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 [email protected]

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.



Announcing the Regional Discussion Groups!

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!


Why I Joined: Brendon Jobs

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 high school teacher--who chose to join.
What experiences led you to join the Caucus of Working Educators?brendon.jpg
By my third year in the District, I felt disempowered in my school, but still loved teaching. I was an active Building Committee Member, and I felt an ingrained need to figure out how to take action in the interest on my students and in favor of my career as a Working Educator.
I believe in Social Justice Unionism that works for students, families and educators. I joined the Caucus of Working Educators as a way to amplify my voice in a way that helps inspire innovation and sound policy decision making in the midst of Philadelphia's fight for public education. 

What frustrates you about the current state of public education in Philadelphia?
I am frustrated by how much of my experience as a teacher has been directed by state and district politics. In public school, there should be a balance between compliance measures dictated from on high and the creative, generative work that educators do in the classroom every day. Creativity, not standardization, is what engages our kids and inspires them to think about their futures beyond school. 

What gives you hope for the future? 

Public education plays a vital role in Philadelphia’s revitalization. I deeply believe that, as a community, Philadelphians know that and want a better future for our children. That belief coupled with the energy that my students bring to class each day keep me excited about engaging in this work. 

What would you say to other teachers who are thinking about joining the caucus, but have avoided union politics in the past?
Join! Because WE deserve to have a clear voice in directing the course of our profession. WE deserve to feel heard and represented. WE are rank and file members of the PFT concerned with supporting the work that teachers do each day as stewards of democracy. The call for transparency, professional agency and action has officially been signaled. We need to not just talk about the need for more voice; we need to mobilize as a united body for that change.
We hope Brendon's story inspires you to join us in our work! You can also e-mail us to get more information about membership at [email protected]

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 - [email protected] - 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 [email protected]

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.


Why I Joined: Alison McDowell

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. 

alison.jpgWhat 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 [email protected]


"Words Matter"

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.

Check out the full post on his blog. If you agree, please consider joining us today and coming to our Launch Party March 28th!