Teachers Offer to Work for Free to Save Their School

Screen shot 2015-08-29 at 1.58.26 AM

Lawmakers have failed Chester Upland School District.

And now it’s up to teachers and professional staff to save the day.

For two decades, the Pennsylvania legislature hasn’t fulfilled its duty to equitably fund the public school district. Neither has the federal government. Instead, they left the impoverished school just 20 miles west of Philadelphia to survive on the drip of local property taxes from residents who, themselves, don’t have two pennies to rub together.

Moreover, our lawmakers not only permitted but encouraged three privately run charter schools to come to Delaware County and suck away whatever funds they could from the district while shortchanging student services at their privatized facilities.

And even worse, our elected officials drew up legislation allowing these charters to gobble up more funding from the district than the public school is allowed to spend on its own students.

Surprise! It didn’t work!

So the state put the school in receivership, taking away control from local tax payers so unelected bureaucrats could fix all the problems.

Surprise! That didn’t work, either!

And now state and local officials say there isn’t enough money left in the district’s piggy bank to make payroll by the time the school’s 3,300 students are scheduled to arrive on Wednesday.

In such situations, there’s only one thing to do: close the school. Bus the kids to neighboring districts and any charter or cyber schools willing to take them.

No more Chester Uplands. Another neighborhood school bites the dust.

But the district’s more than 300 employees refused to let that happen.

The dreaded teachers union held a meeting and decided to what? Hold a strike? Demand more pay?

No. The 200 members voted unanimously to work without pay as the school year begins – and the district’s secretaries, bus drivers, janitors and administrators joined them.

Sadly, this is the second time the union came to this decision. In 2012 the district was in similar straights but a federal judge forced the state to cough up a few bucks only a few days after the school year began.

To be fair, Gov. Wolf has tried to help the struggling district more than his predecessor. His administration supported a plan to eliminate the district’s $22 million spending deficit by reducing payments to charter and cyber schools so they actually reflect the cost of the services they provide.

The plan called for capping payments to cyber schools at $5,950 per student. After all, schools where students attend class on-line don’t have nearly the overhead of brick-and-mortar districts. Why pay them more than the actual cost?

The plan also would reduce reimbursements for special education students at brick-and-mortar charter schools from $40,000 to $16,000 per student. After all, if the public school only spends this much for these services, why permit charter schools to demand more than twice that amount – more than any other district in the state receives?

These proposals didn’t come out of thin air. Both changes were consistent with recommendations by two bipartisan school funding commissions.

However, County Judge Chad F. Kenney denied the measure because it would do nothing to pay back the district’s charter schools an additional $8 million it already owes.

So to sum up – teachers are willing to work pro bono for the community’s children. They’re willing to put their own lives and families at risk to ensure their neighborhood school has more time to find a solution to its financial woes.

And charter schools? They want their money! Pay up, bitch!

If nothing is done to fix the problem, Chester Uplands deficit is expected to reach $48 million by the end of the year. Wolf and other state officials are scrambling to come up with a new plan.

Meanwhile, the problem is spreading from the Chester Upland District across the entire Commonwealth. Public schools are tightening their belts because the legislature is more than 50 days late passing a state budget. The major sticking point? School funding!

Republicans refuse to heal long-standing education cuts from the previous GOP administration while Democrats support an increase.

As lawmakers bicker, schools across the state are forced to dip into their reserves to keep their doors open. Public schools were required by law to complete their spending plans months ago making educated guesses how much they’d get from the state. Without that money coming in, they’re surviving on their rainy day funds – and as usual storm clouds are pouring on our schools.

Districts serving poor communities often don’t have much left over to continue running while Harrisburg plays political games. If something isn’t done soon, Chester Upland could be the first in a series of dominoes set to topple down.

The only thing keeping these districts afloat is the hard work and good will of their teachers and staff.


A GOFundMe has been set up to help Chester Upland staff.

If you’re able to, please donate whatever you can to the 300 teachers and staff of Chester Upland School District in Eastern Pennsylvania.  Please help these heroic people make ends meet during this time they’re working pro bono.

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

Advertisements

Why You Should Thank Harper Lee for Tearing Down Your Childhood Hero

Screen shot 2015-08-27 at 10.47.03 PM

It’s been more than 50 years since Harper Lee published her Pulitzer Prize winning novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

In that time, a lot has changed and nothing has changed.

Our schools are still highly segregated and unequal – but we justify that with standardized test scores. Our prisons are still disproportionately filled with black and brown people – but we justify that with the War on Drugs. Racial minorities are still gunned down in the street while their killers get off scot-free – but we justify that with a dysfunctional justice system.

Yes, we have our first black president but most people of color still live under the shadow of white privilege and a government sanctioned caste system.

Now comes “Go Set a Watchman” a book Lee wrote before “Mockingbird” but that works best as a sequel.

Does it matter? Is it still relevant?

I’d say yes.  After all, the original was written as people across the nation were struggling to overthrow the old racist system. And today many of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren are still engaged in that same struggle.

In a world where the majority cling desperately to colorblindness, it’s refreshing to read a book that proclaims black lives matter – even if it was written in the 1950s.

The most striking thing about the new novel is its portrayal of Atticus Finch. In “Mockingbird” he’s described as the quintessential hero – a white lawyer putting himself at great personal risk in a doomed attempt to defend an innocent black man. In “Watchman” Atticus is… well… a bit of a racist.

He’s 20 years older, has joined a neighborhood committee dedicated to keeping the races separate and we learn that at one time he had even been a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

How can we reconcile THIS Atticus with the one we remember from our childhoods? Is it even worth trying? Is the book worth reading?

Let’s start with the book’s literary value. Questions abound about its publication. Lee, 88, lives in a nursing home and is reportedly in ill health. After all this time, did she really want this book out there now or is that the result of overzealous publishers who know any book with her name on it will be a best seller? Moreover, her sister, Alice, served as a protector of Harper’s legacy but almost as soon as she died, the book was slated for publication.

And when you actually crack it open, it’s clear that certain passages are almost identical to others in “Mockingbird.” You can see how the one book lead to the other. Moreover, there are places that could use expansion and others that could use a bit of editing.

However, despite its shortcomings, from the first page to the last “Watchman” is like returning home to Maycomb County.

In the first chapter, we share a 20-something Jean Louise’s excitement on the train from New York south to visit her family, because we want to see these people again, too. Unlike a simple rereading of the classic “Mockingbird,” this time the characters have grown, changed and act in unexpected ways. Like our protagonist, though, we’re in for many a rude awakening.

Scout’s brother, Jem, is dead, and his absence is felt throughout most of the book. At first, I was angry about this. I thought it was simply bad writing, trying to artificially limit the characters. But then I realized Lee had already set up Jem’s demise back in “Mockingbird.” After all, their mother died around the same age from a heart attack – a congenital defect on her side of the family.

Jem’s absence is irksome because it’s real. Too many times in life people who mean so much to us just disappear leaving a hole never to be filled again.

Likewise, Dill is hardly to be seen. However, this shouldn’t be surprising. Both books are semi-autobiographical and his character is modeled after Harper’s childhood friend – Truman Capote. In the novel just as in life, our heroine, Scout/Harper, and Dill/Truman grew apart.

In his place we get Hank – a character never mentioned in “Mockingbird” but who apparently was around – somewhere. He serves as Scout’s boyfriend. Though he’s drawn a bit vaguely, through him we get to see the kind of woman Jean Louise has grown into.

The Scout of “Watchman” is different than her 6-8-year-old self, too. But it’s easy to see how the little girl of the previous book could become the intelligent but restless woman in this text.

Calpurnia is much changed. She no longer works for the family. In fact, she seems to have enclosed herself in the Quarter – the part of town where only the black people live.

With the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education,  Maycomb’s black folks seem much less inclined to smile and nod and serve every passing whim of white people. They have an inkling that maybe things could be different, that maybe they’re entitled to equal rights, after all. And these new possibilities come between Jean Louise and the woman who raised her more than any other.

Calpurnia is the one who explained to her what it means to be a woman. She explained everything from menstruation to sexual intercourse. Yet these new possibilities in social justice make it impossible for the two women to have a proper homecoming.

I wonder: would Jean Louise really not begrudge Calpurnia all the rights and privileges she so easily expects as her own right? It’s hard to say but still very sad.

On the other hand, Aunt Alexandra hasn’t changed much. She’s still disapproving, tyrannical yet emotional. Likewise, Uncle Jack is much the same. He’s grown more eccentric but it’s easy to recognize the friendly doctor who bandaged Scout’s hand after she punched her cousin for calling her father a racial epithet in “Mockingbird.” And neither does Atticus seem drastically different at first. He’s older and suffers from terrible arthritis. But at first glance he’s the same caring, wise paternal figure of our remembrances.

For about 100 pages the book is a mostly meandering return to a world we never thought we’d see again. Then everything changes with the bombshell of Atticus’ recent pro-segregation activities.

How can it be possible? Can this really be Atticus Finch? Or is this just bad writing?

We know the character is based on Harper’s own father, Amasa Lee. Is this really more of a portrait of the real man than the fictional one?

It’s hard to say. But as we read on it becomes clear that, yes, this is still the Atticus we remember. But we didn’t know him as well as we thought.

(WARNING: Limited spoilers ahead.)

The heart of the novel is when Jean Louise confronts her father about his seemingly new attitude. In typical Atticus style, he argues with her almost like he was defending himself in court. Some of his defense makes a weird kind of sense. He says he briefly joined the Klan just to see who was behind those hoods. He wanted to know whom he was dealing with. Moreover, his participation in this segregation society was to serve as a moderating influence. He wanted to make sure they didn’t get up to too much trouble.

But this is only half an answer. As he continues, it becomes clear that Atticus actually does believe some of the racist rhetoric of his times. He really doesn’t want black people and white people to be put on an equal footing. He justifies this by saying black people aren’t ready yet. They haven’t been prepared for the rights and privileges of white folks. Maybe some day they will be, but not today.

It’s a disgusting and patronizing argument – infantilizing an entire people. And hearing this out of Atticus mouth – it’s like seeing a spider crawl across a gorgeous face.

Similarly creepy is his appeal to state’s rights – an argument we still hear today from our Tea Party friends. Perhaps it WAS Southern white people’s responsibility to raise up the people of color in their midst – but if they weren’t going to do it, it was past time that someone did!

Scout doesn’t let her father get away with any of this. She does her best to verbally destroy him and run away forever.

But before she can escape, she runs into her Uncle Jack. What he does is equal parts rationality and sexism. I can’t imagine any modern author resolving the story this way. Perhaps that’s for the best. In some ways, Uncle Jack’s actions are more disturbing than Atticus’ opinions.

In the end, Scout learns to accept her father for who he is. Yes, he is dead wrong about black people, but most of the time he’s still the same loving Atticus. It’s a good point. How many people do you love who believe reprehensible things? Probably a lot. That doesn’t mean you stop loving them.

I’d say that’s the central point of the novel. Each of us is responsible for creating our own conscience. We can’t rely on any value system that comes to us prepackaged. We have to examine every facet of our worlds and decide what it is we truly believe. And in doing so we’ll probably reach divergent opinions.

The only way Lee could do that was by showing us the heroic Atticus as nothing but a flesh and blood human being, full of the same frailties and mistaken thinking.

In the end, Scout’s thoughts seem more modern than anyone else’s in the book, more in line with our own views about social justice. But her conclusion only goes so far. We’re still left with questions. How do we reach loved ones who disagree with us? How can we tell if our own ethical intuitions are correct? How can white folks best help people of color secure their rightful place in society?

None of these have answers, but Lee is still asking the right questions. More than 50 years later, we’re still searching for solutions.

Parents and Children Occupy Puerto Rican School Refusing to Let Corporate Vultures Raid Its Contents

Screen shot 2015-08-22 at 9.09.36 AM

For more than 80 days, about 35 parents and children have been camping out in front of their neighborhood school in the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico.

The Commonwealth government closed the Jose Melendez de Manati school along with more than 150 others over the last 5 years.

But the community is refusing to let them loot it.

They hope to force lawmakers to reopen the facility.

Department of Education officials have been repeatedly turned away by protesters holding placards with slogans like “This is my school and I want to defend it,” and “There is no triumph without struggle, there is no struggle without sacrifice!”

Officials haven’t even been able to shut off the water or electricity or even set foot inside the building.

The teachers union – the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR) – has called for a mass demonstration of parents, students and teachers on Sunday, Aug. 23. Protesters in the capital of San Juan will begin a march at 1 p.m. from Plaza Colón to La Fortaleza (the Governor’s residence).

11212175_538567642948296_6542092169551987830_o

The schools being closed are all in low income areas, said union president Mercedes Martinez. “This is detrimental to education, because the necessities of the community, the investment in infrastructure in recent years, the technology, have not been taken into consideration, and neither the parents nor the teachers have been consulted.”

The Jose Melendez de Manati school, for instance, served students 92% of whom live in poverty.

Now that the building has been closed, parents say they can’t afford the cost to transport their children to a new school miles away. And those schools that remain open have been forced to make drastic cuts to remain functional. Class sizes have ballooned to 35 students or more. Amenities like arts, music, health and physical education have typically been slashed.

Why?

The island territory is besieged by vulture capitalists encouraging damaging rewrites to the tax code while buying and selling Puerto Rican debt.

Hundreds of American private equity moguls and entrepreneurs are using the Commonwealth as a tax haven.

Since 2012, U.S. citizens who live on the island for at least 183 days a year pay minimal or no taxes, and unlike those living in Singapore or Bermuda, they get to keep their U.S. passports. After all, they’re still living in the territorial U.S. These individuals pay no local or federal capital gains taxes and no local taxes on dividend interest for 20 years. Even someone working for a mainland company who resides on the island is exempt from paying U.S. federal taxes on his salary.

puerto_rico_teachers_strike.jpg_1718483346

Big corporations are taking advantage of the situation, too.

Worldwide, American companies keep 60 percent of their cash overseas and untaxed. That’s about $1.7 trillion annually.

Microsoft, for instance, routes its domestic operations through Puerto Rican holdings to reduce taxes on its profits to 1.02 percent – a huge savings from the U.S. corporate tax rate of 35 percent! Over three years, Microsoft saved $4.5 billion in taxes on goods sold in the U.S. alone. That’s a savings of $4 million a day!

Meanwhile, these corporate tax savings equal much less revenue for government entities – both inside and outside of Puerto Rico – to use for public goods such as schooling.

Public schools get their funding from tax revenues. Less tax money means less money to pay for children’s educations. As the Puerto Rican government borrowed in an attempt to shore up budget deficits, the economy tanked.

But have no fear! In swooped Hedge Funds to buy up that debt and sell it for a profit.

When this still wasn’t enough to prop up a system suffering from years of neglect, the Hedge Fund managers demanded more school closures, firing more teachers, etc.

Of course, this is only one interpretation of events.

If you ask Wall Street moguls, they’ll blame the situation on declining student enrollment. And they have a point.

Some 450,000 people have left the island in the last decade as the economy suffered an 8-year depression.

There were 423,000 students in the Puerto Rican school system in 2013. That’s expected to drop to 317,000 by 2020.

But is this the cause of the island’s problems or a symptom?

Unfortunately, things look to get much worse before they’ll get any better.

The government warns it may be out of money to pay its bills by as early as 2016. Over the next five years, it may have to close nearly 600 more schools – almost half of the remaining facilities!

Right on cue, Senate President Eduardo Bhatia is proposing corporate education reform methods to justify these draconian measures. This includes privatizing the school system, tying teacher evaluations to standardized test scores and increasing test-based accountability.

“Our interest is to promote transparency and flow of data through the implementation of a standardized measurement and accountability system for all agencies,” Bhatia said, adding that the methodology has been successful in such cities as Chicago.

Despite such overwhelming opposition, protesters are taking the fight to the capitol. “Tax the Rich!” is a popular slogan on signs for Sunday’s march.

11029506_1679179132316825_4270916741405376334_n

“It’s unacceptable that the rich and powerful that created our crisis are the ones asking the working class for more sacrifices,” said Martinez.

“The foreign companies that pay no taxes or a less amount to evade paying their due in contributions – impose a tax on them now!”

This is just a beginning, she adds. Stronger actions will be coming.

In the meantime, those brave parents and children still refuse to give up their shuttered school.

They dream of a day when that empty building once again rings with the laughter of students and the instruction of teachers.

In a country being used by the wealthy to increase their already swollen bank statements, is that really so much to ask?


You can show your solidarity with these Puerto Rican protestors by spreading the word through social media. Post a picture of yourself with a sign saying you’re with them in their fight. Tweet the Commonwealth Secretary of Education @Rafaelroman6. Use the hashtags #EducacionEnPR #SOSdocente.

NOTE: This article was mentioned on Diane Ravich’s blog and was also published on CommonDreams.org and the Badass Teachers Association blog.

Black Schools Matter – Chicago Protesters Go on Hunger Strike to Save Their Last Neighborhood School

11049569_829908000464142_2624846350042095332_n

Somewhere in Chicago tonight, Mayor Rahm Emanuel may be sitting down to his favorite desert – warm pecan pie with vanilla ice cream.

Across the city in the South Side neighborhood of Bronzeville, 11 parents, teachers and community members aren’t eating so well. Their meal – a few sips of coconut water to keep their strength up.

These brave men and women are on the third day of a hunger strike to save their last open enrollment public school.

If the Emanuel administration has its way, this mostly black community will have to choose between sending their children to a failing charter school or a failing public school run by a private company – all while the neighborhood’s historic Walter H. Dyett High School is closed.

Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, Red Fox and Bo Diddley are all alumni of Dyett.

Why close such a vibrant connection to the community’s proud past?

The unelected Board of Education voted in 2012 to phase out the school because of low standardized test scores and dropping graduation rates.

It’s the same excuse lawmakers used in 1988 to take away local control from Chicago residents throughout the city. Most Americans have the right to vote for the people who run their local public schools. But not in Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans or many other places dark complected people live. The poorer the people and the darker their skin, the more likely the state will swipe away their right to self government on the excuse that their neglected and underfunded schools are “failing.”

Chicago, the third largest district in the country, is a prime example of this kind of disaster capitalism.

While schools in wealthier neighborhoods had all the amenities, Dyett students had no honors or AP classes and no art or music. Even physical education classes had to be taken on-line.

No wonder test scores were low! These children didn’t have nearly the same resources as other richer, whiter kids.

Despite such unfair challenges, academics were actually improving prior to the board’s decision to shutter the school.

In 2008, there was a 30% increase in students graduating. The improvement was so spectacular it was even recognized by then Mayor Richard Daley and Chicago Schools CEO Arne Duncan (soon to be U.S. Secretary of Education).

Likewise, in 2009, a community program helped decrease out of school suspensions by 40%.

However, by the time Emanuel took office, this wasn’t enough for the city’s Board of Education – all of whom are appointed by the mayor.

Emanuel has already shuttered 50 Chicago City Schools46 of which served mostly black students.

But not Dyett. At least, not yet.

The South Side community has been fighting to change the board’s decision for years. About 7 months ago, it seemed to have some success.

Eleven community members chained themselves to a statue of George Washington outside Emanuel’s office demanding the board reconsider. It did. But once the protesters removed themselves, the board decided to take bids on how to keep the school open.

Three plans were submitted – two to privatize and one to keep it an open enrollment public school.

That last plan submitted by the community, itself, would transform the facility into the Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School. This would be a district run school for up to 600 students mostly from the Bronzeville area.

The plans to charterize the school have strengths and weaknesses, but the biggest problem with both privatization schemes is they disconnect the new school from the community and its history.

If either charter school plan is enacted, Bronzeville children may or may not be able to attend it. They could apply, but the entire student body will be selected by lottery. So it’s a roll of the dice whether they could go to their neighborhood school.

Community children not selected would be sent to Phillips Academy – a public school being run by a private management team. Phillips has a worse academic record than Dyett did in it’s darkest days. In 2012, less than 1% of Phillips students passed the state math test and just 8% passed the reading test.

Student prospects aren’t much better at a new charter school. Countless studies – even the Walton Family Foundation-funded CREDO study – have shown charter schools don’t provide better educational outcomes than traditional public schools. In many instances, they do much worse. And students uprooted from community schools rarely improve academically. However, Emanuel and other policymakers like him continue to push for the creation of more charters despite any track record of success or justification beyond increasing the corporate profits of the companies running them.

The best solution seems to be the plan created by and for the Bronzeville community to keep a public school in place. But when a public hearing was abruptly cancelled this month, they suspected the worst – the board was trying to sidestep a democratic vote.

That’s when community members started the hunger strike.

Protesters vow not to eat unless there is an emergency meeting on Dyett and a final vote taken.

The activists say they’re starting to feel tired and a bit light headed but severe hunger has not set in yet. They are getting daily checkups from a nurse to ensure they’re healthy enough to continue.

Meanwhile, where is the national media?

The Rev. Jesse Jackson visited the hunger strikers Tuesday and vowed to join them in their quest for justice.

But even this hasn’t brought national attention.

How typical! While black schools are closed and black communities gutted, White America yawns and the band plays on.

But some of us are committed to the idea that black lives matter.

Black schools matter.

Black communities matter.

Are you?


If you would like to help, you can call Mayor Rahm Emanuel at (312) 744-3307 and Alderman Will Burns at (773) 536-8103 and ask them to support the Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School.

You can also tweet in solidarity to the hunger strikers using the hashtags #SaveDyett#WeAreDyett and #FightForDyett. Finally, you’re invited to email the protesters at info@reclaimourschools.org and let them know you stand with them and would like updates on their progress.

NOTE: This article also was published in the LA Progressive, on CommonDreams.org and on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

We Are All on the Lunatic Fringe – The Centerless Battle Against Corporate Education Reform

cliff_hanging

It was one of the strangest meetings I’ve ever had with a state legislator.

Why?

First of all, we were all teachers.

Even the legislator. Even his Aide!

Pennsylvania State Rep. Dan Miller (D-Mt. Lebanon) had been a history teacher before he sought a law degree and higher office.

His aide had been a Pittsburgh Public School teacher before she was furloughed and found a place in the representative’s office.

And, of course, there were the seven of us – all teachers at my school district.

We crowded together in his tiny district office to talk about how standardized testing is destroying public schools.

Which brings me to the second strangest thing – Rep. Miller didn’t just agree with us, he did so knowledgeably.

I’ve sat across a table from an awful lot of lawmakers, and they almost always try to find common ground. Disingenuously.

Sure! I agree teachers are important! That’s why we need to fire more of them!

You bet neighborhood schools are vital! That’s why I want to close all the public schools and replace them with charters!

Uh-huh! School funding is critical but not more so than classroom teachers. That’s why we’re cutting your budgets! We want to see what you can do!

None of that at Rep. Miller’s office.

When we brought up how important it is to allow parents throughout the Commonwealth to opt their children out of standardized tests without penalizing their school districts, he praised parent rights.

When we described how the definition of school accountability has changed from holding lawmakers accountable to holding teachers accountable, he talked about the sad scapegoating of the profession.

And when we told him about how standardized testing is failing our students, he told us how it would have failed him if he were a student today.

“I wasn’t a very good student,” Miller admitted. He loved history and aced that class consistently, but he barely squeaked by in most other subjects.

The first book he read all the way through was “North and South” by Elizabeth Gaskell – in 11th grade! Why? Because it interested him. “Jane Eyre”? Not so much.

And he admitted that in today’s environment where nothing is counted a success unless it generates a high test score, he would have been lost and probably would have dropped out.

Which brings me to the third strangest thing – Miller isn’t playing partisan politics. As a Democrat, he isn’t blaming everything on the Republicans.

“This is a bipartisan issue,” he said. There’s no reason why both parties can’t agree on what needs to be done to help our schools.

So why doesn’t the legislature do more?

Ignorance. “There’s a low level of analysis of bills down there (in Harrisburg).” Local government usually does a better job.

The representative’s teaching background gives him an edge, he says, but most legislators simply don’t have that knowledge base to draw on.

There’s a lot of good will in the capital, he says. “Most legislators aren’t trying to cause a problem.” They want to try to achieve something, but if those experiments fail, the consequences are dramatic, long lasting and hard to correct.

He even talks well of our Republican ex-Governor Tom Corbett, whose education policies – in my opinion – have crippled the state’s schools.

“He was always polite to me, “ Miller says. “He just didn’t talk.” He wasn’t approachable.

By contrast, Gov. Tom Wolf comes to you. Miller recalls walking in to his own Harrisburg office and Wolf was sitting there waiting for him because he had something he wanted to talk about. Wolf is well liked, even among Republicans. They might not agree with the new Democratic governor, but they have to admit he has the best interests of the state at heart.

Perhaps its Miller’s infinite good will that’s propelled the Democrat with only two years in state office to the House Education Committee.

Republicans have dominated state education policy for years. They still do. But in Miller we have someone who actually has a say in one of the most critical areas in the state. And he knows what he’s talking about, takes time to meet with real live educators and sympathizes with our cause.

Which brings me to perhaps the strangest aspect of the whole meeting – Miller’s analysis why more isn’t being done to combat the testing industry.

“The groundswell isn’t there,” he said. “You’re still the fringe.”

He praised teachers unions like the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) for being excellent advocates. He said lawmakers get all their emails, but the emphasis seems to be maintaining pension benefits. He understood why this is so, but the issues we were talking about didn’t seem to register on most legislators radar.

It’s bizarre.

If true, there are a heck of a lot of folks on the fringe.

Rep. Miller, himself, for one.

The majority of public school teachers, too.

And the more than three thousand Pennsylvania students whose parents opted them out of standardized testing last year – they’re on the lunatic fringe.

Heck! If we’re all dangling on the outer edge, who’s in the middle? Where’s the mainstream?

Perhaps its just a matter of perception. Maybe the other side just has better public relations.

If so, it’s up to us to spread the word until all of us counterculture anti-standardization and anti-privatization folks are seen for where we really are – at the axis of real school reform.


Thank you to Meagan O’Toole for setting up the meeting. Thank you, Ben Lander, Yvette Robinson Logan, Mary Cay Rojtas-Milliner, Susan Olsen, and Roslyn Stulga for speaking out for your students and profession. And most of all thank you, Rep. Miller, for meeting with classroom teachers to talk about what’s going on in our state’s public schools and actually listening to our stories and advice.

Bernie Sanders Explains Puzzling Education Vote – It’s Because Accountability

Screen shot 2015-08-15 at 3.24.57 AM
Photo: Alex Garland

When teachers asked, Bernie Sanders answered.

Why, Bernie? Why did you vote this summer against everything you seem to stand for on education policy?

You stood against President George W. Bush’s disastrous No Child Left Behind legislation in 2001. Why did you vote for almost the same thing in 2015?

The answer is in from the Vermont Senator turned Democratic Presidential Candidate, but it’s not entirely satisfactory.

The short version: Accountability.

In education circles, it’s a buzzword meaning opposite things to opposite people. And determined in opposite ways.

Ask a representative of the standardized testing industry, and more than likely he’ll tell you accountability means making sure public schools actually teach studentsespecially the poor and minorities. And the only way to determine this is through repeated, rigid, standardized assessments. Let’s call that TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY.

Ask a real live educator, and more than likely she’ll tell you it means making sure local, state and federal governments actually provide the funding and resources necessary to teach studentsespecially the poor and minorities. And the best way to determine this is simple math. Let’s call that LAWMAKER ACCOUNTABILITY.

These seem to be the central disagreements: Are lawmakers providing equitable resources to all our public schools or are teachers just not doing their jobs? Are student test scores the best way to measure accountability or should we rely on something as rock solid as elementary math?

TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY is hard to determine. You have to spend billions of taxpayer dollars buying tests, scoring tests and on test prep materials. And then you have to ignore all the evidence that this proves nothing. You could instead just poke your head into any public school across the nation and actually see teachers working their butts off. Heck! You could stop in after school hours and count the numbers of teachers still at work and tabulate the amount of their own cash they spend on class materials. But that won’t work – there isn’t an industry profiting off you using your own eyes and brain.

On the other hand, determining LAWMAKER ACCOUNTABILITY is easy. Just compare school budgets. Greater than and less than. You’ll find that none of our lawmakers provide equitable funding. Rich kids in wealthy districts get Cadillac funding while poor and minority kids in impoverished districts get bicycle funding. Strangely, this is never discussed.

Moreover, none of this relies on opinion. All it takes is empirical evidence to see the truth. Lawmakers are not accountable at all. Teachers are accountable for too much and judged by unscientific and untrustworthy methods.

Unfortunately, few politicians have fully figured this out yet. Even you, Bernie.

This summer it’s all come down to a series of votes on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

The law the governs K-12 public schools was written in 1965 to ensure all schools received the proper resourcesLAWMAKER ACCOUNTABILITY.

However, under President George W. Bush and throughout the Obama years, it’s become about punishing teachers and schools for low standardized test scores – TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY.

And the champions of TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY this summer have been primarily Democrats including liberal lions like Elizabeth Warren and Sanders.

LAWMAKER ACCOUNTABILITY? No one’s talking that.

Most troubling is the Murphy Amendment – an attempt to double down on TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY. Keep testing and punishing because it’s working soooo well. Thankfully, the move was defeated by Senate Republicans. But Sanders and Warren both voted for it. Warren even co-sponsored it!

That’s why a group of respected education professionals and union leaders (including myself) wrote an open letter to Sanders asking him to please explain, himself.

We aren’t exactly a hostile crowd. We like a bunch of things that Sanders represents in his presidential campaign. We want to support him, but we need to know why he voted to keep the worst aspects of the current law.

And Bernie answered! Or his staff did.

I’ll reproduce the entire letter we received from staffer Phil Fiermonte below this blog. But first I want to focus on Bernie’s specific reasons for voting in favor of the Murphy Amendment:

As you mentioned, Senator Murphy introduced an amendment on the Senate floor that would have required states to hold schools accountable for the academic performance of low-income, minority and disabled students. Senator Sanders voted for this amendment because he believes states must do more to protect every student’s right to a quality education, and that from a civil right’s perspective, the federal government has an important role to play in protecting low-income, minority and disabled children. As you pointed out, the mechanism this amendment would have used to identify struggling schools resembles the failed policies of No Child Left Behind. This was a significant concern to the Senator, and one that he shared with the sponsors of the amendment.

Senator Sanders cast his vote on this amendment to express his disapproval with aspects of the bill that were insisted upon by Chairman Alexander and Senate Republicans and that do not reflect the best interests of vulnerable populations, or a progressive view on the distribution of education resources. He has made clear to Chairman Alexander, Ranking Member Murray, and Senate Leadership that his vote was not an endorsement of the accountability mechanism included in the amendment, but rather as a statement of his intent that other measures must be put in place to protect low-income, minority and disabled students.

So Sanders voted for the Murphy Amendment for these reasons:

  1. He was mad that there is nothing about LAWMAKER ACCOUNTABILITY in the ESEA.
  2. He believes in TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY – at least in part. He thinks the federal government needs to make sure teachers and schools are actually educating kids, BUT he doesn’t believe standardized tests are the best way of determining this.

Okay. First of all, he has a point. There is next to nothing in the whole ESEA rewrite about LAWMAKER ACCOUNTABILITY. When I was on Capitol Hill earlier this summer lobbying my lawmakers on this very issue, in general the Democrats blamed the Republicans and the Republicans changed the subject.

However, I don’t see how voting for an amendment you don’t believe in is going to make a point about something entirely unrelated. How would voting for the Murphy Amendment get us LAWMAKER ACCOUNTABILITY? The Amendment had nothing to do with that. There are places for it in the ESEA but this amendment was focused almost entirely on TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY.

Was Sanders trying to convince Republicans to add LAWMAKER ACCOUNTABILITY elsewhere in the bill by voting against them on TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY here? That seems a stretch. Both parties appear to love TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY, but during this ESEA process the Republicans have been more concerned with stripping the federal government of its power over education. It’s not that they don’t like TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY, they just want to leave it up to the states.

Then we come to Sander’s position on TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY. He’s certainly right that schools need to teach students. However, as a public school teacher, I find it ludicrous to think that there are any schools out there that don’t.

Are there really schools in our country that don’t even TRY to educate their students? Really!? Are there hospitals that don’t try to heal their patients? Are there defense attorneys who don’t try to defend their clients? Are their airlines that don’t even try to get passengers to their destinations?

It’s absurd. Certainly if there were such places, we should do something about them, but the fact that our education policies are obsessed with something that almost never happens is asinine. It’s like going to Ireland and spending the majority of your vacation budget looking for a leprechaun! (At least, this doesn’t happen in non-cyber, non-charter, not-for-profit traditional public schools. But I digress…)

Then we get to Bernie’s suggestion that he’s against using standardized tests to measure if schools are functioning properly. At least here he is justified. But how will voting for the exact thing you’re against get you what you want? It boggles the mind. I want Pizza, that’s why I’m voting for chicken. Huh!?

However, Sanders is responsible for an innovation in the ESEA along just these lines. He proposed a 7-state pilot program that would allow TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY to be determined on more holistic methods than test scores. Schools could use multiple measures such as student portfolios, classroom projects, or other means to be determined by the states.

This could be a step forward. But even under the best of circumstances, it is limited to a maximum of 7 states. It’s not a long term solution. The majority of the country could still be stuck with test and punish.

So we’re left with some good news and bad news.

GOOD NEWS: Bernie actually took teachers open letter seriously enough to have a staffer answer it. That’s something. I’m sure there are plenty of presidential candidates who wouldn’t even do that much.

GOOD NEWS: Bernie has some thoughtful ideas on education. His pilot program holds – limited – promise. He understands that the measures usually prescribed to determine TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY are bogus.

GOOD NEWS: Bernie acknowledges that LAWMAKER ACCOUNTABILITY is important and says he’d like to address it.

BAD NEWS: He doesn’t mind focusing on TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY when there is very little need for it. Moreover, TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY without LAWMAKER ACCOUNTABILITY is actually harmful. Imagine if NASCAR fired a driver because the Pit Crew didn’t gas up the car. If schools have inadequate money and resources, putting a gun to all the teachers heads isn’t going to help.

BAD NEWS: Some of his answers don’t make sense.

BAD NEWS: He isn’t addressing us personally. Will it take teachers storming his campaign speeches and swiping the microphone before he does more than limited reforms and pays us lip service? It’s one thing to say #BlackLivesMatter. It’s another to make sure our black and brown kids get an equitable education.


The following letter was sent to Arthur Goldstein, one of the teachers who signed the original open letter to Bernie Sanders:

Sen. Sanders views on the Every Child Achieves Act, standardized testing, and school accountability 
Rand Wilson Add to contacts 4:59 PM Keep this message at the top of your inbox 
To: Arthur Goldstein Cc: Philip Fiermonte, Cwa Cohen 
laborforbernie2016@gmail.com

Dear Brother Goldstein:

Senator Sanders has asked me to respond to your email, and share his views on the Every Child Achieves Act, standardized testing, and school accountability.

As you know, Senator Sanders has long opposed the blame-and-shame approach to school accountability embodied in No Child Left Behind. He voted against No Child Left Behind in 2001 because he believed then, as he does now, that the legislation’s narrow focus on standardized test scores ignores a broad range of factors that determine how well a school is meeting the needs of its students. Since the passage of this legislation, we have seen the devastating impact that high stakes standardized testing has had on schools all over the country. In the Senator’s home state of Vermont, nearly every school is identified as “failing,” and is threatened with increasingly proscriptive federally-determined interventions.

No Child Left Behind’s narrow focus on standardized test scores has tragically led to a significant culture shift in our nation’s schools. An obsession with testing and test preparation has taken over in countless school districts in America, and educators are being forced to dedicate hours of class time getting students ready for exams rather than teaching them new material, or strengthening essential skills and qualities like critical thinking, teamwork, and problem solving. And the worst thing is that students from low-income, urban school districts spend more time in test preparation than students from the suburbs. These hours and hours of test preparation have no educational value, and the fact that poor and minority students are disproportionately subjected to test prep at the expense of lesson time is a huge problem that must be addressed.

Last month, the senate passed the Every Child Achieves Act, which would fundamentally reform No Child Left Behind, and end its system of high stakes testing and draconian interventions. Senator Sanders supports this legislation, and believes it represents a very important step forward.

As a member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, the Senator had an opportunity to shape this legislation at every stage of its development. For example, he was one of the leading advocates on committee for the inclusion of a “multiple measure” accountability system that allowed states to include factors other than test scores when determining a school’s effectiveness.

In addition, he worked to provide states with significant flexibility when it comes to assessment. This legislation includes a provision written by Senator Sanders that would create a groundbreaking alternative assessment pilot program which would allow states to implement alternatives to standardized testing. If the legislation passes, these new assessments would eventually reduce the number of statewide tests children are forced to take, while providing educators with timely information on student performance.

However, this legislation is far from perfect, and there are several aspects of the Every Child Achieves Act that have caused the Senator great concern. For example, there is no requirement that states focus resources or attention on schools that are meeting the needs of middle class children, but not meeting the needs of minority, low-income and disabled children. In addition, the Senator is concerned that the bill does nothing to address resource equity, and was deeply disappointed when an amendment offered by Senators Kirk, Baldwin, Reed and Brown to address resource equity failed on the Senate floor.

As you mentioned, Senator Murphy introduced an amendment on the Senate floor that would have required states to hold schools accountable for the academic performance of low-income, minority and disabled students. Senator Sanders voted for this amendment because he believes states must do more to protect every student’s right to a quality education, and that from a civil right’s perspective, the federal government has an important role to play in protecting low-income, minority and disabled children. As you pointed out, the mechanism this amendment would have used to identify struggling schools resembles the failed policies of No Child Left Behind. This was a significant concern to the Senator, and one that he shared with the sponsors of the amendment.

Senator Sanders cast his vote on this amendment to express his disapproval with aspects of the bill that were insisted upon by Chairman Alexander and Senate Republicans and that do not reflect the best interests of vulnerable populations, or a progressive view on the distribution of education resources. He has made clear to Chairman Alexander, Ranking Member Murray, and Senate Leadership that his vote was not an endorsement of the accountability mechanism included in the amendment, but rather as a statement of his intent that other measures must be put in place to protect low-income, minority and disabled students.

As congressional leaders move toward the next step in consideration of this bill – negotiating differences with the House – Senator Sanders has urged the future leaders of the conference committee to include protections for low-income, minority and disabled students, and to do so in a way that addresses the needs of the whole child. We must ensure low-income, minority and disabled children have the same access to educational resources that their wealthy suburban peers have. In addition, we must ensure that struggling students have access to adequate supports including health, mental health and nutrition services and after school programs that help level the playing field.

For many years, educators across the country have been the loudest, strongest voices against the corporatization of our nation’s education system and for the increased funding and wraparound services that will make a difference for our children. This is a fight that Senator Sanders has been waging at the national level for 25 years, and one that he will continue to pursue.

Sincerely.
Phil Fiermonte
Bernie 2016


NOTE: This article also was published in the LA Progressive.

Parent Power Can Crush the Testocracy – and the Government is Scared Witless

opt-out7

“We need to change accountability for schools to be more holistic. My greatest frustration is that I can’t do it fast enough.”
Pedro Rivera, Pennsylvania’s Education Secretary

Parents, you can.

It doesn’t matter where you live. It doesn’t matter what laws are on the books. It doesn’t matter if your state is controlled by Democrats, Republicans or some combination thereof.

No government – not federal, state or local – can trample your parental rights. If you don’t want your child to be evaluated based on standardized tests, your child doesn’t have to be. And if a majority of parents nationwide make this decision, the era of standardized testing comes to an end. Period.

It has already begun.

Across the nation last school year, parents decided to opt their children out of standardized testing in historic numbers. The government noticed and functionaries from New York to California and all places in between are scrambling to deal with it.

In the Empire State one in five students didn’t take federally mandated standardized tests. State education commissioner Mary Ellen Elia responded yesterday by threatening sanctions against schools this year with high opt out numbers. In short, if in the coming year too many kids don’t take the test in a given school, the state will withhold funding.

It’s a desperate move. If the public doesn’t like what its duly elected officials and their functionaries are doing, those same officials and functionaries are vowing to punish the public. But wait. Don’t those people work for the public? Isn’t it their job to do our will? It’s not our job to do theirs.

The message was received a bit better in U.S. Congress where the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) is being reauthorized. Two drafts of the law that governs K-12 public schools were approved – one in the House and one in the Senate. And both specifically allow parents to opt their children out of standardized testing. But can schools be punished for it?

The House version says no. The Senate version says it’s up to each state legislature.

These bills are being combined before being presented to President Obama for his signature. If he doesn’t veto the result, one might assume that at worst the issue will become each state’s prerogative.

But you’d be wrong. The state has as much business deciding this matter as does the fed – which is none. This is a parental rights issue. No one has the right to blackmail parents to fall in line with any government education policy. It’s the other way around.

In my own state of Pennsylvania, opt out numbers this year were not as dramatic as in New York, but they still sent a message to state government.

The number of students opted out of state tests tripled in 2015, according to data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. PSSA math opt-outs rose to 3,270 students from 1,064 in 2014. PSSA English language arts opt-outs rose to 3,245 from 1,068. Those are the largest jumps in the nine years of available data.

And it’s not only parents who are concerned. Teachers continue to speak out against high stakes standardized tests.

Thousands of teachers have told State Education Secretary Pedro Rivera that school accountability needs to be less about test scores and more about reading levels, attendance, school climate, and other measures, he said. They have concerns about graduation requirements and the state’s current system of evaluating schools.

It’s not like these criticism are new. Education experts have been voicing them since at least 1906 when the New York State Department of Education advised the legislature as follows:

“It is a very great and more serious evil to sacrifice systematic instruction and a comprehensive view of the subject for the scrappy and unrelated knowledge gained by students who are persistently drilled in the mere answering of questions issued by the Education Department or other governing bodies.”
-Sharon L. Nichols and David Berliner, Collateral Damage: How High Stakes Testing Corrupts America’s Schools, 2007

Corporate education reformers complain that testing is necessary to hold schools accountable. However, the results are not trustworthy, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, itself! In 2011 and now again in 2015, officials are cautioning against using test scores to compare student achievement from year-to-year.

“The 2015 assessment should not and cannot be compared to the 2014 and 2013 assessment,” Rivera said. “It’s apples and oranges. Schools are still working on aligning curriculum to standards. They’re still catching up to teaching what we’re assessing.”

Each year students and teachers are told to hit a moving target, which was the reason also cited for caution four years ago.

While Rivera laments the issue and his inability to change anything soon within the government bureaucracy, parents are not thus encumbered.

All you have to do to save your child from being part of this outdated and destructive system is opt out.

But don’t stop there. Talk to other parents. Talk to classroom teachers. Organize informational get-togethers. Go to the PTA and school board meetings. Get others to join you.

And if the government threatens to withhold funding, lawyers are waiting in the wings to start the class action suits. Withholding taxpayer money expressly put aside to educate children because those same taxpayers disagree with government education policy!? Just try us!

Governments are tools but we hold the handles. If enough of us act this year, there will be no testing next year. Functionaries can threaten and foam at the mouth, but we are their collective boss. If they won’t do what we want them to do, we have the power to boot them out.

A multi-billion dollar industry has sprung up around high stakes standardized testing. Lobbying dollars flow from their profit margins into the pockets of our politicians. But we are more powerful.

Because you can’t serve your corporate masters if you are voted out of office.