Teacher equity struggle takes new direction
by Sheila Simmons
Faced with a growing impression that this fall's teachers' contract settlement won't itself bring about any dramatic improvement in the unequal distribution of qualified teachers across the system, education advocates are strategizing on what to do now.
More than 20 community organizations joined together last spring to promote a "Teacher Equity Platform," in hopes of influencing contract talks on issues of teacher recruitment and assignment.
Concerned that schools with the greatest needs often and by default draw the least experienced teachers, the organizations campaigned for a seven-point program. Their proposal included incentives for seasoned teachers to work in hard-to-staff schools; teacher hiring and transfer policies that insure an equitable balance of certified and experienced teachers across schools; expanded school-based selection of teachers; and improved principal leadership at hard-to-staff schools.
With the contract ratified but little action on a number of these points, the groups are now determined to bring about more equitable staffing outside the context of the new four-year agreement.
"From what I've seen so far, it doesn't look like things have changed so much," Meg Wise, director of Scholars and Civic Engagement for the Philadelphia Education Fund, said. "We thought [addressing teacher equity through the contract] was a momentous, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Wise said once the contract language is available, advocates will "identify three or four key items that we thought could be implemented, the contract language notwithstanding."
Wise offered possible issues that might still be pursued outside of the contract: "Fighting for a dedicated substitute pool or smaller classes in [hard-to-staff] schools."
A long delay in the release of the new contract language has not only held up the response of members of the Teacher Equity campaign but has also threatened to impact the scope of site-based teacher selection, the District's main goal in negotiations. A month before a December 23 deadline for schools to vote on whether teachers want to have all their teacher openings subject to a school-based hiring process, lawyers from both sides were still reviewing the contract language before releasing it. Details of the December deadline and other provisions on "site selection" were still not widely known in schools, though District Human Resources personnel were conducting sessions in November to encourage schools to hold votes.
The contract provides for schools to use site selection for 50 percent of positions, meaning that site selection is used to fill a vacancy in a school but then the next vacancy is filled by the traditional assignment process, in which teacher seniority prevails. New teachers are to be hired entirely through site selection. With site selection, a hiring committee conducts interviews with a District-screened list of candidates.
But schools are still allowed to vote to be 100 percent site selection schools through the same teacher voting procedure as was mandated by the old contract. Last year, only 44 schools chose to participate, and the Teacher Equity platform had called for changes in the process.
To become a school that controls its own hiring decisions, a school's staff must vote for site selection by secret ballot, with a two-thirds majority required each year to approve or re-approve it. The vote, conducted by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, is called by the school's union building committee.
While some advocates expressed concern that the union will discourage teachers from voting for site selection, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers' spokesperson Barbara Goodman answered, "The PFT has not taken that position at all."
Goodman added, "Site selection works best in a school where there is a good, trusting collaborative relationship between faculty and administration in that building. It doesn't work very well where there is a lot of mistrust, animosity, turmoil, and instability. "
Teacher equity advocates have argued that site selection helps ensure a good match between the teacher and school and speeds up the hiring process but say that it is not a sufficient response to the lack of qualified teachers in struggling, high-poverty schools.
The contract does offer another teacher equity strategy by establishing an "Incentive School List," that will contain up to 25 hard-to-staff schools, determined by the District and the union. Just a few details are available on what the system will be for attracting teachers to these schools.
Tomás Hanna, the District's teacher recruitment and retention chief, explained, "What we need to do is get a sense of what the structure and dollar commitment to Incentive Schools will be."
According to a PFT summary of the contract, teachers working at schools on the Incentive School List can receive tuition reimbursement of up to $2,400 a year. These schools are also promised:
professional development on dealing with disruptive students;
no loss of building seniority for teachers who transfer into these schools;
"class size below the School District's average class size in comparable buildings."