Archives for category: Pennsylvania

Blogger-teacher Steven M. Singer here reveals the veil of secrecy that testing corporations drape around their product.

He writes:

Warning!

What you are about to read may be a criminal act.

I may have broken the law by putting this information out there.

Edward Snowden leaked data about civilian surveillance. Chelsea Manning released top secret military documents.

And me? I’m leaking legal threats and intimidation students and teachers are subject to during standardized testing.

Not exactly a federal crime is it?

No. I’m asking. Is it?

Because teachers are being fired and jailed. Students are being threatened with litigation.

All because they talked about standardized tests.

The US government mandates public school children be subjected to standardized assessments in reading and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Most schools test much more than that – even as early as kindergarten.

And since all of these assessments are purchased from private corporations, the testing material is ideological property. The students taking these exams – regardless of age – are no longer treated as children. They are clients entering into a contract.

He cites the copyright warning that students are required to read before they take the Pennsylvania tests. If they photograph or reproduce or copy any part of the test they may be find no less than $750 or as much as $30,000. Wow! Not too many children have that kind of dough to pay for a copyright violation.

The state warns students that they are not allowed to discuss the test with others either during the test or after it.

Singer writes:

Sure kids shouldn’t talk about the test with classmates DURING the testing session. Obviously! But why can’t they discuss it after the test is over!?

Kids aren’t allowed to say to their friends, “Hey! Did you get the essay question about ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’?”

They aren’t allowed to discuss how difficult it was or compare how each of them answered the questions?

These are children. If you think they aren’t talking, then you just don’t know kids. You don’t know people!

And why shouldn’t they talk about it? They just shared a stressful, common experience. Who wouldn’t want to compare it to what others went through so as to decide how your experience rates? Did you answer the questions well or not? Did you get a more difficult question than others? Did the thing that struck you as odd also hit others the same way?

Personally, I do not consider talking like this to be cheating. It’s just human nature.

He goes on to discuss the constraints imposed on teachers.

He asks:

Therefore, I must ask an important question of you, dear reader: Did I violate these rules by writing this very article? Is the piece you are reading right now illegal?

And he wonders: Why is the state exercising its powers to protect the testing corporations? Wouldn’t it be nice if the state were protecting its students and teachers?

Yinzercation–the Pennsylvania blog written by education activist Dr. Jessie Ramey–posts here a brilliant statement about why she is opting out on religious grounds. Under state law, she is not required to state her beliefs, but she does. I hope you will read it all.

 

Here is an excerpt from a powerful post explaining Dr. Ramey’s religious beliefs:

 

The inherent worth and dignity of every person.

 

Every child is valuable – priceless – and has the human right to a rich, full education. Respecting the inherent worth of every child also means treating each student as an individual, and not a widget being produced in a factory. Standardized testing, tied to an ever more standardized common core curriculum, sorts students into categories (“below basic,” “basic,” etc.) There are serious consequences to this sorting and labeling (see below), but the underlying premise of this standardized high-stakes-testing is to compare and rank students – not to support the individual learning of each student.

 

This is clearly evident when schools use standardized, normed tests, which force all students into a bell curve, guaranteeing that a large proportion of the children will fail. To get that nice bell shape of test results, with exactly half of the children falling on the “below average” side of the curve, the tests are carefully designed with purposefully misleading questions. For instance, test makers will use tricky sound-alike answers to intentionally trip up English language learners, or culturally specific clues most easily decoded only by students from wealthy families. Pittsburgh is subjecting students to the normed GRADE test not once, but three times a year (a result of accepting state money that came with testing strings attached). Teachers have been reporting the problematic GRADE test questions for years, but the test-maker has not changed them because this “assessment” requires a set failure rate. In what way does this kind of standardized testing respect the inherent worth of our students? When students’ test scores are then displayed for all to see on “data walls” (an increasingly common practice in our schools), how does this respect the dignity of each child?

 

Justice, equity and compassion in human relations.

 

While advocates claim that high-stakes-testing will hold teachers and schools accountable for student learning and therefore promote equity, it often does the exact opposite by reinforcing inequality. High-stakes-testing labels our schools as “failures,” but never results in additional resources to actually help kids. Instead, “failing” schools are often targeted for closure. When you look at the pattern of school closures across the country – including here in Pittsburgh – you can see that districts have closed schools in predominantly black and brown neighborhoods, displacing some students multiple times. Our communities of color have been harmed the most, with places like Oakland and Hazelwood turned into education deserts without a single neighborhood public school.

 

Schools labeled as “failing” on the basis of student test scores are often targeted with other “reforms” that rarely help children. Our own beloved Colfax provides an excellent example of the “disruptive innovation” imposed on supposedly failing schools. Nine years ago when our family first started at Colfax, its large achievement gap had recently earned it a designation as a “turnaround school.” The district fired every single teacher and the principal then handpicked an entirely new teaching staff. The idea, of course, was that we had to get rid of the “bad” teachers and hire only “great” teachers and that would solve the problem of low test scores. Fast forward almost a decade and you can see that this didn’t work: Colfax still has one of the largest achievement gaps in the city (which is really an opportunity gap made highly visible by the presence of families from some of Pittsburgh’s wealthiest and poorest communities together in the same school).

 

During this same decade, Colfax students also experienced a relentless series of “reforms,” all aimed at increasing test scores. When we started, Colfax was a Spanish language immersion school, then we lost the extra language instruction to become an “Accelerated Learning Academy” focused on reading and math. We got an America’s Choice curriculum that was supposed to solve everything and added extra periods of reading. We got a longer school day and a longer school year. We got a Parent Engagement Specialist. Then we lost the curriculum, lost the extra time and days, and lost the parent specialist. The district changed to a 6 day week, so we could cram in extra reading and math periods, since these are tested subjects, resulting in a net loss of music, art, language, and physical education. With state budget cuts we lost more music and athletic programs, and we even lost our after school tutoring program aimed at those very students whose test scores continue to cause so much alarm. And class sizes ballooned to 30, sometimes 35 and more students.

 

Imposing constant churn and disruption on our most vulnerable students in the pursuit of higher test scores is not education justice. Worse, the relentless high-stakes-testing has served to re-inscribe inequality. We recently heard from Jon Parker, a Pittsburgh high school teacher, who explained what high-stakes-testing is doing to students’ sense of self worth in his classroom. Every year, he asks his students to write him a letter introducing themselves. In his class of struggling readers this year, over half of the students included their most recent PSSA rating as part of their introduction. They literally said things like, “I’ll work hard but I’m below basic.”

Tom Wolf, the newly elected Governor of Pennsylvania, may turn out to be true friend of public education. In a landscape crowded with foes of public education, like Scott Walker, John Kasich, Doug Ducey, Rick Scott, and Andrew Cuoo, this is quite a distinction for Governor Wolf.

After years of devastating cuts by Governor Tom Corbett, Wolf has vowed to fund public schools. He appointed a one-time rival, John Hanger, as secretary of policy and planning (Hanger is strongly pro-public schools).

Governor Wolf recently visited a public school in Philadelphia. At a time when so many governors have sworn their fealty to charter schools, it is refreshing to read about a governor who recognizes public responsibility for public schools.

John Hanger told the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce and Industry that the Wolf administration would focus on public education and economic development in its spending plan.

Governor Tom Wolf could build a national reputation if he reverses the school privatization and defusing of public schools that Corbett encouraged .

Peter Greene lives in Pennsylvania, where the previous governor, Tom Corbett, and the Republican-controlled Legislature did their best to encourage corporate reform and to destroy public education. Corbett welcomed for-profit cyber-charters and every other kind of charter, and he slashed the budget for public education. The result can be seen starkly in Philadelphia, where many public schools have been replaced by charters, and the remaining public schools are stripped of programs, resources, and services.

 

Here he explains that it is not just urban districts like Philadelphia and York that are being cut down by “reformers,” but not-very-wealthy rural districts like the one he teaches in. People blame their local school boards, but even the most fiscally responsible local boards are falling victim to decisions made by the legislature.

 

He writes:

 

The closing of schools is rampant in my part of PA, and we aren’t alone. We’re a region of not-very-wealthy rural districts, but not-very-wealthy urban districts like Philly and York have also cut schools like a machete in a bamboo forest.

 

It is not a matter of declining student population, and it is not a matter of districts falling on tough times. It’s a widespread financial crisis, and it’s manufactured.

 

How to manufacture a statewide financial crisis.

 

Cut state funding. This puts the making-up-the-difference pressure on local taxpayers.

 

Take a ton of money away from public schools and give it to charters.

 

Create a huge pension funding crisis. This is its own kind of challenge, but the quick explanation is this– pre-2008, invest in really awesome stuff, and when that all tanks and districts suddenly have huge payments to make up, tell the districts they can just wait till later and hope for magic financial fairies to fix it. It is now later, there are no fairies, and a small district with an $18 million budget is looking at pension payments that go up $500K every year.

 

Oh, and pass a law that says districts can’t raise taxes more than a smidge in any given year….

 

The end result?

 

School districts are looking down the barrel of million-plus-dollar deficits. The two deficits for which I have now been a power point audience can both be entirely explained by the formula:

 

Charter Payments + Pension Payments + Other Tiny Obscure Cuts = District Deficit

 

In other words, a district that had a fiscally responsible year last year, that didn’t do anything crazy or odd or unusual and just left everything alone when planning for this year– that district is still facing huge deficits in their current budgeting cycle, unrelated to any choices that they made in managing their own local district.

 

Funny, last time I looked, it was states that have the primary responsibility in their constitutions for maintaining a “thorough and efficiency” (or some variation thereof) system of public education. But the legislators are passing mandates that shift the burden to local districts and sitting by while public schools are closed.

 

Is this part of a plan to privatize public education? What do you think?

 

 

 

 

The “tax credit” program in Pennsylvania is a backdoor way of spending public money for children who enroll in private and religious schools.

What does the State Constitution say?

Pennsylvania Constitution Article III Section § 15.

Public school money not available to sectarian schools.

No money raised for the support of the public schools of the Commonwealth shall be appropriated to or used for the support of any sectarian school.

“Religious Freedom
Section 3.

“All men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences; no man can of right be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship or to maintain any ministry against his consent; no human authority can, in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience, and no preference shall ever be given by law to any religious establishments or modes of worship.”

This latter provision has been cited by the state courts to prohibit public funding of religious schools.

Isn’t it funny how Republicans claim to be in favor of strict construction of the Constitution, except when they don’t?

Isn’t it funny how so many Republican state legislators belong to ALEC, which is trying to obliterate local school boards and local control.

Blogger Yinzercation has an excellent article explaining the negative effects of “tax credits” on public education.

“While our legislators are busy looking under their sofa cushions for spare change to fund the state budget, they might want to consider the $75 million that just walked out the front door. That’s how much the Education Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program costs us taxpayers every year.

“The misnamed EITC program has nothing to do with educational improvement and everything to do with funneling what would have been state budget dollars into private schools, while increasing profits for corporations. Here’s how it works: corporations can get an EITC tax credit by contributing to a Scholarship Organization, which channels the money to private schools. The companies receive up to 90% of their contributions as a tax credit, worth up to $300,000 per year, and can get a federal tax write-off as well, making the program highly attractive.

“Not only do corporations get a tax write-off, but they also receive good publicity and increased access to legislators. For example, gas driller XTO Energy (now owned by Exxon) donated $650,000 over the past three years allowing it to stage ceremonies all over the state at the time when its fracking technique was coming under intense scrutiny. The New York Times reported last week that a state official credited XTO with going “ ‘above and beyond’ its duty” when “[i]n reality, as much as 90 percent of XTO’s donation was underwritten by taxpayers.” [unless otherwise noted, all quotes from New York Times, May 21, 2012]….”

“And there is no accountability for that $75 million. The Keystone Research Center analyzed the EITC’s K-12 component (the program also funds pre-K scholarships and ‘educational improvement organizations’ that work with public schools) and found that “schools benefiting from the EITC scholarships are not required to report on student progress or document school quality.” [Keystone Research Center report, April 7, 2011]

“In fact, the legislature outlawed any attempts to collect such information and the program is actually managed by the Department of Community and Economic Development – not the Department of Education.

“With practically no state oversight, the public has almost no financial information on the organizations receiving tax credits or distributing scholarships. The Keystone report warns, “Experiences in Arizona indicate that a lack of financial accountability opens the door to the misuse of public funds.” And we’re talking about a program that provides scholarships to over 38,000 students to attend private and religious schools – that’s more than the number of students in the Pittsburgh Public School District.”

EITC is a “backdoor voucher program” promoted by ALEC and the voucher advocates “American Federation for Children.”

It is intended to undermine public education and funnel public money to private and religious schools with NO accountability.

Never forget: Vouchers have never won at the ballot box.

In Pennsylvania, both Republicans and Democrats want to expand the state’s “tax credit” (aka voucher) program, allowing public funds to pay for private and religious tuition.

The tax credits drain funds from public school support, which is already inequitably funded and suffered deep budget cuts. The state’s public schools are in financial crisis, and the last thing they need is another stealth cut to their funding.

Why don’t the legislators put vouchers to a vote of the people? Are they afraid to find out how the public will respond?

After four years of deep budget cuts to public education, Pennsylvania’s New Democratic Governor Tom Wolf has proposed large increases in school funding, coupled with property tax reductions. However, the legislature is controlled by Republicans, and they oppose his plan.

Here are some articles from the website of the Keystone State Education Coalition, a valuable source of information about the state’s education issues.

How would Gov. Wolf’s proposed tax shifts affect you? Here are 8 scenarios

Penn Live By Teresa Bonner | tbonner@pennlive.com Email the author | Follow on Twitter
on March 06, 2015 at 6:46 PM, updated March 07, 2015 at 6:59 AM

Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget is proposing to raise the state’s personal income tax from 3.07 percent to 3.7 percent, increase the sales tax from 6 to 6.6 percent and broaden the number of items to which it will apply, and use the money raised from those tax increases to reduce school property taxes. His administration said most families will pay less under his plan, with the average family receiving a net tax decrease of about 13 percent. But the determination of who gains and who loses depends on several factors – income, whether you own or rent your home, which school district you live in, and how much you spend on taxable items each year.

To try to give a clearer idea of what effect the tax plan could have on an individual, PennLive calculated how large a reduction in homeowners in different school districts would see in their school property tax homestead exemption.

http://www.pennlive.com/midstate/index.ssf/2015/03/how_would_wolfs_proposed_tax_s.html

Wolf Administration Denounces Senate Republicans ‘Just Saying No’ To Helping Schools

Governor Tom Wolf’s website 03/06/2015

Harrisburg, PA – The Wolf Administration today denounced a letter sent by the Senate Republican leadership to school districts across the state. The letter warned district superintendents to lower their expectations about the levels of funding to be provided by the commonwealth in the 2015-2016 budget. On Tuesday, Governor Wolf presented a budget proposal calling for the restoration of massive cuts made over the past four years to Pennsylvania’s struggling schools. The Senate Republicans’ response rejected this push for a historic reinvestment in education.

“Unfortunately, the Republican leadership is just saying no to challenging the status quo by putting forth the same old Harrisburg obstruction instead of real ideas to help Pennsylvania’s struggling public schools,” Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan said. “Governor Wolf has proposed a bold and expansive plan to reinvest in our schools and our economic future. The Governor called for robust debate and collaboration in his budget address. This is the opposite of that. This is a political stunt.” In contrast to the negative expectations being set by Republican leaders, Governor Wolf’s budget sets the table for historic investments in education. Over the last four years schools across Pennsylvania have suffered from $1 billion cuts that led to massive layoffs, huge property tax increases, and the elimination of valuable programs. The data also shows that as education classroom funding fell, so did student scores in reading and math.

http://www.governor.pa.gov/Pages/Pressroom_details.aspx?newsid=1593#.VPpmoPnF_wq

How would Gov. Wolf’s proposed tax shifts affect you? Here are 8 scenarios

Penn Live By Teresa Bonner | tbonner@pennlive.com Email the author | Follow on Twitter
on March 06, 2015 at 6:46 PM, updated March 07, 2015 at 6:59 AM

Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget is proposing to raise the state’s personal income tax from 3.07 percent to 3.7 percent, increase the sales tax from 6 to 6.6 percent and broaden the number of items to which it will apply, and use the money raised from those tax increases to reduce school property taxes. His administration said most families will pay less under his plan, with the average family receiving a net tax decrease of about 13 percent. But the determination of who gains and who loses depends on several factors – income, whether you own or rent your home, which school district you live in, and how much you spend on taxable items each year.

To try to give a clearer idea of what effect the tax plan could have on an individual, PennLive calculated how large a reduction in homeowners in different school districts would see in their school property tax homestead exemption.

http://www.pennlive.com/midstate/index.ssf/2015/03/how_would_wolfs_proposed_tax_s.html

“About 400,000 Philadelphians live in poverty. That’s close to the total population of Pittsburgh and Allentown combined – the state’s second- and third-largest cities. It includes nearly four out of every 10 children in Philadelphia.”

Reducing poverty would benefit all Philadelphians

PHIL GOLDSMITH, FOR THE INQUIRER OSTED: Sunday, March 1, 2015, 3:01 AM

Phil Goldsmith has been managing director of Philadelphia and chief executive officer of the Philadelphia School District.
Several years ago, I offered to give a new resident of Philadelphia a tour of the city. She was grateful but declined. Having lived in the suburbs, she said she knew Philadelphia quite well. After some back and forth, it was clear what she knew was Center City. My tour included the other Philadelphia: the good, the bad, and the ugly. One Philadelphia is vibrant. New condos, ample restaurants, an exciting cultural scene, fashionable shops – something for every generation from millennials to baby boomers. The energy is palpable as you walk the streets – safely.

But there is the other Philadelphia, where poverty lives and gives birth to unemployment, crime, high dropout rates, and, worst of all, hopelessness. For many people, this part of Philadelphia is out of sight and out of mind.

http://www.philly.com/philly/opinion/20150301_Reducing_poverty_would_benefit_all_Philadelphians.html#vDV8pVZDcTolhTHW.99

So what does Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed budget mean for the average Pennsylvanian living in the Philadelphia area? Let me introduce you to two of my friends.

http://www.newsworks.org/index.php/local/item/79291-what-happens-to-your-taxes-under-wolfs-budget-plan

“About 400,000 Philadelphians live in poverty. That’s close to the total population of Pittsburgh and Allentown combined – the state’s second- and third-largest cities. It includes nearly four out of every 10 children in Philadelphia.”

Reducing poverty would benefit all Philadelphians

PHIL GOLDSMITH, FOR THE INQUIRER OSTED: Sunday, March 1, 2015, 3:01 AM

Phil Goldsmith has been managing director of Philadelphia and chief executive officer of the Philadelphia School District.

Several years ago, I offered to give a new resident of Philadelphia a tour of the city. She was grateful but declined. Having lived in the suburbs, she said she knew Philadelphia quite well. After some back and forth, it was clear what she knew was Center City. My tour included the other Philadelphia: the good, the bad, and the ugly. One Philadelphia is vibrant. New condos, ample restaurants, an exciting cultural scene, fashionable shops – something for every generation from millennials to baby boomers. The energy is palpable as you walk the streets – safely.

But there is the other Philadelphia, where poverty lives and gives birth to unemployment, crime, high dropout rates, and, worst of all, hopelessness. For many people, this part of Philadelphia is out of sight and out of mind.

http://www.philly.com/philly/opinion/20150301_Reducing_poverty_would_benefit_all_Philadelphians.html#vDV8pVZDcTolhTHW.99

According to news reports, Governor Tom Wolf will replace Bill Green, chairman of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, with fellow member of the commission, Marjorie Neff.

 

Governor Wolf had asked the Commission not to approve any new charter schools because of the city’s dire financial situation, but it approved five new charters. Neff was the only commissioner to oppose all five charters. She is a former principal of a district high school.

 

Green says he will challenge his removal in court.

This is an excellent series of articles on the rise of the privatization movement in Pennsylvania. The bottom line, as usual: Follow the money.

 

If you want to understand the growth of charter schools in Pennsylvania, you must read this bombshell article by Daniel Simmons-Ritchie.

 

The charter lobby has spent millions to influence legislators. It also has the ability to mobilize hundreds of children to pack legislators’ offices, a tactic unavailable to public schools.

 

Pennsylvania does not allow for-profit charter schools, yet there are many for-profit charter schools in the state.

 

Do you want to know who is making money by sponsoring charters? The article has the names and details.

 

It’s no secret that Harrisburg is a hive of lobbyists, each representing industries and interests that spend millions to persuade state lawmakers to bend laws in their favor.

 

But perhaps what makes the charter-school lobby unique among the pack, says State Rep. Bernie O’Neill, a Republican from Bucks County, is its ability to deploy children to its cause.

 

In 2014, O’Neill experienced that first hand after proposing changes to a funding formula that would affect charter schools. Parents and children stormed his office and barraged him with calls and emails.

 

“They were calling me the anti-Christ of everything,” O’Neill said. “Everybody was coming after me.”

 

In recent years, as charter schools have proliferated – particularly those run by for-profit management companies – so too has their influence on legislators. In few other places has that been more true than Pennsylvania, which is one of only 11 states that has no limits on campaign contributions from PACs or individuals.

 

According to a PennLive analysis of donations on Follow The Money, a campaign donation database, charter school advocates have donated more than $10 million to Pennsylvania politicians over the past nine years.

 

To be sure, charter-school advocacy groups aren’t the only ones spending big to influence education policy in the Keystone State. The Pennsylvania State Education Association, which represents 170,000 teachers and related professionals, has spent about $8.3 million over the same time period according to Follow The Money.

 

But what perhaps makes the influx of money from charter-school groups unique in Pennsylvania is the magnitude of spending by only a handful of donors and, in recent years, some of their high-profile successes in moving and blocking legislation.

 

“They are mobilized,” O’Neill said. “Let me tell you something: they are mobilized.”

 

 

The series is introduced with this summation:

 

“It’s a plan reviled by teachers, loathed by parents, and decried by local politicians, but against huge opposition, York may become the third city in America to privatize the entirety of one of its public school districts.

 

“How did a public school system in the midstate rise to the forefront of a national experiment in education reform? And how did an entire community lose control of its own decision-making ability? The answer to both those questions, education researchers and public watchdogs say, lies in large part on a concerted, multi-million dollar campaign over the past decade by for-profit schools to alter Pennsylvania law.

 

“Those changes, and the industry lobbying that continues behind-the-scenes, have implications for teachers and students across the entire state. It’s a subject we have tackled in a series entitled “The Rise of Charter Schools in Pa.”

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