[Rick Smith]: Again you go back to what are critical government programs that our governor thinks of? Tax cuts for wealthy corporations? Handouts to the cracker? Is that critical? What about the billion dollars they have taken away from education each of the last two years? I look at this story in The Patriot on Saturday, and it just blows my mind that we are going to – here in Harrisburg – that are going to not transport kindergarteners to public schools. Yet, by law, by mandate of law, they are going to be transporting charter school students. I think it sends entirely the wrong message. It sends the message that, “Hey! These charter schools are A-okay, but those public schools can’t meet your needs.” I think that’s a matter of design, I think they did it on purpose and knew we were going to get to this point. It blows my mind. I’ve got Sherri Magnuson of the Harrisburg Education Association on the line. Sherri, thanks for taking time for me.
[Sherri Magunson]: Not a problem.
[Rick Smith]: You know, I look at this and I’m just dumbfounded. Explain to me the rationale that says we are going to transport charter students, but not public students to kindergarten.
[Sherri Magunson]: I don’t think there is any rationale, I just think it is part of our governor’s plan to dismantle public education in the state of Pennsylvania. It’s just another one of his ways to kind of eat away and erode the public education that we’ve had in Pennsylvania. I can’t believe it myself.
[Rick Smith]: I’ve talked to a number of people over the weekend, because this just blew my mind. And the response I kept getting back from people is this bit of incredulousness: “But it’s mandatory.” The number of people who were shocked to learn that kindergarten—in Pennsylvania—is not mandatory, let alone full-day kindergarten, half-day is not even mandatory.
[Sherri Magunson]: Yeah, well we’re one of the only states that doesn’t mandate kindergarten, which I think is a travesty. And then to add insult to injury, but of course for my charters here – my pet project – we’re going to go ahead and make you spend money to pick up those children in the morning, but you can’t pick up your own to go to your public schools.
[Rick Smith]: Yeah, I mean what this says to me – what everyone says to me – I’ll just send my kids to charter schools, and will abandon the public school. I’m going: “exactly the intent.”
[Sherri Magunson]: Yeah, I think so. I mean we have had a lot of folks that wanted to bring charters into Harrisburg, and unfortunately when you look through their plans, they are not able to offer the same things we are able to offer in a public school. Those charters have been denied.
[Rick Smith]: Yeah, you’re right. The public schools don’t offer big profits for the Gregorians of the world. Not big profits for the DeVoss’s, the Wal-Mart Family. I guess that isn’t there.
[Sherri Magunson]: No it isn’t. We are here to serve the public. We are here to educate our kids. We are here doing the right thing. And in return here comes the legislature trying to undo all of those things.
[Rick Smith]: So I am reading this story, and I look at Harrisburg’s superintendent, Sybil Knight-Burney, who is quoted saying that the reason they’ve done this is because of $162,000. They claim that is what it would cost to pick up kindergarteners in the middle of the day. And I am going, “well why did you cancel full-day kindergarten to begin with?” Every study that I’ve read, and I look at my own children, who have benefited from full-day kindergarten. That seems to be the way you give these kids an advantage. If, you’re talking about a school district that’s struggling, don’t we want to get them early? Don’t we want to get them younger to get them acclimated, moving forward early?
[Sherri Magunson]: Absolutely, and we did have those programs, we did have full-day kindergarten. Until the governor stripped public schools education budget. We did have early childhood. We lost that program 2 years ago with our 3 and 4 year olds. Twenty years ago, Harrisburg city schools had one of the premiere early childhood education centers in the United States. People came to Harrisburg to look to see what we were doing, and of course now they are saying “there is no money for this, and we have to get rid of it.” We’ve lost 300 teachers in the last 3 years.
[Rick Smith]: Again, you look at the great recession. 14,000 teachers and support staff have been lost since this governor has taken office, and to me, what I’ve been saying for the longest is that we’ve defunded infrastructure. We haven’t invested in roads and bridges. We’re doing the exact same thing to education and I worry that in five, ten, fifteen years down the road is going to reap.
[Sherri Magunson]: Well, it unfortunately is not just Harrisburg city. It’s every school district that’s taken a hit. When you look at all of the statistics and things that have been going on, it’s amazing that we are able to continue to do the things that we’ve been doing with the limited resources that we have. I mean 60% of all school districts in the state on Pennsylvania have had to increase class sizes, when we know class size is very important for education with our students.
We’ve cut our programs – music programs, phys ed, field trips – all of those things that we know are going to help build the type of young people we want. Unfortunately, we’ve got a governor that says “no you can’t do that, you can’t have that.”
[Rick Smith]: I look at this again, and I go back to the class size thing. I’ve made the argument a number of times. Study after study, especially in the K through 3 years, somewhere between 15 and 22, that’s where you need to be. I don’t want to end up seeing school districts in this state, like I’ve saw in Detroit with a kindergarten class of 55 kids. I don’t know how you teach. I don’t even know how you warehouse 55 kids in a classroom, let alone teach them anything.
[Sherri Magunson]: Right, it simply cannot be done. It just simply makes no sense, it cannot be done. Like you’ve said, you’re not educating, you’re warehousing. You know, it’s not your grandmothers’ kindergarten. They have a very rigorous curriculum that they follow for our children. They are learning to read in kindergarten. It’s not the sit upon your little “sit upon” and finger paint and do all those type of things. Those days are long gone.
[Rick Smith]: Those days of knowing how to tie your shoes and not wet yourself to get to first grade. Those are done, I mean you are absolutely right. In fact, my kids were reading before they got into school, got into kindergarten, and I was amazed at how many of other kids were as well. And by the end of school, how far ahead they were of me. I’m 45, it’s been a long time. Not that long, but they are so much further ahead than I was.
[Sherri Magunson]: Absolutely. I mean and we just continue. This is, and I’ve said it before, I believe that our governor would rather build prisons, than build schools.
[Rick Smith]: I don’t disagree with you. And he has never shied away that he is not going to be the education governor. You hear the Republicans talking about “well we can’t throw money at all these problems.” Yeah but if you take a enough out of it, what you end up having is a situation like this, where you say “well you know what, we may not have kindergarten at all,” which I guess was an option for the Harrisburg School District at one point.
[Sherri Magunson]: It absolutely was, and it would have been the worst option ever in the history of the Harrisburg City School District. It would have been an absolute nightmare for us not to get those children in. It’s bad enough we’re only getting them at five years of age now when we use to get them at four and three. They need that early intervention, and that’s when we were able to see if there are issues. We do our diagnostic testing. We get them the additional services they need, and those children are able to go and get into programs that are going to help them and get an early start on their education.
[Rick Smith]: How much of this is just not really caring about poor people, and I won’t even get into the whole minority aspect, just poor people in general. I look at the school districts that are really struggling, and right now I’ve been looking at the Chester Upland School District and here in Harrisburg. These are school districts that have high poverty rates. I look at our legislatures and I don’t think they really care. So how much of this is turning your back on people who live in poverty?
[Sherri Magunson]: I think it has an absolute direct correlation. It has an absolute correlation, it doesn’t matter.
[Rick Smith]: Because what I’ve been saying Sherri is that I’ve been telling people in my neck of the woods who go “but that’s a Philadelphia problem or that’s a poor people’s problem.” Look the model that they are creating right now in the Chester Upland School District and what they’re doing here in Harrisburg is what they are going to replicate across this state, and really across the country with a corporate takeover of education. I look the EITC and the corporate sponsorships and the “opportunity scholarships” and I go “you know what, we are heading so far backwards to the day of the Robber Barrons, it’s not even funny.” Maybe education is going to be what helps us at some point.
[Sherri Magunson]: It is and I still have to ask “what are you going to do with your children who are disruptive? What are you going to do to the children who have special needs? What’s going to happen to those children?”
[Rick Smith]: Well, we’re going to put them, we’re going to warehouse them somewhere because we always need people to sweep streets. I got friends who believe “you start tracking them off. First or Second grade, because they are of lower intelligence, start tracking them off in other directions, because you need hand workers,” is what the one guy told me.
[Sherri Magunson]: Yeah, but the other side of the coin is when you look at the testing and No Child Left Behind. They are saying that every single person has to be 100% passage by a certain year. What do you know has 100% passage of every single person that takes the exam? What do you know of?
[Rick Smith]: Nothing.
[Sherri Magunson]: So now you’ve seen all these schools that now their names are popping up because their children didn’t make AYP (Annual Yearly Progress).
[Rick Smith]: One of my problems with education in this country is that we moved away from a critical thinking model. That we want to encourage critical thinking to one of grill and drill, where it’s nothing but trying to pass those standardized tests for a whole number of reasons. One, school funding. One, they are trying to make the evaluation mechanism by which we evaluate teachers. Just all of this regurgitation-level-education, instead of actually saying “we want critical thinkers.”
[Sherri Magunson]: We want critical thinkers, and they are taking away all of the creativity of teaching. You’re simply teaching to a test. It is, you know, scripted.
[Rick Smith]: Or I have been saying, the industrialization of education, where kids are not individuals. They are just little things coming down an assembly line to be stamped out.
[Sherri Magunson]: Correct.
[Rick Smith]: How do we change this? The message here to me is loud and clear. Your public schools are failing, the money isn’t there. Go to these fresh, new, shiny, silver bullet charter schools. That’s the message this sends to me.
[Sherri Magunson]: Well, and it’s an untrue message because if you look at any of the testing that’s been done, charter schools do not outperform regular schools. Here and there, there might be one here or maybe one there, but overall they are simply a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The only reason why they are there is for one reason and one reason only – to make money.
[Rick Smith]: Yup, I’ll agree with that. Spot on. And I look at this guy in Philadelphia, Vaughn Gregorian, a profiteer took over 60 million dollars in fees from the Chester Upland School District. The school district at one point didn’t have money to pay their teachers for over a month, and they are talking about being taken over by a guy who lead the attack on public schools. It’s mind-blowing, but here again, not surprising.
[Sherri Magunson]: No and it’s happening in other school districts. It’s happening in York City. It’s happening in Reading. It’s happening in all of these urban schools. People were sold a bill of goods. And what they are really losing are their public schools.
[Rick Smith]: It reminds me back when I was in school. I grew up in a housing project on the west side of Cleveland. The silver bullet back in the 70’s was busing. We’re going to send poor kids from one neighborhood, from one side of Cleveland to the other side, to another poor school over there and back and forth. And everybody lost, except for well, the bus people.
[Sherri Magunson]: Right.
[Rick Smith]: But here again, to me, another silver bullet without actually solving the problems that those school districts have, which to me is poverty.
[Sherri Magunson]: Right they all do. That’s the key issue and that’s the issue nobody wants to deal with. All they want to do is point fingers and say “you’re bad, you’re bad, you’re not doing your job, and it’s your fault.” When they are not really looking at the underlying issue.
[Rick Smith]: So what do we do? I want to tell people, “do something, be active, scream, holler” because to me this is the first step in completely privatizing it all.
[Sherri Magunson]: You’ve got to make sure that you are advocating for your public school and the schools that are in your neighborhood and the schools that your children are going to. You absolutely have to fight this off with a vengeance because we can already see what’s going to happen, and unfortunately the majority of people and children are going to be left behind. And it’s only going to be the people afford to send their kids to school. Look at prices for college. It’s the same thing.
[Rick Smith]: I’ve been saying “look at the for-profit model.” That’s what they are going to be doing do K through 12. That’s the dream, bringing that for-profit model down so I am going to have to decide if I want to saddle my kindergartener with a huge student loan just to get into kindergarten.
[Sherri Magunson]: Right, and that’s it. That’s what we are looking at, and I don’t think people realize that. Although, you know people didn’t realize when people were saying “no more taxes, no new taxes.” That was all well and good until they got their pink slip and are unemployed.
[Rick Smith]: Again, you look at this, and what they are doing to education is criminal. Sherri Magunson, I appreciate the time. President of the Harrisburg Education Association. Thanks so much.
Again, I look at this…it is just infuriating.
Kevin Mahoney is the Founder and Editor Zero of Raging Chicken Press. When he’s not rabble-rousing on Raging Chicken, he’s teaching rhetoric and writing at Kutztown University.