UNITED FRONT: Philadelphia Federation of Teachers members hold a training session for canvassers to mobilize support for rallies at neighborhood schools around the city.
A School Reform Commission (SRC) meeting descended into familiar chaos on Aug. 15 as the state-controlled board suspended portions of the Public School Code, allowing the Philadelphia School District to ignore teacher seniority in hiring back some of the 3,859 teachers, counselors, aides and other staff laid off in June.
“Our current staffing structure, as mandated in the School Code, does not allow us to prioritize matching the abilities of staff to the needs of schools and students,” Superintendent William Hite Jr. explained, according to his prepared testimony. The actual words he uttered, however, were nearly incomprehensible as a packed auditorium of teachers and supporters heckled him.
The school district’s case for the code suspension — which also halts graduated, seniority-based pay raises and gives the district more control over charter-school growth — is straightforward: In emergency circumstances, they need flexibility to prioritize retaining the most critical teachers and staff. But it comes as the SRC and state leaders carry out a broader attack on the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT), which is now negotiating a new contract. Hite is seeking, among other changes, to end seniority in teacher assignments and replace length-of-service-based pay with “performance” measures, typically based on standardized tests.
PFT president Jerry Jordan called it an attempt to “decimate” the union. “This is not about money; this is about power,” Jordan said on the steps of School District headquarters. “This is about scapegoating teachers who work hard every day.”
Teachers worry that the code suspension is a means of imposing permanent contract terms that the SRC would not be able to achieve at the bargaining table. The current contract expires Aug. 31, and the SRC has signaled it will attempt to impose its own terms in the case of an impasse. Last year, SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos infuriated city legislators when it was discovered that he had been secretly lobbying Harrisburg Republicans for the explicit power to impose terms on the union — a power the SRC has main-tained that it already has under the state takeover law.
The district is also asking teachers for salary givebacks, seeking $133 million in labor concessions to close what was initially a $304 million budget gap. That is $13 million more than was requested of the state, and more than double what was asked of the city. What the PFT says could amount to a 13 percent pay cut would put the district at a further competitive disadvantage in attracting talent.
Gov. Tom Corbett issued a statement last Thursday backing the SRC and calling on the PFT to accept a contract “that puts in place needed fiscal savings and academic reforms.” Corbett’s deep cuts to public education and elimination of a funding formula that directs money to schools with poor students precipitated this crisis. Now the governor, with support from conservative House Republican leadership, is holding up $45 million in federal funds for city schools that he says is contingent on union concessions.
Corbett has been receiving support from a set of increasingly powerful, politically entrenched self-described school reform organizations. Now, it appears that Hite’s move to suspend the school code could have been one more product of behind-the-scenes planning powered by organizations that have the support of wealthy school-choice advocates.
StudentsFirst Pennsylvania, the state chapter of the national pro-school-choice group founded by former District of Columbia Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, issued a statement just before Hite’s announcement in support of “Corbett’s unwavering determination to deliver meaningful reforms prior to the release of funds.” StudentsFirst also defended withholding funds to Philly schools, contending that “continuing to invest in a broken education system only hurts the very people it serves: our kids.”
In June, City Paper obtained a secret report written by prominent Republican pollsters advising Corbett to bolster his flagging re-election prospects by launching an attack on the teachers’ union and conditioning state aid to city schools on concessions.
“With Gov. Corbett’s weak job approval, re-elect and ballot-support numbers, the current Philadelphia school crisis presents an opportunity for the governor to wedge the electorate on an issue that is favorable to him,” the report concludes. “Staging this battle presents Corbett with an opportunity to coalesce his base, focus on a key emerging issue in the state, and campaign against an ‘enemy’ that’s going to aggressively oppose him in ’14 in any case.” The report identified seniority as one of the union’s most unpopular positions.
The poll was commissioned by PennCAN, the state chapter of national reform organization 50CAN. The group was launched from the offices of the Philadelphia School Partnership, a charter supporter that has become one of the most influential education-advocacy voices in the city thanks to a $15 million grant from the William Penn Foundation. PSP’s board includes numerous civic leaders and wealthy conservative power brokers.
In the atrium at School District headquarters, downstairs from the SRC meeting, PFT community-engagement liaison Evette Jones was galvanizing a crowd of angry teachers. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is war. Let’s turn this city upside down!”
Marta Brann, a 24-year computer science teacher at Anne Frank Elementary School, says, “Dr. Hite has been trying” to bust the union “since he came to Philadelphia.” She questions how teachers can be held responsible for a fiscal crisis in a school district that’s been under state control since 2001.
Earlier this month, Hite announced schools wouldn’t open on time if the city didn’t provide an additional $50 million. Last week, the city pledged to provide the funds, and the district announced schools would open Sept. 9. How to accomplish that is currently the subject of debate between Mayor Nutter and City Council President Darrell Clarke.
Schools are still well short of the $304 million in funding required to fill the budget gap and reverse the layoffs, and education advocates are demanding $180 million in total additional funding. Many shouted, “Fire the SRC!” echoing a growing call to end the troubled state takeover.
But it is unclear whether the union, which has announced it will file grievances to protest rehiring outside of the seniority system, will have the strength to resist. There is little recent history of grassroots mobilization, and the state-takeover law bars teacher strikes. But parents, students and community activists are considering a student boycott if needed funding is not delivered.
Helen Gym, co-founder of Parents United for Public Education, called Hite’s threat of delayed school opening “political theater to justify” an attack on unions. Nor do education activists see an ally in Nutter, who has spoken out in favor of the school-reform agenda. They argue that the mayor has failed to forcefully criticize Corbett, and that his two representatives on the SRC have voted as a block with the governor’s.
SRC member Sylvia Simms, founder of the organization Parent Power, said students had different interests than teachers. “Too many people worry more about adults than the children they [are] supposed to serve.”
Members of the Philadelphia Student Union and Youth United for Change, who pushed past security and marched into the meeting, disagree. Christa Rivers, a senior at Girls High who addressed the SRC on behalf of student activists, says that she thinks teachers and students “share a common goal. It’s not the union’s fault. … I hold the governor most responsible for this. He’s just not a good dude.”
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