Ask any Philadelphia politician or School District administrator what they think about teachers, and they are likely to shower us with praise and compliments. We are the backbone of this city, and should be honored and supported in everything that we do to serve our students.
Except when that means getting political.
This past spring, Caucus of Working Educators member and Central High School History Teacher George Bezanis spearheaded two efforts to raise awareness of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ ongoing contract battle: a highway billboard and an aerial banner.
At the beginning of May, the Philadelphia Board of Ethics responded to these actions by informing him that he was potentially in violation of city lobbying rules and could be charged up to $2,000 for the alleged infraction.
To be clear: George Bezanis, and all of the citizens who supported these two campaigns through crowdfunding efforts, were merely exercising their First Amendment rights to express their concern about the ongoing lack of a contract between the PFT and the School District of Philadelphia. To suggest otherwise is not about following correct lobbying protocol: it’s about trying to intimidate individuals who dare to speak up about the unpleasant political realities of our district and our city.
Unfortunately, attempting to silence outspoken teachers is a time-honored tradition in Philadelphia. Here are just a few additional examples:
In February of 2011, teachers at the then-public Audenried High School sought to protest the plan to turn their building into a charter. In response, several teachers were suspended by the District and issued a gag order attempting to bar them from speaking to the press. The one teacher who spoke out anyway—Hope Moffett—was eventually fired by the district. The brand-new school building was turned over to charter operator Universal at the end of that school year.
In the 2014-2015 school year, teachers at the Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences made opt-out information widely available to students and their families—information that is legally sanctioned by the State of Pennsylvania. The District issued disciplinary letters to six teachers at the school and threatened a central investigation. After weeks of delays and a lot of press coverage, the district eventually dropped the case.
On May 1st of this year, educators from schools around the city took personal days to participate in the caucus-sponsored May Day of Advocacy. A week later, the District quietly tried to punish teachers for their action by withholding pay for that day -- despite having publicly affirmed that teachers have the right to “self-expression” on their days off. The PFT pushed back publicly, and the Caucus organized a campaign to petition both City Hall and the District. On May 23rd, the District made a statement in writing that no pay would be withheld for this day.
The Caucus of Working Educators is proud to support educators across the city who know that speaking truth to power is a necessary part of securing the schools they deserve. An injury to one is an injury to all.
If our district officials or elected politicians have a problem with this kind of behavior, we encourage them to find a speedy solution to any issues that rank-and-file educators are holding up to the light.
Until these issues are resolved, we will continue speak out -- even if it risks our professional status -- in order to save our profession and our schools.