Students Walk Out After Attack on 'Union that Defends Public Education'
Students from at least two Philadelphia public high schools refused to go to classes Wednesday morning to protest the recent and abrupt cancellation of the city’s contract with the Philadelphia teachers’ union.
The Philadelphia School Reform Commission (SRC), which replaced the elected school board amidst financial difficulties in 2001 and is comprised of five members appointed by the governor and mayor, quietly voted on Monday to cancel the contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT).
The PFT was given no advance word of the action, which happened at an early-morning SRC meeting called with minimal notice, save a newspaper advertisement on Sunday. The Commission’s Thursday evening meetings are typically announced on the district’s website.
“This is an attempt to dismantle the union that defends public education in Philadelphia.”
—Philadelphia Caucus of Working Educators
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, “The district says it will not cut the wages of 15,000 teachers, counselors, nurses, secretaries, and other PFT members. But it plans to dismantle the long-standing Philadelphia Federation of Teachers Health and Welfare Fund, which is controlled by the union, and take over administering benefits.”
The paper reports that starting December 15, most PFT members will have to pay either 10 or 13 percent of the cost of their medical plan, depending on their salaries—between $21 and $200 per month, officials estimate. They currently pay nothing.
District officials said the move, which was applauded by Governor Tom Corbett and acting state Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq, will save the district $54 million this school year and as much as $70 million in subsequent years.
But the PFT’s Caucus of Working Educators described the Commission’s actions as “not really about funding. This is an attempt to dismantle the union that defends public education in Philadelphia.”
In an official statement, the PFT echoed that sentiment:
State law prevents the PFT from striking; those who do strike risk losing their teaching licenses. It is the only union in Pennsylvania without that option.
“They say, ‘oh we’re doing it for the students. We’re taking the teachers’ money and we’re giving it back to the schools so the students can get books and pencils and paper.’ And it’s like, we don’t want those things if we don’t have good teachers.”
—Philadelphia high school student
So students stepped in for their teachers. Using the hashtag #StudentsForTeachers, Philadelphia high schoolers took to the streets and social media in support of local educators. “We’re striking because every single teacher in the district’s benefits are at risk and being played with through politics,” student organizers said on Facebook.
Outside the Philadelphia High School for Creative & Performing Arts, a high school junior identified as ‘Cy’ told CBS Philly: “They say it’s for us. They say, ‘oh we’re doing it for the students. We’re taking the teachers’ money and we’re giving it back to the schools so the students can get books and pencils and paper.’ And it’s like, we don’t want those things if we don’t have good teachers. You know, the good teachers, they can go to other schools and get their jobs and we don’t want that to happen.”
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Writing at Salon, Sarah Jaffe argues that “The Philadelphia school district has become the prime example of the problems with a corporate-style school ‘reform’ agenda. Parents, teachers and students have resisted full privatization, New Orleans-style, and have found themselves punished for resistance as Gov. Tom Corbett, who controls the schools after a 2001 takeover by the state, slashes school budgets, wipes out thousands of jobs, and shutters dozens of schools.”
The contract cancellation is part of a larger attempt to dismantle Philadelphia’s public education system, Jaffe says:
The PFT is expected to bring a legal challenge to the takeover law the SRC believes gives it the power to bypass negotiations and impose terms.
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