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Teachers Agree to Work for Free

Annie Condron


Teachers Work for FreeTeacher-bashers who doubts the dedication and selflessness of teachers will have a hard time spinning this story:


When a Philadelphia school district ran out of funding for staff, teachers agreed to continue working for free “as long as we are individually able.”


The Chester Upland School District in Delaware County ran out of money due to major budget cuts, mismanagement of funds and students moving to neighboring districts and charter schools.


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According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, state budget cuts forced the district to lay off 40% of professional staff and 50% of support staff, including layoffs to some higher administration personnel. They also came up short on $800,000 in teacher raises promised in previous contracts. The school district serves a high poverty area, with more than 80% of students eligible for free or reduced lunch.


The Inquirer article also shared a quote from one of the leaders in full support of her district and union decision by her teachers to work without pay if necessary:

  • Columbus Elementary School math and literacy teacher Sara Ferguson, who has taught in Chester Upland for 21 years, said after the meeting, "It's alarming. It's disturbing. But we are adults; we will make a way. The students don't have any contingency plan. They need to be educated, so we intend to be on the job."

Ferguson was also invited to sit with First Lady Michelle Obama during the State of the Union.


The school district has sued the state for funding to remain open for the remainder of the school year. A federal judge has since ordered the state to provide $3.2 million in funds to the district to keep it open until their next court date. A proposal has been introduced by the Chester Upland School District and the Chester Community Charter School to redistribute existing, available budget dollars to keep these schools open. 


Governor Tom Corbett is facing criticism for refusing to help the broke district. Some have questioned his motives regarding the charter school movement, considering one of his major campaign contributors owns the company running the charter schools who would inevitably pick up some of these students. 


A Washington Post article shared a letter from a Chester Upland teacher, Frank Aldridge with his concerns and proposal to fix the budget mess:

  • My heart bleeds for these kids. Many of these students have seen so much tragedy, loss, and rejection in 16 years than most will see in a lifetime. Now, when faced with the possibility of their schools closing they are hit yet again. In discussions between students regarding the possibility of being sent to other districts, a common response from students is, “They won’t do that; nobody wants us.” Heartbreaking....

    How does this get done when politicians have chosen this place to square off on the issue of school vouchers and privatization? How does this get done when the person who stands to benefit financially from privatization is the governor’s largest political contributor? Are there legal concerns? Ethical? Certainly moral.

Aldridge is at such a loss for a local solution that he called for a fix from the federal government, despite a distaste for federal involvement in local matters. Like all the teachers who agreed to work without pay, he just wants the decision-makers to put the kids first.


While I am impressed by the spirit of these teachers, this is a disturbing portrait of our education in America. It took a court order and a PR nightmare to get the state to help underserved students. Regardless of debates regarding charters or closing failing schools, you can't teach or learn successfully if you don't know if you're school will be open next week. The least you can do for these students is provide some stability from school year to school year. It needs to be an issue of problem-solving rather than pointing fingers.


Teachers are skilled professionals, not volunteers. There are so many admirable, generous teachers who give more of their time, their money, their emotions and other resources beyond their contract. That is wonderful, but it is too often taken for granted. No one would expect a private employee to volunteer to work for free. Why should teaching be different?


What is your take on the Chester Upland sage? What other displays of generosity have you seen from your fellow teachers? Share in the comments section!