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PFT stalwart Jack Steinberg dies

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

One thing about Jack Steinberg: You always knew where he stood.

Steinberg, 85, the treasurer of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, died Thursday, April 14, of cancer at Chandler Hall Hospice in Newtown, Bucks County. It was his first day there. He never retired; he had worked at his beloved PFT until the very end.

"He always said they were going to carry him out," said Ted Kirsch, former longtime PFT president and now president of American Federation of Teachers – Pennsylvania. "His prophecy came to be."

Jerry Jordan, president of the PFT, called Steinberg a "part of the rugged group that birthed and built the PFT" and a "stalwart of the labor movement."

He added: "He was an instrumental participant in the formation of the PFT and played a role in our union winning collective bargaining rights in 1965."

Steinberg fought vociferously over the years for protecting the rights of teachers, and he wasn’t shy about expressing his opinions.

"He fought for what he thought was better in education," Kirsch said.

As trustee of the PFT’s Health and Welfare Fund, which provides various services to members, he created an educational issues department within the fund, which held an annual conference.

He became treasurer of the PFT in 1983 and never ceded that position. In the last election, his son Arthur was elected to succeed him.

Steinberg participated in most of the usually contentious contract negotiations with the District. He was guided, Jordan said in a statement, "by the philosophy that educators’ working conditions are our children’s learning conditions."

Kirsch first met Steinberg when they were both teachers in 1964 at Overbrook High School, which, Kirsch said, was the largest high school in the city at the time, with 5,200 students and split shifts. Steinberg taught Spanish, and Kirsch taught history. Both later became department heads. Teachers were paid poorly in those days and could be moved around at will.

The PFT was fighting to organize teachers against an affiliate of the Pennsylvania State Education Association called the Philadelphia Teachers’ Association.

"In those days, the PTA didn’t believe in collective bargaining rights or strikes," Kirsch said. The PFT, then very small, was "more of a traditional trade union" that believed in both those things. And they won the election.

In a tumultuous period for the city and the School District, the 1970s and 1980s were marked by numerous teacher strikes and, most often, an adversarial relationship that persists to this day. For all but a brief interlude in the early 1980s, the CB team (short for Collective Bargaining) has run the union.

Steinberg held a particular dislike for former Superintendent David Hornbeck, Kirsch recalled, especially after he systematically began eliminating department heads in high schools in favor of small learning community leaders.

"He really felt that was the beginning of the end for high schools," because teachers didn’t have help in their subject areas, Kirsch said.

His other big disagreement with Hornbeck was over the "Reading Recovery" program, which pairs struggling early readers with teachers on a close, one-to-one basis. Although effective, the program is also very expensive, and Hornbeck didn’t widely adopt it in favor of other strategies.

Steinberg’s more recent crusade was against charter schools.

"In his later years here, he vociferously opposed charter schools," Kirsch said. "He was always doing research. He could see at the beginning that charters would lead to a major decline in the public school system."

Steinberg was a Korean War veteran. Besides his son, he is survived by a daughter, Ann Rosenberger; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. His wife of 64 years, Mona, died last fall. His son Eric also preceded him in death.

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