Why the Philadelphia School Reform Committee Did the Right Thing in the Wrong Way

UPDATE 10/15: This New York Times article does a nice job of explaining the origins of the problem, the bleak condition of Philadelphia's schools, and offers both sides' takes on the SRC's action. The article provides more evidence that state funding cuts have caused the problem. It does not, however, tackle the core topic of this post, which was, if the funding doesn't come from changes to teachers' compensation, is there another realistic potential source? 

 

To be honest, I write this blog not liking either of my potential options. 

On the one hand, I agree with Will Bunch, who labeled the decision by the School Reform Commission (SRC) to unilaterally abrogate the contract of Philadelphia's schoolteachers with the purpose of cutting teachers' (and retired teachers) benefits a "heartbreaking act of staggering cowardice (Mayor Nutter correctly labeled the decision "not the city's proudest moment").

The SRC members ought to be ashamed of themselves. At the very least, they owed teachers the courtesy of a meeting scheduled in advance and advertised so teachers could come and present their case as to why this change should not have been made. 

Beyond process, I hate to see teachers compensation packages cut. I've openly advocated in two separate blogs (here and here) for dramatically increased teacher compensation. I truly think that such increases are integral to fixing the American education system—especially in inner city school districts. Attracting and retaining the best teachers requires adequate compensation to compete with suburban districts and other professions. 

I also think its immoral to cut benefits for retired teachers (though a legitimate argument can be made that the taxpayers shouldn't be paying for vision and dental benefits for them). They worked in good faith for a certain set of benefits, and to take those benefits away from them now, after retirement, lacks honor. 

And yet, if I had been on the School Reform Commission, I would have very, very reluctantly supported this action— though I would have insisted on a more transparent and classy procedure. Why?

The state of Pennsylvania proved this summer that it is disinclined to give Philadelphia the freedom to generate more funds for its schools (let alone providing greater funding). The state legislature dragged its feet all summer before finally passing a bill to allow Philadelphia to adopt a $2 per pack cigarette tax to partially close a whopping $81 million gap in the School District's budget. 

The bill should have taken about 30 seconds to pass. From a conservative perspective, it amounted to support for the local governance that conservatives supposedly favor (but conveniently and hypocritically oppose when it comes to letting localities enact policies that they dislike). From a liberal perspective, it provided crucial millions to keep the schools open and moderately functional. 

Additionally, neither the legislature, nor suburban Philadelphians, have shown any inclination to regionalize the funding for Philadelphia's schools — as would be just and logical (how about adding that $2 per pack cigarette tax in all of Philadelphia's ring counties as well?) 

While I support soliciting private contributions to Philadelphia's schools (how about Comcast computer labs in every school?), such contributions are unlikely to alleviate the massive structural problems faced by the school district. 

These problems stem from a flawed system that provides much of the funding for our schools through local property taxes. Thus, as white flight happened in the second half of the twentieth century, the property tax base in the city eroded, and created a dramatic disparity between how much the city could spend on its students, and how much wealthy suburban districts spend on their students (again I explained the need for regional funding in point 5 in this blog). 

In Pennsylvania, I also blame the state for taking control of Philadelphia's schools without adequately funding them. I don't want to hear from legislators about how Philadelphia measures up in terms of per pupil spending across the state (spending as much per pupil in Philadelphia as you do in a rural county isn't going to buy you the same level of teacher because the cost of living is higher), or about how much money the state provides for Philadelphia's schools. When countless schools have shuttered libraries, no nurses, no guidance counselors, unacceptable class sizes, and countless other programs missing, the state is an abysmal, immoral failure. 

But facing this structural situation, I think the School Reform Commission did something noxious—but necessary. The SRC estimates that the changes in teacher's compensation will generate an additional $70 million per year beginning next year. So long as that money is invested directly into the schools, it promises to provide critical services that Philadelphia's students deserve. 

We owe students better than schools without a nurse, a librarian or a guidance counselor. Students have suffered through a 15% reduction of staff over the last 2 years. We must give them better by whatever means necessary. 

Thus, I'm reluctantly left to conclude that providing adequate schools required the SRC's decision. If the teacher's union wants to offer an alternative, realistic proposal for producing the extra funds, I'm all ears. But if the alternative is demanding that the state offer more up more funds, well, they are 100% right, but it likely won't happen. 

Even if Democrat Tom Wolf wins November's gubernatorial election, he's almost certain to have at least half of the state legislature controlled by conservative Republicans who aren't inclined to accept any proposal to raise taxes or fees— let alone one that targets funding specifically to Philadelphia (many of them have built careers out of Philadelphia bashing). 

Daniel Denvir does an excellent job of presenting the case as to why these cuts do more harm than good. I agree with him on the dangers of cutting teacher compensation as I outlined above. He also correctly notes that Philadelphia teachers have already suffered from the school district's awful budget situation. 

Indeed, I can't fathom anyone arguing that teachers ought to receive less compensation or that cutting teacher compensation benefits students or society. It doesn't. There is minimal justification for this decision in a vacuum. 

But Denvir leaves out a crucial point— even if the SRC admitted that the Corbett cuts bear responsibility for much of the funding crisis for the Philadelphia schools as Denvir suggests, would that lead to their reversal? My judgment is no, because I don't see a Republican legislature agreeing to undo them. In fact, I think the SRC, the mayor, and the public could all crusade to undo the cuts, and conservative legislators from the rest of the state would ignore them and face no electoral risk in their conservative districts.

Thus, if the cuts won't be reversed, then the cause matters less than what potential solutions exist. I simply do not see an alternative proposal to raise $70 million under the current political conditions (To be clear, I can come up with plenty of better solutions, but none has of becoming reality anytime soon). 

I do believe that the SRC would have a lot more credibility if its members came out and honestly admitted that the Corbett cuts created the problem. They should be arguing that those cuts forced them to make this decision. They should explain that no other reasonably plausible avenue exists to find $70 million more per year to fund crucially necessary programs in the schools—programs that cannot be done without for even a day longer. They should have coupled this decision with a promise to fight for increased state funding, and a promise to give teachers a raise when they secure additional funding. 

Nonetheless, when forced to choose between the interests of teachers and students, I'll reluctantly side with the students, though with a queasy feeling in my stomach. Teachers don't deserve this slap in the face. If we had any future oriented visionaries in government, they would find a way to dramatically increase teacher compensation. 

Indeed, I hope that someday soon the country, the state, and the region come to their senses and realize the importance of treating our teachers better. Hopefully, they will then offer the funding necessary to dramatically increase the compensation for Philadelphia's teachers.

Until then, the teachers should focus on agitating for broader structural changes, rather than fighting the SRC unless they can come up with plausible alternative means for generating $70 million per year.