional public schools who oversee exponentially more staff and students.

 

For instance, as New York City Schools Chancellor, Richard Carranza is paid $345,000 to oversee 135,000 employees and 1.1 million students. Meanwhile, as CEO of Success Academy charter school chain, Eva Moskowitz handles a mere 9,000 students, for which she is paid $782,175.

 

And this is by no way a unique example.

 

There are just so many ways to cash in with a charter school even at a so-called “nonprofit” – especially if I want to dip my toe into legally dubious waters!

 

I could do like the almost exclusively “nonprofit” Gulen charter schools and exist solely as a means to raise money for an out-of-favor political movement in Turkey.

 

I could use charter funds to finance other businesses. I could decide to discontinue programs that students receive in traditional public schools such as providing free or reduced lunches but keep the cash. I could fake enrollment and have classes full of “ghost students” that the local, state and federal government will pay me to educate.

 

Fraud and mismanagement are rampant at charter schools because we don’t require them to be as accountable as their traditional public school counterparts.

 

If a traditional public school tried this chicanery, we’d almost certainly catch it at the monthly meetings or frequent audits. But charter schools don’t have to submit to any of that. They’re public money spent behind closed doors with little to no requirement to explain themselves – ever.

 

And all of this – nearly every bit of criticism I’ve leveled against the industry – doesn’t even begin to take into account the educational practices at these types of schools.

 

There is plenty of evidence that charters provide a comparable or worse education than children routinely receive at traditional public schools.

 

Where it is comparable, the issue is clouded by selective enrollment, inadequately servicing students with special needs and generally encouraging the hardest to teach to get an education elsewhere. Where it is worse, it is colossally worse, robbing children not just of funding but what is likely their only chance at an education.

 

But we don’t even need to go there.

 

We only need the issue of fiscal responsibility to bring down this behemoth.

 

Charter schools are no way to run a school. They are a blatant failure to meet our fiduciary responsibilities.

 

Traditional public schools are the best way to run a school. They protect the public’s investment of money and resources while providing a quality education to students.

 

So all this talk about nonprofit and for-profit charter schools is either a mark of supreme ignorance or a ploy for weak willed politicians to weasel their way out of taking a stand on an issue whose merits are obvious to anyone who knows what really happens in our education system.

 

It’s time to stop wasting taxpayer money on this expensive fraud.

 

 

It’s time for the charter school experiment to end.

 

 

And it’s way passed time to support fully public schools.


 

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