What Happened at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences

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.


Starting Today, Philly Teachers Sound the Alarm


We are thrilled to announce a new campaign -

Philly Teachers Sound the Alarm 

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 alarm@workingeducators.org.


What are the labor rights of Philadelphia teachers?

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.
  • 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.


A Brief Labor History of Philadelpha's Public Schools, Part 2

 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 contact@workingeducators.org.

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.


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.



"Veteran Teachers who Police Their Own"

If you missed in on Monday evening, check out Caucus Member and Robeson High School Teacher Andrew Saltz's recent interview on WHYY's Newsworks.

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.



Deceit in Your District E-mail

Update: Although this e-mail is designed to look like it comes from the school district, SDP has clarified that they did not send the e-mail -- it is spam from the outside. How Free to Learn came into possession of employee e-mail addresses is unclear at this time.

Yesterday, school district employees received an e-mail titled "Wise words on teacher evaluations."

This message, sent from “Priya Abraham - Free To Teach,” looks like any other administrative announcement, and talked about DC Union Leader George Parker’s work with “reforms removing seniority.”

What’s the story behind George Parker? Here’s the info you need, courtesy of Ken Derstine and the Defend Public Education Blog:

On June 3, 2010, at their union leader’s urging, the Washington D.C. Teachers Union ratified a contract with the Washington D.C. School District, headed by Chancellor Michelle Rhee, which included performance pay linked to test score growth, and a weakening of seniority and tenure. Union President George Parker called the ratification of the contract “a great day for teachers and students.” On November 10, 2010, Parker was voted out of office by the union rank-and-file. On May 20, 2011, Michelle Rhee announced that Parker was joining her corporate reform organization StudentsFirst.

And what’s the story behind Free to Teach? It states right on their website that they’re a part of the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative lobbying group that is actively pushing to destroy unions in Pennsylvania. In fact, they’re one of the groups supporting legislation that would ban public sector unions from collecting dues from member paychecks!

Let "Free to Teach" know that working educators object to both their actions and their viewpoint!

Respond to the sender - connect@freetoteach.org - and send them a note of complaint. Educate them about how it is not appropriate to use their administrative channels for any kind of politicking. The SDP acceptable use policy describes spam as any email that is “annoying or unnecessary.” Those are two of many words we could use to describe this message!

Most importantly, forward this information to all of your colleagues so that they are aware of the true nature of this message! Knowledge is power.  We need to keep ourselves educated if we are going to protect our union and our schools from being dismantled.

For regular updates like this one, sign up for our mailing list or become a member today!


What do the proposed work rule changes mean?

What do the proposed work rule changes mean?

On Monday, March 24th, the School District of Philadelphia announced that it was suing the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers in an effort to impose changes to several work rules.

Here are the three main points of the SDP proposal and lawsuit, along with talking points to help working educators make sense of the proposals with each other and their communities.

We strongly encourage you to download a PDF of this document and distribute it to all of your fellow PFT members. You should also check out the full PFT contract as well as the complete text of the SDP lawsuit.


IMPOSITION #1: “Assigning and transferring teachers in a way that best meets student and school needs,” specifically full site selection for incoming teachers, and principal control of removal.

  • This proposal implies that the current contract does not share these goals. This is not true. The current contract actually states that its first objective regarding Assignment and Transfer is “To distribute equitably professional staff qualifications and experience among all schools in the School District” (Article XVIII, Item C).
  • This proposal assumes that the principal is a constant, trusted presence in their school. Unfortunately, in September 2013, a full 25% of schools had a brand new principal for the coming school year, and that number has increased as turnover continues (The Notebook). Principals alone do not represent the institutional knowledge that keeps schools stable and functioning. Veteran teachers provide continuity and are what make families confident in the education of their children.
  • According to the PFT contract, there is already a process in place for site selection. “The Principal and the Staff Selection Committee will reach consensus on the most qualified candidate for each available position. In the event that the Committee fails to reach consensus, the Principal shall make the selection from among the three (3) most qualified applicants as ranked by the Committee.” (Article XVIII, Item C). Most schools already choose to be full site select, but administrative turnover can make the process inconsistent. For site selection to be a universally trusted practice, educators need an actual say hiring decisions, and administrations need to be held accountable for implementing the process fairly.


IMPOSITION #2: “Focusing teacher preparation time on improving instruction and professional development.” In the lawsuit, this is described as “giving the school principal the ability to direct the uses that teachers make of preparation time.”

  • Again, the proposal implies that the current contract does not share these goals. This is not true. In its first point regarding Teaching Assignments and Preparation Periods, the contract states that, “teachers will exercise professional judgment in their use of preparation time in order to further professional work and to promote greater classroom effectiveness” (Article XVIII, Item B1a). For the district to take away this autonomy says that they do not consider teachers to be professionals.
  • High school and elementary teachers are guaranteed only 45 minutes of prep time a day. Middle school teachers are guaranteed 54 (non-advisors) or 72 minutes (advisors) a day. In addition, few schools have regular staff meeting or common planning time built into their schedules. True reform would revise schedules to make time for authentic staff collaboration without cannibalizing prep time.
  • The contract already requires that, “as part of their regular workday and work year… teachers shall annually be required to participate in at least twenty-eight (28) hours of scheduled mandated professional development” (Article X, Item B1). This includes induction and new teacher coaching. Instead of taking away precious prep time from educators, how could these already-existing programs be made more effective?


IMPOSITION #3: “Providing additional flexibility so that resources can be allocated to best meet student needs.” According to the lawsuit, SDP is seeking to outsource substitute teachers, relax “minimum staffing requirements” for counselors, librarians, and teachers, and do away with a June 30 deadline for layoffs.

  • Again: the PFT contract already seeks to “distribute equitably” the resources of the School District of Philadelphia. This is the way to best meet student needs.
  • Several points in the PFT work rules seek to ensure that schools have the basic staff that they need in order to function. In addition, the most recent contract proposals by the PFT have sought to guarantee the presence of a full-time school nurse and librarian in all schools. What has the district done to secure these necessities? How will “relaxing the minimum” solve these shortages across the district?
  • This request is being made with the accompanying claim that the District cannot afford adequate staff and resources, so drastic measures must be taken. This claim wrongly targets working educators as the solution to the District’s financial woes. If there are not enough resources for all students, then the District’s first order of business should be securing adequate funding for all schools, not exploiting its workforce in a shortsighted attempt close the gap.


What can PFT members do?

Distribute this document widely. Use these talking points as the basis for your discussions with each other and with the larger community. Inform the public about how the PFT work rules ensure stable, equitable, quality education for all public students. Remember: our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions!




A Brief Labor History of Philadelpha's Public Schools, Part I

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 contact@workingeducators.org.

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.


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.



Response To Today's SDP Announcement

           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.           

For up-to-date information, please follow the Caucus of Working Educators on Twitter: @CaucusofWE and on Facebook.