Philadelphia's school reform debacle: Despised governor crosses the line

Gov. Tom Corbett has slashed funds and closed schools. But his latest move is the unpopular governor's most brazen

Published October 7, 2014 9:15PM (EDT)

Tom Corbett         (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Tom Corbett (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

The Philadelphia school district has become the prime example of the problems with a corporate-style school “reform” agenda. Parents, teachers and students have resisted full privatization, New Orleans-style, and have found themselves punished for resistance as Gov. Tom Corbett, who controls the schools after a 2001 takeover by the state, slashes school budgets, wipes out thousands of jobs, and shutters dozens of schools.

The latest move by Corbett and the Philadelphia School Reform Commission (SRC), which replaced an elected school board after the 2001 takeover, is to unilaterally cancel the city's contract with the 15,000 members of the Philadelphia Federation of teachers.

Monday morning, the SRC held a surprise meeting—announced, not on their website as usual, but with an advertisement in the legal section of the newspaper over the weekend. Normally, said Kati Sipp of the Pennsylvania Working Families Party, the commission meets on Thursday evenings, at a time when parents and students can attend, rather than at a time when school is in session and many parents are at work. “It was clearly designed to not be a public event,” Sipp said.

The state takeover in 2001 came in the wake of a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by then-Philadelphia Superintendent David Hornbeck, claiming that state funding favored affluent white suburbs over the children of color who attend Philly public schools. Pennsylvania state politics often pit the city, portrayed as a hotbed of crime and poverty, against the white suburbs and center of the state, and this was no exception: the state government reacted furiously, Daniel Denvir reported at The Nation, taking over the district and eliminating the teachers' union's right to strike. (It's worth noting that the laws enabling the state to take over Philly schools only apply to Philly schools, not to any other district in the state.)

Those laws also allow the SRC to impose terms on the union, but, Sipp said, this is the first time they've done so. “Everyone's always seen it as the nuclear option. Today they pushed the red button.”

What brought the SRC to the “nuclear option”? As in so many other places where public sector workers have been attacked by right-wing governors claiming austerity, it is supposedly all about money. Specifically, the SRC wants to make the teachers pay for their health benefits, which were previously covered by the district as part of their compensation package. This will amount to less take-home pay for the teachers, who already make less than their suburban counterparts, but SRC chair William Green said that the money will provide $44 million for the school district this year. "The time has come for [the teachers] to share in the sacrifices that everyone else had made," he said.

The union had been working under the terms of its expired contract for 21 months while negotiating with the district, and its president, Jerry Jordan, issued a statement noting that the teachers, not the SRC, were the ones to put forward the last proposal in bargaining, and had received no response. “In August 2013, the PFT put contract proposals on the table that would have saved the district millions of dollars and averted the current budget deficit,” he said. “Governor Corbett's SRC is clearly not interested in negotiating with the educators of Philadelphia.”

What is unclear at this moment is whether the SRC will impose other conditions on the teachers. A document provided by the teachers notes a laundry list of concessions that the district was demanding of the teachers: salary reductions and benefit payouts, but also unlimited evening meetings with no pay, elimination of certain safety protections for teachers, and the elimination of seniority.

As usual, the move seems more punitive than anything—Sipp noted that the governor has done little to ensure the district will be equitably funded. He hasn't pushed to tax the state's fracking-induced natural gas boom, hasn't closed tax loopholes that allow corporations to pocket billions. “It's clear to me that they're most interested in serving up the schools to their corporate allies in terms of privatization and protecting their other corporate allies from paying their fair share to educate Philly kids,” she said. “[Corbett] is not doing any of the kind of stuff that could actually bring more resources into the schools, he's just trying to get teachers to pay more so that his friends don't have to pay anything.”

The timing of the move has also led the teachers and their allies to suspect that the move may have more to do with Corbett's falling poll numbers—a Quinnipiac poll out just today shows the governor a full 17 points behind his Democratic opponent (also backed by the Working Families Party) Tom Wolf. Wolf condemned the SRC's move, saying, “This is just one more situation that has been forced by Gov. Corbett’s $1 billion cut to education in Pennsylvania and his chronic neglect of the Philadelphia public schools and schools throughout Pennsylvania.” Wolf has criticized charter school expansion, called for equitable funding for schools, and has said he wants to return to an elected school board for Philadelphia.

Corbett, Sipp noted, has not been able to succeed in the kinds of attacks on public sector workers that other Republican governors, like Scott Walker in Wisconsin or Rick Snyder in Michigan, have pushed through. A secret poll made public last year by Denvir at the Philadelphia CityPaper, paid for by education reform group PennCAN, suggested that “Corbett, a governor who has long suffered from low public-approval ratings, condition state aid to Philadelphia schools on major union concessions and kickstart his hobbled reelection campaign with a high-profile fight against the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.”

Sipp further pointed out that the SRC's moved will take effect December 15, leading to speculation that the move may have been timed so that it would go into effect while Corbett was still in office, even if he loses in November.

It's not just the Republicans who are in favor of the move, though. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who once campaigned on the fact that his daughter attended Philly public schoolstold reporters, "In the 21st century, it becomes increasingly untenable that folks aren't paying something for their health-care coverage and for a variety of other benefits. At the moment, those are the only other additional dollars that are available to the school district."

Nutter has taken his share of blame for the state of the public schools—he appoints two members of the SRC to Corbett's three. Corporate-style education reform has long been a bipartisan affair. But there's no doubt that in Philly right now, most fingers are pointing squarely at Harrisburg.

“There is a pretty sizable appetite in the city to fight this,” Sipp said. “We've been canvassing around the issue of local control of the schools, we did all spring and we have been doing it again since the late summer and we're certainly going to continue to do that moving forward into the election.” Indeed, a petition to get a nonbinding referendum on the November ballot calling for the return to an elected school board got 40,000 signatures and lots of local support, but was tanked by the City Council for fear of endangering the passage of a state cigarette tax that might bring more money into the schools.

The PFT has said that the actions are illegal, that the law requires the district to negotiate around salary and benefits, and has vowed to fight in court. They contend that helping a struggling district will require the ability to attract and retain veteran teachers who want to commit to Philly schools rather than fleeing for easier jobs in well-funded suburban schools where they won't have to buy art supplies and bulletin boards with their own (reduced) wages.

“I don't understand why any teacher would stay in the Philly school district except for their love of the kids,” Sipp said.

By Sarah Jaffe

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