Citizens and Teachers Resist Massive Public School Closures in Philadelphia

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This article was originally published on June 28, 2013.

Last week four members of UNITE HERE, one of the four unions representing staff in the School District of Philadelphia, began a hunger strike that would culminate nine days later with a thousand-person rally at the state capitol. Two parents, organizers with UNITE HERE, and two cafeteria workers represented by the union fasted in protest of what the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) has termed the “doomsday budget.” That budget is an attempt by the School District of Philadelphia to fill a $300 million deficit by laying off 3,700 staff and eviscerating the teachers’ union contract.

In addition to ending teachers’ seniority protections and step increases (scheduled raises for consecutive years worked), the district’s proposal includes a wage cut, an increase in employee benefit contributions, and the elimination of necessary overtime pay—prep time for teachers and emergency visits by nurses. The plan would institute unlimited class sizes and reserve the right for the district to contract out union jobs. Other clauses absolve the district of the responsibility for providing water fountains and educators’ desks.

And all those cuts? That’s just the teachers.

The district’s entire safety staff (employees whose roles fall somewhere between hall monitor and security guard) will be gone in the fall, more than halving UNITE HERE Local 634’s membership. The staff is vital in a district that reported over 2,600 violent incidents last school year (the union says closer to 10,000). Whereas the teachers’ contract was proposed in February, it is this more recent announcement about security that brought parents and staff out to Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett’s office for a week of protest. While the community may have been displeased with the mistreatment of teachers, it was outraged at the prospect of dangerous schools.

Both students and parents are at a loss as to what will happen in September. “It’s hard to answer that question, it’s really scary,” hunger striker Mike Mullen told me. Both a union organizer and a parent of two in the School District of Philadelphia, Mullen said, “I would start by talking to every parent I could possibly talk to.” Safety is a prime concern in the district. “I drop my kids off a lot of days,” he added. “Really the only thing I worry about, I look them in the eye, I say be safe.”

Shyann Williams, a rising senior at Kensington Urban Education Academy, said she felt nervous about the layoffs. “They [the safety staff] made sure that we were going to be okay from eight to three, but now we have to depend on our teachers and our principals.” In addition to the UNITE HERE-represented safety staff, the proposed layoffs include every assistant principal in the district.

The quality of public schooling is set to be drastically reduced alongside safety: the district proposes eliminating all extracurricular activities. Students are understandably dismayed. In May, two student groups, Youth United for Change and the Philadelphia Student Union, organized consecutive walkouts after a spontaneous student strike. On May 9 around two hundred students unexpectedly left school for the day, inspiring a second strike two days later with over three times the turnout. A third strike on May 17 brought some two thousand students into downtown Philadelphia to protest the proposed education budget.

The student strikes came two months after American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten was arrested, along with eighteen others, for blocking the doors to a hearing where the state-run School Reform Commission was to vote on the closing of twenty-three schools. The SRC, created in 2001 as an early foray in replacing elected officials with state-appointed managers, is a profoundly undemocratic body. Composed of a five-member board, three appointed by the governor, two by the mayor, it is instrumental in implementing the state’s strategies for restructuring the city’s education system. Because the governor will always have a majority, there are few institutional channels for the parents of the district’s 200,000 students to shape the future of their children’s schools.

The tumultuous protests represent this year’s high water mark in the struggle for a democratic alternative to the school reform program being pushed by the Broad Foundation in Philadelphia. The foundation, one of the three billion-dollar funds whose neoliberal education agenda Joanne Barkan has assiduously traced in this magazine, has gone beyond the traditional strategy of consulting and advice by running the Broad Superintendents Academy, which certifies many of the municipal managers now reforming America’s schools. Both the previous and current superintendents in Philadelphia were graduates. The recent rally on June 25 against the cutting of safety workers, drawing some thirty busloads of protesters, marks an escalation against the Broad agenda.

Austerity is nothing new in Philadelphia, nor is the district’s insistence that teachers take the fall for budget deficits. In 1981, Philadelphia teachers went on strike because the district declined to provide a contract-mandated raise. In 2001, a year after a strike was averted by then-Mayor John Street’s capitulation to the teachers’ union, the district was taken over by the state-created SRC. The legislation creating the SRC left the union impotent, awarding the district the ability to strip teachers of their certification in the event of a strike, and effectively allowing the unilateral imposition of contracts. Since then, perdurable budget deficits have eroded school district resources in a process accelerated by the recession. In 2011, this meant 3,000 layoffs by the district, half of which were thwarted by the union.

Then in 2012, the district hired the notorious Boston Consulting Group. The firm is prevalent in municipal restructuring strategies across the country, and the district commissioned a report on alleviating the financial strains in the administration of the city’s public schools. BCG’s plan is informed by the assumptions in the report’s first paragraph. From Transforming Philadelphia’s Public Schools:

…on its current trajectory, the District still faces a projected deficit in excess of $200 million for the 2012–13 school year and a cumulative deficit of more than $1.1 billion over the next five years. A number of key assumptions underlie this “base case” scenario. First, it assumes that charter school enrollments will continue to grow in line with historic trends.The District’s Charter Schools Office projects that charter schools will compose 40 percent of public school enrollment by the 2016–17 school year, an increase of roughly 32,000 seats from today. Over the next five years, personnel costs are predicted to increase by 25 percent, while revenues are expected to rise by only 8 percent. The increase in personnel costs is driven in part by the required increase in SDP’s contribution to the Public School Employees’ Retirement System, from 12 percent of the total contribution in FY13 to 26 percent in FY17. (Emphasis added.)

BCG’s privatization plan was so alarming that PFT President Jerry Jordan, an otherwise diffident leader elected unopposed in 2007, called together the heads of unions, student groups, and community organizations with a stake in the public school system. They formed the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools, or PCAPS. The coalition held its first conference in September, and Action United, a community advocacy group composed largely of erstwhile ACORN staffers, began canvassing the communities affected by the plan. The student groups PSU and YUC held focus groups with students, and union members were surveyed by their respective organizations; in December PCAPS released a list of goals and a student bill of rights based on the community input titled Excellent Schools for All Children. Not three weeks earlier, district superintendent and Broad Academy alumnus William Hite had announced administrative raises for those in the IT, finance, and HR departments.

The feverish energy behind PCAPS peaked with the arrests in March. But the event annealed the delicate alliance—the steering committee of which is now composed of representatives from sixteen labor, community, and student organizations including the Philadelphia AFL-CIO, SEIU 32 BJ, and AFT Pennsylvania—and PCAPS has received endorsements from the NAACP, SEIU Healthcare PA, and the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO.1 It appears to be gaining momentum. Action United executive director Craig Robbins estimates a 1,500 person turnout for the June 25 Harrisburg protests.

“After [the arrests] it was decided that we wanted to keep PCAPS alive and viable,” said PFT community engagement coordinator Evette Jones. Since then, the coalition has pursued a three-campaign platform focused on funding, charter accountability, and reviving community schools. The second of these has found success; in April of this year the district recommended against expanding the number of charter seats, slowing the process begun by the BCG’s findings.2 But if some leaders like to tout the reduced number of closings declared in March—twenty-three, down from an original thirty-seven—others are skeptical. Citing the School Closure Guide, a report published by the Broad Foundation, Jones notes that its authors advise consideration of stakeholder input as part of the timeline for district downsizing, and that some concessions are expected in the pragmatic policy guide. “It’s almost like they planned to reduce the number [of closings],” said Jones.

The closures last year were the first in the five-year plan proposed by the BCG. Jones and others expect the next round of closings to be announced sometime in late fall or winter, again per Broad Foundation suggestions, and on August 31 the PFT’s contract will expire. Given the enormous size of the concessions advanced by the district, the future is hazy at best. The already squeezed teachers will not accept the contract quietly. “There’s nothing comparable,” said Ron Whitehorne, retired teacher and PCAPS representative of both Occupy Labor and the Teacher Action Group, a group of leftist Philadelphia teacher-activists. Whitehorne considered the contract a “comprehensive attack” on teachers and students’ school conditions. He is not alone in this evaluation, with at least one columnist in Philadelphia calling for a teachers’ strike modeled on the victorious strike by the Chicago Teachers Union in 2012.

When asked about the possibility of a strike this fall, the PCAPS leadership was hopeful in some cases, adamantly silent in others. “Its not clear what other option the union has at that point,” said teacher-activist Whitehorne. Robbins of Action United equivocated, “Whatever happens, there is going to be a huge fight ahead of us.” Hope may be easier for observers than for PFT’s leaders. The district has been preparing for this fight for over a decade. And even if Philadelphia is to be the next Chicago, it must be remembered that the last time the PFT walked out in 1981, the fifty-one-day dispute was resolved only after the Philadelphia Central Labor Council threatened a general strike. But the added leverage alleviated the union’s concessions only a little, and could not solve the problems of capital flight and the disintegration of the city’s school district, problems whose grip has only tightened.

Nonetheless, the crisis in Philadelphia has revealed potential for a citywide insurgency. Between the March arrests, the student strikes, and the safety staff layoffs, much of the blame, in the eyes of many Philadelphians, is not on the union but the district and the state. Rural Pennsylvania—the source of Republican majorities in both houses of the state legislature—may see the issue differently. But layoffs are hardly unique to Philadelphia, and rural austerity may have the potential to sway votes in 2014.

Within at least one union the issue of education funding has been broadened beyond the debate about public school employees. UNITE HERE organizer Mike Mullen noted that commonplace discussion among the hotel workers he meets with has shifted to city policy, contending with the usually dominant topic of workplace grievances during union meetings. They have come to see their union as a tool that extends beyond the shop door. “There would be tremendous support in the community,” said Mullen about the possibility of a teachers’ strike. The sentiment is prevalent among education activists in the city, though this, in and of itself, hardly suffices to gauge Philadelphians’ depth of support for a strike. “There would be real resonance,” said Whitehorne, explaining that the PFT’s intransigent position on school closings has won it support in new constituencies. “The union fought hard against the closures,” he noted, “and the closures are primarily in the African-American community.”

Neither have the students defined their own interests in opposition to those of an ostensibly self-interested union. From their perspective, the proposed changes have little to do with the PFT, whose members are so obviously overburdened by the district. “I have really good relationships with my teachers in my school,” said student Shyann Williams, “and still outside of school, just yesterday at [the protest in] Harrisburg I saw one of my teachers from first grade.” Jeremy Oliveri, a rising junior at Benjamin Franklin High, said that his teachers didn’t need any more salary cuts, and that he would like to see teachers “getting paid the amount they should be getting paid.” He added, “They’re working hard to actually teach us, and they’re getting cut off, and that ain’t right.” Williams and Oliveri have joined the YUC and the PSU respectively. Their testimony leaves little doubt as to the visceral impact of the cuts. Jeremy, who plays on his school’s baseball team, participated in two of the student strikes. “I came out,” he explained, “because they’re cutting all the extracurricular activities in my school.” Likewise Shyann, who plays badminton, said “I plan to see my younger brother attend a high school with security, and the extracurricular activities that I had.” She added, “Hopefully we get the grant we’re asking for, and people are really listening to us.”

On June 30 the Pennsylvania legislature will determine the amount of aid that it will give to the city. The district will demand the rest of the money from the teachers. Given the governor’s statements on the issue, there is little to be expected but a public hanging of the PFT—with teachers portrayed as selfishly letting down the state and city governments, and through them the citizens of Pennsylvania.

Without the extra funds, schools are set to reopen with parts of the school community ominously absent. Gone will be the safety staff, who often come to their schools with familial authority, and so help to situate the institutions within their communities. Leaving with them are guidance counselors, librarians, coaches, and all arts instructors. Without state or federal aid, teachers will have to concede to the proposed contract, and though the governor has insinuated that increased state aid will be contingent on the district’s unions making major concessions, there is no reason to think that this capitulation would bring back all of the jobs. If nothing else, events in Philadelphia have pointed to a quickening of community support. With PCAPS’s plans for summer canvassing there is hope that perhaps this trend can gain sufficient momentum in time for September.


1. PCAPS steering committee: Action United, American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania, Coalition of Labor Union Women, Fight for Philly, Philly Jobs with Justice, Juntos, Media Mobilizing Project, Occupy Philly Labor Working Group, Philadelphia AFL-CIO, Philadelphians Allied for Responsible Economy, Philadelphia Home & School Council, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, Philadelphia Student Union, SEIU 32BJ, UNITE HERE Local 634, Youth United for Change

2. Against the district’s recommendations, two charter schools expanded the number of seats anyway this year, circumventing the SRC and billing the state of Pennsylvania directly. PCAPS lobbied the SRC and the schools were forced to return the funds.