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.

PA Permits Cigarette Tax, But Crisis in Philly Schools Drags On

After months of legislative dithering, both houses of the Pennsylvania legislature finally passed and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett signed into law enabling legislation for the School District of Philadelphia to levy a sin tax on its residents to raise money for the public schools.  The school district can levy a $2-per-pack cigarette tax to try to make up at least a bit for what the state has cut in recent years.  Of course, because car owners can drive to the suburbs or Delaware to purchase cigarettes, the poorest of the poor who do not own automobiles will pay the tax, which may not even come close to raising the revenue needed to run the school district.

In a scathing and prophetic September 29th editorial, the Philadelphia Public School Notebook commented on all this: “It’s hard to overstate the deplorable conditions facing Philadelphia school children again this fall: another year of bare-bones education, overcrowded classrooms, and gaps in essential services like counseling and nursing.” The Notebook blames the state for a wave of devastating cuts to education that has washed across many school districts in addition to Philadelphia: “More than one-fourth of districts were expected to cut extracurricular activities this year….  Allentown’s school district axed more than 60 teaching positions—on top of more than 400 cut in the three prior years…  A district near Scranton announced it can no longer afford music instruction….  Something is seriously wrong with this picture.  Pennsylvania is not a poor state and is situated in one of the richest countries in the world.  But many districts can’t provide our children with school personnel we once took for granted.”

The reasons are complex.  Corbett and the legislature have cut state funding—a reduction of $1,300-per-pupil to Philadelphia in 2011 alone.  The state dismantled its school funding distribution formula. “Harrisburg has been committed to preserving corporate tax breaks…” and “Corbett and the legislature have also diverted millions of public dollars to private schools through tax credits and maintained a sweetheart deal for funding cyber charters, many of which are run for profit.”  Like other states Pennsylvania relies on local property taxes to fund schools: “So even within the same county there are often obscene inequities in resources—Radnor Township raises $9,000 more per pupil than nearby Upper Darby.”

Amplifying the history behind such an editorial, this week The Nation magazine has published a fascinating and detailed history of the ongoing crisis in the School District of Philadelphia. Daniel Denvir has, for several years now, covered the Philadelphia schools for the Philadelphia City Paper.  His new piece in The Nation is: How to Destroy a Public-School System, part of an October 13 special issue of the magazine on public education.

Denvir begins with the story of parents organizing last spring to prevent the charter school takeover of their neighborhood Steel Elementary School by the no-excuses Mastery Charter Schools.  After Parents United for Public Education, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and Concerned Neighbors of Nicetown organized to block the charter takeover, the parents at Steel eventually voted 121-55 to keep Steel a public school—and the parents’ vote was narrowly accepted by those running the district.  The organizing effort was, according to Denvir, “among the few successful coordinated efforts by parents and teachers to block charter expansion in Philadelphia.  They constituted a pivotal moment in a struggle involving Corbett, well-funded education reformers bent on privatizing public schools, a battered teachers union, and students and parents attempting to navigate a school system in which fiscal crisis has become the only constant.”

Denvir traces the crisis back to the 1950s, when the mayor, Richardson Dilworth said Philadelphia was being “choked by the ‘white noose’ of the suburbs.”  Denvir remembers school superintendent David Hornbeck’s filing of a civil rights lawsuit in 1998 that alleged “state funding discriminated against nonwhite students.”   The legislature responded in 2001 with a state takeover of the district, barred the teachers union in Philadelphia from striking, and turned the district over to Edison Schools, a private educational management company—an experiment Denvir reports was recognized as a failure by 2007.  Then in 2010 came Governor Corbett, “his political network heavily populated by advocates for private-sector education reform… Corbett cut about $860 million from public education in his first budget…. He also expanded Pennsylvania’s ‘voucher lite’ programs, popular among conservatives, which provide corporations with major tax credits in exchange for donations for private-school tuition.”  Corbett cut more in subsequent budgets, telling legislators, “I am here to say that education cannot be the only industry exempt from recession.” Funding from the William Penn Foundation brought in the Boston Consulting Group to issue a report that “called for closing sixty-four schools, gutting the central office staff, privatizing blue-collar jobs… and carving up the remaining schools into ‘achievement networks’ potentially managed by private third parties.”  Eventually in the spring of 2013, the number of schools closed was reduced to twenty-four—still a significant loss of neighborhood schools, and the expansion of charters has continued.

Denvir brings his history to last school year: “In 2013-14, the School District of Philadelphia had 6,321 fewer staff than it did at the end of 2011, according to district figures—a decrease of nearly 27 percent.  The reduction included 2,723 fewer teachers, fifty-eight nurses, 406 counselors, 286 secretaries and 411 noon-time aides.  The year began with a single counselor assigned to nearly 3,000 students…”    In the summer of 2014, the crisis continued: “In June, Philadelphia’s schools confronted yet another budget crisis.  In response, Corbett and Mike Turzai, the Republican majority leader in the State House of Representatives, demanded that the city’s legislative delegation vote to weaken public-employee pensions.  The prize in return?  Simply allowing the city to raise raise its cigarette tax in order to boost school funding.”

We have come full circle to the diagnosis offered this week by the editors of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook: “It’s hard to overstate the deplorable conditions facing Philadelphia school children again this fall: another year of bare-bones education, overcrowded classrooms, and gaps in essential services like counseling and nursing… Something is seriously wrong with this picture.”

Refusing to Educate Other People’s Children: Woes Continue in Philadelphia

What does it mean when, in June, the leaders of a school district that serves over 131,000 students are working with city and state governments to locate enough money to open school in August?  In the United States—where provision of K-12 education has for nearly two centuries been provided publicly, where it has been believed essential for the formation of an informed democracy, where all have taken for granted the provision of schooling that is free and universally available—what does Pennsylvania’s seeming incapacity to provide adequately staffed schools for Philadelphia’s children mean?

On June 18, the  Associated Press reported that school superintendent William Hite remained alarmed about a gaping hole in next year’s school budget.  Still needed was “at least an additional $96 million to offer students even a ‘wholly inadequate’ education next year.”

Pennsylvania lacks a working formula to distribute funds to local school districts.  At the same time the School District of Philadelphia has been under state control since 2001, with a state-appointed School Reform Commission making decisions in place of an elected local school board. According to Education Voters of Pennsylvania, under the current system, “City Council is the body that approves local taxes going to the District as well as the transfer of funds from the City budget.”  But all of these bodies in charge of the schools say they are unable to come up with the money to educate Philadelphia’s children.  Philadelphia is today’s poster child for the destruction of a public school system—primarily by a state government unwilling to carry out one of its primary responsibilities.

At the end of May, Valerie Strauss covered the situation in the Washington Post: “One surefire way to wreck a public school system. There are plenty of ways, but right now let’s just focus on one district, the state-run Philadelphia School District, which has been starved for funding by the administration of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett and has been a guinea pig for corporate school reform, with widespread school closures and rapid charter expansion in the past decade.”  As Strauss reported, in late May the state-created School Reform Commission itself staged a protest by refusing to pass the doomsday budget presented by William Hite, the school superintendent.  Hite—explaining that the proposed budget would elevate class size to 41, cut special education, and lay off 800 teachers in addition to the mass of teachers laid off a year ago when 24 local schools were closed in a crisis that prefigured what is happening again this year—declared that the budget he was presenting was insufficient to protect the safety and well-being of the district’s students.

Meanwhile, according to Dan Mezzacappa in the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, payments to Philadelphia’s charters, which are set by state law, are currently “nearly a third of its (the district’s) $2.4 billion budget.”  Mezzacappa reports that half of the state’s 170 charter schools are located in the School District of Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia Daily News reported that, after months of wrangling, on June 19 at its last meeting until next fall, the Philadelphia City Council voted to authorize the city to borrow $27 million in the current fiscal year that ends June 30, and, “It also introduced a last-minute bill that would authorize the city to borrow another $30 million for the district next fiscal year to help close a $96 million deficit.”  The loan for next fiscal year will not be voted on until Council returns in September, continuing uncertainty throughout the summer.

The loans, adding up to $57 million, leave a budget hole of $40 million that must be filled. The Daily News reports that the school district has sought a $2 per pack cigarette tax from the state legislature and is looking  to the state budget for $39 million in state aid and pension relief.  However, the state itself faces a budget shortfall, which may jeopardize this expected infusion of state dollars.

While concessions have been demanded again and again from the teachers union, experts do not attribute the crisis to labor demands. David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, published a commentary on June 20 that describes what he calls “an extraordinary legal complaint” filed in March by the School District of Philadelphia with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.  The district is asking the Supreme Court effectively to nullify “portions of a collective bargaining agreement between the Philadelphia School District and the teachers union.” While the purpose of the legal complaint is to free up funds through the manipulation of the teachers’ contract, Sciarra highlights the outrageous irony of a public school district’s filing a complaint with the state supreme court to blame the state for cutting $300 million in state aide in 2011-2012 as the cause of the school district’s financial crisis.  “The district’s filing is the legal equivalent of asking the Supreme Court for permission to rearrange deck chairs on a fast-sinking ship.  What the district’s complaint avoids is stating the obvious: the abject failure to provide city students with the basic resources necessary to achieve Pennsylvania’s own academic standards.  And the reason why is also obvious: The school district—and the entire state—is engaged in an ongoing and severe violation of the right of Philadelphia students to a ‘thorough and efficient’ education under the Pennsylvania Constitution.”

Ironically, according to Kevin McCorry writing for Newsworks, “In 2006, under Gov. Ed Rendell, the Republican-controlled Legislature analyzed the state’s method for distributing education funds in a ‘costing-out study’ and in 2008, implemented the type of formula for which advocates have been campaigning.  This formula not only provided a mechanism for allocating state resources, but operated on the premise that funding levels should be raised to meet the actual cost of educating all students to the state’s standards.  In 2011, faced with Great Recession-era revenue, the newly elected Corbett scrapped that formula.”