Philadelphia's public education system is fighting to find stable ground. Educators work in overcrowded and underfunded classrooms peppered with unfilled staff vacancies. They haven't had a raise or cost-of-living adjustment in nearly four years. Students face dirty and unhealthy facilities, record amounts of standardized testing and preparation that cut into teaching time, and policies that seem more intent on pushing them out of school than keeping them in it. Parents feel disconnected from a school district that, at face value, seems unwilling or unable to support its children.
Changing these conditions and restoring dignity to our profession and vitality to our schools will require all of us to work together with our allies to call for change on many fronts. It takes unity. It takes a union.
The time is now to make real change to strengthen our union, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. The Caucus of Working Educators is running a full slate of candidates in the February election because we believe that our city needs a PFT that will fight for the change that our students and communities desperately need and deserve.
We saw this need at the School Reform Commission’s Jan. 21 meeting, when the SRC ignored widespread public opposition, and even their own superintendent's recommendation, by taking steps to turn three public schools into charter schools. It is a familiar Philadelphia story, one where the majority of the SRC decides to meet the needs of well-funded special interest groups while ignoring the voices of the parents, teachers, and surrounding community.
This is not just a Philly problem or an issue only for education advocates. Public and private sector unions are under attack across our nation as a result of right-to-work programs and the looming U.S. Supreme Court case Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. Forces of institutional racism and disaster capitalism are looking to suck profit from the public good, especially in Black and Latino communities, as they have already accomplished in cities like New Orleans and Detroit. Make no mistake, Philadelphia is next.
There is a way to fight back. Organized labor must be at the center of this fight. This is not a pipe dream. There are real, specific, meaningful things that we can do to unlock our union’s power to chart a brighter future for our city and our students.
First of all, we must remember that the strength of a union does not lie with its president, its paid staff, or its legal team. Its strength lies with its members. Leadership needs to strengthen rank-and-file involvement across schools – including creating meaningful opportunities for members’ engagement, education, feedback, and leadership -- in order to rebuild a culture of participatory democracy throughout the union.
We have long sought to remind people that our working conditions are students’ learning conditions. But it is also crucial to remember that both of these are also deeply affected by families’ living conditions. We need an authentic web of relationships across all workers, organized and not-yet organized, public and private sector, that lifts up all our communities in a united front against the forces of privatization. This includes, but is not limited to, our active support of a $15 minimum wage, Black Lives Matter, and other movements as defense mechanisms against the attacks on a thriving working class.
The Caucus of Working Educators is running a full slate of candidates in the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers election, because we believe that our city needs a PFT that will fight for the change our students and communities desperately need and deserve.
The PFT is not a small-interest group. We are the largest union in Philadelphia and we represent a tremendous wealth of experience, expertise, and talent. Once we harness that talent and transform the PFT into a well-organized union that listens to its members, then educators can make positive, permanent, and sustainable change, not only in Philadelphia but across the entire state of Pennsylvania. This is the vision the Caucus of Working Educators brings to the PFT.
Amy Roat, an ESOL teacher at the Feltonville School of Arts & Sciences, is a candidate for PFT president.
Yaasyin Muhammad, a social studies teacher at Central High School, is a candidate for PFT vice president.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the authors.