Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Stone Soup

Stone Soup is an old story in the oral tradition told in many countries about an indigent person who comes into a town with nothing but an old cooking pot. No one will feed the stranger, so he fills up his pot with water, puts in a stone, and proceeds to trick the townspeople into contributing various vegetables to make the soup better. The tale teaches a valuable lesson in sharing and cooperating during hard times.

In its current contract talks, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has brought the pot, water, the stone, and the first vegetable in the form of not asking for a raise and agreeing to some health benefit changes. That will mean the members of the union will actually see their take-home pay decrease if nothing else changes. The union agreeing to this is a big deal for the members, who will then be contributing a part of their salaries to stem the deficit of the School District of Philadelphia (SDP). This proposal was made before the contract ran out at the end of August. September arrived without a contract between the School District of Philadelphia and the teachers’ union.

The state-run School Reform Commission and Dr. William Hite had prepared a doomsday budget for the 2013-14 school year which saw 4000 workers laid off, including assistant principals, counselors, nurses, teachers, classroom assistants and others. Laying off all those people still didn’t save enough money to begin the school year. Dr. Hite was asking for $300 million to get rid of the district's deficit and have enough to open school in September. The city coughed up about $100 million in loans and tax revenue. The state put up a whopping $14 million of the $100 million requested and the teachers’ union was called upon to make up the rest with salary cuts, increased benefit contributions, and work rule changes. The union instead put forth the proposal above. Our congressmen got the federal government to forgive a loan owed by the state so Governor Corbett could apply it towards the state’s contribution. He decided to hold it hostage instead, preventing the rehiring of counselors and nurses. The death of an asthmatic child at on the schools was the only reason he finally released SOME of the $45 million which was supposed to be earmarked for the Philly schools, in order for some of the laid off workers to be rehired.

Union detractors and the so-called  “school reformers”  are fond of stating that the teachers’ union hasn’t contributed a cent towards the deficit.  I beg to differ. Even without contributing a proposed salary freeze and benefits change, the first ingredients for the soup, teachers have contributed the pot, water and stone in the form of extra hours spent tutoring students, planning curricula, buying supplies and personal items for their students, attending unpaid meetings, working tirelessly, unpaid, after-hours and on weekends to make certain that their students have the best education they can get with the resources provided by the teachers.

For the past several years, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) members have met for countless hours with parents, students, and community members to propose sensible “reforms” for the public schools here in the city. Our salary is already $19,000 less than the well-paid high-income suburbs in the surrounding counties, who clearly have an easier job. We are not reimbursed for getting our Master’s, Doctorate, or additional certificates, as are many suburban teachers. So we’re on our own to become truly highly-qualified teachers sought by the district.  People are fond of stating that we get paid for summers off. Not true! We get paid from September through June. Any money we collect during the summer is money we have taken out of each paycheck during the school year, so we can have money throughout the summer. Doing it this way actually saves the School District money by allowing our summer money to collect interest during the year.

Now, instead of contributing needed ingredients to the stone soup in the form of equitable funding, the State has begun taking things out of the soup. Governor Corbett appointed William Green as head of the SRC and he has stated, in no uncertain terms, that the state will not give Philadelphia any more money until the union agrees to changes in work rules. The state wants to require a longer day, longer year, Saturday classes. They have already eliminated seniority in rehiring teachers, and also expect the union to agree to the dissolution of tenure for teachers. They want the teachers to take a 13% cut in pay in addition to the increased contribution toward benefits. The state’s whole premise is untenable for the teachers.

A study by the Pew Foundation determined that the SDP was underfunded by the state to the tune of $1 billion. The state took over the district in 2001 because of deficits and poor performance on tests. But during the 13 years it has been on charge of the district, our funding has decreased every year, while teachers are expected to do more. In 1975, the state of Pennsylvania contributed 55 percent of school funding statewide, but by the time they took over the district in 2001 it ‘s share was less than 36 percent.  Pennsylvania ranks 49th out of 50 states in public school funding. The decrease in state funds was expected to be raised by each district’s property taxes. A state system which relies heavily on property taxes for local school funding is one of gross inequities. Wealthier school districts with more property owners and more expensive real estate have more funds for schools. Expenditures for students vary widely, with comfortable suburbs spending up to $10,000 more per student than poorer rural and urban districts. In addition, Corbett has put a property tax increase cap on the districts.

Now that we are back to the pot, water, and stone, with no vegetables (additional funds), the School District continues to be under the gun to increase test scores. Of course, there are no school counselors in the elementary schools under 600 students, there are no extra-curricular activities, no music or sports, no small  class sizes, and reduced supplies and books. With the Common Core Standards being introduced, there is little time to prepare, adapt, and learn the things that are new in the curricula. The new district proposals for next year will have the effect of taking away the water and the pot, and all we are left with is the stone around our necks – pulling us into the abyss of low test scores, decreased funding, closed schools, and low test scores, etc.

We need a fair funding formula for Philadelphia and the other districts on the brink – Reading, Allentown, Harrisburg, etc. Poorer districts that cannot raise enough revenue from property taxes, need a different way to have the increased funds that it takes to raise high poverty districts from the threat of failure to a the stone soup of success, a high quality education.

It’s not the teachers union that is preventing this from happening. But  the state is more concerned with breaking the union than educating the children, and has gone so far as to threaten shutting down the district if they can’t get their way. Throwing out tenure and seniority is not going to make me a better teacher, because they have nothing to do with making the children in my class score better on a test. As PFT president Jerry Jordan says,  "Work-rule changes don't put textbooks in our children's hands, computers in their classrooms, restore their counseling and nursing services or return music and art to their curriculum."

work-rule changes don't put textbooks in our children's hands, computers in their classrooms, restore their counseling and nursing services or return music and art to their curriculum
Read more at http://www.philly.com/philly/living/20140225_Funding_formula__not_work_rules__should_be_district_s_No__1_priority.html#6T4J7JUldwGPKF37.99
Which school district will do better? The one that spends $10,000 per student or the one that spends $20,000+? Which one will score better, the district whose parents make $200,000 or the one where the average income is $30,000? The one with 60% low-income or the one with 10% low income?

We already know the answer and it has nothing to do with seniority or tenure. It has to do with the difference between stone soup and lobster bisque.



Still learning!

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