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AFT president: New contract a breakthrough

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said in a statement Friday night that the new PFT contract is "groundbreaking" and provides teachers "with the tools, time and trust they need to be better educators."

Last week, Weingarten made a speech at the National Press Club saying that real education reform will not be possible without more collaboration and trust in labor-management relations.

"This is the time to shed the old conflicts and come together," she said. "This is the time to forge a new path for our public schools."

Friday’s statement said Philadelphia was just the latest in a series of contracts negotiated by AFT affiliates, including in New Haven, Detroit, and St. Paul, that use a collaborative approach to solve problems relating to safety, academic improvement and teacher quality.

Few cities have seen more contentious teacher union-adminsitration relationships over the years than Philadelphia. So it was indeed quite remarkable to see president Jerry Jordan and Superintendent Arlene Ackerman standing together Friday morning, with Ackerman declaring them to be partners, not adversaries. It wasn’t too long ago that she had expressed a willingness to invoke powers granted by the state takeover that none of her predecessors had used, and simply impose terms on the union rather than negotiate.

Plus, the PFT was known in the past, even within the AFT, for being particularly resistant to education reform efforts within the union movement.

At a press conference, Ackerman was effusive in her praise of Jordan. "He’s passionate, tireless, one fo the most caring professionals I’ve had the privilege of knowing," she gushed.

Jordan, while effusive himself about what he thinks are the benefits of the new contract, nevertheless looked somewhat uncomfortable. He smiled wanly when Ackerman said she wanted to kiss him, "but he wouldn’t let me. That was going too far."

Indeed, during discussion before the ratification vote, according to several union members in the Liacouras Center Thursday, teachers expressed their anger at Ackerman for disrespecting them and putting onerous requirements on the schools.

Like Weingarten, Ackerman used the word "groundbreaking" in discussing the contract. "All eyes are on Philadelphia now," she said. Jordan said that the Peer Assistance and Review program, along with other provisions, "is going to make a huge difference in what happens to children in our schools…and change the way in which this district operates."

PAR promises to overhaul the system of teacher evaluation that today is perfunctory and neither provides help for teachers who are struggling nor gets them out of the classroom, letting them languish in place at the expense of children.

Other key changes in the contract include financial rewards for all PFT members in schools that make academic progress; expanded site selection of teachers — officials estimated about 90 percent of vacancies would be filled this way rather than through seniority — and a provision that allows for school "turnaround" through, among other strategies, ridding low-performing schools of at least half their faculty.

In her National Press Club speech, Weingarten said that it is difficult to establish trust, but that contracts need to become more than just "a vehicle to protect employee rights and ensure workplace fairness. It’s a vehicle for both sides to improve teacher quality." The new Philadelphia contract establishes lots of joint District-union committees, inlcuding to deal with safety and set up the specifics around PAR. Past contracts also had some forward-looking provisions that depended on such committees work out details, and some of them never did.

Judging from some reactions to the contract so far in comments on this site and others, at least some teachers are skeptical, if not outright contemptuous, of any thought that the contract is good for them or for kids. How much of a breakthrough the contract actually ends up being once people start working on the nitty-gritty of implementation remains to be seen.

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