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Students from the Philadelphia High School for Creative & Performing Arts walked out of class on Wednesday in support of their teachers. (Photo: @realjakehowie/Twitter)

Students Walk Out After Attack on 'Union that Defends Public Education'

Philadelphia student action comes after teachers' union contract is canceled

Deirdre Fulton

Students from at least two Philadelphia public high schools refused to go to classes Wednesday morning to protest the recent and abrupt cancellation of the city’s contract with the Philadelphia teachers' union.

The Philadelphia School Reform Commission (SRC), which replaced the elected school board amidst financial difficulties in 2001 and is comprised of five members appointed by the governor and mayor, quietly voted on Monday to cancel the contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT).

The PFT was given no advance word of the action, which happened at an early-morning SRC meeting called with minimal notice, save a newspaper advertisement on Sunday. The Commission's Thursday evening meetings are typically announced on the district's website.

"This is an attempt to dismantle the union that defends public education in Philadelphia."
—Philadelphia Caucus of Working Educators

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, "The district says it will not cut the wages of 15,000 teachers, counselors, nurses, secretaries, and other PFT members. But it plans to dismantle the long-standing Philadelphia Federation of Teachers Health and Welfare Fund, which is controlled by the union, and take over administering benefits."

The paper reports that starting December 15, most PFT members will have to pay either 10 or 13 percent of the cost of their medical plan, depending on their salaries—between $21 and $200 per month, officials estimate. They currently pay nothing.

District officials said the move, which was applauded by Governor Tom Corbett and acting state Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq, will save the district $54 million this school year and as much as $70 million in subsequent years.

But the PFT's Caucus of Working Educators described the Commission's actions as "not really about funding. This is an attempt to dismantle the union that defends public education in Philadelphia."

In an official statement, the PFT echoed that sentiment:

In August 2013, the PFT put contract proposals on the table that would have saved the district millions of dollars and averted the current budget deficit. Governor Corbett's SRC is clearly not interested in negotiating with the educators of Philadelphia. They have been spending vast amounts of time and money on union-busting strategy sessions with their lawyers, and not nearly enough time working with the PFT on how to restore programs and services to our schoolchildren.

...This is not an effort by the SRC to address the fiscal crisis. This is the Corbett Administration’s attempt to vilify the PFT in order distract from his horrible record on education funding and boost his chances of re-election. Today’s action is a last-ditch effort by the Corbett Administration to weaken the standing of our educators with Philadelphia’s parents and community members.

State law prevents the PFT from striking; those who do strike risk losing their teaching licenses. It is the only union in Pennsylvania without that option.

"They say, 'oh we’re doing it for the students. We’re taking the teachers' money and we’re giving it back to the schools so the students can get books and pencils and paper.' And it’s like, we don’t want those things if we don’t have good teachers."
—Philadelphia high school student

So students stepped in for their teachers. Using the hashtag #StudentsForTeachers, Philadelphia high schoolers took to the streets and social media in support of local educators. "We're striking because every single teacher in the district's benefits are at risk and being played with through politics," student organizers said on Facebook.

Outside the Philadelphia High School for Creative & Performing Arts, a high school junior identified as 'Cy' told CBS Philly: "They say it’s for us. They say, 'oh we’re doing it for the students. We’re taking the teachers' money and we’re giving it back to the schools so the students can get books and pencils and paper.' And it’s like, we don’t want those things if we don’t have good teachers. You know, the good teachers, they can go to other schools and get their jobs and we don’t want that to happen."

Writing at Salon, Sarah Jaffe argues that "The Philadelphia school district has become the prime example of the problems with a corporate-style school 'reform' agenda. Parents, teachers and students have resisted full privatization, New Orleans-style, and have found themselves punished for resistance as Gov. Tom Corbett, who controls the schools after a 2001 takeover by the state, slashes school budgets, wipes out thousands of jobs, and shutters dozens of schools."

The contract cancellation is part of a larger attempt to dismantle Philadelphia's public education system, Jaffe says:

As usual, the move seems more punitive than anything—[Katy Sipp of the Pennsylvania Working Families Party] noted that the governor has done little to ensure the district will be equitably funded. He hasn’t pushed to tax the state’s fracking-induced natural gas boom, hasn’t closed tax loopholes that allow corporations to pocket billions. “It’s clear to me that they’re most interested in serving up the schools to their corporate allies in terms of privatization and protecting their other corporate allies from paying their fair share to educate Philly kids,” she said. “[Corbett] is not doing any of the kind of stuff that could actually bring more resources into the schools, he’s just trying to get teachers to pay more so that his friends don’t have to pay anything.”

The timing of the move has also led the teachers and their allies to suspect that the move may have more to do with Corbett’s falling poll numbers—a Quinnipiac poll out just today shows the governor a full 17 points behind his Democratic opponent (also backed by the Working Families Party) Tom Wolf. Wolf condemned the SRC’s move, saying, “This is just one more situation that has been forced by Gov. Corbett’s $1 billion cut to education in Pennsylvania and his chronic neglect of the Philadelphia public schools and schools throughout Pennsylvania.” Wolf has criticized charter school expansion, called for equitable funding for schools, and has said he wants to return to an elected school board for Philadelphia.

The PFT is expected to bring a legal challenge to the takeover law the SRC believes gives it the power to bypass negotiations and impose terms.

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