The Corbett rescue plan for Philadelphia's schools, forged by the likes of Comcast vice president David Cohen, Philadelphia School Partnership's Mark Gleason, and the Chamber of Commerce, sets the stage for a full-court press to wring concessions from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. The corporate education reformers will press their case for concessions and for implementing a business model of school management without the impediments of a union contract. The mantra will be: City Hall and Harrisburg stepped up; now it's time for the teachers' union to do its part.
The current crisis, in the minds of the corporate reformers, is an opportunity to advance their austerity and privatization agenda. Repeatedly, we are told that everybody must pitch in to make ends meet in these difficult times. The austerity argument begins with the plea for shared sacrifice.
Who created the crisis?
Let’s start with the premise. This crisis is not an act of God but a man-made disaster fashioned by the governor and his allies, who are deeply hostile to public education. They very deliberately slashed the education budget and abandoned the "costing-out" formula that led to some equity in distributing state funding to local districts. Politically, and morally, they bear the responsibility for the dilemma we face.
Secondly, calls for sacrifice have been highly selective. Corporations, banks, and mega-nonprofits have not been asked by the mayor or the governor to step up to help fund the schools. The Use and Occupancy tax reform bill, which would have cancelled a big reduction in property taxes for corporate landlords, was rejected by City Council. Tax abatements for developers remain in place. The Republican-dominated legislature continued the Corbett policy of reducing corporate taxes and has until now resisted closing the tax shelter-enabling "Delaware loophole." Banks were not challenged to renegotiate school debt or refund some of the huge profits they made on bad-interest swap deals with the city and the District. Nonprofits that now can be taxed on their non-charitable operations still pay nothing. In the political calculus of both hard-right Gov. Corbett and neo-liberal Democrats like Mayor Nutter, these folks are off-limits.
But teachers and other school employees are fair game. Never mind that we are talking about a public service here that should be funded by everyone because everyone shares in its benefits. Instead, the School District is treated like a bankrupt airline, where workers are gouged for the benefit of the bondholders. School employees, under the District’s plan, are being asked to give more than the city and the state, in the form of wage, benefit, and work-rule concessions.
Philadelphia teachers already sacrifice
Philadelphia teachers particularly resent the call for sacrifice, because they are already among the lowest-paid in the region, a gap that has grown larger over the last 20 years. They already have larger classes, higher numbers of special-needs children, and more challenging working conditions in comparison to suburban counterparts. They already spend out of their pockets to equip their classes with supplies and materials.
Other school employees in cafeteria service, maintenance, and other support functions include workers who are living at or below the poverty line. They have little to give.
These concessions, if implemented, will have serious, long-term impact on the quality of education in our schools. Experienced teachers, particularly the most qualified, will depart the city rather than take a 13 percent wage cut along with all the other concessions. Teachers facing larger classes and extra assignments will be less able to meet the needs of their students. For all these reasons, trying to wring huge amounts of money from school employees is both unfair and terrible policy. It is not possible to claim the mantle of advocating for improved education and simultaneously support these cuts.
Austerity is not the only agenda here. The other aim is to weaken and neutralize unions as obstacles to transforming schools by adopting the management practices of businesses. The Philadelphia School Partnership has aggressively promoted a plan that would give principals and the District unfettered power to hire and transfer teachers without regard to seniority. They have sought to make this a condition for the state's releasing new funds, as well as pressing for the District to make this a focus of bargaining.
The rise in influence of this organization should be a source of concern to everyone who supports democratic governance. There is limited transparency in the source of its funds, and we don’t know how it decides to dispense them. What is apparent is that PSP uses philanthropy as leverage to advance the corporate school reform agenda. Ordinary citizens, without the right to elect School District leadership, are left to testify and protest, while corporate elites and self-proclaimed philanthropists call the shots.
Like any organization or citizen, PSP is free to advocate changes that its leaders believe should be made in the PFT contract. However, by seeking to make the release of funds contingent on these changes, they are striking at the heart of collective bargaining.
The evidence that the reforms advocated by the PSP and its supporters in the advocacy community will improve educational outcomes is suspect. It comes mainly from reports from places like the National Council on Teacher Quality, an advocacy group funded by Gates Foundation money with a board that reads like a Who’s Who of corporate reformers: Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, and Wendy Kopp, among others.
Funding remains critical question
The main focus of public education advocates right now needs to be getting the resources that can avert further cuts in classrooms and schools. That needs to include labor contracts that will at least do no harm. No layoffs of teachers or support personnel, no cuts in compensation that will drive experienced and qualified teachers out of the District, no work-rules changes that will undercut teaching and learning. We need to support teachers, because we understand that their working conditions are student learning conditions.
The Harrisburg rescue package falls well short of this. We need to press the case for more funding at every level. We need to press U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to match his words of support with material aid, not merely technical support. We need to demand that City Council reconvene and get back to work, especially because their rejection of Use and Occupancy tax reform was predicated on the assumption that Harrisburg would pass the cigarette tax. And we need to continue to demand that the state live up to its constitutional obligation to provide its citizens with a "thorough and efficient system of public education."
The response from defenders of public education and collective bargaining must be to support a teacher contract that is fair to teachers and good for students and continue to press the city and state to live up to its obligation for full and fair funding for our schools.
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.