Pennsylvania Proposes Smaller Tests, Same High Stakes

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It’s not the size of the tests, it’s how you use them.

 

And that’s kind of the problem with Gov. Tom Wolf’s new proposal for Pennsylvania public schools.

 

Wolf wants to reduce the amount of time students are taking standardized tests, but he seems to have little problem using those tests to hold schools accountable for all kinds of things that are beyond their control.

 

The proposal released today applies only to the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests – those taken by students in grades 3-8. Keystone Exams taken by high school students are unaffected.

 

It would cut one of three reading sections and one of three math sections – two total. Wolf also wants to cut some questions from one of the science sections.

 

Such a move is estimated to eliminate 48 minutes from the math test, 45 minutes from the reading test and 22 minutes from the science test. However, judging from my own students, these times vary considerably depending on the individual taking the tests. I’ve had 8th grade students finish a PSSA section in as little as 5 minutes or as much as two hours.

 

Most schools give either a section a day or two in one day. Therefore, this proposal probably translates to 1 to 2 fewer days testing in most districts.

 

Um. Thanks?

 

Look I don’t want to seem ungrateful here, but these suggested modifications are little more than fiddling around the edges of a massive problem.

 

Yes, it will be helpful to reduce testing times, but this does very little to address the fundamental problems with test-based accountability in the Commonwealth.

 

At best, this proposal will allow students to spend two more days a year learning. Assuming most districts don’t use that extra time for test prep, that IS a good thing.

 

But tacitly committing students throughout the state to taking these tests almost guarantees that test prep is exactly how these additional days will be used.

 

The problem with standardized testing isn’t just the number of raw days it takes students to complete the tests. It is how the tests deform the entire year-long curriculum. Students don’t just learn anymore. They learn what’s on the test – and anything else is purely optional.

 

Regardless of the size of the assessments, they are still being used to sort and judge students, teachers and schools. Shortening their length does nothing to address the fundamental unfairness of the evaluations. Rich white kids still tend to have high scores and poor minority kids still tend to have low ones.

 

At best, they reveal structural funding disparities between poor and wealthy districts. At worst, the cultural bias inherent in the questions favor those from dominant, privileged ethnicities while punishing those who don’t fit the standard.

 

That’s what “standardized test” means after all – defining normal and punishing those who don’t fit the definition. Most questions don’t assess universals like the value of 2 and 2. They evaluate cultural and social norms required to understand the questions and easily find an answer that another “normal” student would choose. (Don’t believe me? Watch “Black Jeopardy” on Saturday Night Live.)

 

This is true whether the test takes one day or 100 days.

 

We should not be using standardized testing to meet federal accountability standards. Period.

 

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) contains provisions to circumvent them. States are supposed to be given leeway about testing. They may even be able to replace them with projects or other non-standardized assessments. THAT’S what Wolf and the Pennsylvania Department of Education should be exploring – not half measures.

 

To be fair, the state Department of Education is attempting reform based on the ESSA. This year, the department introduced Future Ready PA, a new way of using test scores and other measures to assess school success. To its credit, The Index does place additional emphasis on academic growth, evaluation of school climate, attendance, graduation rates, etc. However, for my money it still gives far too much importance to standardized testing and test prep.

 

Like reducing the size of the PSSAs, it’s a positive step but won’t do much to get us to our destination.

 

Neither measure will have much impact on the day-to-day operations of our public schools. Districts will still be pressured to emphasize test prep, test taking strategies, approaches to answering multiple choice questions, etc. Meanwhile, critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity will still be pushed to the side.

 

Moreover, since schools and teachers will be assessed as successful or not based largely on these test scores, districts will be under tremendous pressure to give countless practice tests throughout the year to gauge how well students are prepared for the PSSAs. The state will still be providing and encouraging the optional Classroom Diagnostics Tools (CDT) tests be taken several times in reading and math throughout the year. Trimming off two days from the PSSA will affect that not at all.

 

In addition, today’s proposal only applies to the PSSA. While that assessment is important, the Keystone Exams given to high school students are even more so. According to existing state law, passing the Keystones in Algebra I, Literature and Biology are required in order to qualify for a diploma. However, that condition has yet to go live. So far the legislature has continuously pushed back the date when passing scores become graduation requirements. The Governor and Department of Education should be proposing the elimination of this prerequisite before anything else. Other than education funding and perhaps charter school accountability, it is the most important education issue before Commonwealth lawmakers today.

 

Don’t get me wrong. The Democratic Governor is somewhat hamstrung by the Republican-controlled legislature. Partisan politics has stopped lawmakers from accepting Wolf’s more progressive education measures.

 

Though Wolf has gotten Republicans to increase education funding by hundreds of millions of dollars during his term, K-12 schools still receive less than they did before the previous GOP governor’s administration. Moreover, there have been absolutely zero inflationary increases to keep up with the rising cost of doing business. Pennsylvania schools receive less funding – whether you adjust for inflation or not – than they should, and that has a real world impact on our public schools. Moreover, how that money has been allocated by the legislature still – even with our new better funding formula in place – benefits wealthy districts more than poor ones.

 

If you want to talk about accountability, that’s where the majority of the issue belongs.

 

And primarily it’s out of Wolf’s hands. One can understand why he is proposing changes where he can and trying to do whatever good is possible given the political climate.

 

Shortening the PSSA tests would benefit our students. It is a step in a positive direction.

 

However, it is far from solving our many education problems.

 

The biggest roadblock to authentic school reform is a legislature that refuses to do anything but the absolute minimum for our neediest students.

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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.

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?

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?

Pennsylvania: No School Property Tax for the Rich, Poor Still Pay

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Eliminating property tax to fund public schools sounds like a great idea!

Until you read the fine print.

Because what Pennsylvania legislators are proposing won’t actually eliminate property taxes – unless you’re rich.

And it won’t ensure students get the funding they need.

And it will limit school boards’ local control.

But it will benefit the rich and big corporations, which is really the only reason we’re talking about it – AGAIN.

Let me break it down for you.

First, the bill being shopped around is called the Property Tax Independence Act or SB 76. It would get rid of all property taxes used to fund public schools and replace them with increases in sales and income taxes.

Somehow these increases would need to generate an additional $12 billion a year in revenue so that we can keep funding our schools at the present level. That’s some tax increase – and guess who’s going to pay the bulk of it – YOU.

Guess who’s not going to pay much of it – the huge corporations who used to pay property taxes on all those commercial, industrial, oil and gas properties.

This is a huge giveaway to big business, and it’s a substantial hike for regular Commonwealth citizens like you and me.

But that’s not all!

If you live in a poor school district, you’ll still have to pay property taxes. That’s right – if your district is in debt, you’ll still get a property tax bill to pay it off.

Considering that the state cut almost $1 billion a year in school funding for the past 6 years and that most districts have had to go into debt, increase taxes or both, you’re probably not going to see your property taxes go away anytime soon.

They might go down up to 40%. Or they might not go down at all. AND you still have to pay higher sales and income taxes.

But here’s the best part.

Pennsylvania has the dubious distinction of being the national leader in unfair school funding.

We spend 33% more money on our rich students than on our poor ones. That’s the greatest disparity in the entire country!

And that’s saying something in a nation where spending more on wealthy kids is the norm.

However, this new bill won’t do anything to change that. In fact, it will lock-in that disparity.

Rich districts that today spend $23,000 per student will still spend $23,000, and poor districts that today spend $8,000 per student will still spend $8,000. But instead of your tax dollars going to the kids in your community, they’ll go to the state to be distributed everywhere. This means folks living in poor neighborhoods will probably be paying higher taxes so that they can fund the wealthiest kids. Likewise, rich parents will probably pay less while the difference is made up from taxes collected from the poor.

Call me crazy, but that just isn’t fair.
Finally, it takes away a lot of the local control from your local school board.

At present, if your local district has needs, your board can meet them by raising taxes. But under this bill, the only entity that can do that is the legislature.

I know, I know – your taxes are already too high. But the issue is who is more suited to making that decision – Harrisburg or your own community?

This bill is nothing new. Legislators have been trying to sneak it through for years.

Back in 2015 it passed the House but was defeated in the Senate when the Lt. Governor cast the deciding ballot against it. In 2013, it almost passed as an amendment to another bill, but the nonpartisan Pennsylvania Independent Fiscal Office ruined it by projecting a $1 billion shortfall within four years if it were passed.

However, the makeup of the Senate has changed. Now we have two new members who campaigned promising to pass this legislation, so it might actually squeak through.

The bill is being shopped around by state Sen. David Argall (R-Schuylkill/Berks) who authored it along with the Pennsylvania Coalition of Taxpayer Associations.

This group claims to be a simple citizens organization made up of 87 nonpartisan tax-conscious advocacy groups. But a quick look at the names of these organizations includes multiple uses of terms like “patriot,” and “freedom,” and “liberty,” and “conservative,” and “tea party.”

Nonpartisan, my butt!

Moreover, the stated goal of the group is just to pass this legislation.

That’s not a group of concerned citizens. It’s almost a PAC!

The organization has even endorsed candidates – some of them noted progressive Democrats like state Sen. Andy Dinniman (D-West Chester) and James Brewster (D-McKeesport), who both voted for the legislation in 2015.

To make it even more complex, the authors of the bill have a point. Property taxes are a terrible way to fund schools. They ensure that some districts will be better funded than others based on the local wealth of the community.

However, this bill does nothing to fix the inherent problems for children or poor and middle class communities. It compounds them.

Ironically, Gov. Wolf proposed a compromise solution two years ago with his first budget. He suggested reducing residential property taxes by $3.8 billion, targeting the biggest cuts for the neediest taxpayers and neediest schools. Moreover, he proposed increasing funding to the most impoverished districts so they could catch up to the well-funded ones.

But Republicans, who control both houses, refused to even consider it.

So here we go again. We have another Trojan Horse proposal. A good idea has been twisted and bastardized so that it serves the wealthy and private enterprise while doing irreparable harm to children and the poor. And even though it is an example of far right ideology, it has received bipartisan support.

Gov. Wolf is set to propose his new budget sometime this month. Sen. Argall is expected to reintroduce SB 76 during the subsequent budget negotiations.

It is a piece of zombie legislation that no matter how fetid and rotten just refuses to die. But this time, it just might bite us.

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

Four Practical and Four Moral Reasons to Make Your City a Sanctuary City

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There’s an entire underclass of people living among us.

These are people like you or me who have no choice but to do the most menial jobs for meager pay under the table. And when reality-TV-stars-turned-politicians like Donald Trump come around offering to solve all our problems with magic, you know who they blame for everything? THEM!

They’re illegal immigrants. They had the gumption to flee countries with worse economies than ours for the privilege of being our construction workers, housekeepers, gardeners and janitors. They are the fruit and vegetable pickers and the restaurant workers putting food on our tables.

They don’t collect social security, they don’t have health benefits or retirement plans and employers can pay them less than minimum wage. Heck! We can do almost whatever we want to them because who are they going to complain to – the police? If they do anything to get noticed by the law, they could be deported. So they keep a low profile doing the work no one else wants while the rest of us allow ourselves to be fooled into accepting them as easy scapegoats for all our ills.

What we need are sensible immigration laws that offer these people a path to citizenship, a way for them to climb out of perpetual servitude and fear. But that would cost us too much money, so it will never happen.

The least we can do – literally the least – is allow them some moderate amount of safety. We can let them partake in the minimum advantages of our society – protection from crime, a safe place to live, schools for their children, and an end to the fear that at any moment they could be kidnapped and taken away.

It’s called being a sanctuary city and more than 300 urban centers across the country have officially or unofficially adopted it as their local policy.

Though there’s no clear legal definition of sanctuary cities, in places like New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Houston, it goes something like this – if someone questions a person’s immigration status, local police don’t investigate it. You arrest someone for a non-violent crime, he does his time, then you let him free. If he has a long rap sheet, all bets are off, but in general you don’t hold him past his sentence for the feds to come and drag him away unless he’s got a substantial criminal record.

These sanctuary policies came under fire after the July 2015 death of Kate Steinle, a woman who was shot and killed in San Francisco, allegedly by an undocumented immigrant and repeat felon who had been deported five times to Mexico. He was being held by police but was released when drug charges were dropped. Police clearly made a mistake. Most law enforcement – even in sanctuary cities – would have contacted Homeland Security about someone like Lopez Sanchez. Moreover, deportation isn’t an answer either because Sanchez had already been given the boot multiple times. Unfortunately, the case has become the poster child for everything that’s supposedly wrong with these policies.

Trump became President on the backs of a promise to deport up to 3 million illegal immigrants because he said they are more violent and sanctuary cities result in increased crime. However, as are most things that come out of his mouth, it’s simply not true. These people are less likely to commit serious crimes than those born in the U.S. They can’t attract attention to themselves. Even in sanctuary cities, going on a crime spree is a sure way to get yourself deported.

On average, between 2011 and 2013 immigration courts ordered about 414,650 people removed from the country. Adding to those numbers won’t solve the problem, but there is something we can do.

If you live in a sanctuary city, protect that status. If you don’t, lobby to make your city a place of sanctuary. There are plenty of good reasons to do this – some practical, some moral. Here are four examples of each:


Practical

1) Holding Suspected Illegal Immigrants Drains Resources

Local and state police departments are not made of money. Like most public services these days, law enforcement agencies are cash-strapped. They only have so much funding to spend protecting and serving communities. Holding people in jail who are suspected of being in the country illegally costs money -money we don’t have to waste.

Moreover, the Department of Homeland Security has refused to even prioritize deporting convicted illegal immigrants. Suspects can spend days, weeks or longer in lock up waiting for the feds to get in gear.

It has become increasingly common for law enforcement to let these people go instead of taking responsibility for what is, after all, a federal job. Between January 2014 and September 2015, local and state law enforcement agencies declined 18,646 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainers, the Texas Tribune found. The majority were from California, where the notion of sanctuary cities first took root.


2) Holding Suspects Without a Warrant Can Get Your City Sued

Not all sanctuary cities lean left like Los Angeles. Many are deep in the red states and deeply conservative. In 2014, sheriff’s departments across the country announced that they would no longer honor detainer requests from the federal government. Instead, they would require ICE to get a formal warrant or court order before they would jail someone longer than they would otherwise.

The reason explicitly laid out in policy memos and press releases in places like rural Oregon, eastern Washington, and Kansas was to avoid expensive lawsuits. Federal courts in Pennsylvania and Oregon ruled in 2014 that detainer requests are not legally binding. In other words, counties jailing people based solely on those detainers could be violating individuals’ rights.

So these cities are trying to shield taxpayers from potential lawsuits. Residents may not consider themselves to be in sanctuary cities. Officials and sheriffs in these areas may even object to the label, but they are effectively doing the same thing.


3) Complying with the Feds Infringes on Local Autonomy

No one likes to be told how to do their job – especially police. Some law enforcement experts claim that the federal government is overstepping its authority by demanding state and local police to comply with requests for detention.

When Louisiana was considering a state law banning sanctuary cities, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand, a Republican, gave legislators an earful at a senate hearing on the matter: “Don’t come down here with some overarching bullshit Republican philosophy from Washington, DC…. and tell me how to do my business!” he said. “This bill goes down to discretion of a frontline officer and usurps my authority as a manager in how I’m going to deal with my officers… Give me a break!”


4) Holding Detainees Makes Law Enforcement’s Job Harder

Being a police officer is hard enough. If the people in the community you’re trying to protect and serve are afraid you’ll detain them for suspicion about their immigration status, they’ll be less likely to co-operate in the everyday business of policing.

People will flee from police on sight because they’re afraid some minor incident is going to get them deported. This is exactly what happened in North Carolina after the state passed a law requiring officers to fully comply with ICE, according to Jose Lopez, the Durham police chief.

Some agencies say it leads to mistrust between the community and the police, because victims and potential witnesses don’t come forward to report crimes. The fear of being deported is too strong. That is a real threat to public safety.


Moral

1) Violations of Human Rights/Unconstitutional

Detaining a person in jail for unspecified periods of time simply on suspicion of being an illegal immigrant is certainly of dubious legality, but it may also be immoral.

It certainly creates a situation ripe for corruption and graft. From 2004 – 2012, it was common for law enforcement agencies to enter into agreements to help federal authorities with immigration enforcement. These agreements allowed local jails to house undocumented immigrants after they had served time on state charges and then bill the federal government for this service.

Unfortunately, this turned detainees from suspects into sources of revenue and profit. The program was widely criticized because it incentivized detentions in the same way that for-profit prisons incentivize convictions. Local jails made money from detaining suspected illegal immigrants, so detentions skyrocketed. Suddenly every brown skinned person walking the streets was a potential payday.

People disappeared without warning, explanation or recourse. Inmates sometimes were passed along to jails in other municipalities without any formal notice to family members, then into the immigration court system for an expedited removal hearing. In some cases, people were returned to their home countries in weeks. Detainees were unable to communicate with embassy officials from their countries of origin or notify family members of their arrests. They were simply gone.

At very least, it was a potential violation of international human rights accords. Civil liberties groups called it a vehicle for racial and ethnic profiling. One Tennessee sheriff said it allowed him to “stack these violators like cordwood.” The system was out of control. More than one analysis of who was deported and what happened during that process showed that most were people initially arrested for minor traffic violations and who had no criminal record.

This is not how you should treat people no matter how they may or may not have entered the country. Disappearing people is the mark of a fascist state, not the land of the free, home of the brave.


2) Historical/ Biblical Precedent

Offering sanctuary has a long and respected history.

The concept derives from the ancient imperative to provide hospitality to strangers. In Greek cities, slaves and thieves took sanctuary at the shrines of the gods. In Biblical times, people who committed accidental murder could escape to sanctuary cities where they could remain in safety. These cities of refuge were places for wrongdoers who did not merit the fullest sanction of the law but were instead supposed to be kept separate from the community for a certain period.

In the Middle Ages, accused felons were allowed to seek sanctuary in any church. They could stay there, fed by neighbors for up to 40 days. When they emerged, they could confess, give up all their belongings and go into exile. This delayed prosecution so the community could cool off and not make judgements in haste. It gave the community time to determine the facts and come to a fair sentence.

Even in America, sanctuary is not a new concept. Though we have been criticized for not doing more, we have continually offered safe harbor to thousands of refugees fleeing violence in other parts of the world from Central America to Africa to central Europe. This is why some municipalities use the term “sanctuary city,” – to connect with this long history. Their morality demands they protect immigrants.


3) Immigration Law is Broken, Unfair and Unjust

Sanctuary cities aren’t the problem. Our immigration laws are. Allowing rampant deportation does nothing to solve the very real issues we have with citizenship. We are, after all, a country of immigrants. It makes little sense to kick out people many of whom have longer ancestral ties to these shores than the white majority. This is our land? Actually, many illegal immigrants could make a stronger case for ownership.

In addition, illegal immigration is a breach of civil law, not criminal. Therefore, violators don’t deserve to be deported. They deserve a chance to make things right, to become full citizens. Our laws don’t adequately protect the needs of the strangers who, for the most part, have crossed the border to take work that is eagerly offered them. Deportation is purely a bureaucratic enforcement system, which can include long detainment and judgment without judge or jury. It’s an arbitrary prejudicial policy, not just law.


4) Deportation can be a Death Sentence

Some asylum seekers don’t come to this country just to find work. They’re fleeing incredible violence in their home countries. If we simply deport them, we may be sending them to their deaths.

Officially, asylum is limited to individuals who can provide evidence that they have faced persecution or might be killed if they return to their home country. And U.S. law says that most people caught inside the United States should be given a chance to prove those claims in an immigration court. However, there are more than 445,000 people awaiting immigration hearings. Most of these people cannot make a successful asylum claim but might have some other legal defense such as proof of a U.S. citizen parent or grandparent.

Even so, mistakes have been made. Expediting deportation, holding hearings in secret, etc. increase the potential that we’ll have blood on our hands. Many would rather err on the side of caution especially when the stakes are this high.


 

As we see, there are many reasons to make your city a sanctuary city. It’s a bipartisan decision that’s being politicized. The Trump administration is using the worst kind of racist dog whistles and proto-facist propaganda to convince the public that deportations must increase and sanctuary cities must be abolished.

However, there are plenty of practical and moral reasons to think otherwise.

The best argument against sanctuary cities is Trump’s threats to use the federal government against states and local municipalities.


Losing Federal Funding?

Trump has threatened to take away federal tax dollars from sanctuary cities. Last year, a proposal to defund sanctuary cities, introduced by Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), was blocked by Senate Democrats. Yet at least 18 states, including Iowa, Kansas, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania, have considered comparable bills.

If these measures pass, they could cost municipalities billions of dollars.

But doing so would have drastic consequences for the federal government as well. It would be tantamount to declaring war on states and local governments. These monies that they’re threatening to withhold come from taxes. It’s our money!

The political fallout of such a decision would be disastrous for any administration foolhardy enough to go through with it. At very least it would destroy the Republican brand as being against federal intrusion and for states rights. Libertarians, alone, could flee the party in droves. And when the next election cycle came, the administration would find itself quickly out of office.


 

Becoming a sanctuary city is not without risk. However, it is the right thing to do. It protects your community financially, legally and morally. And it forces us to confront the real issue that no one wants to face – we need rational immigration policy. We can’t continue to live as a society with an underclass.

If we really want to make America great, that may be the first thing to do.