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A t a last-minute, ba rely publicized meeting last Monday morning, the School District of Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission ended 21 months of negotiations and canceled its contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. Ending this contract means that PFT members, who currently pay nothing for health care benefits, will now be required to pay 10 to 13 percent of the cost of their medical plan premiums.

The SRC and supporters of this decision — including Mayor Michael Nutter, Governor Tom Corbett and Superintendent William Hite — argue that this decision was made to address the School District’s fiscal crisis. The District estimates this action will funnel approximately $44 million back into schools and by the end of the next four years it will amass to more than $200 million. Hite argues the central office could not be further reduced and schools’ budgets must continue to function. The SRC also chose not to touch job security, work rules, teacher salaries or pensions. Hite and Corbett also say that these changes will bring PFT members benefit contributions more in line with those of other teachers unions across the state. Citing sacrifices made across the city and state, supporters believe that the teachers too must do their part in such difficult times.

Among opponents of the SRC’s decision are parents, students, previously unionized teachers and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers who see this move as a “war on teachers.” They fear that as a result of ending the contract, good teachers will decide to leave the school district. Teachers are being demanded to work with less and still expected to do the same. Furthermore, Philadelphia educators tend to be paid less than their suburban counterparts and spend a lot for their own money on classroom supplies.

On some level, the SRC’s decision should not be shocking at all. Top-down decision making with limited community input has been the norm in Philadelphia educational policy-making for some time now.

This move is also consistent with the tendency of politicians and the general public alike to simultaneously exalt and vilify public school teachers. Teachers are seen as the in-school factor that most affect student learning, and the past decade has seen an expansion of efforts to provide every child with a highly effective teacher. At the same time, teachers are portrayed as incompetent, unintelligent, underworked and overpaid. In recent years, public school teachers have been the targets of numerous political attacks — in Wisconsin, Scott Walker significantly limited collective bargaining rights while increasing pension contributions in 2010, and across the river in New Jersey, Chris Christie referred to teachers as “political thugs,” only to be elected twice in a blue state. Nearly all private sector workers and most public sector employees pay into their own health care, so many remain unsympathetic. Moreover, teachers unions are often accused of only representing their own interests, at the expense of those of their students.

This difficult decision could have the potential to allow the SDP to improve the quality of education being provided in the city’s school. Hite promises that the millions of dollars these forced concessions will save will be funneled directly to classrooms. This could allow Hite to turn his attention to actually leading the district — by developing and implementing his visions for the schools — rather than just reacting to the latest crisis. The money could be used to reduce class sizes, hire back more counselors, nurses and assistant principals and allow the district to no longer provide its students with what many leaders have labeled a “bare-bones” education. The district’s historic inclination towards ineffective spending — or outright misuse of funds — to haphazardly enact fad reforms in the absence of a guiding vision or strong and consistent leadership would have to be overcome. If not, it is unlikely that the money extracted from PFT members will significantly enhance the quality of teaching and learning in Philadelphia’s schools. However, it is also unclear how the district could offer this sort of high quality education if teachers are not trusted and are considered part of the problem — or if they are excluded from the decision-making process altogether.

While we find the way this decision was reached problematic, Penn Education Society understands the necessity of the action. We believe teachers are our most valuable asset, but we also support district and city leaders in their efforts to provide Philadelphia students with a quality education. We hope this decision will help us reach that goal.

Penn Education Society is a student-run organization dedicated to building lifelong investors in K-12 education for all children. They can be reached at

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