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Caucus of Working Educators plans to challenge PFT leadership

The caucus, which has been organizing since 2013, plans a "listening campaign" in advance of next year's vote.
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    Photo: Caucus of Working Educators

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The Caucus of Working Educators (WE), a group of mostly younger teachers committed to social justice unionism, announced plans Thursday to put up a slate in next year's election against Jerry Jordan and the current leadership of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

The challenge is the most robust and coordinated effort since the 1980s to unseat the dominant Collective Bargaining Team that has run the PFT for more than 30 years.

WE's mission -- to put stark focus on educational inequality and the damage it does to teachers, students, and society -- is in the spirit of internal dissent that has ousted long-term union leadership in cities including Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Milwaukee. Its action has the potential to shake up the historically dysfunctional PFT-District relationship, although whether it would become more or less adversarial under WE is still not clear. 

"We are a diverse group of rank-and-file members who felt disconnected from the PFT leadership," said Larissa Pahomov, an English teacher at Science Leadership Academy and co-chair of the caucus. "We don't believe essentially that a one-party union is good for the teachers of Philadelphia."

The group, which formed 18 months ago and claims about 200 members, has been emphasizing issues not usually on the front burner in union elections, such as the school-to-prison pipeline, racial injustice, and, most visibly, students' right to opt out of standardized tests. 

Active in opt-out

Two of the four teachers who will be vying for the top union posts as caucus candidates, Amy Roat and Kelley Collings, have been frontline activists in the "opt-out" movement, which holds that standardized testing narrows the curriculum, deprofessionalizes teachers, and unfairly labels as failures schools and students in poor neighborhoods. They both teach at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences and made special effort to inform parents, many of whose children are English language learners, of their opt-out rights. 

The other two candidates are Ismael Jimenez, a history teacher at Kensington CAPA, and Yaasiyn Muhammad, a history teacher at Central HIgh School. Pahomov said it hasn't been decided yet which of the four will run for what offices. 

The union has nine executive officer positions and a total of 37 elected executive board members. The caucus has not announed how many of these positions it will contest.

In its announcement, the group said it would embark on a "listening tour" in a quest to reach all 11,000 members and ask them "what they need most from the District and the union so they can best serve the students." Based on the feedback, they will present a slate and a platform at a convention in November.

The WE website describes its philosophy and priorities. They include more teacher autonomy and "professional discretion to develop a transformative curriculum and pedagogy that promotes critical thinking, creativity, and compassion in our students." 

Priorities also include "transparency and shared decision-making" and assurance that "all students have access to a high quality, fully funded public education," regardless of family income, race or other circumstances.

WE says "a strong contract" is key to its goals for both teachers and students. Its leaders decried the SRC's attempt to nullify the contract and other recent District actions that the PFT is contesting, such as the move to outsource substitute teachers. As union leaders predicted, that move is running into trouble in the first days of school.

'Not clear on their point'

Jordan, asked for a reaction to WE's challenge, said: "The PFT is a democratic union, and this is democracy in action." But he took issue with the claim that WE would bring a social justice focus to the PFT that is now lacking.

"We’ve been involved in social justice issues as long as I can remember," Jordan said. "I spend a tremendous about of time in rallies, like one this afternoon (Friday) outside of Comcast. ... I've often talked about the school-to-prison pipeline."

Jordan said that one reason for the current stalemate with the District is his insistence that the contract include provisions such as the guarantee of at least one full-time counselor in every school. He regards that as clearly a "social-justice" and pro-children plank.

"I'm not clear on what the point is they're trying to make. It's not an issue we've shied away from."

Historically, battles within the PFT and contested union elections revolved around internal power struggles, and not education policy debates. In 2007, Jordan succeeded Ted Kirsch, who had led the union since 1990. Kirsch succeeded Marvin Schuman, who took office in 1983. 

WE has been critical of both union and District leadership for the current state of public education in the city. The PFT is now engaged in a three-year standoff with the School Reform Commission, unable to reach a contract agreement during a period of severe state funding cutbacks and a reign of austerity beginning in 2011. A year ago, a frustrated SRC voted to nullify the contract entirely, sending the dispute to the courts and ending meaningful negotiations.

As other District unions, including principals, accepted deep concessions on wages, benefits and other conditions, the PFT has held firm – but at a cost. Jobs have been slashed, and more than a thousand PFT members laid off, although many were rehired. The ranks of counselors and nurses have been decimated. School staffs are down to the bone. Members have gotten no raises in three years.

Teachers' jobs getting harder

Pahomov said that WE is concerned that as conditions in schools deteriorate, it is getting more difficult for teachers to stay and grow as professionals. Many young teachers are abandoning the career either through layoffs or by choice. African American and Latino teachers are especially affected, she said.

"As things stand now, a career in the School District is not sustainable in Philadelphia," she said. "There's a lack of adequate supplies, understaffed schools; we're asked to work more hours and are giving up prep[aration] periods without pay. It's become harder to ask a teacher to commit for that many years and become a mentor." 

Plus, Philadelphia teachers are now among the lowest-paid in the region, although their benefits package is still generous. The District wants to change how teachers are compensated to eliminate automatic raises for longevity and instead reward performance – although that hasn't been defined – while trimming benefits.  

Seniority – what Jordan has often called the bread and butter of trade unionism – is another point of contention. In Philadelphia, teachers historically had the right to to claim jobs based on their years of experience, a process that can work against the stability of schools and the needs of students as teachers transfer around the system.

While some of that has changed with "site-selection" rules that allow school leaders to fill vacancies regardless of seniority, the process is still limited and rule-laden. District leaders want to end seniority in school placement decisions and in layoffs.

"Seniority is a complicated issue with many different viewpoints," said Pahomov. "That's exactly why we are embarking on a listening campaign. People have different ideas about it, and as a union we need to have more dialogue about what we think and what we are reflecting publicly about what the membership thinks."

She added: "We don't think that dialogue creates weakness. We think that dialogue creates strength."

The mail-ballot election will be held next year, between January and April. PFT holds elections every four years; in 2012 Jordan ran unopposed.

Besides teachers, the PFT represents counselors, nurses, secretaries, and some administrative workers and paraprofessionals.

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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.