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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State Senator: Get Ready to Sue the PA Department of Education Over Common Core Testing

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Pennsylvania State Sen. Andrew Dinniman is mad as Hell and he’s not going to take it anymore.

The West Chester Democrat is furious at the state Department of Education (PDE) over the Keystone Exams.

In February, the legislature unanimously passed a law to delay for two years using the Keystones as a graduation requirement for public school students. The exams will still be given to high school students in Algebra I, Biology and English, but passing them is not necessary to receive a diploma. During this time, the legislature is supposed to investigate alternate assessments above and beyond standardized testing.

However, Dinniman sent out an email to supporters this week claiming PDE is “blatantly ignoring the law and issuing directives to local school districts to use the exam if they want to for graduation.”

This goes against the delay, says Dinniman. The legislature is unsure requiring the Keystone Exam is a good idea, yet the state Senator contends the current administration is advising districts to move forward anyway.

Under the old law that was put on hold by the delay, if parents decided to opt their children out of standardized testing, students had to complete a Project Based Assessment. However, even though there is no test-based graduation requirement for current seniors, Dinniman says PDE still is forcing these children to complete Project Based Assessments.

“It appears that PDE is forcing the children of parents who opted out to take the Project Based Assessment, whose use is currently suspended by the legislature,” he says.

“There seems to be no respect by PDE for the rights of parents concerning their own children.”

Dinniman, who also serves as minority chair of the Senate Education Committee, has long been a critic of the Keystone Exams. He lead the charge to delay their implementation.

Now that PDE seems committed to the project despite concerns by legislators, he is asking for parents and other concerned citizens to contact him about suing the organization.

“If you know parents or organizations who might want to take PDE to court or file amicus briefs, let me know…  This is a matter of great importance. A number of us have been working for years against excessive testing and have serious concerns about Common Core.”

He will hold an open meeting for those concerned about the issue on Monday, Sept. 12, at 7:30 pm in his district office along One North Church Street in West Chester.

One of the issues at stake is the exorbitant costs of the Keystone and Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests. With education budgets shrinking at the federal, state and local level, this money diverted to huge testing corporations could be better spent elsewhere.

Since 2008, the Commonwealth has spent $1 billion to proctor, grade and create new versions of the PSSA and the new Common Core-aligned Keystone Exams. Of that figure, $741 million went to Data Recognition Corporation.

Dinniman included in his email an explanation of the Commonwealth’s contract with Data Recognition Corp., a chart showing how much has been paid to the company, a list of materials PDE requested from the company but that has not yet been provided and an article written by education historian Diane Ravitch published in the New York Times explaining why these tests are troublesome.

In 2013, the state Conference of NAACP Branches issued a statement condemning the Keystone graduation requirement in extremely strong terms.

The organization called it a “present day form of Eugenics”, “a human rights violation”, “a clandestine social movement that strips children of their dignity and self worth” and that it would deprive impoverished and minority students  “of decent income, decent food, decent homes, and hopeful prospects as well as the security of justice.”

The statement can be read in full here.

In the halls of state government, Dinniman has been one of the most vocal critics of high stakes testing and national academic standards.

“I have been fighting against the use of these standardized tests as the sole determinants of high school graduation since they were first proposed by the previous [Corbett] administration in 2012.”

“Strong standards and effective assessments are needed in our schools, but they must come with the necessary resources and support to be implemented in a way that does not negatively impact both students and taxpayers,” he says.

Chester County, where Dinniman is from, has been a hotbed of testing criticism. Located in the southeastern most part of the state, parents, teachers and students publicly spoke out against the exams. Almost all school boards in the county passed resolutions opposing the Keystones and 58 superintendents and Intermediate Unit Directors up through the Philadelphia suburbs also expressed opposition.

If the delay had not been approved, this year’s seniors would have been required to pass all three Keystone Exams in order to graduate. Now the exams won’t be a graduation requirement until the 2018-19 school year.

The federal government still requires the exams be given for evaluative purposes, but it was the Republican dominated Tom Corbett administration that went the extra step of making the exams necessary to receive a diploma.

The delay is supposed to provide additional time to resolve consequences of implementing the exams. This means investigating and reporting on the following:

    • Alternative methods for students to demonstrate proficiency for graduation in addition to the Keystone Exams and project-based assessments.
    • Improving and expediting the evaluation of the project-based assessments.
    • Ensuring that students are not prohibited from participating in vocational-technical education or elective courses or programs as a requirement of supplemental instruction.

Moreover, the newly passed federal K-12 education legislation, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), allows the Commonwealth even more leeway to implement fairer and more affective means of assessment, Dinniman says.

“Until now, education policy has been largely dominated by regulations implemented by the State Board of Education in accordance with the federal government. Some of these regulations seemed to be enacted with little to no consideration of fiscal impacts or educational value,” Dinniman said.

“However, the state legislature has a Constitutional duty and responsibility to oversee and provide for ‘a thorough and efficient system of public education.’ Going forward, I believe the legislature will be more aggressive in reasserting its role in the process.”

Dinniman can be reached by phone at 610-692-2112 (District Office) and 717-787-5709 (Harrisburg Office).

He can be reached by email here.

He is on Facebook and Twitter.

Below is the full text of Dinniman’s Email:


(Source: optoutpa.blogspot.com)

 

To Supporters of Ending Common Core Exams in Pennsylvania:

Despite Act 1 of 2016, which suspended any use of the Keystone exams or the Project Based Assessments for graduation purposes during the two year period of 2016-18, the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) is blatantly ignoring the law and issuing directives to local school districts to use the exam if they want to for graduation.

It certainly appears that PDE has shown their solid commitment to the Common Core testing process and the continued collection of data.  They don’t seem to care about or respect the law.  This is not government by the elected legislature but government by the bureaucracy.

You will be interested to learn the taxpayers of Pennsylvania, since 2008, spent $1.1 billion on these Common Core tests, with $741 million of that going to one testing company, Data Recognition Corporation (DRC).

Please view the supporting material at the following links:
1. An explanation of the Data Recognition Corp. (DRC) contracts.

2. A chart showing the DRC contracts, which come to $741,158,039.60, and the total paid to date of $440,512,625.69.

3. A listing of material requested from PDE but, as of this date, not provided.
4. A column from the July 23, 2016 New York Times providing background on these Common Core Exams, which in Pennsylvania are the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) and Keystone Exams.

Additionally, it appears that PDE is forcing the children of parents who opted out to take the Project Based Assessment, whose use is currently suspended by the legislature.  There seems to be no respect by PDE for the rights of parents concerning their own children.

So the question now is “what will we do about this situation?”  If you know parents or organizations who might want to take PDE to court or file amicus briefs, let me know.

In the meantime, I am having a meeting for those concerned about PDE’s actions in my district office, One North Church Street, West Chester, on Monday, September 12th, 2016 at 7:30 p.m.

This is a matter of great importance.  A number of us have been working for years against excessive testing and have serious concerns about Common Core.  Please invite your friends to join in the September 12th meeting.

Respectfully,

Andrew E. Dinniman

State Senator, 19th District

You Can’t Win a Rigged Game – Standardized Tests as “Proof” of Failure

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One of my dearest high school friends was a bit of a doofus.

Who am I kidding? So was I!

One of our favorite things to do after school was plop on the coach and play shoot ‘em up video games. “Smash TV” was a particular favorite.

We’d bob and weave while clutching controllers and rapidly jamming our thumbs on the buttons.

And at such times, we‘d talk.

No great philosophical problems were solved during these mid-afternoon gaming sessions. We’d talk trash, dissing each other’s gaming skills, bragging about our own, and occasionally quizzing each other with trivia on a shared topic of interest.

We both loved movies, so my buddy used to shout out cinematic quotations and ask me to name where they came from.

“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

“Luke, I am your father!”

“Go ahead, punk. Make my day!”

None of these famous quotes made my buddy’s list. He preferred lines like these:

“Run!”

“Look out!”

“Holy S&*t!”

As you can imagine, I rarely got any of them right.

I’d laugh, punch him in the arm good-naturedly and go on shooting virtual enemies.

It was good dumb fun. But now – more than two decades later – my students are forced to take my buddy’s quiz – and if they don’t pass, the government is threatening to shut down their schools and fire me, their teacher.

No, learners don’t have to identify impossible movie quotes. Instead, they’re forced to answer impossibly bad multiple choice questions. But the results are pretty much the same.

In my home state, the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) and the Keystone Exams are high stakes versions of my buddy’s moronic quiz. The purpose isn’t to fairly assess: it’s to stump as many kids as possible.

And it’s working. For the fourth year in a row, student test scores have declined statewide. Previously, students had been doing relatively well. Why the change?

It began with budget cuts. The legislature slashed almost $1 billion every year in school funding. That means higher class sizes, less teachers, fewer electives, tutoring, nurses, services, etc. And districts like mine weren’t exactly drowning in money to begin with.

Students now have less resources, therefore they can’t prepare as well for the tests.

So what did the legislature do? Did our lawmakers fix the problem by putting back the money they had repurposed as gifts to the natural gas industry?

Heck no! They made the tests even more unnecessarily difficult.

As a result, the steady decline in test scores this year fell off a cliff!

After all, this was the first year in which the Commonwealth fully aligned every question of its mandatory testing with the Pennsylvania Core Standards – which are similar, but not identical to the Common Core standards adopted in other states.

Proficiency rates in grades 3 through 8 dropped by an average of 35.4 percent in math and 9.4 percent in English language arts on the PSSA. Nearly half of all seventh and eighth graders dropped an entire proficiency level in math in just one year.

If I made up a test like this in my own classroom, gave it to my students and got results like these, my first assumption would be that there was something horribly wrong with the test. I must have messed something up to fail so many students! Teachers are always on the lookout for unclear or bad questions on their self-created exams. The for-profit corporations that create our state-mandated tests? Not so much.

Though state Department of Education officials acknowledge the continued decline in scores, they insist problems will work themselves out in subsequent years – as if a 4-year trend is just an anomaly. Move along. Nothing to see here, folks.

My students used to make impressive gains on the tests. My principal stopped by today to give me the scores for my current students and those I taught last year. No surprise. Very few passed.

Are my students now lazier and less intelligent than those I taught four years ago? No. Students who scored well before the budget cuts, often score badly now.

Am I a worse teacher? Absolutely not. I have the same skills I did then. I spend the same amount of time at school – maybe more.

So what changed in my classroom? Lack of reconnaissance.

Teachers like myself used to know exactly what was expected of students on these assessments. We had plenty of materials with which to prepare them. Now the exams change every year – and I don’t mean just the individual questions, I mean what is tested!

Back in the day, when my buddy first shouted out, “Run!” and asked me which movie it came from, I had no idea. But after he did it long enough, I’d start to anticipate him. I’d learn that he was thinking of James Cameron’s “The Terminator.”

That’s how the PSSA’s used to be. Teachers knew how the test makers wanted kids to answer. And we could prepare them to do so. The tests didn’t accurately assess student learning even then. It was a game, but at least it was more fair.

Let’s be honest. These tests have never been particularly good. You can’t honestly expect to assess higher order thinking skills on a multiple choice test. Basic skills, maybe. But anything complex simply cannot be measured in this manner. We’ve known that for over a century!

It’s like my buddy’s movie quiz. I have little doubt that someone really did shout “Run!” in “The Terminator.” However, that same line probably appears in at least a dozen more action movies. There’s no way to determine a single correct answer. And shouting out a different quote instead like “Look out!” doesn’t help either.

So please stop the talk about “Rigor.” We’re not raising standards. We’re changing them. My buddy found a new bunch of movies from which to shout out impossible quotes. That’s all.

Anyone who wants to argue validity to these new test questions has to leap a host of hurdles to accomplish his goal.

First, one would have to prove PA Core – and by extension Common Core – Standards actually improve student learning. Good luck. It’s never been done and all the evidence is against you.

Second, one would have to gain access to an individual year’s worth of test questions. Again, good luck. They’re corporate property. The public is not allowed to see the questions. If a principal, student or teacher were to copy a question or snap a photo of a test, they could be subject to prosecution in a court of law.

Such a lack of transparency in government is a sure sign of malfeasance.

It’s almost impossible to avoid certain conclusions about this whole process. Standardized testing is designed to fail students – just like my buddy’s movie quiz was designed to stump me.

These tests constitute fake proof of inadequacy. They attempt to “prove” our public schools are failing and should, therefore, be replaced by private corporations – maybe even by subsidiaries of the same for-profit companies that make and grade these tests!

When my buddy unfairly stumped me, we both knew it was a joke. We’d laugh and play another video game.

But there’s nothing funny about this when it’s perpetrated by the state and federal government.

Pennsylvania’s standardized test scores are a farce just like the scores in every state and territory throughout the country. They’re lies told by corporations, permitted and supported by lawmakers, and swallowed whole by the media and far too much of the public.

We always seem on the verge of waking up. Tomorrow we will stop the state-sanctioned abuse of children by the testing industry. Tomorrow we’ll take responsibility for this sick system we allow.

But when will tomorrow come? I’m tired of waiting.


NOTE: This article also was quoted extensively on Diane Ravitch’s blog and published in full on the Badass Teachers Association blog.