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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.

The City of Brotherly Love (Cain and Abel Edition)

Philadelphia is a city famous for Ben Franklin, the Liberty Bell, cheesesteaks, and now – a miserable and bloated education system.

In what has become an American tradition, another big city mayor has gone to war with “Big Education.”  Like Michael Bloomberg (NY), Antonio Villaraigosa (LA) and Rahm Emanuel (Chicago), Philadelphia’s Michael Nutter is dealing with a failing education system, a bureaucratic Leviathan and a hostile teachers union, collectively known as “the blob.”

As The Wall Street Journal reports,

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.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) has put out several ads that attacked the mayor, portraying him as an arch-villain. The best known is a video of a Philadelphia mother of four who accuses Nutter of “paying more attention to corporations,” “not doing his job” and that the mayor “should be ashamed of himself.”

Nutter was furious at the broadside and countered with a video of his own, claiming he has actually increased education funding and blames the state – read Governor Tom Corbett – for the shortfall. He ends his video with the charge that the PFT gets “an F in telling the truth.”

But is the governor really the flinty conservative he is made out to be? Maybe not. Again, quoting from The Wall Street Journal,

Mr. Corbett is offering the district a one-time $45 million grant and $120 million in recurring funds from a one-percentage-point city sales tax increase on the condition that teachers accept lower pay and benefits as well as “work rule” changes. The district wants to cut base salaries by 5% to 13% to offset the rising cost of pensions and for teachers to contribute to their health benefits. Yet the major sticking points are Mr. Corbett’s school reforms that would eliminate teacher seniority rights and base future pay increases on more rigorous evaluations that include student learning.

Teachers have little reason to budge since their previous contract remains in effect and they continue to earn raises based on longevity. Thus the union will likely drag out the negotiations until after next fall’s election when they hope to elect a Democratic Governor and renegotiate a bailout without Mr. Corbett’s preconditions.

Not surprisingly, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten weighed in via a letter to the editor in Monday’s Wall Street Journal in which she also blamed Governor Corbett. She wrote that he “continues to rob Philadelphia’s students of much-needed funding to further his anti-teacher ideology” because he insists on eliminating seniority and demanding more teacher accountability. Weingarten fails to realize that she – as a member in good standing of the blob – is an integral part of the problem.

Sadly, what is happening in Philadelphia is not new or unique. For years now, compliant legislators and school boards in collaboration with insatiable teachers unions have led to an explosion of needless administrators and cushy union contracts which have sent education budgets into the stratosphere. And all the spending has done absolutely nothing to advance student learning. But the era of ripping off taxpayers and kids may be seeing its end-game. We just can’t afford business-as-usual any more.

Teacher union watchdog Mike Antonucci regularly does a terrific job of exposing institutional corpulence. A piece he wrote for the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution back in 1999 is well worth reading in its entirety. Here is a snippet:

There are school districts in America where the superintendent, assisted only by a secretary, is also the principal of the school and teaches fifth grade. In the Philadelphia School District, the superintendent supervises over 25,000 employees and 261 schools. He has a staff of 10. The school board has a support staff of six. The general counsel has a legal staff of 27. These staffers evidently can’t speak with the public or the legislature on their own, so there is a communications and government relations staff, which consists of 13 people. Then there is transportation, school safety, human resources, leadership and learning, purchasing and warehouse, print shop, etc. According to the district, the total administrative staff for 1997-98 was 1,474. But “administration” is a term open to interpretation, and we should make no rash assumptions.

The district defines the following personnel as “providing direct services to students.” They include 12,005 classroom teachers, 3,750 assistant teachers and classroom assistants, and 413 principals and assistant principals. After that, some job titles are self-explanatory and others, well, are not.

(All figures are for 1997-98. Source: School District of Philadelphia 1997-98 Amended Operating and Grants Fund Budgets)

Job Title                                              Number of Employees

Department Heads and Coordinators        103

Non-professional Supervisors

and Technical Staff                                      197

Secretarial/Clerical                                      736

School Coordinators, Bilingual, Computer

and Science Lab Assistants                         371

School Safety Officers                                  337

Non-teaching Assistants                            630

Nurses/Health Providers                           305

Guidance Counselors                                403

Psychologists/Therapists                          116

Administrative Assistants and Facilitators   218

Librarians and Assistants                           231

Food Service Workers                                1,098

Noon-time Aides                                         1,045

Bus Drivers                                                   677

Bus Attendants                                            569

School Aides                                                  81

Warehouse                                                    20

Maintenance                                               534

Custodians and Building Engineers         2,361

Public education lost its way a while ago. Having become a “jobs program” for adults, the real mission of public education – teaching children – has been lost and our country has been suffering greatly because of it. The finger-pointing in Philly between the union, mayor and governor is something of a side-show. (Philly has cut back on bloat, but it is too little, too late.) While it may be politically difficult, one way to achieve effective change is to – as Antonucci says – “break ‘em up.”

He’s right. Subsidiarity – the principle of devolving decisions to the lowest practical level – works. Smaller and leaner school districts are more accountable to families and taxpayers, while the large centralized and unionized blobs are doomed to topple – victims of their own excesses. Philadelphia is just the latest example.

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 with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

The Strange Politics of Education Reform

… where conservatives demand change and many alleged progressives, including teacher union elites, are really reactionary.

While this may be old news to some, it can’t be said enough: In our polarized times, education reform is the only truly bipartisan issue, whereas with other matters things invariably break down into Republican vs. Democrat, liberal vs. conservative, libertarian vs. conservative (social issues), libertarian vs. liberal (fiscal issues), etc. 

But in the world of edu-politics, folks from the conservative Heritage Foundation have made common cause with their counterparts at the libertarian Reason Foundation with plenty of room in the big tent for Democrats for Education Reform (DFER).  

Though not the main theme of an excellent blog post, “Grabbing the Bull By The Horns: Cuomo, Nutter and the Backlash Against Making Sh*t Up,” DFER executive director Joe Williams indirectly points to the odd political bedfellows who are pushing for much needed changes in education.

Williams begins his piece by writing, 

If you’ve ever been the subject of a blog-tirade by either of the Klonsky Brothers or Leo Casey, you understand that these old school reactionaries have made decades-long careers out of pushing bogus propaganda for their cause, i.e. they make sh*t up and hope that nobody calls them on it. 

The joke here is that both Casey and the Klonsky brothers come from Marxist backgrounds but really are, when it comes to education reform, not progressives but reactionaries – fervently protective of the status quo – blindly pro-union, claiming that more money will solve our education woes, all the while fighting against every meaningful way of improving the system. 

On the other hand, we have some big city liberal mayors who are trying to do the right thing in tough fiscal times. Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel, Philadelphia’s Michael Nutter and New York’s Andrew Cuomo have closed some poorly attended failing schools. So what’s the problem? The teachers unions in those cities, who profess to be all about the kids, social justice and progressivism, pound the table and insist that our outdated 19th Century Prussian-style zip-code mandated school system continue without any innovation, just more money. These unions desperately fight to maintain the status quo and snuff any real reform – charter schools, vouchers, online schools, etc. As such, it’s time we start tarring union leaders with the reactionary brush. 

And while we are talking reactionaries, perhaps their poster child should be Diane Ravitch. She was a liberal before she became conservative before she became a progressive, but she’s really a reactionary. (She is wrong about so much that she should get an award for “Yes I can make this sh*t up.”) In fact, researcher Jay Greene set aside an entire week on his blog to debunk her endless reactionary blather, which he titled “Ravitch is Wrong Week.” 

And as I wrote last week, Louisiana’s Republican governor Bobby Jindal is trying to do his best for kids by expanding his state’s popular voucher program, only to be slapped down by the allegedly progressive Eric Holder. In reality, our attorney general is doing his best to emulate George Wallace, the segregationist and reactionary former governor of Alabama. 

Then there are those whom the teachers unions love to hurl “right wing” epithets at, like the admittedly conservative Heritage Foundation. There, policy expert Lindsey Burke regularly promotes various decidedly un-reactionary reforms – vouchers, tax credits, education savings accounts, etc. Sounds like Ms. Burke is trying to get us out of a complacent, dare I say, reactionary rut. 

Meanwhile, over at the Reason Foundation the decidedly un-reactionary director of education Lisa Snell regularly writes about the importance and benefits of school choice. 

We live in a time where the biggest enemies of change are the teachers unions. They and their fellow travelers espouse progressivism but in reality are clinging to a moribund education system that’s desperately in need of fundamental change. So I guess when you want to get things done in edu-world, look to those who are truly trying to effect real change – conservatives, libertarians and DFER-type liberals, not reactionaries in progressive clothing.

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 with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.