On Corbett Bashing and the Common Core

by Christopher Paslay

Common Core texts indoctrinate young children and teach them to manipulate facts for social advocacy.  Sound familiar, Philadelphia? 

Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

This is the philosophy I use when I teach students in my high school English classes how to write.  There is no substitute for the right word—no true synonym—and until a writer figures this out, he won’t be able to fully articulate his thoughts.  This is the case whether you are writing a narrative, informational, or persuasive essay (the Common Core’s preferred term for “persuasive” is now “argumentative”).

Good writing, especially in today’s culture of limited attention spans, is focused, clear, and accurate.  Good writers can say more in less space—and they can back their writing with examples, details, and evidence.

This philosophy has worked well with my own students at Swenson Arts and Technology High School.  On the 2012 PSSA Writing Test, 74% of my 11th graders scored proficient or advanced—a whopping 28.1% percent higher than the Philadelphia School District average, which was only 45.9%.

Unfortunately, some English Language Arts texts being promoted by the Common Core are no longer focused on teaching students succinct, accurate writing that avoids the use of flimsy persuasive techniques (such as red herrings, overgeneralizing, circular arguments, name calling, etc.), but on writing that actually encourages the use of emotionally charged propaganda for social advocacy.  In short, some ELA texts supported by the Common Core are not making young children free thinkers, but politically indoctrinating them (type the phrase “Common Core indoctrination” on YouTube and see the results).

One interesting case of indoctrinating students and promoting the use of propagandistic writing for social advocacy is the state of Utah’s first grade ELA primer Voices: Writing and Literature, recommended by, and aligned with, the Common Core.  On the surface it appears the text is about literature and writing, but a closer look reveals a major theme is social justice and social advocacy.  This, amazingly, is being introduced not to college undergraduates in Community Organizing 101, but to first graders!

One section in Voices: Writing and Literature teaches young children how to play fast and loose with facts by using emotionally charged propagandistic words to elicit emotions and bring about liberal social change.  It doesn’t teach children to use the right word, as Twain would have advocated (as well as any respectable writing teacher), but to use a word that will get folks stirred-up for social justice, whether or not that word is true, evidence-based, or accurate.

Click on the below YouTube video to see for yourself:

Because the Philadelphia School District is flat broke and has no money to invest in a new set of textbooks, such a primer may not be made available to our city’s school children.  However, the political indoctrination of School District students—and the teaching of how to play fast and loose with facts—is well underway.  Groups like Youth United for Change and the Philadelphia Student Union, who often partner with politically motivated adult organization such as the Education Law Center, are well schooled on the use of propaganda in writing.

All three of these groups frequently use “correlation to prove causation”—a logical fallacy and standard propaganda technique—to imply that Philadelphia public schoolteachers are discriminating against minority students because black students are three times as likely to be suspended or expelled as their white peers (and these groups continue to claim this despite the fact that no documented cases of racial discrimination by a Philadelphia teacher against a students exists . . . except, of course, the discrimination against Sam Pawlucy by a black geometry teacher for wearing a Romney T-shirt in class).

The newly founded “Fund Philly Schools Now” does much of the same in terms of their blatant use of propaganda.  Launched to help raise money for struggling city schools, an admirable goal, their website states:

Since Gov. Corbett took office, it has become clear that when he must make the choice between tax breaks for corporations and much-needed investments in our children, he chooses corporations and wealthy donors every time. The crisis in Philadelphia public schools has been manufactured by Gov. Corbett. He is starving the city of resources and then using teachers as scapegoats and Philadelphia families as pawns.

Propagandistic?  No question.  With Federal stimulus money gone, Governor Corbett has been forced to make due with less, and this has no doubt adversely impacted Philadelphia public schools (as well as most public schools in PA).  But the crisis in city schools was not “manufactured by Gov. Corbett.”

During the Ackerman years, from July of 2008 to July of 2011, the School District blew through nearly $10 billion, spending so reckless it prompted the IRS to open a detailed audit of their financial practices.  The rapid expansion of charter schools—nearly 100 of them in 10 years—also greatly contributed to the School District’s financial crisis.  There is also the matter of Philadelphia residents owing over $500 million in delinquent property taxes.  And the fact that the School District loses millions of dollars in unreturned textbooks and stolen computer equipment each year.  And the reality that recently retired baby-boomers are overwhelming the pension system.  And all the cronyism/nepotism over the past five years from the usual suspects . . . Ackerman, Archie, Evans, Gamble, Fattah Jr., etc.

All Corbett?  Please.

Does the School District badly need money?  Absolutely.  Do I want to see our city’s children get the resources they need?  Most definitely.  But the theatrics and use of propaganda to get money is getting old.  People are growing tired of it.  Attacking public officials is becoming counterproductive (just ask Mayor Nutter).  Why does the rest of the state hate Philadelphia, think we are a cesspool?  Perhaps they are tired of Victimology 101.  It’s like with affirmative action: If groups in need simply took responsibility for their problems and said, I’m having some trouble keeping up, can you please lend a hand?, people would bend over backwards to help out.  But it doesn’t work like that.  Affirmative action in 21st century America goes more like this:  It’s YOUR fault I have problems, so give me what you owe me, now!

Not the best way to get the help you need, or to get at the true root of problems.

Neither is using propaganda to bring about reform (or to teach our students English Language Arts).

According to the mission statement of the Common Core:

The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers.

Dr. Carole Hornsby Haynes, a noted curriculum specialist and former public school teacher, disagrees with the Common Core’s mission statement and feels they have an ulterior agenda.  She writes in a recent article:

Common Core is not about “core knowledge” but rather is the foundation for left-wing student indoctrination to create activists for the social justice agenda. Education is being nationalized, just like our healthcare, to eliminate local control over education, imposing a one-size-fits-all, top-down curriculum that will also affect private schools and homeschoolers.

I don’t know if Dr. Hornsby Haynes is totally correct about the Common Core, but I know this: ELA teachers should teach students how to make strong, factual arguments, not how to play loose with the facts to support their own political agendas.

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Tar Heel Money Saver: No More Teacher Raises for Master’s Degrees

by Christopher Paslay

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory decides the best way to improve public education in the Tar Heel State is to pay teachers less.   

I have a master’s degree in Multicultural Education from Eastern University (cost me $25,000, and this wasn’t reimbursed by the Philadelphia School District), and I will soon have a PA secondary school counseling certificate from Eastern as well (cost me another $25,000, also not refunded by the PSD).  These advanced degrees not only cost a ton of money, but took up a ton of my time (I’ve been attending Eastern part time since 2008).

Have these degrees improved my teaching?  Absolutely.  I have more knowledge, ideas, contacts, hands-on lessons, classroom activities, and overall expertise in regards to both my teaching and counseling than I would have if I’d stayed within the comfort zone of my classroom and not branched out and furthered my education.

Tragically, there is a movement to end pay raises for educators seeking to learn new skills and broaden their educational repertoire.  Although this movement claims to have the best interest of public school students in mind, it seems there is also an ulterior motive behind it: saving money and balancing budgets.

Consider this recent article from the Wall Street Journal:

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, signed a budget bill Friday that eliminates teacher tenure and—in a rare move—gets rid of the automatic pay increase teachers receive for earning a master’s degree.

The legislation targets a compensation mechanism that is common in the U.S., where teachers receive automatic pay increases for years of service and advanced degrees. Some research has suggested those advanced degrees don’t lead to improved teaching.

Gov. Pat McCrory, shown earlier this month, said in a statement that the 2013-2015 budget ‘maintains public investments in education.’

Although a few other states have talked about doing away with the automatic pay increase for advanced degrees, experts say North Carolina is believed to be the first state to do so.

The budget bill—which drew hundreds of teachers to the Capitol in protest earlier this week—also eliminates tenure for elementary and high-school teachers and freezes teacher salaries for the fifth time in six years.

It comes as states and districts across the country are revamping teacher evaluations, salaries and job security, and linking them more closely to student performance. These changes have been propelled, in part, by the Obama administration and GOP governors.

North Carolina’s $20.6 billion budget for the fiscal year that began July 1 was crafted by Republican lawmakers and came after the GOP gained control of both legislative chambers and the governor’s office for the first time in 144 years.

Mr. McCrory said in a statement that the 2013-2015 budget “maintains public investments in education” and other services and noted 56% will go toward K-12 and higher education—1% more than in the previous budget.

Tim Barnsback, a teacher at Heritage Middle School in Valdese, N.C., said, “Morale is going to be at an all-time low” due to the new policies and budget. “The best and the brightest aren’t going to go into the profession,” he added.

Sandi Jacobs, with the National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonprofit that advocates an overhaul to teacher evaluation and pay structures, said she doesn’t oppose teachers having advanced degrees, but that those degrees shouldn’t be the primary driver of salary increases, which she said should be based more on actual performance.

A number of studies have shown that teachers with advanced degrees don’t, necessarily, produce higher student achievement than teachers who hold only a bachelor’s. Other studies have shown an advantage to holding a master’s in math and the sciences for high-school teachers. About 28% of North Carolina teachers hold master’s degrees.

A 2012 study by a researcher from the University of Washington’s College of Education found that the nation spent about $14.8 billion on the master’s bump for teachers in the 2007-2008 school year.

Is this about saving money?  Absolutely.  A $14.8 billion savings.

Advice to educators seeking to broaden their skills and knowledge via advanced degrees: Stay away from the Tar Heel State.  Your investment is sure to go bust.

Dwight Evans’ Laughable Plea for School Funding

by Christopher Paslay

After dismantling public education and lining his own pockets, Dwight Evans suddenly gets a conscience.   

Dwight Evans, who represents the 203rd legislative district in Philadelphia, published a commentary in today’s Philadelphia Daily News headlined, “Deathly ill public ed needs state meds.”  My first reaction after reading it was Is Dwight Evans off his meds?

Evans’ article begins:

I’M CALLING IT the Harrisburg Syndrome: the chronic and costly practice of refusing to invest responsibly in education.

Pause the tape right there.  Since Evans is talking about the need to “invest responsibly in education,” let’s examine some of the ways Evans himself has invested in public schools.

First, there is the education legislation Dwight Evans has fought to pass—the Pennsylvania Charter School Law, which opened the floodgates for the privatization of Philadelphia’s public schools, and Acts 46 and 83, which according to the University of Pennsylvania Labor and Employment Law, “allows the Secretary of Education to declare the system in ‘distress,’ and upon making that declaration, to displace the Board of Directors of the school system and impose a five-member ‘School Reform Commission’ to take over the duties of the Board.  Additionally, the Act eliminates teachers’ right to strike, and prohibits them from negotiating a number of issues for collective bargaining purposes.”

In laymen’s terms, Evans has supported laws that have taken tens of millions of dollars away from traditional public schools and put them into privately owned charters (like Evans’ own West Oak Lane Charter); laws that enabled Harrisburg to take over the Philadelphia School District; and laws that have taken away the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ right to strike and to collective bargain.

Then, there are Dwight Evans’ business investments.  In 1983, Evans founded Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corporation (OARC), which as of 2007 had an operating budget of $12 million.  According to its website, OARC takes “a holistic approach toward community revitalization, by focusing on our Five Pillars: Housing and Economic Development, Business Development, Education and Community Relations, Cleaning and Greening, and Arts and Culture.”

Within Education and Community Relations, OARC offers charter school management, with a fundamental philosophy that “Charter schools must be run as a business . . . a business that produces a product . . . that product is a highly educated student.”  OARC has also opened several charter schools of its own.  In 1998 they opened the West Oak Lane Charter School, as I mentioned above, and owns the property at 2116 E. Haines Street that houses the HOPE Charter School, the Philadelphia Center for Arts and Technology, and Ombudsman.

Since Evans founded the corporation in 1983, OARC has grown by leaps and bounds, and has made many people lots of money (including Evans himself).  Interestingly, though, OARC is technically a not-for-profit, 501 (c)(3), and enjoys tax-exempt status, which means they don’t pay federal income tax or property tax on their buildings.

Another one of Evans’ “investments” in education is his connection with Foundations, Inc., an education management organization that gets paid to both consult and run schools.  According to an article on philly.com:

State Rep. Dwight Evans and Foundations have a long history together, dating back more than 20 years.

Foundations collaborated with the lawmaker in several after-school programs in the area and helped design West Oak Lane Charter School. Between 2006 and 2008, employees from the company donated more than $25,000 to his campaigns. Among them, chief executive Rhonda Lauer donated $3,900, chief of staff Emelio Matticoli donated $3,100 and consultant Martha Young donated $5,920.

Foundations has made millions off of the Philadelphia School District.  As stated by Helen Gym on Young Philly Politics:

State Rep. Dwight Evans was a leading architect behind the state takeover of the Philadelphia Public Schools, and a company with which he has close ties, Foundations Inc., became one of the District’s first EMOs (education management organizations) as well as a major recipient of millions of dollars in school service contracts. Foundations has run Martin Luther King High School for the last eight years, taking in management fees as it ran the school. The school has not done well, to say the least, and its poor academic performance placed it on a list for “turnaround,” a national model of restructuring.

When parents of Martin Luther King’s students voted 8 – 1 to allow Mosaica Schools, Inc. to replace Foundations—Evans bragged about how he had bullied the School Reform Commission, Superintendent Ackerman, and Mosaica Schools into allowing Foundations to keep the contract to manage the school.

“I was like a bulldog on a bone,” said Evans, although Foundations was eventually forced to give up running King High School.

Amazingly, like OARC, Foundations is a not-for-profit, 501 (c)(3), and enjoys tax-exempt status.

Now, back to the ludicrous commentary Evans had in today’s Daily News.  Evans writes:

A physician would look at the condition of public education in Pennsylvania and call for broad-spectrum antibiotics in the form of money. Not just your garden-variety antibiotic, but consistent, broad-based funding – similar to what’s advancing in California – to provide for the “thorough and efficient” education system called for in our state constitution.

Broad-spectrum antibiotics in the form of money. 

I had to go back and reread that line several times to make sure it was really there.  It was.  Evans, of all people, is asking the state for more money for the Philadelphia School District.  He suggests doing so by raising—get this—income taxes:

California has ordered the antibiotic. Last November, voters approved Proposition 30, which calls for income-tax increases that will boost California’s K-12 budget by roughly $1 billion.

Evans then throws in a cherry-picked statistic about corporate net-income taxes just for good measure (and to appeal to all those class warfare lovers out there):

The Harrisburg Syndrome shows no signs of abating. The House recently signed off on cutting the corporate net-income tax to 6.99 percent from 9.99 percent. That’s right – taxpayers across the state are being hammered by local school taxes while big business gets a tax cut.

And while corporations affiliated with Dwight Evans, like OARC and Foundations, pay ZERO taxes!

Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of Evans’ commentary was that he used the state of California as an example of a public education system that works (according to Education Week, California’s K-12 schools get a “C” average and rank 31 out of 50), and that Evans refers to his new educational virus as “Harrisburg Syndrome” (it was Evans who fought to pass legislation that enabled Harrisburg to take over Philadelphia public schools to begin with).

Are Philadelphia public schools and their students in desperate need of more funding?  Absolutely.  But the School District’s budget woes are primarily a result of fraud, waste, and abuse of the Dwight Evans variety, which hardly makes the lawmaker a credible voice for calling for more school funding on the backs of the state’s hardworking taxpayers.

District Cuts 676 Teachers, Despite 1,500 Teacher Vacancies

by Ray Guzman and Christopher Paslay

According to the Philadelphia School District’s Teacher Vacancy List, the district is seeking 1,540 teachers for the 2013-14 school year. 

The Philadelphia School District, according to its website, has 1,540 teacher vacancies for the 2013-14 school year.  Of the 376 schools that currently need teachers, 47 are high schools (485 vacancies); 6 are alternative schools (28 vacancies); 15 are middle schools (89 vacancies); and 308 are elementary schools (938 vacancies).

The revelation that the School District is seeking over 1,500 teachers for next fall is shocking but nonetheless true, at least according their website.  Benjamin Franklin High School, for example, is seeking no less than 33 teachers for next school year: 6 social studies, 4 English, 4 ESOL, 4 math, 3 biology, 2 chemistry, 2 art, 1 Spanish, 1 music, 1 learning support math, 1 bilingual math, 1 learning support English, 1 life skills support, 1 culinary arts, and 1 business information computer technology.

South Philadelphia High School needs 34 teachers.  Edison High School needs 78.  Strawberry Mansion needs 36.  Northeast and Washington high schools need 22 and 14 teachers, respectively.

And on and on it goes.

Although the School District has not released any official numbers, these vacancies are most likely the result of teachers either retiring or quitting over budget concerns and the bleak outlook for the 2013-14 school year (well done, Boston Consulting Group).  How has the School District responded to what appears to be a massive teacher shortage for the 2013-14 school year?

By laying-off 676 teachers.

It’s true.  Last week, 676 teachers received pinks slips terminating them as employees of the Philadelphia School District as of July 1st.  This means they will no longer receive health insurance and must file for unemployment.

The Philadelphia School District’s plans for the coming school year—from school closings to the recent layoffs of 3,700 staff—are fishy, to say the least.  Much of it fails to pass the smell test.  The savings achieved on the shuttering of 23 schools and the merge or relocation of five others has been hotly debated.  So has the preposterous idea that schools will be able to run without counselors, nurses, vice principals, secretaries, hall monitors, or learning support staff.

It’s become quite clear that the Philadelphia School District and School Reform Commission are posturing—playing “doomsday” games in front of city and state politicians to squeeze more money from taxpayers and most importantly, to box the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers into a corner in an attempt to get over $100 million in labor concessions from them; the School District hopes to manipulate the PFT the way they did SEIU 32BJ Local 1201.

These “doomsday” games are flat out dangerous.  Although the School District does have legitimate financial problems and money is genuinely scarce (due in large part to the fraud, waste, and abuse of the Ackerman administration), the laying off of nearly 20 percent of its staff, especially 676 teachers, may come back to bite them.

It’s apparent by the employment opportunities on their own website that come September 1st, the School District will need to fill 1,500 teacher vacancies simply to make the schools run.  And when you do the math—when you bring back the 676 teachers who were laid off and subtract them from the 1,500 plus teachers needed—this comes to a massive shortage of over 800 teachers.  This, of course, doesn’t factor in the vacancies created by teachers who quit or retire at the end of the summer.

Why did the School District cut 676 teachers to begin with?  Political posturing, as I’ve mentioned above.  The SRC wants to put the squeeze on the PFT, Mayor Nutter, and Governor Corbett.  They are also doing it to save money—two month’s worth of health insurance premiums, to be exact.

Seniority is also an issue.  Creating all these vacancies gives principals more power to hire their own staff.

A closer look at the teacher vacancy list reveals something else: the School District is full of bologna when it claims it will end all of its art and music programs.  If they were truly cutting all art and music (and not just putting on a grand show for all the city and state to see), why in the world would there exist vacancies on the School District website calling for various art and music teachers?

Currently, there are 78 music teacher positions, and over 100 art-related positions, posted on the website.

Come September, after the Philadelphia School District is done trying to consume itself to save a little money, and after they have finished successfully tap-dancing for tens of millions of dollars in cash from city and state legislators (and, surprise, surprise, find extra money in their coffers), much of its programs will be restored; the School District can only violate state laws for so long.

The kicker, of course, will be finding a way to deal with the massive teacher shortage they have created.

Ending the Myth That Seniority Protects Bad Teachers

by Christopher Paslay

High teacher attrition rates show that tenure is not preventing the bad apples from being weeded out.        

There’s a very real belief in the United States that tenure and seniority are keeping large numbers of burned-out, incompetent teachers in classrooms where they rob students of their right to learn.  The National Council on Teacher Quality’s new report “Teacher Quality Roadmap: Improving Policies and Practices in the School District of Philadelphia” is a case in point.  According to the Inquirer, the report stated:

Tenure and satisfactory evaluations are virtually meaningless for Philadelphia educators, and bad teachers can linger in the public school system too long. . . . Teacher pay ought to be revamped to keep strong performers, and effectiveness, not start date, should guide layoff decisions.

Does tenure provide lousy teachers with a lifetime appointment in the classroom?

Hardly.

The truth is that it’s extremely difficult for an incompetent teacher to remain in the classroom for an extended period of time in the 21st century.  The idea that American public schools are housing a significant population of burned-out educators milking the system just isn’t true.

A closer look at teacher attrition rates—as well as the profiles of America’s teachers—yields interesting results.  Here are some statistics from the 2007 policy brief “The High Cost of Teacher Turnover” and the report “Profiles of Teachers in the U.S. 2011”:

  • Teacher turnover is costing America $7.3 billion annually
  • 17% of all of public school teachers quit every year
  • 20 percent of urban teachers quit yearly
  • Over half of America’s new teachers (56%) quit within five years
  • In Philadelphia from 1999 to 2005, the teacher turnover rate (70%) was higher than the student dropout rate (42%)
  • In 2011, over a quarter of America’s public school teachers (26%) had five years experience or less
  • 21% of America’s public school teachers are 29 years old or younger

Teacher attrition is similar when it comes to alternative certification programs and charter schools.  Over 50% of Teach for America educators leave their assignments after two years.  A study tracking teachers working for KIPP schools (Knowledge is Power Program) in the Bay Area revealed annual turnover rates which ranged from 18 percent to 49 percent from 2003-04 to 2007-08.

The truth is, despite teacher tenure and seniority, public schools are not overpopulated with long term educational louses hiding in the cracks.  In fact, the notion that tenure creates a lifetime appointment for teacher incompetence is greatly exaggerated.

America’s public school system is self-regulating.  In other words, incompetent teachers don’t last very long, as the above data shows.  The biggest factor driving bad teachers from the classroom are the kids themselves.  If teachers can’t connect with their students, if they argue, butt heads, and create a toxic learning environment, the odds are they won’t survive.  It’s too draining a situation—physically, mentally, and emotionally.

The same is true for parents and school administrators.  Incompetent teachers are in constant disharmony with the mothers and fathers of their pupils and spend the majority of their energy battling principals.  Couple this with more rigorous classroom observations and school overhauls at the hands of No Child Left Behind, and most so-called “lousy” teachers are at the breaking point; it is all but impossible for them to hang on to their jobs for “life”.

Bad teachers do exist, of course, but in no greater quantity than in any other profession.  You can argue test scores prove the existence of bad teachers—that an unacceptable percentage of students aren’t reading or doing math at grade-level—but does this prove teachers are lousy or incompetent?  Does the fact that homicide rates in big cities are unacceptable prove our police force is loaded with deadwood?  Is our country’s unacceptable obesity rate an indictment of American nutritionists?

The National Council on Teacher Quality’s new report, in fact, recycles an old argument, one that Michelle Rhee, former Washington public schools chief, has been pushing for some time.  In a November 2011 Inquirer commentary headlined “Experienced teachers aren’t the problem,” I refuted her claim:

Rhee insisted that Last In, First Out laws are getting rid of our best teachers, arguing that layoffs should be based on job performance instead of seniority. . . . The authors [of the study Rhee quotes] do admit, however, that first-year teachers are generally ineffective, and that it takes a teacher an average of five or more years to become skilled. This is not surprising: New teachers tend to struggle with classroom management, they lack experience and objectivity, and they have yet to perfect their instruction methods.

. . . If all the teachers in a particular school are rated effective, what’s to stop a principal from balancing the budget by laying off the highest-paid teachers and keeping the least expensive ones? What would protect experienced teachers from politically motivated reprisals if they encourage their students to think critically about school reform and other public policies? And what will keep the new teachers we’re relying on from constantly leaving the system? In my 15 years with the Philadelphia School District, I’ve watched at least a dozen Teach for America educators leave after fulfilling their two-year contracts, off to use their urban teaching experience as resumé padding.

“Last in, first out” isn’t causing us to lose our best teachers. Far from it. Ending seniority-based layoffs might occasionally save a young talent. But it would also harm teacher morale, leave experienced teachers vulnerable to budget cuts and experimental reforms, and populate our schools with inexperienced teachers who are likely to leave.

Scrapping seniority isn’t going to improve the quality of America’s teachers, although it may do irreparable harm to our city’s best educators.

*This blog post is an adaption from a 3/20/12 post titled, “Ending the Myth that Tenure Protects Bad Teachers.”

Taxing Nonprofits Could Help Save Philly Schools

by Christopher Paslay

Philadelphia’s multi-billion dollar nonprofit sector must start paying its fair share. 

According to the Philadelphia Foundation’s Nonprofit Study 2010, there are over 3,500 nonprofits in Philadelphia.  In 2007 alone, they made more than $25 billion in revenue, which was 7.7 percent more than they made in 2000.  These nonprofits—which provide services that focus on the arts, the environment, animal rights, education, health, civil rights, housing, food, recreation, and the like—had nearly $47 billion in total assets in 2007.

Interestingly, these nonprofits pay no real estate tax, despite billions of dollars in assets.  For example, the Kimmel Center as of 2010 had $16,449,000 in liquid assets (cash, grants, contributions, etc.) and 267,645,000 in total assets (endowment funds, land, building and equipment, etc.), yet are exempt from paying $5 million in annual property taxes.

According to a 2007 article in the New York Times:

The Chronicle of Philanthropy surveyed 23 cities to try to determine which nonprofits that seek public support — excluding foundations, government and religious groups — receive property-tax exemptions. Such exemptions accounted for more than $1.5 billion a year, with more than half that amount forgiven in New York City and Boston. . . . In terms of value, the biggest exemptions after New York and Boston were in Los Angeles, Washington, Houston and Philadelphia. . . .

The Chronicle’s survey highlighted several well-known properties beyond hospitals that receive big property-tax breaks. These include the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, exempted from $18.4 million in property tax; the Chrysler Building in New York, owned by the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art college, an exemption worth $17.5 million; and in Philadelphia, the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, exempted from $5 million in annual property tax.

The Philadelphia School District is facing a $300 million budget deficit next school year.  District officials are asking everyone to make sacrifices to help close this hole, and have demanded that the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers make tens of millions of dollars in concessions via wage cuts.  Officials are also asking for an additional $120 million from the state, and $60 million from the city, some of which may come from new property taxes.

Mayor Nutter’s new real estate tax assessment—AVI (Actual Value Initiative)—has ruffled the feathers of some City Council members, however.  According to a February 28th article in the Philadelphia City Paper:

This morning, City Councilwoman Maria Quninones-Sanchez quietly and without speechifying, offered what may be a solution to one of the central problems created by the Actual Value Initiative, the city’s property-tax reform effort. The problem: An estimated $200 million of the tax burden is being shifted from large commercial properties to residential ones, while small businesses are also in many cases expecting to see their taxes skyrocket. Sanchez’s solution: Put some of that burden back onto the large commercial properties by way of the Use & Occupancy (U&O) tax, which is applied to commercial tenants, and let the city keep some of that money to use for tax relief for the rest of us.

What’s curious is that Sanchez didn’t mention the problem with Philadelphia’s 3,500 nonprofits—the fact that they bring in $25 billion in annual revenue and have nearly $47 billion in assets—but pay zilch in property tax, money that could help bail out Philadelphia’s struggling public schools.  Why should our city’s students go without counselors, nurses, sports, art, and music while mega nonprofits like the Kimmel Center are sitting on a quarter of a billion dollars in total assets and get a $5 million break in annual property taxes?

Fight for Philly, “a grassroots coalition of residents, community groups, neighborhood associations, faith organizations and labor groups,” feels mega nonprofits like the Kimmel Center should start pitching in and shouldering some of the load.  Earlier this month, they delivered tax petitions to City Council and Mayor Nutter asking for better school funding, demanding that “mega non-profits pay taxes on their profitable commercial property and contribute fair ‘good neighbor’ payments for city services from which they benefit.”

I agree with Fight for Philly—City nonprofits should no longer sit back and get a free ride.  City Councilwoman Maria Quninones-Sanchez’s new tax reform bill should also include Philadelphia’s 3,500 not-for-profits, which earn $25 billion in annual revenue.  Even a small real estate tax on these organizations could generate millions of badly needed dollars for Philadelphia’s struggling public schools.

Despite School Budget Woes, City Plans $137K Ackerman Statue

by Bartleby Baumgartner

City approves a $137,000 bronze memorial statue to honor the former schools chief. 

Artist's vision of Ackerman statue
Artist’s vision of Ackerman statue

PHILADELPHIA, PA  In a highly controversial decision from their headquarters beneath Billy Penn, City of Brotherly Love officials announced this morning that former superintendent of Philadelphia public schools, Arlene Ackerman, will be honored later this year for her achievements with a life size bronze memorial statue crafted in her image and likeness, valued at approximately $137,000.

Ackerman, the Richard R. Green Award winner for being the nation’s top urban school leader in 2010, and whose tragic passing earlier this winter caught many by surprise, is the first Philadelphia superintendent to be honored with such a memorial.

“The question is, where do you put it?” said a City of Brotherly Love spokesperson.  “The consensus seems to be to put it outside 440 North Broad Street, and install a reflecting pool and flood lights around it.  The pool and flood lights would be another twenty-five grand or so, but the mayor just raised property taxes, so this shouldn’t be an issue.”

Several students from the University of the Arts suggested the statue may have a place either outside the New Barnes or perhaps at the base of the Art Museum steps.

“They should just put it next to the Rocky statue,” Collin Crothers, a sophomore in graphic design, said.  “You could even turn the two statues to face each other, like they were going to have a boxing match.  Rocky versus Queen Arlene.  There you go.  That’s the theme for Rocky VII.  I’m going to call up Sly Stallone’s agent and pitch the idea right now.”

Mandy Assgrapes, a junior majoring in marbling, said, “Put it atop City Hall with Ben Franklin.  That’s Ben Franklin up there, right?”

Wrong.  It’s William Penn.

Still, Assgrapes’ idea isn’t too far fetched.  Several City of Brotherly Love Councilmen actually brought up the notion of spending upwards of an additional $10,000 to bring in a crane and mount the Ackerman statue along side Billy Penn, and even began to solicit bids on the contract.

A councilman who asked to remain anonymous said he didn’t care about trivialities such as cost and location, as long as the job was done with union labor.

“The statue’s a beautiful thing,” he said.  “Let’s just do it right and bring in the proper people, you know, our guys.  That’s the way Queen Arlene would have wanted it.”

The statue is set to be unveiled by bronze sculpture artist Sylvester McMonkey McBean at the beginning of June.

10 Questions for Camden’s Next Superintendent of Schools

by Christopher Paslay

“Poverty” has more to do with culture and values than it does money. 

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie says not taking over Camden public schools would be “immoral.”  Christie’s plan is to hire a new superintendent and do what he can to fill teacher vacancies.  According to the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Once the takeover begins, the state “will ensure that every child has the books, instructional materials, and technology necessary for a high-quality education, many of which are currently not reaching the classroom,” according to a statement from the governor’s office.

Books, instructional materials, and technology.

And we can’t forget money.  School reform advocates will also insist poor urban districts across America need more funding.  Noted education scholar Diane Ravitch recently published the post “Do Americans Believe in Equality of Opportunity?” on her blog:

Governor Jerry Brown of California gave a brilliant state of the state speech in January, where he pledged to change funding of public schools so that more money went to children with the greatest needs. . . .

But a Los Angeles Times poll finds that only half of the public support the idea of spending more for those with the highest needs.

This raises the question: Do we really believe in equality of educational opportunity? Or do we feel that it is okay that schools for children from affluent families have more resources than those for children of the poor?

Interestingly, Camden public schools spend over $20,000 per student, yet have some of the lowest SAT scores in New Jersey and a graduation rate of only 49 percent.  According to an article in the Notebook:

Camden, the poorest city of its size in America and the most violent — with nearly 70 homicides last year in a population of less than 80,000 people — has a graduation rate below 50 percent. At the same time, due to landmark New Jersey court decisions on school funding, the city spends more than $20,000 per student, close to the amount spent in some of the area’s wealthy suburbs.

According to an article in the Delaware County Daily Times, per-pupil spending and achievement are not correlated:

If spending were an important factor in education we’d expect Lower Merion’s $26,000 per-student spending to rocket their academic performance far above neighboring Radnor’s at $19,000 per student. Yet Radnor is ranked No. 4 by the Business Journal and Lower Merion is ranked No. 7.

But for a stark comparison we should look to Central Bucks where they spend $13,000 per student — less than half of that spent by Lower Merion. And their ranking? Just behind Lower Merion at No. 8!

What folks like Ravitch rarely address, however, is that “equality of opportunity” has more to do with values and culture than it does with money.  What does “poor” mean, exactly?  My father grew up in a 900 square foot row-home in Southwest Philadelphia with nine siblings, and the only source of income was my grandfather’s salary as a Philadelphia firefighter.  Was my father poor?  Financially, maybe, but not in terms of his values and character.  He learned responsibility, respect, work ethic, honesty, integrity, and the importance of family nonetheless.  He went on to become a well-respected teacher and administrator, and eventually earned his Ed.D.

In a 2009 Educational Testing Service policy report titled Parsing the Achievement Gap II, national trends between students of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds were tracked.  The report listed 16 factors that have been linked to student achievement.  Of the 16 factors, nine were directly related to a child’s home environment.

Camden is over 85 percent minority.  If its public schools are going to make any real progress, the next superintendent should have a plan in place to address the following 10 questions (these questions apply to any major urban school district in America):

1.  How are you going to get Camden parents involved with school?  According to ETS, Black students’ parents are less likely than White parents to attend a school event or to volunteer at school.  Children whose parents are involved in their schooling have higher levels of achievement.

2.  How are you going to get Camden men to father their children?  Minority students were less likely to live with two parents, and 77 percent of Black children in America are born out-of-wedlock.  Children who live with two married parents do better both behaviorally and academically.

3.  How are you going to keep Camden families from frequently moving and changing schools?  Minority students are more likely than White students to change schools frequently.  There is a high correlation between frequently changing schools and poor test scores.

4.  How are you going to increase the low birth weight of Camden newborns?  The percentage of Black infants born with low birth weight is higher than that for White and Hispanic infants.  Studies show children with low birth weight do worse in school.

5.  How are you going to keep Camden children from getting lead and mercury poisoning?  Minority and low-income children were more likely to be exposed to environmental hazards, which harms brain development.

6.  How are you going to get Camden children to eat healthy?  Minority and low-income children were more likely to be food insecure, which can lead to concentration problems and issues with development.

7.  How are you going to encourage Camden parents to get their children to school?  Black and Hispanic students have the highest rates of absenteeism.  There is a high correlation between truancy and low academic achievement.

8.  How are you going to get Camden parents to read to their children?  Minority and low-income children were less likely to be read to daily as infants, which studies show impacts a child’s vocabulary development and intelligence.

9.  How are you going to get Camden parents to turn off the television? Minority and lower-SES children watch more television.  Excessive television watching is associated with low academic achievement.

10.  How are you going to keep Camden children from regressing academically over the summer?  Minority and low-SES students grow less academically over the summer, and in many cases, lose knowledge.

Until these awkward but important issues are adequately addressed, Christie’s takeover of Camden public schools—along with a new superintendent—isn’t going to make a significant amount of difference.

Things My Students Say

Chris

by Christopher Paslay

Below are 10 winners that have come out of the mouths of my babes (when I say “babes” I mean my wonderful 10th grade students):

1.  “This is two pages.  I thought you said we were reading a short story?” 

Please forgive me.  I forgot that your generation grew up on emails, which, you know, were way too long and so were replaced by Instant Messages, which were also too long and replaced by text messages, which, like, are still acceptable but not as cool as “Tweets,” which take five seconds to read and require zero knowledge of grammar or Standard American English.  So allow me to rephrase the assignment: We are going to read a really, really long two-page short story.

2.  “I need all my make-up work. Now.”

Gotcha.  You want the “make-up work” that will allow you to get credit for 10 hours of class time—lectures, discussions, readings, journals, etc. in 10 minutes?  Right, that “make-up work.” I’m in the middle of teaching class right now, by the way, but don’t let my lesson on the themes in “Othello” impose on your dire need to “make-up” the last week-and-a-half of your education (which you missed because you were at The Gallery).  How about if I let you sign out a copy of “Othello” and run around and get all the assignments for you after class, so tonight, after you dump “Othello” in your locker, you can go to your friend’s house and copy/scribble everything from her?  Sound good?

3.  “What page are we on?”

I’m going to let you in on a little secret:  There’s this thing in the front of your book, it’s called a table of contents.  Yeah, that’s it.  Do you see those page numbers there, and the titles next to them?  Well, if you match the title of what we’re reading with that little number there . . . I knew you could do it!

4.  “We have a test today?”

No, I just wrote Reminder: Test this Thursday on the board all week because I like decorating my classroom with meaningless, hypothetical information.  When I said at the end of class everyday this week, “Remember, we have a test this Thursday” what I really meant was “Don’t study for the test because on Thursday, all we’re going to do in class is sit in our desks and watch YouTube videos on our iPhones.”

5.  “This class is easy.”

Of course it’s easy—when you don’t do anything.  I can’t imagine keeping-up your 50% average in here is that difficult.

6.  “I never got that.” 

You never got a copy of the assignment?  Really?  And you’re just telling me now, the day it’s due?  That’s funny, because I distinctly remember you sitting right there in your desk when I handed it out.  Now, maybe I was hallucinating that day, or maybe when I handed you the homework assignment I was really giving it to your twin brother who just returned from the French Foreign Legion, but I doubt it.  Why don’t you check in your bag and see if you have it?  There it is!  What do you know about that!

7.  “Can’t we watch a good movie?” 

Sure, we could watch what you call a “good” movie, but if we did so I’d have to throw my lesson plans into the garbage along with all the instructional objectives listed in the Common Core Standards.  Yes, “Abe Lincoln Vampire Hunter” does have Abe Lincoln in it, but this doesn’t quite meet the district’s educational requirements for history or literature.  The same goes for “Piranha 3DD” (that’s DD as in brazier size), and “Zombie Dawn.”

8.  “You ain’t my dad.”

I should hope not.  If I were your dad I’d have to confront your mom and demand a paternity test ASAP, because I’ve never seen your mother before in my life (not even at parent-teacher conferences).  No, me talking to you in an authoritative voice and demanding you exhibit some semblance of character and/or core values doesn’t make me your da-da, although I’d like to have a word with your da-da, because obviously, he is either 1—asleep at the parenting switch; or 2—not in the picture at all.

9.  “It’s hot in here.” 

Being that you have on a red hoodie, a blue hoodie, and a big old puffy winter coat, I would image it is.  Maybe you might consider losing the big puffy winter coat?  Just a suggestion.

10.  “Do you miss our class?” 

(To those students who were lovable hemorrhoids, but hemorrhoids nonetheless): Yes, I miss you guys.  I cry every night.  (To those students I truly miss): Yes, absolutely, you guys are the reason I became a teacher.

Advice to Future Teachers: Stay Away from Philly

by Christopher Paslay

The Philadelphia School District’s recent contract proposal offers a dismal future for new teachers. 

In light of the recent contract proposal the Philadelphia School District made to the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, I have some advice for college graduates considering teaching in the city next fall: don’t bother.

Documents recently circulated by the PFT about the proposal paint a dismal picture for future Philadelphia teachers.

First, pay.  Under the current contract, first year teachers make $45,360.  Under the proposed new rules, however, first year teachers will be required to take a 10 percent cut in pay, and contribute 10 percent to their health benefits, bringing their salary down to about $39,000.  Because there is a pay freeze in place under the new contract, this will be their salary for the next four years until 2017.

“Benefits” under the new proposal, for the record, no longer include dental, eye, or prescription, as the PFT’s Health & Welfare Fund would be eliminated.

After 2017, teachers will be eligible for a raise based on a performance evaluation from their principal.  But because of the budget, they’ll most likely be responsible for buying things like paper, paying for their own copies, and using outdated textbooks and technology.

They’ll also be responsible for safety, as school security has been cut.  According to the Inquirer’s Pulitzer Prize winning series “Assault on Learning,” from 2005-06 through 2009-10, the district reported 30,333 serious incidents.  There were 19,752 assaults, 4,327 weapons infractions, 2,037 drug and alcohol related violations, and 1,186 robberies.  Students were beaten by their peers in libraries and had their hair pulled out by gangs in the hall.  Teachers were assaulted over 4,000 times.

The ways in which this could impact a teacher’s performance evaluation are many.

Statistics show over half the teachers who start in 2013 won’t even be in Philadelphia by 2017.  But those skilled and strong enough to remain in service, the new contract will ensure that they will have no protection to keep the programs they’ve worked years to build in place at their schools; the elimination of seniority will leave them vulnerable to be separated from their students and transferred anywhere in the entire city.

Conversely, those teachers struggling at a particular school and who are not a good fit with their students will be stuck there; the new contract no longer allows teachers to voluntarily put in for a transfer.

The proposal lifts the limit on the number of classes taught outside a teacher’s area of certification and on the number of subjects taught.  In other words, an English teacher could be required to prepare and teach algebra, social science, Spanish, chemistry, and British literature, all in the same day.

The new proposal lifts class size limits and opens the door to mass lectures, like in college. Imagine 50 plus teenagers in one big room listening to a teacher lecture about the Pythagorean Theorem, or the periodic table of elements, or iambic pentameter in a Shakespearean sonnet.  A winning formula for sure.

Teachers, under the new proposal, will work unlimited evening meetings without pay, and cannot leave the building without principal approval.

Because the district wants flexibility, the new proposal includes no specific grantees for teachers’ lounges, water fountains, parking lots, accommodation rooms for disruptive students, clothing lockers, or desks, among other things. Just because these things aren’t specifically mentioned in the contract, as Superintendent Hite recently noted, doesn’t mean the School District won’t provide them.

Of course, there’s no guarantee the School District will provide them, either.  That’s the catch.  When an organization is strapped for cash, like the School District currently is, there’s no telling what they’ll do.

“We believe teachers are professionals, just like architects, lawyers, doctors,” Superintendent Hite said. “We want a contract that reflects that.”

The only problem is, architects, lawyers, and doctors don’t make $39,000 a year with no chance for a raise until 2017, and aren’t subject to assaults, sub-par working conditions, and outdated materials and technology.

Hence my advice to future teachers: stay away from Philadelphia and seek a district that respects its educators.