PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – Crucial decisions lie ahead in the area’s largest school district.
The Pittsburgh Public School Board must choose a new superintendent and negotiate a new contract with teachers — and there are concerns the teachers union may be taking too much of an active role in board politics.
She’s the powerful head of the American Federation of Teachers, representing more than 1 million teachers nationwide.
But Randi Weingarten has shown a particular interest in Pittsburgh. Not only its teachers, but in who sits on the Pittsburgh Public School Board.
“Why would the AFT be contributing to local neighborhood school board elections?” asked KDKA’s Andy Sheehan.
The AFT has been active in Pittsburgh for the past two years, funding advisers to the local Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers in fighting the implementation of a teacher evaluation system funded by the Gates Foundation.
This year, the AFT has given thousands of dollars to two board candidates: Moira Kaleida and Kevin Carter. Each received $3,750 apiece.
Weingarten, who comes to Pittsburgh frequently from Washington DC, came here again this month. KDKA’s Andy Sheehan asked her about the union’s influence.
Sheehan: “You’re not local. You’re a national teachers union. Why do you have what some people would consider undue influence on a local school system?”
Weingarten: “We actually don’t.”
Sheehan: “You’ve contributed thousands of dollars to local school board elections for pro-union candidates.”
Weingarten: “We actually only contribute that which community members and our own members have asked us to do. We never come in other than being invited.”
But the contributions have raised concerns.
“People should always look at who the majority funder is,” said Esther Bush. “What are their emphasis as their running for office and can they honestly be fair and flexible on behalf of the student’s academic progress?”
Former teachers and administrators now account for four of the nine board members — and with Kaleida and Carter running unopposed. Urban League President Esther Bush is concerned that new majority of the board may favor teacher concerns over students.
“Teachers having a say is absolutely critical to the process,” she said. “They’ve been in the classroom, or principal, they see the management side of things, but I also know that it’s critically important that we have other people with expertise, objectively so that our students win.”
Kaleida, who also received a $5,000 contribution from the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, declined a camera interview, but told KDKA:
“They (the AFT) supported me because we share a vision of community schools and shared justice to achieve a great public school system in Pittsburgh. I will represent the entire community but I am proud of everyone who contributed to my campaign.”
But there are other complications. Kaleida is married to a teacher and she and the three former teachers on the board might benefit from a favorable contract with the teachers union. It’s unclear if they would be able to vote on it.
Memo to Scott Walker From Milwaukee: “We’re Not Going To Let Our Public Schools Die”
If Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker thought running for President of the United States was a big challenge, he may be facing an even more imposing contest back in his home state
Last week, all across the community of greater Milwaukee, thousands of parents and public school advocates showed up before the opening bells at neighborhood schools to protest education policies many Wisconsinites attribute to Walker and his administration. The protests were called “walk ins” – a tactic borrowed from school protests in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014 – as opposed to walk outs which disrupt students’ learning time.
Parents, teachers, and students had a range of specific complaints that can all be attributed to Walker’s governance.
As the local Journal Sentinel newspaper reports, “at more than 100 public schools” protestors turned out to oppose a “program, devised by Republican state lawmakers from the suburbs,” that created a state-operated district to oversee a portion of the city’s public schools that are deemed under-performing.
The Milwaukee County Executive hand picked by Walker to oversee the district is about to name a commissioner to run the special district.
As the Journal Sentinel report notes, protestors wanted to voice their resentment at having local schools taken out from under the control of their democratically elected school board. They also wanted to send clear warning to the ruling Executive, Chris Abele, that he had better not select someone inclined to turn the yet-to-be-designated schools over to a charter school organization, which is what is generally feared.
Will School District Bankruptcy Lead to “the Next Education Revolution”?
On September 23, 2015, I wrote a post about the Hillsborough County (Florida) Public Schools and some of its fiscal issues, one of which involves former superintendent MaryEllen Elia’s spending over half of the district’s financial reserves without school board knowledge or approval. The result is a drop in district reserves that threatens its bond rating, which could result in higher interest rates for the district when it borrows money.
The Hillsborough district has also had to tap into its fund balance in order to meet payroll at the end of the 2014-15 school year.
In short, Hillsborough schools’ finances are showing signs of instability.
It seems that this is what Rebecca Sibilia, CEO of charter school facilities financing nonprofit, EdBuild, is looking for in a traditional school district. After all, shaky finances might get shakier, which might lead a district down the dark path of bankruptcy.
Camden Protesters Warn of Privatization Looming for City’s ‘Public’ Schools
Protestors — about 50 in all — met outside a conference downtown in the hopes of confronting Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, the symbol of what they say is an effort to privatize the city’s schools.
“Where’s Mr. Rouhanifard,” barked demonstrator Vida Neil into a bullhorn. “Where you at? I wanna see you face to face.”
Camden schools have been under state control for only two years, but in that time the governor has moved quickly, installing a new superintendent and pushing legislation that helped pave the way for renaissance schools like this one — the KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, which opened last week.
“We’ve had KIPP, UnCommon, Mastery come in here,” said Marie Blistan, a Vice President with the New Jersey Education Association, the teacher’s union. “They are national corporations that come in and they upset the communities. We’ve had a full history of the work that they have done in undoing any work that the public schools have done and they do not make the changes that they purport to do.”
KIPP renaissance is not a charter, per se. It functions with the same mandates as traditional public schools but it’s run by a private operator, with its own board, which has some parents here concerned.
“No transparency, no voices, no democracy,” said activist Monique Ragsdale. “The media put this perception out that we’re ok with this, so we want to get our voices heard. We’re sick of talking to walls. We want everybody to know — we want Rouhanifard to resign. We would like to get back full control. We have no democracy here in Camden. We don’t even elect our school board. It is sad and it is unconstitutional.”
Antoinette Baskerville sits on the school board in Newark, where the state has had control for more than two decades. She was there to remind demonstrators that the battle for return of local control may be long, but it is winnable.
“We come here today from Newark to speak to you guys in Camden, to say we have had 20 years of state control,” she said. “We are hopefully on our way but we don’t want you to do 20 years. We have done 20 years, like 20 years on prison. Don’t get it wrong.”
Rouhanifard was gone by the time protestors gathered downtown. NJTV News met him across town, outside Cooper’s Poynt school, where the still-new superintendent is meeting with parents tonight. He says it’s important to remember where the impetus for all this change comes from.
“Parents don’t necessarily think about governance structure,” he said. “They think about safety first. They think about the quality of the facility and they think about the quality of instruction.”
With the implementation of state standards and assessments to measure student and school performance under the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), many public schools have wound up with their curricula painfully narrowed. In too many schools, the focus on testing in language arts and math has led to the erasure of art, physical education and music programs, as schools, particularly in poorer districts, scramble to keep their heads above water to avoid being labeled “failing,” which puts them at risk of incurring devastating sanctions.
The stated goal of NCLB was to bring accountability and additional resources to low-income schools. But a growing list of critics argues that the legislation has instead forced teachers to spend too much of their time teaching to the tests, instead of imparting essential skills to their students — like collaborative and critical thinking — or being able to foster true joy in learning. When standardized tests are one of the only metrics used to assess whether students are learning, schools can often wind up deemed failing, with little regard for what’s actually taking place in the classroom.
Kristina Rizga, a former Mother Jones education reporter, wanted to explore one of those so-called failing schools to see what things really looked like on the ground. She ended up at San Francisco’s Mission High School, ranked as one of the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in the country, according to its test scores (just 30 percent of all students scored at proficient or above on the state standardized tests in English; 40 percent did so in math). This meant the school was at risk of radical restructuring, which could have included revamping the curriculum, replacing half the staff, replacing the principal, or closing the school. Yet Rizga, who spent four years in the classes at Mission, didn’t see evidence of a failing school in her time there; instead, she found engaged students and committed teachers, high college acceptance rates, and declining suspensions.
In the course of her reporting, Rizga’s view of standardized testing shifted dramatically. Once she had considered these tests, however flawed, the best measure of overall school performance. But at Mission, she saw that some students who did well on subjective assessments, like presentations and writing papers, were unable to match that level of achievement on standardized tests. Painting a complete picture of student learning, Rizga came to understand, was only possible by taking stock of more holistic measures — by, for example, evaluating students’ day to day work and performance in the classroom, not just their scores on a single test.
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