The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The ugly facts of life in Philadelphia public schools

Philadelphia School Superintendent William Hite  (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)
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For years now the state-run Philadelphia public school system has been under a kind of siege. The Republican administration of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett has decimated spending for public education in the state, and Philadelphia has been hit especially hard, with thousands of layoffs, massive program cuts and dozens of closed school buildings. Many teachers buy basic supplies for their classrooms with their own funds.

Education activists have accused the five-member School Reform Commission that runs the district of implementing damaging “reforms” and going along with Corbett’s agenda. In 2013, it passed a “doomsday” budget that had no funding for things such as paper, counselors and art/music programs. This year things were so difficult that officials put together a $2.4 billion budget for the next school year with available resources and then urged the reform commission not to pass it because it was so bare-bones. Some extra money was found, but the district remains cash-starved.

On Monday, the reform commission announced that it was unilaterally canceling its contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. It said that from now it would require all teachers to contribute to the health fund — which most had not been doing — in a statement that seemed to be suggesting that this was the reason for the district’s financial woes, not state budget cuts. It isn’t. Union leaders said the action was an effective declaration of war.

The contract had actually already expired, in 2013, but the two sides were negotiating a new contract, and while the panel said it was adhering to the old contract during the talks, it sought state permission to unilaterally change some work rules, which it did this year, including raising class sizes, which can rise to 50 students in one class. As a result of the abrogation of the contract — which, according to Reuters news agency, “is likely unprecedented in the United States” — teachers who are paid more than $55,000 will have to contribute 13 percent toward their health benefits costs. Philadelphia teachers are currently paid less than their suburban counterparts and now will pay more for health benefits.

Whatever you think of what the reform commission did Monday, the fact is that students and teachers are being forced to learn and teach in unacceptable conditions. The following tweets explain some of what teachers, parents and students are dealing with in Philadelphia public schools: