Those of you who work in unionized districts are probably dealing with a variety of looming changes and ‘reforms’ due to Arnie Duncan and President Obama‘s new Race to the Top Program.  In case you’ve been in a cave for the last month, the RTTT Program (so quaintly referred to on Twitter as “Race to the Toilet” by a colleague of mine) has created a mad dash for federal cash among the 41 states who successfully completed the application by the January 19th deadline.  With that dash has come a need for unions and districts to come to the table to discuss the language of the program’s requirements to bring the federal money into the state.

My Union (Philadelphia Federation of Teachers) went to the table this month and sent out an email to its members explaining how this new program application would affect contract negotiations.  Did I mention that we had been working under an extended contract for over 2 years?  The final extension to January 15th gave the Union and the District enough time to sign the required paperwork in time for the deadline.  I don’t think there was ever a question of whether the Union would sign the paperwork. With 2 years of negotiations, we had less and less ground to stand on. A sinking economy, a national health care plan in hot debate, and a new educational reform program worth millions of dollars to the winning bidders.

To make matters worse, in 2001 the State of Pennsylvania used the power of Act 46, which allows the State to take over Philadelphia schools and to complete a State takeover of the entire District. The results: an appointed School Reform Commission (SRC) instead of a School Board, the elimination of teachers’ right to strike, and the limitation of the Union to negotiate basic things like staffing patterns and assignments, pupil assessment and teacher prep time.  So if we didn’t come to an agreement, the SRC would make one for us. It was a no-brainer. If the Union signed the RTTT paperwork, thereby agreeing to put the needed verbiage in the contract to support the State’s needs for the program application, then we would be able to maintain certain parts of the contract we wanted.

We were lucky enough to maintain 100% employer-paid benefits, receive both step (annual) raises and two bonuses over the course of the 3 year contract and avoid an extended school year and day.  That I cannot complain about. Unfortunately, in order to keep these things in the contract, there was the addition of two articles that will have a huge impact on myself and many other teachers in the district.

The first: “Value Added Compensation.” In short, in 25% of schools defined as “High-Needs” (probably about 4 schools total) will receive across the board, whole-school bonuses for showing marked improvement in student achievement and 10% of schools defined as “non-High-Needs” will also receive the bonus. I am not sure how that translates into a number, but it’s not many.  The best part of the language?  “….based on availability of funds.”  It’s obvious that the language was placed in the contract to satisfy the RTTT application requirements. According to the Executive Summary, States would have to show that they are:

(you can find the executive summary here)

The second: “Renaissance Schools.”  These are schools destined for complete restructuring.  According to the new contract, should a school be designated a Renaissance School (RS), 100% of its staff will be force transferred (forced to choose a different school) or be given the option to re-apply through site-selection to work at the newly formed school.  However, only 50% of the original staff may be re-hired.  RS’s are schools that have been in Corrective Action II for 6 or more years (along with other criteria).  These schools will be closed and re-opened under new management.  Organizations began applying to take over schools on January 20th. Technically, the list of RS was supposed to come out too, but in my opinion they held out until the new contract was ratified.  Should you decide to work in a RS, you will be required to work an extra hour every day, 2 Saturdays a month and up to 22 days in July (paid). Not for the weak of heart and VERY similar to the KIPP Charter School model that Duncan has lauded as a solution to closing the achievement gap for low-income, minority students (we have 2 in Philadelphia).  Side note: my school will most likely be designated as one of these schools.
Here is the wording in the Executive Summary to support the RS article in the contract:

So what’s the deal with the ‘pee on my leg’ stuff, you ask?

I walked up to the contract ratification meeting at the Temple Liacourus Center to meet up with my friend Ann Leaness, and I already had a feeling of “it’s a done deal.”  As we sat, watching people file in, all I could think was how pitiful a turnout we had. It was the night before high school grades were due.  I had seen more people show up to ratify our contract extension earlier in the school year.  As some of my fellow staff members arrived and sat in the seats I had saved for them, I fingered my paper ballot, thankful for my tiny chance of being heard.  I had experienced many “aye/nay” votes in the past and was glad this vote would be (at least a little more) fair.

Union President Jerry Jordan took the podium, explaining, along with bulleted PowerPoint slides, the changes and additions to the contract.  We had all received an email around noon describing these changes in detail, and they were available in print form at the meeting.  Many of my fellow staff members had not read the changes yet. (I had read it online and took notes–I have issues.)  After reviewing the changes, as with all Union meetings, they opened up the floor to the 6 mics available for asking questions and commenting.  Each mic had a long line of people behind it. Some thanked Jerry and the negotiating team, some voiced concerns about Renaissance Schools and the scripted programs that they were being forced to teach that insulted them and stifled their creativity as professionals. From the responses that Jerry gave it was obvious that this thing was going to pass whether we wanted it to or not.

At least I had my ballot.

There was a motion to close the discussion, which passed.  Suddenly, Jerry says, “All in favor of ratifying the contract say ‘aye.’ Against, say ‘nay.'”  Then, “The aye’s have it, the contract passes.”

I was shocked. Disgusted. Annoyed. Sad. Dumbfounded. Someone yelled out “This is bullsh*t!” I kind of agreed. I mean, what the hell?  Why did we have ballots?  I shook my head and walked toward the exit. As I passed the ballot box, I figured, “what the hay” and cast my ballot (I voted against it.)  I saw people tossing out their ballots or putting them empty into the boxes. “What’s the point,” they were saying, “It’s already been passed.”  I couldn’t believe that around 2,000 attendees made a verbal vote to represent 16,000 teachers or that we had to vote on something that we had only had a few minutes (or hours if we were lucky) to read.

The next morning I found out that the ballots HAD been counted.  The count had been 1,831 to 885 according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

But did we ever really have a choice? How many people threw away their ballots or didn’t vote? What about the 14,000 people who didn’t attend or couldn’t attend because they were busy putting in grades?  I pay Union dues, but what am I really getting out of it?  Hence the title of this post.

This is a really scary time to be an educator. Perhaps, even, to be a student. Imagine finding out that all of the teachers in your school have been let go, that the school you’ve been attending for the last 4 or 5 years will no longer exist as it has.  This could be scarier than NCLB ever was.

Grab your umbrellas everyone!

Arne Duncan photo courtesy of Dept. of Education
Baby crying photo courtesy of / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Will Philadelphia Education Survive? » Philly Teacher

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