By Helen Cunningham
and James Gallagher
When Gov. Corbett signed the bill approving a cigarette tax to fund Philadelphia schools recently, he concluded an odyssey that lasted at least 18 months. Passage finally happened only through compromises made by numerous stakeholders.
We have known all along that the cigarette tax by itself would not fix the School District's financial woes. Other remedies are needed, and these too require compromises. At the top of the list: The same broad group of stakeholders who helped pass the cigarette tax needs to focus on developing a politically viable school funding formula.
But the district cannot close its deficit through just new revenue or staff downsizing - it needs a more stable cost structure, and that means slowing its fastest-rising expenses. Chief among those are pension costs (a statewide issue) and employee health benefits. In Philadelphia, the cost of benefits per pupil has soared 93 percent in the past eight years - forcing classroom spending cuts and limiting the opportunity for increased teacher salaries.
Philadelphia's teachers deserve our admiration for their dedication to their students during the schools crisis. But if we want a sustainable solution, teachers must now step up and assist in achieving that goal. Contributing to health care is the best way to do this. Here's why:
First, it's fair. Philadelphia is one of only two districts in Pennsylvania where teachers do not pay a reasonable share of health-care premiums. All around us, teachers contribute substantially - in most districts, between 8 percent and 20 percent. In Pittsburgh, teachers pay anywhere from 5 percent to 20 percent of premiums; in Council Rock, it's 16 percent; in Upper Darby and Penn-Delco, it's 8 percent to 12 percent. In Hempfield, salaries are nearly identical to Philadelphia, and teachers pay 10 percent.
In New Jersey, teachers statewide are in the second year of a four-year phase-in that will ultimately require contributions of up to 35 percent of premiums. Philadelphia has failed to join its neighbors in requiring reasonable benefit contributions, and our students are paying the price.
Second, and more importantly, teacher contributions to health care will make a huge difference to students in schools. Under the new benefits structure put forward by the School Reform Commission, the district will have $43.8 million to spend this school year on additional staff and resources for students and schools that are struggling. Almost immediately, $15 million of that will go out to principals to spend on the things their schools need most.
Think about that: Not only will the district avoid more teacher layoffs, but it will actually restore and enhance services that our students desperately need.
As former members of the SRC and Philadelphia Board of Education, we know the value of our teachers. Despite difficult conditions, they work tirelessly and passionately on behalf of their students. We do not suggest for a minute that it's an "easy ask" for teachers to give up any form of compensation.
But all sides have been asked to make sacrifices, and they've done so for the children. The School District has generated millions in new cost savings; the city and commonwealth have provided major new funding sources; and other school employee unions have agreed to significant wage and health-care concessions.
What's more, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has signaled that the district no longer seeks across-the-board wage cuts from teachers. Publicly, the leadership of the teachers' union has repeatedly expressed a willingness to "make changes to health care and benefits."
After 18 months of negotiations and abundant evidence that students are paying the price of the funding deficit, it's time to make those changes real. It's the fairest form of sacrifice, it's something almost all other teachers' unions have done, and it will have a lasting impact on the quality of education for Philadelphia's children.