When Kids Teach Adults – Lessons from the Newark Student Union Sit-in

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If ISIS extremists flew in from the Middle East and took over our public schools, we wouldn’t stand for it.

But if those extremists are from our own state or federal government, we just yawn and change the channel.

Though not for the last three nights.

A handful of plucky Newark school students have demanded our attention, and, Brother, do they have it!

At least six Newark students have staged a sit-in at the offices of Superintendent Cami Anderson demanding she step down and the district be returned to the voters. The district has been under state control for the last two decades.

This could have been handled easily. Anderson could have met with the students to talk about their concerns. After all, she is a public servant and even school kids are members of the public.

But instead she’s abandoned her office, sent threatening letters to the children’s parents and blocked or held up shipments of food to the young protestors.

Undeterred, the youngsters have set up a live feed on youtube to broadcast their action to the world, tweeting with the hashtags #OccupyNPS and #OurNewark. And the world has been paying attention. Local officials including Mayor Ras Baracka are calling for Anderson’s resignation. The teachers union is discussing holding an illegal strike if the students are forcibly removed.

But more importantly, people all over the country are talking about something they haven’t talked about – maybe – ever: local control.

What gives the state or federal government the right to come in and take over your public school?

Sure if there’s some kind of malfeasance going on, it makes sense to oust a particular school director. If the entire board is working in collusion against the public interest, maybe then it makes sense to get rid of all of them. A temporary acting school board might be necessary in such an unlikely case.

But why not then just hold another election and be done with it? Why would the state keep control over a public school for years or decades after a crisis?

The answer: many of our state and federal government officials don’t believe in local control.

Don’t worry. They’re not against it for everyone.

They don’t come in and take over just any school. If you live in a rich neighborhood, you can breathe easy. No state has ever taken over a posh district.

However, if you live in a poor community with a school that struggles to get by on the contributions of the impoverished local tax base, then the state may be gunning for you.

In my home state of Pennsylvania this has happened numerous times: Duquesne, Chester Upland and Philadelphia spring immediately to mind. In fact, Philly schools have been under control of the State Recovery Commission almost as long as Newark. At the same time Newark students were settling in for their second night in Anderson’s office, the Philadelphia SRC was having citizens arrested for protesting the state-appointed directors decision to expand charter schools.

What gives these people the right to take over our schools?

Poverty.

The excuse is always that the democratically-elected school board didn’t manage the district’s finances well enough. That’s why there were dwindling services for students.

However, the truth is more simple. School directors weren’t able to get blood from a stone. While rich districts rely heavily on a fat tax base that could support whatever services their children need, poor ones limp by. The state and federal government – seeing the trouble our poor districts are in – have a responsibility to come forward and provide financial assistance. After all, every child in this country has the right to a free and appropriate public school education. This doesn’t change just because your folks are poor.

But instead of facing up to their responsibilities, the state and federal government have used this monetary crisis to steal control of the poorest public schools.

And what’s worse, they haven’t improved the quality of services for students under their care! Instead they make sure any moderate increase in funding gets siphoned off to the corporate education reform movement before it ever reaches kids.

The standardized testing industry has increased 57% in the last three years alone to a $2.5 billion a year market. And that doesn’t even count the billions more being raked in by textbook companies (many of them are the same ones producing and grading the tests) with test prep materials and Common Core.

So why does the state and federal government unconstitutionally swipe away local control from people living in poor districts?

Because they can make money off of it!

This is exactly the abomination that the Newark Student Union is shinning light on.

Five years ago, Newark Schools received a $100 million gift from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to turn around the district. The project is called One Newark. The director is Anderson.

However, instead of turning the district around, it has been responsible for closing or relocating schools, opening new charter schools and displacing staff. And no improvement to district services!

Where’s the money going? Here’s a hint: Anderson has been sharply criticized for spending $37 million on consulting fees to prominent factory school reformers.

It’s time to end the practice of public school takeovers. There is no good reason for the state or federal government to snatch away our local schools. This is clearly a violation of the almost every state constitution (including New Jersey and Pennsylvania’s) and the rights of citizens and students. Public schools should remain public.

This is what our children are trying to tell us there in Cami Anderson’s office.

As they continue for a third night, I find myself with two distinct opposite emotions.

I feel an overwhelming shame for my generation. We have let greed get the better of us. How dare we trample the future of countless generations of children for financial gain! When I think of people like Anderson and ex-Mayor Cory Booker, people like my own ex-Governor Tom Corbett, I want to throw up.

However, at the same time I’m also filled with such immense hope! These children have shown us that we can be so much more than the sum of our base natures! We can overcome our menial immediate needs and put the suffering of others over that of ourselves!

I can’t express enough the joy and admiration I have for the members of the Newark Student Union! They represent the future we might attain – if only us adults will let them shine!


UPDATE: The sit-in ended after three days when Anderson met with students. They continue to call for her resignation.

This article was also published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

Stealing Your Right to Appeal – Tortured Logic in York Schools Takeover

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Q: When can’t you take a robber to court for stealing your stuff?

A: When the robber steals your ability to appeal.

Such is the tortured logic being used by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania against one of its own public school districts.

Last week, a judge ruled that the state was entitled to take over York City Schools from taxpayers.

The district filed an appeal, which the state is trying to strike down.

None of that is surprising. But the justification the state Department of Education is using to overturn this appeal is something out of Alice in Wonderland.

Get this! When the state was granted control of York Schools, the district lost the ability to appeal unless that appeal was approved by the state.

So goes a motion filed by the state in York County Court.

When the judge allowed the district to go into receivership, control of almost all functions except taxation went to the Chief Recovery Officer David Meckley.

“Consequently, at the time that he filed the notice of appeal, the (school district) solicitor had no lawful authority to appeal the order on behalf of the district,” the state argues.

And Meckley did not approve the appeal to unseat himself.

That this is ridiculous should need no explanation. There can be no justice when wronged parties lose the ability to petition for a redress of grievances in a court of law.

If the court rules for the state, one could easily imagine a murderer getting off because his victim was unavailable to testify. Or a thief might complain that the original owner has no right to sue because he no longer owns the item in question.

But what’s obvious to you and me is sometimes obscure to judges.

The state also accuses York School Directors of violating the state’s open meeting “Sunshine” laws by voting to appeal the decision in a closed meeting.

The school board should have voted to authorize the appeal during an open meeting in full view of the public, the state alleges.

While the state’s first objection is absurd, this one is simply incorrect. School boards are – in fact – allowed to vote behind closed doors in executive sessions for various reasons including litigation matters. School boards are given this right because if they had to discuss legal matters publicly, they could easily endanger their cases.

A judge is expected to rule on the state’s motion Tuesday.

It’s just another sad page in a history of governmental overreach and circular logic in York, Pennsylvania.

First, outgoing Governor Tom Corbett slashes $1 billion from education funding, taking the lion’s share from impoverished districts like York that need it the most. For York Schools that was an $8.4 million cut – over 15% of the district’s budget.

Then when York can’t cope with the loss of funding nor does it have the tax base to make up the difference, the state labels the district a failure.

So the state swoops in to save the day – not with the money the district desperately needs – but with a bureaucrat to come up with a recovery plan: Meckley.

And what a plan it is! Let’s try these few targeted reforms, tighten our belts and if that doesn’t work, give the entire district over to a charter school operator.

How will that help?

It’s funny, but no one ever answers that question. They just assume it makes sense.

It doesn’t.

Unfortunately, the school board approved this plan in 2013, but it was having second thoughts. Thus the bid by the state Department of Education to take it over and let Meckley continue with his privatization scheme.

Let’s hope the court doesn’t fall for the Mad Hatter defense against appeal.

Even if the judge allows the appeal to move forward, the court still needs to decide who controls York Schools in the meantime.

One would assume it should be the school board.

That seems to be a no brainer.

Obviously the state shouldn’t be in control of York Schools until the appeals process is completed.

Obviously Meckley shouldn’t be able to move forward with charterizing the district until his legal right to do so has been firmly established.

But in York, a “no brainer” no longer means something obvious – it often means people with no brains get to make the decisions.

The district’s appeal isn’t the only one.

Attorneys for the district’s two employees’ unions also filed appeals mere hours after the court decision allowing the state takeover.

The matter should be tied up in court for a while. However, this move by the state and the question of who controls York in the meantime may make the court’s other actions irrelevant.

The Corbett administration – which backs the privatization of York – has only a few weeks left before Governor-elect Tom Wolf takes office on Jan. 20.

Wolf has said he is not in favor of privatizing the district. In fact, he asked the Corbett administration to hold off on the state takeover until the Gov.-elect takes office.

He was ignored.

One could easily read this motion to strike the school district’s appeal and remain in control of the district as a last ditch effort to push through a charterization scheme that no one else seems to want.

The school board is against it. The parents are against it. The students are against it. The teachers are against it. Even many York County Commissioners such as President Steve Chronister – a Republican – are against it.

The people have spoken. Unfortunately, the lame duck Corbett administration doesn’t care.

When Wolf takes office, he could easily direct the state Department of Education to drop the whole matter, return control of York Schools to its duly-elected school board and create a recovery plan that makes sense.

But if this matter is settled before he takes office, his power to intervene becomes questionable.

So once again in York, the rule of the people hangs by a thread.

Will it hold for just a few more weeks?


NOTES:

-This article was also published in the LA Progressive and on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

-Please sign the petition from York residents asking the PA Department of Education drop the petition for receivership, replace David Meckley as Chief Recovery Officer, and to approve a new recovery plan that does not include turning the school district over to charter schools.

-Feel free to use the following memes created by madly talented BAT Sue Goncarovs to help spread awareness of the injustice unfolding in York:

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Merry Christmas. We’re Stealing Your Schools.

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Merry Christmas. We’re stealing your schools.

That’s the message from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to York City School residents Friday.

Gimme’ that local control!

A judge ruled the district is now under direction of its Chief Recovery Officer David Meckley instead of its duly elected school board.

Why?

Meckley wanted the board to approve a plan to convert all district schools into charters run by Florida-based operator Charter Schools USA. This would make York the only all charter district in the entire state.

The agreement was made in secret by Meckley and details weren’t forthcoming before the board was asked to make a decision.

The board just couldn’t make up its mind fast enough. Members tabled it – they might even have refused it if given enough time to think!

So now Meckley will just make the conversion, himself. Dictatorship is so much easier than Democracy!

What else?

The school board reached an agreement with the teachers union that was simply too fair. How dare school directors agree to pay educators a fair wage when the recovery plan clearly indicated slave wages! Sure, district finances had improved, but… UNIONS!

The district could spend some of its $3 million surplus on teachers or engage in a possible $120 million contract with Charter Schools USA. Fiscal responsibility, people!

The district went back and rescinded its controversial teachers contract when the state initiated a petition to take over the district, but it was too late. School directors were acting like they were actually in control. We can’t have that. It might give people the idea that they are in charge! Hilarious!

How’d we get here?

Simple.

Back in 2012, Gov. Tom Corbett decided to slash public school budgets by $1 billion. Most of this came from the poorest schools since they relied more on state funding to keep operations going.

For York Schools that was an $8.4 million cut – over 15% of the district’s budget. To cope, the district cut the arts, student services, increased class sizes, etc. So it was labeled a “failure” simply because it couldn’t survive the funding cuts deemed necessary by the state.

Enter Meckley.

The state declared York City School District in “moderate financial recovery” in 2012 and appointed Meckley to create a financial recovery plan. That plan, adopted in summer 2013, laid out a path for internal reform but called for city schools to be turned into charters, run by an outside operator, if internal reform didn’t work out.

What’s that have to do with Friday’s ruling?

Plenty.

York County Judge Stephen Linebaugh tried to preserve the veneer of Democracy by defining the issue as narrowly as possible. He said it didn’t matter what the state would do once it had control of the district. He could only rule against a state takeover if it could be proven to be “arbitrary, capricious and wholly irrelevant to restoring the district to financial stability.”

In other words, if the district was in financial recovery and it agreed to a recovery plan (as it did), the only issue was whether it was following that plan – not whether the plan was any good or not, and not if the district had a right to refine that plan.

So apparently it is perfectly legal in Pennsylvania to beat someone up and demand a week’s worth of their lunch money – and if they don’t pay, you can sue them in court for welching on a contract!

Judge Linebaugh’s decision is expected to be appealed. This would cause an automatic stay to be put in place. But the state department of education would almost definitely try to have that stay lifted. So that issue will ultimately be up to the courts again.

Is the recovery plan any good?

Of course not!

If you’re problem is you don’t have enough funding, how do you improve that by giving over control of your district to someone whose goal is to make it turn a profit!?

They’ll reduce spending on services for children and increase administrative costs while earmarking a large portion of taxpayer money to boost the bottom line. That’s what for-profit charter operators do! It’s no secret!

Charter Schools USA – the operator waiting to take over York – is no exception.

A Florida League of Women Voters report found that a charter school operated by the company in the Sunshine State spent almost as much on fees and leases to itself and an affiliated company as it did on classroom instruction in 2011.

Another Charter Schools USA school in Indiana came under fire for keeping more than $6 million of “misappropriated” Indiana state funds for 1,800 students who never enrolled in its schools, according to an Indiana Public Media report.

CEO of Charter Schools USA Jonathan Hage has made himself filthy rich by doing the same thing to district-after-district throughout the country.

He even brags about it!

Take for instance his yacht. Yes, I said yacht. He brazenly named it “‘Fishin’ 4 Schools” after where he gets his cash.

To pay for it, he found a new revenue stream that’s just this side of legal. Charter Schools USA is the largest seller of charter school debt in the country. “It will sell $100 million worth of bonds this year, Hage says. … The bonds come with tax-exempt status because they are technically held by the nonprofit founding boards that oversee the schools.” Over a three-year period, the company made closer to $200 million.

So if you believe Meckley – the guy tasked with writing a recovery plan for York City Schools – bettering the district’s financial predicament means giving it to a company engaging in the same kinds of risky monetary practices that crashed our economy not even a decade ago. Run up debt, then sell it to others tax free! That’s not exactly a prescription for sound fiscal management.

Wait a minute. This takeover is being orchestrated by the Corbett administration. Isn’t he a lame duck? Won’t he be out of office in a few weeks? What about incoming Gov. Tom Wolf? Is there anything he can do about it?

Good questions.

Wolf has come out against turning York into an all-charter district. He even asked the Corbett administration to hold off until the governor elect takes office on Jan. 20.

While no comment was made to the press from Corbett, actions speak louder than words. Once again, he could give a crap about what’s best for schools.

Wolf has yet to comment on the takeover, himself, but his spokesman Jeff Sheridan had this to say:

“Gov.-elect Wolf knows that schools across Pennsylvania have been starved for resources over the last four years and our children are being put at a disadvantage. As a result, districts like York have been forced to the brink of financial collapse. Gov.-elect Wolf will make education his top priority by working to restore funding cuts and providing adequate resources so school districts can deliver on the promise of a high-quality public education for all Pennsylvanians.”

It’s unclear at this time exactly what Wolf will be able to do once he takes office if the takeover is complete.

Hopefully, the matter can stay tied up in the courts for a few weeks. Then Wolf may be able to direct the state to drop the matter and take a more logical course.

Cynics often say there’s no difference between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to educational matters. And history has done a lot to justify that position.

Gov. Wolf may have a chance to demonstrate exactly what that ideological difference is – if it exists at all – in coming weeks.

Right now, it’s all up to the speed and fairness of our courts.

In the meantime, Christmas cards in York, Pennsylvania, should contain the following resolution:

Goodnight and good luck.


This article has also been published in the LA Progressive and Badass Teachers Association Blog.

When All Else Fails, Cash In: Charter Schools as Miracle Cure

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Do you believe in miracles?

If you live in York, Pennsylvania – you’d better.

Still hurting from $1 billion in statewide education cuts, York City School directors are considering giving their entire district over to a failing charter operator. This would make it the first all charter district in PA.

It’s the kind of decision that no rational individual would normally even entertain. My school doesn’t have enough funding so I should give it to a company to run for-profit!?

Oh! That ALWAYS works!

Such a boneheaded idea could only be proposed by a government bureaucrat. Enter David Meckley, the district’s state-appointed chief recovery officer.

Tasked with guiding the district’s financial recovery, Meckley developed a plan that leads to charter conversion if monetary and academic goals are not met.

Let me get this straight.

Back in 2012, Gov. Corbett cut $8.4 million – over 15% – from York’s budget. To cope, the district cuts the arts, student services, increased class sizes, etc. And now we’re calling the school a “failure” simply because it couldn’t survive the funding cuts deemed necessary by the state.

Reminds me of a bully shouting, “Why are you hitting yourself!?” as he slaps a little kid in the face with the child’s own hands!

So, to review, the same people who hobbled the district in the first place by slashing its funding are responsible for fixing the problem they created. And their solution is to give up. Give the schools to someone else to run.

Q: What was the straw that broke the camels back? What was the final factor that convinced Meckley it’s charter time?

A: School directors can’t agree to a new teachers contract.

Of course! Those greedy teachers asking for a fair wage for a fair day’s work! How dare they!? Don’t they know the district is suffering from a manufactured crisis!?

Do doctor’s ask to be paid for working in poor neighborhoods? Do lawyers work exclusively pro bono to defend poor clients?

Of course not! They’ve got to earn a living! They’re freakin’ professionals after all! Not like these.. yuck! …teachers!

Okay, so the public sector can’t miraculously get blood from a stone. How will a for-profit company be able to succeed where democratically-elected school directors have failed?

The short answer: charters can fire the entire staff and rehire teachers at a lower rate. Yep. Cheap labor! That’s bound to increase the quality of kids’ educations!

Everyone knows the lower the salary, the better the service. That’s why NFL players are all on food stamps. It’s why the most luxurious hotels charge the least for a room! Want a good, Michelin star meal? Welcome to McDonalds, my foodie friends!

For Meckley there’s really only one question to consider. “What’s best for our kids?” he asked at a recent board meeting.

It’s hilarious he can even say that with a straight face! How could reducing teachers’ salaries be best for kids!? That means the most talented and experienced educators will leave for greener pastures. The kids will be left with only the most substandard teachers who have no choice but to accept whatever crumbs charter operators deign to throw their way.

Imagine that happening at a rich school. Imagine that happening at the (private) schools where President Obama or Bill Gates send their kids.

Ha! They demand the best for their children – as they should. But when it comes to your kids and mine – let them eat cake!

Let’s get something straight: most charter schools are not about academic excellence. They’re about high profit margins. Period.

Politicians and corporate school reformers rhapsodize about the power of the free market to cure all the ills of our school system. But from a market point of view, it makes sense to provide the most substandard product possible that parents will still allow their children to endure. The less money spent on the actual job of educating children, the more money to boost the bottom line.

Don’t believe me? Check out the two charter companies vying for a chance to take over York Schools: Charter Schools USA and Mosaica Education.

Charter Schools USA

“Floridian of the Year!” That’s what Florida Trend business magazine calls CEO of Charter USA Jonathan Hage. The rest of us would just call him a douchebag.

Hage probably considers himself some kind of pirate or profiteer. In fact, he brazenly advertises where he gets his precious booty by naming his yacht “Fishin’ 4 Schools.” That’s clever! Morally repugnant, sure! But clever!

To pay for it, he found a new revenue stream that’s just this side of legal. Charter Schools USA is the largest seller of charter school debt in the country. “It will sell $100 million worth of bonds this year, Hage says. … The bonds come with tax-exempt status because they are technically held by the nonprofit founding boards that oversee the schools.” Over a three-year period, the company made closer to $200 million.

So York Schools are considering bettering their financial predicament by giving their district to a company engaging in the same kinds of risky monetary practices that crashed our economy not even a decade ago. Run up debt, then sell it to others tax free! That’s not exactly a prescription for sound fiscal management.

Mosaica Education

This company has a string of scandals that go back decades. Let’s just look at some of the most recent.

  • In 2006, Mosaica was forced to end its contract to run Lafayette Academy Charter School in New Orleans, Louisiana, because it failed to align its curriculum to state standards, provide after-school programs for students below grade level and organize transportation to and from the school. The charter even ended up paying Mosaica $100,000 for early termination of the contract!
  • In 2009, Mosaica-run Howard Road Academy leaked a copy of the DC-CAS standardized test to two teachers, who then distributed copies of the test to their students prior to exam day. One administrator and two teachers were fired.
  • In 2012, Mosaica botched a situation similar to the one they may enter in York, PA. The company was contracted to manage a public school that had just been turned into a charter district in Muskegon Heights, Michigan. Prior to contracting with Mosaica, the emergency manager of the struggling district, Donald Weatherspoon, had fired the entire staff. Mosaica had “three months to hire and train staff members, including those rehired from the old district, bring neglected facilities up to code, and persuade parents to keep their children enrolled.” The school’s first principal quit within the first month and, within 3 months, a quarter of the teachers hired by Mosaica in the summer had left the district. According to Education Week, “the largest single proportion [of teachers who left the district]—28 percent—cited the charter district’s lack of participation in Michigan’s public school employee retirement plan as the reason [for leaving].” Helluva job!
  • As of 2013, Mosaica did such great work running Atlanta Preparatory Academy, the charter ranked in the bottom 20% of schools in Georgia. Atlanta Public Schools recommended that the state not renew the school’s charter. They were also concerned that the charter school’s board lacked sufficient independence because it owed $801,384 to Mosaica!

Read closely, York taxpayers. These are the people you’re being asked to invite to manage your school district! It just makes sense. Foxes make such excellent hen house guards!

Perhaps more disturbing, though, is the Tom Wolf connection.

The Democratic challenger to Gov. Corbett in the November election is a York resident and knows all parties involved too darn well.

Wolf eventually (reluctantly?) came out against turning York into a charter district but was too cozy with those involved, even calling Meckley, “my good friend.

Moreover, Wolf’s chief financial officer for his business and his campaign treasurer, Michael Newsome, served on the work group that recommended converting York to an all charter district. But don’t worry. Wolf says he disagrees with this trusted advisor, as well.

If you really disagree so much, Tom, why have you surrounded yourself with privatizers and profiteers!?

The Democrat seems poised to an easy victory over a certainly more radical Corbett, but let’s hope we don’t have another Wolf in Progressive clothing!

In any case, charterization is a terrible idea.

Turning public schools into charter schools will not solve any problems. It will only make them worse. There is no proof that charters as a whole are any better than public schools. In fact, as we’ve seen, there is plenty evidence to show that charters are much worse.

Yet despite this dismal track record, when public schools struggle, politicians and corporate school reformers keep suggesting charters are the only answer.

We need to look at the source of the problem. Our schools are being starved of funding through the reduction of tax revenue. When the state and federal government refuse to make the richest pay their fair share of taxes, the burden of funding our schools falls to the local taxpayer. In rich districts, this is fine. They can just raise taxes. However in poorer districts like York, this is unsustainable. Putting aside the issue of fairness, it’s impossible to raise local taxes where there is no tax base capable of supporting it.

In any sane country, the shortfall would be taken up by the state and federal government. Education is a right, after all, not a privilege. All schools should have adequate, equitable and sustainable school funding – not just the rich ones.

One wonders if this situation would be allowed to continue if there weren’t people making a mint off the suffering of our school children.

Do what’s best for our kids? Certainly. But it isn’t a charter school miracle.

Enough cashing in on our kids educations. As a nation, we need to grow up, put on our big boy pants and pay for shit. You want to live in a country that leads the world in innovation, industry, freedom and happiness? You want to live in a country that educates it’s children – all it’s children?

Then it’s time we force the rich to reach for their wallets and stop blaming us for being robbed by the policies they’ve bought and sold.

Class Warfare begins in the classroom.


As a result of this article, I was invited on the Rick Smith Show for an interview.