By Jennifer Stefano
Philadelphia is hailing two teams of champions this week: The Eagles, for their shutout against the Giants and the bipartisan School Reform Commission for unanimously voting to void teacher contracts that required them to pay nothing towards their own health care.
The SRC made the bold move in an effort to keep more resources in the classroom and stave off possible layoffs.
What the Eagles’ shutout means for the team’s long term outlook remains to be seen, but this was a big victory for the children attending Philadelphia public schools. It is also a strong indicator that the tide, and public sentiment, is turning against unionized goverment employees enjoying outsized and unwarranted compensation at the expense of public funded entities, especially education.
As expected, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers put on their own version of a pouting “Manning face” and countered that they would take the matter to court. Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan called the move by the SRC “cowardly” and left nothing off the table in response. This apparently includes goading students into a “student strike”, likely because Philadelphia is the only district in Pennsylvania where the teachers themselves are forbidden to strike.
“We are not indentured servants,” said Jordan.
Jordan need only to follow the money to see it would be the children, not the labor unions, who could classify themselves as “the indentured servants”. Ninety percent of the money for instruction in the Philadelphia School District goes directly to personnel, with the average high school teacher earning — through salary and benefits — $100,000. Furthermore, for the amount spent on instruction, the district holds the unenviable distinction of making up more than half of the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s failing school’s list.
The traditional unionized public school teachers already face a public image nightmare. More than 80 percent of Philadelphia students fail to reach proficiency levels in basic skills of reading and math. This comes despite substantial improvements in student-teacher ratios. An average class in 2002 had more than 20 students. After a decade, this dropped to a near optimal 15.63 students for every teacher.
Given that, the move by the SRC was anything but cowardly, it was the only correct and moral thing to do. The Philadelphia School District has been drowning in debt for years. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, through the School Reform Commission, had to take over Philadelphia schools in 2001 because the district had racked up an operating deficit of $200 million. This year, that deficit disappeared, partly through controversial budget cuts that hit classrooms hard and sparked teacher outrage.
The new SRC proposal still offers a “Cadillac” plan, but requires contributions already made by principals and support personnel. Support workers pay between $21 and $70 per month for their health insurance plans.
The SRC says the $100 million savings will erase projected deficits over the next few years and restore funding to the classroom, as well as avoid possible layoffs.
Philadelphia joins a growing number of cities where officials pushing reforms run up against uncompromising opposition of teacher unions. In 2012, former Obama administration adviser and current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel brought reforms, such as merit pay, that sparked a bitter strike. After eight days, teachers mostly capitulated on the divisive issue of teacher accountability.
The state Legislature should continue to empower not just the School Reform Commission but school boards across the state to make these tough decisions that benefit students. The fact that Philadelphia teachers are not permitted to strike, and therefore classes are not disrupted during this union dispute, should be an example of why there should be a ban on teacher strikes statewide. Pennsylvania is one of only 12 states to allow teacher strikes and has the unfortunate distinction of having more strikes then any other state.
No child should have to wait for a chance to have a good education. The work of the SRC should be the beginning of real education reform in Pennsylvania.
Jennifer Stefano is the former state director in PA for Americans for Prosperity, where she is now the vice president. She hosts Fridays with Stefano and Daniels on WNTP 990am in her hometown of Philadelphia.