Union Blocks Private Grant to Disadvantaged Neighborhood School

Matt: Katy Phillips is a math teacher at Brentwood High school near Pittsburgh. Katy, you haven’t always been in the classroom, which is great—a teacher with lots of real-world experience. That’s so healthy for education, and our school system profits tremendously from people like you with experience in finance and other fields. I was in the classroom for seven years before working in the “real world,” and I saw a big difference in perspective that’s very valuable in the classroom. Do you agree?

Katy: Absolutely, 100 percent. As you mentioned, I studied business in college, and worked for Merrill Lynch in New York before coming to Pennsylvania to pursue my true passion: teaching. Many people are lifelong educators, which I think is wonderful, but you do become insulated in that world. Coming from private industry to public schools, the structure of the workplace is a lot different—less antiquated!

Matt: Would you say some of that antiquated thinking has held back kids in our education system?

Katy: Absolutely. For example, at Brentwood, we got this opportunity through the National Math and Science Initiative to increase the scope and enrollment of our AP [Advanced Placement] programs and better prepare students for college. Alongside that, they offer a “Laying the Foundation” program to prepare students grades 3 and up for these rigorous AP classes. So our chairs of math, science, and English got together to decide if we should try for this opportunity. We researched and found that their results—kids getting engaged and involved in the curriculum, passing the tests, earning college credit, getting ready for the rigors of college academics—are absolutely amazing. They’re staggering. I mean, hundreds of percent increases.

Matt: So, you’re like “we’ve got to do this.”

Katy: Pretty much. It was a no-brainer. So I reached out to the representative, who was a Pittsburgh teacher herself, and she came for a meeting. Our principal is amazing—supporting us every step of the way. Long story short, our school got accepted for this amazing program—$450,000 over three years.

Matt: A huge deal. This was going to make a huge difference for your students.

Katy: Well…it was. But we almost lost the award when our teachers’ union stepped in and put a stop to the whole program. It turns out, one element of the grant awarded $100 to each student who gets an AP score of 3 or above. Now, it’s wonderful for any kid to qualify on AP, but it’s especially meaningful in our district, which is very underprivileged. Every single kid faces significant financial challenges.

Matt: So the award would be a nice incentive.

Katy: Absolutely. As they are all getting ready to go on to further their education, that $100 could be a textbook, school supplies. But the problem is, teachers received the same award as well. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Teaching an AP class is a tremendous amount of work if you’re doing it the right way. I mean, it’s teaching a college class to non-college students…which is not easy.

Matt: And there’s an expectation that you’re going to help them pass the AP exam.

Katy: Right! There are extra study sessions, extra assignments, grading, all those things. Many districts offer their AP teachers a little stipend because they recognize it is a little extra work. That’s not in Brentwood’s contract, which is fine, so I thought this was a nice opportunity to recognize those teachers for the work they are doing. Unfortunately, our union balked. They said the incentives were “merit pay” because this payment was tied to a score that the student was getting.

Matt: Heaven forbid you help kids pass and do well, right? And then reward them and teachers. You’re telling me the union would rather your school have zero dollars than to allow a teacher to get $100 for helping a kid pass. Bringing half a million to this school without raising taxes.

Katy: I tried to explain that it’s not merit pay because it is not linked to my supervisor or my evaluation. But the PSEA letter—well, it was one of the craziest pieces of literature that I have ever read. There was “MERIT PAY” in bold, all-caps italics all over the place. Ultimately, we negotiated a deal with the union that if teachers didn’t take their $100 rewards, we could still move forward with the grant.

Matt: So you are in the program, but the union has basically won the fight—they don’t allow teachers to receive this little incentive. We are not talking thousands of dollars.

Katy: No, this is not going to provide me my beach house. Not at all.

Matt: And does that go for the kids as well?

Katy: Thankfully, the kids are still entitled to theirs. I mean, I would have put my foot down. I think they felt because the kids are not union members, they could have it.

Matt: Thankfully kids don’t have to pay dues to the unions. And so, now that you’ve been participating in this program for a while, have the results been as good as you hoped?

Katy: Yes, they’ve been incredible. We’ve got the evidence: it’s a measurable difference in AP scores, teacher preparedness, etc. But get this: a friend of mine forwarded me this letter that the union was circulating that basically says, yes, the results are commendable, but because some of the funding comes from Exxon Mobile and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, that this was a right-wing conspiracy by Rex Tillerson and Bill Gates trying to secretly infiltrate public education and change the pay structure into merit-based pay to ruin the lives of teachers everywhere. It said that teachers should file unfair labor practice law suits against them. To me, it was the rantings of a crazy person.

Matt:  Clearly political. So, you have been in this school district for 10 years. Had you had any interaction with your union since then? Union discipline, or you needed your union to defend you, or, you know, all the reasons that they tell you to pay hundreds of dollars in union dues?

Katy: It’s $1,700 a year for my husband and me. No, we’ve never been called in for disciplinary reasons.

Matt: And what have they done for you, after all this expense—$17,000 for your ten years as a teacher?

Katy: Not a lot. And I hate to say it, because I work with a lot of tremendous, wonderful people, so I don’t mean to make it sound like everyone else is terrible. We have phenomenal teachers in our district.

Matt: That’s important to say. Often, when we say teachers’ unions, we’re not talking about teachers.

Katy: No. Unions are a very small minority. And the majority of the people I work with are great, and doing great things for our kids, and going above and beyond, and doing much, much more than the contractual day, and never asking anything for it. Right now, two of our teachers are on a plane to Malaysia with a group of our kids who are competing in a competition—they made it to the world championships for the second year in a row—no compensation. We work 12 months out of the year. It has been my experience that as much as our union calls themselves a brother- and sisterhood, the real brother- and sisterhood is the teachers themselves, not the exec board or rep’s office.

Matt: Well, thank you Katy, for still moving forward and doing it for the kids. You know, despite the union opposition and the headaches they created in this, just to try to help your students. It’s teachers like you who push on and continue to do a great job with them, and we all appreciate that so much.