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The friction between teachers’ union and the SRC

  • pft rally
    AP Photo/Matt Rourke, file




Then-State Sen. Vincent Fumo (D., Phila.)  angrily stood up on the floor of the legislature in April 1998 and, with his typically colorful language, said what he thought of a bill that would pave the way for a state takeover of the Philadelphia School District.

“Those of you who hate labor unions and think that they’re a plague on society,” Fumo said, “this is your orgasmic bill.”
Act 46 passed shortly afterward with a vote that mostly followed party lines. It potentially replaced the locally appointed school board with the School Reform Commission and severely constrained the rights of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT).
If put into effect, Act 46 would ban teachers’ strikes and deny the PFT the power to bargain over scheduling, teacher assignments, and prep time.
Both District Superintendent David Hornbeck and Gov. Tom Ridge predicted that the takeover would never happen. Less than three years later, it did.
At that point, both men might have been surprised at the way relations between the PFT and the District would evolve over the 15 years that followed.

Essentially, the relationship has gone through four stages:

  • Bitterness from the union at the passage of Act 46.

  • A surprisingly calm period lasting more than a decade after the takeover by the SRC in December 2001.

  • An outbreak of open conflict after the SRC’s attempt to throw out the union contract in 2014.

  • A return to the bargaining table – unproductive and sporadic so far – after the state Supreme Court’s 2016 decision supporting the union and the election of Mayor Kenney.

The birth of Act 46
Hornbeck’s actions and statements about the policies of the legislature and the Ridge administration – not anything the PFT said or did – led to Act 46 being passed.  
Hornbeck called educational conditions in Pennsylvania, which has some of the widest funding gaps among school districts in the nation, educational apartheid. With the backing of then-Mayor Ed Rendell, the city and the District’s superintendent sued the state in federal court for inadequately supporting the School District. The lawsuit alleged that school funding in Pennsylvania was racially discriminatory.
But it was the union that ended up in the crosshairs.
“There isn’t a thing in there that addresses instruction and support for kids,” said Jerry Jordan, who was then the PFT’s chief of staff and is now its president, immediately after the bill’s passage.
In a recent interview, Jordan said, “The union was certainly a target for that legislation.”  
Republican supporters of the bill didn’t attack the union in the floor debate, he recalled. “They didn’t have to say it. They wrote it into law.”
In the 2002 book, Powerful Reforms with Shallow Roots: Improving America’s Urban Schools, Larry Cuban and Michael Usdan wrote that legislative supporters of the bill “believed that funds were being used inefficiently in Philadelphia and that the District’s teacher contract was a major obstacle to improvement.”
State Sen. Vincent Hughes says the bill was part of “a historical effort to break all public service unions. … It’s all about an effort to privatize public education.”
And he says that supporters of the PFT had to beat back “more onerous efforts to break the union.”
A spokesman for Ridge, who now heads a consulting firm providing cybersecurity, international security, and risk management, said he was unavailable for comment.
The takeover in 2001 was essentially negotiated between Mayor John Street and Gov. Mark Schweiker (who succeeded Ridge when he became secretary of homeland security after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001). It provided about $75 million in additional funds that the District needed to keep it solvent.
At the outset, the SRC called for changes in the teachers’ contract and turned over management for many of the schools to private companies.
“This was going to be the magic bullet,” recalled PFT attorney Ralph Teti. “Heaven would occur, and all the problems that besiege an urban public school district would fade away. As we see … years later, it’s sort of not the case.”
The fallout
Ted Kirsch, who was PFT president during the takeover, said then that “the SRC’s almost single-minded pursuit of this risky experiment with privatization is costing Philadelphia many of its best and most experienced certified teachers. It is alienating parents and the community whose support is crucial to any reform effort.”
But the heated rhetoric died down after the installation of James Nevels as the first SRC chairman and the hiring of Paul Vallas as the first CEO of the District under the SRC.
“Treat teachers as educators,” Nevels said as he set down guiding principles shortly after taking office. “Teachers must be involved in any effort to reform our schools.”
In a letter to the Notebook, written shortly after Vallas’ appointment in 2002, Kirsch said that “because of his experience running the Chicago schools, Paul Vallas has been able to get right to the heart of the problems in Philadelphia.”
And over the next 12 years, despite the provision in the takeover law that gave the SRC the power to unilaterally impose terms on the union in areas that traditionally had been bargained, the SRC and the PFT negotiated three contracts and one contract extension.
“I won’t say it was an easy existence,” Teti said. “In some cases, it was a cantankerous existence.”

But on Oct 6, 2014, it became more than cantankerous. In an early morning meeting called with minimal notice, the SRC canceled the teachers’ contract and prepared to impose new terms.

Charging that the union had failed to “negotiate meaningfully for almost two years,” SRC Chairman Bill Green said at the time that the District had no choice.
Jordan called the move “cowardly” and hinted at possible job actions. American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten called it “the most egregiously political action I’ve seen in a school district.”
The resulting court battle lasted almost two years, until the state Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that said, essentially, that that the SRC had lost its chance to impose terms when it negotiated its first contract with the PFT.
Looking back at the court fight, Weingarten compared the SRC’s action with moves by Scott Walker of Wisconsin and other Republican governors to weaken bargaining rights for all public employee unions.
“They tried to make the contract the issue” when it should have been funding cutbacks, she said in a recent interview. “You’re at war with the very people who run the system. The Army isn’t at war with its foot soldiers.”
Jordan went further, saying he believed the SRC was trying to bait the union into striking, which under Act 46 could have cost teachers their state certificates.
Green declined to respond to questions sent to a District spokesman about the SRC’s action to impose new terms.
Shortly after the Supreme Court decision, Mayor Kenney urged the parties to go back to  the bargaining table.
Michael Nutter, who was mayor in 2014, had given the SRC’s action his reluctant support. But relations between Kenney and the PFT were warmer.The union had made no endorsement in the 2007 Democratic primary, when Nutter first ran, but it backed Kenney in the hotly contested 2015 primary.
Mike Dunn, Kenney administration spokesman, said in mid-November that “Deputy Mayor for Labor Rich Lazer is in constant contact with both the PFT and the District regarding the contract talks and is briefing the mayor regularly. We urge both sides to stay at the table.”
But in recent months, as the more than 3-year-old stalemate continues, there has been no public indication that serious negotiations are proceeding.
For his part, Jordan said that “I’m hopeful.”  
He added that he is also hopeful that future negotiations would find the PFT across the table from  a locally appointed school board.
“The SRC,” he said, “has outlived its usefulness.”

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Paul Jablow

Paul Jablow is a freelance writer and former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who contributes regularly to the Notebook.