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

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It’s back on!

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

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

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

Or something like that.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

So there you are.

Pennsylvania’s legislature is an absolute mess.

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

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

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

The case will now go back to Commonwealth Court.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pennsylvania Proposes Smaller Tests, Same High Stakes

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Um. Thanks?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Bring Your Gun to School – Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Senate

 

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Next school year, I may be able to bring my gun to class.

 

The Pennsylvania state Senate voted 28-22 today to allow school employees like me to start packing heat.

 

Hooray!

 

My class sizes will be larger because of almost $1 billion in budget cuts the legislature couldn’t be bothered to heal over the last seven years. I’ll have to teach more sections because my district is bleeding money from charter school vampires that the legislature couldn’t be bothered to regulate.

 

But now I can be fully armed.

 

Priorities.

 

Bullets over books, I guess.

 

As a more than 15 year veteran of the public school system, I can’t wait to get back in the classroom wondering which of my fellow teachers, principals, custodians or rent-a-cop security guards is fully locked and loaded. I can’t wait until my elementary school daughter is finally protected by being in an adult’s daily line of fire.

 

This is going to make us much safer.

 

At my school, we fired a security guard for slamming a student’s head into the table. I’m sure having these folks armed will have no negative effects at all.

 

And the extra stress from added responsibilities being piled on my back will just make me more vigilant in case I need to take out my piece in class and chase away Black Bart with my Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model… uh… rifle.

 

Maybe I can get one with a compass in the stock and a thingie that really tells time, too!

 

Seriously, it’s hard to believe that grown adults actually voted on this ridiculous farce of a law. The only positive thing is that it still needs to be passed by the House and signed by the Governor.

 

Bad news: state Representatives just might be as stupid as their Senate colleagues. Good news: the Governor isn’t. There is less than a snowball’s chance in Hell that Gov. Tom Wolf is going to sign this piece of crap.

 

This is what happens when you have a Republican-controlled legislature and a Democratic Governor. The kids say they want nothing but candy for dinner and Dad says “No.”

 

Now, with a reality TV star con man in our highest national office, GOP-controlled state legislatures like mine all over the country have become emboldened to pass even worse excrement knowing full well that it has zero chance of ever becoming law. But at least they’ll prove to their gerrymandered Republican voting districts not to primary them with even further right leaning Tea Party mental defectives.

 

It’s a game of chicken with our most vulnerable residents held hostage in the middle.

 

You know, if lawmakers think that guns are such a great idea in schools, why don’t they make them legal at the state capital?

 

You can’t go in that building without passing through a metal detector. If you try to bring a gun in there, the best thing you can hope for is to be refused entry.

 

The same thing at Commonwealth courts, military bases, mental hospitals, prisons and even the security checkpoint at the airport.

 

And it’s pretty similar in most states. Certainly at federal institutions. You can’t take a firearm with you to visit your Congressperson – or on a tour of the White House.

 

Heck! Guns aren’t even welcome at Donald Trump’s political rallies, or most of his hotels, golf courses or other properties. Same at conventions held by the National Rifle Association and the Conservative Political Action Conference.

 

Gee. Why are so-called conservatives so darn concerned with making sure teachers are armed, but they don’t want to offer the same “protection” to themselves in government, at their businesses, rallies and places of leisure?

 

Why? Because it’s bullshit.

 

That’s why.

 

Most of them don’t really want guns in schools. They know it’s a terrible idea. They just want to look like they support it. Their propaganda networks spew out all this nonsense that they have to pretend to believe.

 

When they let protesters enter the capital building open carrying automatic weapons, THEN I won’t doubt their sincerity.

 

When they let Black Lives Matter activists strapping rifles across their shoulders into their rallies among the angry and confused hillbillies, THEN I’ll know how serious they are.

 

And when the upper crust private and parochial schools where they send their own children start arming their teachers, THEN I’ll believe them.

 

Until that day, I call bullshit on this whole ridiculous endeavor.

Report: Charter School Vampires Drain Traditional PA Districts Dry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It leads to many problems.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that’s not the worst of it.

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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?

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.

The Measure of Citizenship isn’t an Exit Exam – It’s Participating in Our Democracy

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Pennsylvania legislators just flunked civics – big time.

Once again, instead of offering real solutions to eradicate the ignorance of the coming generation, they clothed themselves in their own.

A bi-partisan group of 47 state lawmakers is proposing forcing all public school students to pass a test on citizenship in order to qualify for a diploma.

House Bill 1858 would require all K-12 schools receiving tax dollars — including charters schools and cybercharters — to give their students the same 100-question test that immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship will have to pass starting in 2020. Any student who doesn’t get a sufficient score will not receive a diploma or GED equivalency.

While it is admirable that legislators are concerned that high school students don’t know enough about civics, it’s unfortunate that they think the solution is another standardized test.

After all, what does being a good citizen have to do with a multiple choice exam?

Citizenship is about political independence. It’s about exercising your rights, not memorizing them. It’s about engaging in the political process, not spitting back facts about what kind of tree George Washington chopped down. It’s about using the principals of self-determination to rise up to the level of personal and community involvement, of individual sovereignty and home rule.

This involves actually teaching civics, a subject that has been cut to the quick in our schools to make room for an increasing amount of test-prep in math and reading. It used to be common for American high schools to offer three civics and government courses. Two of them – “Civics” and “Problems of Democracy” – defined the role of a citizen in relation to current events and issues. However, in most districts now these have been condensed into one “American Government” course that spends hardly any time on how students can and should participate in their government. Moreover, this course isn’t even offered until junior or senior year – far too late to make much of a difference.

Maybe instead of  putting a metaphorical gun to kids heads and demanding they care about civics, you could actually provide some resources so teachers could… I don’t know… teach it!

How about actually funding our public schools? You well-meaning dunderheads slashed school budgets by almost $1 billion a year for the last six years, and your only solution to helping kids learn has been to put more hurdles in their way without offering anything to help them achieve.

That is a losing strategy. If you want to have a winning race horse, at some point you have to feed the freakin’ horse!

If lawmakers really want kids in the Keystone state to know something about civics, why not start by making it easier for schools to broaden the curriculum to include robust civics courses?

This means REDUCING the number of standardized tests, not increasing them. Inject some money into the system so schools can hire back some of the 25,000 teachers who have been furloughed. You want kids to learn how to be citizens? Provide them with excellent teachers who actually get to experience some meaningful professional development, teachers not overburdened with meaningless paperwork to justify their jobs at every turn, teachers encouraged with rewards for seeking National Board Certification, etc. And let’s reduce class size so kids actually have the chance to be heard by their teachers and might actually learn something.

Moreover, if you really want to assess if these lessons have been learned, assess whether students are actually participating in their Democracy.

That’s the thing about citizenship. It looks like a noun, but it’s really a verb. It only has meaning if you do it.

Have high school kids registered to vote? Have they volunteered to take part in the political process, to canvass or phone bank for a candidate they believe in? Have they attended a session of the state House or Senate? (Have you provided the funding for appropriate field trips?) Have they attended a rally or protest for a cause close to their hearts?

THESE are the measures of true citizenship. And there are things you can do to make it easier for students to take part.

But no one really wants that. Come on. This is still essentially the same legislature that passed a Voter ID bill a few years back to make it harder for people to participate in our Democracy. And it would still be on the books if the state Supreme Court hadn’t struck it down as Unconstitutional.

Citizenship!? This is the same legislature that redrew state districts to be so incredibly gerrymandered that the most radical factions of both parties are unchallenged each election cycle!

You know why children don’t know more about civics? Because they’re so disgusted and demoralized by the example you’ve shown them. When politics is nothing but a show, when hardly anything ever changes or actually gets accomplished in Harrisburg, you expect kids to get excited by citizenship!? HA!

All you know how to do is pretend. That’s what this is. Just throw another standardized test on the fire of our children’s education and you can act like you’ve done something.

May I remind you we’re still dealing with the last smoldering exit exam disaster you fostered on us – the Keystone Exams?

You spent $1.1 billion on these tests since 2008, and they’re a statewide joke! You required all students to pass these assessments in Literature, Algebra and Biology, but they’re so poorly constructed and confusing that only half of our students can pass all three. So you put them on hold for two years until you could decide what to do.

And before you even fix that mess, you actually have the gall to say, “Hey! Let’s make kids take ANOTHER test!?”

I know some of you mean well, but this suggestion is a disgrace.

It’s style over substance.

This isn’t a measure to reduce ignorance. It’s a measure conceived in ignorance that’s guaranteed to proliferate it.

Instead of Nixing the Keystone Exams, PDE Recommends a Cornucopia of Tests

frustrated-student-300x199

The answer is in.

After a summer of intense study, the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) has a solution to our exit exam problem.

Last year we almost failed half of our high school seniors state wide because they couldn’t pass all three of our poorly constructed Keystone Exams. So we decided not to count the scores for two years in order to find a way to fix the problem.

And now PDE has a recommendation for the legislature.

Drop the Keystone Exams? Base graduation on the completion of high school classwork?

NOPE.

PDE still loves standardized testing. It just wants to give kids more choice about which standardized tests they can take.

Instead of having to pass the Keystone Exams in Algebra I, Literature and Biology, state policy-makers suggest a veritable Whitman’s Sampler of test-heavy paths to graduation.

Four choices.

Four paths to a diploma.

And they all involve lots and lots of multiple choice, sharpen-your-number-two-pencil, standardized tests.

PDE suggests that students can:

1)         Achieve scores on all three Keystone Exams that when averaged out produce a passing score. So maybe you fail the Biology test but your Algebra I and Literature scores are high enough to even out to a passing score.

2)         Achieve a passing score on some other standardized test approved by the state – SAT, ACT, etc. So maybe you take the Keystone Biology exam and the SAT for English and Math.

3)         For vocational students only – get passing grades in your high school classes, and pass a standardized assessment made for vocational students or otherwise provide evidence of success in that field of study.

4)         Get passing grades in your high school courses and provide at least three pieces of evidence of postsecondary success. More on what counts as evidence later.

PDE estimates these new alternative graduation requirements will be much more effective than the old ones.

The first option of allowing an average score on all three Keystone Exams, for instance, would mean that 72% of Pennsylvania students would thus be eligible for graduation vs. 51% under the old requirement.

The remaining 28% of high schoolers could then meet the graduation requirement by following one of the other three paths.

In most cases, this means more standardized testing – you just get to choose which test to take.

Under the fourth option, students only need to pass their courses and provide three pieces of evidence that they deserve to graduate. But what counts as evidence?
Please pick three from the following menu:

1)         Earn a passing grade in a dual enrollment course. In other words, pass a class in high school that will count as a college credit – maybe an advanced foreign language or math.

2)         Pass the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) – the entrance exam to qualify for military service. I don’t think you have to actually enlist, but you have to take and pass the test.

3)         Get a letter from an employer guaranteeing you have full-time employment after high school.

4)         Attain a high value industry credential.

5)         Get a certificate that you successfully  completed an internship related to your career goals.

6)         Pass a standardized test such as the PA Career Academic Work Standards assessment and/or SAT.

One notable absence from these choices is a Project Based Assessment (PBA).

Previous legislation allowed students who failed the Keystones to complete PBAs in place of one or more tests. Students would research a specific topic with a trained tutor who would evaluate students’ work and provide feedback. It was designed for students unable or unwilling to pass specific Keystone Exams.

However, this was extremely expensive.

Over the past year, approximately 6,700 students throughout the state completed 15,700 PBAs. In many cases, it took them more than 30 hours to finish each assessment. This put a tremendous burden on local school districts to hire additional staff and remediate students from missed coursework. It also cost the state more money to hire additional people to score the PBAs.

According to the report, an unnamed suburban southeastern district told PDE it had to hire nine specialists at a cost of $900,000. A large unnamed urban district estimated PBAs would cost it an additional $4.1 million. PDE, itself, would need an additional $7 million to grade these assessments.

There were also concerns of whether the PBAs could be completed in a secure fashion to make sure students weren’t cheating. However, the majority of concerns were financial.

As a result, PDE recommended doing away with PBAs.

This leaves the question of what to do with students whose parents opt them out of standardized testing. Under previous legislation, these kids could take PBAs. It is unclear what they could do now to achieve the graduation requirement since so many of the options suggested by PDE involve taking some form of standardized test.

It remains to be seen if lawmakers decide to trample on parents rights in this way.

So that’s it. Four paths to graduation.

There are many ways in which these alternatives are an improvement to the old pass-the-Keystones-or-else requirement.

First, the new plan acknowledges that students don’t need to be equally strong in all academic areas. Someone going into technical school has less reason to demonstrate skill in Biology than someone entering the medical field, for instance.

Also, this provides different options to qualify for a diploma instead of different kinds of diplomas. It had been suggested that students who don’t pass all tests might get a second tier diploma, perhaps even one of several tiers of diploma. So a blue diploma might mean you did pretty good, but not as good as a gold diploma, etc. We can be thankful PDE nixed that terrible idea.

Another positive is that PDE acknowledges standardized tests are not the only possible measure of success. Moreover, some measures of that success can be fairly determined at the district level.

Personally, I wish they went further with this. The authors of the report admit that colleges and employers rarely look at standardized test scores. Report card grades are a much better predictor of future success at both the college and career level. PDE cites three different peer-reviewed academic studies that come to this conclusion, but state education officials don’t have the bravery to likewise conclude that standardized assessments are unnecessary. Instead they play around at the edges, allow choice among standardized assessments and a complicated metric relying heavily on these assessments.

Moreover, as refreshing as it is to have state government admit that we can trust our local school districts to make some decisions about their students, why can’t we go one step further and say local districts can determine who deserves a diploma, in the first place? For centuries this is exactly what our schools did. In fact, the majority of people currently holding down jobs were determined to be ready for those jobs or their college experiences by just those same local school districts. Is America so incompetent that it needs standardized test corporations to bless everyone before being allowed to graduate? Would we be a better nation if everyone had to pass a standardized test to qualify for the workforce?

In short, the report from PDE certainly represents an improvement on the current Keystone Exam graduation requirement. However, it shows a real lack of courage and conviction by state functionaries.

There is no academic reason to have a graduation requirement beyond traditional coursework. It will only suppress the graduation rate as it has in other states in which it has been enacted. If we really wanted to increase the quality of high school graduates, we’d invest in them. We’d lower class size. We’d provide a wide curriculum. We’d provide equitable funding for children at different points on the socioeconomic scale. We’d provide services and tutoring for our most disadvantaged students.

Instead, we’re still just putting up more hurdles and demanding kids pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

Something clearly must be done.

If the legislature doesn’t make changes, the requirement to pass all three Keystone Exams will apply to current high school freshman and sophomores.

There’s never been an exit exam like this in Pennsylvania before – in fact, almost the entire workforce, business community and state leadership somehow managed to get by without one. But whatever; these children today need to prove themselves.

Kids, passing your courses isn’t enough anymore. You’ve got to pass a test. Several of them in fact.

Never mind that you have to pass tests to succeed in your courses. THOSE tests are designed by teachers. You have to pass a real test – something designed by a corporation.

As big business continues to floods our lawmakers with campaign cash, somewhere along the way our representatives decided to spend a truckload of our tax dollars on big business – to make tests. Can’t imagine why.

In 2014, the legislature decided you’d have to pass a series of 10 Keystone Exams in core subjects. Fail even one of them and you’d get nothing but a certificate of attendance. So 12-13 years of schooling and you get this:

“Hey! Remember Paulie?”
 
 
“Yeah?”
 
 
“He was here.”

However, creating 10 brand new tests costs an awful lot of money. Pennsylvania shelled out more than $200 million before lawmakers said, “Okay, that’s enough,” and stopped with just the three we have. But before even these could be made permanent prerequisites of graduation, the scores came in.

It wasn’t good. About half of all students in both traditional public schools and charter schools couldn’t pass them all.

Why?

Well, the Common Core aligned tests were of dubious quality and zero validity based on actual educational research. Also, we cut off educational supports by slashing school budgets by almost $1 billion a year. Oh, and we spent way more money on rich students than poor students earning us the dubious distinction of having the most inequitable school funding in the nation.

Not exactly a recipe for success.

So what was the state to do – move forward and withhold diplomas for half of all students? Or Toss out the tests and move on?

Instead, lawmakers came up with a unanimous compromise – more time. The legislature decided to pause the Keystone requirement for two years in order to better study what could be done.

And now PDE has it’s test heavy solution to move forward.

People of conscience need to stand up and oppose any kind of additional exit exam in Pennsylvania. Parents, teachers and students need to band together. School board directors need to pass resolutions. Thoughtful lawmakers need to put forward progressive legislation.
The resistance has already begun.