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A qualified thumbs up for the contract

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

Over the next few weeks many education reformers will be giving the new PFT contract a grade. For PFT members the grading system is pass fail, yes or no, and by a two-to-one margin the contract got a thumbs up, in spite of discontent with many provisions and the way the ratification vote was organized.

This is a flawed contract that grew out of a flawed process. Win-win it wasn’t, but I think passing it was the right thing to do.

First the positives:

Three developments represent an important step forward for the PFT in terms of embracing professional unionism – teachers taking responsibility for the quality of teaching, which means being part of the process of selecting and evaluating teachers:

  • The new language around site selection gives teachers greater authority. Decisions are to be made by consensus and while the principal has final authority when there is a deadlock, he or she must select the candidate from the three most qualified as ranked by the committee. While this falls short of giving teachers equal status in the process, a position advocated by the Teacher Action Group and endorsed by the Teacher Effectiveness campaign, it is a major step in that direction.
  • The extension of site selection, which is now to be used for all vacancies in high needs schools, while no silver bullet, does offer a better foundation for improving teacher quality and retention in these schools than the traditional seniority-based system. Seniority is a time-honored practice in the labor movement and it should continued to be used in some contexts, but it did not serve these schools well. If we as teacher unionists are sincere in saying we want what’s best for students, we need to recognize this.
  • The new Peer Assistance and Review program (PAR) is a dramatic change that demonstrates that our union is committed to improving teacher quality and will not stand in the way of removing ineffective teachers, provided the process is fair. The beefed up support for new or struggling teachers, the inclusion of teachers in making final decisions about retention, and the expedited process hopefully mean the days of the rubber room are over.

Much of this contract was driven by Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s ambitious initiative that ties federal dollars to changes like a longer school day, performance pay, and school turnarounds that rely heavily on reconstitution of staff and/or turning over management to charters or private providers.

The Renaissance School language calls for the forced transfer of the whole staff. Teachers can reapply for their jobs but no more than half can be rehired. This is unfair to teachers and can only further demoralize the District’s teaching corps. It is at best an unproven approach to school turnaround. The unions at the national level have chosen to critically support Race to the Top but press for alternatives to reconstitution – approaches in which teachers are partners in the turnaround process.

Performance pay and the longer school day are other issues driven by Race to the Top. The PFT did a good job by successfully opposing individual merit pay in favor of schoolwide bonuses. This approach promotes collaboration rather than teachers competing with each other. The bonuses will be based on other factors besides standardized test scores, although the details of what this means are unclear. While a longer school day remains controversial, teachers will be paid and there is a degree of choice.

The contract also successfully defends benefits and at least holds the line on salaries although it does nothing to close the gap between city and suburbs.

Ending the racial balance provision is a concern. Some mechanism for insuring that school staffs do not become segregated is needed.

Finally a few words on the process.

This was not textbook collective bargaining, but a negotiation in which the union’s biggest weapon, the strike, was taken off the table. Act 46, the state takeover law, gave the District the right to impose an agreement — the so-called "nuclear option." This was another huge constraint. Any appraisal of what was possible needs to be in this context.

Nevertheless, I think the failure of the PFT to inform and mobilize the membership during this long process further weakened the union. The lack of transparency about the negotiations meant the membership played a largely passive role. Donning a T-shirt every Friday was the extent of mass mobilization.

The debacle after the agreement was signed fed distrust and cynicism among the membership. The union first said it couldn’t make terms available because it was at the printer, and then, after a storm of protest, put up the raw changes with no explanation. The way the ratification meeting and vote was conducted further angered people. Many probably shouted a "No" vote out of frustration with the process as much as dissatisfaction with the contract itself.

Moving forward, the challenge will be to shape and implement the new provisions in a way that will serve teachers and students alike, while at the same time pressing for a more democratic union from within.

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