Caucus Stands with Teachers in British Columbia

The British Columbia Teachers' Federation has been in a contract dispute with their government, and spent several days striking in advance of the school year. Their members recently voted to enter binding arbitration -- now their elected officials must agree to it!

Below is our letter:

September 12, 2014

Dear Premier Clark and Minister Fassbender,

WE write in support of our sisters and brothers in the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation and ask that the BC Government agree to arbitration of the collective agreement.  Teachers are currently striking in order to improve classroom conditions for their students: as a striking teacher said this week, "The primary point is getting funding for students, for getting more staff, for getting correct class sizes."  Teachers, school staff, and honest education researchers know that these things are extremely important in order to give students the education they deserve.

The BCTF has reasonably asked for this long-term dispute to go to binding arbitration. Binding arbitration is a fair and standard labor-relations practice that allows an impartial third party to mediate contentious disputes and guide fair solutions. If the government would agree to this, the schools could open quickly and students and teachers could get back to work.

Most stakeholders in British Columbia are behind this rational solution—everyone from teachers to parents to mayors and newspapers support sending this labor dispute to binding arbitration. Why does the government resist a fair and neutral process?

As fellow working educators and social justice unionists, WE respectfully ask that the government of British Columbia agree to put these issues to binding arbitration so that teachers and students can get back to teaching and learning.

 

Sincerely,

The Caucus of Working Educators

A Caucus of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania USA

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March with WE at the People's Climate March: Sun, Sept 21st

In a little less than two weeks, activists, educators, and unionists from around the country will be gathering in New York City for the largest environmental march in the history of the United States. The Caucus of Working Educators will be there, marching alongside other unions and activists from Philadelphia (plus our hot new WE banner!).

350 Philly and Action United have organized low cost buses to and from Philadelphia next Sunday, but they're going fast. 

Reserve your ticket now. Buses will be leaving at 8am and will return by 7pm that evening. Please let us know that you're coming, or if you have any questions, by emailing max.rosenlong [at] gmail.com. We will follow-up with a meeting place and time in NYC.

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Why is climate change also a labor and education issue? I'll let Naomi Klein (whose book The Shock Doctrine was one of our summer readings groups) explain:

Our current economic model is not only waging war on workers, on communities, on public services and social safety nets. It’s waging war on the life support systems of the planet itself. The conditions for life on earth. 

...[Climate Change is] a powerful message – spoken in the language of fires, floods, storms and droughts – telling us that we need an entirely new economic model, one based on justice and sustainability.  

In Philly's public schools we're all too familiar with the effects of this unsustainable model, as we begin yet another year of budget crises and cuts. Join WE on Sunday, Sept. 21st to stop global warming and to build a just and sustainable economy.

 

More information:

Why Unions Need to Join the Climate Fight, Naomi Klein

A Call to Arms: An Invitation to Demand Action on Climate Change, Bill McKibben

 

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Petition Against Health Hazards in District Schools

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Photo Courtesy of Jerry Roseman / City Paper

The Philadelphia Project on Occupational Safety and Health (PhilaPOSH) has organized a petition that calls on the Mayor, City Council, and the SRC to require the school district to cooperate with a federal study about health hazards in Philly public school buildings. The study could greatly benefit students, teachers, and other staff, but School District has declined to participate. Unless the district reverses its decision by September 30, the study will be canceled.

The City Paper published a long article about this issue back in May, after the asthma-related death of Laporshia Massey, a student at Bryant Elementary: http://citypaper.net/article.php?Philly-School-District-blocks-a-federal-study-after-health-risks-are-exposed-20288.
PhilaPOSH has begun circulating the attached petition, and they are asking people to return it to them by September 9. In addition to calling for the study to be completed, the petition calls on the district to make information about health hazards publicly available and to collaborate with unions and other stakeholders to address these hazards.

Download the Petition - Sign and Return

All educators should take two minutes to print this petition, have it signed by staff and parents on the first day of school, and send signed copies to:
PhilaPOSH
3001 Walnut Street, 5th Fl.
Philadelphia, PA 19104

You can also e-mail scanned copies to Barbara at brahke@philaposh.org. For more information, call her at 215-386-7000.
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An Opt-Out Letter to Unite Parents and Teachers

Opt-Out Philly has written a beautiful letter for parents that want to refuse Pennsylvania's standardized testing regime this year.

Opting out is a very personal decision every family has to make. However, this letter makes it clear that parents and teachers need to find ways to work together against the "damaging policies that use high-stakes test scores for purposes for which they were never intended." 

If you’d like to learn more about opting-out your own children, or how to talk to parents who might be interested, please contact optoutphilly@gmail.com. Read more about Opt-Out Philly's organizing work so far in this great Inquirer profile.

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Dear (school principal),

We, the parents of (child’s name), an (?) grade student enrolled at (school name), are writing to state that standardized testing is against our religious and philosophical beliefs. We will be refusing all standardized testing for (child’s name) during the upcoming school year.

Our refusal includes, but is not limited to, the English, math, science, and writing PSSAs; benchmark testing; CDT (Classroom Diagnostic Tools) testing; any tests associated with PVAAS teacher evaluations; NAEP testing; as well as field testing of standardized test items.

We realize that we may be required to come in and review the testing materials and reconfirm our decision to refuse the tests. In that event, we request that you contact us at least two weeks prior to their scheduled administration so that we may set a time to do the review and complete that process. We can be reached at the phone number and emails provided above. During times in which standardized tests are being administered or standardized test preparation exercises are taking place, please allow (child’s name) to pursue alternate educational activities such as independent reading, a research project, or volunteering in the library.

I hope you understand that it is not our intent to harm (school name) or its staff. We hold the school and its teachers in high regard, and for that reason we are taking a stand against damaging policies that use high-stakes test scores for purposes for which they were never intended. Such purposes include: rating teachers, closing or turning schools over to private management, and withholding diplomas from students who have otherwise earned them. High-stakes standardized tests also pose significant problems for students not fluent in English and those with individualized education plans.

We believe in a broad curriculum that supports the individual needs of children and helps them develop their talents to become critical thinkers and contributors to a more just and democratic society. It is incomprehensible to us that during times of such austerity, when schools cannot even afford current textbooks, Philadelphia’s students are being ranked and sorted against children in affluent districts who have every advantage. It is a broken and corrupt system, and our conscience will not permit us to have our child be a part of it any longer.

Please let us know if we need to be in touch with her teachers individually, or if that is something you will do in your capacity as principal. We would appreciate it if you could provide a written confirmation that you have received this letter. Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Sincerely,

Parent Names

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Thank you from the Caucus of WE!

Huge props to all the WE members who represented at the PFT General Membership Meeting on Tuesday night and helped spread the word about how the Caucus is working to strengthen our union!

Nat Bartels, Klint Kanopka, Amy Brown, Mark Stern, Diane Payne, Sam Mastriano, Shaw MacQueen, Tom Quinn, Sheila Myers, Eileen Duffey, Pam Roy, Chris Palmer, Tom Hladchek, Kristin Leubbert, Amy Roat, Ray Porreca, Peggy Savage, David Hensel, George Bezanis, Tatiana Olmeda, Max Rosen-Long, Lou Borda, Anissa Weinraub, Sam Reed, Bob Fournier, Mike Bernstein, Larissa Pahomov, Kelley Collings...

(Names are in no particular order. Sorry if we missed anyone!)

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Teacher Union Boot Camp

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Wish that your colleagues participated in building meetings and other PFT events? Looking for inspiration as well as expert tips and tricks? Want to be more pro-active than reactive?

Then this boot camp is for you! RSVP now for our event.

Thursday, October 2nd / 4:30 – 6:30pm
IAFF Local 22 / 415 N. 5th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19123

Parking can be found on the 400 block of Willow St.
Childcare and snacks provided!

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A Closer Look at PERC

On August 19, Research for Action (RFA) launched the Philadelphia Education Research Consortium (PERC) in partnership with the School District of Philadelphia, the city’s charter school sector, and the three largest universities in the city. With a 3-year $900,000 grant from the William Penn Foundation, the Consortium will “provide research and analyses on some of the city’s most pressing education issues.” The release can be found on RFA’s website.

The Caucus of Working Educators recognizes the need for a more coordinated research effort to understand and address the needs of Philadelphia’s public schools, but so far the Consortium raises some concerns.

In its design, the Consortium will have both a Steering Committee, composed of two District officials and two representatives from the charter school sector, and a Research Advisory Committee, composed of representatives from University of Pennsylvania, Temple University, and Drexel University. The Steering Committee will set the agenda so that research is not driven by the interests of researchers. However, WE is concerned that the partnership ignores most important stakeholders of public education - students, parents, and teachers, who do not seem to have any agency in this partnership.  

Moreover, the William Penn Foundation has previously played a very partisan role in education, providing grant money to the pro-charter Philadelphia School Partnership. They also faced ethics complaints for directing anonymous funds towards the Boston Consulting Group, whose “blueprint” advocated for school closure and privatization.

RFA sites that it will receive strategic guidance from the Chicago Consortium of School Research (CCSR), among other similar consortia. Let’s take Chicago as an example.

  •  From its inception in 1990, the CCSR had an advisory board that consisted of representatives from community based groups, the Chicago Teachers Union, the school district, and other research organizations and universities in the city. This broad-reaching committee set the agenda and accepted proposals from other groups as well. They also brought in varied stakeholders to reflect on drafts of the findings.
  • Charles Payne, Professor at the University of Chicago, said the following of the CCSR: “Its early reports were attacked by the powers that be in the city. They were attacked not on intellectual or mythological grounds, but because they were criticizing policies that people were invested in. So, in that period people saw the Consortium beaten on all the time by the powerful and they [the CCSR] stuck to their guns.
  • The CCSR engaged many important stakeholders at various steps of the research process, was steadfast even as its findings criticized existing policies by those in power, and maintained independence from the school district though its representatives sat on the advisory board.

Recent news reports state that the research agenda of this new group has not yet been set. The Caucus hopes  that the group will prove themselves to be the unbiased research group that Philadelphia could really use – and urges this city’s education community to pay close attention to their future work.

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"I Became One of Those Statistics"

On August 21 and 22nd, PFT President Jerry Jordan made himself available for one-on-one meetings with members in front of 440. Below are the comments from one member who spoke with him.

Dear Jerry,

You invited teachers to come to the table today and air their thoughts, feelings and very real experiences in the face of unprecedented budget cuts, ongoing contract delays, a demand that teachers be a funding source for our struggling schools and a continued lack of concern or political will to honestly address these issues. 

I have come today as a retired teacher.  I retired in June, 2013, as the lack of a contract resolution continued to loom and budget cuts were going to directly affect my ability to do my job effectively.  I taught kindergarten in a culturally diverse neighborhood in a building that was so overcrowded it was recording 169% enrollment.  In my last year of teaching, 12 out of my 30 students were ELL students from a very diverse background.  Two of those students came into kindergarten speaking no English at all.  I was fortunate to have a part-time classroom assistant that fully supported and enhanced my kindergarten program.  I was able to offer a developmentally appropriate, differentiated writing component known as Kid Writing and a math component with daily small group instruction that assured the children were getting the best possible start because of this support. 

I learned at the end of the 2013 school year that the classroom assistants would be cut.  The contract was still unresolved.  Politicians and School District administration were demanding that teachers become a funding source.  Evaluations were to be built around the junk science of value added measure.  Basic contract issues, which are students learning conditions, were being violated.  Schools were continually threatened to be closed and there was nothing on the horizon that signified positive change. 

So, I became one of those statistics of experience and professional expertise that opted to retire.  I wasn’t quite ready to retire and felt that I still had much to offer the teaching profession but I knew the quality of what I could do had been and was continuing to be eroded by sources beyond my control. 

Thank you for allowing me to “come to the table” today.

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The Numbers Don't Lie: De Facto Pay Cuts and Making Sense of Political Games

By Klint Kanopka

One of the reoccurring themes in this entire budget crisis is that the teachers need to “step up” and do their part.  This is a thinly coded demand for monetary concessions, but we’ve done that already and with significant savings for the district.  The proposed contract includes salary decreases for all staff on a sliding scale from 5-13%.  The state government, the SRC and the School District of Philadelphia seem to think it is reasonable to balance their budget by looking to their employees as a revenue stream, but they’ve chosen to ignore the contributions that have already been imposed on the PFT, which I’ll attempt to quantify below.

First, some background on how dire the budget is, as school is set to open in under a month.  The current $81 mil budget cap is about 3% of the school district’s overall budget.  One of the plans that’s been proposed is holding school until the money runs out, but there hasn’t been a clear assessment of what that might look like.  When you subtract out costs that don’t reduce with time (rents, charter payments, central office, building engineers, utilities, etc.) and assume an even distribution of the remainder, you arrive at a cost of about $6.75 million per instructional day.  Without the $81 mil, the SDP has 93.5% of its remaining time-dispersed budget.  This equates to a loss of 12 instructional days, moving the end date for the year to June 2nd.  This might not sound awful, but it’s 6.7% of the entire school year.  However, it may be worth chopping off the last 12 days of the year in order to prevent schools from having to absorb the newest suggestion of cuts of staff and services.

The alternative proposal, which looks, at least, postponed for now, is to lay off staff and increase class sizes into the 40’s.  Those of us working in schools know that this is essentially impossible, from space constraints (many teach in rooms that can barely fit the 33 students they already have) to a compounded inability to reach and meet students’ social, emotional and academic needs.

So let’s get back to Chairman Green and Governor Corbett’s telling the PFT to “step up” and give additional concessions in order to close the deficit (caused primarily through state funding cuts and administrative mismanagement, but I digress). 

To assist the district, in 2013 the teachers’ union agreed to skip their yearly salary increases, known as step raises.  The average step increase, calculated from the salary schedule, is $2862.63.  For the 13-14 school year, there were 18,390 teachers employed in the district.  That year we saved the district about $52,643,827, a figure that could have bought nearly eight instructional days.  This savings is reoccurring, because every year the teachers are earning less than they should be.  

For the coming 14-15 academic year, considering the step raise we already skipped and the new one we probably won’t get, the district will be able to save $105,287,654.  This figure is 4% of the district’s total operating budget, 23% more than the current deficit and accounts of an amount that would pay for almost 16 instructional days.  Every time we forego step increases, the savings compounds.

If I look at my own salary, I’ve already given back in the form of 1) a missed step raise, 2) no high-needs subject bonus (meant to attract physics, math and chemistry teachers) and 3) no recognition of the Master’s degree I completed in December.  If I compare my actual earnings to my expected salary for the 13-14 school year, I’ve already taken my 10% pay cut.  This doesn’t even factor in the loss of compensation for the debate team I coach or the hours I spent tutoring students.  Let’s also ignore the 5% of my salary I spent on supplies for my classroom, lab and extracurricular activities.

Viewed uncritically, the language used to frame these cuts might make them appear more palatable to the public, but the people pitching them aren’t conceding over one quarter of their six-figure salaries.  For teachers who earn less than our suburban counterparts and are forced to purchase all of our own teaching supplies, these cuts have a massive impact on our homes and classrooms.  Cuts that are being spun to “save our schools” are actually the exact cause of death for extracurricular activities, hands-on inquiry investigation, and classroom innovation.  

Today, the SDP took a small step in the right direction by taking additional salary reductions off the negotiating table. However, there was zero mention of the millions already saved by these de facto cuts, or any discussion of when they might be restored. In a situation where the future of our children and city are at stake, what sense does it make to demonize and exploit the very people, the working educators, who step up to bat for them every day?  Maybe the state thinks they can sit on their hands and demand more from those giving the most, but the numbers don’t lie.  We can’t afford it.

Klint Kanopka is a physics teacher at the Academy at Palumbo.

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Statement on the School Redesign Initiative

On July 21st, The School District of Philadelphia unveiled its School Redesign Initiative. The details can be reviewed at the initiative's website or via PDF.

 

While WE would like to see this as a sign that the SDP actually recognizes educators as capable of leadership and positive transformation, several of the initiative’s features raise red flags. The initiative may be an improvement over charter takeover and Promise Academies, both of which strip teachers of their professionalism and autonomy. However, the SRI is a long way from a comprehensive, sustainable redesign, and it undervalues both the communities it serves and the educators it employs.

 

  • If this initiative valued educators, it would turn to schools first and work with that building's staff directly. Instead, it lets any group apply for control of any school, pitting current staff against any number of outside interests. (Groups must prove they have a “connection” to the school, but what exactly that entails is unclear.) Moreover, a winning group can force out all of the current staff.
  • If this initiative valued local communities, it would allow those communities to select a redesign model for themselves. (Like the families of Steel and Munoz-Marin, who overwhelmingly voted for the plan proposed by their current educators!) Instead, it hands the decision off to a "panel" with no explanation as to how the members will be selected or how the group will reach consensus.
  • If the district valued collaboration between educators and community members, it would have set the first deadline a month or two into the school year. This would give stakeholders time to listen to each other, share ideas, and make plans that best serve their students before forming a team. Instead, the letter of intent is due August 19th, less than a month from the announcement of the initiative, and in the middle of summer break.
  • If this initiative believed in teacher professionalism and autonomy, it would allow all schools to create "redesign" programs. Instead, the initiative will only accept between two and ten proposals. These groups will receive a relatively small grant (around $30,000) and, more importantly, a three year "grace period" where they are exempt from district assessment and closure. Of course, the grace period doesn't cost a penny -- why not award this autonomy and safety to all schools, and trust teachers to be the professionals that they are?

Most importantly, this initiative distracts from the big picture in Philadelphia schools: without adequate funding, our schools will continue to be a shadow of their former selves. Any attempt at transformation before funding is restored is overconfident at best, and purposefully misleading at worst. Educators have been asked to "do more with less" for years while their colleagues are being laid off by the thousands -- and those same educators have been putting together redesign plans for years, in response to threats of closure and charter takeover. The initiative is our city's version of "Race To The Top," where a lucky few will win a small prize while all schools continue to struggle.


The rapid timeline, lack of transparency in its development, and unveiling in the midst of a funding crisis all lead us to consider the SRI with skepticism. As always, working educators in our schools are yet again being given the message that we are targets for takeover, turnover, and removal. If your school is eligible (see pages 32-35 of the PDF), please talk with your colleagues and mobilize your school community to defend itself from outside “reform.”  Proposal letters for the SRI are due August 19th.

For more information, you can also RSVP to the next SRI information session on August 12th. (The Caucus of Working Educators attended the July 30th session; check out our coverage on Twitter.)

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