October 2 — 9:56 am, 2009

Talks address how teachers are assigned

Contract negotiations should focus on the issue, advocates say. The union and the District will have to reach a settlement in the face of a funding crisis.

The Effective Teaching for All Campaign has stepped up its efforts to rally public support for key changes in the new contract as talks between the School District and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) proceed amidst a money crunch.

The campaign, a joint project of the Education First Compact and Cross City Campaign for School Reform, has set as its top priority getting a contract that promotes equitable distribution among schools of experienced and effective teachers.

It worked to collect 1,000 postcards advocating several policies: site-based teacher selection for all schools, stronger and more creative incentives to attract and keep top teachers at the neediest schools, more systematic teacher evaluation, and more useful professional development.

“The concept is to give [schools] the support and flexibility to help create strong staffs,” said Brian Armstead of the Philadelphia Education Fund, a leader of the effort.

A positive development was that schools opened in September with fewer than two dozen teacher vacancies for the first time in memory, after an accelerated hiring process. But the District has not yet provided data on how many new hires are fully certified and teaching in their field.

The final state budget deal from Harrisburg does not bode well for the talks. It cut in half the additional $300 million in revenue the District had been counting on based on Gov. Rendell’s original proposal, plunging the system into a financial predicament as teacher compensation and benefits are on the table. The District and the union extended the old contract until October 31, saying it was hard to reach agreement without knowing how much money there was to spend.

Neither side has said publicly whether any progress is being made on the chief points of contention.

Other developments also undoubtedly affect the talks, including a settlement in the long-running school desegregation case reached last spring among the District, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission and several intervenor groups. The settlement waded heavily into areas that had traditionally been matters for collective bargaining.

Specifically, the District agreed, beginning in 2010-11, to implement full site-based selection of teachers and use what was termed “strategic compensation” of staff in low-performing schools. It also agreed to calculate school budgets using teachers’ actual compensation rather than an average teacher cost.

The District also promised to provide common planning time for teachers in the lowest quartile of schools in terms of test scores.

The 2002 state takeover of the District gives the School Reform Commission and Superintendent Arlene Ackerman power to unilaterally impose terms on the union in most areas outside of compensation and benefits, including how teachers are assigned. The union has fought vociferously to maintain teacher seniority rights in this area.

Ackerman has said that she is willing to use that power, but would rather collaborate with the union.

The superintendent is also pushing some form of performance pay that would reward effective teachers, which is typically opposed by unions but has been touted by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

The union brought United Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten to the city on September 10 to talk about priorities. She warned that site selection can be effective only if it “empowers teachers” to help make decisions in their schools.

She also talked extensively about having effective teacher evaluation, something that Ackerman has also said she wants. Weingarten said the time was ripe for teachers, and the union, to “take risks” in the quest to improve educational quality.

Later, PFT president Jerry Jordan said he wasn’t certain what that meant, but for significant risk “you’ve got to have a feeling of trust, and we’re not there yet.” 

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