Wednesday, December 10, 2014

180 Days of Instruction... Are You Sure?

I am a history teacher at Central High School and methodically pace my classes. Frankly, I have no choice. There’s a lot of material to cover in World History. My curriculum and professional duties call for teaching students everything from the emergence of Homo sapiens in Africa’s Great Rift Valley to the collapse of the Soviet Union and rise of US hegemony – all in one academic year. It’s a daunting task but one that can be accomplished if I follow the rigorous pacing guideline I’ve set for myself during Pennsylvania's legally mandated 180 school days. This year, however, I’ve found myself falling further and further behind and I had no idea why… until I looked at the School District’s academic calendar.

For the 2014-15 academic year, the School District of Philadelphia has set aside an unprecedented 16 professional development half-days for high schools. Elementary school teachers have it worse and are burdened by a whopping 19 half-days. By comparison, in the 2013-14 academic year, high schools had 8 half-days and elementary schools had 11.

The vast majority of these new half-days are meant to roll out the state-of-the-art Harrisburg-mandated teacher improvement system, also known as the “SLO” in teaching circles. Incidentally, according to a recent poll of over 1000 teachers, only 9% believe the SLO process will improve their teaching. Even less, 6%, actually believe that the SLO process respects educators' professional knowledge and skills... but I digress.

The other six half days (9 for elementary schools) are meant to be parent-teacher conference days – during the workday from 12:00 to 3:00pm. (These are in addition to the two parent-teacher evenings we host each academic year.) Needless to say, hardly any parents are able to make it to these afternoon sessions because, wonder of wonders, they actually have to work. These days of even more squandered education end up being nothing more than a building full of teachers who wait for the parents that inevitably never arrive.

In addition to this wasted instructional time, Harrisburg has also mandated that we begin issuing standardized Keystone Exams (at a cost to local taxpayers of $176 million) to all high school students on a yearly basis. Last year, we were required to test students in three subjects, resulting in two more half-days per exam administration, for an additional total of 6. Eventually, Harrisburg has indicated they would like students to be tested in a total of 10 Keystone Exams, likely resulting in 20 more half-days by decade’s end.

Finally, the School District of Philadelphia is so technologically inept that it requires teachers to enter students’ final grades over a week before school is over. They claim that they need time to print report cards, send them to schools, and allow for teachers to hand them out. Every other district in the area either posts grades online or mails out the report card, but I guess Philadelphia needs to save on postage costs in order to pay for Superintendent Hite’s recent $30,000 raise. In 2014-15, this discrepancy between the time the online grading system shuts down (June 10th) and when students are still legally required to attend school in order to reach that threshold of 180 days (June 17th) will result in another 5 days of lost instruction.

In total, when one adds up the required SLO half-days, pointless mid-afternoon parent teacher days, mandated 3 Keystone Exam administrations, and lost end of the school year days, I am losing 22 half days and 5 full days of instruction. That is 16 days of lost instruction, or over 3 weeks of classes when students are not learning.

In fact, if the state has its way and instates all 10 Keystone Exams, I will soon be losing 23 days of instruction, or nearly 5 full weeks of precious time with students. An entire month of lost education… and for what?

As the School District’s contract negotiating team continues to demand that the members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers teach a longer school year, I have a demand of my own: Stop wasting my time with useless “professional development” half-days, standardized test administration, and bureaucratic incompetence. If not, then instead of analyzing why the Soviet Union collapsed and how the 21st century was shaped, my students will be left believing that the last major event on the world stage was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Are Philly Teachers On Par?


SRC Chair Bill Green, Mayor Michael Nutter, and Governor Tom Corbett have recently said that the reason they decided to impose contract terms on the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers is because, unlike other school districts in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia teachers do not contribute toward health care. Philadelphia teachers, they claim, have not sacrificed enough for the children of Philadelphia.

The number Green, Nutter, Corbett, and the SRC have been throwing around is that it will only cost Philadelphia teachers 5-13% of the insurance premium, or approximately $25-$75 a month - a reasonable request. What they fail to mention, however, is that that particular quote is for a single individual under a high deductible plan. Under the District’s new benefits, the SRC is now eliminating their previously cheaper Keystone HMO 15 $0 deductible plan. The new standard plan, Personal Choice 320, has higher deductibles and only covers 90% of inpatient hospital costs. This move deceptively forces teachers to “buy-up” to the Personal Choice 20/30/70 plan, which costs $24,239.64 per year ($2019.97 x 12). 

For someone who earns $55,000, the resulting $6319 yearly premium amounts to a 26% contribution (not 13% as quoted in the papers) and is, in fact, a 11.5% pay-cut for a Philadelphia teacher earning $55,000. If, God forbid, you have a spouse who works and would like to add them to your plan, it adds up to an astounding $8139 premium, or a 34% contribution resulting in a nearly 15% pay cut.

So what about those teachers in other schools that already pay towards their health care? How do Philadelphia teachers compare? Are Philadelphia teachers, as SRC Chair Bill Green stated, on par with them?

I decided to research what teachers who earn $55,000 in other districts pay towards their health care for a $0 deductible family plan (including spouse), and here are my findings:
$61 a month
Lower Merion
2.2% of salary
14% of premium
Council Rock
16% of premium
16% of premium
Central Bucks
16% of premium
Lower Moreland
6% of premium
11% of premium

26% of premium
34% of premium
$6,319 or
$8,139 (spouse)

*(Note: I researched over 20 districts, and while all the numbers are remarkably consistent with these findings, I only chose to include those districts that actually have their contracts posted online so that readers know the data is 100% accurate.)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Philadelphia's Most Prized Public Employees

The following piece, in edited form, was published in the April 16th, 2014 issue of the Philadelphia Daily News.
It was also published, in edited form, in the April 17th-23rd, 2014 issue of the Philadelphia CityPaper.

For those of us who choose to enter urban public education, we don’t expect to get rich. The fact that we serve our fellow citizens and, in some small way, contribute toward alleviating society’s ills is often reward in itself. In exchange, we also like to see every now and then that society appreciates our efforts and our sacrifices.

Unfortunately, the City of Philadelphia, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the School Reform Commission continue to denigrate and degrade us every chance that they get. When we ask for librarians to nurture a childhood spark of inquisitiveness, we get layoff notices and shuttered doors. When we ask for counselors to help guide society’s most vulnerable members through the treacherous waters of American inequity, we are given platitudes about how the money was given away in tax-breaks in order to spur economic growth. When we dare point our finger at a government that refuses to invest in our children, they shrug their shoulders and tell us it’s our fault for seeking a decent living wage.

And what of our “ludicrous” wages? Wages so high, they claim, that the SRC is seeking to forego any cost-of-living adjustments and, in fact, demanding that we give back 13% of it?

If salary is a measure of one’s worth, then society must despise the educators of our city’s youth. Earlier this month, TWU Local 234, the union that represents the city’s bus drivers, was offered an agreement by SEPTA that would give them a 5% cost-of-living wage increase over the next two years. If approved, this means that the average bus driver in the City of Philadelphia would now earn over $68,000. Meanwhile, the average city school teacher currently earns $70,790. If the SRC has its way, that figure would drop to $61,587.

SEPTA, like the School District of Philadelphia, gets a large proportion of its funding from Harrisburg. SEPTA also continuously runs deficits, like the School District, because the job of transporting commuters in one of America’s largest metropolitan areas is a Herculean task - as is the job of educating its children. 

What, therefore, are we Philadelphia educators left to believe? What should we think when one predominantly state-supported entity gets so much funding that it can afford to offer its public employees a 5% pay-raise over the next two years, but the other expects its public employees to take a 13% pay-cut?

Clearly there are priorities and these priorities do not rest with our children. 

Perhaps it’s time the teachers of this city abandon their sense of civic duty and their desire to inspire the next generation. Perhaps it’s time for them to exchange their numerous academic degrees for a driver’s license and a place behind the steering wheel.

Maybe then, we’ll finally get some appreciation.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Profits Over Pupils: Philadelphia's True Priorities

2013 is gone and, as far as public educators in the City of Philadelphia are concerned, good riddance. The worst budget crisis the School District of Philadelphia has ever faced is now last year's news.

Honestly, however, who can blame the city or state for vastly underfunding the education of our youth? After all, this budget crisis is a result of the greatest recession our city and state have seen in over a generation. A brief look at how Philadelphia's publicly traded Fortune 500 corporations fared in 2013 shows the dire economic situation our city is in, resulting in a School District underfunded to the tune of $304 million.

  • Cigna (NYSE:CI) climbed from $54 to $86 per share for an astronomical return on profits of nearly 58%.
  • Crown Holdings (NYSE:CCK) rose 23% from $36 to $44 per share.
  • Aramark (NYSE:ARMK) began trading publicly last month after its IPO and has already jumped an astounding 35% climbing from $20 to $26 per share.
  • Sunoco Logistics (NYSE:SXL) saw its shares jump from approximately $50 to $75 for a 52-week change of +39%. [Sunoco, formerly the largest corporation based in Philadelphia (NYSE:SUN) is currently a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners (NYSE:ETP)]
  • Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA), currently the largest mass media and communications company in the world in terms of revenue and the namesake of the tallest building in Pennsylvania, saw its stock value rise 36% from $38 to $52. According to Comcast's most recent SEC filing, the corporation's trailing 12 month revenue stands at nearly $64 billion with a gross profit of $42.64 billion. Those 12 month trailing profits, again, stood at $42,640,000,000. I thought I'd add the zeroes there for dramatic effect. Oops, there's one $0 I forgot: the amount of property taxes that Comcast pays to the School District of Philadelphia - NONE. Comcast has cost the children of Philadelphia $28.8 million since 2008 by not paying its fair share of property taxes.

Why, these aren't the numbers one would expect at all from a city and state that continue to cry that there simply isn't enough tax revenue. In fact, as the School District of Philadelphia hobbled along on a bare-bones budget, Wall Street saw record revenues in 2013. The S&P had its best year since 1997 and the Dow Jones hasn't seen these types of gains since 1995!

2013, however, wasn't a bad year for all educators in the city - just for those who choose to work with society's poorest and most vulnerable members. While the School District demands that we public school teachers take a 13% pay-cut, make 13% contributions to our healthcare, and forego all cost-of-living adjustment until 2017, other educational institutions in the city such as the University of Pennsylvania gave their professors and administrators exorbitant raises. PENN's President, for example, was given a whopping 43% raise in 2013 and now earns nearly $2.1 million... God forbid these educators who sacrifice themselves in order to mold the privileged future Wall Street gluttons of Wharton should not be properly compensated. 

PENN's Board of Trustees Chair, David Cohen, who heads the committee that determines salaries, claims, "We have the best university president in the country in Amy Gutmann and we believe her compensation should reflect that reality." Incidentally, PENN, Temple, Drexel, and the other universities in the city also do not pay any property taxes to the District, a loss of nearly $200 million a year in property tax revenue, because they claim "non-profit" status -- even though they had combined profits of over $1 billion last year.

David Cohen, by the way, is also the same person who recommended that Philadelphia public school teachers make the aforementioned 13% concessions in order to help solve the District's budget issues while he brokered a deal with Harrisburg. I suppose that, unlike PENN, he doesn't think we have the best public school teachers in Philadelphia -- nor should their salary "reflect that reality." What qualifies Cohen to make recommendations about Philadelphia's public schools? Well, apart from giving Gutmann a 43% raise and demanding teachers take a 13% paycut, here's what else he accomplished in 2013:
  1. As Vice President of Comcast, he cashed in an annual salary of $16.2 million (Pulling in that kind of money, I'm sure he's a public school parent with vested interest.)
  2. He held a $32,400 a plate dinner fundraising event for the Democratic Party at his Mt. Airy mansion. President Obama was in attendance as well, and why wouldn't he be? Cohen helped raise over $500,000 for Obama's re-election campaign back in 2012. 
  3. He held a Republican fundraising event at that same Mt. Airy home to help kick-off Governor Corbett's re-election campaign. Who cares about political ideology when you have the money to pay off both sides?

Meanwhile, as profits continue to skyrocket for private entities in the city, thanks to the machinations of special interest groups, the middle and lower class children of Philadelphia continue to suffer from the effects of shuttered libraries, devastated after-school activities, drastically reduced school staff, and a complete lack of support personnel essential for the operation of any large building - let alone one filled with children. Federal, State, and City funding of schools have stagnated for the past few years, clearly out of step with the vast profits being reaped by the aforementioned corporations and private universities.

The School District's adopted 2013-14 budget of $3.1 billion was laden with debt-service to, once again, corporate America. Aside from the actual $1.32 billion cost of instruction and the state-mandated payment of $704 million to charter schools (read my article on Philadelphia's Charter Problem HERE), the District's third most expensive budget item at $264 million was debt-service. In 2012, for example, the District was forced to once again borrow money due to lower than expected tax revenues and government contributions: $300 million through a bond sale just to cover operating expenses. That loan cost the District a whopping $22.2 million in interest payments for every year from 2014-2034 and effectively destroyed the District's credit rating into junk bond status, finally breaking the camel's back under a mountain of debt. The School District of Philadelphia now spends more money on debt-service than it does funding transportation, food service, and utilities in all of its buildings combined. To put it another way, that interest payment is enough to hire 2,400 teachers, with an average salary of $67,000 and an average benefits package worth $40,000 each.

So, where does that leave us teachers in 2014? Should public school educators be as optimistic about the coming year as the rising stock prices of our numerous Fortune 500 corporations? Not so fast. As those entities earning record profits continue to shirk their responsibilities, the District is forced to balance its budget on the backs of the only individuals they have some sort of control over - their teachers. The demands made upon the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers is degrading to the point of humiliation (you can view the full list HERE). Teachers have urged their union leadership not to budge as contract talks drag on, or there will be hell to pay. 

At least there's one thing to look forward to in 2014 - the School District has recently announced that its 2013-14 deficit of $304 million will most likely climb by yet another $100 million. So what's the good news? Well, it looks like there is no end in sight for the gains of Philly's Wall Street giants and the exorbitant salaries their executives pull in... I'm sure one of them will step forward, start paying the same amount of taxes as the rest of us, and do their civic duty for the betterment of society as a whole.