Stupid Ass School Voucher Bill Back for Pennsylvania Vote Tomorrow

Shake the world to make money

 

Close your eyes and imagine a school like the one where I teach.

 

The public middle school is right next door to a Catholic middle school.

 

Some of the wealthiest families send their kids to the religious school. The rest send their kids to the public school.

 

Now imagine that the state passes a school voucher bill.

 

Those wealthy families can now use public tax dollars to help fund their kids’ Catholic school tuition.

 

A truckload of taxpayer wealth would be redistributed away from the public school and into the religious one.

 

And this is for children who weren’t attending public school in the first place.

 

Imagine what an impact that would have on the two schools. At the Catholic middle school, not much would change. At most a few more kids might enroll. And wealthy parents would get to pay less in tuition.

 

 

At the public middle school, however, the results would be disastrous. It would have to survive on much less funding than it was already receiving. Services for the majority of students in the district would be degraded. Class sizes would balloon. Educational quality would take a nose dive.

 

So why wouldn’t more kids from the public school move to the Catholic one?

 

Well, first of all, few kids in the district are Catholic. Should they be forced to be indoctrinated in a faith in which they don’t believe?

 

Second, tuition at the Catholic school costs more than the price of the voucher. Parents would have to pay above and beyond what they’re paying now to make tuition at the Catholic school. And this is a mostly poor neighborhood. Parents simply can’t afford it.

 

THIS is the situation the Pennsylvania Education Committee will vote on tomorrow.

 

The committee will decide whether State Sen. John DiSanto’s school voucher bill should be voted on by the state Senate and House.

 

School vouchers are not popular at both the national and state level.

 

 

Around 70% of people across the country oppose school vouchers, according to the PDK-Gallup public opinion poll about U.S. education.

 

 

Moreover, Harrisburg wastepaper baskets are lined with school voucher bills that fail to pass despite being introduced every few years.

 

 

DiSanto’s bill is called Education Savings Accounts for Students in Underperforming Schools or SB 2.

 

And guess what!?

 

It’s almost exactly the same as a pile of similar bills offered by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

 

The Special Needs Scholarship Program Act, The Foster Child Scholarship Program Act, “Opportunity Scholarships,” The Smart Start Scholarship Program – all ALEC bills that do almost the same thing.

 

They designate some group of at risk students and say, “Hey, you know what they need? School vouchers!”

 

Well, my goodness. I’m sure glad DiSanto didn’t stress himself out writing something new. I’m certain his constituents wanted him to plagiarize someone else’s bill and pretend like it was his own.

 

And how exactly will spending public tax dollars on non-public schools help these kids succeed? That’s never explained.

 

Fools like DiSanto just pretend that it will help as a matter of faith. And since the overwhelming majority of school vouchers go to religious school coffers, this makes sense.

 

It is a blatant violation of the separation of church and state. But privatization supporters don’t give a crap about that. They don’t care about the values on which this country where founded. Their only concern is doing what their rich donors demand.

 

SB 2 would target students living in districts with the most underfunded schools serving the most impoverished populations. You know – “failing schools.”

 

If passed, kids living in these neighborhoods would have whatever the district sets aside for each student put in a savings account to be spent in almost any way parents see fit so long as they could somehow justify it as educational.

 

Send your kids to a private or parochial school?

 

Sure!

 

Homeschool your child?

 

Yep!

 

Go on a trip to the life-sized replica of Noah’s Ark in Williamstown, Kentucky?

 

You betcha!

 

And the best part is there is hardly any accountability built in to the law, so we probably wouldn’t even know how this money was spent.

 

Your tax dollars at work. Somehow. Somewhere. Out of sight.

 

I guess that’s what Pennsylvania Republicans like DiSanto call fiscal conservatism.

 

If passed, the bill would affect 800 schools – the 15% lowest performing in the state – including mine.

 

Take a look at the list.

 

Every school serves mostly poor students. Every school is severely underfunded.

 

Pennsylvania ranks 45th out of 50 for school funding. There are only five states in the country where the state government pays less of the cost of educating students. The Commonwealth relies on local municipalities to make up the difference. That means local property taxes, so the richer an area you live in, the more money it can afford to pay to educate children. The poorer an area where you live, the less it can pay.

 

This is why Pennsylvania has the widest disparity between how much it spends on rich kids vs. poor ones. Wealthy children are cherished and coddled. Poor ones are left to fend for themselves.

 

This voucher bill would only exacerbate the situation.

 

It’s a giveaway to those who don’t need it at the expense of those who can least afford to pay.

 

If you live in the Commonwealth, please call and/or write your state Senator and Representative and ask them to oppose this bill.

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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.

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.

Teachers Don’t Want All This Useless Data

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One of the most frustrating things I’ve ever been forced to do as a teacher is to ignore my students and concentrate instead on the data.

 

I teach 8th grade Language Arts at a high poverty, mostly minority school in Western Pennsylvania. During my double period classes, I’m with these children for at least 80 minutes a day, five days a week.

 

During that time, we read together. We write together. We discuss important issues together. They take tests. They compose poems, stories and essays. They put on short skits, give presentations, draw pictures and even create iMovies.

 

I don’t need a spreadsheet to tell me whether these children can read, write or think. I know.

 

Anyone who had been in the room and had been paying attention would know.

 

But a week doesn’t go by without an administrator ambushing me at a staff meeting with a computer print out and a smile.

 

Look at this data set. See how your students are doing on this module. Look at the projected growth for this student during the first semester.

 

It’s enough to make you heave.

 

I always thought the purpose behind student data was to help the teacher teach. But it has become an end to itself.

 

It is the educational equivalent of navel gazing, of turning all your students into prospective students and trying to teach them from that remove – not as living, breathing beings, but as computer models.

 

It reminds me of this quote from Michael Lewis’ famous book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game:

 

“Intelligence about baseball statistics had become equated in the public mind with the ability to recite arcane baseball stats. What [Bill] James’s wider audience had failed to understand was that the statistics were beside the point. The point was understanding; the point was to make life on earth just a bit more intelligible; and that point, somehow, had been lost. ‘I wonder,’ James wrote, ‘if we haven’t become so numbed by all these numbers that we are no longer capable of truly assimilating any knowledge which might result from them.'”

 

The point is not the data. It is what the data reveals. However, some people have become so seduced by the cult of data that they’re blind to what’s right in front of their eyes.

 

You don’t need to give a child a standardized test to assess if he or she can read. You can just have them read. Nor does a child need to fill in multiple choice bubbles to indicate if he or she understands what’s been read. They can simply tell you. In fact, these would be better assessments. Doing otherwise, is like testing someone’s driving ability not by putting them behind the wheel but by making them play Mariocart.

 

The skill is no longer important. It is the assessment of the skill.

 

THAT’S what we use to measure success. It’s become the be-all, end-all. It’s the ultimate indicator of both student and teacher success. But it perverts authentic teaching. When the assessment is all that’s important, we lose sight of the actual skills we were supposed to be teaching in the first place.

 

The result is a never ending emphasis on test prep and poring over infinite pages of useless data and analytics.

 

As Scottish writer Andrew Lang put it, “He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp posts – for support rather than for illumination.”

 

Teachers like me have been pointing this out for years, but the only response we get from most lawmakers and administrators is to hysterically increase the sheer volume of data and use more sophisticated algorithms with which to interpret it.

 

Take the Pennsylvania Value Added Assessment System (PVAAS). This is the Commonwealth’s method of statistical analysis of students test scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) and Keystone Exams, which students take in grades 3-8 and in high school, respectively.

 

It allows me to see:

  • Student scores on each test
  • Student scores broken down by subgroups (how many hit each 20 point marker)
  • Which subgroup is above, below or at the target for growth

 

But perhaps the most interesting piece of information is a prediction of where each student is expected to score next time they take the test.

 

How does it calculate this prediction? I have no idea.

 

That’s the kind of metric they don’t give to teachers. Or taxpayers, by the way. Pennsylvania has paid more than $1 billion for its standardized testing system in the last 8 years. You’d think lawmakers would have to justify that outlay of cash, especially when they’re cutting funding for just about everything else in our schools. But no. We’re supposed to just take that one on faith.

 

So much for empirical data.

 

Then we have the Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDT). This is an optional computer-based test given three times a year in various core subjects.

 

If you’re lucky enough to have to give this to your students (and I am), you get a whole pile of data that’s supposed to be even more detailed than the PVAAS.

 

But it doesn’t really give you much more than the same information based on more data points.

 

I don’t gain much from looking at colorful graphs depicting where each of my students scored in various modules. Nor do I gain much by seeing this same material displayed for my entire class.

 

The biggest difference between the PVAAS and the CDT, though, is that it allows me to see examples of the kinds of questions individual students got wrong. So, in theory, I could print out a stack of look-a-like questions and have them practice endless skill and drills until they get them right.

 

And THAT’S education!

 

Imagine if a toddler stumbled walking down the hall, so you had her practice raising and lowering her left foot over-and-over again! I’m sure that would make her an expert walker in no time!

 

It’s ridiculous. This overreliance on data pretends that we’re engaged in programming robots and not teaching human beings.

 

Abstracted repetition is not generally the best tool to learning complex skills. If you’re teaching the times table, fine. But most concepts require us to engage students’ interests, to make something real, vital and important to them.

 

Otherwise, they’ll just go through the motions.

 

“If you torture the data long enough, it will confess,” wrote Economist Ronald Coase. That’s what we’re doing in our public schools. We’re prioritizing the data and making it say whatever we want.

 

The data justifies the use of data. And anyone who points out that circular logic is called a Luddite, a roadblock on the information superhighway.

 

Never mind that all this time I’m forced to pour over the scores and statistics is less time I have to actually teach the children.

 

Teachers don’t need more paperwork and schematics. We need those in power to actually listen to us. We need the respect and autonomy to be allowed to actually do our jobs.

 

Albert Einstein famously said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

 

Can we please put away the superfluous data and get back to teaching?

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

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It’s the classic Harrisburg switch.

 

Want something good passed by the legislature? Then let us pass something terrible – something you would never even consider unless something you cared about was on the table.

 

That appears to be the game being played by the Pennsylvania Senate Education Committee today as they consider SB 756.

 

On the one hand, the proposed bill would eliminate the state’s terrible Keystone Exams. On the other, it would force a new teacher evaluation system that is tremendously unfair.

 

Which one is more important?

 

The answer: both.

 

If lawmakers had any moral courage – and most don’t because they’re lawmakers after all – they would consider each of these measures one at a time on their own merits.

 

But if they did that, conservatives wouldn’t vote to help students by getting rid of unfair tests, and progressives wouldn’t vote to help corporations by installing unfair teacher evaluations. So they’ve apparently decided to compromise behind closed doors by putting both together in a huge omnibus bill.

 

Who knows what other treasures lurk in its pages!? Well if you have a limitless amount of time and energy, go ahead and read it!

 

THE GOOD

 

The bill would put an end to our costly, cruel and dishonest Keystone Exams. Not only would we no longer threaten to require these tests in Literature, Algebra and Biology as graduation requirements, but we would stop giving them altogether.

 

In their place to meet federal accountability regulations, the state would substitute the Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT), Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT), armed forces exam, competency assessment or certificate for technical students, or Pennsylvania Alternative Assessment for students with special needs.

 

But perhaps the best part is that the bill makes explicit and generous provisions for parents to opt their children out of high school standardized tests altogether. In this case, students would NOT be required to take a substitute assessment.

 

Here is the exact language from the bill:

 

“A school entity’s governing board shall adopt a policy that provides that the parent or guardian of a student may request that the student be exempt from taking an assessment that is required for the purpose of Federal accountability as permitted under ESSA [Every Student Succeeds Act]. The policy shall provide that parents and guardians of students receive written notice of the option for a student to be exempt from taking the assessment and that the exemption shall be permitted upon the school entity’s receipt of a written request from the parent or guardian of the student. A substitute assessment or an alternative assessment, course or program may not be required of a student exempted under this section. Grounds for exemption in the school entity’s policy shall include, but not be limited to:
(1) Religious grounds.
(2) The basis of a strong moral or ethical conviction
similar to a religious belief.
(3) Philosophical grounds.
(4) Privacy concerns.
(5) Health concerns for the child, which may include stress and anxiety in preparation for the assessment.”

 

This is a huge improvement over our current opt out policy. At present, parents can opt out their children from the Keystone Exams but students must take an alternate assessment. This could include a project based assessment and not merely a standardized test. Also, it only allows these exemptions based on religious convictions. Parents needn’t explain these convictions in any detail, but this is the only option they are given with which to opt out.

 

The proposed legislation would go into effect during the 2018-19 school year, when the Keystone Exams would otherwise become a graduation requirement. Students would take the SAT or other assessment in 10th grade.

 

However, students in 3-8th grade would still be subjected to the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSA) tests. I assume parents could still opt out their children from these exams, but the wording is a bit murky there.

 

In addition, the law would require the state to establish a task force to reevaluate whether the Commonwealth should use the PSSA in the future and how to reduce the time it takes to give the assessment. If the task force concludes the PSSA is inappropriate, they must look for an alternative exam. They are required to issue a report in 6 months from passage of the bill.

 

This is particularly important since the PSSA has been rewritten to be closer to the Keystone Exam. It is Keystone Exam-lite. If the legislature is against the high school test, one would imagine they should be against a very similar test being given in elementary and middle school.

 

THE BAD

 

Despite all the good this proposed bill would do for our school children, it would drastically worsen the situation for our classroom teachers.

 

Half of a teacher’s current evaluation is based on classroom observations by district administrators. That just makes sense. The best way to tell if an educator is doing a good job is to observe what he/she is actually doing in the classroom.

 

This new system would reduce classroom observations to only 30% of a teacher’s annual score.

 

This would allow 10% to come from a “parental” score and 10% to come from “peer evaluation.” In a non-high stakes environment, input from both of these stakeholders is vital to a teacher’s success. But when you add that high stakes component, you pervert both relationships.

 

Having parents evaluate teachers puts them in kind of a touchy place. Teachers are required to push students to do their best. This requires them to often make calls home and ask for help from parents. If parents control a portion of a teacher’s evaluation, it incentivizes educators not to bother them with student misbehavior or failing grades. Instead teachers could be pressured to unfairly increase students grades or ignore misbehavior so as to better parental evaluations.

 

Moreover, peer observations can be extremely subjective when tied to teacher assessment. Administrators are discouraged from giving out distinguished evaluations to more than a handful of teachers. This incentivizes peers who are forced to compete for these few plum scores to unfairly suppress positive evaluations from their fellows.

 

But the worst is still to come.

The new evaluations require 50% of teachers’ evaluations to come from student growth and achievement measures. For math and English teachers, this largely means using standardized test scores to assess educators.

 

It’s a terrible practice that has been shown to be ineffective and downright damaging to student learning time and again. But it does help testing corporations by discouraging opt outs. Just imagine. If you have students who you think will score well on the tests but who may opt out, you are incentivized to discourage them from doing so. Otherwise, your teacher evaluation will drop.

 

This makes teachers the testing policemen. Learning doesn’t matter, only how well your students do on the tests. It dramatically tips the scale away from things the teacher has any control over. As such, it would cause serious harm to the quality of education students receive across the state.

 

CONCLUSION

We cannot support this bill in its present form. It should not go on to consideration by the full House and/or Senate. And if it somehow is passed by these Republican-controlled bodies, our Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf should not sign it.

 

This is unfortunate because there is much to like about it. However, you can’t save students from unfair assessments by forcing teachers to be evaluated by – drum roll please – unfair assessments.

 

This sets up an unsustainable and unfair relationship between students and teachers. It puts educators in the position of having to look out for their own interests and not those of their students. The interests of both should be interlinked, not separated. Teachers get into the profession to help kids learn – not to have to look out for an arbitrary score from their administrators that may require them to act against their students needs.

 

If legislators had any ethical fortitude, they would propose both of these measures in separate bills where they could be examined on merit. But I long ago gave up expecting such qualities from our politicians.

 

In my book, they almost all deserve a failing grade.

School Vouchers: Transubstantiate Your Cash For Fun and Profit

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When is a tax dollar not a tax dollar?

When it’s used to pay for a school voucher.

That’s the slight of hand behind much of our education policy today.

Lawmakers want to give away a huge bundle of your cash to religious schools, but they can’t because of that pesky old First Amendment.

The establishment clause sets up a distinct separation between church and state. It explicitly forbids public money being spent on any specific religion.

So these lawmakers do a bit of magic. They take that money, wave their hands over it, mumble a few secret words and Voilà! It’s no longer public; it’s private. And private money can be spent any way you want – even on religion.

Here’s how they do it.

You simply take public tax dollars and turn them into credits that can be used to pay for alternatives to public schools. Call it a “school voucher.”

 

But wait a minute. Isn’t that like a check? If Peter writes Paul a check, that money is no longer Peter’s. Now it’s Paul’s. Right?

Yes. But that’s not what’s happening here.

A school voucher isn’t a check. A check is an order to your bank to transfer funds to another account or to be exchanged for cash or goods or services. School vouchers do not come from your account. And they cannot be transferred into just any account or spent in any way.

They’re more like food stamps. It’s not money that can be used in any way you see fit. It’s money that can only be used to pay for a child’s education. And you can only use it at a private or parochial school.

You can’t go into a fancy restaurant and buy a filet mignon dinner with food stamps. Likewise, you can’t go to a real estate developer and buy a house using your school vouchers.

This money does not therefore change from public to private. Yes, individuals get a limited choice of how this money will be spent, but that’s true of all public money. Go to a local council meeting, a school board meeting, write your Congressperson, petition your state Senator – in all of these cases, you are exercising choice on how public tax dollars are being spent: Don’t spend tax dollars on that bridge. Don’t spend public money on that program.

Even in the case of food stamps, individuals decide how public dollars are spent for your private use – within specified limits.

If that was really private money, there would be no restrictions on how it could be spent – or certainly no more restrictions than on any other private money.

But lawmakers are pretending like this isn’t true. They’re pretending that simply changing the name of the money changes its substance. It’s a lie. It’s slight of hand. They’re trying to trick you into assuming a transformation has taken place that has not.

 

BAD DEAL

 

Moreover, it’s a metamorphosis we shouldn’t want in the first place.

Think about it.

We want our public money spent in an accountable fashion. We want there to be a record of how it was spent and what it was spent on. We want that information to be readily available, and if that money was misappropriated, we want to be able to act on that.

 

School vouchers remove much of that accountability. Private and parochial schools simply don’t provide the same transparency as traditional public schools. Often there is no elected school board, no public meetings, no open documents. Nada.

 

But if the parents who used the school voucher don’t like how the money is being spent, they can disenroll their child, right? So if they’re comfortable without this transparency, that’s all that matters, right?

 

Wrong. School vouchers are not paid for 100% by the parent. They are paid for with an aggregation of local tax dollars above and beyond what individual parents pay in school taxes.

 

In short, this is not just your money even if it’s spent on your kid. You shouldn’t be the only one who gets a say in how this money is spent. The community provided this money. The community should decide how it’s spent. At very least, the community should get a say.

 

If the community doesn’t want children to be raised with a distinctly Biblical view of history and science, the community shouldn’t have to contribute to that. If individual parents want to spend their own money on that, fine. That’s your prerogative. But school vouchers are made up of public tax dollars, yet we’re removing the majority of the public from having a voice in how that money is spent.

 

Moreover, traditional public schools are required not to discriminate against students. They can’t select against students based on learning disabilities, ethnicity, skin color, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc. And that’s a really good thing. Everyone’s money is used to pay for these schools. These schools should serve everyone.

 

But private and parochial schools (and charter schools, too, by the way) aren’t held to this same standard. It’s telling, for example, that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has refused to commit to holding private and parochial schools that accept school vouchers accountable if they discriminate against children. She seems to be implying that the U.S. government will stand aside and let public tax dollars be spent to support schools that discriminate. And the reason they think they can get away with this is the cynical monetary alchemy outlined above: school vouchers are private money and can be spent any way parents want. It isn’t and they can’t.

 

This is government sanctioned money laundering, pure and simple.

 

Lawmakers have been bought off with huge donations from the privatization industry to enact legislation friendly toward private and parochial schools.

 

NAME CHANGE

 

In some cases, they don’t even use the name “school vouchers.” They call it education tax credit scholarships, but it’s effectively the same thing.

 

Instead of distributing the vouchers directly to parents, they allow businesses and individuals to make tax deductible donations to nonprofits set up explicitly to distribute vouchers for private and parochial schools.

 

The reason? People don’t like school vouchers. But if you call it a “scholarship,” it’s more palatable. For instance, while school vouchers are mostly supported by Republicans, a substantial number of Democrats support education tax credit scholarships.

 

In 17 states you can get substantial tax credits for donating to one of these private and parochial school scholarships.

 

Louisiana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Virginia, for example, all provide tax credits worth between $65 and $95 on every $100 donated. Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Montana, and South Carolina go even further by reimbursing 100% of the donation. You read that right. Donate $100, get $100 back.

 

Oh, but it gets much worse. Since these are considered donations, you can also claim them as charitable deductions and get an additional 35% off your taxes. So you donate $100 and get back $135! Yes. You actually make money off this deal!

 

In my home state of Pennsylvania, investors can even “triple dip” receiving a state tax credit, a reduction in their state taxable income, and a reduction in their federal taxable income. And, yes, that means they sometimes get back more in tax breaks than they provide in contributions.

 

Meanwhile all of these “savings” come from money stolen from local public schools. Businesses and individual investors are profiting off of the deteriorating conditions at public schools.

 

Ever wonder why class sizes are ballooning, teachers are being furloughed and electives are falling by the wayside? It’s because people are making money off children’s suffering.

 

In my home state of Pennsylvania, we call this the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) and the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) programs.

 

The state Budget and Policy Center estimates that about 76% of these “scholarships” go to religious schools. That was approximately $95 million dollars in 2014-15 (the last year for which data was available).

 

Many of these educational institutions are explicitly fundamentalist. This includes the 155 schools in the Association of Christian Schools International (ASCI) where they boast of “the highest belief in biblical accuracy in scientific and historical matters.” It also includes 35 schools in the Keystone Christian Education Association.

 

How many more parochial schools are using tax dollars to teach fundamentalist curriculum? Without an audit, we’ll never know.

 

And that’s a really significant issue.

 

These scholarships are supposed to be eligible only to low income students. Yet a significant number of them are being utilized at private schools with average tuitions of $32,000 – far more than the few thousand dollars provided by the scholarships. They are apparently being used by wealthy and middle class students who can already afford private schools but are using public tax dollars to reduce the cost.

 

A total of $11.2 million in EITC and OSTC tax credits went to just 23 of the most exclusive and expensive private schools in 2014-15. That’s 9% of the total. Suburban Philadelphia’s Haverford School, alone, received $2.2 million, buying down its $37,500 tuition.

 

How many parents misused these scholarships in this way? What is the racial and ethnic makeup of recipients? Again, without an audit, we don’t know.

 

This is not how public money should be spent.

 

We need to put the breaks on these initiatives, not expand them into a federal incentive program as the Trump Administration proposes.

 

Whether you call them education tax credit scholarships or school vouchers, these programs do not transform public money into private.

 

They are a scam. They are theft. And their biggest victims are children.