When the Rules Change: Dissolution of Philadelphia Teachers’ Contract

Let’s say you sign a contract with someone.  You hold up your end of the contract and do what you agreed to do, and you are compensated by the terms of that contract.  When the contract expires you begin to negotiate a new contract with the other person, but the work is not done.  So both parties agree that during negotiations the terms of the old contract will remain in effect.

Time passes and a year and 10 months later one party says screw it and dissolves the old contract.  They expect you to still do the same job that you did before, but now they are changing the rules.

What do you do?

This is the question facing Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT).  Yesterday, Monday the 6th of October 2014, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission (SRC) voted to unilaterally cancel its teachers’ contract.

A little Financial Background

  • Philadelphia Public Schools are currently not running a deficit, but they were just 2 months ago. In August the deficit was $81 million , which was down from the $92 million I talked about in July.
  • The state of Pennsylvania passed a cigarette tax for Philadelphia in September and there is a 1% sales tax which combined is predicted to net $170 million. The cigarette tax alone is expected to generate $49 million this year and $80 million annually.
  • There is still the possibility of an $8 million deficit and a projected $70 million deficit next year even with the cancellation of the teachers’ contract.

Contract Changes

  • The changes to the contract entail “no changes” to wages according to the SRC, but rather changes in the teacher’s contribution to their health benefits in the order of 10%-13% of the cost of the medical plan. – Quit the BS SRC we all see that giving people money and then taking it back is actually a cut in wages. –
  • There is also the elimination of paying for retirees’ vision, dental and prescription benefits.  –which is complete dirty pool.  You work in an inner city school for so long that you can retire.  You take this impossible job and make a social contract with the people of Philadelphia – I’ll do this, I’ll serve your children and teach them, but when I retire I would like to maintain my benefits.  You worked for at least 30 years and held up your end of the deal and then all of the sudden … screw you and your fixed income.

A note on the Philadelphia Teachers’ Contract

The contract is 200 pages long.  My own teachers’ contract is 30 pages.  Why does the Philadelphia Teachers’ contract have to be so long?  Well the question really is why must contracts for inner city teachers have to be so long? The contract for Washington D.C.’s Teachers is 114 pages.  Los Angeles teachers’ contract is a whopping 349 pages.  The short answer is desks.   Now desks do not take up a huge amount of space in the Philadelphia contract, but it is an example that highlights the kind of thing I am talking about.

This is a story I heard from a friend who works in Philadelphia, it is most likely exaggerated, but I will share it with you the way I heard it.  During negotiations there was a time when there was a desire to reduce the number of pages in the contract.  During the process the negotiator for the SRC pulled up something they thought was irrelevant.  Pg 82 “A clothing locker and a separate desk or equivalent work facility are to be provided to each teacher.” That surely can be eliminated.  It is a given that every teacher will have a desk, and some place to hang their coat.  The negotiator for PFT then shared that there is currently grievances being filed for that very point.

A desk

You need to have in the contract that states that each teacher will receive a desk, and even then there are teachers without one.

Why doesn’t PFT strike?

Act 46 is a Pennsylvania State Law that nails the foot of the PFT to the ground.  In September of 2000 when the teachers’ contract negotiations were stalled in Philadelphia, because teachers wanted a contract that would give smaller class sizes, stronger early-childhood education, a new reading program, and better school security Act 46 reared its head (pg 623).  The Act strips the PFT of their right to strike.  So basically it removes the most effective way that the union has to get the public’s attention and force the hand of the state.

I want to compare that to the Regional Rail Strike that happened in Philadelphia in June of 2014 on a Saturday.  A one day strike on a weekend, and by the end of the day President Obama intervened and forced the workers back to work.  In the process he added an outside 3rd party Emergency Board, which blocked the strike, but also moved negotiations along.  In July the emergency Board published their report and the electrical workers and the transportation authority settled ( though things are not looking so sunny in negotiations with the engineers).

In my opinion the only reason for a teachers’ or any public union to strike in Pennsylvania is to force the hand of the district to go to arbitration.  (Laws differ from state to state and I can only talk about Pennsylvania without doing a heck of a lot more research.)

I have walked the picket line in my career.  My local has waited until the spring, after the snow days, to limit the number of days we have to strike in order to force arbitration.  It is pro forma.  We strike the required number of days, so that a judge can order us back and we can force arbitration.  It sucks.  I’d rather be in the classroom and it is not even binding arbitration, but it was the only way we can get out of a negotiations stalemate.

What really needs to happen?

As a society we need to look at the value of education.  Are we a people who believe that education is a pathway for all to become successful members of society?  Does every child have the right to the same level of education?  That is a hard thing to quantify.  How about we just look at money?  Does every child in our state rich or poor deserve to have the same number of dollars spent on their education?  If so we need to reevaluate the methods we use to fund public schools.  In Pennsylvania we fund schools through property taxes, which is probably the worst possible way to fund schools.  Rich areas have well-funded schools, poor areas not so much.

I am currently reading a book called The Teacher Wars by Dana Goldstein, which is an interesting look at the history of education in America.  One of the points she makes is that the use of property taxes to fund schools especially in the segregated south was a form of institutional racism.  I am not explicitly stating that there is institutional racism in my state, I am just a caveman not a sociologist but there is a significant difference between the demographics of Philadelphia  and the paleness of the rest of the state.

This is a difficult question that has plagued public education in America from the beginning.  It is the balance between what we know works: early childhood education, parental education, small class sizes, time for teachers to work with colleagues to develop more effective  ways to teach and can inspire each other when their motivation inevitably flags verses the cost of those things.  We need to stop battling our teachers and give them the resources they need to do their jobs well, and as a society we need to uphold our end of the social contract.  Teachers, who are highly educated professionals and take pay cuts to educate our children, should at the very least be able to afford to go to the doctor.

Featured Image: City Hall-Philadelphia, PA by Jason Murphy

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Jennifer teaches science in a public school in Pennsylvania. She lives there with her husband and two dogs.

1 Comment

  1. October 8, 2014 at 2:54 am —

    As someone who has been a student, a union member, and now a parent, I hope that you get this situation resolved in your favor, even though that keeps not happening. Our society talks about the importance of education, then cries in outrage when teacher make a living wage.

    In solidarity!

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