Monday, December 31, 2018

Is It A New Year?

I'm not a huge fan of New Year's Eve for some personal reasons (ranging all the way back to a semi-public dumping back in high school), but I also find it a curious practice. It's that thing we humans do-- we make an somewhat arbitrary mark on the surface of the universe and then wear ourselves out investing it with Deep Significance. Is there a strong objective cosmological reason to declare tonight at midnight that we have started a new year? None that I can think of, but we still like to make a big deal of it.

On the one hand, that's fine. It's a thing we do, and it does us good to stop our mad race periodically to reconsider what we've done, what we intend to do, how things are generally going, and how we feel about all of this. We are, most of us, inclined to plunge heedlessly forward, mindless racing on into the uncertain darkness of the future-- it's a good idea to stop, sit, and take a mindful moment to reflect. We do not, after all, have forever to work this stuff out.

It lands oddly for schools, catching us in the middle of the year, neither the beginning nor the end of anything in particular. It's still a good a time as any to think about how we're doing. If activists and supporters of public education want to take this moment to set new goals and evaluate old ones, that seems wise. If reformsters want to take the occasion to evaluate strategies and goals, as many have, I'm fine with that. Honestly, it would help things if they would do it a lot more often.

That's part of the problem. Sometimes when we designate one day for a particular activity, we take that as an excuse to ignore it the rest of the year. Should we want until Black History Month to talk about Black History?  No, that would be stupid (particularly since it would be hard to talk about American history without talking about Black History). Once you've been sweet and kind to your partner on your anniversary, can you just ignore them for the rest of the year? Should people only be nice to you on your birthday? Should students and teachers only make a special effort to be at their best on the first day of school?

No, holidays are great for acknowledging thoughtfully that which we always note the rest of the year.

I take as much comfort as anyone in the idea of cycles, but of course, things don't really repeat. My high school students were in high school for four years, and each year was a completely different animal. In many of my years of teaching, one year resembled another, but they were never the same. I taught for a little over 7000 days, and each one was a little different from every other one. Thanks to my brother (long sibling story) I am ticking off my days of retirement one at a time on Facebook. Today is Day 211-- not a particularly notable number. But the exercise of having to report in on each day makes me pay a little more attention to what is happening, what is new each day. And meanwhile, the earth spins on through the void, rotating, spinning around the sun which is itself spinning through the galaxy that is wheeling through space. Cosmically speaking, we never occupy the same location twice, ever, but continuing spiraling into the void, each moment in a new place.

So is there something special happening in (checks watch) eight hours? Not exactly. But is it worth us to take stock, to recap, to reconsider, to set out new goals and standards for ourselves moving forward, to take another thoughtful look at the adventures now receding into the past? Absolutely.

What have we gotten done in the classroom. What milestones have we passed. Those are worth thinking about, as well as remembering that as much as we are sometimes inclined to think of some students (particularly the obnoxious ones) as set in annoying stone, each student comes back each day a little changed, a little different. Everybody grows, always. There's no question about whether they grow-- just how that growth is going to go.

You can't dip your toe into the same river twice, and you never walk int the same classroom twice.

My best wishes to all my colleagues who are returning to the classroom shortly. I hope the breather has served you well. It will be a new day tomorrow. It's always a new day tomorrow.

Venture Capital And Fake Teaching Careers

Here's just one example of how the machine works.

Earlier this month at Forbes, Jessica Pliska (who writes about careers) started with this chirpy lead.

Access and opportunity aren’t words often associated with venture capital. Aaron Walker, CEO of Camelback Ventures, is looking to change that. Here, we chat about what shaped his vision for the future of venture capital, the management lessons he took from his time as a classroom teacher and how the San Antonio Spurs influences his leadership.

Walker's Big Vision explanation of his new venture capital company and how it is meant to promote diversity in the financial world sounds like this:

Camelback is designed to erase this phenomenon in the venture capital space, and explicitly elevate the genius of entrepreneurs of color in social impact. Too often, the entrepreneurial space around social impact generates “solutions” pointed at communities of color without solving for the lack of opportunities in those same communities for them to lead, innovate and build.

And later in the interview, this...

The role Camelback has played to kickstart schools, edtech companies and nonprofits hellbent on strengthening communities and solving urgent issues is deeply rewarding. Brandon Anderson, a Fellow in this year’s cohort, developed Raheem AI, a community reporting system powered by Facebook Messenger that shares data with cities to increase police transparency and show when and where policing works. Then there’s Camelback alum Nicole Cardoza, whose nonprofit Yoga Foster supports teachers with resources for their classroom to create sustainable yoga programs that empower students – and teachers – to better process external pressures.

Camelback Ventures is, as near as one can tell (honestly-- do any of these investment guys speak plain English), interested in social impact investing

Our vision is that, in twenty years, Camelback will have contributed to a nation of livable communities where everyone has the opportunity for a quality education and a good life. The way we see ourselves building this future is through our mission as an accelerator that identifies, develops, and promotes early-stage underrepresented entrepreneurs with the aim to increase individual and community education, and generational wealth.

Their flagship effort is their education fellowships.

This intensive program is our core and flagship offering, working to support early stage education and social impact entrepreneurs. We focus on coaching, capital, connections, community, and curriculum.

Camelback is headquartered in New Orleans, and as part of its entrepreneurial support work, it helps launch schools and back school founders. It also makes a lot of noise about teaching leadership.

So how can a bunch of venture capital guys be talking about education and starting schools? That takes us to Walker's background, as highlighted right up front in Pliska's interview. Pliska asks about his big formative experience, and he responds

Teaching gave me a new perspective on how I grew up because it showed me, unfortunately, how much a zip code can still dictate educational access. In Jersey, I went to a great school with peers with country club memberships, but know this was because my parents made the decision to move us to a neighborhood with access to a better school district – a privilege not shared by many of my former students and relatives. Teaching gave me clarity into just how crucial a role a quality education plays, and how fortunate I was to have received the great education I did. This not only influenced my teaching, but cemented my commitment to social impact and educational opportunity.

So Pliska drills down to ask about key lessons from his "time in the classroom."

The importance of collaboration and leadership. Every breakthrough with a student happened through the collaboration of a team. The times we were at our best as a school were the times we were working together. Teaching also dispelled the myth of the respected “lone hero,” and how good leadership, whether in a school building or firm, helps a team function together because of the organizational culture they’ve built.

Raise your hand if you can guess what Walker's teaching experience actually entailed.

Yup. After graduating from the University of Virginia in 2003 with a degree in foreign affairs (and a one-year internship with Sorenson, a research/pr firm), Walker headed to the Greater Philly Area to put in two whole years with Teach for America as a 9th grade English teacher. He got 100% of hist students to pass the 9th grade reading exam in 2005. Then he was off to law school at University of Pennsylvania. Then off to NYC where he worked as an attorney, a portfolio director at the Fund for Public Schools investment fund, founded Teacher Capital Management recruiting firm. Then he founded Expertly, a "marketplace" where "schools, foundations, and education organizations find and engage experts for their insights." He stuck with each of those startups for a year, then in 2013 launched Camelback.

Look, Camelback may very well be doing good and important work. And Walker may well be an outstanding human being who is putting his God-given talents and privileged background to excellent use.

But here we have the TFA template again. Teach for a couple of years, knowing through most of your second year that you've been accepted to law school and you'll go start your real career soon. Despite your brief and shallow investments in teaching and the school that hired you, spend the rest of your career talking about yourself as a teacher and your "career" as a growth experience for you. The classroom is a way station, and the students are resume fodder that you won't even stick with long enough to see them graduate. "Every breakthrough with a student happened through the collaboration of a team" because it takes a team to keep a raw recruit out of the weeds, but after you had just about learned to run without training wheels, you were out the door, using "time in the classroom" as a top-notch virtue signifier ("Oh, I might juggled investment funds now, but I was a teacher").

I'm sure it had to be good for Walker's students to see a Black man in the front of the classroom. I don't know how much of that good was offset by seeing a Black man who got out of Dodge as quickly as possible.

I don't want to attack a stranger who, as I said, may be doing great work now. But even after all these decades of TFA, this kind of thing burns my toast-- investment guys who never for five minutes intended to pursue teaching as a career, just passng through quickly enough to shine up those grad school applications, mindless of the strain that just passing through puts on the school and the students, treating teaching like a summer job and not a valuable calling, but for years and years after proudly calling themselves "teacher" and reflecting on their "time in the classroom" like some tourist who rode through France on a tier bus and now talks about their deep insights into French culture. And after years and years of being in business, TFA has placed this kind of baloney all over the place. Do what you want to do with your life, but stop using and discarding schools and teaching so that you can tout your fake teaching career.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

A Call for Hong Kong Reform

Philip Yeung was educated at Oxford and the University of Toronto, but he has made his living in China. He's been an academic consultant, a senior communications manager, and currently is with English for Emergencies (my new favorite company name) where he does ghostwriting. He's also an opinion writer for the South China Morning Post, which is where we find him today. Here's a message for everyone who thinks we should chase Hong Kong to get those sweet, sweet PISA scores and win the international test competition.

I'm going to quote some large chunks of this. See if anything sounds familiar at all...

Hong Kong public education is in crisis. The numbers don’t lie. A recent survey by the Hong Kong Psychological Society found 52.2 per cent of teachers showing symptoms of depression, plagued by hopelessness, fatigue and sleeplessness.

A similar percentage of secondary school students are similarly afflicted. Unlike suicides, which have the power to shock, depression is invisible; it spares the government public embarrassment. But how is such a mutant system able to manufacture so much misery to those who live by it? 

Grim. One might imagine similar problems leading to, say, the largest one-year loss of teachers in a few decades. But what can lead to such problems?

Blame it squarely on bureaucrats who know little, and care even less, about education. Teachers were first turned into report-writing clerks, spending much of their time on drafting reports to the Education Bureau, where they sat unread. Then they are yoked to a system that exists to endlessly over-test our kids.

Teachers, dictated to by desk-bound bureaucrats, mutate into drill sergeants. In a culture that reveres teachers, respect is in surprisingly short supply.

...The reading culture, so vital to creative education, predictably fails to take root in this barren teach-to-the-test topsoil.

Too much teaching to the test? Teachers feeling powerless and disrespected? A system worshipping "the wrong god: the god of cookie-cutter tests." How does Yeung think such a problem can be addressed?

Any shake-up, however, must begin at the top; Hong Kong’s chief executive should appoint only educational experts to decision-making positions in the Education Bureau, from the secretary down. Being a parent is an insufficient qualification, as officials always elect to defect from the local system by sending their children, out of harm’s way, to overseas or private schools. With their children out of the system, they have no vested interest in making it work.

Teachers in charge?! Well, that's a shock. The rich and powerful get their kids out so they don't care what happens in the schools? Actually, Warren Buffet made a similar point once, while sitting just feet away from Bill Gates:

If the only choice we had was public schools, we'd have better public schools.

His point being that the rich and powerful would see to it if they had skin in the game. Yeung feel;s the same:

Why do we continue to have wishy-washy generalists and system-deserters running an education body that mistreats teachers and mutilates the young? If you can appoint financial experts to an economic bureau, why couldn’t you pick specialists for the education portfolio where the stakes are no less high and inter-generational?

Any appointment of future senior education officials should be made conditional upon them keeping their children within the local system. Otherwise, the hypocrisy renders them unfit for office.

Yeung names the schools of education "co-conspirators" for the way they train Hong Kong's teachers, and he has some specific instructions for them before he winds up with his final point:

Finally, don’t forget the iron rule in education: a healthy system begins with happy teachers. It ends with the room to grow and the freedom to teach.

All worth keeping in mind the next time someone holds Hong Kong up as a system we should imitate, although it seems we are already imitating many of their worst qualities.

Elon Musk's Special School

There may be few Very Rich Guys who can top Elon Musk for confidence that is boundless and groundless, so it should come as no surprise that Musk started a school.

Unlike other wealthy meddlers in the education world (and, that matter, unklike Musk when it comes to other enterprises), Musk has kept the not-for-profit school, created in 2014, mostly under wraps. That's because his goal has not been so much to rebuild the world of school as it has been to buy a custom education for his own kids.

Musk has five-- one set of twins and one of triplets, so God bless him and his wife. For much of Ad Astra's existence, the Musk children were more than half of the student body. A few openings were made available for other students at the campus located at Musk's SpaceX headquarters, but basically we're talking the most expensive work-based homeschooling ever.

As one might expect, the studies are non-traditional both in terms of content and organization. Musk pulled his children out of one of Los Angeles's top gifted schools and hired away one of their teachers, Joshua Dahn, to run the school.

Now Corinne Purtill at Quartz has turned up the admissions questionnaire for the school. It's not traditional, either. Applicants should be between 8 and 13, with LA students strongly preferred. The only simple question on the form is to ask if one of the parents works for one of Musk's companies.

Parents have the option to share a student project that shows "commitment, ambition and originality," and then the student must handle one of three problem-solving questions.

In the first, called “Goldilocks,” prospective students are presented with descriptions of 11 fictional planets and asked to identify the best three choices and worst three choices for a new human colony.

In "Eleventh Painting” a lost work by a fictional famous (and dead) painter is discovered during construction in her home town in Mexico. When alive, the artist had stipulated that any sales of her work be used for children’s arts education. Applicants must rank five prospective buyers-- each offers vastly different amounts of money and public access to the work.

In “The Lake,” students are given a description of an environmental catastrophe at a local lake and asked to apportion the amount of blame among six parties involved: scientists, politicians, voters, the media, the polluter, and a shadowy figure known as the “puppetmaster,” who is described as “a wealthy individual who is afraid that new regulations could affect their business empire.”

Applications are due January 1, so if you haven't started working on yours, well, good luck with that. You'll also need good luck with Musk's attention span. Musk apparently funds the school almost single-handedly (to the tune of $450K in 2014 and 2015), and it remains to be seen if he will continue the project after his own kids have aged out.

ICYMI: Arbitrary Marker Of Time's Inexorable Passage Edition (12/30)

Yeah, I'm not big on the whole New Year celebratory thing. I will occasionally give in to the urge to do an end-of-year/beginning-of-year style post, but sometimes I think it's just as well to keep on keeping on. So here's this week's batch of worth-your-while readings.

Beware Silcon Valley Santas in the School

Michelle Malkin and I share little in the way of either style or beliefs, but if you want to see how the same hard-right folks who hated Common Core are now coming out swinging against Personalized [sic] Learning, here you go.

Charter School Cash Spent in Connecticut Elections

Man, democracy is just so inconvenient. Hence the periodic attempts to smother it under piles of money, like the last election cycle in Connecticut. Here's who came to play.

12 Educational Headlines You Probably Won't See in 2019

Short, but cute.

Homework App Worth Three Billion

If you want to see what education looks like when it's been stripped of all actual education and reduced to simply the appearance of education, the Chinese are the folks to follow.

 The Waltons and Their Charter-Choice “Inroads”: Making Strategic Purchases 

Oh, those wacky Waltons.


Mary Holden left the classroom, and then she came back. Here's a lovely seasonal piece about what she's grateful for.

About That Nephrologist On DeSantis Transition Team

You may remember that we looked at Florida's governor-elect and his transition team for the dismantling of public education. A couple of those names were mysterious, but here's one figured out.

Asking If Early Childhood Education Is Worth It Is The Wrong Question

This is a ball I refuse to take my eye off of.

Arne Duncan Still Pushing Privatization

Nancy Bailey takes a look at Duncan's most recent attempt to push the same old baloney.  

Friday, December 28, 2018

Why Teachers Don't Use The Software Their Districts Paid For

Ryan Baker (University of Pennsylvania's Center for Learning Analytics) unleashed a small surprise last month with a report indicating that the vast amount of software licenses purchased by school districts are simply never used. There are points on which we might quibble, including the smallish sample size of districts (48) and the very small sample size of data management companies (1). But the results still feel correct, and worthy of discussion. Schools spend a great deal of money on software that is barely used, if at all. Why does that happen?
Thomas Arnett at the Christensen Institute took a stab at explaining all that unused software, using the Institute's Jobs To Be Done Theory. We could call it Perceived Utility or Does This Actually Help Me, but the idea is simple. Teachers have an idea of what their job is, and they will evaluate software based on whether or not it helps do the job.

Arnett's team talked to teachers and uncovered three "jobs" that they believed were relevant:

Job #1: Lead way in improving my school.

Job#2: Find ways to engage and challenge more students.

Job #3: Replace broken instructional model so I can reach each student.

Software rarely helps with the first, can occasionally help with the second and might help with the third, says Arnett. I'm not so sure. It's hard to believe that in 2018, we still have folks who think a computer program will be engaging just because it's a computer program. But students are no more excited about computers than they are about pens.
On top of that, software has a very short interest life. In the last decade of teaching, I repeatedly saw the short lifespan of cool new apps play out with my students. First the new app is discovered, then it's shared, then everybody has to use it every day, then it loses its shine, then we're on to the next one. That process generally plays out in two-to-four weeks.  The odds that software that is engaging in September will still be engaging in May, or even December, are slim-to-none.

Arnett's basic insight is sound; teachers don't use software that isn't useful to them, particularly if the time involved in setting it up, getting it to work and getting students comfortable with it is just too big a chunk of the limited teaching time in the year.

There are other issues that Arnett doesn't look at. A huge factor is time--how much will it take the teacher to learn the program, and how much preparation will the program require for use. There are, for instance, programs that allow for game-like quizzing and questioning, but which require hours of physically entering the questions into the program. A good review idea would be to have students write questions on note cards, and then the teacher can enter all of those questions into the program, requiring an hour or two of prep time. Or the teacher can just use the note cards, requiring zero hours of prep time.

The problem at the root of much unused software is the district's procurement process. The surest way to keep software from being used is to keep the teacher--the actual end user--locked out of the procurement process. When the software is purchased by people who aren't going to use it, it almost always turns out not to be useful. As Arnett notes, "A good sales pitch may get a product through the district office's front door," but it won't get the software used in a classroom.

Note: a quick peekaboo session does not fix this. It takes time and use to determine if software is really useful or not. Having teachers "look this over" for an afternoon, or even for a week, is not good enough.

If your district is going to purchase software, it needs to be software that teachers will actually want to use because it helps them do their jobs. The only people who can make that determination about the software is the teachers themselves. If they aren't involved in the procurement process, and if that doesn't include time for training and use of the software, you are wasting a ton of taxpayer dollars on software licenses that will gather a bunch of cyber-dust.
Originally posted at Forbes

Defining Reformy Terms Is Everything

EdChoice has released their annual report about education, with a particular focus on reformy stuff. It's a survey of teachers, parents and the general public, and a look at attitudes and beliefs about many aspects of education.  I've read it, but this time I am not going to run through the whole thing for you, because I want to focus on the power of definitions in framing these kind of discussions.

If you're a bit of a cynic, you will conclude when it comes to surveys like this, the fix is in just because of the way questions are framed. If you are a trusting soul, you might conclude that surveys like this reveal some fundamental differences in how reformsters and public school advocates see some of these issues. Or you might conclude that this ind of a survey is a sort of marketing guide, a report on which methods of framing make it easiest to sell the product.

There are some interesting comparisons between the teacher, parent, and public views. For instance, teachers report far more time spent on test prep. There are also some big differences of opinion about who should drive the accountability bus (though nearly nobody thinks it should be the feds). There are also some interesting results from teachers about the teaching profession, and that probably deserves its own look another day, though the methodology is a little unclear.

There are questions using the "when given more information" model for seeing how attitudes are affected when respondents are given another explanation, which is a perfect method for testing out language to see what moves the needle in your desired direction.

That thinking breaks some questions down in terms of "needs more PR work." For instance, the report finds that nobody is very excited about giving schools A-F grades and so concludes of the low numbers "We should view these numbers as a floor for how well these ratings are communicated to key stakeholders and the public at large." In other words, it's a PR problem. At this point I've read dozens of these sorts of reports, and the one thing one never, ever sees is "Apparently these teachers/parents/stakeholders are seeing problems that we are not seeing. We should go listen to them and find out what we're getting wrong." Instead, we get endless replays of this conversation:

Reformster: (Punches teacher in the face.)

Teacher: Ow!! Hey, knock it off! That is painful and unwelcome.

Reformster: I don't think you're fully understanding what I'm doing here.

To see the framing game really in action, let's go to page forty-five and EdChoice's language for defining the usual popular choice programs:

Education Savings Accounts (ESAs)

An "education savings account" in K–12 education—often called an ESA—establishes for parents a government-authorized savings account with restricted, but multiple uses for educational purposes. Parents can then use these funds to pay for: school tuition, tutoring, online education programs, therapies for students with special needs, textbooks or other instructional materials, or future college expenses.

See, it's "government authorized" and "restricted" which might lead someone to conclude that there is some sort of official oversight of how the money is used.  But no-- ESAs are currently black holes into which money is thrown.

School Vouchers

A school voucher system allows parents the option of sending their child to the school of their choice, whether that school is public or private, including both religious and non-religious schools. If this policy were adopted, tax dollars currently allocated to a school district would be allocated to parents in the form of a “school voucher” to pay partial or full tuition for the child’s school.

I'll give them credit for admitting the vouchers can be used for religious schools. But you'll note that there's no language to indicate these are public tax dollars, and again, no words about accountability or oversight.

Tax-Credit Scholarships

A tax credit allows an individual or business to reduce the final amount of a tax owed to government. In a “tax-credit scholarship system,” a government gives tax credits to individuals or businesses if they contribute money to nonprofit organizations that distribute private school scholarships. A nonprofit organization gives a scholarship to a qualifying student who would like to enroll in a private school of their choice, including both religious and non- religious schools. The student’s parent then uses the scholarship to pay partial or full tuition for the chosen private school.

Well, that certainly sounds more complicated than "Contributors can send a kid to private school in place of paying their taxes."

Public Charter Schools

Charter schools are public schools that have more control over their own budget, staff, and curriculum, and are exempt from many existing public school regulations.

Nope. Framing charter schools as public school continues to be a rhetorical favorite of reformsters. But charters do not have the critical features of public schools-- not the transparency, not the accountability, not the need to follow rues that protect staff and students, not the mandate of responsibility for education of all students in an area.

Defining reform programs is critical. If you tell folks, "Charter schools are a policy by which every child gets a pony," support will likely go up. If you tell folks, "Charter schools are a way of stripping public tax dollars from public ed" or "charter schools are a program for running multiple redundant school systems at the cost of either increased taxes or reduced services for public school students" then support reduces.

This is why surveys like this one are only marginally useful-- when the advocates for a particular point of view set the terms of the discussion, they are tilting the playing field toward their own interests. And Reformsters, like anyone else with something to sell, pay plenty of attention to this. The words "common core" became toxic, so supporters went to "college and career ready standards." Advocates of Personalized [sic] Learning have determined that it's best sold with the fewest possible mentions of computers and technology, and so such language has been scrubbed from the pitches.

Language matters, and that's why we need to watch it closely- probably more closely than the results of advocacy research reports.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

AZ: Proposed Teacher Gag Law Part of National Push

The proposed teacher gag law in Arizona may look like a piece of small time revenge legislation, but it is actually part of a larger movement to silence teachers in and out of the classroom.

When Arizona teachers walked out on strike, it led to a legislative move to increase education funding by $400 million. But it also led to an expectation that some legislators would seek some vengeance on the uppity educators.

Enter Rep. Mark Finchem (R) with House Bill 2002, a proposal to stifle teachers when it comes to discussing any kind of politics in the classroom called the "Teacher Code of Ethics." Among his provisions we find:

Teachers may not endorse, support or oppose any candidate or elected or appointed official.

Teachers may not bring up any "controversial issues" not related to the course. 

Teachers may not endorse or participate in any actions interfering with military recruiter access to the school. Ditto for law enforcement.

Teachers may not advocate for one side of a controversial issue; they must always present both sides.

Teachers (or schools) may not segregate according to race, and must not blame any one race "as being responsible for the suffering or inequities" experienced by another race.

This guy borrowed someone else's homework
Mark Finchem hasn't been in the legislature long, but he's put his name on plenty of legislation, including a bill requiring public schools to report what buildings and equipment they aren't using (so charters can have it), a bill calling for extensive reporting on abortions performed, and a bill prohibiting interference with free speech on college campuses.

Finchem says HB 2002 has nothing to do with the #RedforEd movement, but comes out of discussions with concerned parents. I can believe that #RedforEd is not directly related, just as I think he's delivering a whole load of Arizona Road Apples when he says this comes out of parental concerns.

That's because this Teacher Code of Ethics rings a bell.

On Friday, Tallman sent a memo to the 203-member state House seeking support for a bill he dubbed the “Teacher Code of Ethics,” which legal experts questioned as unconstitutional overreach.

In the memo, Tallman said his bill would forbid public school teachers from endorsing, supporting or opposing candidates or incumbents for local, state and federal offices while in the classroom. On the job, teachers could not discuss enacted or pending legislation, regulations, executive orders or court cases involving any level or branch of government. They could not talk about activities “that hamper or impede” law enforcement actions or military recruiters on campus.

That's Will Tallman, a legislator in Pennsylvania, speaking for an article published back in September.

I'm going to jump to the conclusion that this is not a remarkable coincidence. But all roads do not lead to ALEC, the infamous legislation mill that serves as a Tinder for legislators and corporate interests that want to find each other (at least, not right away).

If we roll the clock back to January of 2018, we find Dave LaRock, a Virginia choicer, proposing a Teacher Code of Ethics that reads like a rough draft of the Pa and AZ versions. But it turns out that LaRock appears to have cribbed his proposal from a website called StopK12Indoctrination. 

StopK12 posted their version of the Teacher Code of Ethics in June of 2017, and it's clear that the other teacher codes are all versions of this original. But who are the StopK12 people? The site is remarkably clear of any "who we are" information. However, there are several videos featuring Sean Fitzgerald, who is elsewhere tagged as the site's editor. And if you decide you want to contribute to the muzzling of teachers, the link will take you to a site that will let you contribute to the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

Fitzgerald is a bit of a mystery, but he is earnest as all get-out. In one of his videos (he's on YouTube as "Actual Justice Warrior"), he repeats the old misleading about how we spend so much on education but are still outclassed on international testing. That's because we started indoctrinating children instead of educating them. Other videos rail against Islam in public schools, diversity, schools that glorify terrorist organizations, and the notion of white privilege. He's not happy about SJWs, the hard right code for social justice warriors. You can call him a hard right wingnut, but he's got over 23,000 subscribers on YouTube.

And he has teamed up with David Horowitz.

Horowitz is a well-established hard right writer and activist who is just ballsy enough to put his name right there on his lead organization (David Horowitz Freedom Center). His Center for the Study of Popular Culture has been tagged by the Southern Poverty Law Center as one of the "right-wing foundations and think tanks support[ing] efforts to make bigoted and discredited ideas respectable." He's a vocal anti-Muslim who joined the smear party labeling Barack Obama a secret Muslim. He has been very active in trying to squelch liberal voices in college and university teaching positions. And, perhaps most notably, this Steve Bannon buddy was the early mentor of Stephen Miller, the angry voice of racism in the Trump administration.

So, not ALEC this time?

Welllll…. Neither Tallman or LaRock have ALEC ties, according to the Center for Media and Democracy. Mark Finchem not only belongs, but was willing to sign an ALEC letter. But David Horowitz?

Horowitz was invited to be a key speaker at ALEC's 2018 gathering in New Orleans, a decision so controversial that it prompted Verizon to end a close, thirty-year relationship with the group. A coalition of 79 organizations sent out letters to various sponsors of ALEC, and many jumped ship-- though not the Koch brothers, who continue to give heavily to the organization. The Center for Media and Democracy covered the convention, the speech, and the problematic past of Horowitz, who responded by suing the group. Nobody at CMD was impressed.

We can say two things with certainty about the Arizona Teacher Code of Ethics.

First, it's dumb and repressive and almost certainly unconstitutional. Should teachers exhort their students to vote for a particular candidate? No. Do teachers have the right to discuss controversial political issues in their classroom, without being forced to present opposing views? Of course they do-- imagine a class a teacher must explain how Nazis and slave owners had valid points of their own. Almost as ludicrous as a class in which the effects of racism may be noted, but the source and practitioners of racism must remain cloaked in mystery. And a command to never, ever interfere with the police or the military has a real totalitarian ring to it.

All of the rules make sense when one considers the source-- a racist authoritarian xenophobic alt-right wingnut. This is not just about shutting down teachers (it really is bigger than being anti-#RedforEd) but about making sure that teachers cannot interfere with the imposition of a white supremacist alt-right dreamland.

The second thing we can say with certainty about this proposal is that Rep. Finchem did not whip it up himself after some conversations with concerned parents. HB 2002 is part of a wider attempt to shut teachers up so that they can't exercise First Amendment rights-- particularly not in ways that would contradict white nationalists .

It's a bill that deserves to die. And Rep. Finchem is a man who deserves some extra attention, to see just who feeds him these kinds of anti-American anti-freedom ideas for bills.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

PA: State High Court Will Hear Anti-School Tax Lawsuit

Can a court overrule an elected school board when it comes to taxation? The Pennsylvania State Supreme Court is one step closer to deciding just that in a lawsuit that has been kicking around for a couple of years now.

I wrote about this case in some depth back in 2016, and I'm going to quote liberally from myself.

Fun fact: One of Lower Merion's most famous alumni
The short version of the story is this: Lower Merion schools raised taxes, and a taxpayer in the district hated the idea enough to sue over it. The initial decision was in the plaintiff's favor, and the judge (Senior Judge Joseph A Smyth) in the case threw out the district's tax rate. This obviously has all sorts of scary implications for school districts across the state, and so the case has been working its way up through the legal system. The district has been losing, but Commonwealth Court stopped the appeals process on a technicality. The State Supreme Court has now sent the case back down, saying the technicality doesn't matter-- just decide the case on its merits. 

Let me recap the particulars of the case because, not surprisingly, this is a case in which nobody is looking like an angel.

It's the state itself that has set the stage for this baloney.

As part of Pennsylvania's ongoing work to crush public education promote fiscal responsibility, for the last decade we've had the bi-partisan fiscal straightjacket that is Act 1, which declares that schools may not raise taxes above a certain index without either a voter referendum or state-level permission. Lower Merion has allegedly been going the state exception route for the last ten budgets by claiming a projected deficit that would affect pensions and special ed. Here's how the district put it in response to the decision:

In Lower Merion, recent enrollment growth has exceeded projections and the impact on staffing and facilities planning has been significant and unexpected. Additionally, the District faces increasing unfunded and underfunded state-mandated costs, including retirement and special education. Without the ability to plan ahead for its financial needs and maintain adequate reserves, the District will lose critical flexibility during a time of uncertainty and growth. The implication for school programs is enormous.

That's not an unusual claim in Pennsylvania. Districts are climbing up a mountain of pensions debt, a huge series of balloon payments on pension liabilities that have been accumulated by a decade of bad choices and exacerbated by the financial collapse back in 2008 (thanks a lot, Wall Street). How bad is it?

For the next decade, school districts will have to make pension fund payments equal to a full third of their total budget.

In this climate, stashing a big pile of money in the bank is not an unusual district move. On the other hand, Lower Merion seems to have been pretty aggressive in building up its rainy day fund.

Lower Merion is one of the wealthiest districts in the Philly area, spending a whopping $22K per pupil and just dropped $200 million on two new high schools in 2009 and 2010.  

And it would seem that Lower Merion may have the worst budget process ever. The lawsuit and the ruling both leaned on what appear to be some serious mistakes in the predicted outcome of the year:

For instance, in 2009-10, the district projected a $4.7 million budget hole but ended the year with a $9.5 million overage. In 2011-12, it anticipated a $5.1 million gap but wound up with $15.5 million to the plus side.

Lower Merion business manager Victor Orlando testified that the district has between $50 and $60 million in the bank. This is in itself requires some of the aggressive accounting that the lawsuit complains about-- Pennsylvania also has laws about how much money a district can park in its general fund.

So the answer here may be that the buttload of money is in designated accounts, set aside for capital improvements or future gut-wrenching pension payments. The district has been voluble and public in asserting that it has been transparent, followed proper budgeting behavior, and has managed resources for maximum flexibility. They've got a whole response on their website, and while it is forceful and unapologetic, it also skips over any sort of specific explanation of why the district appears to be essentially making millions of dollars of profit every year.

But before we throw up our hands and declare shenanigans on the district, let's look at the plaintiff, who is not exactly unfamiliar to the court system.

That would be Arthur Wolk. (Wolk's co-plaintiffs are Philip Browndeis, Lee Quillen, Catherine Marchand, and Stephen Gleason). Wolk is an attorney who has made a name for himself in aviation law, scoring some big-payday lawsuits against companies on the behalf of victims of various plane crashes. Wolk is semi-retired, seventy-two, and called in this profile article a " pugnacious pit bull." And when it comes to detractors, Wolk has a reputation for libel lawsuits (you can get a pretty good picture of that image from this blog post entitled "Has Arthur Alan Wolk Finally Learned That He Cannot Sue Every Critic?" Wolk is clearly neither shy nor backward-- you can read more about him on his wikipedia page, which was set for him by the marketing company he hired to give him more web presence.

Wolk's two children did not attend school in the district, but he has a big house there and pays more taxes than he thinks he ought to. When the district's superintendent released a letter accusing Wolk of trying to establish public schools as lesser than private schools by choking off taxpayer support, Wolk replied with a letter of his own (referring to himself in third person).

There was no need for a tax increase this year or any year in the last ten according to audited statements. We have the highest paid teachers, highest paid administrators, and too many of them, and the most expensive school buildings and the highest per student cost of any place in the nation. Our school performance is on par with districts that spend half of what LMSD spends which means that the administrators have failed in their jobs and the people supposed to provide oversight, the Directors, have done nothing.

He also brings up senior citizens on fixed incomes who are afraid of losing their homes, because no discussion of school taxes in Pennsylvania can occur without bringing up the spectre of senior citizens afraid of losing their homes. I am not sure exactly who in Wolk's uber-rich neighborhood could be worried about losing their home over taxes. 

Wolk has been explaining himself on the subject for months. In May he wrote a letter to the editor complaining about the district's wild spending way, creating debt by building "two Taj Mahal high schools" along with bunches of busing. The district's attorney has claimed that he simply jumped past the proper procedure:

“There was another procedure he was supposed to follow, the way it should have been done is through the budget process, and then through the Department of Education, which is the way these things are supposed to be done,” said Putnam.

Wolk's critics (and he has plenty) repeatedly accuse him of advocating a two tier system, with just the basics for public school students. Here's an oft-quoted excerpt from his lawsuit.

Public school education means basic adherence to the minimum requirements established and imposed upon school district by the State Board of Education, Public education is not courses, programs, activities, fee laptop computers and curriculums that are neither mandated nor normally part of a public education standard, and are normally provided only by private institutions at larger expense to individual patrons who prefer to afford their children education and opportunities that are neither required, nor offered, nor appropriate for public education paid for by the taxpayers.

Well, that's pretty clear. Some nice things are only for private school students, and taxpayers shouldn't have to pay for anything except the basics. 

The implications here are fairly huge; should Wolk prevail, we'll live in a state where charter, voucher, and other private school parents could sue the public school system every time it even thought about raising taxes, using the court system to help maintain a two-tiered system of schooling. 

And if that wasn't enough, the plaintiff's also indicated in the original suit that they would like the board stripped of authority and replaced by a state-appointed overlord. Of course, we have a system for stripping elected officials of authority-- it's call an election-- but like many reform-minded folks, these plaintiffs appear to object to democracy when it affects their wallets. 

So, the case will be heard and decided, and then the loser will appeal it to the State Supreme Court, and we'll finally see if the court system is willing to override democracy. It's a shameful mess, and shame on the school district for making such an easy target of themselves, and shame on Arthur Wolk for deciding that he should be the arbiter of what students do or don't deserve.

Stay tuned.