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
and Technical Staff 197
School Coordinators, Bilingual, Computer
and Science Lab Assistants 371
School Safety Officers 337
Non-teaching Assistants 630
Nurses/Health Providers 305
Guidance Counselors 403
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
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.