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Like so many school districts across the nation which are scrambling to figure out how to divide a pie that isn't growing nearly fast enough to meet everyone's needs, the Philadelphia School District is in the middle of a protracted and often acrimonious contract dispute.

What distinguishes this situation in a novel, to say nothing of perilous, way is how the district's superintendent may choose to handle the crisis ... and why he might take that action:

Budget season is closing in, the struggling Philadelphia School District has a $14 million hole to fill this school year, and it needs $440 million in new funds for next year.

But most significantly, the district has signaled it is willing to use its "nuclear option" - invoking special powers bestowed by the state law that created the School Reform Commission - to get what it wants from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has publicly said he must have work-rule changes in order to compete with charter schools. [Emphasis added]

On one level, you want to slap your forehead when you read that last sentence. But on another level, you just knew it was heading this way, didn't you?

So, what the heck does that sentence really mean? Follow me beyond the fold for the explanation.

First, let's look at the nitty gritty of what "work-rule" changes Hite was referencing. They are, to say the least, predictable:

The sources said the PFT [Philadelphia Federation of Teachers] had offered some work-rule changes at the bargaining table, but nothing near what the district says it must have: giving principals absolute authority over hiring and firing staff; weakening seniority; and halting the practice of higher pay for advanced education, among other shifts.
The common thread in all of those things, of course, is money. At a time of dwindling resources, cheaper is better, and not rewarding teachers for pursuing additional education (the Philly School District honors a master's degree with a pay bump that ranges from $1,300 to $8,700, depending on years of service) will save a few dimes here and there, though someone will have to probably explain the "think about the kids" rationale in trying to have less educated faculty members.

Enhanced hiring and firing? Weakening seniority?

That is (a) entirely about money and (b) straight out of the charter schools movement. It has long been part of the charter schools movement ethos that experience in education is not only irrelevant, it can be damaging.

For a superintendent, though, what would be awfully tempting is having the free rein to replace an experienced teacher with a rookie. In Philadelphia, at the master's degree column in their salary schedule, replacing an experienced teacher with a newbie would net a savings of just under $30,000 per teacher.

And, if you can sell the public that creating a revolving door of young teachers actually will improve the quality of instruction (despite the existence of considerable evidence to the contrary), all the better!

The architect of this newer, far more aggressive stance by management of the Philadelphia School District is one Bill Green, a veteran city councilman and the new chairman of the state-authored School Reform Commission. Green is the third generation of a dynastic Democratic political power family in the city, and was appointed to this current role by the state's Republican Governor, Tom Corbett. It was not a bipartisan gesture, however: Green's appointment was met with a decidedly tepid response from Democratic Mayor Michael Nutter:

“I find his nomination quite frankly perplexing,” Nutter said.

Nutter said Green’s track record of voting against some education funding measures, coupled with his views on public education, raises some concerns in the mayor’s office.

Particularly, Nutter wants Green to roll with some of his plans, such as: a new state formula for education funding; the cigarette tax; split the sales extension tax to pay for schools and pensions; plans to turn around the worst performing schools.

“It is my hope that he will come to better understand the importance of District-managed schools and that he will stand up and truly support our school children and teachers,” Nutter said.

Nutter's hope for cooperation from Green, it would seem, is a bit of a pipe dream.

Before leaping into the "family business" in 2007, Green made a fairly handsome living as a corporate lawyer. And like most of the well-heeled folks in corporate land, his stance on public school teachers is so retrograde and dismissive, it is almost painful.

Last month, he got the district's principals to capitulate on a contract that included a double-digit pay cut. He did so by strong-arming the principals, threatening an imposition of a more draconian contract if they didn't play ball:

Bill Green's joining the SRC was a pivot point, [administrator's union head Robert] McGrogan said: Green has publicly suggested the commission has not been aggressive enough in using its special powers, but the winds have now shifted.

If Green is going to take drastic action, McGrogan said, "he's not going to wait to do it."

Green, McGrogan said, "is coming with a gun out."

Green, for his part, did not deny the aggressiveness, and in praising the principals' union for playing ball, he issued what might be the most insulting statement about public school teachers possible:
"As leaders, they recognize they need the flexibility with teachers they provided to Dr. Hite and his team," Green said of the principals. "They led by example, and we look forward to working with them to change outcomes for the 118,000 children in non-performing schools. When the PFT makes that their goal rather than excessive benefits and salary and impossible work rules, those children will have a chance at success."
Read the whole thing again. Then, if necessary, scream into a pillow.

By the way, just to remind you, a fifth-year teacher with a master's degree in Philadelphia schools makes $59,000.

Green, for what it is worth, made more than triple that amount moonlighting in his former gig as a corporate lawyer in 2010, while still pulling down six figures in salary as a city councilman.

As I wrote last year, the corporate crowd loves the charter schools movement because it takes some of the worst labor habits of corporate America and superimposes them into the realm of "public education." It basically takes what was, for generations, a noble lifelong calling to service, and transforms it into just another temp job, filled with inexperienced souls who are willing to endure absurdly austere working conditions, safe in their belief that they won't be there that long, anyway.

Now, with the help of this state-sanctioned commission, we could easily see the public school district in one of the largest cities in America following this race to the bottom already started by too many "education" corporations.

That should be terribly frightening to anyone who cares about education, even those that haven't already been aware of the prevailing zeitgeist in far too many public conversations that charter schools are the only form of education worth saving at this point (hard to believe, but it has been over three years since Diane Ravitch wrote this excellent piece on the subject). The "charter schools as a panacea" myth has already taken a beating (this study, which shows the comical ease with which charters deal with problem students, is but the most recent example). Yet still, it's the only sacred cow left in education in the eyes of far too many politicos (including those who like to call themselves Democrats).

And, somehow, now public school districts feel that, rather than advocate for their teachers and students, their time would be better spent "competing" with charters? Compete with them how? Forcing their employees to work an additional 20-30 hours a week for free, while cutting their pay on top of that? Ripping health care benefits from staff? Income security? Job security?

If this becomes the norm, one must ask: who in the world will make this their life's calling? The short answer to that question is: few, if any will. Teaching will become something someone does for a year or two or three, before they either (a) go into the rapidly expanding and lucrative peripheries of education consulting or charter school management, or (b) bide their time and network, until they go get their MBA or go off to some other field.

Teaching will no longer be a career, it will be a snazzy line on people's resumes. That's not good for the profession, and it sure as all hell isn't good for kids.

Originally posted to Daily Kos Labor on Sun Mar 30, 2014 at 11:14 AM PDT.

Also republished by Daily Kos.

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