This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
NBC News’ Education Nation couldn’t have picked a better – or worse – time to arrive in Philadelphia for a week of special events and coverage meant to draw attention to what is needed for improved academic achievement for all students.
The week-long focus on education by NBC News and NBC-10, which started Sunday, includes a Teacher Town Hall, interviews of local education figures by big-name TV stars, extended TV pieces about new initiatives and a flashy exhibition on the lawn of the National Constitution Center.
It is all impressive, but it exists in a parallel universe while the messy business of urban school reform goes on around it. For starters:
- A School District facing the biggest budget crisis in its history.
- A mayor and superintendent showcasing their testy relationship while a Republican governor and legislature propose unprecedented education cuts and push vouchers.
- Layoff notices being handed out to 3,800 District workers.
- A superintendent and School Reform Commission threatening to void the teachers’ contract.
Sunday afternoon, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan sat just two seats apart at the Education Nation kickoff event, a Teacher Town Hall moderated by the TODAY Show’s Ann Curry meant to hear teacher voices and extol their value in assuring quality education.
Jordan said afterward that he finds the whole thing quite ironic. As the huge Education Nation Experience exhibition opens to the public, and national media stars like Chris Matthews and Andrea Mitchell prepare to interview Ackerman and others, principals all over the city will be handing out pink slips.
Jordan said it’s never happened before in his memory that principals were given this task, instead of it happening through Human Resources. And he said he’s been told that the principals have been instructed to do it as late in the day as possible.
“For some people it’s going to be quite emotional,” he said. “Teachers have been calling me up saying they can’t sleep.” And the District is still seeking to reopen the teachers’ contract in an effort to find more savings, something Jordan said he will not do.
Monday, as the letters were being distributed in schools, Jordan announced that the PFT is filing a suit against the District over layoffs. Common Pleas Court Judge Idee C. Fox granted the injunction and a hearing is scheduled for June 14.
"The layoffs are not being done by seniority, which is what the contract requires," said PFT attorney Ralph Teti.
He said that teachers in Ackerman’s turnaround Promise Academies are being exempted, which had never been negotiated.
"We negotiated about the length of (the school) day, but there is no separate layoff agreement that immunizes Promise Academy teachers from layoffs," he said. "If they wanted that, they should have negotiated it."
The District wants the union to come back to the table to negotiate cost-saving measures, but Jordan said that it will not do so. The SRC maintains that it has the right to throw out the contract entirely.
That issue is being taken to arbitration. In the meantime, Teti said, "they have to follow its provisions."
On Sunday Ackerman, as she has said before, termed herself “devastated” at the cuts and hoped that at least some of the layoffs could be reversed.
“I’m hopeful new funding from City Council and Harrisburg will allow us to call some back to work. I’ll keep fighting for that,” she said Sunday outside the auditorium.
That task is getting more complicated.
Late last week, Ackerman figured out a way to use federal Title I funds to save full-day kindergarten, clearly one of the most unpopular proposed cuts. This should have been good news for the District. But, politically, it has turned out to be a bad move.
She came up with this strategy after Mayor Nutter had stuck his neck out in calling for additional taxes for the District for this very purpose, and didn’t clue him in how she had found a way to save the day until the last minute.
The mayor was not pleased. It just raised more questions about how the District makes decisions.
“It happened so quickly,” Ackerman said of her Title I brainstorm. “It was last minute, I had a thought [how we could do this] late Thursday night. I wanted to get it done this weekend so wouldn’t have to lay off 200 kindergarten teachers.”
She added, “I certainly wouldn’t want to do anything to upset a mayor who has been such a strong ally.”
Except that she clearly did upset him. Last week, Nutter said he wouldn’t attach strings to additional city funds. By Sunday night, he had sent Ackerman and the SRC a nine-page letter asking for everything up to and including their car allowances. He wants unfettered access to the District’s books and the right to meet with any top staff and access any and all financial records “without seeking permission from the SRC or the Superintendent or other employees at any time.”
It seems like the mayor no longer trusts Ackerman and the SRC to make any decisions. He wants a list of schools to be closed as part of the facilities master planning process and the names of all paid consultants who were formerly on the District payroll – people likely collecting pensions and fees at the same time.
“I believe we must formalize our working relationship through a signed agreement,” the letter sniffed. It added later:
“There is on the streets of Philadelphia a deep concern and feeling of uncertainty about what the School District has done and will do if granted additional funding…now is the time for a rapid response and a clearing of the air.”
Then on Monday he promptly took off to visit kindergarten classes.
And Harrisburg? Ackerman said District officials have been lobbying legislators and that she has not personally spoken to Gov. Corbett, who wants to cut state education spending by $1.1 billion and is pursuing vouchers as his primary education reform platform.
Ackerman seemed resigned that some sort of voucher bill would pass.
Vouchers could cost Philadelphia millions if enough students leave the District for private schools at government expense. More than that, vouchers are regarded by some as the ultimate attack on public education and all it stands for.
Ackerman didn’t speak about that, instead saying that she was working to minimize their financial impact on the District.
“I’m hopeful that whatever decision is made on vouchers that it doesn’t take away funding from Philadelphia, that they find a way to hold us harmless,” she said. She added, “It seems that the voucher train has left the station.”