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October 2012 Vol. 20. No. 2 Focus on A Portfolio of Schools

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Learning from Chicago

As charters and cuts erode teacher jobs here, Philadelphians draw lessons from the organizing successes of another big-city union.

By by Bill Hangley, Jr. on Oct 9, 2012 01:17 PM
Photo: Harvey Finkle

Anissa Weinraub of Teacher Action Group

Asked what “portfolio management” means to him, Jerry Jordan’s answer was swift and certain:

“Big business. Outsourcing. It’s literally getting rid of public service,” said the president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

But when asked about the PFT’s strategy for slowing a trend that has seen thousands of teaching jobs shifted to non-union charter schools, Jordan’s answer was more general: “We have to work more closely with the parents and the people in the community in order to make sure our schools are funded adequately. We can’t survive another billion-dollar cut.”

Jordan, a PFT staffer since 1987 who was elected president in 2008, spoke while standing in the sun-dappled foyer of the Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, where about 200 teachers, community activists, union advocates, and public education supporters had gathered Sept. 22 for the first conference of the newly-formed Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS). On this sunny Saturday, the group’s goal was to start developing a community-supported alternative to the School Reform Commission’s vision of an increasingly decentralized, charter-heavy “portfolio” system.

The day had begun with a rousing critique of the SRC’s plans, described as a well-organized, well-funded private-interest takeover of public education. Attendees heard that they needed to go “on the offense” to fight privatization. And they heard that they could look for inspiration from Chicago, where the 26,000-member Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) just wrapped up a seven-day strike that won pay increases, defeated a merit-pay plan, and secured a recall policy for teachers affected by school closings – while demonstrating a powerful, unified union front.

jerry jordan

Jordan called Chicago’s strike an impressive effort that Philadelphia can learn from. “It was no accident,” he said.

But does the PFT have the capacity and strategy to organize like its Chicago counterpart did?

Anissa Weinraub, a District teacher now in her seventh year, doesn’t think so – at least, not yet.

“I’m not anti-union, and I’m not anti-Jerry,” said Weinraub, a teacher at El Centro de Estudiantes and organizer with the grassroots Teacher Action Group. “But when teachers [in Philadelphia] say ‘the union,’ they’re not thinking of themselves. They’re thinking of the leadership, the people who are paid to be there.

“What we learned from Chicago is that that has to change,” she said.

Weinraub said that the foundation of Chicago’s strike was actually laid four years ago when a faction of rank-and-file educators, frustrated by what they considered leadership’s overly cautious approach to challenging school closures, began to organize on their own at the school level. The group dubbed itself the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) and quickly helped stop several closures.

Two years later, CORE’s slate of candidates won a leadership election. Karen Lewis, a chemistry teacher with 20 years’ classroom experience, became the CTU president.

“We were just trying to build some unity in our union, which had been extremely fractured and kind of moribund,” Lewis recently told Democracy Now. “We wanted … to empower our rankand-file teachers so that the real work of the union is in the buildings, not in an office downtown. We wanted to go from a service model to an organizing model.”

The Chicago contract agreement may not be a slam-dunk victory for the union, but the CTU has won praise from labor leaders and public education advocates for successfully pushing back against austerity demands of the reform movement, and positioning teachers as guardians of quality education.

Polls showed that two out of three Chicago public school parents supported the union. “Chicago’s teachers and parents sparked a national conversation about how we make every public school a school where parents want to send their kids and teachers want to teach,” said Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, in a statement after the settlement.

Back at the PCAPS conference, many believed that Philadelphia needs to consider following CTU’s example. The number of unionized teachers in the city has been steadily dropping. Between 2002 and 2011, one in ten instructional jobs disappeared – 2,500 in all. In 2011, the budget crisis hit, resulting in a further 15 percent cut in instructional staff.

Of the city’s 84 charter schools, only five are unionized. The prospect of 40 or more school closures, and continued expansion of charters, suggests to some that the union must muster its membership, or face further erosion.

“It’s a critical time to develop organizing capacity – members need to be prepared to align with the community,” said Jesse Zeigler, a national organizer with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). “Rather than expecting elected leaders and staff to do the work, I think we need to learn to expect more out of the rank and file of every union.”

Anne Gemmell of Fight for Philly, a coalition of labor and community groups, said, “We’re getting beat back to our heels, because [the reform movement’s] offense is so strong. Schools need to start organizing and say, ‘This is what we need to make our school good. Stop telling us what we need to make do with.’”

And in a “breakout session” of teachers, while overall support for the union was strong, many wanted the PFT to do more to galvanize and organize its rank and file. “There’s a sense of complacency,” said one.

Danecia Burton, a fifth-year teacher at Cooke Elementary, said the union isn’t harnessing its greatest strength: its members. “The message gets out there,” Burton said. “The problem is, there’s no action taking place with the message. I can go to 40 rallies – but if nothing happens after the rallies, next year I’m not going to go to 40 more rallies.”

Downstairs, Jerry Jordan says he hears these concerns. “It’s [a criticism] that I will take seriously,” Jordan said. The PFT plans to continue working with the PCAPS coalition to develop an alternative reform plan, he said. Asked if the PFT had specific plans to organize among its members, Jordan said, “Our staff is in schools every day. … They have these conversations.”

And asked if the PFT’s school-level organization is where it needs to be, Jordan said, “We can always do better.”

About the Author

Bill Hangley, Jr. is a freelance contributor to the Notebook.

Comments (22)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 9, 2012 6:36 pm

Jerry is no doubt an intelligent and dedicated person but his communication skills with "rank and file" very weak. He blogs in soundbites rehashing the same information we read in the daily papers. There is nothing new, no call to action, no inspiration. As the SRC was choosing our new Superintendent this summer, how many commenters asked, "Where's Jerry?" "Where's Jerry?" "What is Jerry's take on all this?" Jerry was NOWHERE. Now he will negotiate the next contract with Mr. Hite and time, not too much more of it, will tell how (if?) the PFT moves forward.

Submitted by Rob (not verified) on October 9, 2012 9:25 pm

I hate to say it but I believe a strike is inevitable. When you look at the writing on the wall (school closures, charters, budget, privitazation, Corbett) there is no way a new contract can be negotiated. With 40+ schools closing, what is going to happen to all of those teachers? There simply is no solution that suits both sides. I am not advocating for a strike but it just doesn't seem feasible that a new contract can be worked out.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 9, 2012 10:26 pm

I agree that THE WRITING IS ON THE WALL so again, errr, where's Jerry? After his (protracted) town hall style/ community planning meetings, which the SRC will dismiss like its 3 PM, what should PFT members be bracing for uhhh, exactly? This is not 2008 when the contract was extended again and again. Dozens of schools will close in 8.5 months. Then WHAT??!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 9, 2012 11:38 pm

PFT Membership meeting October 23rd @5 @ Girl's high -- be there!

Submitted by Joe (not verified) on October 10, 2012 4:39 pm

I've posted over and over and over that Jerry Jordan either is the worst union leader in the western world OR he has another agenda. Whatever the reason, the PFT is being destroyed right in front of our eyes and we're not even trying to fight back, not really in any concerted way. He is the President of the PFT not some casual bystander observing from a distance. Maybe, at some point in the past, he was more forceful but right now, he's doing little or nothing proactive in any meaningful way. Randi Weingarten is a double dealer by almost all accounts and Jordan seems to be heading in that direction too, at least that's how I view it.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 10, 2012 6:10 am

Oh are they getting the word out about that meeting....through anonymous comments here? I got a letter with updates from health and welfare but not so much as an email about meeting at girls high 10/23.

Submitted by ANON 452 (not verified) on October 10, 2012 3:50 pm

We got an email from Jerry Jordan today. If the PFT does not have your PERSONAL (not district) email, they cannot let you know. I believe they will mail a notification as well.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 10, 2012 4:02 pm

I got the message today too but that was after I posted message this morning.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 10, 2012 6:28 pm

I just went to the PFT website and I see that when I check into "My Account" I noted that they have my personal email address and all of my other information under the account, yet I receive no emails from PFT. I have notified my building rep of my personal email address, yet I receive no emails from PFT. I am at my wits end to try to get emails from PFT and I can't get anywhere.

Submitted by jackmen (not verified) on October 1, 2015 1:54 am

Jordan’s answer was more general: “We have to work more closely with the parents and the people in the community in order to make sure our schools are funded adequately. clash of clans hack . castle clash hack

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 10, 2012 5:56 pm

Forgive me if this is a novice question...but didn't the state takeover takeaway the ability to strike without consequences? Can't the state revoke your certificate if you strike? If so, it seems that'd be the easiest way to finally dismantle the district that would remain

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 10, 2012 6:16 pm

No, they tricked people (again) into believing that myth for quite some time but when Pedro Ramos when shopping his agenda around Harrisburg and Philly pols got wind of it a few months back...the truth was revealed. PFT can legally strike and they by no means can revoke the license of SDP teachers simply because they have had the folly to try and make a difference in this fourth world town.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 10, 2012 6:57 pm

Here is a link t the full article from June 8, 2012

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 10, 2012 7:54 pm

Not for nothin as they say in South Philly but the woman in the picture should have been told to wear a jacket. She looks ridiculously unprofessional. She needs to be sitting on a motorcycle to complete the picture.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 10, 2012 9:17 pm

The teacher in that picture is extremely passionate about children and she's an activist for children. Sometimes you have to look past the outward appearance.

Submitted by Joe (not verified) on October 10, 2012 10:21 pm

Sometimes, yes but not this time in this situation. There's a balance in life and she missed it dressing like that for a professional audience.

Submitted by Joe (not verified) on October 10, 2012 7:04 pm

Here I go again. I've been at meetings where Jordan himself said that the State could revoke your teaching certificate for striking. I ask, AGAIN, what the heck is going on with this guy and the people around him? Why are they giving out wrong information to the rank and file?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 10, 2012 7:42 pm

Everybody who cares about inner city kids need to fight Corbett and his minions like Nutter who are resistant to demanding more money for our kids' education. When Lower Merion is cut 1/28 of what Phila. is cut, how is that acceptable to the folks who represent US and why do we let Nutter et al off the hook? Everybody with a conscience should be demonstrating WITH ANGST against these cretins.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 11, 2012 6:52 pm

This article didn't get the play it deserved. Notice how it disappeared fast. Is that a coincidence?? I don't think so !

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 11, 2012 10:50 pm

search SRC at and see how old/ few the headlines are these many last weeks... Where's Jerry? Where's Kristen? Calm before THE STORM! Where's Karen Lewis?

Submitted by tom-104 on October 11, 2012 10:54 pm

The Inquirer has yet to report on the Allentown Morning Call's investigation into PSSA scores where they found that Pa. Secretary of Education Tomalis has skewed PSSA results to make charters look better than they are.

Pennsylvania eases NCLB rules to help charter schools
from the Washington Post

A Liar and a Cheat
from Pittsburgh's Yinzercation

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 28, 2013 8:53 am
In the recent times, charters and cuts have eroded teacher jobs in Philadelphia. It is a fact that they have adapted to the lessons from the organizing of another big city union. Anyways, thanks for sharing this over here. I have already bookmarked this site for future references.

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