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As parties cheer deseg settlement, union calls it fatally flawed

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Not everyone was cheering the end of the 40-year-old desegregation case in the courtroom presided over by Commonwealth Court Judge Doris Smith-Ribner on Monday morning. Leaders of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers sat silently as the parties urged adoption of an agreement that would significantly impact their collective bargaining agreement.

Concsious of the weight of history, officials of Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, the activist intervenors, and community supporters called the agreement, which Smith-Ribner ratified and signed, the last best chance to provide equal educational opportunity to Philadelphia's schoolchildren regardless of race. It promises to provide quality teaching to all students and, and aims to do that in part by giving teachers less say in where they teach and holding them more accountable for results.

It could also, theoretically, result in higher pay, better working conditions, and more empowerment for teachers who work in low-performing schools and demonstrate their effectiveness. 

The union, however, has few hopes that those things will materialize.The consent decree would replace seniority-based hiring with site-based selection at the district's lowest performing schools. And it mandates changes in how teachers are paid. 

PFT President Jerry Jordan submitted a letter to Smith-Ribner that she referenced in her questions, but which was not entered into the record.  He said he was disappointed, troubled, saddened, baffled, shocked, and dismayed by the consent decree and the order.

First of all, the letter protested the union's total exclusion from any role in the case's conclusion. But most vociferously, it denounced the agreement for failing to specifically address one issue: disruption and violence in the schools. Calling conditions in many schools "outrageous and unsafe," he wrote that these conditions "perhaps.... are the reason why between July 4, 2008 and June 6, 2009 there have been 950 teacher resignations and 650 teacher retirements."

The message: as long as those conditions exist, the District will never reach its goal of staffing all its classrooms with highly qualified, motivated, and effective teachers.

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman presented an alternate view: that school climate is related to the quality of teaching in a building. "As a teacher, I believe good discipline comes from good teaching," she said. "It's important we don't lose sight of good instruction" as a way to improve student behavior. One teacher who was present at the hearing -- she may have been the only teacher there -- was Lisa Haver of Harding Middle School. She scoffed at that. "I don't know what my teaching has to do with the kid who pulled out a weapon in the cafeteria," she said.

The union has found itself in an increasingly weakened position since the state takeover of the District in 2001. Jordan and his legal team haven't ruled out the possibility of challenging the consent agreement in court.

But the District clearly has the upper hand. Prior District leaders declined to unilaterally impose contract terms on the PFT, but Ackerman and School Reform Commission Robert Archie clearly don't feel that way. Outside the courtroom, Archie said, "We will use the power that the state has given us." 

While not dismissive of the problems students bring to school and the hard jobs teachers have, the parties in this case have grown tired of hearing from the union, "until the kids and families get their acts together, don't require any more of us." Ackerman has been able to use this frustration to position herself as someone who has the children's interests at heart while others don't. 

At the same time, it is troubling that the union has been so marginalized in this process. Ultimately, true reform and change in these schools will not happen without the cooperation of teachers -- and the union.

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Dale Mezzacappa

@dalemezz
Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.