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Unhappy anniversary

It's been two years since the SRC canceled the teachers' contract. It's time to end the standoff.
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Departing School Reform Commission Chair Marjorie Neff says her worst moment on the beleaguered commission was voting to cancel the contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

 “Absolutely. That was horrible,” said Neff, a longtime District principal who was once a member of the PFT and whose son is a member now. “What can I say – in hindsight, it was such a different context. It’s easy for me to look back and say we never should have done that. It was horrible, difficult, and painful.”

That vote to cancel the already expired contract occurred exactly two years ago today – Oct. 6, 2014. Since then, the SRC and the PFT have managed to remain locked in combat, with no end in sight to a historic four-year impasse that is shattering teacher morale and making it harder to recruit young talent. It is also depriving teachers, primarily younger ones, of raises that have been earned under the terms of the current agreement as they accumulate experience and degrees.

Bryan Steinberg, a social studies teacher at the Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush, is in his eighth year with the District. He wrote an impassioned letter to the Notebook about how he feels. Here's the sentence that jumped out at me:

“Right now, I am being paid as a 4th-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree ($54,365 a year), but I’m really an 8th-year teacher with a master’s degree that should be making $67,778 a year, if our salaries were not frozen in time.”

The longer this goes on, the more expensive it will be to make teachers like Steinberg whole, while also offering across-the-board raises. It is the younger teachers who are bearing the brunt of this, because they are still climbing the ladder; the financial impact is less for older teachers who have already reached the peak in experience and education, which now determine how raises are administered.

Sure, there are problems with this system of paying teachers purely on experience and degrees earned. There should be some accounting for teacher effectiveness in their compensation, something the District is apparently holding out for.

But figuring out something that is affordable and fair to everyone shouldn’t take four years – that is simply unconscionable. It is made worse by the fact that the dispute is being played out entirely behind closed doors, without any public input or pressure. And both sides have been quick to run to the courts to force the issue instead of actually reaching an agreement.

Mayor Kenney and School Superintendent William Hite both say they want a settlement this year. Kenney, elected with the strong support of the PFT, said he is trying to bring the parties together. But there is no indication what it will take to move the needle.

“We need a broker. We need someone who can help both sides come to the middle,” said Neff, who will leave the SRC on Nov. 3 after serving about two years.

Feather Houstoun also announced Wednesday that she was leaving later this month after five years. Both terms were due to expire in January.

Kenney must name a replacement for Neff and Gov. Wolf must do so for Houstoun. Wolf’s nominee will need state Senate approval – which means it must be someone who is friendly to – or at least not wholly against – charter expansion and who will indulge the notion popular in Harrisburg that teacher unions are the main culprit in whatever ails the Philadelphia school system.

I have said in public that I think teacher unionism and schools have a problematic relationship. The mindset of unionism tends to protect mediocrity and stifle excellence. It promotes an adversarial relationship among educators – teachers and their supervisors – instead of promoting a collaborative culture, which is the most important ingredient in creating a successful school.

In the zeal to protect teacher rights, the unionist mindset can sometimes lose sight of the prize, which is to provide the best education possible to all the children being taught. Faced with sometimes-impossible conditions, it is easier to shift blame – as the PFT did for decades in pinning poor student achievement on uninvolved parents and fighting to avoid any teacher accountability – than to look deeply into meeting their own responsibilities.

But neither teachers nor their unions are the primary reasons that Philadelphia and every other urban district in the country struggles to effectively educate their students in largely segregated, resource-deprived environments.

Recruiting and keeping high-quality teachers, including giving them fair compensation, decent working conditions and relevant training, is the District’s most important task. Last year was an unfortunate example of how the SRC was unable to fulfill this task, with more than 100 vacancies persisting for most of the school year and a substitute crisis of epic proportions. That situation grew out of the decision to outsource substitute service to avoid reliance on unionized teachers, another byproduct of the toxic PFT-District relationship (which, by the way, long predated the existence of the SRC).

“I have started to question my career in teaching,” wrote Steinberg. “I still love my job and the students I teach every day. I’m very lucky to be at Rush, so I do not take my job for granted. I keep a smile on my face, and do the best I can every single day, because the students and parents deserve exceptional instructional quality. For as long as I can remember, the teaching profession was a noble endeavor and usually held in high regard by most people, and I still think that is the case in other areas of the country.”

But in Philadelphia, the District’s continual funding woes, lack of a contract, and anti-teacher rhetoric, he said, “make we want to hang up my teaching shoes and leave the profession.”

It is long past the time for this situation to be resolved. Let’s get to work.

Read teacher Bryan Steinberg's commentary in its entirety here.

 

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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.