Thursday, June 30, 2022

PA: Court Makes School District Pay Taxpayers Back

The Lower Merion School District is the one that was sued six years ago for raising taxes too much. The suit has yielded the unusual spectacle of a court overruling a local school district on the matter of taxation. Now there's a new chapter in that saga. We'll look at that, but first, a little review:

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.

Lower Merion is one of the wealthiest districts in the state, and its budget process seems a bit....well, loose.

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. But districts can get around those by parking money in designated funds ("This $20K is in our Library Doily Fund, not the general fund").

So it's not like the district didn't ask for some trouble. But the guy who delivered is a fascinating story himself.

Lord knows the world is filled with people who want to sue their school district because they think their taxes are too high. Who is this guy who actually did it?

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, pushing eighty, 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.

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.

The judge (Senior Judge Joseph A Smyth) in the case ruled that the tax increase was unnecessary and excessive, and he revoked it. Which is, as near as anyone can tell, unprecedented.

That was back in 2016. The district appealed, and a three-judge Commonwealth Court panel said dismissed the appeal because they filed it too late. Yippee, said Wolk. Also, Wolk said he wanted to see the district refund the extra money "or I'll sue them again for contempt." The court ruled against Lower Merion in March of 2020; the district appealed. The PA Supreme Court denied that appeal in October of 2020. 

And in November of 2020, Wolk by God filed a motion to hold the district and its lawyers in contempt and also  "for the school district, its administrators and lawyers; to be fined $100,000 for every day that they do not comply with Judge Smyth’s decision and order." That's the order dated August 29, 2016, so the amount of the fine would be many millions of dollars. Also, Wolk asked for a grand jury "to investigate the fraud committed by the Lower Merion School District, its Adminstrators and Lawyers, from 2005 to the present, and to issue indictments for those found to have perpetrated, advised or sanctioned such theft.” In April of 2021, Superintendent Robert Copeland announced his intention to resign; Wolk filed suit to cut off his pension. One gets the impression that Wolk is pretty angry.

Now, finally, the whole business seems to have reached a conclusion; the district has agreed to pay $27 million back to taxpayers over a period of several years. --$15 million now, and $4 mill each for 2023, 2024, and 2025, all to anyone who owned property in the district in August of 2016. There's never been anything quite like it in Pennsylvania, and I'm not sure what lesson anyone has learned other than A) don't piss off Arthur Wolk and B) the courts can take over a basic function of a school district if they so desire, even if the district is plenty rich.

The Christian Nation Problem

If it seems like there are fundamentally different theories of government operating in this country, that's because there are.

Start with people who believe that the US is a Christian nation, founded on Christian principles. I'm not going to argue that particular point at the moment, other than to note that the Founding Fathers disagreed about virtually everything. And I don't just mean the obvious slavery stuff. Patrick "Give me liberty or give me death" Henry was opposed to the Constitution. Thomas "These are the times that try men's souls" Paine thought George Washington was a bungling tool unfit for any important office. 

The notion that there was ever anything at all like a meeting that ended with the Founding Fathers looking around the room and saying, "Okay, so we're all agreed that we want to codify basic Biblical principles into the laws and functions of our government, right?" is silly. They agreed about nothing.

But the "founded as a Christian nation" idea is a tell, coming frequently hand in hand with a very different idea about the foundations of the country.

Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." That assertion that government's get their power from the consent of the governed is both ideological and practical. It's not just that instituting a government that way is the proper thing to do, but that to try to derive government power from other sources (like, say, the divine right of kings) leads sooner or later to uproar, revolt, destruction, decay. 

But for Christian Nationalists, the principle is that government derives its powers and legitimacy by alignment with God and God's dictates. 

To some people of faith, particularly those with an Old Testament bent, this makes sense. A nation prospers because it aligns itself with God; to break with God is to bring ruin on the country. 

But it also means that these people are starting with a different conception of what the country is about.

For one thing, the idea of a christian nation leads immediately to the idea of christian citizens. If the government is only legitimate to the degree it follows God's will, then citizens are only true citizens to the extent that they follow God's will.

All of this pushes the christian nation crowd to oppose democracy and democratic ideals. For them, democracy opens the door to letting citizens who are not legitimate citizens have a say. This is often what some of these believers are pointing at when they say that this country is a republic and not a democracy--a republic is built much more around the idea of government being steered by only those legitimate citizens, who are protected from the influence of the illegitimate others. 

None of this is to say that all christian nationalists want to lock up the illegitimate citizens, put them in camps, keep them in chains, etc. Many believe deeply in freedom, but by freedom they mean the opportunity for those people who are not properly aligned with God to get right with divine direction and come over the right side, at which time they can be rewarded with the rights and privileges of true citizens. They may even praise diversity, because they believe it's an awesome thing that folks from all these different backgrounds and origins can come together under the proper banner of God.

But until they come over to the banner, they should not be allowed to drag the country off course.

At first glance, some christian nationalist ideas may seem hypocritical, but they aren't, because the underlying principle is that people who are right with God have certain rights and privileges, and people who are Not Right need to be restrained and kept away from the levers of power, because if they get their hands on the levers of power, those Not Right people will steer the nation further away from alignment with God's Laws, thereby endangering the nation's future. 

And christian nationalists are constantly fighting the battle to keep the Not Right people from power. Welfare to undeserving, racial protests, immigration, voting rights--none of these are about addressing real problems, but are part of a web of excuses and sneaky strategies to give Not Right people more power in our country. You can't really chip away at their belief that 2020 elections (and others) are rigged, because the issue is not so much specific instances of fraud as the gnawing belief that there are all these Not True American people who are getting to vote who shouldn't get to vote. 

Through this lens, we see a different purpose of education--to bring up true citizens who understand the true things that bring them in alignment with God's true word. There is no reason to confuse students with ideas that we already know are wrong. Early in my career, my friend the gifted teacher taught a unit on world religions, looking at the ideas and history of each one. Said one of his Christian students, "I'm not doing this. There's no reason to study those other religions, because they are all wrong."

This debate about education has been going on for decades. It does not matter which label is being currently used--evolution, tolerance, LGBTQ, BLM in school, the 1619 project, sex ed, SEL--these are just the current label for a large complex of attempts to teach things in school that seduce students away from God's true word and alignment with it. That's why we find counters such as the Florida civics education program teaching that the founders didn't want a wall between church and state, among other things. 

School becomes an arena for debating the areas where christian nationalists and other Americans thrash out different values. Sometimes the language hides the disagreement. Everyone wants students to become good citizens who use critical thinking. But for some, "good citizen" means "aligned with God's truth" and "critical thinking" means "able to see through evil deception of those who try to lure you away from God's true word." 

Not all Christians, not all nationalists, not all conservatives. But more than enough to wreak havoc (particularly if they get themselves a judge's robe). 

But it's important, as we hash this out some more in the years ahead, to remember a couple of things.

1) This conflict is baked into our national DNA. So many colonists came here to get away from ugly messes where the church and state had become intertwined, and yet many, like the Puritans, did not think the problem was that the church was in charge of the state, but rather that the wrong church was in charge of the state. They escaped oppression so that they could be the oppressors.

2) We are dealing with people who don't share the value of democratic processes and democratic systems. In other words, hollering, "But that's not democracy works" at them will be fruitless.

What religious nationalists always fail to notice is that it always ends badly. It is not unreasonable to declare that God is not defined by a majority vote, however, humans have a long and bloody history of disagreeing about the nature and requirements of God. Turns out everybody has their own ideas about what, exactly, God's will might be.

They may dream of a country where only people who Believe Correctly are in charge, but such a country requires you to force people who disagree to shut up or force people who disagree to at least pretend to agree or force people who aren't part of the ruling church to accept what religion-backed-government chooses to take away from them, and those tricks not only don't work but also lead to huge civil messes. I believe the Founding Fathers were acutely aware of that history (after all--Great Britain had been through at least two ugly religion-related government upheavals in the 17th century) and that knowledge gave them ample reason to conclude that A) keeping the church away from government was a good idea and B) a government's power comes from the consent of the governed because when people stop consenting, governments find themselves with steadily decreasing power. 

We do not agree on what this country is meant to be. We never have, and a whole shelf full of historians have made hay parsing the various subdivisions. What our founders cobbled together was a system that made it hard for any one subdivision to take control from all the others. Doesn't mean they won't try. Doesn't mean they won't come frighteningly close.

But folks in the education space need to understand that the most severe of the christian nationalists have no interest in compromise. They have spoken for years about their need to take back the schools, and that is what they intend to do, with all the discrimination, segregation, privatization, taxpayer funding, and absence of government oversight that it entails. They have lost, as historian Adam Laats often points out, the "wars" over what the culture will be. That doesn't mean they can't still fight a battle over who will run the country where the culture exists and the schools where the culture is imparted. 

I know by the rules of this sort of essay I should wrap up with an encouraging plan of action, but I'm not really sure. I suspect it would help if everyone could stop viewing their opposition as slavering monsters, but if you view yourself as a soldier of God, it's hard not to see those who oppose you as agents of Satan. But I remain convinced that personal contact and connection can defuse much of this. How we transfer that energy over to politicians and media companies that are opportunistically profiting from the conflict I do not know. Surely there is some shared text that can help us, but right now we are all reading from completely different books, and I'm not sure how we bridge that. Sorry.

*Hat tip to Adam Laats and Katherine Stewart who articulate many of these ideas at greater length and in better ways that I do here. 

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

MAGA Group Calls For End Of Federal Establishment Clause


First we'll cover what they said, then look at who they are. 

In response to the SCOTUS decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, in which we learned that maybe prayer led by a school employee during working hours and involving students is actually okee dokee, America First Legal issued a statement

They thought the decision was great. But while other folks were content to argue that Coach Kennedy didn't violate the Establishment Clause, AFL went one better "asking the court to reconsider and overrule the Establishment Clause cases" that have caused so much grief and job loss to folks like Kennedy. In fact, even that is not enough. I'm quoting directly here so that you don't think I'm just making crazy stuff up:

AFL is hopeful that the justices will build on this ruling and eventually disincorporate the Establishment Clause, which fully protects the rights of states to decide whether and to what extent they will establish religion within their borders.

Yes, they said what they said. Throw it out so that every state can establish its own state religion.

Now, before you dismiss these guys as fringey cranks, let me tell you who they are.

AFL was established in February of 2021 by former senior White House advisor Stephen Miller and counselor to the Attorney General Gene Hamilton. They were set up to fight Democrat policies in the courts. Their board includes Mark Meadows, former acting AG General Matt Whitaker, and former director of the Office of Management and Budget Russ Vought. They were announced with great joy and fanfare on the right (the American Spectator called them "a light in the darkness"). Trump himself gave them an endorsement. The Conservative Partnership Institute (a Jim Demint joint that's part of the State Policy Network) also takes credit for helping create AFL.

Their stated mission is, in part,

We founded America First Legal to save our country from this coordinated campaign. With your support, we will oppose the radical left’s anti-jobs, anti-freedom, anti-faith, anti-borders, anti-police, and anti-American crusade.

They want to preserve "the system our Founding Fathers established." If you're wondering how "disincorporating" part of the actual Constitution fits with that, as near as I can tell, they're going with the idea that the federal government isn't supposed to establish a religion, but the states should be totally free to. No word on whether they'll argue that states get to decide "free exercise" as well.

So if you're wondering what might be coming down the SCOTUS disassembly line next, keep your eye peeled for this one. Yikes.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

PA: Joining The Gag Law Train

Some Pennsylvania GOP folks have decided they want to take a ride on the teacher gag law train and toss up some "parental rights" bills. Each follows the usual template, but offers some special variations.

First up-- Senate Bill 1278.

This is one of those bills requiring the school to tell parents if there is a "change in the student's services or monitoring related to the student's mental, emotional or physical health or well-being" as well as a requirement that the school must "reinforce the fundamental right of the parent or legal guardian to make decisions regarding the parent or legal guardian's child and encourage a student to discuss issues relating to the student's well-being with the parent or legal guardian or to facilitate discussion of the issue with the parent or legal guardian." 

There could be many situations that could trigger such a rule, but mostly these bills are about keeping the school from trying to secretly turn your kid gay or trans. This bill does include a disclaimer saying that the school can withhold such information "if a reasonably prudent person would believe, based on the documented testimony of the student or a history of documented incidents, that disclosure would result in child abuse or the child being abandoned."

There is a now-almost-hilarious saying that school personnel should show the same neutrality toward "sexual orientation and gender identity" as they are required to show toward religious beliefs, and maybe this is just the bill's author taking a snarky dig (Just use that neutrality thing you make us use with religion! Ha! Showed you! Hoist with your own petard now, aren't you!), but since the Supreme Court seems bent on dismantling that religious neutrality, the PA Senate may want to come up with new language. 

Also, for the gazillionth time-- virtually every text that portrays traditional gender roles is taking a non-neutral stance on gender identity and sexual orientation, so this requirement is functionally impossible to follow. But maybe the bill's author really meant "it should be illegal to tell kids that it's okay to be gay or trans."

This bill also includes private right of action for any parent who thinks the non-confidentiality thing has been violated by some teacher trying to turn their kid gay or trans, which means that if the student has given evidence that they are reasonably afraid of abuse or abandonment at home, all of that gets dragged into court when the school has to defend itself from the lawsuit. Want to guess what the Venn Diagram for "parents whose children are afraid of them" and "parents who will sue the school over this stuff" looks like?

Our other bill is Senate Bill 1277

This is a naughty books bill, requiring schools to notify parents of any "sexually explicit content." Including all texts, instructional materials, and library books. The school district needs to come up with policy for all this, and must have public meetings to let everyone have a say on what the policies should look like. 

This bill applies to all schools--public, charter, vocational, cyber-charter. Parents can review any and all materials and require the school to provide their student nonexplicit materials. The bill defines "sexually explicit content" as anything that contains "written descriptions of sexual conduct," which is super-vague, "materials that contain "visual or visually implied depictions of sexual conduct or simulations of sexual conduct," which is even vaguer-- what exactly is a visually implied depiction of sexual conduct?  And no "visual depictions of nudity" at all for K-8. Tough luck, health teachers. Also, how nude are we talking? 

Laws like these get in their own way because they are so vague and arbitrary that they raise far more questions than solutions. 

The sponsors insist that they are being bombarded with parental concerns so they need to empower them, Florida-style. 

Watch for these and other bills in Pennsylvania. Fun times. 

Monday, June 27, 2022

SCOTUS Okays School Prayer Based On Alternate Reality

I am absolutely gobsmacked. I expected that SCOTUS would okay school prayer via Kennedy v. Bremerton School District. I did not expect that their decision would be based on a disconnecting themselves from reality. 

The result is here. I'll walk you through the highlights (sputtering as I go). Sorry. I don't have time to make this short.

This is the case of the football coach who wanted to pray at the 50 yard line after games, and when the district told him to stop, decided he'd get his fifteen minutes of holy fame out of it. Full summary here.

Justice Gorsuch wrote this one, and he's in an alternate reality in the very first paragraph.

Joseph Kennedy lost his job as a high school football coach because he knelt at midfield after games to offer a quiet prayer of thanks.

Nope. Joseph Kennedy decided not to put in for the job for another season.

Mr. Kennedy prayed during a period when school employees were free to speak with a friend, call for a reservation at a restaurant, check email, or attend to other personal matters. 

This line of reasoning will be followed throughout. If you're on the clock, but can get away with dividing your attention, that counts as personal time. Not for the last time, Gorsuch and the berobed conservative activists of the court will demonstrate no understanding of how school jobs work. As a teacher, if I'm on my computer or phone while I'm supposed to be supervising students, I'm asking for trouble. And if I'm a coach or activity advisor, and my students have not officially left the building for home, then I had better be doing my job, which is keeping an eye on them.

What follows is a glowing version of Coach Kennedy's history with the school, putting emphasis on how quiet and personal and totally not while performing his duties as a government employee Kennedy's praying was. We will have to wait for the dissent to get the full story from this planet. What Gorsuch gets semi-right is that this practice stayed below the radar for a while, until Kennedy had expanded it enough that word got back to district officials, who had a church-and-state-separation freakout. 

But Kennedy had an epiphany driving home one night, and felt "compelled" to do the prayer, and send a big letter to the district, in which he offered to do the prayer quietly "while students were busy with other activities--whether heading to the locker room, boarding the bus, or perhaps singing the school fight song" which--no! The offer of "I'll just slip a prayer in when I'm supposed to be doing my job" is not a great offer!

On October 16, "some members of the community" joined him and "this event spurred media coverage." Well, yes-- as the dissent points out, Kennedy spurred, courted, welcomed and recruited media coverage, as well as (not for the first time) participation from the other team. The district continued to put pressure on, feeling that to not do so would suggest they were endorsing a school prayer, and that their understanding of the Constitution would be that such an endorsement was wrong. How very old school of them.

The district noted in their evaluation that Kennedy failed to supervise students after games and failed to follow district policy regarding religious expression. Kennedy decided not to put in for the job for the coming year.

Next comes the dissection of the previous cases, including boneheaded statements like this from Justice Alito:

JUSTICE ALITO expressed concerns with the lower courts’ decisions, including the possibility that, under their reasoning, teachers might be “ordered not to engage in any ‘demonstrative’ conduct of a religious nature” within view of students, even to the point of being forbidden from “folding their hands or bowing their heads in prayer” before lunch.

One of the things the justices will deliberately, repeatedly ignore in this case is the authority of a coach over his team. Kennedy reportedly never said, "You have to come pray with me." He wouldn't have to, any more than any coach ever has to say, "You must come to the optional practice." The "if you want to stay on my good side and get to play" is always silent. The lower court correctly found that 

because Mr. Kennedy “was hired precisely to occupy” an “influential role for student athletes,” any speech he uttered was offered in his capacity as a government employee and unprotected by the First Amendment.

Yes! How is that not the end of it? And the court the next level up was on point too

 According to the court, “Kennedy’s onfield religious activity,” coupled with what the court called “his pugilistic efforts to generate publicity in order to gain approval of those on-field religious activities,” were enough to lead an “objective observer” to conclude that the District “endorsed Kennedy’s religious activity by not stopping the practice.” 

How is that not the end? Well, SCOTUS has a way. Writes Gorsuch

Under this Court’s precedents, a plaintiff may carry the burden of proving a free exercise violation in various ways, including by showing that a government entity has burdened his sincere religious practice pursuant to a policy that is not “neutral” or “generally applicable.”

In other words--and stay with me here--a prohibition against religious speech is discriminatory if it's only applied to religious speech. I'm not sure--after all, I'm not a fancy lawyer--but I think Gorsuch is suggesting that the First Amendment's Establishment clause is invalid because it only applies to religious speech. At any rate, since the District's policies "were neither neutral nor generally applicable," they don't hold. Because the District admits that they didn't want to allow "an employee, while still on duty, to engage in religious conduct," they lose.

Gorsuch acknowledges that "none of this means the speech rights of public school employees are so boundless that they may deliver any message to anyone anytime they wish" because they are still government employees, which is a nice try, but I still will cross my fingers for a bunch of teacher lawsuits claiming  "My sincerely held religious belief require me to teach about systemic racism and regularly say gay."

I'm not going to try to capture the whole of Gorsuch's next point, but it boils down to something like this-- Kennedy's speech must have been private because it has nothing to do with doing his job, and therefor the District has no business firing him for engaging in speech that has nothing to do with his job."

Gorsuch goes on to acknowledge that those who say teachers and coaches are leaders and all that "have a point." 

But this argument commits the error of positing an “excessively broad job descriptio[n]” by treating everything teachers and coaches say in the workplace as government speech subject to government control.

If you listen, you can hear the sound of school administrator heads exploding all over America, as they realize they will now be responsible for figuring out exactly which words that teachers say count as workplace speech.

Next we move on to the district and its assertion that all this violated the establishment clause.

The District concluded that at a “reasonable observer” could think it “endorsed Kennedy’s religious activity by not stopping the practice." Which brings us to the Lemon test, a long-held (since 1971) means of assessing whether the establishment clause has been trampled or not and you could go study up on but--guess what!

SCOTUS just threw it out. This is a disturbing aspect of all this, because if Gorsuch's recital of the facts were true, then that would pretty much end things--but they still went out of their way to stamp on Lemon. So long, Lemon test. You were useful before, but the new guys don't like the answers you yield so, instead, they will substitute the--well, if you've been paying attention the last few weeks, you can see this one coming:

In place of Lemon and the endorsement test, this Court has instructed that the Establishment Clause must be interpreted by “‘reference to historical practices and understandings.“‘[T]he line’” that courts and governments “must draw between the permissible and the impermissible” has to “‘accor[d] with history and faithfully reflec[t] the understanding of the Founding Fathers.’” 

Jesus, Mary, Mother of God. As with previous uses, this "test" can be used to roll everything back! Brown v. Board, here we come!

Does the school letting a coach lead prayer on the field look like endorsement of his activity? Who cares?  

This Court has long recognized as well that “secondary school students are mature enough . . . to understand that a school does not endorse,” let alone coerce them to participate in, “speech that it merely permits on a nondiscriminatory basis.”

Yes, if there's anything we know about students, it's how resistant they are to any kind of social pressure. But the court is going to stick to the argument that if nobody is actually demanding the students pray, there's no pressure. And, he adds, even if some people are offended by certain forms of speech or prayer they are sure to encounter in a society where those activities enjoy such robust constitutional protection, "offense does not equal coercion." And though the district reported students and parents who said they felt coerced, the court waves that away (Heck, they could have been talking about prayers led by some other previous coach).

The District and court circle back to the notion that they have an establishment clause duty to "suppress" religious talk, 

The only added twist here is the District’s suggestion not only that it may prohibit teachers from engaging in any demonstrative religious activity, but that it must do so in order to conform to the Constitution. 

Such a rule would be a sure sign that our Establishment Clause jurisprudence had gone off the rails. In the name of protecting religious liberty, the District would have us suppress it. Rather than respect the First Amendment’s double protection for religious expression, it would have us preference secular activity. Not only could schools fire teachers for praying quietly over their lunch, for wearing a yarmulke to school, or for offering a midday prayer during a break before practice. Under the District’s rule, a school would be required to do so.

Well, no. It would require them to ask the teacher to stop, maybe, but I doubt it. But Gorsuch has to resort to this because his argument hinges on the fiction that Kennedy was just a guy having a quick head bow in a quiet moment, and not a guy praying publicly and with much fuss in a way guaranteed to pressure students to join in.  

But note also the old religious right argument that secular and religious activities are somehow mutually exclusive, that secular stuff is somehow the opposite of religious stuff. I'm not going to wander off on this tangent now, but this fiction is at the heart of all of these church-state arguments--that secular stuff is somehow just another religion that is getting preferential treatment instead of another thing entirely.

Gorsuch's other argument piece is that there's no tension between establishment and free exercise clauses here, and that the coach is on the right side of both and nobody involved really understands the establishment clause correctly. Which is perhaps the biggest whopper here. But I guess one way to make the free exercise clause dominate is to turn the establishment clause into a whispy nothing.
Gorsuch wraps up:

Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse Republic—whether those expressions take place in a sanctuary or on a field, and whether they manifest through the spoken word or a bowed head. Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a brief, quiet, personal religious observance doubly protected by the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment. 

It's such a mischaracterization of the facts of the case one has to wonder, if Gorsuch is correct, how such a case could have been decided so incorrectly by lower courts. 

The answer, as laid out in detail in a dissent by Justice Sotomayor, is that Kennedy's "observance" was not brief, quiet, or personal. As Sotomayor writes

Official-led prayer strikes at the core of our constitutional protections for the religious liberty of students and their parents, as embodied in both the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

The Court now charts a different path, yet again paying almost exclusive attention to the Free Exercise Clause’s protection for individual religious exercise while giving short shrift to the Establishment Clause’s prohibition on state establishment of religion.

To the degree the Court portrays petitioner Joseph Kennedy’s prayers as private and quiet, it misconstrues the facts.

Also, after noting that the majority just threw out Lemon, she writes

In addition, while the Court reaffirms that the Establishment Clause prohibits the government from coercing participation in religious exercise, it applies a nearly toothless version of the coercion analysis, failing to acknowledge the unique pressures faced by students when participating in school-sponsored activities. This decision does a disservice to schools and the young citizens they serve, as well as to our Nation’s longstanding commitment to the separation of church and state. I respectfully dissent.

The dissent uses pages to lay out the many details of how Kennedy was not quiet or brief, including his invitations to opposing teams to join in, and that very special time where he went out and led a student prayer right in front of the administrator who has just asked him not to. Why the District didn't just fire him for insubordination I do not know.

And here, finally, is why the case is a big deal:

Properly understood, this case is not about the limits on an individual’s ability to engage in private prayer at work. This case is about whether a school district is required to allow one of its employees to incorporate a public, communicative display of the employee’s personal religious beliefs into a school event, where that display is recognizable as part of a longstanding practice of the employee ministering religion to students as the public watched. A school district is not required to permit such conduct; in fact, the Establishment Clause prohibits it from doing so.

This case will liberate all sorts of religious folks in public schools, and we'll get plenty more Jesus prayers across the country at school functions. More than that, this opens the door for religious private and charter schools to be openly religious; teamed up with last weeks Carson verdict that says taxpayer dollars can go straight to private religious schools, this makes taxpayer dollars for openly religious (and discriminatory) schools that much closer, as well as the full use of that religious schooling (and of course, by "religious," these folks mean "Christian") to supplant, replace, and feats on the dismantled pieces of public education.

Folks with more legal expertise can fill in the blanks here. I can read writing on walls and follow arguments to their logical conclusions. This is one ugly wall. Thomas and Alito add their own concurrences, in which they sort of assure us that this verdict says nothing larger about speech, and I'm sure we can trust them because they've never lied to us before.

There are also going to be all sorts of messy unintended consequences, including shenanigans from the Pastafarians and the Satanic Temple. There are going to be huge headaches for all the public school administrators who just became arbiters of what religious expression is okay, and which is not. And for students who are part of some minority non-christianish religion, daily life at school is going to become that much more miserable. Plus, there's a whole history of decisions based on Lemon that are now ;eft twisting in the wind.

I'll be waiting to hear what the anti-indoctrination crowd has to say about all this.

What a freaking mess of a decision. What a mess of a court. 

ME: That Private School Funding Goal Isn't Fully Realized Yet

So Maine's voucher program must now include private religious schools. The Supremes have thrown more weight behind the notion that the free exercise of religion requires taxpayer subsidies.

But in Maine, there's still a catch.

As many of us have been reporting, Maine actually got ahead of this particular case by amending their Human Rights law to specifically say that a private school can't get taxpayer dollars unless they abide by the laws against discrimination, including laws forbidding discrimination against LGBTQ persons.

That's a problem for the schools involved in Carson v. Makin, because discrimination is baked right into their program. 

Bangor Christian Schools require adherence to a code of conduct; trans or gay students will be expelled, even if celibate. Their religious indoctrination is inseparable from their academic instruction. A fifth grade social studies objective is to “recognize God as Creator of the world,” while a ninth grade objective is to “refute the teachings of the Islamic religion with the truth of God’s word.” Teachers at BCS must certify that they are born again Christians.

Temple Academy is an extension of the Centerpoint Community Church. TA is unlikely to admit students that do not come from a Christian family; that family must sign a Family Covenant saying they agree with TA’s views on abortion, marriage, and homosexuality. Again, only born again Christians may be hired to teach; teachers also sign an employment agreement acknowledging that the Bible says that God considers “homosexuals and other deviants as perverted.”

Consequently, the schools have said all along that even if the case goes their way, they will not be accepting state money if it means altering their rules.

Not that they admit to discrimination. The spokesperson for the American Association of Christian Schools gave the AP this swell quote:

We don’t look at it as discrimination at all. We have a set of principles and beliefs that we believe are conducive to prosperity, to the good life, so to speak, and we partner with parents who share that vision.

This is not surprising rhetoric. There's a whole industry out there about helping Christian schools make sure they are only serving "mission-appropriate" families. It's not that they are discriminating against anyone; they're just refusing to serve people who aren't aligned with their values. And yes--because irony is not so much dead as drunk and in a ditch somewhere, this is a good parallel to the argument for not giving tax dollars to religious private schools, which the Supremes and their conservative lawyer friends characterize as "discrimination."

The private schools involved in the suit haven't had anything new to say, but if you think the hard-right law group that backed the case, the Institute for Justice (founded thirty years ago with Koch seed money), is about to shrug and say, "Well, the law is the law," senior attorney Michael Bindas has a statement for you:

“It was an erroneous opinion of the Maine attorney general that embroiled the state in five lawsuits spanning three decades and that culminated in the Supreme Court’s ruling against the state,” Bindas said Thursday in a statement. “The current attorney general seems to not have learned any lessons from that experience.”

The executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine also predicts that more lawsuits are in the future if Maine tries to enforce this law (which, I should also mention, is not in any way shape or form a Blaine amendment).

Getting taxpayer dollars aimed at religious (Christian) private school bank accounts was never going to be enough. The goal is for these schools to collect taxpayer dollars and also to freely discriminate as they see fit. The path is clear-- from Hobby Lobby to gay wedding cakes to Espinoza to Carson, the far right wants it understood that the only way to freely exercise your christianist faith is if you are subsidized by the taxpayer and able to treat people badly that you believe ought to be treated badly. What Kevin Welner calls the "outsourcing of discrimination."

SCOTUS has another shoe to drop on this path--in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, they heard the case of a coach who wants to lead student prayers at the 50 yard line after football games. It is absolutely clearly over the line--a public school employee while in the business of performing his duties as a public school employee leading a Jesus prayer with students over whom he exercises authority. But I would not bet even my dog's lunch that the court will not rule that his free exercise means he should get to lead whatever religious activities he so desires whenever he feels moved, thereby blasting one more hole in what's ;eft of the wall between church and state. 

Sunday, June 26, 2022

ICYMI: SCOTUS Gets Their Chainsaw Edition (6/26)

Well, that was a week. The berobed conservative activists just took to chewing through all sorts of law in ways that seem to suggest that the chewing will not be over any time soon. There were no big surprises this week, but that doesn't lessen the impact.

So let's start with some reading about Carson and various thoughts about the possible fallout.

The Supreme Court Just Forced Maine to Fund Religious Education. It Won’t Stop There.

Mark Joseph Stern at Slate puts it in the context of the "radical theory" that the establishment clause is not worth the paper its written on.

Blue Cereal Education takes a look at the relevant decisions that got us here. Plus a reading list.

How Supreme Court ruling lays groundwork for religious charter schools

Kevin Welner guests at The Answer Sheet (Washington Post) to break down how this gets us closer to a religious school free for all. Well, maybe not all.

No wonder Christian nationalists wanted these justices on the Supreme Court

Also at the Washington Post. If you want someone who's just pissed, here's Jennifer Rubin to call the reasoning "perverse"

The Hammer That Breaks The Church State Wall Has Hit Public Education Once Again. What Parts Of Our School System Will It Bring Down?

That wordy title courtesy of me, over at

All right. Let's move on to other issues, shall we?

In Wisconsin, a school board goes off the rails when it decides to toss out a book about Japanese internment. 

Federal judge to rule on attempt to block Florida law targeting 'woke’ lessons

Politico looks at an attempt to head off Ron DeSantis's anti "woke" rule.

Student initiates shenanigans from his home via social media. What are the rules for the school? A recent state supreme court decision offers a tiny bit of guidance.

Consulting firm will get $450,000 to help new Philly superintendent

Chalkbeat asks the question, "If you are hiring a high-cost new superintendent to run your district, should you also spend almost half a million bucks to hire someone to help him do his job?" They do not even get into the checkered Tennessee past of the consultant being hired.

A 30th anniversary look at a case that took Jesus prayers out of official school events, as a reminder that they're about to undo that one, too.

North Carolina is trying hard to pitch a lousy merit pay system. Justin Parmenter has found some documents about the people who have been hired to PR the heck out of that bad idea.

An Elite Christian College Has Become The Latest Battleground In America’s Culture Wars

Johnathan Cohn writes about a huge LGBTQ flap at an elite Christian college. A good reminder that such colleges are more complicated than you may think. Bonus: the college is Calvin College, the alma mater of Betsy DeVos.

Teacher Tom is here to make this point again--do not panic over sales pitches tied to the Learning Loss boogieman

Provincialism, Ways of Being, and the Failure of Democracy

Paul Thomas doing what he does best--tying together a host of ideas and perspectives to show us something bigger.

While we're discussing old issues that haven't actually been resolved, Nancy Bailey would like to remind us about the dismal state of recess in US schools.

Doug Mastriano’s Rootin’ Tootin’ School Shootin’ Prevention Plan in PA

Heaven help us, but in PA we have what may be the worst MAGAfied gubernatorial candidate in the country. He has many, many bad ideas, but Steven Singer would like to talk about just one--arming everyone in schools to stop gun violence.

Betsy DeVos is gone from DC, but her terrible national voucher plan now lives on. From me at

This Local Teacher Played Trombone in Zero Gravity for Science

Well, we need something pleasant, so here's a music teacher playing trombone in zero Gs (but, I would hope, four Fs). Plus, chance composition. 

Saturday, June 25, 2022

A Transformational Art Project

This morning I made a brief appearance at a small but very special occasion. So I want to brag on my old school.

The woman in the photo is Rachelle Surrena, an art teacher at my old high school. Earlier this school year, she had a bit of an inspiration-- create a community-based mural to become a major piece of public art in our community. 

That may not be a big deal for those of you who life in big cities where public art is all over the place, but here we have only a handful of such things. 

She secured grant money. She rallied her high school art students, and with them settled on an idea to do something related to local culture and history. The class invited local historians to come speak to them; that's where I came in because I have written the book, literally, on the history of local musical groups. The students visited the local historical society, studied up on several ideas, came across an image they liked, and designed the project.

I'll tell you more about the image in the mural in a bit. 

There are several things to be amazed by. A mural project is about 50% artistry and 50% technical stuff. The students created the image, and then their teacher, with assistance from other teachers and resource people, figured out how to create the actual physical thing. Break the image into 48 three foot by three foot squares of a sort of poly fabric. Get the squares broken down into a sort of color by number scheme. Attach the finished squares to the wall.

The reach that Surrena put into this project is extraordinary, particularly when you consider that she married a local guy, but is not native to this small town. The local community theater, the Chamber of Commerce, city government, a charitable foundation, teachers, students all the way down to kindergartners-- and not only did she extend the reach of the project to the entire community, but she kept the students at the center of it throughout. If you could see more closely, you would find that the mural carries, subtly, the signatures of so many people who worked on it in some way. But it's the students who drove the bus--and that's so powerful.

Two students spoke today at the dedication, and I've read what some others had to say, and this has been a transformational project for them. They have learned about art, but also about teamwork and cooperation and coordinating the pieces of a large project and about their own community, That last part really resonates with me. For my years of teaching, I had students do a local history project based on primary sources, and the effect of learning community history is huge here in this little place where so many of our students come up thinking, "Well, I'm just from some dumb tiny nothing town." It's not that they learn that earth-changing things happened here, but that they see richness and roots and humanity in this place that belongs to them.

Add to that the public nature of this. The mural is on the side of our local community theater, in a well-traveled alley, across from a municipal parking lot. It will be seen . It will lend richness and beauty to what has always been a plain brick wall.

Add to that the recovered history that is there in that image. Let me tell you about the group represented here.

The late 19th/early 20th century was the heyday of town bands. In our county there were between 15-20 during that period. Only one of them was formed by Black musicians.

They were called the Sheepskin Band (a not-uncommon name in band history, referring to the material used for their drum head), and they were a small fife and drum corps. They were considered an important part of the local scene. They played concerts in the park, were hired for political rallies, appeared in regular parades. In 1910, local leaders promoted the Old Home Week with postcards adorned with pictures of local celebrities; the Sheepskin Band was on one of those postcards with the image that was adapted for this mural.

The band stopped functioning for a while because the house where the instruments were stored burned down. The local newspaper editor James Borland organized a drive to raise the money so that the band could be revived for the 1925 Old Home Week, and the newspaper promoted that fund drive relentlessly. The leader of the group was Wes Law, the bass drummer (famed, the newspaper said, for his double-drag over-the-top style), and there was concern in 1925 that Wes was getting too old and frail for the job. But Law told Borland, "I'm going to play if it kills me."

Wes Law passed away in 1932, and the band ended soon after. It's not an uncommon pattern with community groups in that period, particularly those that depend on a single person for leadership. Of the many bands in the county at the time, only one remains.

I don't want to idealize the Sheepskin Band's place in the community. They were beloved and respected, but they were also separate from the rest of the musical community, and they were largely lost to memory except for hobbyist-historians like me.

But they deserve to be remembered, and now they are a huge mural on the side of an important downtown building.

I presented a historical summary of the group this morning, having devoted my local newspaper column to that history a few months ago. The crowd gathered in the alley was a great representation of the community, including officials, teachers, families of the students, and descendants of the original Sheepskin Band members, several of whom shared with me that they had no idea that their grandparents and great-uncles had been in a big deal band back in the day. Lots of folks took pictures of the plaque with the mural; lots of folks took their pictures in front of the mural itself.

I have to emphasize this again--this was a student project, facilitated by a committed educator who dreamy big, inspired her students, and cleared a path for them to succeed. And unlike many student projects that have no life or reach outside the classroom, this both affected and was affected by the community. These students learned about their community, and they made it better. They found something, made art out of it, and put that art out in the world, and in the process strengthened the ties that hold that world together. 

I mean, damn-- I never miss teaching more than I do at moments like this. I never feel prouder of students and educators than at moments like this. Rachelle Surrena and her students and all the people who helped make this real are all my heroes right now. This is the real educational deal.

Friday, June 24, 2022

No, It's Worse

Warning: this is not a post about education.

If you are of a Certain Age, you may look at the overturning of Roe as a return to an earlier day. "We've been here before," you may be thinking. "Clean and safe abortions for the wealthy, unsafe back alley abortions for the poor, and horrifying DIY attempts by the truly desperate." 

And that would be bad enough, but what we're looking at now is so much worse.

It's not just that 21st century anti-abortion bills are so much stricter than the old school ones, kicking in mere weeks after conception based on a fictional "heartbeat" and allowing no exceptions for rape or incest.

No, the new scary part is that we now live in a time of unprecedented surveillance. Amazon and Facebook know you're pregnant before you do. Your every move is tracked, your every online search recorded. That period tracker on your phone? That digital record of everything you buy in the store? Health data. Friend lists. Location data. Will that be protected, sold or subpoenaed

On top of all the information captured about you, anti-abortion legislatures are figuring out how to extend their reach. Make it illegal to travel out of state to get an abortion. That cool Texas trick of giving everyone else the private right of action, so that if someone even thinks you've gotten an abortion, they can personally sue you and everyone who might have helped you in any way.

And will all of that reach create more pressure for medical professionals to stay away from anything having at all to do with a fetus? Will the kind of care needed for miscarriages and threatening issues like ectopic pregnancies or fetal defects that threaten the woman's life-- will any of that be available. Our mortality rate for pregnant women (particularly Black ones) is already embarrassing. This will not help.

States could team mandatory pregnancy with some kind of support. States that want to ban abortion could team that ban up with an aggressive program of great pre- and post-natal care, free delivery services, parental leave, infant care, free diapers, free formula. But the states that are first in the abortion ban parade are also the ones with the highest infant mortality rate

It's almost as if this is not at all about the babies.

All of this is why today's reversal is not just about abortion or pregnancy, but about autonomy and--surprise--privacy, because states are ready to absolutely trample the privacy and autonomy of any woman who even looks like she might be pregnant. A state cannot enforce abortion bans without inflicting the grossest and most extreme invasions of privacy (countdown to vaginal inspection to determine if there was a fetus in there previously). 

So don't turn your clock back fifty years, because we aren't going backwards. We're going forward into a future that is worse than what we saw decades ago. 

PA: Fighting Common Sense Charter Regulations (And Ducking Responsibility)

 Governor Tom Wolf has been trying to fix some of the most broken parts of Pennsylvania's lousy charter school law

The regulation changes were not exactly radical. Here's the state's brief summary:

The regulation establishes a minimum standard for charter school, regional charter school, and cyber charter school applications; better ensures The regulation establishes a minimum standard for charter school, regional charter school, and cyber charter school applications; better ensures non-discriminatory student enrollment policies as required by the CSL; clarifies that charter and cyber charter school boards of trustees are subject to the Public Official and Employee Ethics Act; requires standard fiscal management and auditing practices; details the tuition payment redirection process for charter schools entities and school districts; and a clarifies that charter schools, cyber charter schools, and regional charter schools must comply with section 1724-A of the CSL related to the provision of health care benefits.

None of the proposed regulations are more stringent than federal regs. Most of them are similar to rules in other states. Publish the non-discrimination rules for student selection that you're following. Submit to an audit now and again. Hold your board members to the same ethical standards as every other public official and employee in Pennsylvania. 

Who could possibly oppose that?

You know who-- the charter industry and their fine GOP friends in Harrisburg. But after the new regs cleared the Independent Regulatory Review Commission, the GOP Senators threw a last minute block, trying a procedural resolution to protect the poor, oppressed charter schools of Pennsylvania. 

But the absolute money quote comes from Senate Education Chairman Scott Martin, who after decrying that following the same rules as any other public school would be "punitive" for charters, offered this sad plea:

This will rob students of future learning opportunities and send vulnerable students back to school districts that are ill-equipped to meet their needs.

Ill-equipped? Ill-equipped??! Goodness, but if there were only someone with power, like elected representatives of the taxpayers of the state--even one who was, say, in charge of a committee all about education in the state--then maybe that person could make sure that the school districts were well-equipped!

Are Pennsylvania schools ill-equipped? Well, hell, that's not the legislature's problem. Just their opportunity. 

This little showboat of a resolution will be vetoed by the governor, at which point the GOP will need to muster a 2/3rds majority in both chambers, which they can't. So this gesture is theater to please the donors. Throwing in the chance to deny legislative responsibility for public education in Pennsylvania is just a bonus they throw in for free. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

It's Okay To Stink

I just read another essay by another educator who was not comfortable with the idea of a student saying she was bad at a school subject.

I see this thread from time to time, this insistence on denying that students are bad at something. "No, you just weren't taught that well" or "Your teacher lacked the right tools" or "You are the victim of too-low expectations" or "You just needed more opportunities to master the material and concepts." Sometimes these ideas make it all the way into policy: if you are a teacher of a Certain Age, you may well remember sitting in a PD session in which you were told earnestly that "All can learn all." 

No. Some students are bad at some things. This should not come as a surprise; all human beings are bad at something.

Part of it is simple time management and the choices we make. I could probably become good at conversational Chines, but my personal judgment is that, given the limited utility or interest it would hold for me, I'm not willing to invest the amount of time that would be involved--particularly because investing that time in learning Chinese would take time away from other things that I am committed to being Not Bad at. 

We have a finite number of hours to invest, and we all make choices about how to invest them. It's a weird brand of age-ism to imagine that students do not make similar choices. I don't believe in lazy students, but I absolutely believe in students who will sit in your class and make a rational decision that they do not want to invest the kind of time in your subject that judge would be necessary. That's the kind of classroom negotiation I found myself involved in-- not "how can I stoke fires of passion in you so you'll get off your lazy ass" but "how can I convince you that I can, in less time than you think, provide you with some skills and knowledge that has more utility than you imagine."

Part of it (at least at the high school level, where I taught) is that due to some combination of wiring, experience, aptitude, inclination, and other mysteries of human development, people have certain skills, even as they don't have certain other skills. 

I had a couple of friends who could use a free half hour to learn yet another instrument. I also had a friend who practiced his instrument daily, for an hour or more, and never did actually get particularly good at it. I banged my head against Algebra II for a year, and simply couldn't grasp it. One of my adult summer jobs was working at a catalog store call center, and I was empirically, objectively, and anecdotally bad at it

Part of it is speed. Some students just get there so much faster than others. Which takes us right back to the matter of making decisions of what to invest time in. Students are mostly figuring on getting out of school at age 18; you've got till then, and if it's going to take more time than that, well, you can't have it. 

Some of the resistance to allowing students to say "I'm bad at the maths" is that such evaluations are often based on lousy data. Lousy data includes things like the Big Standardized Test all the way down to the ability to look around the room and realize that everyone is whipping through the work way faster than you are which is problematic because A) everyone gets to their own destination at their own time in their own way and B) we have an unfortunate tendency in our culture to associate "swift" with "good." 

Lousy data can also include the voice of an important person in your life who keeps telling you you're lousy at this, that, or anything. (Ask any teacher--the worst parent-guardian conferences are not the ones where you are compelled to defend yourself against the guardian, but those where you feel compelled to defend the student against that guardian.)

So I completely agree with the impulse to deny the "I'm bad at maths" statement because it's based on bad data. And any bad data that the students are allowing to shape their self-image absolutely must be debunked.

But in the urge to dispel the cloud of low self-esteem we perceive hanging over the child, teachers need to be hugely careful to avoid toxic positivity and happy gaslighting. Again, if you went through teacher school at a certain time, you may have been taught to never flat out respond to a student by saying, "You're wrong." But sometimes they are, and trying to pretend that they aren't, exactly, really, just makes them wonder if either you or they are crazy. 

By all means, make sure that you're talking about what you're really talking about. Don't say "I stink at grammar" when it's more accurate to say "I bombed the last test." But recognize that, first of all, bombing the last six tests might reveal a significant pattern, and second, telling a student, "You're not a good judge of your own strengths and weaknesses, and your insights about yourself are invalid," is not a particularly affirming message. 

How to untie this whole knot

The root of the problem here is not that Pat thinks "I'm no good at writing." The problem is the oft-unspoken subtext which adds up to "I'm no good at writing and that just proves that I'm a worthless human being destined live in a van down by the river where I eat cat food off a hot plate until I die alone and unloved."

It's not the conclusion about their capabilities that needs to be challenged; it's the implications being attached.

We bump up against this a million different ways. When prepping my students for peer reviewing of writing, I had to repeatedly emphasize that "this paragraph is unclear" is not synonymous with "you are ugly and stupid and have no right to take up space on the planet" because students are reluctant both to take criticism and to give it. I worked hard to establish some critical distance--the writing is something you do, not who you are. 

It's useful to be able to identify your weaknesses. You can learn techniques for working around them, for strengthening them, even for avoiding situations where they will be a liability. But it's very not useful to see them as an immutable blot on your own character and worth as a human being. 

It is okay to be bad at something. It is exceptionally human to be bad at something.

Viewing a particular weakness as a significant flaw is part and parcel of the idea that every student in school the same race at the same time to the same finish line. They are not. In fact, part of the point of becoming an educated person is figuring out what trail you' want to follow, and part of figuring that out is assessing your own strengths and weaknesses.

It's okay for a person to be bad at something, and it's okay for a student to know it and say it. It's not okay to view that weaknesses as a character flaw that's etched in titanium. Students aren't there to all fit into the same mold, but to create a mold of their very own. 

Every successful journey starts with a realistic understanding of where you are. The response to "I stink at math," doesn't need to be, "Oh, no, honey, you don't." It can be instead, "Yeah, you're an awesome person, but you kind of do. Now, what can we do about that." 

Sunday, June 19, 2022

ICYMI: Juneteenth, Jazz and Family Reunion Edition (6/19)

Crazy busy weekend here. Town has a blues and barbecue festival going on, and my extended family is gathering for our first annual June Is Way Easier For Getting Together Than December Thing. So dig into this week's reading list, but don't look for me anywhere on line today.

I worked at a No Excuses charter and here's what I know

From back in May, this piece from a former KIPP teacher does a good job of breaking down the problems with the No Excuses approach.

Caught in the culture wars, teachers are being forced from their jobs

Well, this is discouraging. The Washington Post ran some analysis and found like 160 teachers who have lost their jobs in the culture wars.

Deseret News has the news that plenty of teachers already suspected.

In Word In Black, Jesse Hagopian talks about the need to fight back against the "CRT" panic and other laws pushing teachers not to teach the whole truth.

Nancy Flanagan asks if maybe something else is the driving force behind all this ruckus.

This is New Jersey, but expect more of this baloney in the months ahead. 

Charter schools' influence on Pennsylvania politics

They have lobbyists and money and they know how to work both. From the Bucks County Courrier Times. 

Edelblut's past helps explain his destructive policies

Frank Edelblut is the anti-public ed chief of New Hampshire's education system. This piece in Seacoast online looks at some of his connections in the past that illuminate his positions in the present.

5 myths about education gag orders

PEN America with a quick explainer that debunks some of the common arguments for teacher gag laws.

NC Charter School Mandate, “Skirts for Girls as Fragile Vessels,” a No-No.

The indispensable Mercedes Schneider takes a deeper look at the decision against the North Carolina charter school's dress code. (I also wrote about this decision over at

McSweeney's bats clean-up again this week, God bless them.

Over at this week, I also wrote about Education and the Politicizing of Everything (and how that gets in the way of actual solutions, as well as thinking about why Not Bad Is Not Good Enough

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Does USED Have a Real Teacher Plan?

Earlier this month, Education Secretary Cardona issued a statement about USED's plan to "supprt and elevate" the teaching profession, to "recruit, prepare, and retain great teachers." In other words, take some federal action to reverse the Great Teacher Exodus. Is there anything useful there, or is it just some federal smoke-blowing? Welll.....

When Cardona first pitched the plan (during an address at the Bank College of New York), he led with a description of the problem that sort of gets it. 

A great teacher in every classroom is one of the most important resources we can give our children to recover from this pandemic and thrive. Yet, even before the pandemic, many states and communities experienced shortages in qualified teachers, including in critical areas such as special education, bilingual education, career and technical education, and science, technology, engineering, and math education. The pandemic has only served to make these shortages worse—falling hardest on students in underserved communities. It’s not only our responsibility but our commitment at the Department of Education to encourage, invest in, and lift up teachers across America. The future of our country and our children’s futures depend on it.

"Lift up" is a great rhetorical beat, and "support" is a lovely word. But teaching is a field where broad rhetoric has to be turned into specific, concrete actions (eg "Today I will teach pronouns" is not an actual plan). So what have we got here.

Cardona brings the receipts for the argument that teacher pay is too low. 20% less than other college-educated workers. In 38 states, teachers who are head of four person household qualify for two or more government benefits. But this is not something the feds can fix, so "President Biden and Secretary Cardona have called on states and districts to increase teacher salaries" is a nice idea, but of no real practical use. My wife's local is currently in contract negotiations; pretty sure "the President said you should give us a raise," is not going to get them anywhere.

The "fact sheet" for this release includes ideas such as using Title I and IDEA funds to boost teacher salaries. Not sure how that plays out on a local level.

Cardona proposes to "invest in a strong and diverse teacher pipeline" which is a nice idea, and there is apparently some money to do... something. $132 million for Teaching Quality Partnerships, which is supposed to make teacher prep programs better, except that you can only improve programs that exist and dropping enrollment has led, at least in my neck of the woods, to program cut backs. We've lost actual capacity in the pipeline, and that will have to be built back somehow, but that can't happen if there is no demand. 

Cardona also calls for a $350 lump of money for the Education Innovation and Research Program to give it "a new charge to improve teacher recruitment and retention." This is not particularly encouraging; the old charge for the program is "create, develop, implement, replicate, or take to scale entrepreneurial, evidence-based, field-initiated innovations to improve student achievement and attainment for high-need students" and then evaluate them--the "entrepreneurial" tells is this is some more neo-liberal "the private sector can do it better" baloney. 

Other "strategies" sound pretty fluffy. "Supporting teachers in earning initial or additional certification in high-demand areas" could mean anything from paying their bills to sending them a weekly "attagirl" email. Also, the specific high-need areas listed are special ed and bilingual education instead of, say, everything.

Or "supporting teachers by providing them and students with the resources they need to succeed, including mentoring for early career teachers, high-quality curricular materials, and providing students with access to guidance counselors, social workers, nurses, mental health professionals, and other specialists." These are some good items (though "high-quality curricular materials" could mean anything), but how to provide them? Federal grants to hire some of these positions? 

Or "creating opportunities for teacher advancement and leadership, including participating in distributive leadership models," which is okay, I guess. Not as cool as that new representative engagement council for parents' groups that includes even the astro-turfy National Parents Union. 

There's one good, concrete idea on the list-- helping teachers pay off their student loans.

The fact sheet mostly lists an assortment of grant programs, thereby underlining one major detail here, which is that USED isn't so much proposing new initiatives and ideas as much as they're just trying to get Congress to inject some more money into the programs that already exist. On the one hand, I see how that might be an easier sell; on the other hand, if the existing programs were providing great solutions already, we wouldn't be where we are now.

Look, I'm delighted to have a secretary of education who is not openly or passive-aggressively hostile to public education and the teachers who work there. That may be a low bar to clear, but we don't clear it very often, so hooray for that. And I have always had some serious doubts about what can be done on the federal level that will actually help out on the classroom level. 

So my expectations are low. But teachers are kind of up against it at the moment, and a nothingburger of "We're going to do some more supportive stuff kind of like we've been doing all along, only maybe with more money." It's nice that Cardona notices and makes some of the right noises, but the plan doesn't really rise to the level opf specific, concrete actions that can help.