Do We Still Have a Functioning Democracy?

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Do we still have a functioning democracy?

Really.

Do we?

Because when I look around at the mess we’ve got here today, I honestly don’t know.

I went to my polling place to vote, and it was nearly deserted.

The candidates’ signs were still there, stuck in the ground like some kind of seasonal weed in need of a gardener.

But there were no people.

Well there was one nice lady sitting on a bench who smiled and handed me a flier from the county Democratic committee.

When I got inside, the poll workers were as cheerful and friendly as ever. I’ve known these ladies since I was a little kid. They remember when I worked at the local newspaper and could probably recite some elements of my resume better than I can.

They made polite conversation asking about my parents and grandparents as they looked up my information and geared up the machine to take my ballot.

There was something almost frightening about the whole thing. It was both familiar and tainted – kind of like returning to the scene of some grisly murder.

Just a year ago, this was where we knowingly voted for Donald J. Trump to be President of the United States.

When I say “we” I don’t mean me.

I didn’t vote for that tiny-handed racist asshole. But I didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton, either.

And when the whole thing was done last year, I had terrible chest pains that sent me to my doctor and then the hospital with my first-ever heart attack.

That election literally sent me to the ICU.

And yet today here I was standing on my own two feet getting ready to do it all over again.

I stood there staring at the choices on the machine, looking at my helpful Democratic flier and even referring to an email on my phone from my union.

“Why is the union recommending a bunch of Republicans?” I thought.

“Their chosen candidates want to dismantle the very institution recommending I vote for them!”

And then I looked at the list of Democrats. I didn’t know any of them.

Some of their names were familiar from hastily aired campaign ads that told me a folksy story about their families or education or how they’d never called off a day in their lives – but nothing about their beliefs, their values, even their politics.

How am I supposed to choose between these people?

I thought about just voting for the Green candidates but there was a whole one to choose from in only one race.

So I ended up voting for the Democrats. At least I have some nominal idea where they stand.

And I have to admit when it was all over and I pressed “VOTE,” I felt really good.

The machine made that metallic buzz like it was tabulating my ballot, and I felt like I had really accomplished something.

Then I went out into the nearly deserted parking lot and got hit by a wave of depression.

“What the fuck just happened?” I asked myself.

And I answered, “You got played, son.”

“Again.”

Trump is still President. And he’ll be President tomorrow and probably tomorrow and tomorrow.

And even if he was magically ushered from the scene, there’s another nearly identical Republican ideologue waiting to take his place. And another to take his. And another…

Meanwhile, the Democrats are little more than a steaming crater in the ground. They hold fewer political offices than they have at any point in my lifetime. And it doesn’t appear like that will change anytime soon.

We just had a grassroots, people-powered revolution demanding American politics move back to the left. We had a popular progressive candidate overflowing huge stadiums, an influx of young people committed to fighting against intersectional issues like racism, sexism and class warfare. And it was crushed by the Democratic nominee who coopted the process and the party with big money.

Maybe we were all just incredibly naive. I mean how can you get money out of politics when the system is already corrupted by money?

Laws aren’t made by consensus anymore. They’re made because lawmakers get paid.

And lawmakers aren’t elected because people vote for them. They’re elected because they have big money behind them – because these are the people the donors want to offer the rest of us as a choice. And no one else. Republicans and Democrats picked by the same oligarchs to make it look like us, plebeians, have a choice.

Occasionally an outlier sneaks in, but that’s rare, and the plutocrats – the real owners of this country – spend hundreds of millions of dollars to stop them.

So what do we do? Strengthen a weak and disorganized third party? Even under the best of circumstances, that would take decades. In the meantime, the environment would be destroyed, millions would have died in unnecessary wars and what little majority rule we have would have inevitably been repealed long ago.

I wish I had some more optimistic note on which to end. But I don’t.

All I have is this question: Do we still have a functioning Democracy?

And I put it out there in the real hope that readers will consider it deeply.

No kneejerk reactions. No received wisdom from this pundit or that anchor or that party hack.

It’s a question we all have to answer – and soon.

Because if the answer is “no,” what the heck can we even do about it?

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PA High Court Says, “Yes, Schools CAN Sue State Over Unfair Funding, After All!”

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It’s back on!

Two years ago a group of plucky Pennsylvania public schools took the state legislature to court because the body wasn’t allocating funding to all districts fairly – some got too much, many got too little.

A lower court threw the challenge out saying it wasn’t the court’s job to tell the legislature how to legislate. But now the state Supreme Court has overturned that lower court decision.

In effect, justices are sayingHell, yes, that is the court’s job! That’s why it’s called a system of checks and balances, Baby!

Or something like that.

Before going any further, there are a few pertinent facts you have to understand about the Commonwealth.

1) No other state in the country has a bigger gap between what it spends on rich vs. poor students than Pennsylvania, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

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2) The Pennsylvania legislature has been paying less and less of public schools’ budgets over the last four decades. The state used to contribute 54% of all public school costs in the early 1970s. Today it pays only 35% of the costs, leaving local taxpayers to take up the slack. Since districts are not equally wealthy, that increases the disparity of resources between rich and poor districts.

 

3) The state has only had a funding formula specifically legislating how to allocate money to its more than 500 districts for two years. Two years! For more than 15 years previous, the legislature just handed out money willy nilly based on political backroom deals that favored already rich districts and hurt the most impoverished ones.

4) The new funding formula still is not fair. Though it does take into account the poverty of a district, it doesn’t account for the years of systematic disinvestment the district suffered through previously. That’s like giving new sneakers to a racer who hasn’t been able to get out of the starting gate while others are already halfway to the finish line.

5) The legislature STILL hasn’t healed almost $1 billion in education cuts made under previous Republican Gov. Tom Corbett. Instead, under current Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, it has reluctantly increased funding a bit at a time but failed to bring spending up to what it was four years ago. And even once the cuts are healed, spending will be behind inflationary and cost of business increases. Meanwhile the Republican controlled legislature plays games approving the state budget separately from allocating money to the programs – including schools – that it already approved!

 

6) Pennsylvania is one of seven states with a Constitution that specifically requires the state provide a “thorough and efficient” system of education. Some of these other states – like New Jersey – have used similar Constitutional requirements to force their legislatures to increase state funding to public schools.

So there you are.

Pennsylvania’s legislature is an absolute mess.

Hopelessly gerrymandered, controlled by the radical right, and opposed by a Democratic party nearly as beholden to big donors as their GOP counterparts and desperate for any area of bipartisanship so as to be able to claim they got anything done other than stop Republicans from burning the whole place to the ground.

That’s why today’s 5-2 Supreme Court ruling is a breath of fresh air.

It’s like someone finally called Mom and Dad to tell our bratty lawmakers to get back to work.

The case will now go back to Commonwealth Court.

Supreme Court Justice David Wecht wrote that the courts do have a responsibility to check the power of the legislature – both in regard to the requirements of the state Constitution and that poorer districts are being discriminated against.

“It remains for (the) petitioners to substantiate and elucidate the classification at issue and to establish the nature of the right to education, if any, to determine what standard of review the lower court must employ to evaluate their challenge,” Wecht wrote. “But (the) petitioners are entitled to do so.”

This may be a Herculean task for those suing the state. And it seems unlikely that Commonwealth Court will hear their arguments favorably.

Justices rarely have the courage to challenge other branches, and the history of Pennsylvania’s courts shows multiple times when the courts have simply refused to assert such power.

This is what happened back in the 1990s when the Philadelphia School District sued the state over the same issue – unfair funding.

Time and again, poor districts have asked for help from the courts when the legislature refused to do its job. And time and again the courts have refused.

But at least this ruling gets things moving again. It’s like a dose of Kaopectate for a constipated political system.

Another possible bit of good news comes from Common Core and high stakes standardized testing. Yes, that crap!

When Philadelphia sued the state, the courts refused to rule in the schools favor because it had no way of proving the state was hurting the quality of education students were receiving there through lack of funding. But that was before Pennsylvania adopted its new Common Core look-a-like standards, PA Core, and initiated aligned tests including the souped up Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSA) and Keystone Exams.

Ironically, the same “accountability” measures used to “demonstrate” poor schools are failing could be used to prove the common sense notion that unfairly funding schools leads to poor academic results.

In any case, far right demagogues like House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, are already whining that the Supreme Court is legislating from the bench. However, as a defendant in the case, and one of the most partisan hacks in Harrisburg, that’s exactly what the Koch Brothers probably told him to say.

Unfortunately, Gov. Wolf seems to kinda agree with him. Though he has yet to make a statement about today’s ruling, he was against the suit when it was originally brought up in 2015. Though he supports increasing education funding and has consistently pushed for it with every budget proposal, he is leery of the courts butting in.

Sadly, his strategy of incremental education budget increases has been failing. Or, to be fair, it’s succeeding at such a slow rate that it would take decades for it to catch up.

The fact of the matter is that it is patently unfair for rich districts to spend $10,000 to $20,000 on each student, while poorer districts can barely pull together $5,000-$6,000.

In addition, impoverished students have greater needs than rich ones. They often don’t have books in the home or access to Pre-kindergarten. Poor students often suffer from food insecurity, malnutrition, a lack of neonatal care, worse attendance, are less well rested and have greater special needs and suffer greater traumas than wealthier students. Moreover, it is no accident that the group being privileged here is made up mostly of white students and those being underprivileged are mostly students of color.

The time is here when Pennsylvanians have to decide where they stand. Are they for a state that offers all children an equal start or do they prefer one where poor brown kids suffer so rich white ones can get ahead?

Today, the matter is in the court’s hands.

Congress Frees Public Schools From Federal Test & Punish – Where’s the Catch?

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Let’s say you were kidnapped and kept in a small basement room where you were routinely beaten and starved.

Then after years of this treatment, your captors brought in a massage table and offered you a filet mignon after your spa treatment.

You’d be more than a little bit confused.

That’s the position of parents, students and teachers today.

After almost two decades of punishing public schools and their students for low test scores, Congress suddenly decides to step back and leave it to the states!?

Until now the federal government had mandated increasing high stakes standardized tests and forcing schools that don’t meet a certain threshold to be stripped of their school boards, turned into charters or simply closed. Until now, the federal government coerced states to enact every fly-by-night corporate education reform from Common Core to Teach for America to evaluating teachers based on student test scores.

But now the feds are just walking away!?

First, in 2015 lawmakers passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a reauthorization of federal K-12 education policy that (depending on how you interpret it) limited federal power over public schools. However, the Obama administration offered guidelines that put much of that federal power back in place.

Now both the House and Senate have voted to repeal those Obama administration guidelines in favor of… well… some other interpretation.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee and one of the architects of the ESSA, says states can just follow what’s written in the law. But this is a 1,061 page document full of legalese, meandering bipartisan compromises and – frankly – contradictory language. Even the most simple legislation needs interpretation, and in this case it needs extensive interpretation.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is expected to offer her take on what all this means by Monday. So buckle up for that one. I’m sure the nation’s Grizzlies are so upset they can barely finish their picnic baskets.

As for the rest of us, it’s hard to know what this all will mean.

Alexander offered a detailed explanation that anyone interested in this issue should read.

I’m no fan of the Senator’s. I think he’s a blatant opportunist, an unapologetic partisan and out to protect only one person – numero uno.

But he makes some excellent points about federal overreach in the Department of Education under the previous two administrations.

Moreover, unlike DeVos, the supremely unqualified Education Secretary he helped ram through Congress over bipartisan objections, he knows something about schools. He was Secretary of Education, himself, from 1991-93 under President George H. W. Bush.

First, the ESSA still mandates annual testing. Even without the Obama guidelines, students will still be tested in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

Second, Alexander says the law still requires each state to hold its public schools accountable. Each state must submit a plan detailing how it intends to do that by September of 2017. There is plenty of latitude on exactly how states will do this, but whatever they decide, this new accountability system must be implemented by next school year (2017-2018).

Moreover, he says, states have to identify and provide support to at least the lowest performing 5% of their schools. This must be done by the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year.

They also must use academic and English language proficiency indicators in their accountability systems. Which indicators? Standardized testing? Maybe – maybe not.

Many accountability provisions, such as the requirement that educators measure reading scores, math scores, and graduation rates, are specifically mentioned in the ESSA.

Still, many questions remain.

For instance: if the Department of Education isn’t allowed to tell states what to do, how is it supposed to help them comply with the law?

Alexander cites “Non-regulatory guidance; Dear Colleague letters; Frequently-Asked-Questions documents; Webinars, phone calls, and in-person conferences.”

Alexander stresses that repealing the Obama regulations does not open to door for the Department of Education to mandate a nationwide school voucher plan – unfortunately.

He writes, “A school choice program cannot be unilaterally created by the Department of Education. Only Congress could create a voucher program, and, unfortunately, Congress has rejected doing that.”

However, the Trump administration and DeVos have already made their intentions known about school vouchers. They intend to use Title I dollars – money usually earmarked for the most impoverished students – as federal bribes to enact vouchers. It’s basically the same thing Obama did with Race to the Top – promising federal money to states if their schools do what the feds want them to do.

For all his talk about states rights, Alexander appears to have no problems with this same kind of Obama-style coercion.

But he does appear to be correct about the transfer of power.

Apparently, the states really will regain control over their public schools.

This could be a very positive thing. And it’s not the only one.

In addition to repealing Obama’s accountability regulations, Congress scrapped Obama’s teacher preparation rules.

This change was less controversial. Eight Democrats joined Republicans in voting to repeal the teacher preparation regulations. By comparison, no Democrats voted to dismantle the accountability rules and one Republican joined them in opposition.

The teacher preparation rules were released in October after years of delay.

The main point of contention was the requirement that states develop a rating system aimed at evaluating the success of their teacher preparation programs. This would have included how programs’ teachers perform based on a measure of student academic achievement. Though the final version gained some flexibility with how to determine student academic success beyond just test scores, it remained a hot mess.

Any programs that didn’t perform well on the state’s rating system would have lost access to federal grants aimed at supporting teachers who work in high-need certification areas and in low-income schools (or TEACH grants). In effect, it would have pushed for a new generation of teachers dedicated to test prep and Common Core.

And these repeals of Obama regulations – these seeming improvements just waiting for Donald Trump’s signature – are brought to us by the same people who support removing protections for trans students. These are the same legislators who gave us an unexperienced mega-donor as Education Secretary.

Frankly, I’m having trouble believing it.

I hope I’m wrong, but I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Perhaps the standardized testing industry has consolidated so much support at the various Republican controlled state legislatures that it no longer needs support in Washington. Perhaps our ridiculously gerrymandered state legislative districts will make any resistance even more difficult. Perhaps a completely toothless Department of Education will embolden the most racist state legislators to dramatically increase segregation and civil rights abuses for the poor and minorities.

Or perhaps Republicans actually got one right?

PA Senate Regulates Union Political Spending But Not Corporate Political Spending

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In a display of blatant hypocrisy, the Pennsylvania state Senate voted yesterday to further regulate labor unions political spending but not that of corporations.

 

By a vote of 28-22, the Senate passed a bill blocking government agencies from deducting union dues used for political activity from employees’ paychecks.

 

Even though six Republicans joined all Democrats in opposing SB 166, it now goes to the state House for consideration.

 

Typically only about 10 percent of union dues are used in politics. These are voluntary contributions employees ask to be deducted from their pay for lobbying in their own interests. Like contributions to the United Way or other charities, it’s an issue of convenience for employees but poses no significant burden on employers.

 

However, businesses such as insurance companies, big banks and financial companies also are involved in politics. Shouldn’t their spending be subject to similar controls?

 

Apparently not, according to Senate Republicans.

 

Leading Democrat Sen. Jay Costa (D-Forest Hills) proposed an amendment to the bill that would have put similar regulations on corporations in the state. It was defeated by a party line vote of 16-34.

 

Costa’s amendment would have required corporations that are organized in the Commonwealth to get shareholders consent before spending any more than $10,000 a year on politics.

 

It was a common sense measure meant to ensure that CEOs and board of directors are acting in the interests of their shareholders. However, Senate Republicans turned it down while ramping up restrictions on working people.

 

State Republicans have made it clear that the problem is not political spending. It is political spending by labor unions. It is political spending that more typically goes to the opposition party.

 

They don’t care how corporations participate in the political process. They only care about unions, which historically vote against Republicans.

 

It is impossible to conceive that political considerations played no part in their decision. After all, corporations are much more likely to donate to members of the GOP than they are to Democrats. Republicans can talk about liberty all they want, but voters know this is all about protecting contributions to the GOP while weakening such revenue streams to Democrats. Otherwise, why not level equal regulations for both parties?

 

Getting money out of politics is a noble goal. But that’s not what this is. It is about getting the opposition party’s money out while keeping bags of gold doubloons for you and yours.

 

The measure could just as easily sail through the House, which also has a hefty Republican majority. Pennsylvania is one of the most extreme examples of gerrymandering in the country, with many more Democratic votes being cast yet having a GOP majority in the legislature. However, it is doubtful Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf would sign this bill even if Republicans ram it through. So it’s prospects of being enacted are dim.

 

The measure would force unions to collect any dues or contributions on their own to fund get-out-the-vote efforts, lobbying or voter registration drives. Fortunately, it would still permit union deductions for non-political activities such as collective bargaining and grievances.

 

The bill is sponsored by Sen. John Eichelberger, (R-Duncansville) one of the most virulent anti-education lawmakers in the state. Eichelberger hasn’t seen a measure that harms school children, teachers or unions that he hasn’t written, himself, or at least supported. He is the architect behind Senate Bill 229, a measure that would strip teachers of sick days, bereavement leave and sabbaticals. The bill would make teachers bargain with their individual districts for any kind of leave.

 

Eichelberger is infamous for getting into verbal and digital confrontations with teachers at Altoona Area High School.

 

In one particular battle, a teacher allegedly yelled at the fiscally conservative state Senator for jogging during working hours, between 9 am and 5 pm. He also berated Eichleberger – a vocal critic of teachers’ pay scale – for the lawmaker’s own large salary.

 

A salary database on Open Pagov.org states the Altoona teacher makes just over $43,000. Eichelberger’s salary is $85,339, according to a state website.

 

For his part, Eichelberger wrote a letter to the district superintendent complaining that teachers were sending him derogatory emails during school hours.

 

The state Senator has turned this spat into public policy positions. Both he and Senate Republicans got a pat on the back from their corporate masters at the far right Commonwealth Foundation for the passage of the union regulation bill.

 

Once again, Republicans have targeted teachers, nurses and public safety workers, while championing corporations. No wonder union members rarely vote for the GOP.

Betsy DeVos and the Cowardice of Republicans

Betsy DeVos testifies before the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee confirmation hearing

“If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you, too?”

If you’re a Senate Republican, the answer is apparently “YES!”

Otherwise, why would all but two such lawmakers vote to confirm Betsy DeVos, the most unqualified candidate for Education Secretary in U.S. history?

During a hearing of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), DeVos showed herself to be hopelessly out of her depth.

She wouldn’t commit to protecting students with special needs.

She wouldn’t commit to keeping guns out of school campuses (because of rampaging Grizzlies).

She wouldn’t commit to holding charter and voucher schools to the same standards as traditional public schools.

She didn’t know the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was a federal law.

And she couldn’t explain the difference between proficiency and growth, two extremely common education terms.

Yet only Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Susan Collins (Maine) joined all Democrats to vote against her. It took Vice President Mike Pence to cast the deciding vote and break the 50-50 tie – the first time that has happened for a Cabinet position.

This is a classic example of money speaking louder than people.

DeVos is a Republican mega-donor. She’s given $200 million to GOP candidates over the years – including many of the Senators who voted to confirm her.

Constituents flooded Senator’s phone lines in the past week, demanding they vote against DeVos. The progressive network CREDO Action received over 1.4 million signatures on a petition opposing DeVos ― the most a petition from the organization has ever received.

In a satirical move, Katherine Fritz, a Philadelphia teacher started a GoFundMe page to “buy back” Sen. Pat Toomey’s (R-PA) support of DeVos. Though the stunt generated more than $71,000, Toomey still voted for the woman who gave him $60,500 in campaign funds.

Sen. John McCain (Arizona), known as a maverick, also voted along with the crowd. He has the courage to speak up against Donald Trump’s advocacy of torture – having endured it, himself, as a POW during WWII – but when it comes to our nation’s children, he chose to hide behind his party.

At least the Democrats showed a little bit of life, having held the Senate floor for 24 hours straight before the vote. Ostensibly this was to pressure another Republican to join their side, but they had to know it was merely a stunt. If Republicans refused to listen to their own constituents for this long, another 24 hours probably wouldn’t have mattered that much.

To be fair, Democrats deserve a lot of the blame for what happened – for everything that happens under President Steve Bannon – I mean Trump. It was their hubris, political weakness and willingness to go further and further right that gave us this disaster. Not only couldn’t they defeat the least popular Presidential candidate in history this November, they paved the way for much of the corporate education reform we can expect from the DeVos administration.

Both of President Barack Obama’s Education Secretaries were clearly more knowledgeable and qualified than DeVos. But they all think public schools should be run like businesses. They all think the way to improve public schools is to make them less public – more charter schools, more Common Core, more standardized testing. They’ve all given up on committing to quality schools and instead push choice – as if choice and quality were somehow the same. They aren’t.

When Democrats don’t show a strong contrast to Republicans, Republicans win. After all, why would someone vote for a Conservative-wannabe when they can just as easily have the real thing?

However, there is a ray of hope.

This fight has shown that a considerable grassroots network exists to both fight Trump and to champion public education.

What the Trump administration is doing is not at the behest of the people of the United States. He is a rogue leader who only gained power because of antiquated election laws, gerrymandering and the appalling weakness of corporate Democrats.

Already the grassroots has pushed the Democrats to wake up and actually fight for things again. Admittedly, it’s been too little too late. It remains to be seen whether the party has enough life in it to pose a real resistance to the Trump status quo.

But if it can’t, the people will not be contained. We will start our own third party from the ground up.

The pushback against DeVos shows that the resistance is out there. It shows our strength.

We just need to turn that into real victories. We have two years until the midterm elections and four years until we send Trump packing (assuming he doesn’t implode first).

If I were one of the Senate Republicans who voted for DeVos, I would not feel at all safe about my chances for re-election.

Why Are So Many Democrats Behind Backdoor School Voucher Expansion in Pennsylvania?

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Democrats are supposed to be liberals, progressives.

 

That means upholding the Constitution and the Separation of Church and State.

 

So why are so many Pennsylvania Democrats sponsoring an expansion of the state’s de facto school voucher bill?

 

A total of 11 out of 84 sponsors of HB 250 are Democrats. The bill would expand the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) programs.

 

The Commonwealth already diverts $200 million of business taxes to private and parochial schools. That’s money that should be going to support our struggling public school system.

 

The new bill would add $50 million to each program for a total of $100 million more flushed down the drain.

 

Pennsylvania has a budget deficit. We’ve cut almost $1 billion a year from public schools. We can’t afford to burn an additional $300 million on private and church schools.

 

 

We expect Republicans to support this regressive nonsense. Especially in gerrymandered Pennsylvania, they’ve gone further and further right to please their Tea Party base and avoid being primaried.

 

But the few Democrats left in the House and Senate are likewise in districts that would never vote Republican. You’d expect them to get more and more progressive. Instead, even here we see them taking steps to the right!

 

Democratic sponsors of the bill are almost exclusively from the state’s urban centers – Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

 

They are:

 

Vanessa Lowery Brown (Philadelphia County)

Donna Bullock (Philadelphia County)

Dom Costa (Allegheny County)

Daniel J. Deasy (Allegheny County)

Michael J. Driscoll (Philadelphia County)

Jordan A. Harris (Philadelphia County)

William F. Keller (Philadelphia County)

William C. Kortz II (Allegheny County)

Joanna E. McClinton (Delaware & Philadelphia County)

Harry Readshaw (Allegheny County)

Mark Rozzi (Berks County)

 

These corporate tax giveaways are based on the premise that our public schools are failures and that students must be rescued from them. The Commonwealth has developed a list of approximately 400 “failing schools” and created a voucher-like system allowing students living near them to take public taxpayer money to go to private and religious schools. Students can also go to another public school in a different district, if they will accept them. However, few public schools take part in the program because school boards know it’s just another attempt to weaken their districts.

 

How does the state define a “failing school”?

 

Partially it’s based on standardized test scores. Districts with the bottom 15% of reading and math scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSA) and Keystone tests are supposed to earn this label. However, the state has been notorious for including districts that actually are making academic progress.

 

Since low test scores are highly correlated with poverty, that’s the real indicator. If you live in a poor enough district, you’re probably eligible.

 

What about charter schools?

 

It’s funny you asked. Though they often have subpar test scores, they rarely are included on the state’s list of “failing schools.” They even exclude most of the state’s execrable cyber charter schools. The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University found that students in every single Pennsylvania cyber charter school performed “significantly worse” in reading and math than their peers in conventional public schools. But somehow that’s generally not failing enough to earn you a voucher-like tax credit.

 

How can we tell that students at private and parochial schools are doing better than those in public schools?

 

We can’t.

 

The scholarship organizations have no auditing requirements and almost no reporting requirements. Moreover, private and parochial schools don’t have to take the federally-mandated standardized tests! So there’s no way to do an apples-to-apples comparison!

 

But here’s the best part. The EITC law prohibits state administrators from requesting any information related to academic achievement. You’re not even allowed to ask!

 

However, the law goes out of its way to remove regulations on how these tax dollars are spent. For instance, schools taking these tax credits can spend as much as 20% of the money to cover pure administrative costs.

 

Yet the public schools are still responsible for many of the costs of students living in their attendance areas but who use these de facto vouchers. For instance, there’s no limit to how far away an EITC student can go with their publicly-subsidized scholarship. But the student’s home district is legally obligated to provide transportation for up to ten miles.

 

Vouchers have been repeatedly defeated on every referendum held on the subject in the entire country. One of the reasons people have been up in arms against Donald Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos as U.S. Education Secretary has been her support of vouchers.

 

What do voters have to do to tell legislators that they don’t want school vouchers – no matter what you call them? What do voters have to do to show that they support our public school system – a system that despite being underfunded and weighed down with corporate education reforms remains one of the best in the world?

 

And when will Pennsylvania’s Democrats start acting like Democrats on the subject?

PA Legislature Plans Taking Away Teachers’ Sick Days

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Dear Pennsylvania legislators:

So now you want to take away teachers’ sick days.

Sabbatical, sick days, bereavement leaves – the Senate Education Committee voted 7-5 to strip them from the law and make teachers bargain for them with their districts.

So the next time I get sick, you don’t want to guarantee I can take the day off. If my mother dies, you don’t want to protect my right to attend her funeral.

The full legislature still has to vote on it, but that’s pretty cold.

Which brings me to my first question: Why do you hate public school teachers so much?

Seriously. What did teachers ever do to you? Did we give you a bad grade when you were kids? Did we give you detention? What did we ever do to earn such animosity?

You obviously must have something personal against teachers.

It’s understandable. Even though the majority of Pennsylvanians voted for Democrats, most of you are Republicans. You have gerrymandered the state so that you artificially have the majority, and as such you must espouse the most radical positions possible. Otherwise, you’ll be primaried by someone even farther right – a Tea Partier, a plutocrat, an anarcho-capitalist, a fascist.

We see the same thing playing out nationally. Hello, Donald Trump!

So it’s no surprise that after stripping public schools of almost $1 billion every year for the past five years, after tens of thousands of teachers have been laid off, after you’ve given away millions of dollars to private corporations to run fly-by-night charter schools or through tax credits to religious schools – well, it’s no surprise that you feel the need to continue the war on teachers.

It’s paying off for you big time.

Not so much for our school children. They have had to deal with increases in class size, narrowing of the curriculum, reductions in extra-curriculars, cuts in tutoring – just about every deprivation imaginable.

I wonder – do you realize that every attack against teachers is also an attack against students? Making sick teachers come to school won’t improve kids’ educations. Forcing educators to choose between work or seeing their loved ones off to their final resting places won’t boost test scores. Do you understand that or do you just not care?

Follow-up, if I may: do you realize that most public school teachers are women? Does that factor in at all? Which do you hate more, the gender of most teachers or the fact that we are unionized?

Oh, and Pennsylvania School Boards Association, don’t think we’ve forgotten you. We know you requested this mess, Senate Bill 229. Instead of standing with your teachers to fight for fair, equitable, sustainable funding, you’ve decided to ask the legislature if you can stiff teachers to make ends meet. We’re there for your kids everyday, and this is how you thank us. That’s gratitude.

It’s what we get for being one of the last workforces to be unionized. We have the temerity to demand fair treatment. You can’t just do whatever you like with us, you have to actually sit down with us at the bargaining table and talk.

Legislators, we know it’s something that infuriates your base. No, I don’t mean the people who vote for you. I mean your real base – the corporations, millionaires and billionaires who pay your real salaries – the unlimited and shadowy campaign contributions that, let’s be honest, are really nothing less than legal bribes.

We shouldn’t be surprised that you have prioritized taking away legal protections for teachers’ sick days. It is quite in line with what you want to do to the profession. You no longer want highly qualified teachers making a middle class income who then can stay in our schools for their entire careers. You want lightly trained temps who use teaching as a stepping stone to a job that pays enough to live.

After all, if we afford teachers the status of professionals, they might actually be able to jump all the other hurdles we’ve put in front of them and educate the poor.

That would be terrible.

Despite all the standardized testing, Common Core, value-added measures, budget cuts, and constant propaganda about “failing schools,” they might actually teach these kids to think. That’s the last thing you want.

A thinking public might see how much you’re screwing them over. They might actually rise up and fight. They might refuse to accept the status quo that you are so desperately trying to protect.

That’s your real endgame. And though it makes me sick, I suppose I will no longer be able to take off.

I’ll just spend the day, coughing and wheezing with the children.

Yours,

Steven Singer

The Gadfly on the Wall