The reform commission tasked with finding funds for Philadelphia’s cash-strapped school system made an audacious move yesterday: It canceled the teachers’ union contract and ruled that teachers must make contributions to their own health insurance. (h/t Public Sector Inc.) The Wall Street Journal reports:
“We can’t say to students, ‘We would like to give you millions of dollars to improve schools, but the PFT won’t let its members pay for some of its health insurance,’” School Reform Commission Chairman Bill Green said, referring to the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.Governments nationwide have been seeking to rein in costs of health care and other benefits, but there appears to be little precedent for the five-member commission’s unanimous move, education experts said. […]It isn’t clear if the commission even has the legal authority to void the contract under the state’s school takeover law. Its leaders quickly filed a lawsuit, joined by the state Department of Education, asking a judge to rule they have such power.
The move, which comes after what was said to be a stalemated disagreement with the union, would save the school district millions of dollars:
Mr. Green said Monday’s move, coming after what he called 21 months of fruitless talks with the union, would save the district $54 million this year. He said $30 million of that would be quickly pumped into schools beset by large class sizes, reductions in arts and Advanced Placement classes, and cuts to guidance counselors.Mr. Green said requiring teachers to pay toward health insurance puts them in the same position as other district employees and most American workers. Philadelphia’s school system, whose 135,000 students make it one of the largest in the U.S., has been overseen by the commission since a 2001 state takeover that was spurred in part by major financial problems and disappointing test scores.
The new contributions work out to between $27 and $71 dollars per month for individual teachers, or $77 to $200 for families.Union leaders are vowing to fight the decision. It could have national repercussions, according to one expert quoted by Philly.com:
David Gregory, a law professor at St. John’s University in New York, who directs the Center for Employment and Labor Law there, called the SRC’s action “stark and startling,” and said it took a page from Detroit’s cancelling police officers’ and firefighters’ contracts.Still, Gregory said, “There’s no doubt we’re in uncharted waters in Philadelphia.”He said the matter “has all the hallmarks to go to the state’s highest court, or potentially, if it gets enough legal traction, to get vaulted into the federal courts and ultimately to the U.S. Supreme Court.”
The Philadelphia commission’s move is particularly dramatic, but as health care costs continue to rise and blue model municipalities sink deeper into debt, we may see similar fights break out elsewhere. Battles over school systems often pit teachers’ unions against the low-income students, a sure-fire quandary for Democrats.