Findings from a secret poll conducted by a prominent Republican firm proposes that Gov. Tom Corbett attack the Philadelphia teachers union to overcome widespread opposition to his education policies and bolster his faltering re-election prospects. "Taking on this fight moves Corbett's approval scores on handling education" and "boosts his overall approval numbers."
The state-run Philadelphia School Reform Commission has passed a doomsday budget cutting 3,859 teachers, aides, administrators and other staff after shuttering 24 schools. To close a $304 million budget gap and restore cuts, the School District is asking for $60 million in city aid, $120 million from the state, and $133 million from unions — mainly teachers.
The poll suggests that Corbett, a governor who has long suffered from low public-approval ratings, condition state aid to Philadelphia schools on major union concessions and kickstart his hobbled reelection campaign with a high-profile fight against the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
The poll, which City Paper obtained last night, was conducted between April 30 and May 2 and reported a margin of error plus or minus 4 percent statewide and 4.9 percent for the Philly suburbs, where an extra sample was taken.
"With Governor 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 poll 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 Inquirer reported this morning that high-level negotiations indicated that Corbett, city officials and legislators were considering a "funding package that could pump as much as $100 million more into the coffers of the Philadelphia School District" but "would be contingent on the district's ability to obtain major concessions from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, including requiring teachers to work a longer school day and contribute to their health-care coverage."
The poll was performed by Public Opinion Strategies, a major Republican firm. But it is unclear is who commissioned the poll. The line of questioning and conclusion — that attacking the teachers union is the best way for Corbett to win reelection--suggests that it may have been paid for by a "school reform" advocacy group rather than the Corbett, whose office and re-election campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
[Update: Public Opinion Strategies has told City Paper that the self-described school reform group PennCan, which has still not responded to a request for comment, paid for the poll. CP reports on PennCAN and its funders here.]
StudentsFirst, an organization founded by firebrand former DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, has contracted Public Opinion Strategies to conduct polls in Pennsylvania and other states. StudentsFirst denied any involvement with the poll. CP contacted other prominent school reform outfits in the state that have clashed with teachers unions, including REACH Foundation, PennCAN, the Philadelphia School Partnership, and another group called Students First PA, which is bankrolled by Bala Cynwyd-based hedge fund managers at Susquehanna International Group. None have yet responded — and neither has Public Opinion Strategies.
The Pennsylvania Republican Party declined to say whether they were involved.
State Sen. Anthony Williams, a likely candidate for mayor who strongly disagrees with the PFT on issues like school vouchers, denies the existence of a proposal to make state aid conditional on union concessions.
"There is no quid pro quo as far as I'm concerned when it comes to getting money from Harrisburg for the School District of Philadelphia," says Williams. "I'm trying to help get the money the district needs in order to keep it operating, in order to keep kids in schools, teachers in classrooms and communities together. That's what I've been pushing for here, in Philly, and among other entities. It's irresponsible to do otherwise."
The poll first establishes Corbett's low approval ratings and widespread public opposition to his education policies, finding that "not only do voters believe that public education in the state is off-track, but they overwhelmingly disapprove of the way Corbett's handling the issue."
Sixty-nine percent of respondents said that Pennsylvania public education is on the "wrong track," and 64 percent blame Corbett — 43 percent strongly so. In the Philly suburbs, 84 percent said that the city's schools are in the wrong trac. Seventy percent statewide believe that it is Corbett's job to help find a solution.
The poll then identifies the teachers union's serious political weaknesses and argues that Corbett must exploit them to improve his own political fortunes: strong majorities support giving the School District authority to use "performance" instead of seniority to assign teachers and giving principals more authority over placing teachers in their schools. Those polled were narrowly split, however, when it comes to ending "automatic pay raises solely for extra years of service or obtaining additional degrees or certificate" — with those opposing outnumbering those supporting by 49 percent to 48 percent, and significantly more respondents "strongly" opposing than supporting.
Sixty percent statewide, and 64 percent in the Philadelphia suburbs, support conditioning increased aid on the passage of these reforms, and 57 percent of said they would back Corbett in a fight with the PFT.
Seventy-one percent said they believed teachers were more interested in "protecting wages and benefits," with just 22 percent responding that they were more interested in "improving public education."
These PFT weaknesses are real, but the poll assumes that a Corbett gambit to condition state aid on teacher concessions will be publicly perceived in a frame of Corbett's choosing.
First, the poll asks whether voters would support state and local funding along with teacher givebacks to close the budget gap only against the inherently unattractive options of "insolvency" and "increased borrowing." Second, the poll fails to sound out how a potential teachers union messages would resonate: Should teachers be hired and fired based on students' high-stakes standardized tests?
Notably, the poll does not query voters as to their attitude toward the nearly $1 billion in budget cuts to schools orchestrated by Corbett, which have affected school districts statewide and forced many to enact extraordinary property tax hikes.
The conclusion that "voters' preferred method is a combination of state funding and PFT concessions" is simply not supported by the data. Instead, it seems to reflect the "school reform" movement's anxiety to disassociate a controversial cocktail of charter school expansion, taxpayer-funded vouchers for private-school tuition, and high-stakes standardized testing from the almost universally reviled budget cuts.
Finally, the poll does not ask whether teacher pay should be cut as a freestanding question. The fact that so many said that they oppose eliminating salary hikes based on seniority and continuing education indicates that they would likely also oppose pay cuts — perhaps even more strongly.
Philadelphia teachers currently make 19 percent less than their suburban counterparts in Bucks and Montgomery counties.
In addition, the poll finds that the "teachers' union" is viewed favorably by 44 percent of respondents and unfavorably by 39 percent — better than Corbett's numbers. Those polled are split on "The Philadelphia Teachers' Union," with an unfavorable rating of 25 percent against 24 percent supporting. When described as the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, they are seen favorably by 25 percent, with 22 percent opposing.
The political landscape for a full-frontal assault on teachers is a difficult one: the PFT, whose contract expires in August, has strong support from the Philadelphia delegation in Harrisburg. In June 2012, city legislators were outraged when they discovered that SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos — a Corbett appointee — was secretly lobbying Republicans for legislation that would give them a clear right to unilaterally cancel union contracts and set pay and benefits.
In March, state Sen. Vincent Hughes, a Philadelphian and the ranking Democrat on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, called the SRC's approach of asking for PFT concessions without first lobbying Corbett for state funds "inexcusable and an act of hypocrisy."
Interestingly, the poll also suggests that Mayor Michael Nutter, who has come under fire for supporting controversial education reforms, could be a useful Corbett ally.
"Mayor Nutter could be helpful," the study finds. "His image is positive statewide, and he's actually viewed more positively in the suburbs than in Philadelphia."
Sixty-eight percent of suburbanites have a favorable view of the mayor, compared to just 45 percent of Philadelphians.
The pollsters' focus on the Philadelphia suburbs rather than Philadelphians — whose children are actually in the city's public schools — suggests an approach to the city's schools that is more political than solutions-oriented.
Fifty-three percent of voters disapprove of Gov. Corbett, and 60 percent would like to see someone beat him in 2014. U.S. Rep Allyson Schwartz, the most high-profile of the many Democrats who have announced their gubernatorial candidacy, polls 12 points ahead.
The poll also finds that "Corbett especially struggles in the Pittsburgh media market, which helped propel him to victory in 2010." Only 24 percent of the Pittsburgh media market support Corbett, an area that he won with 56 percent of the vote in 2010.
The polls finds that those who support the PFT do so "out of their strong respect and allegiance to teachers" and "little distinction is made between the interests of the teachers and interests of their union."
In Philadelphia, the Teacher Action Group has created facesofthelayoffs.org to make tangible the human dimension of state cuts.
Cognizant of this pitfall, the poll emphasizes that Corbett's fight against "the Teachers' Union" requires that he "have visible teachers on his side."
Twenty-one percent of voters say that education is the most important problem facing the state, second only to the economy.
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