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

Screen Shot 2017-06-14 at 12.05.25 PM

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

Screen Shot 2017-06-09 at 2.36.42 PM

 

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.

Betsy’s Choice: School Privatization Over Kids’ Civil Rights

Betsy DeVos attends education meeting at the White House in Washington

 

Betsy DeVos seems to be confused about her job.

 

As U.S. Secretary of Education, she is responsible for upholding the civil rights of all U.S. students.

 

She is NOT a paid lobbyist for the school privatization industry.

 

Yet when asked point blank by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) whether her department would ensure that private schools receiving federal school vouchers don’t discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) students, she refused to give a straight answer.

 

She said that the these schools would be required to follow all federal antidiscrimination laws but her department would not issue any clarifications or directives about exactly how they should be doing it.

 

“On areas where the law is unsettled, this department is not going to be issuing decrees. That is a matter for Congress and the courts to settle,” DeVos said at a hearing before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education yesterday.

 

“I think you just said where it’s unsettled, such discrimination will continue to be allowed under your program. If that’s incorrect, please correct it for the record,” Merkley replied.

 

DeVos did not correct him.

 

Instead she simply repeated, “Schools that receive federal funds will follow federal law, period.”

 

Merkley said she was dodging the question.

“I think that’s very important for the public to know, that today, the secretary of education, before this committee, refused to affirm that she would put forward a program that would ban discrimination based on LGBTQ status of students or would ban discrimination based on religion,” he said.

 

“Discrimination in any form is wrong. I don’t support discrimination in any form,” DeVos replied.

 

But that doesn’t mean she’ll fight against it.

 

She held firm to her position that it is not her job as Secretary of Education to fight for students’ civil rights. That is the responsibility of Congress and the courts.

 

But she’s wrong.

 

The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is part of the Department of Education.

 

According to the department’s own Website, the “OCR’s mission is to ensure equal access to education and to promote educational excellence through vigorous enforcement of civil rights in our nation’s schools.”

 

There is nothing “unsettled” about that at all. What IS unsettled is how and if the U.S. Constitution allows federal funds to be spent on private schools in any manner whatsoever.

 

At very least, it has been argued that giving tax dollars to parochial schools violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment guaranteeing a separation of church and state. Moreover, the degree to which voucher schools that don’t explicitly teach religion would have to abide by federal laws about what they can and should do is likewise “unsettled.”

 

Yet DeVos has no problem advocating for the school privatization industry. In fact, it has been her lifelong calling. As a billionaire Republican mega-donor, that’s exactly what she’s done for years – shoving bundles of cash at candidates and lawmakers to support school vouchers and charter schools.

 

Someone needs to remind her that that is no longer her role. In her official capacity as Secretary of Education, her job is not to advocate for school choice. But it IS her job to protect students’ civil rights – regardless of the type of school those students attend.

 

If a school is at all public, she is responsible for ensuring those students’ rights. And receiving public funds makes a school public.

 

 

Specifically, she is responsible for ensuring no child is discriminated against on the basis of race, color and national origin, according to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  This includes protecting children who are being treated unfairly due to limited understanding of the English language or who are still learning to speak the language. This includes children experiencing bigotry as a result of their shared ancestry, ethnicity or religion such as Muslims, Sikhs or Jews.

 

 

It is also her job to protect children from sexual discrimination as per Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.  No matter her own personal conservative views, she must protect pregnant teens or teen parents. And to speak toward Merkley’s point, according to the Department’s Website, this explicitly includes, “…sex stereotypes (such as treating persons differently because they do not conform to sex-role expectations or because they are attracted to or are in relationships with persons of the same sex); and gender identity or transgender status.”

 

She is also required to be a champion of students with disabilities as per Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Moreover, Title II explicitly forbids public entities – whether or not they receive federal funds – from demonstrating any partiality against students with disabilities.

 

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. She has to protect against age discrimination per the Age Discrimination Act of 1975 and enforce the Boy Scouts of America Equal Access Act. She is responsible for investigating complaints about equal access to youth groups conducting meetings at public schools and/or that receive federal funding.

 

To quote the Website, one more time:

 

“These civil rights laws extend to all state education agencies, elementary and secondary school systems, colleges and universities, vocational schools, proprietary schools, state vocational rehabilitation agencies, libraries and museums that receive federal financial assistance from ED [the Education Department].”

 

I’m not so sure DeVos understand this – at all.

 

Nor do I expect her to get much help from the political ideologues she’s using to staff the department.

 

Take her choice for Assistant Secretary in the Office for Civil Rights, Candice Jackson.

 

She’s an ANTI-Civil Rights activist. She literally doesn’t believe in the office she’s running.

 

The 39-year-old attorney is anti-women’s rights, anti-distributive justice and possibly even anti-compulsory education and anti-Civil Rights Act of 1964!

 

She once filed a complaint against her prestigious college, Stanford University, for discriminating against her rights as a rich, white person by refusing to allow her access to free minority tutoring.

 

For all its faults, the Barack Obama administration took civil rights seriously. So much so that conservatives often criticized the Democratic organization as being overzealous in the execution of its duties.

 

The Obama era Education Department issued so many clarifications of the law that it received a record number of civil rights complaints. This required hundreds of additional lawyers and investigators and increasing the civil rights division by 30 percent.

 

Complaints went from more than six thousand in 2009 to almost ten thousand in 2015. Of these, the largest increase was in complaints of sex discrimination.

 

However, President Donald Trump has recommended the Department be downsized in his budget proposal.

 

The Reality TV star would cut the Department’s budget by 13 percent, or $9 billion, eliminating after-school and summer programming for kids and professional development for teachers.  Instead, he would invest $250 million in a school voucher incentive program and an additional $168 million for charter schools.

 

Also, getting a boost is personal security for DeVos, herself. She is spending an additional $1 million a month for U.S. Marshalls to guard her against protesters.

 

It should come as no surprise that Trump and DeVos don’t support the mission of the Department of Education. Both have expressed interest in disbanding the office altogether.

 

In a February magazine interview, DeVos said, “It would be fine with me to have myself worked out of a job. But I’m not sure that – I’m not sure that there will be a champion movement in Congress to do that.”

 

Likewise, Trump wrote in his 2015 book “Great Again: How to Fix Our Crippled America” that “if we don’t eliminate [the department] completely, we certainly need to cut its power and reach.”

 

That is exactly what DeVos is doing.

 

Under Presidents George W. Bush and Obama, it could be argued the Department was guilty of overreach. But Trump and DeVos are going in the opposite extreme.

 

Someone has to look out for students’ civil rights. That someone has traditionally been the Department of Education. With DeVos abdicating her responsibilities and continuing her role as a school privatization cheerleader, it is anyone’s guess who – if anyone – will step into the void.

Teachers Union President Joins Anti-Union Operative to Praise Charter Schools

Screen Shot 2017-06-02 at 3.53.25 PM

 

Randi Weingarten must be out of her damn mind!

 

The president of the second largest teachers union in the country, The American Federation of Teachers, is now writing op-eds with anti-union activists!?

Just this week she authored an article in the Los Angeles Times along with Jonah Edelman.

Perhaps you remember him. He’s the corporate shill who infamously bragged on YouTube about tricking teachers unions into supporting an Illinois law that would have stripped educators of their right to strike while eliminating seniority and due process.

Yes, THAT Jonah Edelman!

And why is she joining forces with a man who has dedicated his life to destroying the lives of the more than 1.5 million people she is supposed to represent!?

To fight school vouchers while pretending charter schools are a much better alternative.

No, I’m not kidding.

In the midst of an article that correctly outlines many of the problems with school vouchers, you’ll find this telling nugget:

“We believe taxpayer money should support schools that are accountable to voters, open to all, nondenominational and transparent about students’ progress. Such schools — district and charter public schools — are part of what unites us as a country.”

So once again we get the false distinction between charter and voucher schools.

Yet they ignore that BOTH are run privately without community input.

BOTH are not accountable to taxpayers.

BOTH are allowed to cherry pick the easiest students to educate and turn away those with special needs.

Yet Weingarten and her new best friend somehow think charters are worlds better than vouchers.

Wrong! They’re BOTH terrible.

Publicly funding privately run schools is nearly the same no matter whether you call them charter, private or parochial schools!

Yet we see Democratic partisans trying desperately to distinguish their cash cow charter schools from the extremely similar golden geese of voucher schools.

It’s a trick. Republicans champion privatized education in all of its forms. Democrats pretend to be discerning by boosting only charter schools.

But there’s really very little difference between these two positions. In each case, these partisan hacks are defending privatization against any and all forms of public education.

Weingarten apparently is even willing to throw the majority of her constituents under the bus to do so!

Charter schools are a failed social experiment. The majority have become merely parasites on traditional public school districts sucking out much needed funding without putting anything of value back.

They result in larger class sizes, a narrowing of the curriculum and more layoffs for the very teachers Weingarten is supposed to represent.

In the rare occasions when charters actually provide good educational value, the law explicitly allows them to change for the worse at any time. The problem isn’t a few bad apples. It’s the concept of charter schools, themselves.

You can’t have a separate level of school competing with its community district and expect the two not to end up harming each other. You can’t allow one school to operate in the dark without hardly any transparency and expect operators not to take personal advantage of it. You can’t allow one school to choose its students without expecting to drastically segregate the community’s children.

Yet here we have Weingarten joining hands with the devil signing a Faustian bargain with the blood of every member of the American Federation of Teachers.

Yes, school vouchers are a bad idea. They violate the separation of church and state. But other than that, they’re pretty much the same as charter schools. If you agree to defend the one while attacking the other, you’re just fighting about what to name the privatized school that will eventually overtake the public ones.

Weingarten should know that.

But this isn’t the first time recently that she’s agreed to hob knob with those salivating over the destruction of her own chosen profession.

Just last month, she went on a field trip to a public school with Betsy DeVos, our Anti-Education Education Secretary.

As parent and teacher activists were physically barring DeVos from entering some public schools, Weingarten was giving her a guided tour!

Some will say that we need to educate DeVos, a Republican mega-donor with next to zero experience of public education and a history of spending billions to destroy public schools. So how did it work out?

DeVos said the school was nice but could benefit from more privatization.

Thanks anyway, Randi.

You can’t make friends with the corporate education reformers.

This was one of the major weaknesses of Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. She tried to walk this same divide praising “high quality” charter schools while criticizing those that exploit the system.

In both cases, they’re ignoring the fact that the system was designed EXPLICITLY TO BE EXPLOITED – by charter schools.

This is one of the reasons I’ve been calling for Weingarten and Lily Eskelsen Garcia, President of the National Education Association, to step down.

They aren’t listening to their constituents.

They have both gone rogue. They are playing politics on our dime without giving proper consideration to what’s in our benefit.

Teachers don’t want their national union representatives playing patty cake with those out to destroy us. We want action in the streets! We want activists and resisters, not diplomats and politicians.

It’s time Randi and Lily stepped aside for union leaders who understand what our schools, our students and our profession really needs.

Destroying the Separation of Church and State is Beyond Stupid

religious-fanatic

There is a special place in Hell for those trying to destroy the separation of church and state.

 

It’s kind of like:

 

Hey! Let’s turn this country into a Christian version of Iran!

 

Or:

 

If only my child’s school was more like a terrorist training camp!

 

Seriously, what the heck is wrong with you? Torquemada and Osama Bin Laden are not role models of 21st Century education.

 

But okay. In a way I get it. You’re a Christian fundamentalist, and you’re afraid secular education will turn your child against your faith.

 

Well, Number One, if your beliefs are so weak that just hearing an alternative will destroy them, then maybe they deserve to be destroyed. And, Number Two, that’s what religious schools are for! Reach into your pocket and pay for your little choirboy or choirgirl to be educated in the church basement. But I’m not using my tax dollars to help indoctrinate your child in whatever medieval mumbo jumbo you believe in.

 

You think the world was created in six days? You think the sun orbits around the Earth? You think the Earth is flat!? FINE! I’m not going to pay so your kids grow up just as ignorant!

 

Mixing religion with our public school curriculum is not a good thing.

 

When my kids take science, I want them to learn things based on empiricism and the scientific method – not whatever “truth” is enshrined in a holy book written before the germ theory of disease. The answer to a question about whooping cough isn’t “God did it.”

 

The same goes for literature. I want my child to read a wide variety of texts from various points of view, written by people of various faiths, from a multitude of cultures, genders and world views – not just a pantheon of iron age tribal chiefs and a smattering of cloistered feudal monks! I want my child to think about what she’s read and come to her own conclusions – not have “the truth” handed down to her from on high.

 

And when it comes to social studies, I want my child to understand history and government without the biases of the right wing taught as if they were the only logical ways to organize a society. I want my child to be a good citizen with a working knowledge of how government functions complete with a catalogue of the errors of past centuries. I don’t want my child molded to think a certain way and only that way so that she’ll vote a certain way and only that way.

 

Oh, and math? That’s just for boys.

 

It’s ironic that the advocates of school vouchers often couch their arguments in the language of liberty and choice when they’re really advocating for the elimination of those very things.

 

This isn’t about school choice. It’s about eliminating my child’s right to free thought. It’s about society pumping out a generation of religious zealot clones to feed the polling places of one political party so that they’ll vote against their own interests and keep the rich and powerful gobbling up 99% of the wealth.

 

But shouldn’t kids be allowed to talk about religion in school?

 

Sure. And they can and do right now in public school.

 

There is nothing to stop children from discussing their views about God and religion in school. They can even pray. No one will discriminate against them for it. That’s their right.

 

The only prohibition is against a religious discussion or prayer conduced by a teacher. When my students bring up God during a class discussion – and it happens – I let them talk. If they ask my views, I politely decline. I might say that some people believe this or some people believe that. But I never say what I believe.

 

Why would you want anything different? Do you really want teachers forcing their faith (or lack of faith) on your children? I suppose if you choose exactly the kind of school with teachers who think exactly like you, then this doesn’t matter. But isn’t it better to let kids figure out their own theologies perhaps with help from you, their parents?

 

When it comes to facts, an education professional is just what the doctor ordered. When it comes to opinions – and faith is the ultimate opinion – children should be free to think for themselves. If you want a religious leader to lend his or her normativity, that’s up to you. But don’t step on other parents who have different worldviews, cultures, faiths.

 

And please don’t give me this crap that the words “separation of church and state” don’t appear in the Constitution. Neither do the words “self-protection” appear in the Second Amendment, but you still cling to your guns on the excuse that they keep you and your family safe.

 

The separation of church and state is a long-standing interpretation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It has been upheld time and again. You may call yourself a “conservative” for going against it, but actually you’re the very definition of a radical. It is I who is being conservative in defending it.

 

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.”

 

The same can be said of those with torches and pitchforks gathered around the separation of church and state. They seek no freedom other than the freedom to discriminate against those unlike themselves.

 

They are our racists, sexists and xenophobes. They are those prejudiced against anyone who thinks thoughts unsanctioned by their clergy. They seek to pour cement over the social structure and keep it in place with ignorance.

 

We must fight them to our last breath because if they win… God help us!

Report: Charter School Vampires Drain Traditional PA Districts Dry

o-VAMPIRE-FANGS-facebook

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?

Charter Schools and Voucher Schools are Virtually Identical

Screen shot 2017-05-17 at 8.30.20 PM

The stark orange monolith that was Donald Trump is starting to crumble.

And with it so are the dreams of corporate education reformers everywhere.

Where in previous administrations they could pass off their policies as Democratic or Republican depending on whichever way the wind blows, today their brand has been so damaged by Trump’s advocacy, they fear it may never recover.

Under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, they could champion both charter schools and school vouchers with impunity. But now the privatizers and profiteers hiding in progressive clothing are trying desperately to rebrand.

Not only is Trump’s voucher plan deeply unpopular, but the public has already begun to associate any kind of school privatization with a doomed President.

So like cockroaches, neoliberals have begun to skitter to one type of privatization over another. Fake Democrats hide beneath unfettered charter school expansion. Bought-and-sold Republicans cling to the idea that we should spend taxpayer dollars on private and parochial schools.

But is there a real substantial difference between each of these so-called “choice” schemes? Or are they both just scams when compared with traditional public schools?

THE DIFFERENCES

Charter Schools and Private Schools are basically the same thing.

The biggest difference between the two is funding.

Charter schools are completely funded by tax dollars. Private schools – even when school vouchers are used – often need to be subsidized by parents. For instance, many private schools charge tuition of $30,000 – $40,000 a year. Vouchers rarely provide more than $6,000. So at best they bring the cost down but still make it impossible for most students to attend private schools.

Sure they may start as an effort to allow only impoverished children to use tax dollars towards private and parochial school tuition. But they soon grow to include middle class and wealthy children, thus partially subsidizing attendance at the most exclusive schools in the country for those families who can already afford it.

Parochial schools, meanwhile, are exactly the same except for one meaningful difference. They teach religion.

Their entire curriculum comes from a distinctly religious point of view. They indoctrinate youth into a way of seeing the world that is distinctly non-secular.

Progressives complain that using tax dollars to pay for student tuition at such schools – even only partial tuition – violates a foundational principal of our nation.

Using public money to pay for religious teaching has historically been interpreted as a violation of the establishment clause of the first Amendment to the Constitution – namely, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Thomas Jefferson called it “a wall of separation between Church and State.”

This is further exacerbated in many parochial schools where religious teaching includes a blatant political bias toward conservatism. Children at many of these schools are taught that supply side economics, voter disenfranchisement and prejudice are normative bedrock truths.

These are the main distinctions between voucher and charter schools.

In short, they’re not all exactly the same. And corporate reform apologist are trying to rebuild their brand on these split hairs.

But the similarities between these types of school are much more striking.

THE SIMILARITIES

The biggest commonality between these types of educational institutions is how they’re run. Unlike traditional public schools – which are governed by duly-elected school boards – charter, private and parochial schools are overseen by private interests. They are administered by independent management firms. They rarely have elected school boards. Their operators rarely make decisions in public, and their budgets and other documents are not open to review by taxpayers. This is true despite the fact that they are funded to varying degrees by public tax dollars.

So in all three cases, these schools are run privately, but taxpayers pick up the tab.

It’s ironic. Sending kids to charters, private and parochial schools with public money is called school choice. However, each of these types of schools gives taxpayers much less choice about how their money is being spent.

The community funds the school, but almost all decisions are made by people outside of the community – people appointed, in fact, by bureaucrats or business managers.

To be sure, parents can express their displeasure of administrative decisions by disenrolling their children in the school. But beyond this nuclear option, they are powerless. Even more troubling, taxpayers without children or with children who do not attend these schools have no say whatsoever about how their money is spent.

And to add insult to injury, it doesn’t even really allow the parents to choose which schools their children attend. They can put in a request for their kids to attend a choice school, but enrollment decisions are made by these same private equity managers. In short, administrators make the ultimate choice – not parents.

If the religious school doesn’t want to accept your child for whatever reason including operators’ disapproval of your religious beliefs, they don’t have to accept him. If the private school doesn’t want to accept your child based on race, gender or nationality, they don’t have to accept him. If the charter school doesn’t want to accept your child because of bad grades or troublesome behaviors, they don’t have to accept him.

The traditional public school, however, cannot refuse a child who lives in district borders for any of these reasons. In effect, school choice really isn’t about parental choice. It’s about increasing choice for the operators of privatized schools – letting them choose their students and how to spend your money without any meaningful input from you.

And it’s true at all three types of school!

Those are pretty considerable similarities. Moreover, they highlight major differences between these so-called choice schools and traditional public schools.

This is important because we don’t even have to get into the academic records of individual schools. The way each type of school is structured shows the clear inferiority of choice schools compared to traditional public schools.

By their very structure, public schools give parents and taxpayers much more agency in children’s education and how taxpayer money is spent.

Second, the latitude for school administrators to perpetrate fraud on the public is maximized in so-called choice schools and minimized in public schools. This doesn’t mean public schools are perfect, but it is much better to have a school under public scrutiny and local control than otherwise. This is demonstrated by the huge numbers of charter school scandals popping up in the news every day, where charters close suddenly, money is misspent on luxury items for operators that have nothing to do with education, and – especially in cyber charters – the quality of education students receive is literally lower than having no formal education at all.

Finally, if public schools struggle, it is almost always due to a lack of equitable funding and a surplus of impoverished students. It is no accident that poor students receive less resources and larger class sizes than middle class or wealthy ones. Nor is it an accident that we judge the effectiveness of schools primarily on standardized tests which are so good at highlighting the results of lack of resources rather than any academic deficiency.

If we spent our education dollars ensuring equitable resources instead of funneling tax dollars to charter, private and parochial schools, we would better increase the quality of children’s education. But for the last few decades that has not been the goal of education policy. It has instead been to enrich these same privatized school managers and investors – the corporate education reform industry. Nor is it a coincidence that this industry and its subsidiaries counts itself as major donors to both political parties.

Before she was elevated to Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos was exactly that – a billionaire mega-donor pushing school privatization while getting richer off investments in the same. Now that she’s driving school vouchers off a cliff in the Trump train, her co-conspirators are getting nervous.

Neoliberal Democrats may try to save the movement by claiming charter schools are completely different. But they aren’t. They are fundamentally the same.

The public sees the clear similarities between these kinds of schools. And much of that is thanks to the incompetent boobery of Donald J. Trump.