Philadelphia teachers and supporters protest governor’s attack on public schools

Thousands of Philadelphia teachers, students, and parents on October 16 marched to a meeting of the School Reform Commission (SRC) to demand that the commission reverse its decision to unilaterally nullify its collective bargaining agreement with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT).

The SRC is a state commission that has been administering Philadelphia’s public schools for 13 years. A majority of its members have been appointed by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett.

The SRC and PFT had been negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement for nearly two years. To help ease a budget shortfall resulting from cutbacks in state funding to Philadelphia schools, PFT offered to make concessions worth $100 million over two years, but that was not enough for the SRC.

“The PFT put proposals on the table and the (SRC) instead of considering those proposals in good faith went around the teachers’ union because they want to undermine the PFT,” said Tamala Montgomery, an elementary school teacher.

The latest attack on the PFT is a another in a series of measures undertaken by Gov. Corbett to weaken the teachers’ union and underfund public education in Philadelphia.

Gov. Corbett was elected in 2010 and since 2011, he has presided over a downsizing of public school funding. In 2011, he reduced state funding for public schools by $1 billion. Since then, only a small fraction of those cuts have been restored.

Philadelphia and other low-income school districts have been hit hardest by the budget cuts.

In a report issued in April, the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center (PCBPC) says that “the scale of recent funding cuts in Philadelphia and other low-income districts has been unprecedented. Since 2011 Philadelphia has experienced a $294 million drop in state school funding.”

The report goes on to say that Philadelphia has 12 percent of the state’s public school students, but absorbed 35 percent of Gov. Corbett’s public education budget cuts.

While Gov. Corbett has been underfunding public schools, he has been more generous to his corporate allies. The PBPC reports that during his tenure, the governor succeeded in reducing corporate taxes by $3 billion, almost one-third of the pre-K to 12 state budget.

He also funneled more state money to charter schools and private schools that receive state vouchers.

Because PFT and the SRC were unable to reach agreement on a new contract, Gov. Corbett withheld $45 million in state funding for the 2014-2015 school year.

As a result, 400 positions for teachers, librarians, assistant principals, counselors, and nurses were eliminated.

The result has been crowded classrooms and fewer support services for students.

The governor’s decision proved deadly for Laporcha Massey, a sixth grade student at Bryant Elementary.

Laporcha died of an asthma attack. She started feeling ill at school but because of the withheld $45 million and previous budget cuts, there was no nurse on duty at her school to treat her.

A group of civil rights leaders wrote a letter urging the governor to reverse himself and release the withheld $45 million.

“Depriving students of access to teachers, nurses, librarians, and guidance counselors should never be used as a bargaining chip in school-funding negotiations,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Gov. Corbett on October 17 finally agreed to release the $45 million, and Philadelphia school leaders said that the 400 positions would be filled as soon as possible.

During the collective bargaining negotiations, Gov. Corbett and the SRC sought work rule changes that the teachers union said would affect the quality of education that students receive. For example, under the contract in effect prior to SRC’s power play, there were limits on class sizes. SRC wanted to eliminate these limits and expand the size of classes.

SRC also wanted to reduce the number of professionals providing services to students such as guidance counselors, librarians, and nurses.

The concessions demanded by SRC affect the quality of education in other ways.

“These health care givebacks are not even coming close to providing what we actually need to actually provide a quality education,” said Charlie McGeehan, a high school teacher.

The health care givebacks that McGeehan refers to include higher health care premiums deducted from paychecks and higher deductibles, co-pays, and co-insurance for medical treatment.

After SRC announced that it would be imposing these and other concessions, PFT attorneys filed motions in court to stop SRC’s unilateral action.

On October 20, Judge Nina Wright Padilla ruled in favor of PFT on one of its motions by granting a temporary injunction that for the time being prevents SRC from implementing the health care changes.

“Today’s decision, for the moment, means PFT members can keep their current health care coverage without having to participate in the district’s open enrollment process,” said Jerry Jordan, PFT president, in a statement about Judge Padilla’s ruling.

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