In the wake of a recent ruling by the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court against the School Reform Commission’s attempt to cancel the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ collective bargaining agreement, Liberation News spoke with Kristin Luebbert, a 16-year veteran Philadelphia public school language arts teacher and a social justice activist. Luebbert works at Bache-Martin Elementary School, which is a high poverty school serving predominantly African American students. As a member of the Working Educators Caucus of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, Luebbert argued that the national trend to privatize public education, which the Pa. State Supreme Court ruling was a strike against, demands a renewed emphasis on social justice unionism.
Luebbert was a relatively new teacher when the School Reform Commission replaced the Philadelphia school board, transferring power over Philly schools to the governor’s office. Having the power to privatize public schools, the SRC has aggressively pursued this agenda since their emergence. It is within this context that the Working Educators Caucus was created, which is based on a social justice model of unionism.
Reflecting on the rise of the SRC, the subsequent on-going process of the privatization of Philly public schools and the importance social justice unionism, Luebbert shared her insights and experience with Liberation News:
“I remember the whole narrative of ‘failing schools’ and ‘stressed school districts’ and of course the narrative was never and is never, ‘How can we help people in poverty become people not in poverty,’ rather the narrative is, ‘The schools must be doing something wrong,’ so they had the state take over the school board, which was an appointed board. It was replaced by the SRC which had so many members appointed by the governor and so many by the mayor.
“But there is no accountability or responsibility to anyone at all once they are appointed. There is almost no mechanism to get rid of them until they serve out their terms. Of course they can resign themselves, and a couple have done that, but the people you want to resign never resign.
“The way the law stands now, the only way the SRC can be dissolved is if they dissolve themselves. Although they make a lot of noise about it being an unpaid position, to be an SRC commissioner, a lot of them are connected with politicians, with law firms, only a couple are educators. We feel that it is not pure altruism that drives people to say yes to be an SRC commissioner.
Privatization of schools
“One of the powers of the SRC is to privatize schools and turn them over to someone who supposedly can do it better. And in our world, apparently, that someone who can do it better is a charter school company. In Philly they are companies that say they are not for profit, but in reality there is a lot of money to be had. They do this thing that the auditor is just recently calling them out on.
“It works like this: I’m Group A and I have this building over here and it just so happens that a school could fit in it. And my brother-in-law is in this group that is forming a charter school, and they are going to rent my building. So there is all this swapping of money that is not illegal but it is extremely shady. You can make money for your organization by renting a building to another arm of your organization. They get so much money per student that comes right out of PA taxes and they get more money if their students have special needs. They gain from that system by only taking the students with the least special of the special needs.
“The charter school companies are really good at making money off of the system and having these huge pots of money in bank accounts available for when they need to do something like defend themselves in court. It is a challenge because we do not have that same advantage.
“So they determine what schools are failing based on test scores, which are usually schools in poor Black and Brown communities. The SRC will bring in charter school companies to tell the community how they are going to do things differently and improve the education for their children. They say they are going to get the parents involved to interview different charter school companies, and then they usually pick the one they wanted anyway.
“A lot of parent groups have come to realize through this process that they won’t be listened to. They started out a few years ago where they would have a vote. They realized that got out of hand because it was a democracy. One of the parent groups voted not to have a charter school at all. They voted to stay in the district. The SRC hated that, so now there have not been any votes at all for a number of years. They just tell you what is going to happen.
“They get rid of all the staff, most of the teachers, and they bring in this whole new operator and destroy the school community. The way they are shoved down the throat of people in Philly is not good at all.
“Since we have been doing this thing since 2001, and if test scores are our goal, and I could dispute that, they are not doing a good job with that either. If they served the same population the same way as regular public schools, meaning you can’t kick anyone out for pretty much any reason, they don’t do well either.
“The test scores are a piece of a much bigger picture [of] setting underserved schools up to fail [in order] to privatize them. And if you are just teaching to the test, it is horrible. It is boring. The kids hate it. It is not teaching them to be thinkers or a real person who can problem solve in the world.
Emergence of Working Educators Caucus
“The emergence of the Working Educators Caucus came from a place of being frustrated from many things from the SRC; from testing; to things we saw being pulled out of our school year after year after year; from the decimation of our ranks from over 20,000 to 11,000 members of the PFT and the feeling that your power lies in your members.
“We wanted to bring a more social justice lens to our work as a union because you have to be allied with parents and community members to get what you want for your schools. If you do it from the lens of this is just what’s good for teachers, then most people would be disinvested from that. We need to understand that most things unions ask for wind up benefiting children.
“Our PFT contract for example, and the reason to have it has become more apparent since Flint, has a clause that says there must be clean and working water fountains in the schools. And the SRC makes fun of us for that. They say, ‘Who would not have working water fountains? That’s crazy! Why would you put that in your contract?’ Because you people would poison children if you were allowed. That’s why, and it’s been proven. Especially in old places where there is a lot of lead floating around in the infrastructure, not due to anyone’s fault necessarily, but it needs to be ameliorated.
“We knew we had to work with other people who weren’t just union members, and other unions as well, to say ‘Hey this is in all of our interests.’ The school is something really important for the whole community, for the whole city, and we have to work together to make sure that it is the best that it can be for our kids.
“If you aren’t organized and bubbling up from the ground, then you don’t have members at the protest and on the picket line when you need them because people will feel disengaged.
“We have so many new members coming in because of retirements and because of natural and unnatural turnover and a lot of those people are coming from complete nonunion families and do not have any familiarity with why unions are important. They have not been taught it in school for the most part, so they don’t really get it.
“We therefore see ourselves as an educational vehicle and a social justice vehicle. We are a way for people to get involved and understand why unionism is important, and why activist unionism is perhaps more important now than it has been for a very long time.
“Social justice unionism is increasingly important now because of the many issues we face. We are active in the Fight for $15. People say ‘Why are you involved in the fight for 15?’ We say, ‘Those are our students’ parents, and what is good for our students’ parents, is good for our students, and therefore good for us, good for the school, and good for the community.’
“So if you are disconnected from what unionism brought working people, like an eight hour work day, the concept of the weekend, the concept of health and safety regulations in places that you work, you don’t understand why they are still so important. Fast food workers are the new vanguard of who needs to be treated well.
Educating new members on importance of union
“We need to educate new union members who say, ‘What is the union going to do for me? They just take money out of my paycheck every two weeks and what does it get me?’ We want that to be tangible, and it should generate solidarity between unions and between low paid and higher paid workers.
“For example, we are a part of CORE, the Caucus of Rank-and-file Educators, which is a network of social justice teacher caucuses throughout the country. The steering committee does two monthly conference calls. One of the calls is to talk about what we are doing next as a coalition. The other call is to allow members to get advice and guidance on local issues. Educators from Seattle and Chicago, who have had major successes recently have been very helpful in providing guidance to members in Philly and elsewhere because it is happening everywhere. This is important because it is easy for educators to get caught in their local bubble unable to see the larger national picture. We are trying to leverage the power of our members and the power of our coalitions around the country.
“One of the lessons we are trying to teach to younger teachers here and elsewhere is that there is power in numbers, and that we should be listened to about what is best for our schools and our kids. You can’t just wait to build numbers and organize for when a crisis happens. You have to always be building power and always ready. You always have to be asking other educators what issues they have in their schools with their kids and look fro trends and ways to work together and doing something about it.
“During the DNC [Democratic National Convention], for example, the WE Caucus was at the immigration march, the Black Lives Matter march and rallies because those things all tie into our work. We have to work across different groups because education is supposed to be for everyone and benefit everyone.”