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Does fixing schools have to punish teachers and their union?

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Education reform's dominant narrative, in both the nation and Philadelphia, assumes that the traditional protections that unions provide for teachers need to be sacrificed in the interest of improving children's education.

While the well-compensated CEOs and hedge fund managers who feed regularly at the public trough are portrayed as disinterested champions of poor children, unionized teachers are characterized as being motivated by narrow self-interest. It really rankles me. 

Let me say at the outset, I don’t think unions have always acted to the benefit of children. There is room for debate about the wisdom of specific policies, particularly in an earlier period, when unions made little effort to build real partnerships with the community. But in the current environment, treating teachers with some degree of fairness and heeding their concerns over job security, compensation, and due process just isn't part of the conversation.

The Renaissance schools initiative is a case in point. When a school is identified for this treatment, its teaching staff is reconstituted -- all teachers and other PFT members are force transferred, with up to half eligible for rehiring. That option almost always goes unexercised. The school’s new staff are considered “at will” employees, working without any of the protections afforded by the union contract.

Built into the premise of reconstitution is the idea that teachers deserve the blame for a school’s low performance. But virtually all the schools targeted for the Renaissance treatment are schools serving high-poverty neighborhoods. Most of these schools have had high rates of principal and teacher turnover. Given these conditions, do we really want to say that hard-working, committed teachers are failures? And if these same teachers transferred to magnet schools, would they then be deemed successful?

Turning around these schools may well require some staff changes. We know that some schools do develop a culture of failure and low expectations. But with reconstitution, the District is using a meat cleaver when a scalpel would do.

There is research that indicates that reconstitution is at best a risky proposition. There are examples of turnaround schools where the union has partnered with the administration without resorting to punitive measures. None of this gets much attention. The view promoted by our portfolio enthusiasts, like Mayor Nutter and the School Reform Commission, is that Renaissance charters work, so why look at alternatives that might be fairer to teachers and work for students as well?

At the end of this year, the number of Renaissance charter schools will grow to 20. While some of these schools have improved climate and test scores, it is much too early to declare Renaissance schools a success. One of the clear consequences is a steady decline in the percentage of unionized teachers in our schools. The Renaissance project, along with rapid growth in charter enrollments, threatens the viability of the union and with it the protections afforded to teachers with a union contract.  

Why should those who are not teachers care? In the short term, the continued use of reconstitution means that teachers will be less likely to opt for assignments in low-performing schools, or, if already there, will be more likely to transfer. This can only exacerbate the problems at those schools.  

In the longer term, unions are the last line of defense in the struggle against the corporatization of education. With an unchecked, market-driven school system, lowering costs and boosting profits will be the order of the day. Students, particularly those with special needs, are not likely to fare well.

The weakening of unions correlates with declines in living standards and the growth of poverty in our city and country. That should give some in the educational advocacy community, who profess to care about these things, a reason to pause before they hop on the Renaissance bandwagon.

Ron Whitehorne is a retired teacher and is on the steering committee of the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS).


The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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