Education Failure in Philadelphia

by

Only 40% of students can read to standard. Union says so what?

  • The Wall Street Journal
  • REVIEW & OUTLOOK
  • September 24, 2013, 7:22 p.m. ET

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett has extended a lifeline to Philadelphia’s hemorrhaging schools attached to a requirement for modest education and fiscal reforms. No thanks, says the teachers union. Herewith a parable of education decline.

Philadelphia’s schools are a textbook case of chronic, systemic failure. Woeful finances and academics compelled the state in 2001 to install a five-member School Reform Commission. Test scores have improved but are still pitiful. Last year only about 40% of students scored proficient or above in reading on the state standardized test, but 99.5% of teachers are rated satisfactory.

The commission’s greatest contribution has been to provide an escape valve for students. Enrollment at charters has grown to about 56,000 from 12,000 in 2000. The number of students attending traditional schools has shrunk by 25%, but those schools haven’t downsized as they’ve lost students.

Charters are paid roughly three-quarters as much on a per pupil basis as traditional schools. Yet savings from the charter expansion haven’t offset the increasing overhead and labor costs at traditional schools where the average teacher earns $110,000 in pay and benefits.

Teachers also don’t pay a cent for health benefits and can retire with a pension equal to 80% of their final salary after 30 years. As a bonus, the district pays the union $4,353 per member each year to administer dental, vision and retiree benefits. Its health and welfare fund had a $71 million surplus, according to its latest available tax filing in 2011.

The district last year had to borrow $300 million, and this summer two dozen schools were closed and 3,000 employees laid off (including about 600 teachers) to bridge another $300 million deficit. While the union blames state budget cuts, pay and benefit increases resulting from its last collective-bargaining agreement accounted for half the budget hole.

Mr. Corbett is offering the district a one-time $45 million grant and $120 million in recurring funds from a one-percentage-point city sales tax increase on the condition that teachers accept lower pay and benefits as well as “work rule” changes. The district wants to cut base salaries by 5% to 13% to offset the rising cost of pensions and for teachers to contribute to their health benefits. Yet the major sticking points are Mr. Corbett’s school reforms that would eliminate teacher seniority rights and base future pay increases on more rigorous evaluations that include student learning.

Teachers have little reason to budge since their previous contract remains in effect and they continue to earn raises based on longevity. Thus the union will likely drag out the negotiations until after next fall’s election when they hope to elect a Democratic Governor and renegotiate a bailout without Mr. Corbett’s preconditions.

Meantime, union leaders will whipsaw the GOP Governor for increasing corporate tax credits for private school scholarships that benefit low-income students in failing schools and then for not caring about Philadelphia’s poor, black kids. The tragedy is that Mr. Corbett’s ideas will help those kids while the union is dooming most of them to lives of underachievement and poverty. Where are Education Secretary Arne Duncan and President Obama when they really could help?

A version of this article appeared September 25, 2013, on page A16 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Failure in Philadelphia.

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