Note: This commentary first appeared in Philadelphia Magazine.
Who is standing up for good teachers and poor children in the School District of Philadelphia? If you guessed “the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers,” you’d be wrong.
That’s why my colleagues and I went into the midst of 3,000 PFT protesters last week to talk about how PFT leaders are keeping millions of dollars from the classroom and have been harming poor children and high-performing teachers for years.
We explained how PFT leaders are blocking education reforms that will dramatically improve the SDP for both educators and kids alike. To say things got heated would be an understatement. Sometimes the truth hurts, but in this case, it could also set Philadelphia free.
Here’s how the PFT hurts good teachers and the city’s neediest children.
The PFT refuses to reward high-performing teachers with additional compensation. The union even sued the district to maintain rigid seniority rules—forcing schools to lay off excellent teachers just because they were new. The PFT also fails low-income families by blocking access to safer or better schools for their children.
These reforms would be good for teachers and kids alike. But instead of supporting them, the PFT consistently and persistently demands more taxpayer money and more time to fix things.
We’ve tried the PFT’s “more money” approach. The reality is it didn’t work!
Last year, the SDP took in $1 billion more than it did just 10 years previously. The city is spending more money per student than ever before, but the results remain dismal.
The PFT argues that “inadequate resources” and “poverty” are the reasons that, according to the Nation’s Report Card, 80 percent of district students are not reading or doing math at grade level. Yet Philadelphia’s public charter schools, despite receiving about $2,400 less per student than district schools, outperform their district-run counterparts.
Young Scholars Charter School on Marshall Street, for example, serves a predominantly economically disadvantaged student body yet achieves truly great results. According to the State Performance Profile, Young Scholars earned an academic score of 88.6 in 2012-13, while the average district score was just 57.5.
Charters operate in similar environments of poverty, yet they spend less per student than district schools. Instead of making excuses, they are making progress. Yet the PFT is seeking to shut them down even as 30,000 families sit on charter school waiting lists.
We’ve also given the union more time—PFT leaders have held district schools in their iron grip for decades. It is the PFT that has been the single largest and most consistent actor in Philadelphia, yet the union relentlessly blames everyone else, refusing responsibility for its role in the city’s educational decline.
It is not solely the School Reform Commission’s fault that teachers have to pay for everyday school supplies out of their own pockets. Philadelphia teachers ought to be asking PFT President Jerry Jordan why they aren’t getting better representation for the more than $830 they must pay to the union every year.
Sadly, even if the PFT began to treat teachers as customers to be served rather than a captive audience (just try not paying those forced union dues!), the union will never truly serve the children of Philadelphia the way they deserve.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten came to Philadelphia to declare it “ground zero”—not for better educational outcomes for kids but for her union’s self-interests. Other union leaders joined in with threats if union demands are not met.
Indeed, Patrick Eiding of the Philadelphia Labor Council, AFL-CIO, declared, “If the courts don’t turn it around, we’ll turn this city upside down. We will shut this city down, and we won’t do it in the dark of night, we’ll do it out here on the streets in the heart of day.”
We shouldn’t be surprised that Jerry Jordan and Randi Weingarten’s unions don’t exist to advocate for the best interests and welfare of school children—they don’t pay union dues!
This is why we had to show up last Thursday. It is the kids who are the real victims when adults act childish and make threats if they don’t get their way. We need to stand up for them and stand against the schoolyard bullies at the PFT.
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Matthew J. Brouillette is president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation (CommonwealthFoundation.org), Pennsylvania’s free market think tank.