First, some basic points. I'm also asking no mainpage.
1. The state of Pennsylvania has controlled the School District of Philadelphia since 2001. There is no locally elected school board; all decisions are made by a panel appointed by the governor (3 members) and the mayor of the city (2 members).
2. Philly's public schools are, and have been for a long time now, in a financial crisis. We're talking millions of dollars in shortfall. Part of this is due to the draconian cuts imposed by Governor Tom Corbett; others also point to some of the businesses (such as Comcast) which have received massive tax abatements while paying little in property taxes.
3. The current superintendent and the governor would like to blame this financial crisis on unionized labor and the errors of past administrators. They are calling for teachers to "share the burden" of the financial woes of the district. (Translation: the current state-appointed administrators are penalizing the teachers of Philadelphia for the decisions made...by the previous state-appointed administrators.) To remedy this, they are calling for teachers to take a 5-13% pay cut in addition to working longer hours. They would also like to remove the class size caps (33 students per class in high school classes), and "streamline" the contract. Since August, labor and administration have not come to an agreement and the issue is increasingly contentious, especially regarding the issue of seniority. Some see this as a ploy to break the union. Add to the mix people like M. Night Shyamalan claiming that class size doesn't matter (while sending his children to private schools with small classes), and you have a bad situation.
Now, full disclosure: I am a former teacher in the School District of Philadelphia. I am a proud employee of a teacher's union, and I wholeheartedly believe that a teacher's contract serves to protect not only the employees who sign it but also the children they serve. I witnessed first hand that the conditions that teachers work in are the SAME conditions that students learn in.
My school had no library. Not a shuttered library, like some of the schools: no library. All pleasure reading books were purchased by staff. Most of us did not have a classroom computer. We had a computer lab, but the school was crowded and classes were taught there almost every period, so forget trying to schedule some time for research. I purchased my own laptop, speakers, printer, pencils, paper, notebooks for students, tissues, snacks, construction paper, art supplies, stapler, pencil sharpener, everything I needed to keep a classroom functioning. I easily spent over $1500 a year, as many students did not have money for school supplies. If I had to take a 5-13% pay cut it would be a choice between providing for my family and providing for my students. I don't know anyone who isn't a teacher or self-employed who must purchase all the tools necessary to do his or her job.
We had the privilege of having a school nurse two and a half days per week. If a kid were sick, they had to deal with it—there was nothing to be done. If a true emergency occurred, staff had to drive the kid to the hospital.
My experience was the rule, not the exception, and it occurred before the incredible budget cuts and reductions in staff. Since my time there, class sizes have maxed out while nurses, counselors, and support staff are, in some buildings, practically luxuries. A number of current Philly teachers have started a website to chronicle the conditions they work in and which children must learn in as well as calling attention to the rampant contract violations and how they affect kids. I'd like to point out that multiple posts are from staff at the Science Leadership Academy, an incredible magnet school with more resources than a typical neighborhood school. If *they* are working in those conditions, imagine what it is like elsewhere.
This is the United States. It's 2014. This is the reality of the public school students of Philadelphia.