Daniel Denvir Explains Why Cutting Health Care Benefits for Philly Teachers Will Hurt Schools

Daniel Denvir, the reporter who has been covering the woes of the School District of Philadelphia for the Philadelphia City Paper, has written a new piece to explain what he believes is the most dangerous consequence of the School Reform Commission’s cancellation of the teachers contract in Philadelphia last Monday.  He answers this question:  Since teachers in other school districts pay into their health insurance plans, why shouldn’t Philadelphia’s teachers do so as well?  I urge you to read and consider Denvir’s new article: Why Health-Care Cuts for Philly Teachers Are Likely to Hurt Schools, Too.

Denvir explains that “as things now stand, Philadelphia teachers are already paid less than their suburban counterparts to teach under far more difficult conditions—conditions that have only gotten worse amid the severe budget crises and deep staffing cuts…  At issue is not just an individual teacher’s financial position and morale but, as a consequence, the School District of Philadelphia’s ability to recruit and retain the best educators possible.”

Denvir writes that teachers have essentially been working under a wage freeze: “The PFT (Philadelphia Federation of Teachers) contract expired last summer, and teachers have since been working under a pay freeze.  That freeze has denied teachers not only across-the-board hikes typical in past years, but also standard annual raises, known as ‘steps’ and ‘lanes,’ or raises for obtaining advanced degrees. The district tells City Paper that the lane and step freeze has saved about $31 million to date.”

Denvir cites a 2010-2011 analysis by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association documenting that salaries for Philadelphia’s teachers were at that time 19 percent lower than teachers’ salaries in Bucks and Montgomery counties.  And due to the school district’s elimination of budget for essentials like copy paper, teachers have been spending often hundreds of dollars for basic supplies.

Denvir quotes Dan Ueda, the former robotics coach at Central High School (an elite magnet school) and teacher of physics, pre-calculus, robotics, engineering and design technology.  Ueda recently left that position to join the University of Pennsylvania as a developer of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) programs for local public schools.  Ueda describes his working life as a Philadelphia school teacher: “The hours are long, the conditions are extremely difficult at most schools, job security due to constant threat of layoffs is very low, and resources—both material and personnel—get reduced every year.  Why would you stay in those conditions if you could teach in safer environments, with more resources, more support, and higher pay in New Jersey or the suburbs?  Central High School, one of the best places to work in the city, lost five high-quality teachers last year to private or suburban institutions (myself included) amost completely due to this contract battle.”

Earlier this week this blog covered the state-appointed School Reform Commission’s abrupt cancellation of the teachers’ contract in Philadelphia.

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.