By George Bezanis
This post is the first in an occasional series. 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 1: ORIGINS
Beginning with the founding of the Commonwealth, the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1790 actually had the foresight to include the following line:
"The Legislature shall, as soon as conveniently may be, provide by law for the establishment of schools throughout the State, in such a manner that the poor may be taught gratis."
As a result, an Act of the Pennsylvania General Assembly (1818) created the "First School District of Philadelphia" in an attempt to control the spiraling poverty and crime that accompanied the exponential growth of the city.
It would be a mistake, however, to equate these early public schools with the public schools of today. The Pennsylvania schools of the early 19th century were meant as ways to educate the indigent youth of the city and were typically staffed by a single teacher who would then teach the older pupils to instruct younger pupils. As far as academic rigor was concerned, all of these schools provided, at the most, what we would today consider to be a basic education: reading, writing, and simple arithmetic.
There were, of course, no workplace protections for these early teachers, who also were expected to double as teacher-trainers. Employees at the time were often hired, and fired, at will without regards to educational attainment, qualifications, or lack thereof.
The largest reform in the early School District of Philadelphia, and the other various Pennsylvania school districts that were beginning to pop up, was the Consolidation Act of 1836. This law opened public schools to all students, poor and rich alike, and helped to rid the stigma of "public" schools as being nothing more than "charity" schools for the destitute masses.
To quote The 1897 publication “The Public Schools of Philadelphia: Historical, Biographical, Statistical:”
"The Act of 1836 may be regarded as the corner-stone of the public school system. Indeed, many of its important provisions are still in force. Regarding the formation of school districts, the election of school directors and their powers and duties, the organization of school boards, the levying and collection of taxes for school purposes, and the duties of the State Superintendent, the law is substantially the same now as under the Act of 1836."
The Consolidation Act of 1836 also allowed for something unheard of up until that point, namely the authority "...to establish one central high school for the full education for such pupils of the public schools of the First School District as may possess the requisite qualifications..."
Central High School, the second-oldest continuously-operating public high school in the United States, was therefore chartered in 1836 for those students - poor and rich alike (although no girls) - who showed the propensity to advance beyond a basic grammar school education.
Following construction of the building at Juniper and Market Street, the doors of Central High School opened to students for the first time in October of 1838 with 4 professors and 63 students. It was the first in what became a network of public high schools in the city. Philadelphia Girls Normal School followed in 1848.
George Bezanis is a member of WE 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.
It is disheartening to the members of the Caucus of Working Educators and to all of our hard-working colleagues that the School Reform Commission and Dr. Hite have chosen to show this amount of disregard and disrespect for educators. SRC Chairman Bill Green has said his loyalty is not to the children of Philadelphia, but to his "appointing authority," Governor Corbett. Suing the PFT affirms this attitude.
The District has presented their impositions as something that will increase the effectiveness of Philadelphia Schools. This is not true. “Work rules,” far from being the barrier to achievement that Dr. Hite would like people to believe they are, actually strengthen our ability to advocate for our students and ourselves without fear of unfair reprisals that can occur when administrators are given free reign. Due process assures teachers not that they are beyond reach, but that a standard protocol must be followed for hiring and firing. All workers deserve this assurance in regards to their employment, and if that process is to be functional, it needs to be negotiated, not imposed.
Further, by taking these actions to unilaterally impose work rule changes, the SRC and District are laying the legal foundation for sweeping changes that could wrangle economic concessions in the future. They may be leading with seniority now, but we should be aware of the dangers this legal action poses to a whole range of work rules that protect student learning in even more obvious ways, including class size, curriculum decisions, time for planning quality lessons, school safety issues, and teacher assignment.
It is sad and telling that the District cannot find a way to support students without attacking those who work most closely with them every day. Having the lowest paid workers fund the financial excesses of past failed administrations, or to close the budget gap inflicted by the State not meeting its funding responsibility, does not serve our students. The Caucus of Working Educators would like to see a workable, negotiated discussion and agreement covering all things that concern our students. Disregarding the people who do the most important work in the district is not an example of leadership we can trust.
We work for and with our students every day, and our working conditions are their learning conditions. As we go forward in this climate, all those working in schools need to support each other, and stay aware and informed of all news as issues unfold. In your building, please stay in touch with your PFT building committee, make sure your rep has your personal phone number, talk to your colleagues, and communicate with the building committee about the PFT’s future plans for action.
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--a school district parent--who chose to join.
What experiences led you to join the Caucus of Working Educators?
When it comes to public education in Philadelphia, you can feel powerless or you can seek out like-minded people to empower yourself. I have surrounded myself with a network of amazing education activists who hold me up. Together we keep the faith, do the work, find the high ground, and shine a light into the dark corners of education reform. We are teachers, librarians, counselors, nurses, support staff, parents, and community leaders advocating for the classrooms and schools our children deserve. I consider the creation of the Caucus of WE an extension of the valuable networking that has taken place over the past few years. I hope it will be a means to expand connections among education activists.
What frustrates you about the current state of public education in Philadelphia?
Public education is the foundation of American democracy, but right now the voices of stakeholders are being shut out. Teachers, parents, and students have been systematically excluded from the conversation about the future of our schools. Meanwhile private interest groups continue to buy access to education policy makers at all levels of government. This must change.
What gives you hope for the future?
People are recognizing the power they have to change the system and are making time to do the work. There are over 39,000 Badass Teachers involved in this fight nationally. Here in Philadelphia people are speaking up regularly in SRC meetings. They are learning how to use social media to organize and create alternative media sources. They are investigating and exposing the dark money being used to privatize our schools. The privatization movement is national in scope and the same strategies are recycled over and over. We have the power to learn from Chicago, Newark, New Orleans, New York etc. We have a powerful network of support. We can help each one another. We ARE helping one another. I believe in the power of relationships and in the power of individual actions to inspire change. That gives me hope.
What would you say to other parents or community members who have never thought about joining a group like ours?
Shoneice Reynolds, a Chicago parent, said it best. “I wasn’t an activist until it fell into my backyard.” Even if you don’t perceive yourself to be an activist, the potential is there. We all have talents to bring to this fight. For an issue as important as the future of public education, we must find the time. Teachers, parents, and community stakeholders working together can make change happen.
We hope Alison's story inspires you to join us in our work! You can also e-mail us to get more information about membership at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We're happy to share this post by Robeson High School Teacher and Caucus Member Andrew Saltz:
When I talk to my staff, the words we use in discussing the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers are removed from ownership. “The Union” or “The PFT” or “Them” or “Jerry”. That’s calamity. Love, hate, whatever – if teachers cannot say “my union” or “us” when they talk about fighting for strong schools, we lose. This is the first and most important battle. If you are reading this2 and you are PFT, I’m betting you’ve seen the same thing.
I truly believe words matter. And this, above all else, is why I am excited to be a part of the Caucus of Working Educators.
I’m not laying blame. There are wonderful people working in the PFT and I want to work with them. By forging an open and democratic union, we build trust and ownership. From ownership comes empowerment. And empowered teachers are a scary thing.
One item of the Caucus of Working Educators' platform is Transparency, Accountability, and Shared-Decision Making. To those ends, we are posting a collection of the commentary sent out on Twitter during today's General Membership Meeting.
This kind of commentary has been happening on Twitter for years, and by collecting it, we hope to inspire more members to get involved with our meetings. Less than 10% of the total membership was present, and there was a substantive vote on a member motion! All PFT Members should be informed of union business and present at meetings whenever possible.
Welcome to the new blog of the Caucus of Working Educators! This space will feature content that informs, energizes, and transforms our membership, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and public education in Philadelphia.
We're happy to share a recent post by longtime Philadelphia teacher (and recent transplant to New York) Brian Cohen:
Yesterday marked the first day I have seen or heard of a different caucus within the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT). For decades since their founding there has been a group of individuals in control of the PFT and the collective bargaining rights of all its members. While that group has done a wonderful job of supporting and aiding teachers, nurses, non-teaching assistants (NTAs) across the city, there has been growing discontent in their lack of transparency and need for input from the membership. As a former member and activist within the PFT, I can attest to that. There is now a new group within the PFT attempting to affect change: The Caucus of Working Educators. I am glad to see their platform calls for more transparency from the union leadership and support for public education.
You can read the full post on his blog, where he goes on to describe how caucuses are commonplace and integral to the work in New York.