Published Online: November 16, 2004
Published in Print: November 17, 2004, as Phila. Activists Cite Lost Opportunity on Teachers’ Pact

Teaching & Learning

Phila. Activists Cite Lost Opportunity on Teachers’ Pact

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Philadelphia district and teachers’ union leaders alike hailed the labor contract they signed last month as an excellent compromise. But activists who sought to influence the negotiations aren’t nearly so sure.

“It was a rare political opportunity to get something other than what we already have that was missed,” said Elizabeth L. Useem, a researcher for the Philadelphia-based Research for Action, whose work showed that Philadelphia was virtually alone among big-city districts in its teacher-hiring practices.

A host of civic and advocacy groups had organized a campaign around the contract talks aiming for a pact that would help get experienced and skilled teachers in every school in equal measure. In an almost unprecedented move, those advocates had sought specific contract provisions: elimination of the role of seniority when teachers change schools; placement of hiring decisions largely in the hands of principals and school hiring committees; and incentives for teachers to go to, and stay at, the most challenging schools.

The contract provides less than half a loaf, the activists say. It cuts back on seniority rights through a complicated system that subjects some vacancies to seniority and some not. And it provides almost no tough-school incentives such as lightened teaching loads.

That’s all the harder to swallow, Ms. Useem said, because the School Reform Commission, which has governed the district since a 2002 state takeover, has the power to impose contract provisions.

The new agreement spares teachers from paying any of the initial cost of having health insurance, and gives them modest salary increases and bonuses over the four years of the contract.

Barbara Goodman, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, defended the pact. “It’s already a tough time for attracting and retaining teachers,” she said. “A system whereby hiring and transfer could be arbitrary and capricious would not help us.”

While acknowledging that paying teachers more and protecting their benefits helps keep them in Philadelphia, the critics say the contract could have done so much more.

Said Len Rieser, a co-director of the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania: “Two years from now, we’ll see whether anything has changed.”

Vol. 24, Issue 12, Page 9

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