The following is an extended version of a letter that ran in response to The Philadelphia Inquirer's coverage of the recent events at Bartram High School.
Dear Ms. Graham & Mr. Purcell,
First, I want to thank you for your in-depth article in today's paper on the troubles at Bartram High School. It was heartening to see that you had interviewed teachers and students rather than solely relying on the input of district and union officials.
As a former teacher at Bartram, however, I saw the real story at the very end of the article. You quoted a teacher who said, "There's a lot of talented, intelligent kids that are getting the bad end of the stick."
In my experience, this is the entire story.
When we talk about education in this city, first we talk about budget crises, then about labor disputes, then about school safety and unspeakable tragedies in the neighborhoods, and finally, if there's any time, we talk about the incredible success stories of the lucky few.
The one thing we neglect to talk about is that our students are just kids. They have favorite subjects and favorite teachers. They hide from teachers whose homework they haven't done. They gossip with their friends and have crushes on their classmates. They are just like any other students in Pennsylvania, except that they are only given half the chance.
When I worked at Bartram, I was asked the same question constantly, by friends and neighbors and strangers on the street, "Isn't that a bad school?" I was not naive enough to believe anyone was referring to quality of education or the poor physical condition of the building. They meant to ask, "Isn't that a school full of bad kids?" The question broke my heart every time it was asked.
As I stated at the start of this letter, I am grateful the safety of our students is being addressed by the Philadelphia Inquirer and other local media. It is an issue that needs to be made public, and addressed meaningfully by this city. I would love more than anything, though, to see our students portrayed publicly as the human beings they are, rather than statistics, the victims and perpetrators of violent crime. There are, in fact, a great number "of talented, intelligent kids" at Bartram High School, and I'd like this city to see them, to know them, and to give them the attention and the education they deserve.
Bernadette McHenry taught at Bartram for the 2012-2013 school year and was then laid off. She no longer teaches in the School District of Philadelphia.
Last night, our Philly Teachers Sound The Alarm campaign broke the story about the student-made bomb detonated outside of Feltonville School of Arts & Sciences.
The grievance, submitted by Special Education Teacher Ray Porreca, made a clear statement about what had happened at the school:
"We need to understand that the root causes of these types of incidents are political and can be traced back to the budget cuts."
Too often, these tragic incidents appear as headlines without any backstory. Looking at the big picture, however, the pattern of negligence and denied resources is clear. This school year, FSAS has been grappling with the following cuts:
* An 83% decrease in counseling services (from 3 down to 0.5 staff)
* A 75% decrease in school police officers (from 2 down to 0.5 staff)
* A 56% decrease in safety staff (from 9 down to 4 staff)
* A loss of their only assistant principal
These systemic cuts--typical across the District--have ravaged the support systems of the school. In Dan Denvir's City Paper report on the incident, he acknowledged this, but also noted that, "it's difficult to describe the full picture of violent incidents in Philadelphia public schools since they are not always publicly announced."
The Caucus of Working Educators commends the staff of FSAS for two brave acts on Wednesday: taking care of their students during the incident, and also sharing the incident with the general public. By speaking out, Porreca broke the code of silence that pervades our schools and succeeded in calling out the situation for what it is: a systemic failure.
If you are an educator in the School District of Philadelphia, we urge you to share your story with us today at phillyteachers.org. Showing the public the true state of our schools is necessary in order to win back the resources and support that our students deserve.
If we don't speak out now, our struggles will be reduced to yet another headline.
Since the news broke that Marin and Steel Elementary Schools were up for potential charter conversion, there has been a great deal of speculation -- and and a lot of misinformation -- but not many reports about what the situation has been like at the schools themselves. Below is a letter from one educator at Steel describing the scene.
We (principal included) were informed on March 31st -- only after rumors initiated our calls to 440 -- that Mastery Charter will probably be taking over Steel Elementary. They have been sending parents of students from Gratz -- also run by Mastery Charter -- to our events to talk to parents without our knowledge. We were informed that we will have the option to create a presentation for the parents before a vote. We have merely weeks to create a presentation to complete with one that Mastery has had for probably a year. What can we offer except that we are a family? Although I am new here, there are teachers that have been in this building for 20+ years; they have taught generations of Nicetown families.
Since the possibility of takeover went public, Mastery has been allowed to have 6 "representatives" outside the building every day, to try and convince families that they should vote for the turnover. When it rains, they're actually allowed to come inside our building and use our space for their petitioning. They are pulling out all the stops in their attempt to woo parents including dinners, calls, canvassing, etc. Today they even had a small bus out front to take parents on a tour of Gratz.
The girl complained, as well she should! If someone from Mastery had called the school to inquire why this student was late, I would not have been able to release that information or even confirm or deny that the student attends here under the guidelines of FERPA. So why do the representatives from Mastery have the right to ask students right outside our door? They do not.
Representatives from the PFT and AFT have also been out to inform our families about their choices. When they are there, the Mastery reps have been overheard angrily complaining that we are "using their tactics." They were complaining directly under a window and a teacher and her students could hear this conversation.
Our situation also puts the lack of a contract into a new perspective. I am not a conspiracy theorist by any means; however, the fact that more schools are being turned over while the contract is in negotiations is not a coincidence. They are expecting us to accept anything just to have a job. I will not by any means! Our staff is angry. It feels like all this is an attempt to intimidate us, but it is backfiring--we are finding the courage to fight back.
Brandy Meyers, Counselor, Steel Elementary
We are thrilled to announce a new campaign -
As educators, you have all gone above and beyond in your schools–sometimes even compromising your own rights as a working professional–to support your students in the face of terrible conditions. The public has heard a few of your stories via the press, such as how much teachers spend on their own classrooms, but they have no idea how pervasive the problems really are.
In many cases, this negligence also breaks the work rules of the district’s contract with the PFT.
On top of all this, the District is seeking permission to disregard our contract’s work rules, claiming that they don’t benefit students. The PFT leadership has spoken out multiple times against this myth, but many think that work rules are only there to protect teachers, when we know that our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions.
We are asking every teacher in Philadelphia to report about the real state of their school — to show the negligence of the district and reclaim their right to say something about it.
Sound the alarm together!
All it takes is one paragraph and a photo -- entries will begin tomorrow and continue until we hear from every school in the district! Download our Instruction Kit and then send your entry to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check out Caucus Members Luigi Borda, Eileen Duffey, and others -- along with dozens of students, parents, and community members -- showing the School District who runs our schools!
The Caucus of Working Educators is a diverse group of PFT members and their supporters who hail from every corner of Philadelphia. Below is the story of one supporter -- an ESOL content-friendly elementary educator and a veteran of the district--who chose to join.
What experiences led you to join the Caucus of Working Educators?
I see joining forces with the W.E. caucus as an extension of the community work that has been evident in my teaching career. In twenty-nine years, I’ve seen the School Board, the SRC, and the state of Pennsylvania try to decimate my profession, my values, and me as a human being. Joining the Caucus of Working Educators reaffirms my belief that every single child and teacher deserves a safe, well supplied community school.
What frustrates you about the current state of public education in Philadelphia?
The political structure in Philadelphia is ridiculous! It is a system that promotes failure and targets the poorest neighborhoods for mass destruction. As a tax-paying homeowner, it boggles my mind to see the destruction of public education. Public education is a constitutional right. Elected officials standing in the way of that right is just wrong!
As a city, state, and federal taxpayer, I support an agenda that elects a school board without politicians. One that allows working educators, fireman, police officers, clergy, and students to decide what is best for this city. As an educator for almost three decades, I’ve witnessed first -hand the erosion of public schools. Working Educators need to stop that erosion and get this city back to a healthy place!
What gives you hope for the future?
What gives me hope is that we have many student, parent, and teacher groups that stand up for what is right. Laying off teachers and assigning thirty-five to forty students in a single classroom isn’t right! We have groups that have been very outspoken and vigilant.
So here it is: basically if you don’t stand for something, you’ll stand for anything! That era of “blind” following is over. Everyone in this city needs to stand with Working Educators and the PFT.
What would you say to other teachers who are thinking about joining the caucus, but have avoided union politics in the past?
We are in the fight of our lives! If educators in the city of Philadelphia truly love their profession, then they need to stand up! Your building representatives can’t do it all. Join the caucus and start protecting your very right to teach. In this fight we have no benchwarmers and sidelined players. If you sat back on the sidelines hoping the coach would call your name, well, you’ve just gotten that call. We're calling your name now! It’s your turn to participate and become a stronger advocate for public education.
What would you say to veteran teachers who have seen it all and may not trust a brand-new union caucus?
It’s funny, this notion of “veteran teacher.” A veteran teacher gives 125% everyday! In return, we are given the most “hardened,” “emotionally unstable” students, and because we handle ourselves well and love what we do, then we get labeled as “veteran teachers.”
Here’s something you do know about veteran teachers: we will always be ready for a fight! If you dare try to take something from our students and our classrooms, you will be faced with a pitbull with an extra set of teeth! Anyone in this business for more than fifteen years loves their profession without a doubt!
I am a veteran teacher! I love my profession and encourage other veteran teachers to join the caucus. If you need a boost and want to have a continuous voice that breathes fire through the streets of Philadelphia, then join in the work!
What are the labor rights of Philadelphia Teachers?
Are teacher strikes legal? What does it mean to be a “distressed” district? Who can dissolve the SRC? To understand our current status as a workforce, here’s a quick summary of the three acts that have defined Philadelphia teachers and their right to the collective bargaining process. (Journal of Labor and Employment Law)
We strongly encourage you to download a two-page PDF of this information and distribute it to your fellow PFT members!
ACT 195, passed in 1970, established that:
- All public employees in the Commonwealth have the right to organize and the ability to bargain collectively.
- Public employees have the right to strike after the collective bargaining process has been exhausted (impasse) unless it creates “a clear and present danger or threat to the health, safety or welfare of the public.”
- If the employer feels that the strike oversteps these bounds, the employer may seek equitable relief, including an injunction from the courts, sending employees back to work.
ACT 88, passed in 1992, scaled back these rights:
- Interpreted “A clear and present danger or threat to the health, safety or welfare of the public” in ACT 195 as limiting teacher strikes to ensure that students receive a mandated 180 instructional days.
- Prohibits Selective Strikes. Numerous Pennsylvania teachers used the Selective Strike in the 1980s and 90s when they would strike for a few different days each week. This tactic not only prevented the administrators from hiring scabs to replace the teachers, but also forced administrators who hadn't been in a classroom for years to staff the schools while the teachers were out.
- Requires forty-eight hours notice before the initiation of any strike action.
- Limits the number of strikes that teachers can engage in to two during the school year.
ACT 46, passed in 1998 and triggered into effect in 2001:
- Permits the PA Secretary of Education to declare a “district of the first class” as being distressed. (Philadelphia is the only such district in the state.)
- “Distressed” districts are to be placed in control of a “School Reform Commission” (SRC) consisting of 5 members.
- SRC members may only be removed by the Governor.
- The SRC may be dissolved only by a declaration by the Secretary of Education and only upon a recommendation of a majority of its 5 members.
- “Distressed” districts are not required to negotiate with their teachers over work conditions such as "staffing patterns and assignments, class schedules, academic calendar, places of instruction, pupil assessment and teacher preparation time."
- School employees of “distressed” districts are prohibited from participating in strikes as long as they are still controlled by the SRC.
- The Secretary of Education may suspend the certificate of any employee who violates this subsection.
- ACT 46 was later amended to include that the SRC may make decisions to suspend professional employees without regard to seniority/tenure protection.
- “Distressed” districts are to be placed in control of a “School Reform Commission” (SRC) consisting of 5 members.
- ACT 46 was triggered by Governor Schweiker and Mayor Street as the takeover of the District went into effect on December 21, 2001.
Is Act 46 Legal?
In 2000, The PFT filed a complaint to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania regarding the strike prohibition and possible suspension of teaching certificates. The court dismissed the complaint, on the grounds of “lack of an actual case or controversy” -- it would take an actual strike, not a theoretical one, to prompt a ruling.
As a result, the legality of Act 46 and its prohibition of teacher strikes remains untested. It is also not clear if the state would definitely suspend certificates -- the “may” gives permission, but not a guarantee.
It’s worth mentioning that, while Act 46 states that the District has right to impose some working conditions, District is ALSO seeking confirmation from the State Supreme court in advance of imposing changes to seniority and prep time. They do not trust the law on its own, and want confirmation before they rely on it.
What about the current legal battle?
The PFT has filed a response to the District’s petition to the Supreme Court. It is supported by 22 state elected officials and the AFL-CIO. The response argues that that Act 46 does not give the District the right to impose terms in this case, as negotiations did not break down, and that the District must honor a contract it has already agreed to.
It also cites a 2010 ruling in favor of teachers in the Coatesville Area School District, where that district was barred from “unilaterally stripping from the contract” that they had chosen to enter with their teachers.
We await a response from the courts!
This summary was produced by the Caucus of Working Educators, a part of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. For additional information and more resources like these, including the SDP petition and full PFT response, connect with the Caucus of Working Educators at workingeducators.org.
By George Bezanis
This post is the first in an occasional series; check out Part I here. If there is a part of PFT or labor history that you would like to learn more about, let us know by e-mailing us at email@example.com.
Philadelphia has a long history of public education, one of the longest in the United States, if not the world. The Caucus of Working Educators is proud to help keep the flame of this time-honored tradition burning bright. In order to see where WE fit into this history -- and how WE can help shape the future -- one must first delve into the past.
PART II: GROWTH
By the end of World War II, every state had not only created a progressive publicly-funded education system, but instituted compulsory education laws as well. Working conditions for the teachers at these public schools, however, were still atrocious. Classes were overcrowded, jobs were dispensed according to whom (not what) a teacher knew, and salaries were arbitrarily raised or lowered each year according to the whim of the state legislature.
If a district was running a deficit, they would often chop off a couple of weeks at the end of June, sending the kids into an early summer break and thereby saving funds by not having to pay the teachers their full salaries.
In 1947, to give you an idea, some "reform-minded" legislators in Harrisburg (the state paid all teacher salaries at the time) attempted to raise the public school teacher salary from an atrociously low $1,400 ($14,739 in 2014 dollars) to a somewhat better $1,950 ($20,530 in 2014 dollars). Philadelphia and Pittsburgh minimums were to be set slightly higher at $2,175 ($22,899 in 2014 dollars), seeing as those two districts subsidized their salaries with local tax dollars as well.
In fact, when President Truman visited Philadelphia's privately-endowed Girard College in 1948, he made front page news across the nation with his off-the-cuff remarks about the state of teaching in America's public schools:
"You young men are lucky to have a school like this in the present day. You have individual attention from your teacher. At the present time our public schools are so overcrowded there are plenty of instances where the teachers cannot call the children by name. The financial situation of our school system is something disgraceful for the richest nation in the world."
Unable to attract the best and the brightest under such poor working conditions and compensation, the college graduation rate of Philadelphia teachers stood at a measly 42%.
The time was ripe for teachers to organize in order to improve their working conditions which would, in turn, improve their students’ learning conditions. It was imperative that teachers made their collective voices be known as they sought changes from within a dysfunctional system.
As America continued down the path of a post-war economic boom, numerous public sector employees sought to unionize. They viewed themselves as being left behind in that post-war prosperity - pointing out that they earned less than factory workers who had not even completed high school - and Philadelphia teachers were no exception.
The public agreed. Union activism among the nation's teachers reached a crossroads in the late 1960s as strikes threatened to erupt all across the country. This New York Times syndicated analysis from 1968 clearly shows why teachers all across the United States finally banded together under one of the two national teacher labor organizations, the National Education Association or the American Federation of Teachers.
The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (under the AFT) also launched a successful membership drive during this time and, in 1965, became the exclusive bargaining unit for the city's public school teachers. In 1970, once again due to the teachers’ and the community’s support, Pennsylvania Act 195 was implemented which, for the first time, allowed the state's public employees to strike.
The PFT took advantage of this new law and, from 1970 to 1981, greatly increased its members' wages and working conditions by going on strike 6 times. For example, by 1980 the average Philadelphia teacher was earning $24,000 ($68,382 in 2014 dollars). The city had the highest-paid public school employees in the entire Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, lower class sizes, and seniority/tenure rights that prevented them from being arbitrarily terminated or targeted by vindictive administrators. (For more details, watch the informative PFT History: Solidarity Wins! video.)
As a result of this increased union militancy and willingness to strike, the PFT was able to attract the best and the brightest applicants to Philadelphia’s public schools as the suburbs struggled to keep their salaries competitive. Arguably, all of that changed with the strike of 1981 and is one of the reasons why the current PFT leadership has been reluctant to call for a strike since then.
George Bezanis is caucus member and has been a working educator for ten years, with the last seven in the classrooms of the School District of Philadelphia. He currently works at Central High School as a Social Studies teacher.
Instead of attacking seniority, they wish the district would place greater focus on building a culture of accountability in schools. They say: trust teachers to be professionals, build a leadership culture that helps improve the performance of all, provide the necessary resources, and fire those who prove that they cannot perform the job.
Hear the full extended interview -- complete with the story of what happened when Saltz and his colleagues had to deal with an unsatisfactory teacher in their building -- on the Newsworks website.
Thanks to all of you who packed our Launch Party last Friday after work! It was great to connect with each other, learn about our work as fellow educators, and talk about how we can continue to support our union.
In fact, the last event was such a success, we've scheduled FIVE new events for next month!
Our new Regional Discussion Groups are a chance for networking and discussion around a common text. This first round, we'll be reading “Class Action” by CORE Caucus & Jacobin Magazine – bring your free copy from the Launch Party or download the PDF here. This booklet was published specifically to support the work of union educators around the country. It's a must read!
The discussion groups are happening in five locations the week of April 21-25 -- Center City, Fishtown, Northeast, West Philly, and South Philly. Check out our event page to see the dates and RSVP for the location that works for you!
The text is a prompt for discussion of many issues -- you don't have to read the booklet cover to cover to join in! We also encourage you to bring a fellow educator – this event is open to all and meant to energize our union through knowledge.
RSVP today and keep the conversation going!