Philadelphia students go on strike for teachers’ benefits

Philadelphia students march in Center City earlier this week. (Facebook / Cy Wolfe)

Philadelphia students march in Center City earlier this week. (Facebook / Cy Wolfe)

Typically when you hear about people striking in schools, it’s the teachers on the picket line. This week in Philadelphia — and potentially for many more — it’s the students who are on strike.

At a surprise meeting called on Monday, the School District of Philadelphia unceremoniously cut its ties with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, of PFT, which is the American Federation of Teachers local representing around 15,000 teachers in the district. Since 2001, the School District of Philadelphia has been controlled by a state-appointed, five-person committee rather than an elected school board. Three members are appointed by the governor to serve for five years, and two by the city’s mayor to serve for four years each.

At least 200 students across four high schools staged a walk-out of their classes on Wednesday, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. The group’s Facebook page explains that they are striking “because every single teacher in the district’s benefits are at risk and being played with through politics.” Students stood outside of their schools chanting, with signs reading “Students for Teachers” and “Save Our Schools.”

The contract abrogation was an attempt by the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, or SRC, to compel teachers to pay anywhere from $21 to $70 into their healthcare benefits; their current contract indicates that they pay nothing. Commission Chair William Green called on PFT members to “share in the sacrifice” of the city’s budget shortfall.

In 2011, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett cut $1 billion from the education budget, which has impacted Philadelphia the most: its school district educates 10 percent of the state’s students, but has been subject to 25 percent of the cuts. Over 27,000 teachers have been laid off state-wide, along with a number of vital support staff including nurses and guidance counselors.

In the hours following Monday’s announcement, Pennsylvania Working Families, Action United and the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools planned an impromptu rally outside Governor Corbett’s office in Center City. Groups organizing the rally have been among the loudest voices calling for the city to hand over control of the school district to a locally elected body.

Strike organizer Leo Levy, who is 16 years old, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he and others wanted “to show student solidarity with the plight of the teachers and to show how invested in a proper education the student body really is.” PFT President Jerry Jordan has called on anyone concerned to attend the next School Reform Council meeting on Thursday, while a number of education, student and labor groups work to formulate their response. Unfortunately, Philadelphia isn’t the first district to be impacted by budget cuts to education, and certainly won’t be the last. The students’ strike may be laying the groundwork for even more coordinated actions to come.