Thursday, June 5, 2014

Schools vs. Prisons: A choice to be made

It's been said many times that if society does not adequately fund education, it will end up funding prisons. A recent segment on NCPR revisits this topic in a discussion with Nell Bernstein, author of Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison.

http://www.northcountrypublicradio.org/news/npr/318801651/burning-down-the-house-makes-the-case-against-juvenile-incarceration

Some facts from the segment:
  • "The American rate of juvenile incarceration is seven times that of Great Britain and 18 times that of France. It costs $88,000 a year to keep a youth locked up - far more than the US spends on a child's education." Potsdam Central spends about $15,000/year/student. To see what is spent by NYS schools, go to: http://rocdocs.democratandchronicle.com/database/spending-pupil-ny-state-districts
  • "About 40% of those we keep in large-scale state facilities - which are intended for the worst of the worse - are there for low-level offenses: truancy, shoplifting, loitering, disturbing the peace."
  • Detention sets juveniles up to commit more crimes.
  • Black kids are five times more likely than white kids to be locked up for the same crime. 
  • Incarceration should be the exception, not the rule. 
NYS leaders need to fund education adequately and spend money on issues related to poverty. However, as the for-profit prison industry expands, there will ever more lobbying to spend taxpayers' dollars on incarcerating juveniles.

As a reminder, the Kids-for-Cash case in Pennsylvania was disturbing. See:

"A Pennsylvania judge was sentenced to 28 years in prison in connection to a bribery scandal that roiled the state's juvenile justice system. Former Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella Jr. was convicted of taking $1 million in bribes from developers of juvenile detention centers. The judge then presided over cases that would send juveniles to those same centers." 

The schools-to-prison pipeline is a compelling argument to use with legislators and all officials who hold the purse strings and who have a long-range vision for society.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Assemblywoman Addie Russell Discusses Schools

Assemblywoman Addie Russell discussed the future of North Country schools (among other topics) at a recent AAUW gathering in Canton, NY. The fiscal problems schools are facing were mentioned as well as the merger study between Canton Central and Potsdam Central. What was most interesting, though, were her thoughts about school governance.

Addie said the schools could consider going to county-wide governance. She explained that if there was a county-wide governing body, the arbitrary and often problematic school district lines could be erased. This would enable a county-wide administration to select schools (like Massena, Ogdensburg, Canton, Potsdam, and possibly Parishville) to serve as regional high schools and would give administration the ability to send students to the school that is geographically nearest to their homes. It would also permit the continuation of long-time sports rivalries.

For those who think a countywide re-organization of schools sounds a bit off putting, consider the fact that such school governance exists right now; it is the model being used effectively by the St. Lawrence/Lewis BOCES to deliver services.

There would be many benefits if St. Lawrence County had one county-wide administration of public schools instead of having the seventeen separate ones that now exist. Regional schools would be able to provide more academic courses, more extracurriculars, and more sports at a time when all of these are being cut back. In addition, having a much larger pool of employees would give such a district more leverage in bargaining with health insurance providers. Administrative redundancies could be addressed and possibly eradicated.

Mergers and consolidations are widely viewed as one way to deal with school districts' fiscal woes. Some think these may be 1950s and '60s solutions in a 21st century environment.  If the BOCES is making a multi-county educational model work (joining St. Lawrence and Lewis counties), it can be done. Larry Casey, in a recent letter to the editor, wrote, "I believe there is another approach, and it will take some serious collaboration and compromise but it can be done. I believe the long-range solution is to reorganize the entire configuration of schools within the St. Lawrence-Lewis County BOCES area."

Maybe it's time for us to hear more from Assemblywoman Russell and Mr. Casey on this important topic.


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Politicians Working to Protect Student Privacy

Kudos to U.S. Senators Orrin Hatch (R - Utah) and Edward Markey (D- Mass.) who are proposing changes to FERPA - the federal law that protects student privacy. A blog in The New York Times explained the details. See:

http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/05/14/senators-intend-to-amend-federal-student-privacy-law/?emc=edit_tnt_20140514&nlid=66679958&tntemail0=y

According to the blog:

The senators today made public draft legislation to amend the educational privacy law. It would:
— Require schools to maintain and make available a list of all outside companies that have access to their students’ information.
— Give parents the right to review and correct personal information collected about their children by educational apps, online homework software or any other school vendors.
— Minimize the amount of students’ personal details that schools could transfer to companies.
— Prohibit the use of students’ personal information to market products or services to them.
— Require data security safeguards to protect sensitive student data collected by companies.
FERPA had been weakened in recent years and, according to one NYS official, FERPA is not taken very seriously in the K-12 setting. Thus,  it is all the more important that political leaders from different parties are willing to work together to take action to protect students. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

Board of Education Candidates Should Have a Vision for the District

Do your board of education candidates have a vision for the school district? If not, they should. Why? According to a recent research study:

"...school board members should possess a particular vision for the schools that they oversee. Here, we include their support for improving student learning - what we call an academic focus... After all, it is critical that board members prioritize educating students over the needs of adults and other political considerations if they are to fulfill their responsibility to provide students with a high-quality education."

While many view a board of education position as the lowest level elective office, it is an important position because a board with a vision - that puts student interests first - will positively impact student learning.

My vision for the PCSD (and public education in general) has been shared on this blog. See: http://thissideofthetable.blogspot.com/2014/05/your-educational-vision.html

All candidates for the PCS BOE are given an opportunity to write a Candidate Statement which is included in the Budget Bulletin that is sent to all community members. It is a chance for candidates to introduce themselves and tell the public their thoughts on important educational issues facing the district, the state, or the nation.  In other words, board candidates can share their platform as well as some biographical information.

District voters will benefit from knowing what BOE candidates want to accomplish and what they believe are the major issues facing the district.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Your Educational Vision for PCS?

What is your vision for the PCSD (or public schools in general)?
This is another question that was posed to me by someone who signed my petition. My background... teaching, serving on the PCS board of education and other boards, raising three children (with my husband), reading and studying, blogging, and just living life have taught me many lessons and informed my perspective about how schools can better serve students.

  • Schools must put the students' interests first. It is easy to give lip service to how decisions are for the kids but all too often, the decisions are political. To that end, students should be surveyed annually so school officials and the public know the student perspective and so school leaders and support what is good and improve what is weak. In addition, compliance with FERPA must be elevated in importance. At the PCSD, no formal records were being kept about FERPA violations. That must change. Finally, data collection on students must become highly transparent for the public, made easily accessible to parents, and become well-understood by school officials. 
  • There must be proper funding of schools: Under current school funding methods in NYS, the wealthy are guaranteed a better education for their children. It is time for the have-nots to be given an equal opportunity. This is a civil rights issue. We can fund schools properly or we will end up funding prisons - an industry that is flourishing. "By 2007, states spent more than $44 billion on incarceration and related expenses, a 127% jump from 1987. Over this same period, spending on higher education rose just 21%." Bill Moyers. com   "Billions of dollars have gone from the public treasury into private corporations to design, build, and maintain prisons. This has happened while over 14 million children in the U.S. live in poverty." Lionheart.org   Such monies would better serve society if invested in education and problems related to poverty.
  • The role of unions in protecting middle class employees should be safeguarded: Since Pres. R. Reagan broke the air traffic controllers union, the movement to weaken unions has accelerated (think Chris Christie, Scott Walker, etc.). While union leadership can be imperfect or intransigent at times, unions are one of the last protectors of a dwindling middle class. Health insurance costs, for instance, are crippling school budgets for rural schools like the PCSD. Those in a position to negotiate need to work cooperatively to seek viable options. However, the underlying greed that is causing health care costs to be so high (thus creating sky high health insurance premiums) needs to be examined and addressed. One Blue Cross Blue Shield CEO had a base salary of $1.1 million and was given a $14.9 million bonus in 2012. She was just one among many. See: http://www.beckershospitalreview.com/compensation-issues/pay-for-blue-cross-ceos-exploded-in-2011.html
  • Voters must take the time to vote and then elect those who place education high on their priority list. Right now, only one in ten eligible voters bothers to vote in school board elections. Students deserve an engaged populace.
  •  Education Leaders and the public must be informed about the movement to privatize education (via a takeover by charters). This puts education dollars in the hands of private corporations that have no requirement to be overseen by the public. Certainly, there is a role for charter schools in NYS and elsewhere but that role is not to supplant public schools. Failing and mediocre public schools need proper financing (think Campaign for Fiscal Equity) but they need more than money - they need administrators who are insightful educational leaders, teachers who are effective, schools of education that prepare competent novice teachers, and a learning environment that that is student-friendly and student-centered.
             
  • Schools leaders must break the mold.  The old adage that if someone fell asleep for a hundred years the only things they'd recognize upon waking would be prisons and schools says much about becoming entrenched in one educational and often outmoded model. Schools are mandated to provide certain courses but, in my estimation, it is time to re-think business as usual. For instance:

  1.  Finance Courses: Students should be taught a 3-4 year sequence of courses in finance and banking. Too many, possibly most, students are graduating from high school but have little understanding of banking, interest rates, mortgages, amortization tables, IRA's, 401K's, reconciling a checking account, credit and charge cards, predatory lending practices, the importance of saving, and the lifelong consequences of onerous DEBT. They should understand what caused the economic meltdown in 2008 and  how "too big to fail" banks knowingly engaged in unethical, high-risk practices to profit themselves. They should read what Sen. Elizabeth Warren and John Bogle have written about the financial sector. Bogle said that well over 90% of what's going on on Wall Street is akin to casino gambling. Economist Anat Admati has asked, "Why do banks, even under new post-crisis rules, do business with 95% borrowed money when no other business would dream of it?" It's time for financial reform. Students should not be graduating without the information they need to protect themselves from greed-driven, predatory practices in the financial sector. 
  2. Vocational Courses: All students, from grades 7-12 should be required to take some vocational courses. They will all be called upon in their lives to have a basic understanding of electricity, plumbing, HVAC, etc. In addition, too few people are entering the trades...try finding an electrician when you need one!
  3. Stop Requiring All Students to Get a Regents Diploma: This mandate is absurd. The only way it works is to lower the bar while those supporting it claim the bar is being raised. There must be different pathways to success, different choices to accommodate students' interests, abilities. We must know what jobs are available and prepare students for those jobs. 
  4. Stop the "strangling of the curriculum with standardized tests, drill-it-to-kill-it pedagogy, loss of art, music, recess, physical education..."  
  5. Require a meaningful course in ethics before graduation. 
  6. Require internships, job shadowing, mentoring, community service for high school students. 
          
       

Monday, April 28, 2014

Invest in schools or invest in prisons

What can be done about the tax burden on the public?

This is another question that was posed to me as I passed around my petition for the BOE. It is understandable that some members of the population are feeling overtaxed. After all, we all pay federal, state, county, school, school library district, etc. Some of the taxes are on income, others on home value, other on sales, etc.

When it comes to the school district, I will say one thing: since the economic crisis in 2008, NYS has taken back millions taxpayer dollars from the PCSD. (It's called the GEA - gap elimination adjustment.)
In point of fact, so many state taxpayer dollars have been withheld, that the PCSD has cut teaching and non-teaching positions. Lost jobs impact the local economy.

The NYS cuts to education  also resulted in the reduction of educational programs which diminishes the quality of the education students are receiving. If a school district is perceived as weak or faltering, it becomes hard to attract businesses and professionals to the region. If this starts occurring, the local economy will be further damaged because the main employers in Potsdam (SUNY Potsdam, Clarkson University, PCS, and CPH) need professionals. If they have recruiting problems, all entities will endure negative economic consequences.

So, to those who are unhappy about school taxes, I would simply say that we all need to consider that a lousy school = a lousy local economy. More importantly, we should do what we can to give the next generation a helpful start in life by providing a good education. Remember the schools-to-prison pipeline? We can either invest in schools or we will end up investing in prisons. And right now, we are not properly funding schools and we have a thriving prison industry - the best in the developed world.