Philadelphia Charter School Teachers—And Their Union—Stand Up to Management

James Cersonsky

On May 31, Philadelphia’s Delaware Val­ley Char­ter High School wit­nessed teacher turnover in real time.

Between 10:20am and 12:46pm, in the mid­dle of class instruc­tion, eight teach­ers were hand­ed pink slips. Stu­dents soon fig­ured out what was going on and revolt­ed — turn­ing over lock­ers, throw­ing trash­cans, punch­ing holes through walls, rip­ping down posters and tap­ing them to their bod­ies as protest signs, and attempt­ing two walkouts.

When prin­ci­pal and CEO Ernest Hol­i­day entered the room of a pop­u­lar but fresh­ly ter­mi­nat­ed math teacher, he saw a crowd of stu­dents, accused the teacher of incit­ing a riot, asked him to leave the premis­es and docked his pay for the remain­der of the year.

Two weeks lat­er, the assis­tant prin­ci­pal for aca­d­e­m­ic instruc­tion, who had received out­stand­ing” rat­ings in every per­for­mance cat­e­go­ry in March, learned her con­tract would not be renewed and was asked not to return to the build­ing for fear of fur­ther uproar. When she protest­ed, her email account and work phone were disconnected.

Over the course of that month, 14 teach­ers and staff were fired. Though Hol­i­day had warned of bud­getary issues in a meet­ing pri­or to May 31, the fired teach­ers and staff soon saw their posi­tions post­ed on PAreap​.net. They also saw, at the bot­tom of their notices, a mys­te­ri­ous cc’d recip­i­ent — Harold Kurtz, the head of Syn­er­gy Edu­ca­tion­al Con­sul­tants, which advis­es the school annu­al­ly on staff reten­tion. The writ­ing was on the wall: Peo­ple who didn’t play by Holiday’s rules were out.

It’s quite obvi­ous that the teach­ers who were will­ing to speak up have been ter­mi­nat­ed,” says a fifth-year Eng­lish teacher who was fired. (Like oth­ers who are now on the job hunt, she agreed to speak only on the con­di­tion of anonymi­ty.) “[Hol­i­day] doesn’t real­ly take too kind­ly to peo­ple chal­leng­ing him.”

Unlike most char­ter schools, this one isn’t hav­ing an easy time get­ting rid of out­spo­ken voic­es under the say-so of a prin­ci­pal. Delaware Val­ley is one of five char­ters in Philadel­phia union­ized under the Alliance of Char­ter School Edu­ca­tors (ACSE), a local of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers. Under the ban­ner of ACTS, the Alliance of Char­ter School Teach­ers & Staff, the AFT is tak­ing on new orga­niz­ing at char­ter schools in Chica­go, New York, Michi­gan and elsewhere.

Char­ters schools have this [incli­na­tion to release dis­si­dent staff], but it hap­pens with very lit­tle con­tro­ver­sy, because if you don’t have a union, you’re fired,” says Shaun Rich­man, the AFT’s deputy direc­tor of organizing.

In most cas­es, union cer­ti­fi­ca­tion at char­ter schools oper­ates under state-spe­cif­ic rules rather than those of the NLRB. In Illi­nois and New York, char­ter teach­ers have card-check rights. In Penn­syl­va­nia, union­iza­tion requires an elec­tion under the Penn­syl­va­nia Labor Rela­tions Board, the fund­ing of which has been cut by Repub­li­can Gov. Tom Corbett.

The law in Penn­syl­va­nia is fine, though card-check would cer­tain­ly be a more enlight­ened process,” Rich­man says. When activists are get­ting fired and employ­ers are refus­ing to nego­ti­ate, then you can’t wait nine months for a hearing.”

Once a char­ter does become union­ized, teach­ers and instruc­tion­al staff have an insti­tu­tion­al vehi­cle for col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing and con­scious­ness-rais­ing around teach­ers’ rights and the teach­ing profession.

With the union, they know the law,” says the Delaware Val­ley math teacher accused of incit­ing the riot. They know all the defined details of what should hap­pen and shouldn’t hap­pen. The main rea­son I want­ed to get involved was to learn more, empow­er myself, and empow­er my col­leagues, and hope­ful­ly that’ll cre­ate a bet­ter envi­ron­ment for my students.”

I was first ques­tion­able of the union, because at the time [Hol­i­day] was giv­ing them the things that they need­ed,” says Holiday’s office man­ag­er and exec­u­tive assis­tant, who deliv­ered the lay-off let­ters before get­ting fired two weeks lat­er her­self. If I were a union mem­ber, it may have gone down dif­fer­ent­ly for me.”

After the fir­ings, teach­ers deliv­ered a let­ter to the school admin­is­tra­tion detail­ing the com­plaints that had com­pelled many to speak out in the first place. Among the issues: a mas­tery” grad­ing sys­tem that effec­tive­ly changes the pass­ing grade from 65% to 80%, insti­gat­ing grade infla­tion; a strict uni­form pol­i­cy where­by stu­dents are sent home — in some cas­es, more than 10 miles away — for stripes on pants or shoes; drug trans­ac­tions between stu­dents and secu­ri­ty guards; class­room over­sight with no con­struc­tive feed­back; expan­sion of the stu­dent body with­out hir­ing more teach­ers as a means of grab­bing more state dol­lars; and poor admin­is­tra­tive communication.

After no response from the admin­is­tra­tion, teach­ers read their let­ter at an open board meet­ing on June 26. An unprece­dent­ed swarm of par­ents, stu­dents, and alum­ni came to speak out on behalf of fired teach­ers and, in many cas­es, in sup­port of their com­plaints — fill­ing near­ly 3 hours with 3‑minute speeches.

For par­ents like Sel­ma Ellis, who has sent two chil­dren to Delaware Val­ley, the meet­ing was cathar­tic. We’re part of the com­mu­ni­ty, we pay our tax­es, we nev­er knew when the board meet­ings were,” Ellis says. We have no com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the prin­ci­pal. We have no voice.”

At the July 24 board meet­ing — which was resched­uled for 9:15am, a work hour, and end­ed up draw­ing few­er than 20 peo­ple — board mem­bers vot­ed in a new pres­i­dent and ges­tured toward greater parental and teacher input into school affairs.

The fir­ings remain unre­solved. After the board failed to respond to teach­ers’ for­mal griev­ances for being dis­missed with­out due process or cause, teach­ers filed for arbi­tra­tion, the first such case at a char­ter school in Philadel­phia. The assis­tant prin­ci­pal, the third black woman in three years to serve in her posi­tion, is pur­su­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion charges for her own termination.

While Philadel­phi­a’s exist­ing char­ter schools con­tin­ue to expand with mea­ger dis­trict over­sight, the city’s School Reform Com­mis­sion is con­sid­er­ing a plan to shift char­ter cov­er­age to 40% of stu­dents by 2017. The strug­gle at Delaware Val­ley is a har­bin­ger of chal­lenges — and orga­niz­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties — to come.

Con­tact James Cer­son­sky at jcersonsky@​gmail.​com or fol­low him on Twit­ter @cersonsky.

James Cer­son­sky is a Philadel­phia-based writer and orga­niz­er. His writ­ing has appeared at The Nation, Dis­sent, Alter­net, and else­where. Email him at jcer­son­sky [at] gmail [dot] com or fol­low him on Twit­ter @cersonsky.
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