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This week, the financially strapped Philadelphia School District asked the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to confirm the district’s right to impose work rules on teachers.
The move, which came after a year of fruitless negotiations between the district and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT), is centered on Act 46, the state law that created the School Reform Commission (SRC). The Act gives the SRC the right to impose terms when a contract is not in place. The work-rule changes, if approved by the court, will allow principals to dictate how teacher prep time is used, and eliminate seniority as the overriding factor in teacher transfers and recalls.
I asked School Superintendent Dr. William Hite why the district thinks it’s necessary to change seniority rules. He said seniority rules reflect the view that jobs are like property. But we don’t own our jobs, he said, no matter how long we’ve had them.
“I want to reframe the conversation and make it about the effectiveness of individuals in those jobs,” Hite told me in an interview. “There’s an urgency around this issue that’s really important to me. We still have too many students who are not graduating. We still have too many students who are not reading at grade level. We have too many still who would classify the teachers they come in contact with as people who don’t care about them or have high expectations for them….
“If we’re going to be judging an individual against something, let’s judge them against something that’s about the outcome for the students versus how long they’ve been in that role.”
For its part, the PFT says the proposed changes are a smokescreen designed to deflect attention from the district’s unwillingness to negotiate fairly on wages and benefits. The district says the changes are about putting the best teachers in front of students. Both sides say they want what’s best for our children, and for the most part, I believe they’re sincere.
However, as the parent of a Philadelphia public school student, and as a man who has worked with young people in a number of Philadelphia schools, I don’t believe it’s enough to want what’s best for our students. We have to give what’s best to our students, and in the rush to make changes to address the district’s finances and work rules, neither side has consistently done so.
While seeking to extract $130 million in savings from five district unions, including the PFT, the district forced principals to agree to a 15 percent pay cut, a shortened work year, and require they begin to make contributions toward their health benefits. When it was unable to get such concessions from the PFT, the district went after work rules. By going through the court rather than negotiation, the district can do what new SRC chairman Bill Green has threatened to do for months. It can impose its will—first on principals and longtime teachers, and then on everyone else.
“When you put that kind of top-down pressure, we think it does send a message,” PFT spokesman George Jackson told me. “[In addition to rule changes] they also want pay cuts from the members of the PFT. You’re already talking about a district where you have the lowest paid teachers in the region, and they want to make us even more so. When you put that kind of downward pressure, it’s not going to help you retain or recruit teachers to the system.”
And that is my greatest concern. Will the turmoil, pay cuts, concessions and rules changes cause our best and brightest educators to leave? Could snatching seniority give our most experienced teachers the incentive to go?
I asked Dr. Hite if he shared those concerns.
“I’m always concerned about that,” Hite told me. “I’m also concerned that without the rule changes we’re still losing some very good people and the thing about this, if you think about it from the economic side of this, in my opinion, districts have to get much better about making a determination about who stays in a school and who leaves the school.
“In the past we’ve been indifferent, as we lose our best people at a pace that outpaces us keeping the mediocre people. A lot of that is because of rules, contracts or state law. What we’re trying to do is incorporate a level of flexibility.… We want those individuals to stay that bring value to a child’s education.”
That’s what I want, too, and that’s why I agree with the district’s proposed changes on seniority. If a less experienced teacher is more effective in a given classroom, that teacher should be in that classroom. If a more experienced teacher is what’s best for a certain assignment, then that teacher should get that assignment. It’s about effectiveness, not longevity. But for me, it’s about much more than that.
We have to figure out ways to make Philadelphia public schools attractive enough to recruit and retain good teachers. And once we have them, we must figure out ways to replicate their success, because when all is said and done, I don’t just want to hear about a commitment to our children. I want proof.
So if the district and the PFT are sincere when they say they want what’s best for our children, they can prove it by working together to fix our schools.