Republicans Suggest Federal Role in Education Be Limited to Bribery

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Hey! Let’s repeal the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965!

Let’s hobble the Department of Education!

Let’s make the federal role just handing out bundles of cash to private and parochial schools!

That’s apparently how you improve public education. You make it private.

And you completely eliminate any protections for students’ civil rights.

THIS is the brave new world of Trumpian education policy. It’s called HR 610 and was introduced by Republican Congressman Steve King of Iowa.

You may Remember King. He introduced an amendment in the U.S. House that would have prevented Harriet Tubman from replacing President Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill. Sure she was an abolitionist, women’s suffragist and hero who rescued scores of black people from slavery in the Underground Railroad. Why would we want her to replace a former slave trader and architect of the Indian Removal Act and Trail of Tears!?

His new piece of wonderful legislation – not at all written by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) – would turn the U.S. Department of Education into merely an authorizer of block grants to qualified states to participate in a nationwide voucher program.

The department would give out money to local districts to give to parents to home school or send their children to private schools.

In effect, the federal government would become a booster for private and parochial schools. Uncle Sam would be offering free cash to private interests, corporations, entrepreneurs and business people if they can just convince parents to choose them over the public school system.

Which brings up the question – what about that public school system? Would it still receive the federal help it currently does? Would there still be Title I Grants to schools serving impoverished students? What would happen to Pell Grants? Who would make sure states are doing their jobs? Where could we go to find accurate data about how our schools are doing nationally and not just state-by-state?

These are questions that have not fully been answered. It’s possible some of these services could fall back on other governmental departments as they did before the creation of the Department of Education in 1980. However, more likely this would be a redistribution of billions of dollars that used to go to public schools now going to private hands.

Moreover, abuses against students on the grounds of civil rights, gender, special education, etc. would skyrocket with little to no recourse. And we would be in the dark about how well we were educating our nation’s children.

Oh! And the bill also would reduce nutrition standards for school lunches and breakfasts.

I’m not kidding.

King apparently is troubled that kids are eating too many fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and drinking low-fat or fat free milk. He is against reducing salt, saturated fat, and trans fat in school meals. And he doesn’t think children’s nutritional needs should be met within their caloric requirements.

I’m sure this has nothing to do with the fact that these regulations were proposed by the Obama administration. It has nothing to do with undoing legislation from our first black President. It’s all about the children.

King’s bill, HR 610, is not to be confused with a similar bill by Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie that would simply dismantle the Department of Education in one year.

Massie, who introduced his one page, one sentence bill on the same day DeVos was confirmed, is a Tea Party Republican Libertarian. He supports disbanding the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and allowing guns at the nation’s schools.

He is a hardcore Trump believer. During the election cycle after revelations about the candidate’s admitted sexual molestation of women surfaced, Massie famously said, “Trump is better than 90 percent of the congressmen I serve with.”

His bill, HR 899, reads in total:

“The Department of Education shall terminate on December 31, 2018.”

As crazy as it sounds, Massie’s motivations are comprehensible. He wants to return complete control of education to the states.

It must be admitted that the Department of Education has overstepped the bounds of its authority during the last two administrations. When it was formed three decades ago, it was supposed to be a tool to support public schools, ensure student’s rights weren’t being violated and giving a boost to the poor. However, President George W. Bush made it all about standardized testing and giving slush money to charter schools. Obama was supposed to right these wrongs but, being a corporate Democrat, he only increased and administered them more efficiently.

The Department of Education is a tool, and like any tool, it can be misused. That doesn’t mean it should be disbanded. Republicans wouldn’t ban all guns because of instances of gun violence. Why disband the Department of Education because administrations of both parties misused it? Put it in check with proper regulations…

Oops. I think I’ve lost them.

Anyway, despite Massie’s slavish devotion for all things Trump, the President appears to be siding with King.

Trump and his mega-donor Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, have already shown their commitment to King’s voucher legislation.

On Tuesday, they invited ten parents and teachers to Washington, D.C., to talk about their education agenda.

Who did they invite? One was a public school teacher. One was a public school principal for a building specializing in special education. One was a public school parent who also had children in private school.  The rest were homeschoolers, charter school parents or private school representatives.

So 70-80% of the people they invited were not associated with public schools. The Trump administration has made it clear that they are not interested in serving public school students. They are primarily concerned with children going to private and parochial schools who currently make up less than 10 percent of the country’s students.

During the meeting, Trump even praised a “Nevada charter school” that he had visited.  This school is a religious school where students pledged allegiance to the Bible for the former Reality TV star. (Don’t believe me? Watch the video by clicking here.) Like many private or parochial schools, the one Trump praised is notorious for regularly excluding students with disabilities.

The Trump administration is apparently not very concerned with special education students. DeVos refused to commit herself to defending these students during her confirmation hearing (and still was confirmed by Republican legislators!). Moreover, one of the first things the Department did after DeVos took over was to shut down its Webpage for students with disabilities and direct users to another page with fewer resources.

Currently, Republicans control both houses of Congress. They could easily ram through this legislation and Trump would almost certainly sign it. Moreover, there are numerous corporate Democrats like Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey who may be overjoyed that the ideology they have pushed for their entire careers have finally been proposed by Trump.

The only thing standing in the way of this wrecking ball bill is parents and teachers.

We flooded our lawmakers phones, emails and town halls during the DeVos confirmation. We demanded a qualified candidate with a commitment to public education. But because she and her family have paid more than $200 million to these same GOP lawmakers, they voted for her anyway.

Will they continue to override their constituents? Only time will tell.

As the Trump administration continues to unravel and public support plummets for him and his corporate agenda, resistance will become more politically possible.

All we can do is keep up the pressure. Keep calling. Keep emailing. Keep showing up at lawmakers offices. Keep marching in the streets.

Eventually, these people will have to listen to us – or else we’ll stop them at the voting booth.

But will public schools last that long?


You can email your U.S. Representative about HR 610 by clicking HERE.

America’s Founding Fathers Were Against School Choice

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One of the founding principles of the United States is public education.

 

We fought a bloody revolution against England for many reasons, but chief among them was to create a society where all people could be educated.

 

Certainly we had disagreements about who counted as a person. Women? Probably not. Black people? Doubtful. But the ideal of providing a quality education for all was a central part of our fledgling Democracy regardless of how well we actually lived up to it.

 

In fact, without it, our system of self-government just wouldn’t work. A functioning Democracy, it was thought, couldn’t exist in a nation where the common person was ignorant. We needed everyone to be knowledgeable and enlightened.

 

That’s why we have public schools – so that an educated citizenry will lead to a good government.

 

Our founders didn’t want a system of private schools each teaching students various things about the world coloring their minds with religious dogma. They didn’t want a system of schools run like businesses that were only concerned with pumping out students to be good cogs in the machinery of the marketplace.

 

No. They wanted one public system created for the good of all, paid for at public expense, and democratically governed by the taxpayers, themselves.

 

Don’t believe me?

 

Just look at what the founders, themselves, had to say about it.

 

More than any other fathers of the Revolution, Thomas Jefferson preached the Gospel of education and its necessity for free governance.

 

As he wrote in a letter to Dr. Price (1789), “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”

 

He expanded on it in a letter to C. Yancy (1816), “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

 

James Madison agreed. As the author of the Second Amendment, he is often credited with giving gun rights primary importance. However, he clearly thought education similarly indispensable. In a letter to W. T. Barry (1822), he wrote:

“A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

 

Our first President, George Washington, saw this to mean that the goal of education should be knowledge of good government. He wrote in Maxims (1854):

“And a primary object of such an Institution [Public Education], should be the education of our youth in the SCIENCE OF GOVERNMENT. In a Republic what species of knowledge can be equally important? And what duty is more pressing on its legislature, than to patronize a plan, for communicating it to those who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the country?”

 

For his part, Jefferson had even more egalitarian ends in mind. For him, the most important aspect of public schooling was that it should be open to all social strata of society.

 

He wrote in his response to the American Philosophical Society, (1808), “I feel … an ardent desire to see knowledge so disseminated through the mass of mankind that it may, at length, reach even the extremes of society: beggars and kings.”

 

In short, Jefferson envisioned a public school system that educated everyone regardless of social class or wealth.

 

This is very different from 18th Century education in the United Kingdom. Rich children went to grammar schools with vastly different curriculums for boys and girls. But the poor were left to their own devices. Though many English towns had established charity schools – sometimes called Blue Coat Schools because of the color of children’s uniforms – there was no general law guaranteeing an education to the poor. Moreover, most schools included religious instruction, usually that of the Church of England. Children who belonged to other denominations often went to their own academies. In many cases, a formal education was eschewed altogether in favor of a 7-year apprenticeship for a trade or working at home.

So what Jefferson and others were proposing – free, secular education for all – was revolutionary.

 

Moreover, it would be essentially public, not private. Jefferson’s immediate predecessor as President, John Adams, famously said in Defense of Constitutions (1787):

 

“The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.”

 

 

The result of such a national commitment to public education was immediately felt. Schools were built quickly throughout the country but especially in the more urban North. By 1800, the literacy rate exceeded 90 percent in some regions – extraordinary for the time period.

 

Data from indentured servant contracts of German immigrant children in Pennsylvania show that the number of children receiving an education increased from 33.3% in 1771–1773 to 69% in 1787–1804.

 

 

By 1900, there were 34 states with compulsory schooling laws; four of which were in the South. Thirty of those states even required attendance until age 14 or higher. As a result, by 1910, a full 72 percent of American children attended school. By 1918, every state required students to complete at least elementary school.

 

 

And these schools became increasingly public. Though the Colonial period was marked by more private schools than public, by the close of the 19th century, public secondary schools began to outnumber private ones. This was just as Jefferson had foreseen.

 

He believed there was a place for private enterprise, but education wasn’t it. In his sixth Annual Message (1806) as President, Jefferson wrote:

 

“Education is here placed among the articles of public care, not that it would be proposed to take its ordinary branches out of the hands of private enterprise, which manages so much better all the concerns to which it is equal; but a public institution can alone supply those sciences which, though rarely called for, are yet necessary to complete the circle, all the parts of which contribute to the improvement of the country, and some of them to its preservation.”

 

In other words, Jefferson saw room for some aspects of schooling to be private such as selling books, supplies, etc. Some things are accomplished better by private enterprise, but not all. Only the “ordinary branches” of schooling can be best served by “private enterprise.” The roots of the tree, however, must be public. It just makes sense, after all. You wouldn’t run a business like a school. Why would you want to run a school like a business?

 

He stressed that only an institution focused on the public good, only a public school system, can provide the best education. And he again stressed its necessity for the health of the entire country.

 

In Notes on Virginia (1782), Jefferson wrote:

 

“An amendment of our constitution must here come in aid of the public education. The influence over government must be shared among all the people. If every individual which composes their mass participates of the ultimate authority, the government will be safe; because the corrupting the whole mass will exceed any private resources of wealth: and public ones cannot be provided but by levies on the people. In this case every man would have to pay his own price. The government of Great-Britain has been corrupted, because but one man in ten has a right to vote for members of parliament. The sellers of the government therefore get nine-tenths of their price clear. It has been thought that corruption is restrained by confining the right of suffrage to a few of the wealthier of the people: but it would be more effectually restrained by an extension of that right to such numbers as would bid defiance to the means of corruption.”

 

Truly, the founders saw public education as a way of stopping their new nation from becoming as corrupt as England. By spreading the vote to more people, it was necessary to increase the education of the citizenry. That way, it would be difficult for special interests to sway the government unless what they were proposing was for the good of all.

 

Chief among the corrupting influences of English education was religion. It wasn’t that our founders were irreligious. They were skeptical of dogma, of the close relationship between church and state in the United Kingdom and how the one was used to enforce the other.

 

As Madison wrote in a letter to Edward Livingston (1822), “Religion and Government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”

 

Jefferson made this clear in his letter to Thomas Cooper (1822):

 

“After stating the constitutional reasons against a public establishment of any religious instruction, we suggest the expediency of encouraging the different religious sects to establish, each for itself, a professorship of their own tenets on the confines of the university, so near as that their students may attend the lectures there and have the free use of our library and every other accommodation we can give them; preserving, however, their independence of us and of each other. This fills the chasm objected to ours, as a defect in an institution professing to give instruction in all useful sciences… And by bringing the sects together, and mixing them with the mass of other students, we shall soften their asperities, liberalize and neutralize their prejudices, and make the general religion a religion of peace, reason, and morality.”

 

In other words, Jefferson desired those interested in religious matters to broaden their knowledge beyond their own belief system. It was essential that American minds were not closed by strict canonical religious instruction. He saw this as necessary to the exercise of free government.

 

One can only imagine at what horror he would regard the modern voucher system, where tax dollars are used to fund parochial schools teaching just this same primacy of doctrine in the formation of students’ worldviews. He wanted Americans with open minds full of competing ideas, not mentalities instructed in the one “right” way to act and think.

 

And the cost of providing such an education – though considerable – was worth it.

 

Ben Franklin (as later quoted in Exercises in English Grammar (1909) by M. A. Morse) allegedly said:

“If a man empties his purse into his head no man can take it from him. An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”

 

Adams concurred in his 1776 Papers:

 

“Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially of the lower class of people, are so extremely wise and useful, that, to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.”

 

And Jefferson in a letter to Joseph C. Cabell (1816) wrote, “If the children are untaught, their ignorance and vices will in future life cost us much dearer in their consequences than it would have done in their correction by a good education.”

 

Moreover, as a man of wealth, himself, Jefferson had no problem bearing the burden of the cost of a robust public school system. In his Autobiography (1821), he wrote, “The expenses of [the elementary] schools should be borne by the inhabitants of the county, every one in proportion to his general tax-rate. This would throw on wealth the education of the poor.”

 

How far we have strayed from these ideals.

 

Our current policymakers are doing just the opposite of the founders. They skimp on education, slashing budgets especially for the poor. They seem to champion both private schools and ignorance. Education is not a necessary public good – it is something to be hidden and kept away from the masses.

 

Today’s policymakers and politicians seem to actually want voters to be uninformed so they’ll vote for ignorant lawmakers and bad policies. They’ll vote against their own interests.

 

This goes against everything our founders stood for. It is counter to the ideals of the American Revolution. It is un-American.

 

There is nothing more representative of the ideals of our nation than the public school system. And anyone who attacks it attacks the heart of the nation.

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

U.S. Public Schools Are NOT Failing. They’re Among the Best in the World

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Everyone knows U.S. public schools are failing.

Just like everyone knows you should never wake sleepwalkers, bulls hate red and Napoleon was short.

Wrong on all counts. Waking sleepwalkers will cause them no harm – in fact, they’re more likely to harm themselves while sleepwalking. Bulls are colorblind; they’re attracted to movement. And Napoleon was 5’7”, which was above average height for Frenchman during his lifetime.

So why do we believe that American public schools are doing such a terrible job?

Because far right policymakers have convinced us all that it’s true.

It’s not.

Let me repeat that in no uncertain terms – America’s public schools are NOT failing. They are among the best in the world. Really!

Here’s why: the United States educates everyone. Most other countries do not.

We have made a commitment to every single child regardless of what their parents can afford to pay, regardless of their access to transportation, regardless of whether they can afford uniforms, lunch or even if they have a home. Heck! We even provide education to children who are here illegally.

That can’t be said of many countries with which we’re often compared – especially countries comparable to the U.S. in size or diversity. So from the get-go, we have an advantage over most of the world.

We define education differently. Though our laws are woefully backward, in practice we look at it as a right, not a privilege. And for a full 13 years (counting kindergarten) it’s a right for every child, not just some.

But that’s not all! We also provide some of the highest quality education you can get in the world! We teach more, help more, achieve more and yet we are criticized more than any system in any country in the world.

TEST SCORES

Critics argue that our scores on international tests don’t justify such a claim. But they’re wrong before you even look at the numbers. They’re comparing apples to pears. You simply can’t compare the United States to countries that leave hundreds of thousands of rural and poor children without any education whatsoever. The Bates Motel may have the softest pillows in town, but it’s immediately disqualified because of the high chance of being murdered in the shower.

No school system of this size anywhere in the world exceeds the United States in providing free access to education for everyone. And that, alone, makes us one of the best.

It doesn’t mean our system is problem free. There are plenty of ways we could improve. We’re still incredibly segregated by race and class. Our funding formulas are often regressive and inadequate. Schools serving mostly poor students don’t have nearly the resources of those serving rich students. But at least at the very outset what we’re trying to do is better than what most of the world takes on. You can’t achieve equity if it isn’t even on the menu.

However, for some people, this will not be enough. They’ll say that despite our high ideals, the quality of what we actually provide our students is low. After all, those international test scores are so low.

First point: it depends on the scores you’re looking at. American elementary and middle school students have improved on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study every four years since the tests began in 1995. They are above the international average in all categories and within a few percentage points of the global leaders (something rarely mentioned on the nightly news).

Even on the PISA test administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to 15-year-olds in about 60 countries, US children are far from the bottom of the scale. We’re somewhere in the middle. We’ve always been in the middle for all the decades since they’ve been making these comparisons. Our schools have not gotten worse. They have stayed the same.

IDEALS AND POVERTY

To some this just demonstrates that our schools have always been mediocre. But again you’re overlooking the consequences of our ideals.

The broader the spectrum of children who take a test, the lower the average score will be. In other words, if only your top students take the test, your average score will be very high. If only your top and middle students take the test, your average score will still be quite high. But if ALL of your students take the test, your average score will be lower.

Now add in poverty. Living in poverty reduces your access to health care, books, early childhood education and many other factors that increase learning throughout your life. Children from poor families are already more than a year behind those of rich parents on the first day of kindergarten. If you only test the wealthiest students, the average test score will probably be quite high. The average score will drop dramatically if you test all of your students.

That’s why many of these countries where the poorest children do not have access to education have higher test scores than the United States. You’re not comparing equals. The United States has the highest child poverty rate in the Western World. And we don’t hide them away. We include them on our tests. That has a major impact on our scores. But talking heads on TV almost always ignore it. They pretend it doesn’t exist. It’s the only way they can use these test scores to “prove” to a gullible audience that America’s schools are failing.

But if you fairly compare education systems and factor in the equal access we provide for all children to an education, our system comes out way on top. We have one of the best systems in the world.

But wait! There’s more!

SPECIAL EDUCATION

Not only does the United States serve all children regardless of academic achievement or poverty. We also serve far more students with disabilities.

Why are there so many special education children in the USA? Because we have a higher standard of living.

A standard pregnancy lasts about 280 days or 40 weeks. However, some mothers give birth to children after only 28 weeks. Two decades ago, these babies would not have survived. Today, they often do. Five years later that child will enter kindergarten and our school system will be responsible for teaching that student to read, write and learn math. In other countries, premature babies have a much lower chance of survival. They don’t survive to become the special education population. So things as diverse as the live-birth rate actually affect average test scores.

Another counterintuitive factor is the suicide rate. In many countries where pressure to perform at the highest levels on standardized tests is extreme, many children are actually driven to suicide. This is especially true in numerous Asian countries with a record of high scores on these international tests. So a higher suicide rate actually increases test scores.

Would you say this makes other countries superior to the United States? Heck no! In fact, just the opposite. I certainly wouldn’t wish more underperforming U.S. students were ending their lives so we could do better on international tests. Nor would I wish that more premature babies died to improve our international standing.

We have developed a special education system to help children at the edges that many other countries just can’t touch. In some countries these students are simply excluded. In others they are institutionalized. In some countries it’s up to parents to find ways to pay for special services. The United States is one of the only countries where these children are not only included and offered full and free access, but the schools go above and beyond to teach these children well beyond their 12th academic year.

In every public school in the United States these students are included. In math, reading, science and social studies, they are there benefiting from instruction with the rest of the class. And this, in turn, benefits even our non-special education students who gain lessons in empathy and experience the full range of human abilities.

Of course, most of our special education students are also included in our test scores. Yes, other countries that ignore these children and exclude them from testing get higher scores. But so what? Do you mean to tell me this makes them better? No, it makes them worse.

In many ways, we are the gold standard, not them. They should be emulating us, not the other way around. They should be jealous of the way we prize each other’s humanity. We shouldn’t be salivating at test scores achieved through shunning certain students in favor of others.

CURRICULUM AND STRATIFICATION

But it’s not just who we teach, it’s also what we teach.

Compared to many other countries, U.S. school curriculum is often much wider and varied. Countries that focus only on testing often leave out sciences, arts, literature and humanities.

Unfortunately, the push from policymakers even in the U.S. has been to narrow curriculum to imitate some of the worst practices of our competitors. But in many districts we still strive to create well-rounded graduates and not just good test-takers.

The bottom line: the curriculum at most American schools is more inclusive than that found internationally. We even include societal issues like alcohol and drug abuse prevention, stress reduction and relaxation, and physical fitness programs.

In addition we don’t stratify our children based on academic ability to nearly the same degree as many international schools. We don’t weed out our worst students through middle and high school until only our most capable are left in 12th grade. Nor is college only open to our best and brightest. We make a much greater effort than many other countries to keep this option open to as many students as possible regardless of whether they can afford it or not. The number of Americans with at least some college education has soared over the past 70 years, from 10 percent in 1940 to 56 percent today, even as the population has tripled and the nation has grown vastly more diverse. Meanwhile, Graduation rates are at an all-time high of 83.2 percent, and for the first time minority students are catching up with their white counterparts.

It’s not easy. But it’s something we’re committed to as a nation. And that’s not true around the world.

SIZE MATTERS

Finally, there’s the issue of size. The United States is a big country – the third most populous in the world. We have 324,450,000 people and growing. That’s about 50 million students in public schools.

It’s much easier to educate fewer children. Even excellent education systems would struggle with our sheer numbers. Small systems often outshine bigger ones. For instance, I might be able to make dinner for my immediate family, but I’d find it much more challenging to prepare a meal for a banquet hall of hundreds. Similarly, it remains to be seen whether smaller nations could handle educating a population as big and diverse as ours without collapsing.

By any fair measure, America’s public education system is simply stunning. But the media perpetuates the myth that we’re failing.

PUBLIC PERCEPTION AND THE MEDIA

After decades of hearing these falsehoods, the American public is strikingly divided. On a 2011 Gallup poll, parents were asked their opinion of their local school and the public was asked its opinion of schools in general. The results are enlightening. Parents who gave their local school an A grade were at the highest percentage ever (37%) whereas only 1% of respondents rated the nations schools that way. Why the difference? Respondents said it was mostly because people knew about their local schools through direct experience. They only learned about the state of education nationally through the news media.

Why is education reporting so biased? Part of it is monetary. Huge corporations make hundreds of millions of dollars off of the failing schools narrative. They sell new standardized tests, new test prep materials, new Common Core books, trainings for teachers, materials, etc. If they can’t demonstrate that our schools are failing, their market shrinks. And who do you think owns the shrinking media conglomerates? That’s right, many of these same corporations.

But even when journalists want to be fair, it’s difficult for them to get the inside story of how our public schools work. They are rarely permitted inside our schools to see the day-to-day classroom experience. Legal issues about which students may be photographed, filmed or interviewed, the difficulty of getting parental permissions and the possibility of embarrassment to principals and administrators often keeps the doors closed. In many districts, teachers aren’t even allowed to speak on the record to the media or doing so can make them a political target. So reporters are often in the position of being unable to directly experience the very thing they’re reporting on. Imagine if sportswriters never got to see athletes play or political reporters never attended a campaign rally. Of course there would be a disconnect!

So we’re left with a public education system that should be the envy of the world being portrayed as a loser.

THE BOTTOM LINE

As ever, far right politicians on both sides of the aisle, whether they be Democratic Neoliberals or Republican Tea Partiers, are using falsehoods about our public schools to sell an alternative. They say our public schools are beyond saving and that we need to privatize. They call it school choice but it’s really just an attempt to destroy the system that has so much going for it.

We should strengthen public education not undermine it. We should roll up our sleeves and fix the real problems we have, not invent fake ones.

People act as if “alternative facts” were invented by the Trump administration. Our policymakers have been using them for decades in a libelous and dishonest campaign against our public schools.

They are some of the best in the world – if only people knew it.

Civil Rights Aren’t Just for Minorities – They’re For Everyone

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“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

-Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

 

It’s still shocking to me that so many white people seem to think civil rights are just a black issue.

 

As if they’re something that only concerns people of color.

 

White people can’t be the victims of discrimination? We can’t be mistreated on the basis of gender, religion, sexuality, or age?

 

Of course we can! And many of us are. But we are rarely discriminated against on the basis of our race. And somehow accepting that fact seems to turn us against the very idea of civil rights.

 

We act as if talking about civil rights is code for black issues. Many of us refuse to even admit that black people have legitimate grievances in this area, that they’re just needlessly complaining and looking for sympathy, that they’re trying to get something for free or get one over on us.

 

It’s pure bullshit. Black people are authentically aggrieved. They are the victims of a systemic racism that rarely even becomes visible to white eyes. And that same system either ignores whiteness or even privileges it.

 

The criminal justice system, alone, is rife with examples including racial profiling, stop-and-frisk policies, police brutality and the failed War on Drugs. Add to that voter ID laws, redlining, and credit scores. Add to that the use of bigoted and prejudiced textbooks, punishing non-white students more harshly than white students, underfunding public schools, and closing them down if they’re attended mostly by students of color.

 

Yet that doesn’t mean white people are impervious to civil rights violations. It just means that people of color are targeted much more often and are in much greater need of help than we are.

 

Yet many of us refuse to admit it. We refuse even though doing so actually puts ourselves at greater risk.

 

Think about it. If we ignore the civil rights concerns of those most victimized, who will be there for us when we’re targeted?

 

Take police brutality.

According to the Guardian’s The Counted, 1,092 Americans were killed by police in 2016. If we look at it proportionately, a much higher percentage of minorities were killed than white people. Specifically, Native Americans were killed at 10.13 per million, black people at 6.66 per million, while Hispanics and Latinos were killed at 3.23 per million. By comparison, white people were only killed at 2.9 per million.

 

So minorities were killed at much higher rates than whites given their smaller percentages of the population. However, if we look at the raw numbers, more white people were killed than any other group. Specifically, the police killed 574 whites, 266 blacks, 183 Hispanics/Latinos and 24 Native Americans.

 

So, yes, the African American community is right to be angry that they’re being disproportionately targeted by police. However, more than 500 white people were killed by law enforcement, too. That’s a troubling figure all by itself. Why are American police killing so many of us? Why is law enforcement so trigger happy in the USA?

 

It’s a problem for everyone. Police should not be killing such high numbers of civilians. In fact, in other countries, they don’t. Police kill more people in the U.S. in days than they do in other countries in years. Yet very few police officers actually serve jail time. Several officers went to trial in 2016, but only a handful were convicted.

 

This is a real problem, yet many white people dismiss it as a black issue – and an illegitimate one at that. As a country, we have a real concern with the way police are trained, protocol for when deadly force is allowed and how officers are held accountable. But we’re letting this issue fall through the cracks because it’s being delegitimized as a “mere” civil rights complaint.

 

Things have really changed in this country.

 

In 1963, when the all black 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was bombed by four members of the Ku Klux Klan, the entire society took notice. Even whites who had been unsympathetic to the civil rights struggles of African Americans up to this point were disturbed at the murder of four children and the injury of 22 others. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called it “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity,” and it marked a turning point in our history. The fight for civil rights became a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, American struggle to secure equality for our brother and sister African Americans.

 

However, just two years ago when Dylann Roof was inspired by white supremacist Websites to kill nine people at all black Charleston Church in South Carolina, the response was… meh. Though it has been categorized as a hate crime, it has done nothing to wake up the society at large to the realities of modern day American racism. At most, it’s dismissed as an isolated event.

 

However, it’s not. White supremacists have long targeted African American churches as objects of their hatred. In 1991 it took a series of 154 suspicious church burnings for Congress five year later to pass the Church Arson Prevention Act, making it a federal crime to damage religious property because of its “racial or ethnic character.” More recently, a black church in Massachusetts was burned down the day after President Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009.

 

For some reason, these continuing hate crimes fail to rouse the public at large. Perhaps the Internet culture and the perpetuation of so-called news sources that only support partisan confirmation bias has something to do with it. But it’s harmful to all of us.

 

When white people ignore the legitimate claims of black people, they make it easier for everyone to be mistreated. Often white people have acted as if prejudice could never be perpetrated against them, and when it’s cropped up, we’ve defined it narrowly to fit only the immediate group targeted. That’s an LGBT issue. That’s a Jewish issue. That’s an issue for people with disabilities. We rarely see them as they are – human issues.

 

In the age of Trump, violations of individual rights are popping up every day: journalists receiving felony charges for covering unrest at the inauguration, a Louisiana bill that makes resisting arrest a hate crime punishable by 10 years in prison, proposed laws in 10 states to criminalize peaceful protects – and on and on.

 

Nor is it partisan. Here are a list of human rights violations under Obama: drone strikes outside active war zones, ongoing use of massive civilian surveillance programs, failure to close Guantanamo Bay, harsh penalties for whistle blowers and no accountability for those they expose.

 

We live in an age where our rights are being eroded by ignorance, indifference, and the uncritical acceptance of prepacked political narratives. The powers that be use racism and prejudice to keep us divided so we’ll never mount an effective opposition.

 

Today as ever we need each other. We need to be there for our brothers and sisters in humanity. That starts with white people waking up to the harsh realities of black life in America.