SRC’s Contract Move Isn’t About Shared Sacrifice — It’s Looting
Recently, I visited my brother-in-law at Radnor High School and was privileged to see him teach his ninth-grade English/civics class. When I walked in, his students were engaged in a debate about Plato and the notion of dissent versus rule of law in Athenian society. The students had finished reading John Stuart Mill and were getting their first papers back for revision. It was October 2nd.
A few days later, I attended a parent meeting at Central High School, one of the city’s premier institutions. Dozens of ninth graders had spent their school year with substitute teachers who changed every week. The substitutes were put in place to relieve teachers leading classrooms with 40, 50, or even more students. For these ninth graders, school didn’t really start until October 8th, when permanent teachers were finally assigned to them.
This is what a teacher’s contract was supposed to prevent.
And it’s why the School Reform Commission’s move last week to tear up that contract is about far more than the dishonest suggestion of “shared sacrifice” and health care contributions.
In an op-ed for the Philadelphia Inquirer last Sunday, SRC Chair Bill Green asked you to believe that the SRC made a necessary move to reverse devastating budget cuts from the last two years. It’s disappointing that some of his central facts are plain wrong (just read this Public School Notebook article on the inaccuracies by the SRC and District). It’s ironic that Green claims any measure of high ground, when the SRC ambushed its own staff and the public in a backdoor move meant to limit public dialogue.
As a member of City Council, Bill Green was both vocal and active in helping us document the devastating impact of the state purposefully underfunding Philadelphia’s public schools. The District could have sued for full, fair funding. They chose not to. Instead they are in court suing to offset Harrisburg’s failures by taking money from the very people we depend on to care for our children and keep their schools open and safe – and grossly overstating the difference the money will make.
Under Governor Corbett, Philadelphia schools have lost up to one-third of their staff. Givebacks from teacher health care “savings” are a huge burden on those staffers (teachers with families could pay over $7,000 per year) but won’t average enough to buy back even one teacher per school. The Public School Notebook reported that 85 percent of schools will see little or no gain, and 34 schools will still lose staff positions.
In fact, district workers — blue collar staff, principals and now teachers — will give up nearly $70 million this year alone. Meanwhile, the state has pledged only $12 million in additional support. This isn’t a “shared sacrifice.” It’s looting.
Green would have you believe that it’s only fair that Philadelphia teachers pay into their health benefits at the same rate as other school employees across the state. But if we want to apply standards of fairness, let’s apply them across the board.
How can we call it fair to hold Philadelphia teachers to the same health care contributions yet pay them on average 19 percent less than their Montgomery and Delaware County colleagues? How can we call it fair when we insist teachers provide their own paper and classroom materials and deny them support staff? How can we call it fair when comparisons are used to level down, instead of raise up, the conditions of our schools?
Last week’s action was not the first time the contract has come under attack. The SRC moved last year to suspend parts of the state code, including ending class size limits and the contractual guarantee for a counselor in every school. For the first time in a decade, we saw class sizes explode through the roof as the District projected low enrollments and hired fewer teachers than needed. Many high schools reported 50+ students in a class. Meanwhile, some counselors were assigned to multiple schools juggling as many as 2,000 to 3,000 students apiece. In effect, the SRC breaching the teacher’s contract last year made a dismal situation worse.
When districts face impossible decisions, contracts are the only protective measure parents and students have to ensure their rights don’t get trampled. The teachers’ contract doesn’t just set the number of hours in a day, benefits, and pay scale. It’s also creates legal protections for important learning guarantees that otherwise are too easily eliminated.
While there’s plenty of room for debate about what ought to be negotiated, no one has proven that throwing a contract out means better conditions for children or staff.
But most important, the SRC’s latest controversy highlights what the struggle over public education — and the conversation between myself and Mr. Green in November’s Philadelphia magazine article — is really all about.
Restoring confidence in our public schools starts with public engagement and trust. Since its inception however, the SRC seems to exist as an end-run around the public nature of schooling. The SRC’s decision to act unilaterally symbolizes its mentality around limiting public voice and concern over the direction of our schools. If this conversation is not public, it is just going to go wrong. We saw that happen with the closing of 24 school buildings. We are seeing that happen with the teacher’s contract. Unilateral action is no way to do public governance. It’s no way to handle democracy, and it’s certainly not a way to run public education.
In recent press statements, the SRC has said they expect to “ultimately prevail in the courts.” What they miss is they have largely lost the battle that matters — the public trust.
Helen Gym is the co-founder of Parents United for Public Education. Click here to read an extended conversation between Gym and Green from our November conversation issue.