School Climate & Safety

Teachers in Pa. District Agree to Work for Free (Again)

By Ross Brenneman — September 04, 2015 2 min read
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School started this week in Pennsylvania’s Chester Upland school district, which currently doesn’t have any money. So the teachers’ union there voted to work anyway, for free.

As the Washington Post and others have reported, the district has faced financial hardship for decades, and is now confronting a $22 million deficit. If this story sounds familiar, it’s because Chester Upland teachers agreed to work for free at the beginning of 2012, too.

District officials attribute the system’s financial hardships in part to the state’s formula for charter school funding.

The 3,300-student district has multiple charter schools that Chester Upland pays according to state law, but local officials say that law is unfair. As district receiver Francis V. Barnes wrote in a released statement on Aug. 24:

‘The district is required to pay charter schools more than $40,000 per special education student, regardless of the actual cost to educate that student, while the District receives less than needed to educate its own special education students. ... The current Charter School funding mechanism provides charter schools the same funding for each student with a disability, regardless of the severity of that student’s disability. This creates a strong incentive to over-identify students with less costly disabilities and to under-identify (or under-enroll) students with more severe (or more costly) disabilities.’

Chester Upland has almost equal numbers of students in both traditional public schools and charter schools.

“What [the financial situation] has done is pitted the parents of district students against the parents of charter school students,” Bill Riley, a school board member, told Philadelphia’s WPVI network. “The problem is, we’re here to educate all the children.”

Barnes issued his statement in advance of a court meeting attempting to alter the funding system; the judge rejected that proposal, but did approve an audit, the appointment of a financial turnaround specialist, and loan restructuring.

Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has supported the district’s position on altering the funding formula, and his administration helped craft Chester Upland’s petition to the court. But as spokesman Jeff Sheridan told the Post, there’s little room to maneuver without the state’s legislature taking some sort of action.

Why Are Teachers Working for Free, Though?

While financial solvency is the immediate priority for the town, the dynamics of teacher pay are involved, too. That’s the part that’s driving many headlines, after all. Per the Post: (Emphasis added)

‘The thought of it is very scary,’ said John Shelton, 60, dean of students at the district’s only middle school and a 23-year employee. ‘It’s mind-boggling because there’s truly uncertainty. But we are all in agreement that we will come to work, so that the children can get an education.’ Shelton, who will be able to count on some income from his moonlighting job as a janitor, said he and his colleagues are willing to sacrifice because the students rely on the schools. ‘Some of our children, this is all they have as far as safety, their next nourishing meal, people who are concerned for them,” he said. “We are dedicated to these children.’

But as Bryce Covert writes in Slate, drawing on comparisons to child care, there’s a difference between low pay and choosing to work for free:

Care work is still seen not as work; it’s seen as something women just do. Something they would do even if they weren’t paid. This is the dynamic that the teachers of Chester Upland are playing into by deciding to work for free. The message they send about their work—and the work of all teachers—is that it is motivated by love, not money. That weakens the call to pay teachers more money, or any money at all.

Perhaps. Chester Upland’s teachers are between a rock and a hard place, and without legislative changes, they’ll probably need to start settling there.

Image: Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf arrives for a news conference on Aug. 11 in Norristown. Pennsylvania is a month and a half into its new fiscal year without a state budget. —Matt Rourke/AP

More on Pennsylvania’s approach to school funding, or lack thereof:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.