Early Christmas Gift to Children and Taxpayers in Philadelphia?
School reformers in Philly decide to help taxpayers and kids; teachers unions fume.
Philadelphia can be a tough town – so tough, in fact, that in 1968, frustrated and cranky Eagles fans even booed Santa Claus at a late season game. When that didn’t scare off old St. Nick, the hostile fans unleashed a barrage of snowballs at the bewildered and terrified volunteer.
Forty-six years later, and it’s the teachers unions that are chucking venom at the Philadelphia School Reform Commission. First, a little background. The PSRC – an appointed body – was established in 2001 as a response to overall school district ineptitude. It didn’t help much. In fact, just a year ago, I wrote about the school system’s ongoing incompetence and corruption, using a snippet from a Wall Street Journal editorial that spelled out a few of the gory details.
Philadelphia’s schools are a textbook case of chronic, systemic failure. Woeful finances and academics compelled the state in 2001 to install a five-member School Reform Commission. Test scores have improved but are still pitiful. Last year only about 40% of students scored proficient or above in reading on the state standardized test, but 99.5% of teachers are rated satisfactory.
… Teachers also don’t pay a cent for health benefits and can retire with a pension equal to 80% of their final salary after 30 years. As a bonus, the district pays the union $4,353 per member each year to administer dental, vision and retiree benefits. Its health and welfare fund had a $71 million surplus, according to its latest available tax filing in 2011.
The district last year had to borrow $300 million, and this summer two dozen schools were closed and 3,000 employees laid off (including about 600 teachers) to bridge another $300 million deficit. While the union blames state budget cuts, pay and benefit increases resulting from its last collective-bargaining agreement accounted for half the budget hole.
So the kids aren’t learning, the taxpayer is taking it in the shorts, and the teachers unions couldn’t care less.
But change is in the wind.
After 21 months of negotiating and failing to produce a compromise, the PSRC abruptly cancelled the existing teachers union contract. PSRC chairman Bill Green said the move will save the district $54 million this year, $30 million of which would be quickly pumped into schools beset by large class sizes and reductions in arts and Advanced Placement classes. He added that the money “will be invested directly in classrooms, with principals empowered to use the cash as they see fit – to hire a full-time counselor and nurse, perhaps, or to pay for more supplies or after-school programs.”
Additionally, the cash-strapped city will see some fiscal relief. The new plan dictates that teachers start paying, in part, for their own health insurance – between $21 and $71 per month.
So the lot of taxpayers and kids are improved, who is griping? The teachers unions, of course.
Listening to their leaders’ responses, you’d think the apocalypse was nigh. Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan angrily described the actions as “union busting.” (No, Jerry, the PSRC is not trying to bust the union; it is merely removing the bloated perks that have been bestowed upon your teachers for years.) He then groused, “We are not indentured servants.” Predictably, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers – PFT’s parent union – charged into the fray, calling the move (yawn) “a war on teachers.” Weingarten further pontificated, “Three weeks before the gubernatorial election, this surprise early-morning School Reform Commission meeting, lawsuit and notification to employees imposing a contract and compensation cuts can only be characterized as Gov. Corbett’s well-planned Hail Mary ambush.”
Weingarten’s overwrought comments are hardly surprising given her enmity toward Governor Tom Corbett, a Republican. But other PSRC supporters include former Democrat governor Ed Rendell and Democrat mayor Michael Nutter, who remarked, “The action, unfortunately, was necessary, given the fact that the system is broken. There is no more money to be had from anywhere.”
In the midst of all the huffing and puffing, it isn’t clear if the PSRC’s move is even legal. Whether Act 46, the state takeover law, gives the SRC the power to cancel union contracts remains to be seen. We do know that lawyers on both sides of this issue are already working overtime on their arguments.
The situation in Philadelphia could have national implications. Should the courts validate PSRC’s action, it could set off similar motions in other cities across the country. New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago also have too many failing schools, not to mention horribly misallocated funding, which contributes to a crushing debt burdening the already beleaguered taxpayer.
If Act 46 is validated by the courts, the City of Brotherly Love will get a gift that kids and taxpayers deserve. And Santa, preparing for the Christmas season, will save a few lumps of coal for the stockings hanging on the teachers union’s mantle.
Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.