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Sad News from Philadelphia

February 28, 2013

Diane Ravitch’s post this morning reported on the proposal the Philadelphia School Board proposed to the teacher’s union. I negotiated with teacher’s unions for over 30 years and could not imagine advancing a proposal as draconian and small minded as the one reported in the media and described in Diane Ravitch’s post. What is going on? My comment to this development follows:

I attended college and grad school in Philadelphia in the late 60′s and early 70s and taught in Philadelphia in the early 70s. At that time, the Philadelphia School District’s union was ahead of suburban districts in terms of their contract, their compensation levels were comparable to those of nearby suburbs, and some of the benefits were more generous, particularly those for staff development and graduate study, which was important to a new teacher. The work environment was challenging in the JHS where I worked, but the district was building new schools and had progressive leadership from the School Board through the Superintendent.

I share this memory of four decades ago because I fear that the Philadelphia School District is setting the standard again… in a bad way. If the Board succeeds in eliminating “frills” like librarians and diminishing the pay of teachers this strategy will spread across the State quickly and set the stage for the expansion of for-profit charter schools. Should this gambit by the Philadelphia School Board succeed every union in economically challenged school districts in PA can expect to see similar proposals from their school boards. If schools serving poor children lose libraries and see their teachers’ salaries cut, he divide between affluent districts and economically challenged districts will widen. As parents become disenchanted with their public schools their boards will see for-profit charters as a salvation.

I’ve been away from Philly so long I’m not sure how their board is constituted… but I hope that democracy is still functional in the city and the voters will find a way to express their disapproval with the school board that put this offer on the table.

The School Board I remember working for was the one assembled by Richardson Dilworth, a progressive liberal who hired Mark Shedd from Connecticut to change the system. Mark Shedd didn’t succeed, though he did make a splash by instituting the Parkway School without walls and by trying to decentralize decision making. He and Dilworth alienated the central school administration by wanting these changes and alienated the teachers union despite the fact they increased salaries, decreased class sizes, and enhanced their contract benefits. In 1970, the teachers went on strike to get higher wages and more benefits. After several weeks the union got some concessions… but I believe their intransigence contributed to the election of populist ex-police commissioner Frank Rizzo. Rizzo appealed to blue collar whites with his take-no-prisoners approach and echoes of Spiro Agnew’s antagonism toward pointy headed liberals. In retrospect, 1970 was the last chance Philadelphia had to reform their schools in a progressive fashion.

So here we are today, with the board of the biggest and arguably poorest school district advocating the elimination of librarians in public schools, the increase of class size, and a decrease in pay: the antithesis of the Dilworth-Shedd era. Maybe the voters in Philadelphia CAN raise their voices and get the system back on track. I hope so.

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