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As parties cheer deseg settlement, union calls it fatally flawed

Not everyone was cheering the end of the 40-year-old desegregation case in the courtroom presided over by Commonwealth Court Judge Doris Smith-Ribner on Monday morning. Leaders of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers sat silently as the parties urged adoption of an agreement that would significantly impact their collective bargaining agreement.

Concsious of the weight of history, officials of Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, the activist intervenors, and community supporters called the agreement, which Smith-Ribner ratified and signed, the last best chance to provide equal educational opportunity to Philadelphia's schoolchildren regardless of race. It promises to provide quality teaching to all students and, and aims to do that in part by giving teachers less say in where they teach and holding them more accountable for results.

It could also, theoretically, result in higher pay, better working conditions, and more empowerment for teachers who work in low-performing schools and demonstrate their effectiveness. 

The union, however, has few hopes that those things will materialize.The consent decree would replace seniority-based hiring with site-based selection at the district's lowest performing schools. And it mandates changes in how teachers are paid. 

PFT President Jerry Jordan submitted a letter to Smith-Ribner that she referenced in her questions, but which was not entered into the record.  He said he was disappointed, troubled, saddened, baffled, shocked, and dismayed by the consent decree and the order.

First of all, the letter protested the union's total exclusion from any role in the case's conclusion. But most vociferously, it denounced the agreement for failing to specifically address one issue: disruption and violence in the schools. Calling conditions in many schools "outrageous and unsafe," he wrote that these conditions "perhaps.... are the reason why between July 4, 2008 and June 6, 2009 there have been 950 teacher resignations and 650 teacher retirements."

The message: as long as those conditions exist, the District will never reach its goal of staffing all its classrooms with highly qualified, motivated, and effective teachers.

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman presented an alternate view: that school climate is related to the quality of teaching in a building. "As a teacher, I believe good discipline comes from good teaching," she said. "It's important we don't lose sight of good instruction" as a way to improve student behavior. One teacher who was present at the hearing -- she may have been the only teacher there -- was Lisa Haver of Harding Middle School. She scoffed at that. "I don't know what my teaching has to do with the kid who pulled out a weapon in the cafeteria," she said.

The union has found itself in an increasingly weakened position since the state takeover of the District in 2001. Jordan and his legal team haven't ruled out the possibility of challenging the consent agreement in court.

But the District clearly has the upper hand. Prior District leaders declined to unilaterally impose contract terms on the PFT, but Ackerman and School Reform Commission Robert Archie clearly don't feel that way. Outside the courtroom, Archie said, "We will use the power that the state has given us." 

While not dismissive of the problems students bring to school and the hard jobs teachers have, the parties in this case have grown tired of hearing from the union, "until the kids and families get their acts together, don't require any more of us." Ackerman has been able to use this frustration to position herself as someone who has the children's interests at heart while others don't. 

At the same time, it is troubling that the union has been so marginalized in this process. Ultimately, true reform and change in these schools will not happen without the cooperation of teachers -- and the union.

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Comments (4)

Submitted by Paul Socolar on July 14, 2009 9:00 am

While the public discussion of the contract has taken an adversarial tone, the language on paper in the consent agreement does leave significant space for the teachers' union to negotiate in its contract talks with the District. 

The agreement does mandate site-based selection of teachers in the lowest-performing schools, rather than a school-by-school vote on whether to abandon seniority-based hiring. But the question of what the site selection process looks like is not fixed in stone and some argue that the hiring committees required under the current contract can be the basis for a process that empowers school-based teacher leaders rather than centralizing power with principals. It's also worth noting that the lowest performing schools affected by this mandate are not by and large the ones that are highly sought after by the District's senior teachers. These are schools where it seems like all teachers would have a real interest in doing what they can to ensure that the new teachers coming into the building are going to contribute.

The agreement also mandates "strategic compensation of staff in low-performing schools" but does not spell out what that means. In the past the union contract has provided teachers with bonuses to work at hard-to-staff schools.

Seems like the glaring issue facing Ackerman is how to rebuild enough trust among teachers to avoid an all-out war over the contract, and showing openness to input on these areas of the agreement that impinge on the contract would be one way to do that. There continues to be criticism by teachers about Ackerman's plans for "moving teachers around" - Ackerman's advocacy of forced transfers of teachers has become a red flag that may make meaningful negotiation of other issues difficult.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 14, 2009 6:11 pm

A few problems here.

1. School climate starts with the principal and discipline. If the principal is not supportive and is disrespectful of teachers school climate suffers. If Ackerman continues to require principals fire teachers you can be sure climate will not improve.
2. Where teachers are assigned and how they are assigned has nothing to do with the problems our schools have The facts prove many children arrive at school already significantly behind in academic achievement.
3. I believe legally the union has a strong case. They have been affected by a settlement they were not a party to. Interesting legal gray area. Plus, many feel the state takeover was illegal but the union never had a chance to test that until negotiations fail. You can be certain they will fail and this will now be tried in court.
4. My favorite: It takes a court order to make this happen?
"It could also, theoretically, result in higher pay, better working conditions, and more empowerment for teachers who work in low-performing schools and demonstrate their effectiveness."
Really, were teachers preventing that?

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on July 15, 2009 6:45 pm

50 percent drop out rate...I am sure the court order will improve that...

Watch the district get progressively worse...if that is possible...

Submitted by ESOL Teacher (not verified) on July 16, 2009 11:08 am

Are we missing something here? We are a legally recognized union. We need to take this to the mat. This decree will not help kids, but it has the potential to cripple the PFT. Judge Smith-Ribner ignored the rights of the teachers. What is Ms. Ackerman going to do? Force tenured teachers to take jobs in "racially isolated" or "empowerment" schools? Possibly give them a few bucks if they "demonstrate effectiveness?" Is she going to rework the racial balance policy of teachers in schools? Ackerman and PEF (which is just another usless layer of bureacracy in schools) know that many of our kids are hurting beyond belief - otherwise they wouldn't be stacking schools with more counselors, social workers, medical staff and parent ombudsman. It is so unreasonable to think that most teachers in "empowerment" schools are incompetent. I cite-selected into an empowerment school and my colleagues and I are doing the best we can with the kids assigned to us. What more can the SRC ask?

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