High-stakes weekend ahead for Philadelphia schools

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There's at lot at stake this weekend in Philadelphia. If not recalled, layoffs of 3,800 employees of the School District of Philadelphia will go into effect.

First, a little background. In late May, the School Reform Commission adopted a budget that included layoffs of almost 3,800 employees (about 20 percent of the total district workforce). Teachers, counselors, assistant principals and school secretaries are among those who will find themselves unemployed if the layoffs are allowed to go into effect June 30th. The School System of Philadelphia needs to find over $300 million to make ends meet and they're asking employees, the City of Philadelphia and the State of Pennsylvania to contribute to the solution. 

Where it stands. The district has asked the city for $60 million, the state for $120 million, and the unions for $133 million in concessions. So far, the City has identified about $46 million from a new $2 per pack cigarette tax and another $28 million in anticipated revenue from as-of-yet uncollected property taxes. (The new cigarette tax must be authorized by the Pennsylvania General Assembly in order for the city to collect the funds.) Meanwhile a group of parents and district employees have started a hunger strike-turned-fast to protest the cuts.

Almost all the major stakeholders in Philadelphia have taken a turn at the statehouse this week, making their case for why the state should pony up more funds. That said, time is running out; the state must pass a budget before July 1. For his part, the Governor has said he is "committed to finding a solution," but some have accused him of playing politics with the future of the district. He has signaled that he wants to see changes in the teachers' contract before he signs on for additional funding.

Jerry Jordan, the President of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT), has been a vocal advocate for more funding for the system, but he's not ready to trade givebacks for additional state money.  Jordan has been quoted as saying, "My members are very clear that they do not want, nor can they afford, a pay cut," and he strongly opposes balancing the budget "on the backs" of PFT members. Importantly, while negotiations are ongoing, the PFT contract is set to expire August 31st, long after the state deadline for a budget and long after hundreds of teachers will have lost their jobs.

Potential Consequences. Our recent research in Philadelphia tells us that some of the damage to the teacher workforce is already done. In 2011, the School District of Philadelphia gave layoff notices to 1,272 teachers (almost double the number that received layoff notices this year). The district eventually recalled almost all laid-off teachers; however, 34 percent of those teachers resigned in the summer months before being recalled.

This seems like a high-stakes game of chicken rather than a legitimate strategy for managing schools. The idea of bare-bones schools without music teachers, counselors or anything else outside the bare minimum, is appalling. Philadelphia students, less than half of whom scored proficient in math and reading on statewide assessments in 2012, need more resources to support their learning, not fewer.