This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Lisa Haver, a retired teacher and a founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS), is a fixture at School Reform Commission meetings and a consistent advocate for transparency, adequate funding, and a strong union role in public education.
“Public schools must continue to be a civic enterprise where district policies and decisions are formulated in public forums,” says the APPS mission statement, “not a financial enterprise controlled by corporate interests."
Haver is convinced that Philadelphia’s school leaders need to make common cause with their unionized workforce in order to gain more leverage in Harrisburg and City Council.
“Bill Green’s got a built-in organization right there that has the same interests that the District has,” she says, speaking of the School Reform Commission chairman. “We have to work together. If you’re not using the people in the schools, you’re leaving behind a big resource.”
She also believes that school district leaders statewide could increase their clout through more effective collaboration. We asked Haver to share her impression of this year’s budget debate, the role of the reform sector, the state of the union contract, and the path to a stronger statewide alliance of educators.
This is the final installment in The Notebook’s series on "The path forward."
Have you ever seen anything quite like the political horse-trading that went on with this year’s budget?
No. It’s quite frustrating to have done all we did and find yourself in a position where you don’t have anything. We went to Council, we went to Harrisburg, we spoke to Democrats, to Republicans. City Council actually did come up with money. But we got bupkis out of Harrisburg.
Looking back, did we focus too much energy on the cigarette tax? Even if it survives, it’s only going to bring us $45 million. k’nWhen you’re desperate, you clutch at every straw. But I think right now we have to think about getting everything we need, not just oneī thing.
Traditional education advocates were quite vocal this year. The big guns in the charter and reform sector, like the Philadelphia School Partnership, were quieter. What did you take from that?
It’s hard to know what they do. One of the reasons our organization formed was in an effort to get more real transparency from the SRC, and what we found was that so many decisions are going on behind closed doors. We tried to get access to PSP board meetings, and William Penn Foundation board meetings, the Great Schools Compact which PSP oversees – the door was slammed in our face every time.
So it’s hard to know what they’re thinking about.
But we have to be really careful, because their agenda is not our agenda. We want strong public schools; we want a fair contract for school employees. That’s not what they’re working towards. Last year Mark Gleason was telling the governor, don’t give the schools $45 million until the teachers make concessions. That was pretty shocking.
Charters and traditional schools are both affected by tight budgets, though. Should they be working together more actively to get leverage in Harrisburg?
To some extent we have – when we were in Harrisburg, there were charter parents there, and we had the same questions and demands. There’s no reason why people from all types of schools can’t get together. Charter parents are the same parents as our parents.
But there are a whole host of issues that need to be resolved. We have so many issues, with oversight of charters from the District. We need more transparency.
And we could have a potential problem with the cigarette tax, which all of a sudden had this rider saying that anybody applying for a charter school can appeal to the state. That could cancel out the money you get from the cigarette tax [if the state authorizes new charters]. It could cost us untold millions of dollars.
Education will be a big issue in this fall’s elections – what’s your strategy to shape the debate?
We’ll want to work with anybody who’s paying more and more property taxes, and more and more sales taxes, and wondering what’s going to happen to their schools.
We have this la-la idea about the suburbs, but they’re hurting. And the rural districts are really hurting. The way Corbett did it, the schools that needed the most got cut the most. What we in Philly need to do is really be part of a statewide coalition. We need to work together and present a united front in Harrisburg.
Where does the leadership for that kind of movement come from?
Well, there’s the statewide union. But I really think we need our district leaders to be more vocal. Superintendent Hite could get together with the superintendents in Reading and Allentown where they’re really hurting. Bill Green could get together with the state school board association.
That’s interesting – I don’t remember ever seeing the photo op where all of Pennsylvania’s superintendents stand together and say, ‘Our kids need this or that.’ Is that the kind of thing we need to be seeing?
I think so. I’m sure they want the same thing we want, but I don’t think this governor really felt the pressure of the people who were in charge.
What’s the state of the union contract negotiations, as best you know? Should the union be more open to work-rule changes than it has been?
The union has put some things on the table – to continue the pay freeze, and [savings in] health insurance. And I know the District says they want to take away work rules and they want the members to take a 13 percent [pay] cut. They haven’t moved off of that.
But work rules have nothing to do with the budget at all. That’s a [Wisconsin governor] Scott Walker move – using a budget crisis to come down on the union and say, ‘these work rules get in our way.’
I said to Dr Hite, ‘Every other district has union work rules.’ They work in Neshaminy, they work in Council Rock, they work in Lower Merion. I don’t know why Dr. Hite’s plan wouldn’t work with the same union protections. It’s not the union protections that have gotten us in the mess we’re in.
So what I’d like to see right now – drop that demand right now, and stop asking union members to give up 13 percent of their salary. These teachers are spending hundreds of dollars a year on supplies. It’s now the norm that teachers are buying cartons of paper. I see that all as, ‘We made our concessions. We’re holding the school system together.’
Does this ongoing conflict between the union and District leadership hurt the city’s overall strength? Teachers cast a lot of votes, after all. Would a more unified front help Green and the SRC get more leverage in Harrisburg and City Council?
Yes. You take the union and the statewide AFT, Bill Green’s got a built-in organization right there that, beyond all the contract issues, has the same interests that the District has. I said to Green, ‘We have to work together. If you’re not using the people in the schools, you’re leaving behind a big resource.’
The funding formula is what many are pinning their hopes on. But we had one and it didn’t last. Why is it so hard to sustain one in Pennsylvania?
Again, I think it goes back to the idea where we need more unity among the districts – city, suburban, and rural. I really think we have the same interest. You may be electing Republicans, and we’re electing Democrats, but everybody wants good schools. Maybe on social issues we don’t always agree, but that’s irrelevant.
We know that Philadelphia has stepped up its contribution – but that’s partly in response to state cuts. Has the state’s hard-line position forced Philadelphia to do things it should have been doing anyway?
I reject that line of reasoning – – I don’t think, ‘Thank God, there’s a crisis, we’re finally doing something.’ We may be squeezing the poorest people for more taxes, but I don’t see that as a positive thing.
It’s true – a smoking tax disproportionately hits poor and working people. Who smokes anymore? Does anyone on the SRC smoke?
Hah! I don’t know.
Do you ever think to yourself that Philadelphia needs to get more radical in how it deals with Harrisburg? Sometimes casual observers say to me, ‘We should just go on tax strike.’ Does that sort of thing ever cross your mind?
I don’t think that’s necessary. If we do what we talked about, and have our leaders be more visible, more vocal, form a coalition, I don’t think we need that.
Our organization, it may not be the most radical thing in the world, but we go to every SRC meeting. I’d like to see more people do that. The parents who come down and challenge the SRC – those are the same people who’ll turn around and say, ‘If you’re going to lead a delegation to Harrisburg, we’ll be right behind you.’
Is the SRC the long-term solution? Or is an elected board essential?
I totally support an elected school board – I don’t understand why the people of Philadelphia should be disenfranchised. Every other district, except Chester Upland, has an elected school board.
People say, ‘Oh, political corruption.” But I don’t think you have to have an elected school board to have corruption! To me this is a corrupt system, and I don’t mean the members individually. I mean the system, where you have people appointed. We fought to have hearings on Bill Green’s nomination. We didn’t even get a response.
Suppose they said, “You can have all the money you want, but you’ve got to keep the SRC.” Would you take that deal?
You kind of stumped me on that one. I want both! I want the state to do what they need to do, and what they’re entrusted to do by the Constitution. There’s no reason we should be under state control in order to get money.
We’re not a colony of Harrisburg. We’re a city, we have our home-rule charter, we have to determine our own future. We need funding, and we need a democratic system where the people of Philadelphia can do what we need to do. That means an elected school board.