PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) and the Philadelphia School District have agreed to extend their contract, which expired Aug. 31. Students returned to classes Sept. 7 as negotiations continue.

“As long as progress is being made, we are willing to extend the contract,” PFT President Ted Kirsch said.

An appointed School Reform Commission (SRC) runs the city’s schools. The SRC has the power to impose a contract on the PFT under the state takeover.

“The SRC has every intention of negotiating a fair contract in good faith,” said SRC Chairperson James Nevels. “We don’t want to impose a contract on anyone.”

However, the SRC allowed negotiations to continue for five months and then dismissed its own team and sent in its lawyers with 419 new proposals only two months before the contract expired. As students returned, the district had more than 150 teaching vacancies to fill and 20 percent of its teachers have emergency state certificates.

“We can attribute this to the uncertainty of the contract,” said Maryann Greenfield, director of recruitment. “There were many late summer resignations and others who declined assignments.”

One large high school was changed to a charter school and the majority of the teachers signed up to transfer. Each charter school is a separate “school district” with its own school board. Those teachers are neither part of the Philadelphia district nor PFT members.

The Education Law Center filed suit with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, claiming that children of color in Philadelphia schools are more likely than others to have teachers who are uncertified and inexperienced, and to attend schools with high levels of teacher turnover.

Responding to this suit, the SRC claimed that allowing principals to hire and fire the teachers in their schools would solve the problem. The SRC also wants to hold principals accountable for raising achievement levels demanded by the No Child Left Behind law. The members of the SRC and school district CEO Paul Vallas are not educators and have been accused of wanting a corporate model for the schools, although even Vallas has praised the district for increasing the number of schools making adequate yearly progress (AYP) for two years, from 39 to 70. AYP represents the reading and math proficiency goals a school district is required to meet in accordance with No Child Left Behind.

“Our teachers feel outraged by these proposals because they are not being treated like professionals,” said Barbara Goodman, a PFT spokesperson.

Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth and several other organizations submitted a group statement to the SRC calling for the inclusion of teachers, parents and students in real decision-making roles and maintaining the current voluntary model of site base selection currently used by 44 schools.

The PFT and other education advocates have said that schools that struggle the most to attract and keep qualified staff should have extra incentives such as higher pay, reduced workloads, extra supplies, smaller class size and more professional development and training.

“The focus of the district should be on increasing its pool of highly qualified teachers,” Goodman said, “not on transfer policies and moving teachers around.”

Retired teacher Charles Lowell remembers what it was like before the teachers formed a union. “Principals treated their schools as fiefdoms and school officials used jobs as patronage. Teachers had no rights that had to be respected and salaries were disgraceful.”

The author can be reached at phillyrose1@earthlink.net.

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