Category Archives: Community Posts

Building a social justice teacher caucus: The story of BMORE

Screenshot 2019-05-22 12.31.18.pngSome context: Why was there a need for a social justice union caucus in Baltimore?  

    Public school teachers around the country are engaged in strikes. They are walking out of their classrooms and schools to gain attention from state legislators, and not just for better salaries and benefits for themselves (although most American agree that teachers need to be paid more). Teachers’ main demand is for funding for public education. Teachers are calling our attention to a sticky problem that we have in American public education funding: It has remained inequitably distributed for decades, no matter what new initiative comes down the pike. Moreover, this inequitable distribution of funding falls along racial lines.

   In Maryland, just like every other state, faces this inequity. The state has repeatedly and consistently underfunded Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPSS) in violation of their own constitutional definition of adequacy, upheld by the courts multiple time. According to Corey Gaber, teacher in Baltimore City schools, “When adding up this gross underfunding of BCPSS, which is nothing short of the crime of theft being committed against the predominantly Black youth who attend these schools, we reach a very rough education debt to Baltimore City of 3.2 BILLION DOLLARS!”

           There have been commissions appointed, like the one formed in 2000 named after Alvin Thornton, the Howard University professor leading the commission, that recommended equity in school funding across the state. Following the commission’s report, there would be a phase in process of millions of extra dollars into districts like Baltimore that faced budget challenges every year.  In 2008, the state claimed that there were no funds to provide equitable school funding because of the 2008 financial crisis. Since then, every spring, there is an assembly of hundreds of parents, teachers, administrators and advocates rallying for additional funding from the state to ensure that schools in Baltimore schools can keep their doors open.

     In reality, the funding inequity dates back to the Jim Crow period during which Blacks paid taxes in Maryland, but received nothing in return to fund their schools. There were Black schools, but since they did not receive public money, they had crumbling facilities, second or third hand books, and poorly compensated teachers, (Baum, 2010).  In this way, governments “reasserted Black inferiority and proclaimed white supremacy the cultural and economic law of the land and the preferred social order,” (Rooks, 51). Not much has changed since. Nowadays, Black school systems still suffer from unequal funding, have inadequate facilities, like in Baltimore where they cannot even provide heat in the winter to the students.

    Part of the problem is that after the Jim Crow era, the state still has not invested in the city and its Black community. A clear example of this was when Spiro Agnew was governor of Maryland. Riots followed after the death of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968, and Agnew summoned Black leaders to the state capitol to demand that they help restore order, but offered nothing to the city or to help Black communities in any way, (Baum, 2010). This lack of investment reveals a clear disdain for the city of Baltimore. Interestingly, Agnew went on to become vice president under Richard Nixon and continued this policy of “benign neglect” of urban centers for decades to come. Cities like Baltimore around the country, therefore, lived with this divestment which compounded over four decades. We can trace the problems that many cities face today to this period.

    This disdain for the city became clear when advocates appealed to the state for funds to fix its crumbling school buildings. In 2012, the ACLU’s education reform project along with others proposed leveraging bonds to pay for school renovations that were long overdue. The state agreed as long as the city promised to shut down 26 of its 200 schools. Sheepishly, the city agreed to this, but the process of closing schools has been more difficult than the city bargained for. The city used metrics of under-performance and under-enrollment to close schools. Given the historic lack of investment in the schools and neighborhoods of Baltimore that has occurred over decades (Baum, 2010 Pietila, 2010), the blunt instrument used to determine which schools to close led to closures in the most low income and the neighborhoods with the most Black people, what is now commonly known in Baltimore as the Black Butterfly.

 In 2015, public outrage blew up when Freddie Gray, an unarmed Black man, died in police custody. Schools shut down while the city dealt with the public uprising. People poured into the streets demanding justice not just in this case, but justice for the decades of disinvestment into Black communities that resulted in the conditions that created neighborhoods in which poverty was endemic and police brutality was a daily reality. The state, once again, responded with disdain for the city. The governor called the mayor to task for not getting her city under control, and demanded that there be law and order.

    A few days later, schools opened again and teachers resumed their work without paper for photocopiers, without heat in the dead of winter, and without support for students experiencing trauma. In spite of this, teachers had discussions with their students about structural racism, the police and police brutality, inter-generational poverty, and how to get involved in making change in the city.

   Suddenly, it seemed as if advocating for more school funding was important, but not enough to ensure justice for the teachers and the children of Baltimore. The organizing work at the state level to ensure equity in funding was certainly on everyone’s minds, but there was a sense that more needed to be done, and that the leaders that had been at the helm were not going to be able to bring more back to Baltimore. A change was coming.

    

The role of the teacher’s union

   For many years, the Baltimore Teachers Union (BTU) has argued for more funding and increased salaries for its members. It was so committed to the latter, in particular, that it negotiated a contract which included merit pay. The 2010 contract was hailed by groups across the country promoting school choice as a ”progressive contract.” Many teachers were unhappy with this contract negotiation, and thought it did not address many of the issues that were important to teachers. In fact, teachers voted against the contract in the first round and the AFT (the national teachers’ union) sent in organizers to persuade teachers to agree to the contract. What is more, the superintendent at the time, Andres Alonso, who was instrumental in expanding existing alternative certification programs (i.e. Teach for America), rallied those teachers, in particular, to support the contract, which promised items inline with his neoliberal approach to reform, like an end to seniority as the only way to earn more.

 Although there was a public statement expressing excitement about the new contract, city teachers were much more divided than the press about the contract let on. Mirroring union members around the country that were disaffected with their union leadership, many Baltimore teachers wanted their union to fight for more than the bread and butter issues for teachers. They wanted a union that would fight for better conditions for teachers, students, whole schools and communities. These teachers wanted a social justice union, focused on justice for Black students whose neighborhoods have been disinvested in for too long.

   Like union leadership in other cities, the leadership in Baltimore’s Teachers Union (BTU) has been the same for many years, elected by a tiny slice of the rank and file membership. Only 1200 or 6000 members voted in the last election in 2016, giving the current president, Marietta English, her eighth term in the position. In the last recent attempt, in 2016, teacher Kimberly Mooney lost to English by a small margin. Among teachers, she lost by only seven votes (paraprofessionals also vote in the election), suggesting that there was and is dissatisfaction with current leadership. Mike Miazga, a veteran teacher, said,“I make more money than I thought I would ever be able to make as a teacher, but there are too many things I don’t hear coming from the BTU. I feel like their focus is not the focus of the teachers and students a lot of times, and I wanted a different voice.”

    Over the last several years, there have been groups of teachers trying to organize and present alternative visions of what the union could be, but none have had grown beyond a few members. In 2015, a group of teachers decided to be a little more deliberate in their efforts. They came together informally, just like some groups in the past, but began by learning. They read common texts, visited union caucuses in other cities (i.e. CORE in Chicago), and regularly discussed their vision for schools in Baltimore. Through this process built durable relationships with each other, reached out to others, and began to identify leaders among them. This group called themselves, BMORE, the Baltimore Movement of Rank and File Educators.

Stories that describe BMORE’s development

by BMORE teachers (Corey Gaber, Cristina Duncan-Evans, and Natalia Bacchus)

  One of the things that was important for us during the beginning was that we were just forming was getting a strong sense of who we were as a group. One key piece of that was to think about who we were in relationship to a Black city like Baltimore. As a group, we spent a lot of time talking and thinking about race. We knew that race equity and Black leadership were important qualities for us, but it took us a while to figure out what that meant, and specifically what about Black leadership in Baltimore was significant for us. We also needed to stay secretive and closeted for a long time because as a small group we knew that the people who were part of our initial group would have an outsized impact on how we would eventually be perceived. So, when establishing our own identity we tried very consciously to avoid being co-opted by strident leftists whose mansplaining alienated would-be allies; neoliberals who want to use market-based ideas to “improve” the union; and people whose animosity towards the union leadership was nothing but thinly veiled anti-blackness.

    We used this slow period to also build relationships with each other, bringing food and drinks to book club gatherings where we read about similar efforts around the country. Developing trust was crucial because there is a long history of folks claiming to be supportive of social justice movements, and then turning elsewhere when presented with an opportunity to personally rise through the ranks. We were set on this not happening to us, and to building a solid community of educators that made decisions democratically. It meant we would eventually be comfortable saying, “Cristina, can you handle that?” “Natalia, can you represent us at this event?” “Corey, can you write up something on this issue?” Over time, we were able to rely on each other knowing that our team would handle it well, without having to peer over each others shoulders. Now we have a steering committee with seven people representing elementary, middle, high school, traditional schools, charter schools, teachers, para-professionals.  Five of our seven members are people of color, and that is intentional.

      We first had to develop our knowledge base, and that happened in discussions as well as reading together. By talking though, we realized that our working conditions were severe and we needed to address them. Teaching can be such an overwhelming and isolating profession that it’s easy to not even know what’s going on elsewhere in your school, much less across the district. Consciousness grew tremendously as a result of listening to stories from teachers around the city.  Teachers of ESOL students explained, for example, their teachers work to protect their families from ICE outside of the building. These students were also being asked to take the PARCC test, and their teachers would be evaluated in part based on those results. We gained greater empathy for the work of the Black para-professionals, who shoulder a disproportionate load of the behavior management side of teaching with ⅓ of the pay.

  There was also a lot of invisible work that we needed to do to build our own common knowledge base. In our group we did research on the history of underfunding, which allowed us to properly frame the facilities issue in the context of decades of state abdication of responsibility. Bouncing different potential ideas off of other teachers we knew allowed us to craft something quickly that accounted for a variety of perspectives. Talking on the phone with principals we knew gave us another angle when considering a solution that worked for all people on the ground in school buildings. Without this prior invisible work, we couldn’t have churned out such a thoughtful list of demands that caught on and allowed concerned citizens to channel their outrage into a tangible path forward.

    That said, we feel that, in many ways the circumstances of teaching in Baltimore are the hardest that they have ever been, which gives limited energy for organizing, but the issues are so pressing that they need organizing in order to solve them. In January 2018, the temperatures dropped below freezing for days on end. There were schools across the city without heat. There were reports of teachers and students in classrooms with hats, coats, and gloves to make it through the school day. One teacher even launched a GoFundMe page to raise money for winter wear. This was a crisis. The school board got an earful from community members at their January 10th meeting, and still had no solution to offer. This was a great organizing opportunity for BMORE, we reacted quickly and it taught us how to do a campaign in a short period of time. Learning how to be public and loud was the last important piece of the puzzle that we started, and having an immediate outrage to respond to was a teachable moment.

    We put out a set of demands  in English and Spanish about the school temperature which asked for transparency, communication, a clear plan, and to close schools if the conditions were too cold for students and teachers. The district answered the demands, and eventually the governor stepped in to provide emergency funding. This campaign put us on the map, and got us working in coalition with many other groups around the city.

    After the temperature crisis subsided, we returned to our October conversation about  doing a Black Lives Matter Week of Action in Baltimore, like many other groups of teachers in other cities had done. We were all 100% behind the idea, and also terrified of taking on another project on our own. Committing to something that extended beyond our current capacity forced us to reach out in partnership to other groups we admired from afar. Originally, we thought we’d get some t-shirts and do a single event. The response from Baltimore Algebra Project, Dr. Lawrence Brown, a professor of public health at Morgan State University, and so many other individuals and organizations was so overwhelming that we ended up having an entire week’s worth of events. One key event was our Black Teachers Matter panel discussion at a local elementary school. At it, we showed this video, which conveyed the loss of Black teachers in our city which stands now only at 40%.

     The week garnered enough positive attention that people now know BMORE. With our name on the map, other groups are now reaching out to us, eager to partner, and inspired by the work we’re putting in. This makes us think BMORE can be the kind of group that connects the dots between the people on the ground doing real work in the community, and lift up the voices of those who are traditionally and systematically ignored.

      The ongoing challenge that we face is the nitty gritty of organizing. We got a lot of attention. We have been embraced by Black-led community organizations, but we need to expand our base of teachers. We needed more teachers to actually show up for meetings and the work. There seemed to be general support, but not consistent energy to move folks to add an additional obligation after the school day. In many ways, we needed to remain true to what we started, and continue to build relationships with teachers as much as we can. We could not let our visibility distract us from that. It took CORE (Chicago’s social justice teacher caucus) years before they were ready to take over their union leadership, which they did in 2010. We had to take a page out of their book, and continue to do the challenging work of organizing.  We also had to recognize that the work is slow. If we just got everybody involved in BMORE, without considering that the people most likely to join up would be those with the most resources, time, and lack of discrimination on the worksite, we would be stuck with only liberal white teachers who over time, would create a white space that was no longer safe for educators of color to join and speak out at. We were very conscious of staying true to our original goal for Black leadership. After all, we are in a Black city.   

  Looking forward, we looked nationally and locally to build our power in order to transform the BTU from a service union to a social justice union. We believe educators should be proactively leading the efforts to advocate for, protect and improve our profession AND the communities where our students live.  Public education serves the common good, and labor unions do the important work of protecting it from exploitation and privatization. We understand that public education is a tool for liberation and essential to a functioning democracy.

We will work to counteract Baltimore’s history of structural racism by intentionally promoting the voices and leadership of educators of color within our group. We intend to amplify the power of the people through relationship building and providing educators the tools to organize their schools and communities.

    Part of achieving this vision was running delegates for election so that we can be represented at the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) national convention in Pittsburgh summer 2018 (we have 33 candidates on the ballot). Locally, we planned a one day teacher organizing workshop as part of a week long coalition event commemorating the events of 1968, called Baltimore Freedom Summer. We submitted 850 petition signatures from BTU members to amend the BTU constitution to make voting more accessible. We are a regular presence at school board meetings and smaller work groups adding teacher voice to conversations around curriculum, teacher evaluation, and the recruitment and retention of black teachers in the district. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we put together a slate for the next Baltimore Teachers Union election. After a lot of organizing at individual schools, hosting events, and a social media campaign, we won! We succeeded ousting an 8-term union president. The Baltimore Teachers Union will be represented by teachers and para-professionals who have commitments to social justice and equity.  

 

Losing Langston Hughes

LOSING LANGSTON HUGHES

“This is for the kids who die,

Black and white,

For kids will die certainly.

The old and rich will live on awhile,

As always,

Eating blood and gold,

Letting kids die.”

–Langston Hughes, “Kids Who Die”

Thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, our nation’s historic and continuing segregationand neglect of predominantly Black schools and school districts has gained a new level of attention. We know about schools in FergusonChicagoDetroit and Baltimore. The question we are now faced with is what to do about it, and the search for answers is urgent. This spring, the city of Baltimore broke under the weight of years of police abuse and institutional racism, reflected in part through systematically under-funded schools.

What has changed since the uprising that took place after the funeral of the murdered Freddie Gray? For one West Baltimore community losing a beloved elementary school the answer seems to be, “Not much.”

When Langston Hughes Elementary School was built in 1975, it was celebrated as the foundation of the community’s future, a new investment in a community devastated in the riots of 1968.

This summer, Baltimore City Schools successfully defeated the Langston Hughes Community Action Association’s desperate attempt to keep their school open.

As Baltimore vacates an elementary school, with devastating consequences for West Baltimore families, we are reminded of the words of west-side resident Aisha Snead, who in April told The New York Times, “This is the land that time forgot.”

“They have never invested in the people. In fact, it’s divested. They take every red cent they can from poor Black people and put it into the Inner Harbor.”

Langston Hughes was selected as one of several schools slated for closing in January 2013 despite the fact that the students have been meeting assessment benchmarks; despite the presence of community support and involvement; despite having a well-maintained building in good repair; and despite the deplorable condition of the school the students are being sent into. No one has put forward a coherent and credible reason for this drastic decision other than a political need to reduce the number of school buildings in the city.

Identifying school buildings for closure was a concession made to the state in order to receive facility improvement funds for City Schools. A June 26, 2015, letter from City Schools CEO Gregory Thornton to Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, written after the Park Heights community made it plain they wanted their school to stay open, describes the prevailing rationale succinctly: “Langston Hughes Elementary was identified as a program closure in the original 10-year plan as an opportunity to consolidate programs to reduce City School’s building inventory.”

At a rally this spring to save Langston Hughes, Baltimore Algebra Project coordinator Antwain Jordan reflected on the reason Park Heights resident George Mitchell gives for the fate of the school:

“He believes that they picked this school and these communities because this was a path of least resistance,” Jordan said.

“Essentially, that no one cares. But from my experience in this community in the last weeks and months, that’s the exact opposite of what I see. I see a lot of resistance.… If they thought this was the path of least resistance, then they chose the wrong road.”

But the resistance—some of which has been documented by the Baltimore Brew, the Baltimore Sun and in a video by the Teachers’ Democracy Project was not enough. The phone calls, petitions, cook outs, marches, meetings, and school board testimony were not enough to change a political structure that continues to place a lesser value on some neighborhoods than on others, less value on some children than on others.

One explanation for why Langston Hughes was supposed to be a “path of least resistance” is that this subversion of democracy would be harder to sell for a school in a somewhat wealthier neighborhood serving even a small percentage of white children.

Abbottston Elementary, a school of a similar size, demographics and assessment history, but located closer to more “desirable” neighborhoods and in close proximity to the recently renovated and, therefore more attractive Waverly Elementary, was saved from the chopping block.

The fight to keep Abbottston open was fueled by interests similar to the residents of Park Heights: saving their neighborhood school. But the neighborhoods are not the same. Saving Abbottston, instead of sending Abbottston’s children into Waverly, also meant keeping Waverly seats open for new and prospective white and middle-class neighbors attracted by the new building. All this is understandable from an individual, parent-as-activist point of view. Yet the case of Abbottston stands as a perfect example of how the political process systematically favors schools with even a small minority of privileged students who bring valuable political connections. The school closing announcements were made simultaneously. Abbottston got a reprieve; Langston Hughes did not.

City leaders are sensitive to the inequity they have created in saving Abbottston and dumping Langston Hughes – a fact reflected in Dr. Thornton’s letter to the mayor cited above when he writes, “… the district remains committed to evaluating the viability of various school closures, including Abbottston,” implying that Abbottston may ultimately be closed as well.

The second reason that Langston Hughes became easy prey is its small size. City Schools documents claim Langston Hughes is closing because its enrollment is too small to support a school. Langston Hughes had an enrollment of 217 children in 2013, and then dropped to 156 the following year after the closing announcement. Last year, Langston Hughes was the seventh smallest school in the city at 176 kids, excluding schools designated for students with disabilities. Five of the ten smallest schools in Baltimore are charter schools. Of the remaining five non-charters, four have been recommended for closing, including Abbottston. The three smallest schools in Baltimore are all charters, and all three – Montessori Middle School (88 students), Independence (127 students), and The Green School (150 students) – have a student population that is over 40 percent white.

The 10th and 11th smallest schools in the city are the highly-celebrated City Neighbors Charter School and City Neighbors Hamilton. These two charters each have an enrollment of 216, one below Langston Hughes’ 2013 number. These small schools also serve a student population more white (43 and 36 percent) and less poor (37.5 and 48.1 percent FARMS-eligible) than most city schools.

One of several reports submitted to the Maryland State Department of Education on June 30, 2015, as part of the ongoing Study of Adequacy of Funding for Education focused on the impact of small schools. The report states, “It is also critical to note that research shows smaller schools and smaller learning environments have an even more pronounced effect on children from low-income families…. Indeed, in addition to improved grades and standardized test scores, low-income elementary-aged students attending small schools have better attendance, fewer behavior problems, and increased participation in extracurricular programs compared to low-income students in larger schools.”

This year, City Schools is closing a small Black elementary school with a student population 96 percent eligible for free and reduced meals because the school is “too small,” while continuing to support smaller and equally small, less poor, schools with the largest percentages of white students in the city.

We do not believe any of these schools should be closed – we believe Langston Hughes should remain open. We do not believe it is the intention of Baltimore City Schools to create separate and unequal schools, but that is what they are doing.

The third reason Langston Hughes was targeted for closing is likely an unmet demand for well-kept, ready-to-use school buildings for charters. During the past school year at least two white-led charter schools expressed interest in taking over the Langston Hughes building once it was vacated. They had received a list of “available buildings” from the facilities department at City Schools. The question of whether such a move would satisfy the system’s stated need to “reduce City Schools’ building inventory” has been delayed as both charters changed course after hearing the outcry from the Park Heights neighborhood. The charter operators’ reaction to the community was politically correct and laudable, but their original plan to move into a turn-key building had to involve some incorrect assumptions about the worth and value of the existing Langston Hughes school community. What the children of the Park Heights community need is the stability and predictability guaranteed by democratic community control.   They need their school that serves their neighborhood.

Ultimately, the real story behind why City Schools picked Langston Hughes for closing is, we strongly suspect, an amalgam of the first three reasons cited above with an additional factor that binds them together – the opaque and well-financed “development plans” for the Pimlico and Park Heights areas. Do plans for a “redeveloped” neighborhood include a school building with which to attract a charter operator to serve a gentrifying population? If so, then an empty Langston Hughes building would be highly convenient. In other cities, charters and gentrification have often gone hand-in-hand.

School closures are a national phenomenon. The stated reasons for closing Baltimore schools are the same reasons being used to close schools in cities across the country. But as groups such as the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign have pointed out, “You can’t improve schools by closing them.” Schools deemed to be “underutilized” are not empty. School closings disrupt whole communities. Children pushed from closing schools generally do not end up in better schools, and school districts often realize no significant financial benefit from closing schools.

We believe no one has set out to underserve our lowest-income, lowest-wealth Black families. It just happens, repeatedly, because our structures of institutional racism and neglect continue to churn until someone decides to stop them.   The Black Lives Matter movement has risen as both a cry of anger and a hopeful challenge to these structures. Mayor Rawlings-Blake, Dr. Thornton, and the Baltimore City School Board have turned away from this movement and from the Park Heights community in a way that is disheartening for those of us who want to believe our leaders learned something from April. We want our public schools to have something to do with democracy. We know there are more schools that will be next on the block. We are demanding more than disinvestment and neglect, and we are particularly suspicious of school closings in areas with plans for gentrification. We want more than “input” regarding decisions that have already been made behind closed doors. There are other, more sustainable, and publicly controlled options for on-going use of our anchoring neighborhood buildings and institutions. We need active community control of our schools.

Helen Atkinson, Director, Teachers’ Democracy Project, democracyproject@icloud.com

Ben Dalbey, Parent of two Baltimore City school children, bendalbey@yahoo.com

New charter law may dismantle public education

The following piece is by Helen Atkinson, a longtime educator and activist living in Baltimore. She now heads up the Teachers Democracy Project out of the University of Maryland at Baltimore.

Charter school debate

In Maryland we have what some consider a weak charter law and what others consider as one of the best charter laws in the country.  How you view the law depends on how you define the problems faced by public schools in this city and in our country as a whole.  You may think that charters in general, or even just the charters you work in or send your children to, are part of the solution to poor performing public schools.  You may feel that at least some kids (and teachers) are getting what they need, and that, perhaps, it is not your business what happens to other schools and other children.  If so, then there are many reasons to want legislation that would give Baltimore city charter schools more money and more freedom from bureaucratic constraint.

On the other hand, you may like the particular charter school you work in or attend, but you may also care about whether we might be creating an increasingly tiered system of education within our city and state.  You may have fears that this new law provides an opportunity for outsiders to exploit the newly proposed charter-friendly conditions for their own gain.  You may feel that fixes to our education system should be across the board and should help all schools and all children.  And you may understandably fear the erosion of your union rights.  If so, then there are plenty of reasons to fight this legislation.

Up until now, under the current legislation, charter schools in Maryland are generally run by so called “mom and pop” charter operators.  Parents, community members, and teachers started each school or group of schools specifically for the purpose of creating a school they believed in.   There are no national chains (with the exception of KIPP) in Baltimore.  Every teacher is part of a large, and still fairly significant, collective bargaining unit.  And the current law requires a focus on funding for charters that is “commensurate” with other schools.   This new legislation would change all of this.

This document is my attempt to read between the lines of the proposed legislation to describe what some of the changes are intended to achieve, not just for our current “mom and pop” charters, but, more significantly, for large charter management organizations who might suddenly see Maryland, and Baltimore in particular, as ripe ground for expansion.   This document represents my opinion and is based on extensive experience in the world of charter schools in Baltimore having held various roles in several charter schools over the past 10 years as: a founder, a teacher, a teacher-director (of Independence School Local 1), an operator (Baltimore Teacher Network), and a member of the coalition of charter schools.

House Bill 486: Extend the definition of a public school employee to include employees of charter schools with separate bargaining unit

First and foremost, House Bill (HB) 486 amends the definition of a public school employee to include the employees of a Public Charter School (PCS) operator. It allows the employees of a PCS to form an employee organization under law. As such, they are extended the right to become an exclusive representative on behalf of the employees of that school, who are their own bargaining unit, and negotiate with their employer/authorizer.

The charter authorizers in Maryland are also the employers.  These authorizers/ employers consist of each county’s school board and the Baltimore city school board. Charter school operators of existing charters can opt to change their status with regard to teacher employment at the time of renewal of the school’s contract.

Teachers at a school where the operator is the employer can choose to form a new union.

New charter schools simply indicate whether or not their employees will employees of the public school employer or of the operator.

This shift, if voted in, would take Maryland into a whole new category with regard to charter legislation.  It was likely only proposed as a long shot.  Removing affiliation to the current union is a pre-requisite for many of the larger charter management organizations (CMOs) to consider coming to Maryland, and if this push fails this time around, it will come up again.  Large national CMOs have so far declined to come to MD.  If this portion of the legislation were ever adopted, it would open definitely open the door.

The bill consistently inserts the word “public” to describe charter schools and its employees.  The purpose behind this is likely to counter the frequent accusation that charter schools are only semi-public.  The de facto degree of public-ness of charter schools, even when defined as public in state law, depends on a variety of factors such as: who owns the school building, whether the employees are employed by a local school board or by the charter management organization, and whether decisions about the school are made locally or by a national organization.  This push to include a reference to “public” throughout the bill is therefore, likely, defensive.

It is important to understand that regardless of how enticing some operators might make a “new union” sound—create your own union from scratch with all your own rules etc—this would be a disaster for teachers and for the Baltimore Teachers Union.  Across the entire country only 12% of charter teachers have successfully negotiated unionized status.  In Philadelphia, only 5 out of 90 charter schools have unions.  It takes three to five years to set up a new union and a significant amount of legal expertise.

The bottom line is that charter operators want to get out from under the current contract so the door would be open for paying teachers less and/or giving them less job security.  Even if our current operators were eminently fair and continued to pay teachers at their current rates, new operators would undoubtedly follow the same patterns that exist across the rest of the country.  This is piece of the legislation that was probably put in as a long shot to make it seem like compromises were being made this time around, but it will come up again.

Weights for certain students to modify the lottery process

The next significant change has to do with how charter schools can weight their lotteries.

There are no weights in the current law.  A lottery process is required for any school in which the applicants out number the available slots which allows a charter school to weight the status of a student being considered for admission in a lottery (i.e. if the student is eligible for free lunch, has a disability, or is homeless as defined under federal law).

This list of how charters might weight their lottery in order to attract more low-income students, more students with disabilities, and more English language learners must be disingenuous.   The real tendency for many schools is to try to limit the numbers of these students in their schools for the purpose of maintaining or achieving higher test scores.  Most likely, the real intended change has to do with charters wanting to give a weight to applicants who live in geographic proximity to the school.  This potentially favors schools that are located in middle class or at least relatively stable areas of the city.  It is important here to recognize that a school’s Free and Reduced Lunch (FARM) statistics can cover up significant differences with regard to the challenges faced by schools. These differences that are obvious to anyone who spends time in school tend to be glossed over when numbers to do with socioeconomic status are given in the aggregate.  This is significant because claims by schools with regard to percentage of FARMS students must be considered more deeply when comparing one school with another.  The use of weights to protect a school’s catchment area from a less desirable adjacent neighborhood is not a decision that should be left up to an individual school.

Granting Chartering Authority to the State

The next section on charter conversions is a little confusing.  I presume that it is intended to make it easier for an out-of-state CMO to propose taking over an existing school.

The state department of education in Maryland is called a “secondary” public chartering authority.

The review period for an appeal is 120 days. The state board becomes a “primary” chartering authority (authorizer) when acting in its appeal review capacity or when granting a charter to a converted school.

The review period for an appeal to be reviewed is 90 days.

The authorizer may not withhold approval of an application until an applicant secures a facility.

There seems to be a lot of ambiguity in this section, which would need consideration of legal counsel. The state department of education would become a primary authorizer in the case of conversions and appeals and the time period for consideration of an appeal is shortened (120 to 90 days).

On the surface, this does not appear to be so bad. However, I would suggest that we need to read this section of the bill through the lens of information shared by Jason Botel of MDCAN who has been campaigning in favor of allowing large out-of-state CMOs to come to Baltimore to take over low performing high schools.  Until Hogan won the election, MDCAN was shooting for minor changes to the law that would act as a shoehorn for future legislative changes.  As a consequence of the election, the proposed legislation is much more comprehensive.  The arrival of out-of-state CMOs would make our current mom and pop operations seem tame by comparison.  Why do our current operators want to invite these notoriously money grabbing groups to Maryland?  My only guess is that they bring with them the large donors (read Walton, Broad, Gates, and other large donors), and much political clout.  I am assuming here that the designation of a “primary” authorizer makes the process of approval to “convert” easier for out-of-state CMOs.

Charter schools would not have to comply with certification requirements for teachers

The issue of certification is definitely a problem for certain schools such as the Montessori Charter School.  This bill eliminates the problem of certification once the charter application is approved.

All professional staff must “hold the appropriate Maryland certification.” All professional staff shall “be qualified and credentialed in accordance with the plan submitted by operator as part of its [charter] application.

The argument could be made that if changes to certification requirements are needed for charter schools, then perhaps they are needed for all schools.  This section would require much deeper consideration and public discussion as it skirts the need for a more comprehensive consideration of teacher credentialing.  This is not an area in charters should get special consideration.

A comprehensive waiver for all provisions of law and regulation

Under the bill charter schools can request for a “comprehensive waiver” that exempts them from “all provisions of law and regulations governing other public schools.”  It is not clear what this would mean in practice.  The only areas cited as exempt from waiver are: audit requirements; measuring academic achievement and assessments; and health, safety, and civil rights.  The question definitely remains as to what kinds of exemptions this would entail.

Financial Arrangements

Lastly, the money.

“A county board shall disperse to a public charter school an amount of county, State, and federal money for elementary, middle, and secondary students that is commensurate with the amount disbursed to other public schools in the local jurisdiction.” Requires a county board to disburse to a PCS an amount equal to 98% of the sum of state, county, and federal funds appropriated to the county for the current expense fund categories and may not include expenses for debt services and adult education.

It also further defines Title I per pupil allocation and how to calculate it.

It adds the requirement that PCSs be able to participate in the capital improvement program using a cost-share formula.

This change could mean a figure closer to $14,000 per pupil rather than the current $9,450.  Charters would be eligible for money for facilities outside of city schools buildings

In my view, these financial provisions would seriously divide charter schools from all the other schools.  There would simply be less money left in the pot for the other schools.  There are plenty of details within the section on finances that would need to be understood more thoroughly, but the overall impact is clear.  Existing charters get more money; new out-of-state charters see Baltimore as an expansion opportunity; traditional Baltimore schools get less.   The financial impact would be felt immediately by the rest of the school system and would not be offset by significant savings as charters scramble to provide their own equivalent services such as transportation, food services and special education.

We are naïve, and perhaps somewhat arrogant, if we believe that the process of opting out of burdensome bureaucracy, irrational rules, and a history of oppression for the students and communities we work for, is as simple as carving out a semi-privatized, better financed niche within our city.  If the rules are untenable, the constraints counter-productive, and the history of poverty and racism ugly, then it is up to all of us to bring change to the whole city. This new bill would harm public education in Baltimore and it needs to be defeated.

 

 

Telling old stories: Recalling the fallout from school closure

Cities change all of the time, but when neighborhoods change, displacement often follows. People have to move out of their homes, and institutions, like schools, close. History gets lost. A piece of history gets left behind, staying on only in the memories of people who lived through that period.Eastern high

Bill Bleisch, longtime teacher from Baltimore, recalls what gets lost when schools get closed, communities of students moved, and institutions get replaced:

“There have been many closings, over many years – not just the recent ones – ever since the student population of the Baltimore City Public Schools became majority Black in the 1970s.

In the 80’s, for example, it was announced that Eastern High School would be closed, as of June, 1985. The official rationale was that there were too few students, citywide, in the high school grades and that Eastern (built with the same architectural design as Douglass, which had by then been renovated) was the city’s oldest un-renovated high school.

They neglected to talk about how part of the land was wanted – and indeed later asphalted – for baseball parking, after the Orioles won the World Series in ’83, and phenomenal traffic came to Waverly, with more expected.

We knew that a certain percentage of our students would end up dropping out, amidst a re-assignment to what would be called Lake Clifton/Eastern, farther away from their homes.

A huge protest was organized. The preparations were heartwarming and highly impressive. Teaching at Eastern at the time, I could go to a teacher and ask, “How would you feel about organizing the cooking of a hundred chickens, so we can feed several hundred students after school before we march to the School Board?” and the answer would be, “No problem!”  The same was true about asking folks to bring in enough materials to make hundreds of posters.

On our march from Eastern to the School Board, after the in-school dinner, a couple of opportunist politicians jumped in front of the march, and pretended they had been organizing and leading the struggle all along.

Outside the School Board, we had perhaps the largest demonstration I had ever seen there, totally surrounding the building while picketing.

Then, inside, we dramatically unrolled hundreds of petitions, taped end-to-end with what must have been thousands of signatures opposing the closing, complemented by our spokespersons.

In the end, we won a little. We succeeded in keeping the school open for one more year, and we won a commitment that Eastern’s business program (teaching office skills, not training students to want to be capitalist exploiters) would be kept alive, long term, at Lake Clifton/Eastern.

At the end of the next and final year of Eastern’s existence, our seniors had their traditional Farewell Assembly, except on this occasion, all of us – not just the seniors – were saying farewell to the school. There was barely a dry eye in the auditorium.

On Eastern’s large, beautiful grounds (only part of which remain), there had been a stone sculpture, by artist Grace Turnbull, showing a shepherd tending a flock of sheep. It was based on a poem called “Tears,” published in 1909 by Lizette Woodworth Reese, who herself had been a Baltimore City Public School teacher for nearly 50 years.

When Eastern closed, this large statue was moved to the Lake Clifton/Eastern campus.

On the occasion of a Lake Clifton/Eastern assembly to acknowledge the statue and its new site, I ended up being the one to say a few words.

Well, I chose – at the assembly – to tell a story about a student of mine who had come on one of the large, three-day, end-of-the-year, camping trips. On that year’s trip, we had learned a lot about revolutionary politics, and had also had a lot of fun but, on the way back home, when we got to this student’s street, he became even happier, smiled broadly, looked with fresh eyes at his block, part of a neighborhood where residents didn’t earn big wages, and – to an outsider – the homes appeared run down, not particularly desirable, and he exclaimed, “Isn’t it beautiful!” expressing the joy of being re-united with the family he loved and the place where they cherished one another, emotions about which Reese had indeed written and Turnbull had chiseled.

Well, after not very many years at Lake, more powerful forces chose to expropriate the Reese/Turnbull statue, move it back to the former Eastern complex, and use it to give a bit of false legitimacy to the now Hopkins-appropriated building on 33rd Street.

Somehow, I don’t think the theme of transcending tears by regaining our losses – as represented through the visual metaphor of sheep being shepherded back home – is quite apt for Johns Hopkins, an institution that has displaced hundreds of families’ from their homes, has a tiny percentage of African American faculty in a majority-Black city, and wouldn’t allow a single Black student into its medical school for the first 70 years of that institution’s inglorious history.”

But that is what happens when schools are closed. Things get moved around. The story changes, and memories fade. We need to remember the story of Eastern and the story of Lake Clifton. We need to remember what these schools meant to students, families, and teachers.

MLK’s legacy: #Blacklivesmatter

This is a special MLK day. It is a holiday that follows on the heels of the Ferguson non-indictment, on the heels of the Eric Garner non-indictment, among others. It is a day that activists have sought to reclaim the legacy of MLK. It is a day to collectively assert that #BlackLivesMatter.

Although MLK saw civil rights, human rights, and economic rights as intertwined, he argued again and again that black lives mattered. Black lives needed to matter in order to gain civil rights, to end the war in Vietnam, and to gain economic justice for poor and working people. Black lives mattering was a pre-requisite to further struggles for social justice.

This video describes MLK’s 1968 work to support the sanitation workers in Memphis. They marched for economic rights, for human rights. As Rev. James Lawson explains, “When you treat workers as if they are not men, that is racist point of view.”  The video shows workers demonstrating with signs that read, “I am a man.” This was the 1960’s version of #BlackLivesMatter. They were treated as if their lives did not matter. Police attack the demonstrators as they did in the Ferguson demonstrations. Whether it was sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968 or today, we need to remember that the demonstrations need to continue to honor MLK’s legacy.

Communities need to make their own decisions on schools

School closed

This post is  by Antwain Jordan, a senior at Morgan State University and Co-Executive Director of the Baltimore Algebra Project.

Here is what he says about why communities need to make decisions about schooling:

I recently found about Baltimore’s plan to close schools and renovations in an article in The Baltimore Sun.  I believe that this poses an amazing opportunity  for Baltimore for school facilities and programming with 2.8 billion dollars to renovate school buildings. But, I wondered who controls this funding?

As I read further, I saw that there was an M.O.U.(Memorandum of Understanding) between the Maryland Stadium Authority, Baltimore City, the state of Maryland, and Baltimore city schools, none of whom are community members, even if they purport to know/represent the interest of the community.

In addition to that the times for the communities to offer input they are difficult to find out about, which deters community involvement and awareness. This is a serious issue because schools in general are resources for the community because they are the institutions that equip and educate the people of the community.

Communities are being kept in the dark about the decisions that are being made about schools. It would be like someone saying to you that they want to remodel your house but you can’t have any control over the remodeling but you could have input, but then they don’t ask you for any input.

The next issue I have with this plan is that the planned facilities are not planning to accommodate the people of the community. Most of the building plans for the newly built and renovated builds are significantly smaller than the ones that exist now. These schools are community schools and making them smaller means they will not have the capacity to serve all of the students in any given community because it’s substantially smaller than the original building.  This would be like you having a family of 5 but the remodeling plans is only for a family of 3 and the remodelers pick which 3 people live in the new house.

The last, and maybe the biggest, issue I have with the plan is that the people who are in the communities now won’t be the same people there at the end of the ten years. Gentrification is rapidly displacing predominantly black and low income communities. Wealthier residents can pay the kinds of taxes needed to keep these new facilities running. So the black families are being swept out of the neighborhoods in order to make way for that money. Johns Hopkins University has been engaged in this process as they invoked eminent domain to displace long-time residents of a neighborhood called Middle East in order to bring in more affluent residents to populate the neighborhood. This plan has been well documented. Plans to compensate the community members, give local residents jobs, or allow all of them to send their children to the new school that Hopkins built have not materialized.

I worry that a similar scenario is likely to come to pass in the process of city-wide school closings and renovations. Already there is reneging on the agreement to renovate schools. Lake Clifton, a school that has been promised renovations for years, is not going to be renovated after all, according to a recent report.

The state and the city claim the project will be exponentially more expensive then first expected. This too is being done without the consultation of the community. This is unacceptable. First the people of Baltimore are promised new and quality buildings, which they rightfully deserve. Then the process begins without their consultation or input when they should be the ones controlling the process. Now, for some, the opportunity is in jeopardy all together and most people are none the wiser.

Unless the community takes control over the decision making process for the resources for their community, then this beautiful opportunity and political moment will turn into a repeat of history where black people will be receiving sub-par educations and will not reap any of the benefits of this beautiful opportunity. I urge communities to get aware, get angry, get involved and take the control of this plan, or be doomed to marginalization and being deprived of what is rightfully ours.

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