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In Crisis, Philadelphia Public Schools Revoke Teachers' Contract

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Philadelphia is the nation's eighth-largest school system and it's in crisis. Mounting debt, concentrated poverty and a nasty political fight over state funding have forced the district to slash thousands of jobs and instructional programs. Well, now with nowhere else to cut, the state-appointed commission that runs the system has taken an extraordinary step - it's revoked its contract with the teachers' union.

NPR's Claudio Sanchez has the story.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Five-thousand teachers, reading coaches, librarians, nurses, counselors and support staff - that's how many employees Philadelphia has laid off in the last couple of years. Thirty-one schools shut down to save money. Classrooms are overcrowded and now with no labor contract in place, the district will no longer pay for teachers' health coverage.

JERRY JORDAN: Every teacher in this school district - they were blindsided, totally blindsided.

SANCHEZ: Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers says this is a slap in the face, given that teachers have gone without a pay raise for years.

Jordan says cutting teachers' health coverage won't even put a dent in the district's $81 million budget deficit.

JORDAN: There still will not be enough counselors, there won't be enough nurses. So it's not as if they've done something that's going to make it better for kids.

SANCHEZ: The union argues that teachers didn't cause the budget crisis, the state did, by cutting a billion dollars from the education budget and refusing to deal with the long-term funding of public schools. Superintendent William Hite agrees. In the short term, he says, he's done all he can to avoid more cuts but it's still not enough.

WILLIAM HITE: For every dollar that we spend, 36 cents goes to support the children in the district schools.

SANCHEZ: The rest goes to service a multimillion dollar debt - charter schools, pension contributions and health care costs. By forcing teachers to pay for their health care, the district will now save $44 million, which means teachers with dependents will have to pay at least $200 month out of pocket. Everybody has had to sacrifice, says Hite, especially kids.

HITE: We're not looking just to teachers to make sacrifices. It's the only group who hasn't.

SANCHEZ: Philadelphia's troubles are not unique. In many states, health care costs and teacher pension obligations are unsustainable so unions make for a convenient political target.

ALEX HUMES: If you can break the union then you can make teachers become minimum-wage workers.

SANCHEZ: Alex Humes is a social studies teacher and union rep at Central High, one of Philadelphia's top performing schools. He says teachers will take the district to court to restore the union's contract, but if that fails...

HUMES: Right now technically it's illegal for us to strike. Well, we do see that as an option.

SANCHEZ: Who knows if it'll come to that, but Hume says 10,000 teachers will be hard to replace if everybody walks out.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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