News Analysis

PHILADELPHIA — With only days remaining in the contract between the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) and the Philadelphia School District, a settlement on a new contract seems remote. After spending five months in negotiations with the school district, the PFT on June 29 was handed an 89-page document of 419 proposals by the School Reform Commission (SRC), which manages the Philadelphia schools for the state, and told to “talk to our lawyers.”

The state took over the school district in December 2001. The five-member SRC includes three appointees of former Republican Gov. Mark Schweiker and two of Philadelphia Mayor John Street.

“With less than two months to go, we were back at square one, negotiating with new people and a whole set of new proposals,” said PFT Vice President and chief negotiator Jerry Jordan.

The district proposals cut health care, pay and seniority, while increasing the workday and school year and calling for decreased medical coverage at an increased cost. The administration would also control the PFT Health and Welfare Fund. The PFT’s right to negotiate health plan benefits would be eliminated and negotiated raises would not be guaranteed. The proposals give school principals sole power to hire employees and to accept transfers in and out of their schools.

“These proposals have nothing to do with improving quality education for children,” PFT President Ted Kirsch said. “It’s all about management prerogatives. The SRC wants principals to be able to do whatever they want, when they want, to whomever they want. Senior PFT members walked picket lines in the dead of winter and went to jail over the contract rights the SRC has so casually deleted.” In 2000 the PFT struck for seven days to win a contract.

The assault on Philadelphia’s schools began with the passing of Act 46 by the state Legislature in 1998. This law was passed with pressure from then-Gov. Tom Ridge without hearings or even allowing the legislators to read and discuss the legislation. Act 46, an anti-union law, gives the state power to take over any school district in Pennsylvania that has a deficit and prohibits employees from striking. The PFT filed a lawsuit challenging Act 46 in the state Supreme Court but the court refused to hear the case.

The Philadelphia School District always had a deficit due to the inequities of the state’s funding system and a dependency on real estate taxes. Over 40 percent of the state’s poor live in Philadelphia. The percent of school funding received from the state by the districts has decreased through the years.

As President Bush was signing the No Child Left Behind Act in January 2002, the state takeover of the Philadelphia schools became the national experiment for the sanctions outlined in the act: privatization, restructured schools and charter schools.

Gov. Ridge had planned to privatize all of Philadelphia schools with Edison Schools, Inc. in charge, but the outcry was too strong. Only 45 schools were privatized under several Educational Management Organizations (EMOs) in addition to Edison. The EMOs received between $400 and $800 per student more than the regular schools received.

The Republican-majority Legislature talks about accountability for teachers and schools but has not been accountable for adequate, equitable funding for public schools. It has refused to fund Gov. Ed Rendell’s Education Reform Initiatives or change the way it funds schools. Rendell, a Democrat and former Philadelphia mayor, was elected primarily on his promise of education reform. It seems clear that the purpose of the state takeover was to dismantle Philadelphia’s public school system and destroy the union. PFT members will meet Aug. 31 in their quest for a fair contract in an unfair system.

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