By Jesse Gottschalk and Dan Symonds
As first-year teachers in Philadelphia public schools, it can be extremely difficult to find the time or the energy to assume any sort of responsibility outside our own classrooms. Lesson planning, grading, and parent phone calls often stand in the way of social lives, laundry, and basic attempts at nutrition and exercise.
And yet, on October 16th, we were blocking North Broad Street, along with thousands of other teachers, students, school staff, and allies, to protest the School District’s latest attack on democracy and public education – this time, its dubiously legal decision to cancel the teachers’ contract. Along with dozens of others (including many other members of the Caucus of Working Educators), we gave testimony before the School Reform Commission – the five member body, appointed by the Governor and Mayor, which exercises complete control over Philadelphia schools.
One of us (Dan) presented a citizen’s plea for courage from a body of politicians who have shown anything but. Dan spoke of the powers of the SRC, demanding to know why the SRC would scapegoat teachers and spending issues rather than attacking the real roots of Philadelphia’s educational crisis – the political decisions made to starve our schools and steer resources away from public education. When Mr. Green spoke up to tepidly reply, “This body does not have the taxing power...” Dan replied, “Yes, but you do have the speaking power.” Green’s reaction? Crickets.
The other one of us (Jesse) testified to the tremendous level of commitment and sacrifice that has become both a routine and necessary part of being a Philadelphia educator. Jesse declared it “shameful” that the caretakers of such a challenged system would make a calculated attack on teachers, and accuse us of not “sharing in the sacrifice,” rather than standing beside those of us on the frontlines committing our lives to providing our students a worthwhile education.
Two weeks later, we each received the same email from the SRC’s Chief of Staff. Chairman Green was interested in meeting with us, individually, to discuss our “concerns and [our] experiences as a teacher.”
It is not often that you are given the opportunity to meet individually with the person who essentially is our boss’s boss’s boss.
We turned the meeting down.
To be clear – we love the idea of having a School District leader who genuinely listens to teachers. Just like teachers should listen to students and families, it is essential for the leadership of an urban school system to be responsive to the people who actually work within the individual classrooms.
We think it is extremely important for the School District to take teacher perspectives into account when it comes to school conditions, employment policies, and other ways in which the School District influences the circumstances in which teachers work.
We are also aware that all of these things – school conditions, employment policies, and the circumstances in which teachers work – are part of the teachers’ contract. The same contract which the District has refused to negotiate, and recently threw in the dumpster.
And Chairman Green expects us to go behind our union’s back, to discuss the same issues he has refused to engage with our leadership about? We will not.
We don’t know Chairman Green’s motivations in calling a meeting with us. We can’t, since he declined to respond to our questions asking what he wanted to discuss. However, we refuse to take part in any action which might seek to divide or undermine our union, especially as we are calling on the District to negotiate with our union leadership.
Since Chairman Green refused to let us know his intentions in meeting with us, allow us to set forward one possibility. The two of us have something in common: we are new teachers. This distinguishes us from the other WE members who testified on October 16th – none of whom received the same invitation.
So why would Chairman Green want to meet with us? We fear that he might have in mind the day when he could say the following: “I recently met with some teachers – good, hard-working teachers, the kind we need more of in this District. But if we keep the old teacher tenure laws of the teachers’ contract, then these teachers are in danger of losing their jobs.”
So in case that is indeed Mr. Green’s message, allow us to say that, while we do care deeply about our jobs, we care even more about the job – restoring teaching as a viable, supported, and respected career option.
As new teachers, we believe wholeheartedly that experience matters to educators. Research as well as anecdotal evidence overwhelmingly bears this out. We want to work in a system that cultivates the profession of teaching – protecting and supporting teachers in order to make all teachers as effective as possible, rather than scapegoating them for problems and undermining their job security and working conditions.
Meanwhile, those oft-demonized protections like tenure amount to a requirement of due process – a necessary protection for teachers like us, who wish to remain politically active in advocating for stronger schools, against vindictive leaders. Further, in a school system where rampant teacher turnover is dwarfed by catastrophic levels of principal turnover, these policies protect teachers from attacks by inexperienced principals with little understanding of classroom instruction or effective practices. We unequivocally stand in support of these protections for our colleagues.
We stand ready to engage in public dialogue with Chairman Green as soon as he concludes his negotiations with our union leadership. In the meantime, if Chairman Green truly believes in being responsive and democratic, we encourage him to vote to dissolve the SRC and replace it with a democratically elected school board which will have no choice but to listen to the will of our city.
[In refusing our meeting with Chairman Green, we were joined by the other WE members who testified on October 16th, and released an open letter with support from the Caucus.]
Ghandi famously said "be the change you wish to see in the world". At this weekend's Working Educators First Annual Convention, we'll be sharing our visions for vibrant public schools and communities- and figuring out together how we can 'be the change' in our schools and communities to get there.
Please join us to share your ideas and energy to defend public education and save our schools from the ground up!
***Newly added!: Lunchtime Tabletop Conversations. Topics will include our pre-service teacher campaign, opt-out, charter school teachers, and more.
Ready to make change in your school? To defend and transform public education in Philly and beyond?
This convention is NOT your typical education or organizing event -- it will bring together stakeholders from across the city to help transform our public education system.
We will be discussing issues relating to all educators and allies fighting for our communities and schools- parent and student involvement, charter schools, and organizing skills for everyone, just to name a few (see full program below).
Featuring organizers from Labor Notes, special guests from NYC's MORE Caucus, and Keynote Speaker Dr. Yohuru Williams.
Join us to build educator power in Philly through practical organizing skills, strengthening our community, and planning for the future:
Philadelphia, PA 19106
***Full Convention Program***
10:15-11:00: Opening Plenary: Creating the Schools our Children Deserve
Featuring Yohuru Williams
11:00-12:15: Discussion Sessions:
~More than just Health Care!
The Corporate Takeover of Public Education
~Lessons from Chicago
How to Reinvigorate Our Union from Below
~Taking Back Our City
Communities Standing Up for Democracy and Accountability
12:15-1:00: Lunch & Tabletop Discussions
-Pre-Service Teacher Campaign
-Charter School Teacher Allies
-Stories from MORE
-Start your own!
1:00-2:15: Training Sessions:
~Are You a Social Justice Unionist?
Changing the Culture in Your School
Parents and Teachers Working Together
Secrets of a Successful Organizer
2:15-3:00: Closing Plenary: What's Next? Building the Movement
If you have been reading or watching any news over the past few years, you have probably heard the name ALEC. Who or what is ALEC and why are they so interested in education “reform” in Pennsylvania and across the country?
ALEC stands for the American Legislative Exchange Council. This organization has an 8 million dollar annual budget that they use to write a “library” of sample bills that they want passed in as many states as they can influence. Outlets like the Center for Media and Democracy rightly call them a “corporate bill mill”.
Even if you are not quite sure what ALEC is, you have likely heard of some of their most popular legislation: “Stand Your Ground” laws, “Parent Trigger” bills, and voter ID requirements are some of ALEC’s most wide-spread and anti-democratic offerings.
These bills have been made law in many states, and some are currently rearing their ugly heads in Pennsylvania.
Education advocates believe that ALEC is now interested in the “reforming” of public education because there is much money to be made for private businesses as more schools are turned over to management companies and for-profit businesses receive tax breaks for funding private schools (through vouchers and tax credits).
The parent trigger bills, for example, allow a small part of a community to vote to turn-over its public school to a for-profit operator—most of these bills allow 180 days to undo a public institution that has served a community for many years.
Philadelphia’s own State Senator (and possible Philadelphia mayoral candidate) Anthony Hardy Williams—a charter school proponent, and also a failed charter-school operator--has sponsored just such a bill in Pennsylvania.
Another way to make sure public schools are turned over to private companies is to ease the charter school authorizing rules and regulations. In these ALEC-sponsored bills, authority to approve new charters is removed from local agencies such as school boards and school districts and given to the state itself, or other institutions such as universities. This forces districts to pay for schools they did not authorize and cannot afford and steals much-needed funding from true public schools.
Unfortunately, many Pennsylvania politicians have been taken in by ALEC’s anti-democratic agenda. Some are receiving campaign contributions from ALEC-sponsored PACs in order to bring ALEC’s agenda to our state, and some are members of ALEC or are simply sponsoring ALEC’s bills. What follows is a short list of ALEC-influenced politicians and their organizational allies in Pennsylvania. Some of these politicians have accepted tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars from ALEC-affiliated groups.
- Sen. John Eichelberger (R-30)
- Sen. Lloyd Smucker (R-13)
- Rep. Warren Kampf (R-157)
- Sen. Anthony Williams (D-8)
- Rep. Fred Keller (R-85)
- Rep. Garth Everett (R-84)
- Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-12)
- Re. Matt Baker (R-68)
- Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R-34)
- Rep. Scott Perry (R-4)
Additionally, here's a list of ALEC-influenced power players in Pennsylvania:
- Charter school guru and big Corbett contributor Vahan Gureghian
- Cyber Schools (especially K-12, Inc.)
- American Federation of Children and Students First PACs
- The Commonwealth Foundation
- Susquehanna International Group
Thanks to the Center for Media and Democracy for its extensive and interesting report. We suggest you read the whole report for a comprehensive understanding of ALEC's reach in Pennsylvania.
By Anissa Weinraub
For the past couple weeks, my school has been buzzing with buildup to Halloween. It is a tradition at the Academy @ Palumbo to host a "Parade of Horrors" -- where students get a chance to strut in front of their peers (i.e. the ENTIRE student body) in their costumes and compete for prizes. And they got into it today -- in terms of the creativity and playfulness of the costumed contestants, as well as the extreme positivity and support pouring from the audience of their peers. In what may seem like an anomaly from the usual depiction of Philly teenagers, this morning our auditorium was filled with hundreds of screaming youth, all focused on celebrating one another.
In advance of our first annual convention on Saturday, November 8th, we're previewing some of the day's sessions on our blog. This preview comes from Amy Roat, who works at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences and will be leading the session on Social Justice Unionism.
Many teachers consider themselves committed to social justice in their classrooms, but don't connect that to their union. Why do these two things go together?
You've been quoted by practically every news publication in Philadelphia, and the New York Times, too. Many people are in awe of your work, but might feel intimidated by all that you do. Can you describe what the first steps are to becoming a more outspoken union member?
A year ago in August, PFT Communications Director George Jackson called me a few days before school. Our local Fox News was looking for a regular teacher to speak about the tragic cuts we were facing in 2014. I was recommended by my staffer who had to listen to a lot of my views at the monthly Building Rep Meetings. I was terrified of sounding dumb and nearly balked. George had a PR guy call to prep me and talk me into it. after we talked for a bit he said, "Hey, you're the expert, you know what you're saying and you sound knowledgeable and sincere. You can do it."
Based on your experience, what's one change that you think people should make to improve how their union operates in their building?
The teachers in my school are friends - We go to happy hour. We eat cake when someone has a birthday. We have a shower if someone gets married or has a baby. If someone is sick, we ask after them. If someone needs a ride, we drive them. This is how we build our relationships and our school-based union. We actively include new members. They become family.
When there is discord, peace-makers step up. It is a labor, but it is a labor of love.
Change the way you think about THE union. The union is not just the people who work on Chestnut Street. We are the union. The teachers in this school. We meet monthly, including, secretaries, counselors, paras and the nurse. We talk to the principal as a Building Committee about our mutual concerns and possible solutions. We develop our own game plan for pickets or actions. Together. No one on Chestnut Street needs to tell us what, when, why or how we do it. We are professional, we do it all together because we are THE union!
Amy is just one of many Caucus members who will be sharing her wisdom and skills at the convention. Register now and learn more from her on November 8th!
- Early in the week, talk with your colleagues about how your school can GOTV in your community! Discuss quick points of interest to tell families about what resources have been missing from your school, what is needed, and how voting can help public education and democracy in our city.
- Make plans for a neighborhood canvass around your building any day before election day.
- On Wednesday, 10/29, help PCAPS complete their "voter pledge card" campaign by helping them stamp and mail postcards to Philadelphia voters at the Fight for Philly office (846 N. Broad Street)
- On Thursday, 10/30, participate in a phone bank with PFT members.
- On Friday, 10/31, hold a special edition of Full Funding Friday urging parents, families, and passersby to GOTV!
- Take a moment to do a teach-in with your kids on the importance of voting. Send a letter home encouraging parents to continue the lesson by taking their kids with them to vote on the big day!
- If you want to do some direct work on your own time, contact Wolf for PA's Regional Director in Philadelphia, Stephen Ekema-Agbaw at firstname.lastname@example.org or call at 570-854-0499 to coordinate plans with the Wolf Campaign.
NE Philly8566 Bustleton AveNW Philly (Germantown)5537 Germantown Aveand 5730 Greene St.
South PhillySheet Metal Workers Local 191301 Columbus BlvdWest Philly4153 Lancaster Ave
- VOTE! Do everything you can to make sure everyone else votes too! Organize and take action!
- Post pictures in your WE & PFT shirts! Use the hashtags #WeVoteAskUs and #PFTGOTV
- If you are not taking a personal day to work the polls, you can still get out during your lunch hour or after school and encourage people to vote.
This post will be continually updated with more opportunities and staging areas. Check back soon! Once again, it is vitally important that people get out there and KNOCK ON DOORS!
Check out this amazing commentary from African-American male educators in Philly -- including Caucus members Brendon Jobs and Sam Reed -- and remember that Philadelphia educators remain caring, thoughtful, and innovative despite the attacks on our work and our livelihood.
I am speaking today to Stand Up For The Truth! This Commission took an unprecedented action in a deceitful manner and with the support of this whole body. It was most disturbing that the newest member, Mrs. Neff, was in full cahoots with this plan since a lot of people viewed her appointment with hope. That hope was dashed on Monday when Mrs. Neff joined Mrs. Simms as silenced speakers of truth. Ms. Simms' audacious comment “We have to stop playing games with children” would have been laughable except for the harm it causes. The largest players of a game are sitting right here in front of us and in Harrisburg, Mrs. Simms.
I am picking one truth to talk about today. The truth that what the SRC did on Monday is only a piece of a bigger plan that has been in place for 13 years and is succeeding amazingly well. That truth is close down public education and hand it over to private, corporate interests. Accomplish that mission by asserting that public education is failing.
Doc. Hite was a graduate of the Broad Superintendents Academy. This Academy is funded by billionaire Eli Broad, who is a member of the 1%. Eli Broad is one of an influential group of billionaires who believe they can control the landscape of education for their own profit, benefit and ideology. The method they use is simple. Control the dialogue!! Put out the sound bites of what sounds reasonable and wrap those sound bites, slogans and messages in myths and lies. Get mainstream media to print it, politicians to support it (because they bankroll the politicians)…then implement policy.
Dr. Hite, this commission and a large number of our politicians are implementing the policies that support the ideology of the Broad Academy.
*Slash and burn public schools and open charters in the name of choice
*Attack and attempt to weaken unions
*Strangle budgets to help the illusion of schools failing and make it easier to promote your slash and burn policy
*Implement the business model of chaos and disruption
*Introduce high stakes testing and tie it to school and teacher evaluation and high school graduation
*Force Common Core Standards onto schools, standards that are mired in controversy and debate
*Enlist TFA recruits who enter the classroom with 5 weeks of training and who rarely stay in the profession for more than a few years in place of fully accredited, qualified, dedicated teachers
Here’s the thing about all of these policies - they are built on the premise that public schools are failing....our public schools are not failing!! Zip codes are failing. This commission does not use evidence or research…here are just a few respected authors that refute your policies with evidence and research. But, hey, that is not the dialogue that will allow you to pillage and plunder our schools and neighborhoods. Our urban schools are a reflection of the larger problems in our society and deserve unfailing support in every sense of the word and honest dialogue about ways to improve that are carried on with educators and community members AT THE TABLE.
On Thursday, October 16th, ten members of the Caucus testified before the SRC. This week we will be posting some of their testimonies in written form.
My name is Jesse Gottschalk, and I am a 3rd grade teacher at Henry Lea Elementary, a PFT member, and a member of the Caucus of Working Educators.
And when I tell people that I’m a teacher in a Philadelphia public school, people respond with wide eyes. They treat it like such an immense challenge and sacrifice, that I start to wonder. What does it mean that one of the most important careers in the world is now considered so impossible in this city that people think you have to be some kind of martyr to do this?
And the sad part is, I can’t say they’re wrong. In order to do my job, I’ve already spent $1,000 out of pocket on this school year, and I consider it an easy day if I work for less than 10 hours. I’ve not had a lot of easy days. And meeting teachers across the District, I see that that is not an exception, that this kind of work is the norm, because with as little support as we get, it becomes impossible to do our jobs without that level of commitment. And I’m a new teacher, so I haven’t had to deal with frozen wages or unsupported graduate expenses like my colleagues.
We all say that our schools are in crisis. We are in crisis. And to the SRC, I say that I know that you did not create this crisis. We all know that. But as teachers, we say that you should be standing beside us. And to take the unprecedented step of backing out of negotiations…cancelling our contract…in a secret meeting? And then to stand by while your allies go on the airwaves – and you yourselves join them! – to call us the enemy? Saying we are not sharing in the sacrifice? It’s shameful. It’s tragic.
Furthermore – setting aside the fact that our Union has already said it is willing to negotiate on benefits, may I just say: Dr. Hite called this "sharing in the sacrifice as we’re trying to navigate tough fiscal times," but let me be clear. This is not just about “tough fiscal times.” Teachers unions are perhaps the most publicly vilified professional group in the country -- any sacrifices made in "tough fiscal times" will NOT be restored when times get better. And we all know this to be true.
One of the most profound honors of being a teacher is getting to work alongside colleagues who are some of the most selfless, dedicated, intelligent people I have ever met. Teachers sacrifice every day to keep our contracts with our students. But our contract with you can be erased – just like that? What message does that send to our students? What message does that send about our city? I’m ashamed of this body’s actions. How can YOU not be?
On Thursday, October 16th, ten members of the Caucus testified before the SRC. This week we will be posting some of their testimonies in written form.
I am a parent of an 8th grader and a community member of the Caucus of Working Educators, Alliance of Philadelphia Public Schools and Opt-Out Philly. I am very aware that the budget crisis in Philadelphia is a symptom of no full fair funding formula and years of fewer and fewer dollars being sent to this county and the entire state. Then I heard the news last Monday, that the SRC unanimously voted in favor of a cancelled contract without any input from the PFT and hid the announcement for the meeting in a clandestine manner in the back of a newspaper. And I realized that the problems of funding public education is not just a Harrisburg problem, it is right here at 440 North Broad Street too.
This latest and lowest act is a blow to our morale, our dignity, and overall trust. The last time I checked every union in this city (no matter the outcome) was given the opportunity to talk, haggle, and talk some more until a consensus was met. And if this can happen in one of the largest school districts in the country than it can happen anywhere, and it will become a place that repels new talent and will further the divide that discourages teachers of color from joining the work force. And since fairness and legality has been thrown out of the window altogether they may not even have to be recruited and hired in the first place, but I digress.
This house has been burning for a very long time. But, Monday symbolized the complete ashes and ruin that public education has been eroded to by corporate interests, racists and unequal policies, and simple stupidity.
Fortunately for the children of Philadelphia there is a phoenix attempting to rise from the ashes in the form of its citizens. Citizens who are no longer willing to be bamboozled and led astray. Citizens who are willing to fight and return this city back to an even better place by reforming and reinstating democratically elected local control. Citizens who are willing to see this entity erased!