On August 15 the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court ruled against the School Reform Commission’s attempt to cancel the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ union contract. The SRC’s explicit motivation to violate collective bargaining agreements was to save $54 million, mostly in healthcare costs.
Five Justices ruled that collective bargaining agreements represent teachers’ employment contracts and are thus beyond the SRC’s cancellation powers. The SRC has responded by indicating that they will continue to pursue what they refer to as a “fair contract” reflective of the so-called “fiscal reality of the school district.”
Like systems of public education across the country, especially in urban districts with large communities of African American and Latino students, a regime of high stakes testing since the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 has set public schools up to fail, justifying budget cuts and privatization schemes.
It was also in 2001 that the power and control over the Philadelphia public school system was transferred from the traditional school board to the newly created SRC. When this transfer of power occurred, the media, reproducing the rhetoric of crisis, reported that Philadelphia schools had become “the problem and property” of the governor’s office.
In addition to further subverting local control of neighborhood schools, the governor’s office also gained the power to privatize schools, districts and services. Since 2001 the SRC has engaged in an aggressive campaign of privatizing Philadelphia’s public schools. As the slashed education budget in Pennsylvania stagnates, and as public school after public school closes their doors, more and more Philadelphia students attend non-union charter schools. Consequently, more than one third of Philly elementary and secondary students attend privatized schools.
As the privatization agenda includes an aggressive anti-union component, it is not surprising that the SRC would attempt to completely cancel Philadelphia school teachers’ union contracts. The fact that the State Supreme Court ruled against the SRC is a victory for public education and the struggle to restore funding and implement genuine reforms that would allow teachers to educate students unhindered by punitive high stakes testing.
Educators’ responses to the ruling
Liberation News spoke with University of Washington Bothell education professor and national Opt Out activist, Dr. Wayne Au, who was hopeful regarding the PA State Supreme Court’s ruling:
“The Philadelphia School Reform Commission is a perfect example of how corporate reformers are attacking public education and poor communities, including an all out assault on organized labor – which stands as one of our last firewalls against the complete dismantling of the public sector. This ruling in favor of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers is a real victory for public education and our children’s communities.”
Liberation News also talked to West Chester University of Pennsylvania education professor Dr. Sunita Nayar Mayor who offered her analysis on the ruling:
“The School Reform Commission’s decision to unilaterally terminate the contact with the PFT was brazen and part of the trend where public sector unions are under increasing legal and political assault. In recent years, there has been an explosion of legislation advancing privatization of public schools and stripping teachers of job protections.
“With the current ruling, we might have won the battle but I don’t think we have won the war. A greater challenge is that increasingly the public sees teacher unions as part of the problem of persistent low performance in some school districts. The message that public management and not underfunding and segregation is the cause of low performance is reinforced each time the media reports on these law suits.
“As teacher educators we need to do a much better job at informing the public on how the teachers unions impact school reform. We need to highlight how collective bargaining is a vehicle for transformation because it is the teachers who are fighting to improve education by demanding increased funding, stronger curriculum, quality facilities, equitable treatment of students etc.
“The challenge of changing the narrative on what works and how to replicate it remains.”
Adding another layer of analysis, Dr. Patrick Shannon, Distinguished Professor of education at Penn State University, offered the following insights to Liberation News:
“Philadelphia teachers stand in the road blocking recent governors’ steamroller efforts to privatize the state’s responsibilities to the public. The PA Supreme Court upheld the right of contracts, and apparently workers’ rights to bargain through unions. Law trumps SRC power in this case. But the ruling does not stop the SRC’s steady trickle of trading charter schools for neighborhood schools or its propagation of the myth that these swaps are the salve, if not the solution, to the effects of the city’s 6.9 percent unemployment rate, 37 percent official poverty rate for school-aged children or the 4.5 percent decline in median income during the last five years. To address those market-based tragedies in and out of schools, we need more people blocking that road.”
Clinton will continue the attack on teachers and public education
As we approach the November elections pressures on progressives will continue to mount to support the so-called lesser evil, Hillary Clinton. However, just as Clinton has Bush’s foreign policy, she also has his education policy.
For example, through the 1990s Hillary Clinton was a firm supporter of charter schools and any policy that would, in her words “streamline the due-process standards so that teachers that don’t measure up would no longer be in the classroom,” which she said in 2000 during her Senate campaign. We see here the use of accountability rhetoric to support the erosion of teachers’ protection from arbitrary dismissal, or, in the case of for-profit charters, dismissals motivated by a desire to cut labor costs.
In its major policy platform, the Movement for Black lives has departed from this Democratic and Republican privatization agenda that has resulted in urban students spending 80 to 266 times longer being tested than suburban students. It is clear that defunding and neglecting Black and Brown neighborhood schools through high stakes testing is racist and dehumanizing. Likewise, the socialist presidential campaign of Gloria La Riva and Eugene Puryear has declared that education should be a constitutional right and has officially embraced the policy initiatives of The Movement for Black Lives.