PA: Want to Get Rid of Keystone Exams? Then Let Us Evaluate Teachers More Unfairly

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It’s the classic Harrisburg switch.

 

Want something good passed by the legislature? Then let us pass something terrible – something you would never even consider unless something you cared about was on the table.

 

That appears to be the game being played by the Pennsylvania Senate Education Committee today as they consider SB 756.

 

On the one hand, the proposed bill would eliminate the state’s terrible Keystone Exams. On the other, it would force a new teacher evaluation system that is tremendously unfair.

 

Which one is more important?

 

The answer: both.

 

If lawmakers had any moral courage – and most don’t because they’re lawmakers after all – they would consider each of these measures one at a time on their own merits.

 

But if they did that, conservatives wouldn’t vote to help students by getting rid of unfair tests, and progressives wouldn’t vote to help corporations by installing unfair teacher evaluations. So they’ve apparently decided to compromise behind closed doors by putting both together in a huge omnibus bill.

 

Who knows what other treasures lurk in its pages!? Well if you have a limitless amount of time and energy, go ahead and read it!

 

THE GOOD

 

The bill would put an end to our costly, cruel and dishonest Keystone Exams. Not only would we no longer threaten to require these tests in Literature, Algebra and Biology as graduation requirements, but we would stop giving them altogether.

 

In their place to meet federal accountability regulations, the state would substitute the Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT), Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT), armed forces exam, competency assessment or certificate for technical students, or Pennsylvania Alternative Assessment for students with special needs.

 

But perhaps the best part is that the bill makes explicit and generous provisions for parents to opt their children out of high school standardized tests altogether. In this case, students would NOT be required to take a substitute assessment.

 

Here is the exact language from the bill:

 

“A school entity’s governing board shall adopt a policy that provides that the parent or guardian of a student may request that the student be exempt from taking an assessment that is required for the purpose of Federal accountability as permitted under ESSA [Every Student Succeeds Act]. The policy shall provide that parents and guardians of students receive written notice of the option for a student to be exempt from taking the assessment and that the exemption shall be permitted upon the school entity’s receipt of a written request from the parent or guardian of the student. A substitute assessment or an alternative assessment, course or program may not be required of a student exempted under this section. Grounds for exemption in the school entity’s policy shall include, but not be limited to:
(1) Religious grounds.
(2) The basis of a strong moral or ethical conviction
similar to a religious belief.
(3) Philosophical grounds.
(4) Privacy concerns.
(5) Health concerns for the child, which may include stress and anxiety in preparation for the assessment.”

 

This is a huge improvement over our current opt out policy. At present, parents can opt out their children from the Keystone Exams but students must take an alternate assessment. This could include a project based assessment and not merely a standardized test. Also, it only allows these exemptions based on religious convictions. Parents needn’t explain these convictions in any detail, but this is the only option they are given with which to opt out.

 

The proposed legislation would go into effect during the 2018-19 school year, when the Keystone Exams would otherwise become a graduation requirement. Students would take the SAT or other assessment in 10th grade.

 

However, students in 3-8th grade would still be subjected to the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSA) tests. I assume parents could still opt out their children from these exams, but the wording is a bit murky there.

 

In addition, the law would require the state to establish a task force to reevaluate whether the Commonwealth should use the PSSA in the future and how to reduce the time it takes to give the assessment. If the task force concludes the PSSA is inappropriate, they must look for an alternative exam. They are required to issue a report in 6 months from passage of the bill.

 

This is particularly important since the PSSA has been rewritten to be closer to the Keystone Exam. It is Keystone Exam-lite. If the legislature is against the high school test, one would imagine they should be against a very similar test being given in elementary and middle school.

 

THE BAD

 

Despite all the good this proposed bill would do for our school children, it would drastically worsen the situation for our classroom teachers.

 

Half of a teacher’s current evaluation is based on classroom observations by district administrators. That just makes sense. The best way to tell if an educator is doing a good job is to observe what he/she is actually doing in the classroom.

 

This new system would reduce classroom observations to only 30% of a teacher’s annual score.

 

This would allow 10% to come from a “parental” score and 10% to come from “peer evaluation.” In a non-high stakes environment, input from both of these stakeholders is vital to a teacher’s success. But when you add that high stakes component, you pervert both relationships.

 

Having parents evaluate teachers puts them in kind of a touchy place. Teachers are required to push students to do their best. This requires them to often make calls home and ask for help from parents. If parents control a portion of a teacher’s evaluation, it incentivizes educators not to bother them with student misbehavior or failing grades. Instead teachers could be pressured to unfairly increase students grades or ignore misbehavior so as to better parental evaluations.

 

Moreover, peer observations can be extremely subjective when tied to teacher assessment. Administrators are discouraged from giving out distinguished evaluations to more than a handful of teachers. This incentivizes peers who are forced to compete for these few plum scores to unfairly suppress positive evaluations from their fellows.

 

But the worst is still to come.

The new evaluations require 50% of teachers’ evaluations to come from student growth and achievement measures. For math and English teachers, this largely means using standardized test scores to assess educators.

 

It’s a terrible practice that has been shown to be ineffective and downright damaging to student learning time and again. But it does help testing corporations by discouraging opt outs. Just imagine. If you have students who you think will score well on the tests but who may opt out, you are incentivized to discourage them from doing so. Otherwise, your teacher evaluation will drop.

 

This makes teachers the testing policemen. Learning doesn’t matter, only how well your students do on the tests. It dramatically tips the scale away from things the teacher has any control over. As such, it would cause serious harm to the quality of education students receive across the state.

 

CONCLUSION

We cannot support this bill in its present form. It should not go on to consideration by the full House and/or Senate. And if it somehow is passed by these Republican-controlled bodies, our Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf should not sign it.

 

This is unfortunate because there is much to like about it. However, you can’t save students from unfair assessments by forcing teachers to be evaluated by – drum roll please – unfair assessments.

 

This sets up an unsustainable and unfair relationship between students and teachers. It puts educators in the position of having to look out for their own interests and not those of their students. The interests of both should be interlinked, not separated. Teachers get into the profession to help kids learn – not to have to look out for an arbitrary score from their administrators that may require them to act against their students needs.

 

If legislators had any ethical fortitude, they would propose both of these measures in separate bills where they could be examined on merit. But I long ago gave up expecting such qualities from our politicians.

 

In my book, they almost all deserve a failing grade.

School Vouchers: Transubstantiate Your Cash For Fun and Profit

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When is a tax dollar not a tax dollar?

When it’s used to pay for a school voucher.

That’s the slight of hand behind much of our education policy today.

Lawmakers want to give away a huge bundle of your cash to religious schools, but they can’t because of that pesky old First Amendment.

The establishment clause sets up a distinct separation between church and state. It explicitly forbids public money being spent on any specific religion.

So these lawmakers do a bit of magic. They take that money, wave their hands over it, mumble a few secret words and Voilà! It’s no longer public; it’s private. And private money can be spent any way you want – even on religion.

Here’s how they do it.

You simply take public tax dollars and turn them into credits that can be used to pay for alternatives to public schools. Call it a “school voucher.”

 

But wait a minute. Isn’t that like a check? If Peter writes Paul a check, that money is no longer Peter’s. Now it’s Paul’s. Right?

Yes. But that’s not what’s happening here.

A school voucher isn’t a check. A check is an order to your bank to transfer funds to another account or to be exchanged for cash or goods or services. School vouchers do not come from your account. And they cannot be transferred into just any account or spent in any way.

They’re more like food stamps. It’s not money that can be used in any way you see fit. It’s money that can only be used to pay for a child’s education. And you can only use it at a private or parochial school.

You can’t go into a fancy restaurant and buy a filet mignon dinner with food stamps. Likewise, you can’t go to a real estate developer and buy a house using your school vouchers.

This money does not therefore change from public to private. Yes, individuals get a limited choice of how this money will be spent, but that’s true of all public money. Go to a local council meeting, a school board meeting, write your Congressperson, petition your state Senator – in all of these cases, you are exercising choice on how public tax dollars are being spent: Don’t spend tax dollars on that bridge. Don’t spend public money on that program.

Even in the case of food stamps, individuals decide how public dollars are spent for your private use – within specified limits.

If that was really private money, there would be no restrictions on how it could be spent – or certainly no more restrictions than on any other private money.

But lawmakers are pretending like this isn’t true. They’re pretending that simply changing the name of the money changes its substance. It’s a lie. It’s slight of hand. They’re trying to trick you into assuming a transformation has taken place that has not.

 

BAD DEAL

 

Moreover, it’s a metamorphosis we shouldn’t want in the first place.

Think about it.

We want our public money spent in an accountable fashion. We want there to be a record of how it was spent and what it was spent on. We want that information to be readily available, and if that money was misappropriated, we want to be able to act on that.

 

School vouchers remove much of that accountability. Private and parochial schools simply don’t provide the same transparency as traditional public schools. Often there is no elected school board, no public meetings, no open documents. Nada.

 

But if the parents who used the school voucher don’t like how the money is being spent, they can disenroll their child, right? So if they’re comfortable without this transparency, that’s all that matters, right?

 

Wrong. School vouchers are not paid for 100% by the parent. They are paid for with an aggregation of local tax dollars above and beyond what individual parents pay in school taxes.

 

In short, this is not just your money even if it’s spent on your kid. You shouldn’t be the only one who gets a say in how this money is spent. The community provided this money. The community should decide how it’s spent. At very least, the community should get a say.

 

If the community doesn’t want children to be raised with a distinctly Biblical view of history and science, the community shouldn’t have to contribute to that. If individual parents want to spend their own money on that, fine. That’s your prerogative. But school vouchers are made up of public tax dollars, yet we’re removing the majority of the public from having a voice in how that money is spent.

 

Moreover, traditional public schools are required not to discriminate against students. They can’t select against students based on learning disabilities, ethnicity, skin color, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc. And that’s a really good thing. Everyone’s money is used to pay for these schools. These schools should serve everyone.

 

But private and parochial schools (and charter schools, too, by the way) aren’t held to this same standard. It’s telling, for example, that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has refused to commit to holding private and parochial schools that accept school vouchers accountable if they discriminate against children. She seems to be implying that the U.S. government will stand aside and let public tax dollars be spent to support schools that discriminate. And the reason they think they can get away with this is the cynical monetary alchemy outlined above: school vouchers are private money and can be spent any way parents want. It isn’t and they can’t.

 

This is government sanctioned money laundering, pure and simple.

 

Lawmakers have been bought off with huge donations from the privatization industry to enact legislation friendly toward private and parochial schools.

 

NAME CHANGE

 

In some cases, they don’t even use the name “school vouchers.” They call it education tax credit scholarships, but it’s effectively the same thing.

 

Instead of distributing the vouchers directly to parents, they allow businesses and individuals to make tax deductible donations to nonprofits set up explicitly to distribute vouchers for private and parochial schools.

 

The reason? People don’t like school vouchers. But if you call it a “scholarship,” it’s more palatable. For instance, while school vouchers are mostly supported by Republicans, a substantial number of Democrats support education tax credit scholarships.

 

In 17 states you can get substantial tax credits for donating to one of these private and parochial school scholarships.

 

Louisiana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Virginia, for example, all provide tax credits worth between $65 and $95 on every $100 donated. Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Montana, and South Carolina go even further by reimbursing 100% of the donation. You read that right. Donate $100, get $100 back.

 

Oh, but it gets much worse. Since these are considered donations, you can also claim them as charitable deductions and get an additional 35% off your taxes. So you donate $100 and get back $135! Yes. You actually make money off this deal!

 

In my home state of Pennsylvania, investors can even “triple dip” receiving a state tax credit, a reduction in their state taxable income, and a reduction in their federal taxable income. And, yes, that means they sometimes get back more in tax breaks than they provide in contributions.

 

Meanwhile all of these “savings” come from money stolen from local public schools. Businesses and individual investors are profiting off of the deteriorating conditions at public schools.

 

Ever wonder why class sizes are ballooning, teachers are being furloughed and electives are falling by the wayside? It’s because people are making money off children’s suffering.

 

In my home state of Pennsylvania, we call this the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) and the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) programs.

 

The state Budget and Policy Center estimates that about 76% of these “scholarships” go to religious schools. That was approximately $95 million dollars in 2014-15 (the last year for which data was available).

 

Many of these educational institutions are explicitly fundamentalist. This includes the 155 schools in the Association of Christian Schools International (ASCI) where they boast of “the highest belief in biblical accuracy in scientific and historical matters.” It also includes 35 schools in the Keystone Christian Education Association.

 

How many more parochial schools are using tax dollars to teach fundamentalist curriculum? Without an audit, we’ll never know.

 

And that’s a really significant issue.

 

These scholarships are supposed to be eligible only to low income students. Yet a significant number of them are being utilized at private schools with average tuitions of $32,000 – far more than the few thousand dollars provided by the scholarships. They are apparently being used by wealthy and middle class students who can already afford private schools but are using public tax dollars to reduce the cost.

 

A total of $11.2 million in EITC and OSTC tax credits went to just 23 of the most exclusive and expensive private schools in 2014-15. That’s 9% of the total. Suburban Philadelphia’s Haverford School, alone, received $2.2 million, buying down its $37,500 tuition.

 

How many parents misused these scholarships in this way? What is the racial and ethnic makeup of recipients? Again, without an audit, we don’t know.

 

This is not how public money should be spent.

 

We need to put the breaks on these initiatives, not expand them into a federal incentive program as the Trump Administration proposes.

 

Whether you call them education tax credit scholarships or school vouchers, these programs do not transform public money into private.

 

They are a scam. They are theft. And their biggest victims are children.

Report: Charter School Vampires Drain Traditional PA Districts Dry

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If you ever needed proof that charter schools harm traditional public school districts, look no further.

A new report by Pennsylvania’s Legislative Budget and Finance Committee concludes that these privately run but publicly financed schools often drain traditional public districts of funding.

The report conducted at the behest of the state House and Senate found that charter schools have attached themselves in some way to almost every district in the Commonwealth, but not equally. Half of the state’s traditional public schools suffer from 80% of the state’s charter parasites.

Moreover, 40% of traditional districts with “significant” charter enrollment are struggling to make ends meet. The reason: unfair state mandates about how traditional districts must pay their charter school hangers-on.

The report is based on interviews with 36 superintendents. A total of 29 of these leaders said charter schools hurt their districts. Only four superintendents mentioned any positive impacts at all.

Much of the damage comes from Pennsylvania’s insistence on funding charter schools out of traditional public school budgets. Instead of charter school money coming directly from the state, much of it comes from the traditional district where it has set up shop.

In effect, it’s like a leach sucking away money that could be going to traditional public school students. We’re one of only 13 states that does this.

It leads to many problems.

Chief among them are the state’s special education laws. Local districts are required to pay their charters extra money for special education students. But this additional funding isn’t based on the number of special needs students actually present in the charter school. It’s based on an arbitrary 16%. Local districts pay charters as if these schools had 16% special education students whether they do or not. This incentivizes charters to enroll less than 16% and pocket the difference.

It’s a system so corrupt that only one other state – Massachusetts – uses it.

We’ve always known the system allows for fraud. We just couldn’t prove it was actually taking place – until now. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE), in the 2014-2015 school year alone, local districts gave roughly $294.8 million in special ed supplements to charter schools. However, actual charter expenditures on special ed were only $193.1 million.

That’s $101.7 million in profit for charter operators! Ca-ching!

It’s also more than $100 million set aside to educate children that’s not being used for that purpose!

But that’s not the only way charter schools are sucking out local districts’ finances.
Times are tough. Money is hard to come by. If a district struggles to pay its charter schools, the state steps in and withholds the amount of money due to the charter schools from the state funding it would normally send the district – and sends that money directly to the charters instead.

In effect, the state ensures charters are fully funded, while local districts are left to struggle.

And to make matters worse, when charters file a complaint, the state doesn’t even verify if it’s true. The state doesn’t check to see if the district actually did pay its charters or not. It just withholds whatever money charter operators say they’re owed.

Local districts can appeal overpayments to charters. Right now there are 317 general appeals pending for a total of nearly $30 million in disputed funding – half of which is from Philadelphia, alone!

Nor is this the only area where charters are given preferential treatment. When a charter school attaches itself to a traditional public school, that traditional district must pay to transport kids to the charter school – but it is not required to provide transportation to its own students.

Pennsylvania is one of only 11 states to require transportation to charter schools.

But that’s not the worst of it.

PA charter report

Now we come to cyber charter schools – the Count Draculas of the charter world.

The report estimates an additional $100 million in overpayments to cyber charters because of state law that overestimates their expenses. They are collecting much more money than they need to operate. They don’t have the same costs as brick-and-mortar institutions.

Cyber charter school students are given a computer and internet access. That’s about it. No costly building to run. Students usually do their lessons at home. Even when taking into account cyber charter staff, expenses are much lower than at other kinds of schools yet they are calculated without consideration of these differences.

Once again, state tax dollars that could be used to educate students become pure profit for charter operators. It is businessmen who win and students who lose.

The legislature used to acknowledge the burden charter schools put on local districts. The state budget used to include a line item reimbursing local districts for a percentage of their payments to charters. In 2010-11, that was $225 million. However, this money disappeared during the Gov. Tom Corbett administration when Republicans gained control of the legislature and prioritized tax cuts over charter school relief.

Though Corbett was defeated by Democrat Tom Wolf for the governorship, the legislature is still controlled by Republicans and the charter school reimbursement remains a distant memory.

But perhaps this new report signals a change in policy.

It contains several suggestions to fix Pennsylvania’s broken charter school laws. These include:

  • Permitting school districts to negotiate charter per pupil payment rates and methods.
  • Eliminating mandates for transportation that are inconsistent with services offered for district-operated schools.
  • Requiring the state to check with local districts when charter schools complain of underpayment.
  • Requiring greater transparency and fiscal accountability addressing problems like shell ownership, leasing, state payments, and conflict of interest policies.
  • Allowing audits of charter school funds.
  • Prohibiting the guaranteeing of loans where there is no direct school involvement.
  • Requiring charters to submit financial records for the district to review.
  • Requiring parents who place students in charters to first register with the local school district and then notify the district of changes in status.
  • Eliminating public school districts’ responsibility for charter school compliance with compulsory attendance requirements.

However, perhaps the biggest game changer is how charters set up shop in the first place.

Right now when charter operators want to open a school in a local district, the local school board gets to say yea or nay. However, school directors aren’t allowed to consider how this will financially impact the district. The report suggests this be changed; Districts should be allowed to approve or deny charters based on dollars and cents.

Currently local school directors are forced to approve charters that they know will hurt their students. This change would require charters to be equal partners with traditional districts or else be blocked. In effect, it would transform them from parasites to symbiotic organisms.

And as luck would have it, there are already two separate but similar bills that have been introduced that propose many of these changes.

One (Senate Bill 670) was introduced by Sen. Jim Brewster (D-McKeesport). The other (Senate Bill 198) was introduced by Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia). Brewster’s bill would “realign and redefine how local school districts, charter schools, students and taxpayers interact.” Hughes’ legislation would “provide local school boards with the tools to better oversee charter schools in their school districts.”

Charter school reform is something that members of both parties have expressed interest in. However, until recently Republican efforts at it have been light on reform and heavy on destructive means to further deregulate an already dangerously unregulated industry, thus worsening the problem.

Charter support has been strongly bipartisan. Champions of this new report claim that these suggested reforms aren’t anti-charter. They’re an effort to make both charters and traditional public schools work together instead of against each other.

Time will tell whether lawmakers are willing to do so.

Given the large donations received from the charter industry to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, true reform may be difficult.

But at least we now have a state-sanctioned report to point to when referencing the multitude of problems associated with the industry.

Charters have been officially recognized by the state as parasites.

Will lawmakers do something to stop that unending sucking sound?

Teacher Appreciation Week is a Pathetic Joke!

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It’s Teacher Appreciation Week, America!

All over the country, millions of educators can look forward to a free burrito. Or maybe an Arby’s sandwich. Or a complimentary donut.

Because we REALLY appreciate teachers here.

What a pathetic joke!

I don’t mean to seem ungrateful.

I’ll redeem my coupon at Chipotle. I’ll take that Roast Beef Classic. I’ll grab that Dunkin’ Cruller.

But let’s be honest. These cheesy buy-one-get-one coupons don’t demonstrate appreciation. They’re guilt.

They’re a manifestation of the feeling that we SHOULD appreciate teachers, but don’t. Not really.

Not for one week, not for one day!

Why else would we begrudge them a middle class income? Why else would we provide them with so few resources and so much responsibility? Why else would we bar them from making any meaningful decisions about how their students should be taught yet hold them accountable for everything their students do?

Appreciate teachers? We don’t LISTEN to them. We don’t RESPECT them. Many of us don’t even LIKE them.

The only time we value teachers is when a maniac enters a school with a gun. Then – when they protect our children with their very lives – then we praise them as heroes!

On that day and that day only. But every other day – not so much.

We won’t do anything to keep guns out of the hands of school shooters. At most we want to arm teachersGreat! Something else to be responsible for on top of education, counseling and children’s all around well-being. But otherwise, we won’t do anything to help teachers do their jobs. And we certainly won’t listen to their professional opinions on anything!

That would be living in a culture of life. But we live in a culture of death.

We do the barest minimum for children – especially poor and minority kids. Instead we invest in parasitic business interests that provide zero value for students and parents.

We’ve got nothing for teachers or proven educational practices but we throw public money at charter, private and parochial schools that only accept the cream of the crop and turn down everyone else – yet still rarely do better than inclusive public schools. We defund public schools until they can no longer operate – and then we close them as failures. We promote lightly trained Teach for America temps to the same status as authentic educators with a 4-5 year degree and decades of experience. And we do everything we can to bust their unions and take away collective bargaining rights.

Yet everywhere I look I see people congratulating themselves for donating to some teacher’s GoFundMe project. This may come as a shock to you, but we shouldn’t be resorting to charity to fund our public schools! That should be a given!

In almost every classroom in America, teachers reach into their own pockets to make up the difference when our federal, state and local governments come up short. When kids don’t have pencils, we provide them. When kids don’t have books, we buy them. When kids come to school hungry, we even feed them.

Yet you’re getting excited that anonymous folks on the Internet put a few virtual coins in the cup!

I’ve been a public school teacher for almost 15 years. Next year I can look forward to another increase in class size. And I’ll probably have to teach an additional grade level or two. No extra resources to help me do it. No extra salary. Just more of a drain on my time to get the job done. And if I somehow stumble and fall, it will be my fault.

It won’t be the federal government’s fault even though they keep providing less financial help and more standardized testing, Common Core, and so-called school choice policies that rob my district of necessary funding.

It won’t be the state’s fault as they refuse to heal years worth of budget cuts in order to lower taxes on the wealthy, a scheme that, by the way, did nothing to boost the economy – in fact, it actually stalled business development. Nor will it be the state’s fault as they continue to blame me for the high cost of pensions they forgot to pay years ago while both my district and I paid on time. Nor will it be the state’s fault as they try to strip me of sick days, preserve loopholes that benefit charter schools at my district’s expense and experiment with a new funding scheme that further drains my district’s coffers.

It won’t be my local school board or administration’s fault, either, as they make cuts to core educational resources so they can preserve the state champion football team and less vital faculty office and administrative staff who are only working there because of nepotism and/or politics.

It’ll be MY fault. Mine and mine alone. That’s how much we appreciate teachers.

And none of it is even close to changing. No one is even considering altering the tiniest fraction of it. Democrats, Republicans, Independents, men, women, black people, white people, gay people, straight people, the young, the old – no one is doing anything about it!

And why should we? We’ve already got a scapegoat. We’ve already got someone to blame.

Well, look in the mirror, America. Because you’re the one to blame – each and every star-spangled banner and amber wave of grain.

We’ve made it like this. All of us.

I don’t mean to be so negative, but all these Pollyanna platitudes about that one special teacher obscure a basic truth. As individuals, we sometimes appreciate teachers – often when we’re years beyond graduation, or sometimes only when we’re parents, ourselves, and see what they do for our children. But that’s personal. That’s individuals.

When we think about the nations teachers, when we think about the profession in general, we don’t appreciate them one bit.
Because if we did, we’d act much differently.

If we really appreciated teachers, we’d hire more of them. We wouldn’t demand they do more with less. When we were deciding school policy at any level – federal, state or local – we’d include them in the process – in fact, they’d be the deciding factor!

If we really appreciated teachers, we wouldn’t wait – as many folks do – until they call us to find out how our children are doing in school. We’d be proactive. And if our kids aren’t doing well, we wouldn’t blame the teacher. We’d hold our own kids responsible and look for solutions.

If we really appreciated teachers, we wouldn’t blame them for their summer breaks. We’d understand that they aren’t paid for this time yet they often take professional development courses on their own dime or work retail just to make ends meet.

If we really appreciated teachers, we’d respect them as professionals, and we’d pay them accordingly. We’d respect their rights to a positive working environment both for themselves and for our own children.

So seriously – you can stuff your ridiculous Teacher Appreciation Week.

A free cookie just isn’t going to do it.

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?

 democrats_neoliberalism

 

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?