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. 


One Way to Improve Teacher Salaries

Update 9/11/14:

In a bit of propitious timing, Tamara Hiller and Lanae Erickson Hatalsky of the Third Way released a new report today detailing the need for better loan assistance for teachers. They find that only 31.7% of teachers are even aware of federal loan assistance programs for teachers.

Additionally, they cite data showing that more than two-thirds of teachers have student loan debt. Teachers with only a bachelor's degree have an average of $20,000 in loan debt, while teachers with a Masters degree have a whopping $50,000 in loan debt. 

This report simply makes the proposals outlined below that much better of an idea. I also support Hiller and Hatalsky's proposals for streamlining loan assistance programs. 

I've also updated this post to include a link to a new study comparing American teachers to teachers in other countries that was just released. 

In yesterday's post on educational reform, I advocated for higher teacher salaries, and promised to offer one method of doing so today. Realistically, raising local taxes to boost teacher salaries isn't happening. Nor would that address the problem of low paid private school teachers.

As such, I thought that I'd offer a more realistic option that is based upon our history of governing, and our current economic situation. 

In addition to leading to better and more innovative teaching, increased teacher salaries would also provide a myriad of other societal benefits. The promise of increased salaries would also provide a powerful incentive for teachers to give up tenure voluntarily and take part in shaping a merit-based pay structure. 

How can we achieve this goal in our current economic climate? 

Congress should making teaching salaries fully tax exempt. Additionally, any person willing to teach at a school in a high risk area for 5 years ought to have all federal student loans forgiven.

Americans have long preferred what historian Brian Balogh calls Government Out of Sight, and as such, lawmakers frequently implement policy through the tax code (preferring tax breaks to government handouts).

Lobbyists’ superior knowledge of the tax code and legislative process has allowed them to add many tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans without scrutiny. By contrast, exempting teaching salaries from income tax would be a simple provision, easily understandable by the masses, beneficial to the 3.7 million American teachers (this number has likely increased in the last two years), and offering the potential to solve many major problems, including the flight of business overseas, poverty, and a failed educational system, all at a relatively low cost. 

    The educational system is inadequate partly because America’s best and brightest have little incentive to take up teaching because of the noncompetitive teacher salaries (the average starting salary was $36,141 in 2012-2013).

Great teachers could inspire youth who today have little hope for success, and who often turn to crime and delinquency out of desperation and hopelessness. Additionally, many students who don’t turn to crime often pay little attention in school because they simply aren’t inspired by their teachers.

Even the most skilled and experienced teachers can be uninspiring because they are forced to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. Thus they come to school exhausted and simply don’t have the time to lesson plan creatively or reach out to students. While their classes might be sufficient for naturally motivated and talented students, they simply cannot capture the imaginations of students who are less focused, confused, or who find school dry and boring.

In an increasingly competitive global marketplace we can no longer afford to lose these students, who often leave school without the skills they need to be economically competitive (and thus end up dependent on welfare programs). 

To get capable, energized, focused teachers, we must compensate them at a level commensurate with their training (a 2011 study reported that teachers make 14% less than their peers with similar training and educational attainment and a 2010 report indicates that primary school teachers make 67% of what the average college educated American worker makes. A new study also shows that American teachers work harder than their peers in other countries, and get paid less well for their extra effort)

That is a daunting prospect at a time when the local governments responsible for paying teachers are hemorrhaging red ink and voters are increasingly resistant to tax increases. By contrast, exempting teaching salaries from federal income tax would provide a large raise for teachers (an average of $14,095) without strapping local communities with further budget problems. In the scheme of the federal budget, the estimated maximum potential cost of this initiative is small.

At a cost $52.154 billion per year (likely it would cost far less because that estimate assumes that teachers pay a 25% tax rate on the average teacher salary of $56,383 — here's data on teacher salaries by state), the cost would represent roughly 1.4% (see this table for FY2011 government outlays) of what the government spent in FY2011.

Even loan-forgiveness would likely minimally affect the overall federal budget (which is likely be roughly $3.8 trillion in FY2014 including $1.1014 trillion in discretionary spending. This benefit could even be paid for by closing other tax loopholes that provide less widespread benefit to society. 

Unlike the phalanx of corporate loopholes, the provision would be easy to administer; teachers could simply submit evidence of teaching status in lieu of filing a tax return. 

This proposal also offers the added benefit of reducing the glut of recent college graduates struggling to find jobs that allow them to pay college loans (a 2013 report showed that 7 out of 10 college students have student loan debt, with the average debt being $29,400) and move out on their own (a 2012 study shows that 49% of college graduates between 2006-2011 failed to find full time work), thereby benefitting their parents, who have increasingly been asked to support children into their twenties and thirties. 

This proposal even incorporates the ideas of conservatives who oppose most government spending and who advocate school choice. Rather than being a handout, it rewards work that benefits our communities. Additionally, it applies equally to public and private school teachers, thereby benefitting private and parochial schools, without harming public schools and without running afoul of the Constitution’s Establishment Clause. 

 Why teachers and not say, police officers or firefighters? Those crucial jobs go to Americans with less education and training, and therefore, in many cases, fewer school debts, which necessitate higher salaries to survive. In an era of skyrocketing deficits, we must prioritize government dollars, and in a competitive marketplace, the only way to get our best young talents to eschew business, i-banking, or law for teaching is to pay them competitively.

Finally, unlike many other critical public service jobs, teaching is an investment in America’s future—better teachers will result in a more skilled work-force that can grow the economy, thereby resulting in more revenue to better compensate other important public servants. 

America is at a crossroads and the key to a brighter future is an inspired and well educated population, and this plan would help to achieve that goal.

A few more links detailing how out of whack our teacher salaries are, both in terms of what other professionals make and what teachers in other countries make: 

Mckinsey Report 

The Teacher Salary Project

A Prescription for Education Reform

The American education system from pre-K through graduate school is a mess. Countless problems abound, and rarely do I hear policymakers propose new or creative solutions to the problem. 

Their proposals are typically warmed over standbys like more accountability provided through standardized testing (which can produce mind numbingly boring classes aimed at getting students to memorize information that will appear on the tests). 

The most "innovative" recent idea may be the campaign led by the former journalist Campbell Brown and others to end teacher tenure and provide merit based pay. While I think an end to tenure and the transition to merit based pay is a great idea, I can't stand these groups.

They  pretend as though ending teacher tenure will magically fix our education system and transform inner-city public schools. In reality, tenure reform is only one element of a comprehensive solution. 

By itself, ending tenure will just allow localities to cut high salaried teachers, and replace them with cheaper, less experienced teachers (though they'll assure you that that isn't why the teachers are being let go) every time the local populace is angry about tax levels, or costs go up elsewhere (local politicians aren't any more courageous than national ones).

But the end of tenure as part of a total rethinking of our educational system might offer hope. As such, I offer my prescription based on 25 years inside of classrooms as a student and teacher. 

1. Abolish tenure— too often everyone from administrators to students to teachers to parents knows who the bad teachers are. I had high school teachers in 2001 or 2002 who were still using tests from the 1970s.

Once when I asked a teacher who was a former union official about bad teachers, he replied, "we know who they are, but the job of the union is to defend them." This sort of tone deaf thinking explains why teacher's unions and tenure, which serve very valuable functions, have gotten such a bad rap. 

2. Dramatically increase teacher salaries and tie pay to teaching quality— I'll offer one possible method for increasing salaries in a separate blog later today, but I don't see how we expect to attract the best and brightest in society to teaching if teachers are paid less than just about every other type of professional.

There is no substitute for attracting our best minds to teaching, because these people are more likely to be creative and think outside the box, instead of teaching to the test and offering the sorts of boring classes that we all hated in grade school. 

3. Less testing— I'll share a story. I had fantastic Spanish teachers in high school. We learned tons of Spanish. But they used a method that involved tons of pop quizzes and produced all sorts of stress. As such, when I got a 5 on the AP Spanish exam, and placed out of my college language requirement, I said hasta la vista to Spanish.

Who needed the stress and rote memorization? (I can see some of you out there shaking your heads, and thinking that I need to toughen up, but teaching someone something, and getting them invested in and passionate about a subject are two different things).

Standardized tests take valuable educational time away from students and teachers. They have their place, especially in elementary school when we need to ensure that all students learn the basics of reading, mathematics, science, and history.

Nonetheless, we have so overdone testing, as to potentially cripple our best teachers' ability to engage students (ask some really great teachers what they think about standardized tests if you don't believe me). 

4. More creative teaching and less one sized fits all education— the problem with so much testing is that it produces boring classes. It's easier to drill students on content than to let them blog, or to have them perform exercises that put them into the shoes of historical figures to evaluate their decisions. 

But drilling and memorizing are unlikely to spark a passion for the subject matter. Additionally,  there is only so much content that can be memorized, and over time, much of it slips away. We ought to be focusing on producing creative, adaptive thinkers, who can read critically, write well, and apply knowledge to new situations. 

Far better are methods that recognize the individuality of each student and offer them the opportunity to learn the same skills through real world experiences. 

If you force everyone into the same box, you risk losing students who might not be all that stimulated by the traditional course tracks, but who might be captivated by equally rigorous classes on different subjects, or by different ways of learning. 

What do I mean? Philadelphia's Workshop School (http://www.workshopschool.org and http://www.npr.org/blogs/ed/2014/07/22/327062946/getting-things-done-at-the-workshop-school) is a perfect example of a place that gets it.

Students have some traditional classes. But they also learn traditional subjects through experiential, project based learning (for example turning a closest into a recording studio, or building a miniature solar panel). Students generate their own questions and work together to solve them. 

To provide an example of my own, students who are passionate about food could build a business plan for a restaurant, grow their produce in the school garden, learn cooking techniques, etc. This exercise could involve skills from the traditional english, math, computer science, home economics, biology, and environmental studies classes. 

The downsides of this model are that it could be quite expensive, and it doesn't lend itself to traditional metrics like pen and paper tests. Financially, if such education, at least at the high school level, produces a more creative populace, it's not inconceivable that it might lead to a more robust economy, which would in turn produce greater tax revenue.

It might also require reexamination of our government spending. Some programs might need to be cut. But, again, we spend millions each year on programs designed to solve problems caused by our failed educational system, so we might save money in the long run. 

In terms of evaluation, I'm puzzled by the use of pen and paper examinations in general. They aren't how we're evaluated on a day to day basis in life. So why not create more realistic assessments?

Why not ask local professionals to contribute to schools by assessing students' projects in the way lawyers judge moot courts? To return to the example above, a local chef, an advertising executive, and a farmer might evaluate the work done by the students. 

What I know for sure is that the classes that most excite my college political science and history students are not the ones where I lecture at them. They are the classes where students get to do activities that make them think and debate, and that often help them to learn about the political process by experiencing it. 

5. Regionalize school funding. Do we really expect students to succeed in schools without libraries, nurses, guidance counselors, and countless other essentials? Some suburban school districts may spend 1.5-2x as much per student as urban school districts do.

To give examples from my own area, in the last year we have data, 2011-2012, suburban Lower Merion, Radnor, and Cheltenham spent $22,140, $18,117, and $17,922 respectively per pupil, while Philadelphia spent $12,351, in spite of having more impoverished students who often need more educationally because of deficits brought about by poverty)

Given the historical reasons that variances in property tax bases developed between cities and suburbia (white flight, redlining, restrictive covenants, and all the legal machinations tied to them—see Kevin Kruse's White Flight and Tom Sugrue's Sweet Land of Liberty among many others for details on these processes), this disparity in per pupil spending is immoral, and fails to reflect the fact that suburbanites take advantage of the city around which they live. 

6. Stop viewing charter schools as the solution to urban education problems. I like the general concept of charter schools. But the current model is broken. They divert funding from traditional schools without reducing costs for those schools  (for example, if each school in a district lost 25 students to a charter school, they would likely still need to offer the same number of classes, but without the funding attached to those 25 students). 

Additionally, charter schools should be used solely to experiment with innovative models and methods (for example something like the workshop school discussed above, or a performing arts high school).

But regular schools run by private charter school companies just make traditional schools try to do more with less. That's not to say that mismanagement isn't a problem in schools. It is in many places. But charter schools don't solve that problem. At most they are putting a band on a gash that really needs 10 stitches. 

7. Get corporate America more involved. Companies put their names on everything from stadiums to subway stops. Why not invest in schools? Lots of companies could use the positive PR boost from donating to local schools and/or buying naming rights to parts of a school. It's one method to generate more funding for our schools without raising taxes.  

Is this prescription perfect? No. But if we gave teachers more latitude to innovate and paid them at a level commiserate with what other professionals make, I suspect that we would solve many of our educational problems. 

It's mystifying that we so dramatically under compensate a profession doing one of society's most important jobs (which is why I'll devote an entire separate blog to one potential solution). 

It's also odd that so many of our educational methods remain static even as we see that creativity and innovation are the keys to success in 21st century (i.e. Apple and Google).