As August approaches, educators across Pennsylvania are preparing lessons and purchasing materials for the upcoming school year. And, once again, the month will be fraught with uncertainty for students and families across the commonwealth.
By now, Pennsylvania should have a budget. And the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers should have a new contract with the School District. But the status of the contract and budget remain unresolved for the same reason: discord over values. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Vice President Biden: "Don't tell me what you value. Show me your budget, and I'll tell you what you value."
If Gov. Wolf had capitulated to House and Senate leadership and accepted their refusal to prioritize children over gas drillers, we would have a budget. He hasn't, because when he was elected to office in November, he was given a mandate to carry out his campaign promises to re-invest in public education by restoring the $1 billion in education cuts enacted by his predecessor.
The governor has maintained his pledge to serve the people, specifically the children, of the commonwealth. Education funding and equity was more than a campaign promise. And while we all want to see a budget finalized, we cannot — and should not — support a budget that does not reflect a significant commitment to public education.
By the same token, the PFT could have settled a new contract with the district. This is a point of enormous frustration to the educators who work in overcrowded, underresourced schools each day, while not receiving any form of pay increase since 2012. The lack of resolution is also a source of frustration for students, parents, and the community.
After receiving a world-class education in the School District of Philadelphia, I became a teacher in my home town. My approach to teaching was driven by my belief in fairness, equity, and the right of every child to the same free, high-quality public education that I received. Those beliefs have been at the forefront of my service with the union. Contract provisions — like a full time counselor in every school building, a limit on class size, the peer assistance and review program, a functioning water fountain on each floor, and other essentials — reflect these values.
The same is true for modest step increases in teacher pay for longevity and for obtaining advanced degrees (now frozen for two years), which give educators an incentive to stay in Philly's schools and further their professional development.
And having a full-time counselor in every school has been a tremendous battle over the past several years. It is a battle I will continue to fight, because every single child in the district deserves these fundamental services.
Of course, the timetable for settling a new contract is largely dependent on the Pennsylvania Legislature passing a budget that reinvests in public education. But it will also require the district to finally come back to the negotiating table and work with the PFT toward a contract that clearly defines and provides for the programs and services our students deserve. And, like the governor, the PFT will not sign a contract with the district that fails to adequately support schoolchildren or educators.
Our collective conscience should guide us in formulating a budget and a contract that we are proud of for the future generations of educators, doctors, astronauts, union leaders, and superintendents who, in September, will be sitting in the very desks required by the PFT contract.
Though unsettling and uncomfortable, I believe the delay will be worthwhile if the state budget and the PFT contract reflect a system of values that we all can support.