The teachers' contract and how it relates to the District’s financial problems
by thenotebook on Jul 10 2013 Posted in Commentary
by James Lytle
In an op-ed piece in the Inquirer on July 7, three Philadelphia civic leaders argued that Philadelphia schools must get help, then went on to support the financial package emerging from Harrisburg and City Hall to address the District’s financial crisis. The largest component of this $273 million package is the “$133 million in projected savings from a new collective bargaining agreement to be negotiated with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.”
Why, one might ask, are teachers expected to be the solution for a problem not of their making? Somehow the notion has been put forth and reinforced that Philadelphia teachers are excessively compensated and should make concessions to balance the District’s budget.
So it might be useful to consider the facts. Most important is that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania took control of the District in 2001. The PFT contract now in effect and the two that preceded it were all approved by the state’s agent, the School Reform Commission. To blame the PFT for contract costs and provisions is to overlook the inconvenient fact that the state created the circumstances it now wants to reverse.
In terms of salaries, Philadelphia teachers, on average, earn 15 to 20 percent less than teachers in surrounding counties. (Although starting salaries are comparable, salaries for experienced teachers top out at a much lower level.) If the salary reductions being proposed are put into effect, then Philadelphia teachers' pay will be even less competitive with their suburban counterparts.
Then consider that working conditions in Philadelphia schools are more difficult than those in the suburbs. Class size is larger; there are fewer books, materials, and supplies; computer access is scarcer; instructional, social, and health supports are insufficient. And these working conditions will be significantly worse if other proposed reductions go into effect, including the elimination of counselors, nurses, assistant principals, and sports programs.
At this point, a reasonable conclusion would be that kids in the city don’t matter to those who hold the purse strings. Adequate school resources are a problem for another day. And any warm body holding a teaching certificate will suffice; all the better if they bail out before moving up the salary scale.
It’s also important to keep in mind that the budget “solution” proposed for the District will directly impact the city’s charter schools, whose funding is based on the District’s prior-year per-pupil cost. Like their District counterparts, charter school teachers in Philadelphia will likely face significant salary reductions in the 2014-15 school year if current proposals go into effect. The result: All publicly funded schools in Philadelphia, whether unionized or not, will suffer.
The intent of those working to “solve” the District’s budget situation seems to be to reduce costs and balance the budget, while making no meaningful effort to generate additional long-term funding and giving no consideration to how depleted the city’s public education programs will be. By these leaders' own admission, the current proposals only address the 2013-14 school year. For future years, the state does not propose contributing more of its own money, but has decided instead to permit the city to tax itself more to generate additional funds that will recur each year.
Nor has there been any discussion about how District schools are going to meet increasingly stringent performance standards, including new Common Core Curriculum standards and state tests, and new teacher evaluation requirements, with drastically reduced resources.
Are there concessions the PFT could make to help address the District’s financial crisis? Yes. Are there other contract changes it could agree to that would improve teacher quality and student outcomes? Yes. Should salary reductions be a component of the solution? No. Such concessions would lead over time to reduced workforce quality and the further erosion of instructional programs.
Given this scenario, at this point, unfortunately, only the PFT and its allies stand between the devastation of Philadelphia public schools and any modicum of quality schooling.
James Lytle is Adjunct Practice Professor of Educational Leadership at the Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.