Former union head becomes education secretary under Republican governor; Philly teachers talking strike

Aug 28, 2013 by

HARRISBURG, Pa. – The news out of Pennsylvania is getting stranger by the day.

Gov. Tom Corbett has been warming the hearts of education reformers over the past few weeks by holding fast to his pledge to withhold funds from the struggling Philadelphia school district unless the teachers union agrees to major financial concessions.

But on Monday Corbett abruptly sought and received the resignation of William Harner, the state’s acting education secretary, over a controversy regarding Harner’s behavior as superintendent of the Cumberland Valley school district.

Then the governor added another surprise by naming Carolyn Dumaresq, a former executive director of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, to replace Harner. There is no word on whether she will serve as interim secretary or be nominated by the governor for the permanent position.

Some wonder, given her background, whether Dumaresq can be counted on to vigorously support the governor in his showdown with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, or his reform-oriented and school choice policies.

To top everything off, talk has emerged about Philadelphia teachers violating a special state law that prohibits them from striking. The teachers could refuse to report when school starts in several weeks if their contract negotiations with the state-appointed School Reform Commission go badly.

“There have been mumblings among the rank-and-file about a possible strike – which is prohibited by state law – but the job action could be gaining favor among union members amid a growing discontent about what they say are worsening working conditions,” the Philadelphia Tribune reported.

Teacher union ties are troubling

Harner’s forced resignation comes three months after his appointment, and shortly before he was scheduled to be confirmed by the state Senate as the permanent education secretary.

Corbett’s decision to move him out the door was reportedly the result of troubling comments Harner allegedly made to several employees while serving as superintendent of the Cumberland Valley school district.

“(A) government source said that Mr. Harner’s troubles began in January or February, when an employee of the school district, while vacationing, received an email from Mr. Harner asking how the employee looked in a speedo swimsuit,” the Toledo Blade reported.

“That email, according to the source, led to a complaint to the district’s human resources office, which in turn led to the school board hiring outside counsel to investigate the matter. That outside counsel turned up more than a dozen other complaints about Mr. Harner, most involving comments he made in poor taste.”

Harner’s sudden departure isn’t as worrisome to school reformers as Dumaresq’s appointment.

She previously worked for the Pennsylvania Department of Education from 1976-83, then rejoined the department as a high-ranking official in 2011. In between her stints with the state she served as president of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrations and executive director of the Pennsylvania State Education Association.

It’s the latter role that has education reformers squirming in their seats. They note that Corbett has been a reformist governor, championing increased school choice, teacher accountability and other policies that are generally rejected by teachers unions.

They wonder if Dumaresq can be counted on to carry out Corbett’s policies, particularly when it comes to the Philadelphia situation.

The state is currently withholding $45 million in aid to the district. Corbett and legislative leaders have signaled that the money won’t be released until the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers agrees to a much less expensive collective bargaining agreement.

According to, “The money has been sitting in state coffers contingent on the education secretary deciding that the Philadelphia school district has adopted a reform agenda.”

That suggests that Dumaresq may have some authority over the Philadelphia situation.

“Because of her background, we would be concerned about what kind of policies she would emphasize – proven policies like school choice – or will she put the same old emphasis on the types of status quo policies that have hurt so many kids,” Priya Abraham, a senior policy analyst for the Commonwealth Foundation, a Pennsylvania-based free market think tank, told EAGnews.

“We wonder how that (Philadelphia) situation is going to play out. At what point does she declare that Philadelphia has demonstrated the ability to reform? We’re not sure at this point how much authority she has over releasing the money.

“We will wait and see how this develops, and see what kind of solutions she presents. At this point that’s the best we can do.”

Strike talk

While most of the talk in Philadelphia has been about finding enough money to start the school year, suddenly talk of a teacher strike is in the air.

Pennsylvania has very liberal labor laws and usually leads the nation in teacher strikes every year. But the legislation that created the reform commission declared it illegal for teachers in any district under the control of the commission to strike.

Philadelphia teachers could vote to violate the law and refuse to report when school starts in a few weeks. The district has called back 1,000 of the 3,800 employees laid off earlier this year and plans to start classes Sept. 9.

The union and reform commission have been in contract negotiations for several weeks. The union’s current collective bargaining agreement expires Sep. 1. The reform commission is seeking $133 million worth of concessions from the union.

The union is angry because the reform commission recently voted to suspend seniority as the main factor when recalling laid off teachers. Teachers are also upset about proposed pay cuts, reduced benefits and the elimination of several other contract provisions, including one that provides automatic, annual “step” raises for teachers, regardless of their performance, the Philadelphia Tribune reports.

The district also wants teachers to contribute toward their own health insurance and work longer days, the news report said.

“We’re doing this because of limited resources,” a school district spokesman was quoted as saying.

Kathleen Melville, a teacher and co-founder of Teachers Lead Philly, accused the reform commission of trying to use the financial emergency to its advantage.

She said the school district “is most interested in the bottom line at this point, not retaining the best teachers, but getting rid of the most expensive teachers, who are also the most experienced teachers, many of whom are excelling in education. It’s not really what’s best for kids (or) what’s best for schools, but what’s cheapest.”

Former union head becomes education secretary under Republican governor; Philly teachers talking strike – powered by Education Action Group Foundation, Inc..

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