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Risking children’s futures to score political point

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Pittsburgh native Katy Phillips is a finance professional with options. She doesn’t have to teach math in a public high school, but she does it because she enjoys it.

Three years ago, however, she endured a lengthy and disheartening fight with her PSEA local that tarnished her experience of public education.

Katy earned a business degree from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. She began her career on Wall Street at Merrill Lynch but soon found herself caught up in the aftershocks of 9/11. She says finance industry jobs were hard to come by after the terrorist attack, so she started looking for other professions.

By 2004, she had found a new opportunity with the New York City teaching fellows program. The child poverty she encountered in the South Bronx was a universe apart from life on Wall Street—but it suited her perfectly.

By 2005, Katy was back in Pittsburgh, working on a master’s degree. And for over 10 years now, she has been head of the high school math department at Brentwood Borough School District.

It took that long for Katy to have her first jarring experience with teaching—instigated by the very union meant to protect her and her students.

In 2016, Katy heard about the private National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI), which was offering grants to boost college readiness in public schools. The program would offer teacher training and education funding to bolster student performance in Advanced Placement Math, English, Science, and Computer Science. In the Pittsburgh area that year, NMSI would offer some $26 million altogether thanks to a donation from the Exxon corporation.

Over several weeks, Katy put in extra effort at work to complete a NMSI grant application. By the Spring of 2016, she learned that her work had paid off: her school district would receive $400,000 in grant money for college readiness and middle and elementary school teaching. The school district planned to roll out the NMSI program in the 2017-18 school year.

Katy Phillips

The problem began when Katy’s superintendent, in an effort to work collaboratively with the Brentwood Borough Education Association, sparked the union’s opposition to the grant.

The reason? Union leaders didn’t like the incentive pay offered to AP teachers for getting good results. For each student that scored above a certain level on an AP subject exam, the teacher would get $100. (The grant also stipulated that NMSI would pay students for acing their tests).

Brentwood Borough’s union argued that the incentive pay was a form of teacher merit pay, which the PSEA has opposed unequivocally for years. Union leaders threatened to scupper the entire grant if the incentives remained.

The PSEA’s Western Region president, Mary Lou Stefanko, even sent a letter to area locals warning them against taking Rex Tillerson’s money (because the former U.S. Secretary of State used to head Exxon).

warning them against taking Rex Tillerson’s money (because the former U.S. Secretary of State used to head Exxon).

Katy was incredulous at the union’s actions—and outraged.

The 1,200-student Brentwood Borough is a district where 51.6 percent of the students are low-income. For many, strong STEM skills would be a ticket out of poverty, Katy explained. But the union was willing to risk the kids’ futures to score an obscure—and inane—political point.

In the end, Katy and her colleagues decided to forgo the incentive pay so that the teacher training and education support aspects of the NMSI grant could proceed. But she couldn’t believe the advance of the program hinged on such a minor incentive—pay from a private donor that amounted to “tipping your waitress,” she said.

Katy also resented that the PSEA was essentially preventing her from taking the money she had rightfully earned: “It’s like the only union in the world that tries to prevent its members from earning money,” she said.

Now, a year and a half into the NMSI college readiness program, Katy says the results have been unparalleled. About 100 students are participating in the classes to improve AP scores, which amounts to one-quarter of the high school. After just one year, the number of qualifying scores tripled in AP Math, Science, English, and Computer Science.

For her part, Katy deeply appreciates the weekend and summer trainings that occur several times a year.

“The grant has changed the trajectory of my teaching career with the resources and networks I now have,” she said. “The professional development has been incomparable.” 

Moreover, Katy now has access to instruction tools, presentation methods, and ongoing data on student performance she never had before. “It would have taken me years to build that on my own,” she said.

Because of Brentwood teachers’ willingness to sacrifice the NMSI grant’s incentive pay, the college readiness program could proceed. But the student’s success has not come without some disillusionment: in 2017, disgusted with the PSEA’s handling of the grant issue, Katy resigned her union membership.

She hasn’t looked back since.

“When I stop and think to myself we almost didn’t do it because of our union, it infuriates me all over again” she explained. “Their reaction says they have totally outlived their usefulness.” 

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