The Gold Standard: This teacher contract would have been great ten years ago

Editor's note: We're happy to debut today our first edition of "The Gold Standard," a new It's Our Money column by Phil Goldsmith. Goldsmith is the former managing director for the City of Philadelphia, and the former chief executive officer of the School District of Philadelphia. He'll be bringing insight on city issues from the perspective of someone who's been inside Philadelphia's government. -DT

The agreement between the School District of Philadelphia and the teachers union is being hailed as "historic" and "groundbreaking," a big step forward for education reform. And it is. But it's about a decade or so late.

The contract is more a testament to what hadn't been done over the years than anything else.

The most overdue change is in "site selection," or the teacher assignment process. Some progress was made on this issue in 2000, but the parties have now agreed to move further away from an archaic seniority system.

In short, teachers will now have more choice in where they can teach, and schools will have the ability to recruit and select teachers with skills and motivation that match their specific challenges.

For too many years, the seniority system forced our newest, most inexperienced teachers into our most difficult schools. This didn't serve students' needs, and resulted in high teacher turnover.

The contract also allows for the payment of performance bonuses to the entire union staff of targeted schools. Whether these bonuses will make a difference remains to be seen - good teachers, I believe, are primarily motivated by their love of the job, and bonuses shouldn't be considered a substitute for a healthy dose of respect - but it's still worth a try.

And it would be nice to try to figure out a way to get parents in on the action, since they have as much to do with their students' performance as anyone.

The contract also addresses school safety (a rightful and major concern for teachers), provides union members with modest pay increases and retains their benefits.

Today, in most work environments, none of these changes would be considered major enough to be hailed as "historic." But in the world of education, particularly in Philadelphia, the race to modernity has been as slow as molasses.

Since the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers won its first contract in 1965, relations between the school district and the union have been rough-and-tumble, ranging from all-out hostilities to guerrilla warfare.

The height of the PFT's power was probably in 1973, when it waged a 7 1/2-week strike, the second longest school strike in the nation's history.

The union's top two officials, John Ryan and Frank Sullivan, became martyrs when they were thrown in jail for contempt of court. In fact, they were denied bail even though, in the same courtroom on the same day, a man convicted of second-degree murder was released on $60,000 bail. Ryan and Sullivan were released each day to attend negotiations, but were brought back to their cells afterward to spend the night.

But what did all this fighting accomplish? In 1973, the district had 280,000 students. Today, the number is only 160,000, a whopping 43 percent decline, a far greater loss than the overall population decline of the city.

We now have an entirely new set of publicly financed schools in the city called charter schools with more than 34,000 students and 67 schools. These schools alone constitute the second-largest school district in Pennsylvania.

For the most part, the charter schools are non-union. And, under the new contract, non-union teachers may also staff the new Renaissance Schools, which will replace underperforming schools. On top of all this, changes in state law have stripped away the PFT's right to strike.

Even our Democratic president and his education secretary, traditionally allies of teachers unions, are major proponents of reform initiatives like charter schools, site selection and performance bonuses. They're using wads of money to entice school districts and unions to change their ways.

Whether the union's strategy of not giving an inch has been the best for the union movement I'll leave for others to decide. I will acknowledge, however, that much of their resistance was often in response to arbitrary and wrongheaded policies by management and politicians.

But one thing is clear. The decline of the school district and its once-powerful union holds an important lesson for both management and unions elsewhere: Change - or you will be changed. At the very least your customers will leave you.

This latest contract reflects major change, not necessarily in substantive educational policies, but in the balance of power between the administration and the union.

Watching the PFT go into the ring for its latest contest - with no right to strike and the threat of management-imposed conditions hanging over its head - was like watching an aging, punch-drunk Mike Tyson - whose once-powerful punch was a wisp of its former self - pretending to make a fight of it. But it just wasn't to be.

This isn't time for the school administration to gloat, however. Its new power is a double-edged sword. It no longer has the once-powerful PFT to use as a scapegoat, to blame for the failure of our schools and students.

For the first time in more than 40 years, the power and responsibility for change now rests squarely with the district administration and its board, the School Reform Commission.

For the sake of our schoolchildren and our city, let's hope they use it wisely, fairly and honestly.

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