Philadelphia Educational Leaders Fail to Condemn Violence, Push Anti-White Curriculum

by Christopher Paslay

Philadelphia educational leaders have yet to adequately condemn the widespread violence destroying Philadelphia.  Instead, they have insulted hardworking white teachers with outlandish racial demagoguery.

For the past five days, violence and rioting have gripped the city of Philadelphia.  Late Saturday night, a Philadelphia police officer was hit by a car in Center City, while 12 other officers suffered injuries “while attempting to control crowds, make arrests, prevent property breaches, and other acts of vandalism,” according to Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw.  

Police cars have been smashed and set on fire, and scores of businesses and stores have been looted and vandalized.  Several black-owned businesses have been destroyed, like Elliott Broaster’s Smoke N Things shop on Cecil B Moore.  Broaster, a Temple grad, watched what took years to build get destroyed in a matter of minutes. “When I got home alone I shed a few tears,” Broaster said.  “I saw my business down and it hurt me a lot and especially for my own community to do it to my business, that’s what really (hurt).”

The new anarchist phrase “people over property” is what his fellow community members might say if asked why they destroyed his life’s work, a mantra that has given rioters a license to wreck people’s lives and property — all in the name of George Floyd, a black man who was killed by a reckless and negligent white cop for trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill.  

After the National Guard was deployed and a curfew issued, Philadelphia’s educational leaders decided it was time to weigh in on the situation.  Over the past several days, Philadelphia School District officials have sent multiple emails to teachers and staff condemning the death of Floyd and America’s white racist society, but no call for calm or to end the pointless looting and violence.  Resources were given to teachers to start conversations about anti-racism (an educational framework that teaches ALL whites have a privilege and are complicit in systemic racism), but no material to spark a dialogue about why violence is wrong, or why looting and rioting are not only disrespecting the memory of George Floyd, but also go against the teaching of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers soon followed suit with several memos to its membership, commenting on the “criminalization of blackness” by white society, and of the supposed unwarranted tear-gassing of protesters.  No mention of the cop cars being smashed and burned, or of the police being assaulted with bricks and bottles, or of stores — some of which were owned and operated by African Americans — being looted and vandalized.  This violence somehow didn’t exist, and if it did, it was written off as a “protest,” or perhaps legitimized by the mantra “people over property.”

According to Philadelphia’s educational leaders, there is only one lesson to be learned from the chaos descending on Philadelphia over the past five days: America is a racist society, where privileged whites oppress disadvantaged people of color.  According to the PFT’s Racial Justice Petition, racism “permeates every facet of our society,” and “the criminalization of blackness is an ever-present scourge on our nation.”  Likewise, the “school-to-prison pipeline is real and it threatens the futures and the lives of black and brown children every single day.”  In other words, whites are oppressing and criminalizing people of color around every corner and at every turn, especially white teachers and administrators of schools, who, despite dedicating their entire lives to mentoring and educating their students of color, are in actuality setting them up for a life of crime and incarceration.

These are the things the PFT is telling its dues-paying members.  That we must take actionable steps “to dismantle a violent system of white supremacy that has jeopardized the very humanity of the students in our classrooms, their families, and our communities.”  And how do we end this system?  Through anti-racism, as both Philadelphia School District officials and union leaders have stated.  

Addressing racism as a system of unequal power between whites and people of color, anti-racism emerged as dissatisfaction grew with multicultural education, which only superficially dealt with the issue of systemic racism. As University of South Dakota sociologist Jack Niemonen wrote in his paper after doing an exhaustive analysis of 160 peer-reviewed journal articles on the subject:

Generally, anti-racist education is understood as a set of pedagogical, curricular, and organizational strategies that hope to promote racial equality by identifying, then eliminating, white privilege. . . . One of its strengths, it is claimed, is the ability to move beyond prejudice and discrimination as a problem to be corrected in individuals in order to examine critically how institutional structures support racist practices economically, politically, and culturally.

Anti-racism’s mission to eliminate white privilege is notable, in that it operates from a zero-sum mentality, and associates Whiteness with oppression and structural racism. By redefining “racism” to mean inherent white privilege and oppression, all whites become guilty by default, even those whites who are caring people free from discrimination.  However, addressing systemic injustice starts with personal accountability and action, as anti-racists call on American educators to self-reflect and personally adopt anti-racist ideologies in their lives and classrooms. Therefore, “Whiteness” solely as a systemic, non-individual entity with its own existence is a logical fallacy (see here), and when anti-racists speak of Whiteness, they can only be referring to the cultures, behaviors, and attitudes of those who identify as “white.”

The PFT has acknowledged they are committed to ongoing professional development on anti-racist practices, as has the Philadelphia School District.  Loose translation: they are stereotyping all whites as racists, and are claiming their cultures, behaviors, and attitudes are the reason why people of color suffer.  In reality, anti-racism is anti-white.

The advancement of one group should not depend on the disruption, de-centering, or dismantling of another, either individually, culturally, or systemically. Bringing positive change is a two-way street between whites and people of color, and involves cooperation and synergy; approaches which divide learning communities into political identity groups, and separate teachers and students into “oppressors” and “oppressed,” are misguided and counterproductive.  As educators, we should focus on unity over division, and refrain from stereotyping entire groups of people.

One Year Deal for Teachers is a Lot of Tricks and No Treats

 

by Ed Olsen

I’d like to address a few additional points that I feel are worth mentioning in response to Dr. Ackerman’s statements as of late in the press. 

First, she claims that the district’s proposed one year contract is to bide time in order to “develop a strategic multiyear contract that tackles the tough issues that are key to student success.”  How can the PFT be so sure that this one year contract won’t set a precedent?  Has Dr. Ackerman even considered the costs of healthcare premiums?  According to the National Coalition on Health Care, premiums rose an average of 6.1% in 2007.  If the PFT were to agree to a one year contract, that would also mean that the contracts with the various healthcare insurance providers would only be one year.  This allows them to raise rates as they see fit as opposed to predetermined rates that would be negotiated in a multiyear deal.  Who, I wonder, will be asked to cover these increased costs?

Second, I’d like to review the five-year–that’s what I said, five-year–contract that Dr. Ackerman negotiated for herself with the SRC to the tune of $325,000 annually; and let’s not even get into the bonuses and perks: 20% annual bonuses for performance; $100,000 retention bonus after three years; $1,000,000 life insurance policy paid by the district; a late model sedan for business AND personal use; a blackberry; a cell phone; a laptop computer; a printer and a fax machine.  Oh, and I almost forgot, the district agreed to pay up to $15,000 to move her to Philadelphia.  That contract reminds me of my first contract when I was hired by the city on September 29, 2000; except now that I think back, they must have forgotten some things. 

I suppose it started with my salary.  They left off the last zero, and my retention bonus was only about $4500.  They didn’t pay to move me here, but they had me sign a new employee residency certification that required me to live within the city limits (eliminated from the contract in 2000).  I do have a life insurance policy, but that comes out of my pocket.  Same goes for the car and the cell phone.  My father-in-law was able to get my wife and me laptops and a printer from a business that was upgrading because I guess the district figured laptops are probably not useful for teachers, so they never gave me one.  You can see the similarities here.

I will admit that Dr. Ackerman certainly has more education, experience, and responsibilities that deserve higher compensation, but how about a little “trickle down economics”?  Shouldn’t we at least be given a fair, multiyear contract like our superintendent?

Now let’s turn to the issue of increasing the staff day to “provide a safer and learning environment.”  The current PFT contract already has provisions for allowing the district to schedule the teacher work day to start before and end after the student day.  It even requires, “in the elementary schools, the student day shall begin ten minutes after the teacher day.”  (Article XVII.B.1(b).)  The same is true of other staff such as NTAs, secretaries, and paraprofessionals.  The PFT contract allows teachers and NTAs to be scheduled between 7:00 am and 5:00 pm, while secretaries and paraprofessionals can be scheduled between 7:00 am and 6:00 pm.  What we really need to provide a safer learning environment is to hire more teachers, NTAs, and school police officers, not just make our staff work longer hours. 

As for absences, she wants to review the “practice of staff counting multiple consecutive days off as one absence.”  Well for starters, this policy is a school district policy that was reiterated in a memo by Paul Vallas a few years ago and the memo states that consecutive absences shall be considered one incident of absence, not one absence.  Staff is still required to take a personal illness day for each day of absence.  There is also a district policy that requires principals to issue a warning to staff after their third incident of absence and suggests disciplinary action after the fifth and seventh. 

While we will all agree that a substitute is no substitute for a regular classroom teacher, even the teachers and staff of Philadelphia get sick from time to time; it’s not like we are around hundreds of kids everyday.  I bet some of us even have children that get sick and can’t attend daycare or school sometimes.

Finally, the issue of the “current practice of staff to leave their classroom positions even after children arrive in September and throughout the year.”  Remember my first contract? I was hired by the school district on September 29th and didn’t start until October 16, 2000.  The PA Public School Employees’ Retirement System charges a penalty based on how far you are from a normal retirement benefit, which is 35 years of service.  PSERS reduces your retirement by one quarter of one percent per month for each month you are under normal retirement requirements.  In other words, if a teacher was hired after September 1, then they can not retire until that date or they will be charged a penalty.  Teachers have the option of continuing to work past their 35 year retirement requirement, but as many former teachers have told me on their last days, “When its time to go, its time to go.”  Does the district really want to force teachers to stay when their hearts are no longer in it?  This sounds a bit Draconian and harkens to the days of indentured servitude. 

I have been a bit harsh in my response to Dr. Ackerman and her one year proposal, but it feels like a slap in the face to me and thousands of other teachers and staff member that work tirelessly and volunteer extra time and effort to teach and nurture the youth of the Philadelphia School District.  As PFT President, Jerry Jordan, states, “Our working conditions are our students’ learning condition.”  The PFT contract expired on August 31 and was extended for 60 days.  That means it is set to expire again on October 31, Halloween.  I hope for the sake of the students that Dr. Ackerman has a treat for Jerry Jordan and the PFT, and not a trick. 

Ed Olsen is a Social Studies Teacher and the PFT Building Rep. at Swenson Arts and Technology High School.

Sandra Dungee Glenn Addresses PFT Contract Situation

by Christopher Paslay

Sandra Dungee Glenn, the chairwomen of the School Reform Commission, wrote a commentary in today’s Philadelphia Daily News headlined, “School progress & contracts”. In it she touts the experience of Arlene Ackerman, the Philadelphia School District’s newly appointed CEO, and highlights the support the district is receiving from “strong public education advocates” Mayor Nutter and Governor Ed Rendell, and “pro-education members in City Council”.

Dungee Glenn also emphasizes the academic progress the school district has made since the SRC’s inception in 2002, and “is excited by the potential to catapult this district forward through strategic partnerships that bring resources and support to our children.”

With that said, I’d like to commend Miss Dungee Glenn for her enthusiasm. Although her commentary is not a direct response to the article I wrote last Thursday in the Inquirer (How about the teachers?), I do find the timing quite curious. I also find the content curious as well. Dungee Glenn’s piece is well written, and it clearly rebuts (if not defends) most of the points brought up in my Inquirer commentary.

I thank Miss Dungee Glenn for writing this. It means she is open minded enough to hear the voice of a Philadelphia public school teacher, a voice I believe echoes the sentiments of a large majority of Philadelphia’s teachers (and quite possibly the PFT).

There are issues in Dungee Glenn’s article that need to be addressed, however. One is the idea of having teachers come to school before students and stay after they leave. Let’s be honest here—this has little to do with school safety. In fact, there are teachers who might feel less safe being forced to stay in the building after the bell. If the SRC wants to extend the school day, then they should just come out and say so; regardless, I feel too much emphasis is put on the length of the school day. There is a point of diminishing returns. More isn’t always better.

Second: I don’t believe the SRC is being totally honest concerning their one year contract offer to the PFT. In my opinion, the one year deal is more about control than it is about finding long term solutions. Contract negotiations have been going on since February 1st. Why hasn’t the long-term deal been put in place yet?

I hope this exchange (and our recent articles in the press) have opened the lines of communication with the SRC and the PFT. I truly believe we all want the same thing—the best educational resources for students, teachers, parents and the city. Hopefully we can all get on the same page and work this out soon.

Arlene Ackerman Responds to Inquirer Commentary

by Christopher Paslay

Arlene C. Ackerman, Superintendent of the Philadelphia School District, responded to my commentary in Thursday’s Philadelphia Inquirer by writing a letter to the editor. The letter, headlined, “Taking Exception,” explained that the School Reform Commission is working hard to rectify the problems faced by the Philadelphia School District, and that there are “no easy answers”.

I appreciate Ackerman’s diligence and professionalism for responding to my questions. However, I’d like to further explore what she labels “four areas in need of discussion”.

First, Ackerman says, “We must work together to improve teacher quality and retention by raising base salary for teachers and offering differentiated pay for teachers in hard-to-fill positions and chronically underperforming schools.”

I agree with raising base salaries. This will help Philadelphia compete with the suburbs. However, I don’t know if differentiated pay will draw teachers to hard-to-fill positions. I think cutting class size in these schools might work better.

Second, she says, “We need to provide a safer learning environment by ensuring that our staff comes to school before students arrive and stay after students leave, unlike what is stipulated in the current contract.”

Let’s face it. This is just a nifty way for the SRC to justify lengthening the school day. In my opinion, the length of the school day isn’t the root problem of children failing academically.

Third, she says, “We need to ensure adequate notice of teachers’ plans to retire or resign well in advance of the new school year. It is current practice of staff to leave their classroom positions even after children arrive in September and throughout the year.”

Here’s the deal on this. Teachers retire in the middle of the year because they get hired in the middle of the year. It’s a pension thing. The only answer to this is to make sure that the SRC hires all of its teacher before September 1st.

Finally, she says, “We must review the practice of staff counting multiple consecutive days off as one absence. It deprives children of valuable instructional time.”

This is factually inaccurate. According to the current contract, multiple consecutive days off doesn’t count as one absence, it counts as one incident. Teachers receive 10 sick days and 3 personal days each year. Each time they are absent, they lose one of these days.

After three “incidents” teachers are given a disciplinary memo by their principal. In my opinion, this is nonsense. Why should teachers be penalized fore using contractual sick time?

Again, I appreciate the fact Dr. Ackerman took the time to respond to my commentary. If anything, it shows she truly cares. Hopefully, through this correspondence, the lines of communication will remain open between the PFT and the SRC, and a contract agreement (multiyear) will be reached soon.