Teachers in Philadeplhia, one of the poorest cities in the USA, have suffered a vicious attack from the state education authorities. Despite teaching in a grossly underfunded public school system, where teachers have seen their pay cut, are having to spend large sums of their own money to buy materials, facilities are poor and classes are overcrowded, the teachers are being told to 'take their share of the pain' for budget cuts. Their contract has been cancelled in an unadvertised 15 minute meeting and their rights attacked. Meanwhile the state continues to spend it large both on prisons and on the promotion of semi-privatised charter schools.

In the forefront of the struggle against spending cuts have been the school students, who have carried out creative protests, occupations and school walkouts agasint the policies of the school board. Now they have called a strike on October 9th in response to the school board's moves.

Anne Tenaglia, a retired teacher from Philadelphia here gives her analysis of the situation, which she has kindly allowed this website to use:

I don’t know what the legislature was thinking when they gave the School Reform Commission (SRC) such broad powers over the School District of Philadelphia (SDP). The law was written in such a way as to NOT mention it was only for Philadelphia, but made it obvious when they wrote it to apply only to first class cities. Duh! There’s only one first class city in Pennsylvania. Philadelphia. 

Among other things, the law dissolved the city-appointed school board, appointed a state-appointed majority School Reform Commission to govern the schools, and negate the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ (PFT) right to strike. One of the never-before-used-privileges it gave to the SRC was to cancel the contract and to impose terms on the teachers. These things were supposed to fix the financial and educational woes of the city schools. In the dozen years of SRC control it has done neither.

 In the years since the SRC took over, we have not had a strike, nor an imposed contract, but have negotiated several contracts in the regular manner. For 2 years, the PFT has been negotiating with the SRC with absolutely no GIVE on the SRC’s part. The PFT understood that the district is in a financial bind, and offered to forego any raises. The union also loaned the district $30 million from its Health and Welfare funds to help the SRC balance its books. Last year, the SRC revoked the pay steps for people with advanced degrees and longevity. Teachers who stay more than 10 years get no extra pay for remaining, but it is an incentive for the young teachers hired to stay. After being encouraged to get advanced degrees by the SRC, so we could become “highly qualified,” the teachers who got those degrees 2 years ago were denied their pay raises. The school district, unlike many of its suburban districts, does not pay for nor reimburse teachers for advance degrees.

The SRC claims that the teachers did nothing to help the financial troubles of the district. They are dead wrong. In addition to settling for being paid less for a much more difficult job than their suburban counterparts, 19% less than a local district, our Philly teachers typically spend thousands of dollars of their own money to supplement their meager $100 supply allowance from the district. They spend their own time after and before school to do extra-curricular activities needed by the students. They teach in neighborhoods where two-thirds of the students suffer from PTSD due to the violent atmosphere or high poverty of their environment. They have even provided soap, toilet paper, copy paper and tissues for their classrooms, supplies that the district will not provide.

This scenario has been due to happen sooner or later. Here in Pennsylvania, the last several governors have not supported public education. In 2010, the state legislature did a study and found that the public schools in the state were underfunded by BILLIONS of dollars. Although Governor Rendell supplied the extra funds for the public schools via use of the stimulus fund from the federal government, he failed to change the school funding formula to make education funding fair across the state. Even though there were additional funds for districts where students were non-English speakers, special ed, or high poverty, it was not enough. When Governor Corbett came into office, he revoked the additional funds for those groups of students, and stopped reimbursing school districts for some charter school expenses. Thus the available funds that the stimulus had provided were now gone, as well as the additional funds for poor, special ed, and ELL students.

Charters have been given rampant growth opportunities and lack of oversight as the public schools in Pennsylvania, especially in Philadelphia, siphon away the best students, and leave the special ed, behaviorally challenged, and non-English speaking students to be educated by the city schools. Only a handful of these charters have been able to score better on the state tests, with all of the cyber charters and 50% of the brick-and-mortar charters performing worse than the public schools they replaced.

In the recent debate by the gubernatorial candidates, Mr. Corbett said he was no friend of education unions. That has been obvious since day one of his term. But can the teachers’ union wait until the November election and January change of watch to get the imposition of work rules revoked. I submit that we cannot. It’s now time for action, and that action seems to be pointing to a strike, legal or not.