Inside Take: 3 Bogus Problems With the Teacher’s Contract

Saltz: Red herring alert.

School District of Philadelphia

(Editor’s note: This is an opinion column from a Citified insider.)

Here’s a not-so-bold prediction: Within the next 6 months, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers will have a new contract.

This prognostication stems from two people: Governor Tom Wolf, who put forth an audacious plan to fund Philadelphia’s schools, and Marge Neff, Chair of the School Reform Commission. The dismal economic situation of the district may not have changed. But with Wolf and Neff in place, the plan now seems to be “find a contract that brings stability to schools” instead of the Tom Corbett — Bill Green playbook of “drown the PFT in its own blood and dance on the corpse.”

It’s likely the two sides will find middle ground. In the meantime, Philadelphia will be inundated with hot-takes on things like “winners and losers”. In the end, the vast majority of people with opinions about the contract, and yes, this includes teachers, won’t have read the document.

What they’ll miss, what most people miss, is that the so-called “big issues” of the contract are neither big nor issues. Here is a Cliff Notes look at three of the most common/lazy complaints about the contract, not one of which is near as important as critics imagine.

1. The teacher’s contract is just too large. The document is a doozy. It clocks in at 216 pages and roughly 100,00 words. But teachers are only one unit of the PFT. Non-teaching assistants, paraprofessionals, Pre-K employees, food service managers, technical employees and assistants all have their own 22 pages, over 10 percent of the contract

If you have kids in school, separations of responsibilities between different bargaining units is a big win. Too many schools are pushing math classes involving 50 kids, a room of computers, and three adults with no training in math. I sympathize with principals overwhelmed with paperwork. But the contract prevents them from telling a noon-time aide to baby sit students while a teacher completes three hours of backlogged paperwork. Add 33 pages of salary tables, 27 pages (!) of indexes, 10 pages of job title codes, a message from both the SRC and PFT leadership plus teachers. There’s a preamble. Actual content is, by my count, 112 pages for a half dozen different bargaining units.

Maybe we should separate those contracts. Maybe we hate preambles and indexes. Maybe we should change the ways teachers are paid. All of these ideas are significantly more interesting than this juvenile red-herring.

2. Tenure means jobs for life. Tenure takes up approximately one page of the contract, while the next six describe, in painful detail, how to dismiss a teacher. As a tenured teacher, one bad year means I have another year to turn-it-around. I would be supported by the Peer Assistance Review program, the same program that supports new teachers. That’s it, that’s all. The district can fire teachers after those two years. Even tenured ones.

In fairness, the myth that tenured teachers are impossible to get rid off stems from many suburban districts, where firing a tenured teacher can require a massive amount of paperwork and headaches. That these suburban districts regularly outperform Philadelphia schools is also a fact.

We’ve all had our Ms. Krabapple, and we assume that they stayed on via tenure. I’ve seen teachers fired and I’ve seen teachers who should have been fired. The difference was not the contract, but strong principals who had the willpower and time to do their job. Considering 50 percent of teachers simply leave in under 5 years, the focus should be on supporting teachers instead of targeting them.

3. Schools can’t choose what teachers what teachers they hire. Mark Gleason, head of the Philadelphia School Partnership, loves pontificating on how the business world is “shocked” that schools can’t hire their own teaches.

Of course they’re shocked — it’s a lie.

The current contract, signed by PFT President Jerry T. Jordan, allows for “Site selection,” in which a team of teachers, administrators, parents, and students work to fill vacancies. This process is great when done correctly, and is the primary hiring mechanism for 100% of the positions in 79% of all public schools. The rest of the schools hire 50% of their teachers through this process. I’ve run the numbers: The former schools definitely do not out-perform the latter.

By contract agreed to by the PFT, there are a grand total of zero schools that hire exclusively through seniority. Improving the site select process is a great idea. Pretending we don’t have one, not so much.

It’s not just about the money. It’s not just about the backpay we’ve already given up, the concessions in health care PFT has already volunteered to make, the hundreds of teachers (myself included) who paid for their own Master’s Degree as required by the District only to find they reneged on the promise of a raise on top the money we put back into our classrooms.

Like a lot of teachers, I’d like to teach and live in this city for a long time. To do this, I need to know that if I do my job I’ll have a job. I need to know I can do my job and have a hobby, watch some Sixers, and play with my kid. Teachers, students, and families deserve a good contract – but that won’t happen as long we keep lying about the old one.

Andrew Saltz has been teaching children reading and composition for 8 years at the Paul Robeson High School for Human Services. Follow him on Twitter at @mr_saltz.