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Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Lower Merion: Are Public Schools and Elected School Boards Obsolete?

Here in Lower Merion, PA, heads are spinning from the Lower Merion School District's loss of a lawsuit brought by Arthur Alan Wolk.

Some people are appreciative of Mr. Wolk's questioning the transparency of the tax situation, but many of us are concerned about a much larger issue – the protection and preservation of local school board control and the quality of education for our children.

Is it a coincidence that Mr. Wolk stated to a reporter that, "He wants district administrators removed from office... and plans to launch a 'Dump the Lower Merion School Directors' movement to run a slate of independent candidates"?
It is still too early in the game to know for sure, but threatening local control through aggressive and hostile attacks—well, that is just what corporate education reformers do.

In this post by former Assistant Secretary of Education, Diane Ravitch, the big issues are brought to light about the aggressive movement by charter school investors & the politicians they support to end local school board control. There is no reason, other than personal financial gain, that these non-education experts are sticking their noses into the education of America's children. Just because people went to school does not make them experts in education. 

The only obstacle to charter schools in Lower Merion is a school board that does not want them. If we lose local control, we are ushering in charter schools and the demise of LMSD. For every student a district loses to a charter school, a large percentage of their spending per student leaves with them. This is what has destroyed nearly every district that has allowed them. As we have seen in Philadelphia, Chicago, New Orleans, LA, and around the country, charter schools are no friends of public education or the families they serve.

Read below:
"Chester Finn, Jr., Bruno Manno, and Brandon L. Wright declare in the Wall Street Journal that public schools and elected school boards are dying a slow death and being replaced by charter schools. All three are associated with right wing think tanks (Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the Walton Family Foundation).

Bear in mind that some 50 million children attend public schools, and fewer than 3 million attend charter schools. Bear in mind also that voters have never voted to replace public schools with privately managed charter schools. Americans have never been asked whether they want to pay their taxes to private corporations to run schools that can choose their students. The charter movement has flourished because of massive investments by billionaires like Gates, Broad, and Walton, political support by right wing groups like ALEC, right wing governors, and the unfortunate support of the Obama administration. 

Public education, open to all, has for many years been considered an essential democratic institution and a basic cause of the great economic, social, and cultural success of our nation. Finn & friends hope for and celebrate its demise. They tacitly acknowledge that charter schools don’t get higher scores than public schools. They note that some charter operators are frauds. What they don’t admit is that they welcome the hyper-segregation of American society. One of the reasons our society functions as well as it does is because public schools bring children from different backgrounds together, across lines of race, religion, class, gender, and ethnicity. It doesn’t happen enough, but the authors don’t care if it happens at all. They welcome the return of segregation as a step forward, not as a retrenchment from our ideals. 

Similarly, they see no value in democracy. Elected school boards are a fundamental exercise of democracy. They are established in state constitutions. Yet the authors would wish them away and replace them with privatization. 

This article and the book it is based on comes at a time when the privatization movement is staggering. Charters were just recently criticized by the NAACP and the Movement for Black Lives, a collection of 50 organizations. Charter scandals are breaking into the mainstream media, most recently with the admission by an online charter founder in Pennsylvania that he stole $8 million from the school. And the CREDO study finding that students in online charters learn close to nothing. And then there was the John Oliver program on the shoddy and corrupt practices of charters that close overnight and charters that steal and cheat taxpayers. And there was the Washington State and NLRB decisions that charters are not public schools."

 Watch this John Oliver segment and be prepared to learn.

"When the charter movement began, Finn and Manno wrote about the promise of charter schools: in return for public money, they would be held accountable for better results at lower costs. Now we know that charters are not held accountable, do not produce better results unless they cherry pick students, and do not cost less." 

Respected education blogger and teacher, Mercedes Schnieder, responds to the Wall Street Journal piece here.

Diane Ravitch reports, "[Schnieder] says there is no mass movement to charter schools. Instead, there is a movement bought and paid for by billionaires, millionaires, and others who have embraced free-market ideology."

"Finn et al. are just a part of the well-financed corporate ed reform mass of think tanks, billionaires and hedge funders trying to foist reforms onto the American public in the name of a “quiet revolution."

Sure, watch the district's spending. Absolutely, ask for transparency. But don't sleep at the wheel for a second on the issue of local school board control.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Lower Merion, wake up or forever hold your peace.

Make no mistake, the lawsuit against the Lower Merion School District is not by a lone, selfless attorney who wants to save tax payers a few bucks. This is as clear as can be in this fluff piece about Arthur Allen Wolk and his new puppy. I love puppies, too, but his sweet puppy can't distract me from Mr. Wolk's actual goal, which seems to be to strip local control from Lower Merion tax payers. Here we go again. It is the same old story they used in Philadelphia, Camden, and many of America's other cities. And it happened to this wealthy, suburban school district in Brookline, Massachusetts, which is a lot like Lower Merion. Once the corporate education reformers are on our school board, all bets are off.

When education entrepreneurs (edupreneurs) want to make money off of our tax dollars, they find a way to belittle and discredit the officials, whom tax payers elected. Below, Mr. Wolk is clear about his agenda.

 "In the interview, Wolk called Copeland's letter 'inflammatory' and 'wrong,' and the district 'arrogant.' That was an opening salvo. He wants district administrators removed from office, he said, and plans to launch a 'Dump the Lower Merion School Directors' movement to run a slate of independent candidates.

I wrote about the sharks that are circling Lower Merion's school tax dollars here back in May. 

In the piece, it is clear that Mr. Wolk's family is not invested in our community’s schools. With all due respect, if he does not want to pay the district’s school taxes, he can certainly afford to move somewhere else.

The article states that, "Wolk's two children did not attend Lower Merion schools; they graduated from Cheltenham High School and Abington Friends School. But 'he's got a large house and pays lots of taxes,' said Knauss, adding that he thinks Wolk viewed the suit as a 'civic service. 'Wolk said he thought it was 'worthy.' The median refund of $1,400 that Smyth said taxpayers might eventually receive is kibble compared with what he said he spent out-of-pocket on the case."

Should Lower Merion tax payers be grateful that Mr. Wolk is spending out-of-pocket to undo a democratic process? School boards are elected the old-fashioned way. The people who show up and vote make their voices heard. I respectfully suggest that Mr. Wolk put his money towards a campaign to get residents out to vote, instead of trying to buy his preferred school board.

Those of us who closely follow what is known as corporate education reform find the kind of attacks we are seeing in Lower Merion as cliché, except for the fact that this horrific treatment has been reserved for our cities... until now.  

In this Washington Post article, you can see how a businessman with his own agenda wants to get rid of locally elected school boards (so unoriginal, folks). Netflix's very own CEO, Reed Hastings spoke at a charter school conference to" ...advocate for the end of locally elected school boards. Hastings said the 'fundamental problem' with school districts is that they 'don't get to control their boards.' He suggested that the democratically elected school boards are the problem with public education and they should be replaced by privately held corporations."  Hastings is developing his own ideas for how public school children, our children, should be educated... and it will make him even richer. But first he has to get rid of those inconvenient local school boards who would reject his generic, low quality edu-business models.

As Lower Merion residents are trying to put the pieces of this puzzle together, I predict it won't take long before we connect the dots and realize that this attack on local control is really all about opening the education market to investors who want to profit off of our spending per student. After all, this is one of the few bipartisan ideas where so many politicians fill their glasses and toast together. Read more here and here

I am a recipient of Villanova University's Teacher of Courage and Conscience Award. I try my best to live with integrity and to educate my community about the corporate attack on our schools and the unethical (yet mostly legal) ways local control is stolen from communities in the attempt to pocket public school tax dollars.

Lower Merion and all suburban school districts, it is time to wake up. We are in the thick of it and it all happened while we were asleep. Maybe Kathy Boccella is trying to warn us when she writes, "As Boo, the golden retriever, said in the book Wolk wrote about her: 'Dad has been home with me after work every day and wrestles with me every chance he gets. He always wins even when I try to bite him.'" He always wins, which in this case would mean that the children of Lower Merion School District would be the losers.

Speak up now or forever hold your peace.

Sign this petition to show your support for Lower Merion and public education, in general.