Bill Green Responds to Helen Gym: Honest School Dialogue Requires All the Facts
In criticizing our decision to begin charging teachers for health benefits and directing the $44 million annual savings to schools, Helen Gym makes an important point: Unless the School Reform Commission is open to and responsive to public input, it cannot meaningfully improve public education in Philadelphia (“SRC’s Contract Move Isn’t About Shared Sacrifice—It’s Looting.”).
I share the value Ms. Gym places on winning “the public trust,” but she considerably weakens her credibility with the sloppiness and bad faith of her attack on the SRC.
To wit, she opens by comparing an idyllic classroom in Radnor to an overcrowded Philadelphia school: “This is what a teachers’ contract was supposed to prevent,” she says. Perhaps, but class size in Radnor has nothing to do with the teachers’ contract. It is entirely at the discretion of the district’s administration; the teachers’ contract does not stipulate any class size limits.
Ms. Gym also contends that the District “grossly overstat[es] the difference the money [saved by the SRC action] will make,” and that on average schools can’t afford to add one teacher. In fact, resourceful principals in 22 schools — some featured in a Philadelphia story last week — are using their share of the first $15 million to avoid planned reductions in staff and continue offering art, music, and accelerated programming. “I feel like it’s going to benefit the students, and in the end, that’s the critical piece,” said one. I couldn’t agree more.
Ms. Gym commits outright errors: She says Philadelphia teachers on average make “19% less than their Montgomery and Delaware County colleagues.” Leaving aside the fact that these are two of the state’s four wealthiest counties while Philadelphia ranks 45th, the average salary in Montgomery County is $76,616 and in Delaware County it is $68,645. In Philadelphia, it is $70,790 (excluding charters).
Teachers in Philadelphia therefore make 7% less than their colleagues in Montgomery County and 3% more than those in Delaware County.
Ms. Gym must also know, but doesn’t mention, that the teachers of this city make more than their colleagues in 62 of 68 counties in Pennsylvania and 11% above the state average. It’s right there on the state’s Web site (Excel file).
Why, instead, does she compare Philadelphia, where 26% of the population lives in poverty and the median household income is $37,010, to Montgomery County, where 6.1% live in poverty and the median household income is $78,984, or Delaware County, where 9.8% live in poverty and the median household income is $64,242?
Make no mistake, we recognize that working in high-poverty areas imposes unique demands on our teachers. We wish we could pay them much more. But it is misleading to limit comparisons to only the richest counties.
Ms. Gym has stood against bluster in the past and we need her to again. The SRC works to get the best answers through reasoned public engagement that privileges the needs of children. The way forward to better schools in Philadelphia is through honest dialogue informed by all the facts.
Bill Green is Chairman of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission and a former City Councilman. Click here to read an extended conversation between Green and Gym from our November conversation issue.