Jerry Jordan has been on the staff of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers since 1987. During that time, he has held positions of increasing responsibility culminating with the presidency in 2007, a position he’s held since. He has also served in various capacities of the American Federation of Teachers, PFT’s parent organization. He has, by all accounts, ably led the teacher’s union and fought hard for all Philadelphia students.
But his recent Daily News editorial attacking the Philadelphia School Partnership—where I spent three fruitful years from 2012 until mid-2015—and more particularly its executive director Mark Gleason, is so unmistakably a shift away from actual substance that I fear constructive dialogue about schools in Philadelphia is all but finished.
One the one hand, Jordan’s new personal blows are hardly surprising. As the result of his union’s heavy influence in the recent victories of Governor Wolf, Mayor Kenney, and Councilwoman Gym, Jordan wields tremendous political capital. Relatedly, now that Governor Corbett (Jordan’s previous arch-nemesis) is no longer around, Jordan must find another prime target at which to direct his bow. Jordan also is facing an upcoming electoral challenge from an insurgent caucus, and I imagine he’s feeling somewhat vulnerable. It will no doubt be part of his campaign message that union in-fighting is counter-productive when faced with a seemingly common enemy like PSP.
But his move away from actual substance to personal attacks is important in another, more fundamental, respect, because it reveals deep animosity for parents who choose to disagree with him and his union. In his editorial, Jordan claims that “[w]hat took place at the January 21st School Reform Commission meeting was theatrical at best and rooted in deep manipulation at worst.”
Manipulation, no doubt, requires two: he manipulating and he being manipulated. To Jordan, the manipulator is clear. But he also is surprisingly candid about those being so easily manipulated. It includes not only Commissioner Sylvia Simms, who was just a pawn in the theatre performance “orchestrated by the Philadelphia School Partnership and its political allies.” It also includes each and every pro-Mastery parent, all of whom also were (according to Jordan, though without a whiff of evidence) mere pawns, enticed into attending by “free dinner, t-shirts, and talking points.” I would have expected Jordan to try a bit harder to support such a disrespectful claim.
Moreover, such an accusation is hard to square with Jordan’s later claim that he doesn’t “begrudge a single one of the parents who spoke last Thursday on either side of the issue.” But not begrudging only means that Jordan doesn’t resent those parents. Absent from Jordan’s mouth is any support for those parents’ voice; that those parents, who don’t have dedicated column space in the Daily News, are entitled to an opinion, too.
To Jordan, Commissioner Sylvia Simms was just a pawn in the theatre performance “orchestrated by the Philadelphia School Partnership and its political allies.” And every pro-Mastery parent was also a mere pawn, enticed into attending by “free dinner, t-shirts, and talking points.”
Jordan says he believes that “every parent at the meeting was there because of a deep-seeded belief that their child, their most precious asset, deserves the world.” No doubt that’s true. But it’s also a platitude, and one that gets messier as Jordan continues to his particularities. Jordan stakes out the rather awkward position that while all parents want “the world” for their child, “the world” can never be charter. Any parent claiming to be pro-charter is a sham—coaxed into attending a meeting by a man providing a meal and a shirt. And, says Jordan, these parents, by being provided talking points, can’t even think or speak for themselves. This seems to be the only way to reconcile Jordan’s seemingly divergent positions, though I would welcome another suggestion. In any event, I again would have expected Jordan to try a bit harder to support such a disrespectful claim.
Such condescension is not limited to Jordan. Shanee Garner, a staff member of Councilwoman Gym, tweeted a photo from the SRC meeting showing Gleason and a colleague allegedly smirking. Gardner’s caption said that the only thing “more painful than black [people] tearing each other apart [is] snide white guys smirking in the middle of it.” Such innuendo leaves no room for constructive dialogue, though constructive dialogue is not what she, or Jordan, wants. Such innuendo leaves no room for nobody, unless he’s wearing Red.
Nevertheless, remember the words I used in describing the differences between the PFT and PSP—seemingly enemies. This formula allows for the possibility that the disagreements between the two may not really run very deep, that they may be largely a matter of them using different vocabularies to express their views of sound education policy than we use to express ours.
Jordan mentions in his piece that the PFT’s “work as a union is grounded in the belief that a neighborhood school is the hub of a community and must be heard, recognized, celebrated, and funded.” This I know to be true. In fact, a couple of years back, I accompanied the PFT on a day-long trip to New York to explore the community schools model. The day began at the American Federation of Teachers headquarters and ended at a KIPP Charter School that was sharing building space and wrap-around social services with a traditional New York City public school. It was an excellent visit.
Over the next months, there were a number of productive workings meetings led by Jordan’s deputy. Given Mayor Kenney’s community schools platform, it seems the PFT has continued to work hard on the project. I remember at the time that PSP would have been interested in funding such a project and, despite Jordan’s mud-slinging, I imagine they would remain interested today. Moreover, during my time at PSP, Gleason and the management team spent long hours alongside a diverse array of Philadelphia school stakeholders trying to develop and implement a fair funding formula, something Jordan seems also to want.
There is yet another point of agreement. Jordan is certainly correct that the nature of these public processes is awful; “engineered to pit parents against each other.” That, I think, is a problem harder to fix. But Jordan is not the one to carry that flag; he and his supporters have played prominent roles in creating the acrimony.
As just one example, albeit related: the PFT spent weeks in the spring of 2014 picketing in front of Steel Elementary after Steel was set to be turned-over to Mastery. After Steel parents voted to reject Mastery, the Inquirer reported that “Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which was heavily involved in organizing parents to reject the charter option, urged Hite and the SRC to honor parents’ wishes.” Jordan continued by praising the clear voices of the parents who wished to keep Steel a traditional public school. “The parents at Steel have chosen a collaborative transformation plan for the school, and are sending a clear message to the SRC, the School District, and the city: We believe in the promise of neighborhood public schools in Philadelphia.”
Fair enough. But Jordan should explain, like he should explain above, why contentious processes are praised when the result is pro-union but condemned, as he did in his Daily News editorial, when the result is pro-charter.
Make no mistake. The Philadelphia School Partnership was, and seemingly still is, influential. Part of the reason, I am sure, is that it has many millions of dollars in the bank, though less everyday, as it continues to invest in Philadelphia’s schools. But the PFT has 15,000 members and a Mayor and a Governor. Call it at least a draw. The fundamental problem with the recent public meeting and the SRC in general, then, is that until the school board is returned to local control, Jordan can continue to lay blame as he pleases. Until the SRC is disbanded, Jordan and the PFT will never have to take a loss on the chin. Until the SRC is disbanded, the PFT will never leave a vote lost redoubling its commitment to convincing parents that Philadelphia’s traditional public schools, which have been dominated by Jordan’s union forces for decades, are the right choice to make. Jordan will just look for another man to blame.
Kevin Trainer, who worked as an Investment Analyst for the Philadelphia School Partnership from 2012-2015, is a second year student at Temple University Beasley School of Law.
Header photo: Austinxc04