PA Violates Its Own Constitution

Philadelphia City Council Testimony by Ken Derstine

April 30, 2013

Good morning,

Having listened to the testimony yesterday, I feel the need to speak about the crisis in the Philadelphia School District from the teacher’s perspective. The teacher’s  perspective is rarely heard for many reasons. We hear plenty of talk about us, and plenty of stereotyping from people who have never set foot in a Philadelphia school district classroom, but there is very little talking to us about how we view the crisis in education.

Having retired in June of 2011 after 37 years in the Philadelphia public schools, I also want to bring a historical perspective that may shed some light on what has happened to the school district. I continue to care about the city I have lived in all of my adult life, about the thousands of students I have taught over the years, and about our fragile democracy which is dependent on an educated citizenry. I know many will not agree with some of my remarks, but I appreciate the opportunity to voice my opinion.

Since I began teaching in Philadelphia in 1973, I have seen a lot. I cannot recall a year when there was not a budget crisis. My first years of teaching many people look back on as the Golden Years because under Superintendent Constance Clayton we had a Superintendent who had been a teacher and rose through the ranks to become Superintendent. She had an intimate knowledge of the District and was constantly talking to us about developing curriculum. Things were not great in terms of the conditions, but we had the feeling year after year that we were making progress.

There are many good people in the District. Teachers of my generation took a job in an urban district because we wanted to make a difference. We knew our pay would be lower than the rest of the state and we knew we would be constantly short of resources, but many of us shared Dr. Martin Luther King’s Dream and looked on teaching in Philadelphia as a calling, not a job. This has been true of the many teachers I have known over the years. I’m not saying this is true of every teacher, and there are certainly some who burned out a long time ago, but this is a human institution where there must be due process which both protects the rights of the students and the teachers.

When I started at my last school the computer lab had just received new eMac computers. Little did we know we would have to live with those computers for ten years, a life time with technology. We considered ourselves fortunate however, because many Philadelphia schools did not have a computer lab, a situation which has gotten much worse.  

I used to go to national computer conferences where students from wealthier districts would display their creations with the flat screen multi-media computers which we could only dream of. I was thrilled with what the new technology could do for education, but I also knew that we would have to make do with our aging computers which had no multimedia capabilities. In addition, more and more time was devoted to test preparation and online testing which took away from instruction.

With the coming of No Child Left Behind and the state takeover of Philadelphia’s public schools at the same time, there have been ever rising expectations even as resources were cut more and more each year. Looking back it seems that in the last ten years since the state took over the District our schools have been like a medieval village that has been invaded, put under siege with us being steadily starved of resources and support personnel until we have been weakened enough for the final assault. What sense does it make that if a community school is not making AYP it must be closed rather than being provided the resources, smaller classes, counselors and other support staff that is needed in a school in an economically distressed area?

Some say that we received more funding in the years that Rendell was Governor. There was slight improvement, but much of that money went into laying the ground work for the expansion of charters which year by year has drained ever more resources from the  public schools. 

As I said, there are many dedicated teachers in Philadelphia who took their job as a calling. Never in a million years did we foresee that NCLB would be used as a way to vilify teachers, stereotyping us as lazy and incompetent, for social conditions over which we have no control. If you look at test scores across the state there is a direct correlation between the socio-economic status of the families in a school district and whether their schools test scores allow them to make adequate yearly progress. How can a wealthy school district which spends $18,000 or more per student be compared with Philadelphia where we spend $7000 per student if Special Education is not factored in? Yet Philadelphia teachers are constantly spoken of with distain as if we are just lazy and do not care about our students. In the bitter, gallows humor I have heard in the last few years in the school district I more than once have heard teachers say they believe we are so disdained because we were stupid enough to believe that we could make a difference in the lives of children growing up in difficult circumstances

Now we hear the constant refrain that the parents are choosing with their feet to leave the public schools. I do not judge any parent for looking out for their child and taking them from the conditions in many public schools. However, I attended almost all of the school closing community meetings. I did not hear one parent say they wanted their school closed and they hated their teachers. Quite the opposite! Granted, these were the families left behind in the charter school gold rush, but even looked at from a social perspective, it is clear that charters have been used by many politicians to divert parents from fighting for full funding for public schools. 

I have many friends who are retiring before they have their 35 years for full retirement. I know some younger teachers who have already resigned and left the state. Many younger teachers I know are considering the same. Many parents say that between tripled real estate taxes and deteriorating schools they are starting to talk about leaving the city. Has all of this corporate education reform really been worth it? 

In Governor Corbett’s first year as Governor he cut school funding state wide by $1 billion, with the deepest cuts being made in low income districts, especially Philadelphia.   At the same time he increased the prisons budget by $700 million, including the building of three new prisons, some privately owned for-profit institutions. It is clear what his vision is for children from low income families.

When taking office, the Governor and legislators take an oath to uphold the Constitution of the State of Pennsylvania. 

Article III, Section 14 of the state Constitution says:

“The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.” 

Many of these politicians believe that teacher evaluations are a way to get rid of “bad” teachers and  bring a Renaissance of eduction. I say we should have an evaluation of politicians. Based on the fact that Article III, Section 14 of the state Constitution has never been followed for Philadelphia in the 37 years I have taught here, my evaluation for these politicians is an F.

I know I have not spoken about the fiscal crisis we currently face. The solution lies in this history which I have just recounted.

Also see: 

Spectacular victory for Philly schools - pretty depressing
Philadelphia Public School Notebook - July 3, 2014

Power Players Behind the Corporate Takeover of Pennsylvania Schools
Center for Media and Democracy - October 2014 

State Speaker of the House Mike Tursi @ Philadelphia Inquirer
(Read the comments.

Big for-profit schools, big donations: the influence of charter schools on Pennsylvania politics
Harrisburg Patriot News - February 2, 2015 

How Reformers Win in PA
Curmudgucation - March 23, 2015 

Audit slams Pa. Education Dept. as inept, lumbering
Philadelphia Inquirer - October 6, 2015