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Are Philly Schools Headed the Way of Detroit?

detroit

by Christopher Paslay

It’s going to take more than a “fair state-funding formula” to save Philly schools.  

Tonight at 6:00 pm at the Licacouras Center, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers will learn important updates on the current contract negotiations with the Philadelphia School District and decide what steps to take next.  PFT President Jerry Jordan has already proposed having teachers pay more for their health benefits, in addition to taking a pay freeze for one year.  The School District, however, wants more.  The School Reform Commission is asking for teachers to take pay cuts up to 13% percent for five years, among other things.

The Obama administration provided $45 million in debt forgiveness to Pennsylvania, and both sides are counting on Governor Corbett, who is holding the money hostage as a way to get the PFT to agree to pay cuts, to eventually release the cash to the School District.

The PFT may agree to pay cuts, or they may not.  Corbett may give the $45 million to Philly schools, or he may not.  In the long run, none of this will keep the Philadelphia School District from collapsing under it’s own weight; tragically, it appears that the PSD is heading the way of Detroit.

Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer writes:

If there’s an iron rule in economics, it is Stein’s Law (named after Herb, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers): “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”

Detroit, for example, no longer can go on borrowing, spending, raising taxes and dangerously cutting such essential services as street lighting and police protection. So it stops. It goes bust.

Cause of death?  Corruption, both legal and illegal, plus a classic case of reactionary liberalism in which the governing Democrats — there’s been no Republican mayor in half a century — simply refused to adapt to the straitened economic circumstances that followed the post-World War II auto boom.

Corruption of the criminal sort was legendary. The former mayor currently serving time engaged in a breathtaking range of fraud, extortion and racketeering. And he didn’t act alone. The legal corruption was the cozy symbiosis of Democratic politicians and powerful unions, especially the public-sector unions that gave money to elect the politicians who negotiated their contracts — with wildly unsustainable health and pension benefits.

When our great industrial competitors were digging out from the rubble of World War II, Detroit’s automakers ruled the world. Their imagined sense of inherent superiority bred complacency. Management grew increasingly bureaucratic and inflexible. Unions felt entitled to the extraordinary wages, benefits and work rules they’d bargained for in the fat years. In time, they all found themselves being overtaken by more efficient, more adaptable, more hungry foreign producers.

The market ultimately forced the car companies into reform, restructuring, the occasional bankruptcy and eventual recovery. The city of Detroit, however, lacking market constraints, just kept overspending — $100 million annually since 2008. The city now has about $19 billion in obligations it has no chance of meeting. So much city revenue had to be diverted to creditors and pensioners there was practically nothing left to run the city. Forty percent of the streetlights don’t work, two-thirds of the parks are closed and emergency police response time averages nearly an hour — if it ever comes at all.

Sound familiar?  Here are some similarities between The Philadelphia School District and Detroit:

Corruption

Philadelphia has been governed by Democrats for half a century—there hasn’t been a Republican mayor in over 60 years.  Corruption of the criminal sort has also been legendary.  In 2007 Vince Fumo, a Democrat who represented a South Philadelphia district in the Pennsylvania Senate from 1978 to 2008, was the subject of a Federal grand jury that named Fumo in a 137 count indictment, including the misuse of $1 million of state funds and $1 million from his charity for personal and campaign use; he was found guilty in 2009 of all 137 counts (ironically, Fumo just got out last month and is now living in a West Philly halfway house).

This is a common theme in Philadelphia.  According to NBC 10:

You don’t have to look far to find other Philadelphia politicians who went to prison on corruption charges and came back for a second act.

In fact, there’s a whole vocabulary about it among city pols. They’ll say somebody “had a problem” and went away. Many of the city’s 69 Democratic ward leaders used to call the federal pen at Allenwood “the 70th Ward” – kind of the way celebrities talk about rehab. It could happen to anybody.

The late state Sen. Henry “Buddy” Cianfrani came back after his prison term and worked as a political consultant and powerbroker for many years. Former City Councilman Jimmy Tayoun, always the entrepreneur, started a political newspaper, the Philadelphia Public Record, which is still going and is read by city and state pols everywhere.

Former U.S. Rep. Michael “Ozzie” Myers, who went down in the Abscam scandal, is still influential in South Philly, where his brother Matthew is a ward leader.

As for current fraud, waste, and abuse: From 2008 to 2011, the Ackerman administration spent nearly $10 billion, with little to show for it other than a detailed audit of the PSD’s financial practices by the IRS (and this doesn’t include the usual antics from the usual suspects, such as Chaka Fattah jr., etc.).

Pensions

Although Philadelphia schoolteachers are not paid nearly as well as their suburban counterparts (we face harsher working conditions, have less resources, and spend thousands of dollars of our own money), funding teacher pensions has become a legitimate concern.  Unfortunately, the baby-boomers who were once contributing to the system are now taking from it, and this has called into question the sustainability of the entire system, prompting many of my generation to ask the question: will our pensions be around in 20 years when we retire?

Deteriorating Resources

It is true that Philadelphia public schools are looking eerily like the city of Detroit.  Instead of nonworking streetlights they are nonworking computers and heating units; instead of closed parks there are closed schools; and instead of long response times from police and fire fighters, there are long response times from counselors, school security, and nurses—because they are woefully lacking.

Tax, Borrow, Spend

Like Detroit, Philadelphia continues to borrow, spend, and raise taxes.

As reported in March of 2012 by phillymag.com:

Counting the previous increases in the parking tax, hotel tax, sales tax and property tax, Nutter is on course to raise taxes all five years he has been in office. . . . Nutter is on course for a tax-hiking legacy unmatched since Mayor Rizzo’s fiscal insanity drove the city to the brink of bankruptcy.

In a city that already had one of the highest overall tax burdens in the country, five years of additional tax hikes could take a generation to undo. The result is an even more uncompetitive city.

Last year alone, the city borrowed $300 million to run the schools, and still faces a $1.1 billion budget deficit over the next five years.

Solution?

Tragically, the Philadelphia establishment continues to turn a blind eye to this situation, and continues to blame Governor Corbett, who’s been in office less than three years, for the mess they find themselves in.  Sure, Corbett’s funding formula has put Philadelphia in a pinch financially (although he’s given Philly Schools nearly $1.3 billion in funds this year alone), but fixing this formula is only a small part of stabilizing the PSD as a whole.

What Philadelphia needs is a paradigm shift—a total change in attitude and culture.  At the core of this is the need for everyone—parents, students, teachers, administrators, etc.—to go from passengers to drivers.  We need to stop being victims and start being captains of our own ships.

How do we do this?  Stop being sheep.  Stop groupthink and continuing to vote for the status quo.  Embrace individual achievement over stagnating collectivism.  Parent your children (that means you, fathers).  Pay your property taxes.  Get involved in your children’s educations.  Hold one another accountable.  Meet deadlines.  Speak out against corruption (yes, blow the whistle and snitch!)  Show up for work, on time.  Enforce current policy—gun laws, student discipline, truancy, etc.—before enacting new, unenforceable (dog and pony show) regulations.  Give no more than a second chance to anyone.

Nothing is free.  There is no perpetual motion machine.  Debts and deficits, at the local as well as the federal level, are real and mean something.  The fantasy that there exists some unlimited amount of money out there in limbo that some rich, (perhaps racist), miserly politician or one-percenter is hoarding (and that we need to rally or march to extract) is just that—a fantasy.  As Philadelphians we need to work together and make do for ourselves.  We need to sacrifice, and make do.

A new state-funding formula is just the first step in saving city schools.  If we don’t change our culture, the Philadelphia School District will end up just like the Motor City.

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Advice to Future Teachers: Stay Away from Philly

by Christopher Paslay

The Philadelphia School District’s recent contract proposal offers a dismal future for new teachers. 

In light of the recent contract proposal the Philadelphia School District made to the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, I have some advice for college graduates considering teaching in the city next fall: don’t bother.

Documents recently circulated by the PFT about the proposal paint a dismal picture for future Philadelphia teachers.

First, pay.  Under the current contract, first year teachers make $45,360.  Under the proposed new rules, however, first year teachers will be required to take a 10 percent cut in pay, and contribute 10 percent to their health benefits, bringing their salary down to about $39,000.  Because there is a pay freeze in place under the new contract, this will be their salary for the next four years until 2017.

“Benefits” under the new proposal, for the record, no longer include dental, eye, or prescription, as the PFT’s Health & Welfare Fund would be eliminated.

After 2017, teachers will be eligible for a raise based on a performance evaluation from their principal.  But because of the budget, they’ll most likely be responsible for buying things like paper, paying for their own copies, and using outdated textbooks and technology.

They’ll also be responsible for safety, as school security has been cut.  According to the Inquirer’s Pulitzer Prize winning series “Assault on Learning,” from 2005-06 through 2009-10, the district reported 30,333 serious incidents.  There were 19,752 assaults, 4,327 weapons infractions, 2,037 drug and alcohol related violations, and 1,186 robberies.  Students were beaten by their peers in libraries and had their hair pulled out by gangs in the hall.  Teachers were assaulted over 4,000 times.

The ways in which this could impact a teacher’s performance evaluation are many.

Statistics show over half the teachers who start in 2013 won’t even be in Philadelphia by 2017.  But those skilled and strong enough to remain in service, the new contract will ensure that they will have no protection to keep the programs they’ve worked years to build in place at their schools; the elimination of seniority will leave them vulnerable to be separated from their students and transferred anywhere in the entire city.

Conversely, those teachers struggling at a particular school and who are not a good fit with their students will be stuck there; the new contract no longer allows teachers to voluntarily put in for a transfer.

The proposal lifts the limit on the number of classes taught outside a teacher’s area of certification and on the number of subjects taught.  In other words, an English teacher could be required to prepare and teach algebra, social science, Spanish, chemistry, and British literature, all in the same day.

The new proposal lifts class size limits and opens the door to mass lectures, like in college. Imagine 50 plus teenagers in one big room listening to a teacher lecture about the Pythagorean Theorem, or the periodic table of elements, or iambic pentameter in a Shakespearean sonnet.  A winning formula for sure.

Teachers, under the new proposal, will work unlimited evening meetings without pay, and cannot leave the building without principal approval.

Because the district wants flexibility, the new proposal includes no specific grantees for teachers’ lounges, water fountains, parking lots, accommodation rooms for disruptive students, clothing lockers, or desks, among other things. Just because these things aren’t specifically mentioned in the contract, as Superintendent Hite recently noted, doesn’t mean the School District won’t provide them.

Of course, there’s no guarantee the School District will provide them, either.  That’s the catch.  When an organization is strapped for cash, like the School District currently is, there’s no telling what they’ll do.

“We believe teachers are professionals, just like architects, lawyers, doctors,” Superintendent Hite said. “We want a contract that reflects that.”

The only problem is, architects, lawyers, and doctors don’t make $39,000 a year with no chance for a raise until 2017, and aren’t subject to assaults, sub-par working conditions, and outdated materials and technology.

Hence my advice to future teachers: stay away from Philadelphia and seek a district that respects its educators.

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Filed under Dr. William Hite, PFT

Inquirer editorial insults teachers and oversimplifies education reform

 

 

 

Using clichés and sarcasm, the Inquirer endorses the district’s recycled ideas.      

 

by Christopher Paslay

 

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that students struggling academically need more, not less, time in the classroom.”

 

This is a quote from a recent Inquirer editorial headlined, “A new deal for schools”.  It wasn’t the condescending tone of the article that caught my attention, but the fact that the phrase It doesn’t take a rocket scientist got past the newspaper’s copy editors and actually made it in print; the Inquirer’s cliché police must have been asleep at the wheel when this article crossed their desk. 

 

Anyway, in this rather generic editorial, the Inquirer sarcastically criticizes the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers for wanting to fight for real education reform, and for wanting to be treated with a minimum level of respect.  In particular, they comment about the PFT’s opposition to extending the school day by 24 minutes.

 

“Do the math, Mr. Jordan,” the Inquirer writes. “Twenty-four minutes lost every day for 180 days? That’s 72 hours, or the equivalent of about 10 days’ worth of learning. Philly kids need those minutes in class.” 

 

Since when is the Inquirer concerned with instructional time?  For the past nine months, their editorial writers (headed by Harold Jackson) have churned-out numerous articles insisting that children be allowed to eat breakfast in the classroom during first period, despite the fact it would cut into instructional time and disrupt learning (and despite the fact that all Philadelphia children are already served breakfast free of charge in their school cafeterias 20 to 30 minutes before first period begins). 

 

Can you do the math on those precious minutes, Mr. Jackson? 

 

Increasing instructional time is not always the answer.  Especially when an overwhelming majority of students aren’t even taking advantage of the instruction already being offered by Philadelphia schools.

 

District data shows that 7,500 students cut school a day—they never make it to the front door.  More than 20 percent of students enrolled in Philadelphia schools were picked-up by truancy officers on the street during the 2007-08 school year—a total of 35,000 students.    

 

Lateness is an even bigger issue.  So is the fact that final report card grades are due into the district’s computer system two whole weeks before the last day of school; in district high schools this year, the grading system opened for non-seniors on June 5th, when the last day of school wasn’t until June 23rd.  As always, students were wise to this fact, and stopped coming to school after the first week of June.

 

The Inquirer, as well as Dr. Ackerman, have adopted the “more is better” approach.  But more isn’t always better.  As Jerry Jordan stated, “A longer day does not mean a better day.  What we would like to talk about is how to make the day a better day.”

 

So how could we make the day better, aside from cracking down on truants and fixing the report card system? 

 

We could start by finding ways to get parents more involved in their child’s schoolwork; we could acknowledge that Philadelphia children frequently change schools, disrupting their learning; we could admit that our city’s kids suffer from lack of health care; we could admit that they watch excessive television; we could admit that they grow less academically over the summer than their suburban counterparts; and we could admit that they are less likely to be read to as babies—all factors which have a bigger impact on student achievement than the length of the school day. 

 

We could address these problems and try to find legitimate ways to fix them, instead of falling back on the same tired solutions.                        

 

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, to borrow the Inquirer’s hackneyed phraseology, to figure out that parents and the community are a significant part of a child’s education.                   

 

But editorial writers are not educators, so they are quick to endorse stale, recycled ideas dressed-up as education reform.  They are also quick to treat educators less than professional, which might explain why they agree with stripping Philadelphia teachers of seniority in order to reassign them “to the schools where they’re needed most”. 

 

Well Mr. Jackson, why don’t we strip you of your seniority, and send you to a newspaper that could use some extra help?  Would you mind packing up your things and relocating to the Philadelphia Tribune?  How about the Northeast Times?  Or the Philadelphia Weekly?

 

Like most non-educators, the Inquirer’s editorial writers lack experience and expertise when it comes to public schools (by the way, the instructional year in Philadelphia is 181 days, not 180).  As the saying goes: It’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt. 

 

Here’s a nickel’s worth of free advice to Harold Jackson and his editorial staff: Do some research before your churn-out boilerplate articles on public schools.  Your lack of insight and originality is probably one of the reasons the Inky is going belly-up.

 

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Filed under Dr. Ackerman's Strategic Plan, Teacher Bashing

District should mandate after school activities instead of extending school day

by Christopher Paslay

 

It’s no secret that Philadelphia School District officials want to extend the length of the school day.  Increased instructional time was a high priority on Dr. Ackerman’s recent “wishlist” for the District. 

 

Although I don’t agree that more is always better, research shows that keeping kids in school longer improves tests scores and keeps them out of harm’s way.  KIPP Philadelphia Charter School is a case in point.  They operate under an extended school day and school year, and their PSSA test scores are well above the Philadelphia School District average.      

 

However, extending the school day has its drawbacks with staff.  Teacher turnover at KIPP is high, and compensating instructors for the long hours is difficult (many teachers work 10 to 12 hours days when you factor in lesson planning and assessment); the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers fought the increased school day in the past because the District wasn’t willing to pay for the extra time.

 

But there is a solution to the problem.  The District can extend the time students spend in programs without placing this extra burden on the teachers. 

 

Instead of extending the length of the school day, the District should mandate after school activities for all its students.  And the District could use ASAP (After School Activities Partnerships) as a partner.  To quote ASAP’s website, “An estimated 45,000 kids citywide spend between 20-25 hours a week alone after school – with the most dangerous hours between 3 pm and 6 pm. These unsupervised young people are much more likely to be the victims of crime or become involved in risky behaviors. Additionally, lack of after school activity could be contributing to the rise in overweight children. Recent reports that Philadelphia has both the highest crime and poverty rates of the ten largest cities in the nation provide strong impetus for improving the lives of the city’s kids.”

 

ASAP has already served 15,773 Philadelphia youth to date, and organized 1,210 clubs (primarily volunteer-led in schools, recreation centers and libraries).

 

“Research shows that after-school programs deter negative behaviors while improving achievement and attendance,” said Maria Walker and Marciene Mattleman in an opinion piece in today’s Inquirer headlined, Enrich children and the city with after-school programs.    

 

In their article, Walker and Mattleman also noted ASAP’s ability to get students involved in playing chess.  “The Chess Challenge is ASAP’s centerpiece initiative, with more than 3,500 kids playing in schools, libraries, recreation and community centers, shelters, and the Youth Study Center,” they noted.  “Studies show that chess teaches strategic thinking. School administrators say young chess players are more likely to see the consequences of their actions and avoid risky behaviors.” 

 

Mandating after school activities would be a win-win for everybody.  Much of ASAP is run by volunteers and funded by donations, so the District wouldn’t have to pay extra money.  ASAP could be supplemented by athletic programs run by schools in the District, where coaches would be compensated for their time.      

 

The District could start small and work its way up.  Students could be given the option of whether they wanted to participate in fall, winter or spring activities.  They’d have the choice of playing a varsity or intramural sport, or joining a club.  This would surely increase participation in athletics and extra curricular activities within the District, programs already established and funded by the District. 

 

At midnight on August 31st of this year, when the Philadelphia Federation of Teacher’s contract extension is up, I can guarantee a sticking point of negotiations will be extending the length of the school day.  If the District opts to mandate after school activities instead of increasing an already lengthy school day (and doing so without properly compensating teachers and instructional staff), then a new contract just might be ironed out sooner rather than later.      

 

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Filed under After School Programs, PFT