In Philly, Governor Tom Corbett’s School Reform Commission Cancels Teachers’ Contract

You might have missed this news.  It wasn’t covered extensively outside Philadelphia.  Early Monday morning at a meeting that had been announced publicly with only a small notice in the newspaper, Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission—Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett’s state “oversight” body, a sort of stand-in for a locally elected school board—summarily cancelled the school district’s contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

The purpose of the cancellation was, of course, to free up enough money for the School District of Philadelphia to operate through this school year.  It is now admitted that the local $2-per-pack tax on cigarettes—that the state legislature finally permitted Philadelphia to levy—won’t yield as much money as had been hoped.

The Philadelphia Public School Notebook explains: “At a special meeting that was barely publicized until hours before its 9:30 A.M. start, with no public testimony before acting, the School Reform Commission unanimously voted to cancel the contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers in order to rework its health-care provisions.”  The School Reform Commission explained that by revoking the union contract, it won’t cut salaries but will require teachers to contribute to their health care premiums.  According to the Notebook, “The SRC will also stop underwriting the union’s Health and Welfare Fund, which provides prescription, dental, vision and other benefits to active members and retirees.”  Benefits for retirees will be ended entirely.

According to the Notebook, “The SRC has already ignored provisions of the expired contract.  In summer 2013 it stopped paying teachers for so-called ‘step’ and ‘lane’ increases, which accrue automatically based on experience and advanced degrees earned.”

Chairman of the School Reform Commission, William Green and the school district’s Superintendent William Hite are described by the Philadelphia Inquirer as saying that the cancellation of the contract is necessary so that money can be used to re-hire enough teachers to reduce class size and bring back key staff such as counselors and school nurses.  Hite commented: “But we still don’t have sufficient resources in order to educate our children.  This allows us to save millions of dollars that we can return to schools very quickly.”  In a follow-up article by the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, Hite is quoted: “I’ve said over and over again, ‘We don’t pay them enough.’ But I’ve also said, given the fiscal environment in which we are facing, we all have to share in the sacrifice….”

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the School Reform Commission is not entirely sure that the law passed in 1998 by which the state seized control of the school district from the local school board permits the abrogation of the legal contract with the teachers union: “The district will immediately go to court to affirm the SRC’s action, filing a motion for declaratory judgement with the Pennsylvania Department of Education as co-plaintiff.”  The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers will seek an injunction to block the School Reform Commission’s cancellation of the contract.

When Governor Tom Corbett and members of his appointed School Reform Commission demand “shared sacrifice” from Philadelphia’s teachers, one has to step back to consider what has really been going on in Pennsylvania.  In 2011, Corbett, a strong believer in low taxes, slashed over $1 billion out of the state’s education budget.  The school funding formula that directed at least some additional money to school districts like Philadelphia with overwhelming family poverty was scrapped.  Charter schools in Pennsylvania are known to be poorly regulated in state law, and they also take money directly out of local school district budgets.  Philadelphia is host to more charter schools than any other school district in the state.  All this has created a financial crisis that has shifted the burden for serving Philadelphia’s children almost entirely onto the shoulders of classroom teachers and building principals.  Support services of all sorts have not only been reduced; in many schools they have been eliminated.

In yesterday’s coverage, the Notebook reported: “Class size has grown.  Northeast High started off the year with a science class with 62 students and Central with an English class of 50.  Students have had to raise money themselves to put on a play, print a newspaper, or run an after school club.  Most schools have art or music instruction, but few have both.  Parents donate copy paper.”

This blog has extensively covered the school funding crisis Governor Corbett and the legislature have created.  To demonstrate the range of concerns, I’ll provide not mere links but also the dates and titles of the posts: PA Permits Cigarette Tax, But Crisis in Philly Drags On, October 1, 2014; Schools Open in Philadelphia, But Crisis Drags On, September 16, 2014;  Swarthmore Profs Say Philly Schools Lack Needed Money: PA Funding Process Flawed, August 13, 2014;  Huge Hole Remains in Philadelphia School Budget; Legislature Goes Home without Addressing Crisis, August 7, 2014;  Textbook Budgets and Book Distribution Tightly Connected with Standardized Test Scores, July 16, 2014;  Pennsylvania Budget Fails to Provide for Desperate Education Needs of Philadelphia’s Children, July 1, 2014;  Refusing to Educate Other People’s Children: Woes Continue in Philadelphia, June 23, 2014;  Unequal Opportunity the Norm: Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, May 21, 2014;  Philly Parent Activist: How Portfolio School Reform Is Destroying the School District, April 14, 2014;  Lacking Fair Basic Aid Plan, Pennsylvania Continues to Starve Philly Schools, February 13, 2014;  and How Philadelphia’s School Crisis Crushes Opportunity: Money and Stability Matter, November 30, 2013.

We are a culture that values people we consider “good sports,” especially when they are women. By abrogating a legal contract with Philadelphia’s teachers, Governor Corbett and his appointed overseers of the Philadelphia schools are implying that school teachers should be good sports and return to the old model—the schoolmarm who boards with a local family and stays in the spare bedroom and who gives up her working life when she herself has a family. It is a model that imagines the personal sacrifice and devotion of well-intentioned young women.  It is also a model from the nineteenth century.

Today we know that teachers’ salaries for men and women are needed to support their families.  We require teachers to be well-trained professionals who earn step increases by furthering their own expertise over the years.  We no longer consider them to be temporary babysitters who give a few years to school children but are really on their way to marriage and motherhood or to a more remunerative “real” profession later.  Or do we?   The calls by people like Governor Tom Corbett for shared sacrifice and appeals to the image of the devoted nineteenth century schoolmarm are especially cynical these days. Really in Pennsylvania and across the country, what politicians expect is for teachers to sacrifice so that the rest of us can have more tax cuts.

Schools Open In Philadelphia, But Crisis Drags On

Superintendent William Hite opened school in Philadelphia on September 8—based, it seems, on hope and a prayer.  It can’t be said that he could really even count on the good faith of the Pennsylvania general assembly, whose members went home for their late summer break without even passing enabling legislation for the local school district to levy a $2-per-pack cigarette tax to help close what remains an $81 million budget deficit.

The state legislature returned to Harrisburg yesterday, September 15, and, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the House is expected to vote this week on the proposed legislation to permit the local cigarette tax.  Assuming House passage, the bill will then move to the state senate.

It is astounding that the financial morass created by the state of Pennsylvania for one of our nation’s largest school districts—and one that has been under state control since 2001—is not really being addressed.  William Green, chairman of the state’s own appointed School Reform Commission that functions like a school board, has been standing with Superintendent Hite in protest of the state’s policies, but to no avail.

When Hite announced on August 15 that the school district would gamble on future legislative action come mid-September, he did so, according to Education Week‘s “District Dossier” blog, by making cuts to programs that include: elimination of high school transportation for students within two miles of school, reduced services for 300 students pursuing multiple pathway to graduation, elimination of staff development for teachers even at schools facing severe challenges, cuts to cleaning and repairs in school buildings, elimination of 34 school police, and $800,000 in administrative cuts.  This is on top of the layoffs of thousands of teachers over the past two years and the closure of 24 school buildings in the spring of 2013. The Philadelphia Public School Notebook reports that Superintendent Hite intends the cuts he made in August to save $32 million; he hopes to restore some of these services if the cigarette tax can be enacted.

No one really knows how much the proposed cigarette tax would generate. The Notebook reports the cigarette tax is projected to provide $49 million this school year; according to Education Week’s “District Dossier,” “the cigarette tax is expected to generate between $38 million and $60 million.”  School finance experts would warn about counting on sin taxes for for a major percentage of a school district’s revenue stream, as well as imposing the least progressive kind of tax there is.  Of course, Philadelphia has little choice, as the state of Pennsylvania has reneged on its responsibility to support the schools adequately.

The Education Law Center reported last Friday that on September 9, in response to the years’ long financial crisis, Parents United for Public Education—a Philadelphia parent and community advocacy organization—filed a lawsuit to force the state’s Education Secretary “to investigate hundreds of parent complaints of massive deficiencies in city schools.”  Parents United for Public Education has been collecting filings of complaints by parents.  So far 825 formal complaints have documented dire school conditions which state law requires the Pennsylvania Department of Education to investigate.  “Problems alleged by parents include alarming levels of overcrowding such that teachers can no longer walk between desks to interact with individual students, increasingly limited curricular offerings, a distressing and dangerous lack of counselors and school nurses, and squalid and insufficient toilet facilities.”

An attorney for the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia is quoted in the Education Law Center’s report: “Secretary Dumaresq must know that responding to parents’ pleas with form letters and silence not only violates the trust of parents, but is also a clear violation of her department’s legal duties.”

For more detailed history of the ongoing crisis in the School District of Philadelphia, see previous coverage by this blog  here, here, and here.