The Year without a Strike…Almost

Pennsylvania is the perennial leader in teacher strikes among the small group of states that actually permit them. But the 2011-12 school year was shaping up to be something of a rarity: a school year without a strike. The first months of the school year came and went and there were no strikes until the Neshaminy School District in Bucks County announced on Monday that the teachers’ union had given notice that they were going on strike. It is not yet known how long they will be out but per Act 88 guidelines the District has to complete 180 days by June 14th but a second strike could extend the school year to June 30th.

According to the most recent Department of Education data the District has about 9,400 students and its per student spending is over $16,000.

Data that we have compiled from the PA School Boards Association goes back to the 1976-77 school year but the school years from 1992-93 on are the "Act 88 years" in that they followed the passage of the statute aimed at curtailing school strikes. Last year, the 2010-11 year was the lowest count of strikes and all of them (3 in total) occurred in Allegheny County. The 1992-93 year had 20 strikes, the highest in the Act 88 time period.

The education establishment might be quick to celebrate a year with just one strike, if Neshaminy is indeed the only strike that happens this year. However, since they believe that "no child should be left behind" or that "the only acceptable number of layoffs or forloughs is zero", why should they not be held to the zero acceptable standard when it comes to strikes?

PSBA—Impediment to Education Improvement

If a legislator or Governor proposes vouchers, depend on the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA) to find fault. Charter school expansion?-no support from the PSBA. This group has long since abandoned or subordinated its two primary responsibilities, i.e., quality education for students and good stewardship of taxpayer dollars.

As evidence, on October 12, the PSBA once again decried the Governor’s recently announced proposal to launch a voucher system for poor students attending failing schools. The PSBA response: only a few kids would benefit while others would be stuck in failing schools that would be underfunded because of the loss of state money going to the vouchers. There is no evidence the schools would be underfunded. There is reason to believe the schools would be under pressure to improve.

Instead, they trot out another cliché filled set of proposals to improve education. These proposals fall into three categories; recruiting and improving teachers, preparing students for success, and providing schools with tools for success. Any informed observer would be quick to ask: What? Are we not spending billions trying to do those things already? How many teacher improvement programs are in place already that are getting rave reviews from thePSBA regarding their effectiveness?

Preparing students for success? That is so lame. This is simply education establishment rhetoric that we have heard for decades. Now we are supposed to trust a group that has a vested interest in maintaining its views of what education should look like. For many poorly performing school districts around the state, the PSBA has done nothing but prolong the agony of students who leave with a diploma but who are functionally illiterate and innumerate. Opposition to real reform such as widespread use of vouchers is the predictable and unfortunate battle cry of the PSBA.

And finally, the PSBA plan to provide schools with tools for success rings completely hollow. The most important ingredients in creating a learning environment are not gadgets and highfaluting educationese. What must be present are dedicated, excited teachers and a disciplined classroom environment. Political correctness and progressivism have not and cannot be the principal components of a quality education.

The problem with the PSBA is that it has forgotten the Constitutional language providing for public education. It is more interested in protecting the monopoly of public schools than it is ensuring that students are receiving a quality and efficiently delivered education. Thus, the PSBA stands in the way of allowing students who want an education to escape the failing schools they are stuck in. How many lives have been set on a dead end track because of decades of lousy education that could have been substantially much better if vouchers had been available?

One would hope the PSBA would be willing to give other ideas a chance.

Another Strike Will Make Moon Blue

After enduring a work stoppage that lasted almost all of November, 2010, parents and taxpayers in the Moon Area School District are in a very gray area today: teachers are back on the job, and the board and the union went to arbitration over contractual matters, but nothing is settled. Teachers accepted the arbitrator’s findings but the board did not, noting in a press release that the award would lead to a 2.85 mill increase over the life of the contract.

An official of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, who identified himself as a resident of the district in a newspaper report, said "there may be another strike. At this time there are no plans for one, but it’s a possibility…I do not know what will happen".

Allegheny County is enjoying "special" status this school year as it is the only county in the Commonwealth to endure a teacher strike, with three thus far (Allegheny Valley, Bethel Park, Moon affecting close to 10k students in total). Another walkout in Moon would be the fourth. As we have noted before Pennsylvania is one of a small minority of states that permit walkouts and, of that small group, it usually accounts for the majority of strikes. In a Brief we wrote at the conclusion of the 2009-10 school year we noted "127 districts are negotiating contracts, and it likely won’t be too long before word comes that one or more of those districts will experience a walkout". Little did we know that the activity would be concentrated in one county.

District in the Strike Zone

The website of the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) states it as clear as day: "no local associations are on strike at this time". The website of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA) likewise does not report any work stoppages for the current school year. But the Allegheny Valley School District in northeastern Allegheny County could be the first in the state to see its teachers go on strike.

"We have not given notice, although things are bad-really bad-at this point" said the head of the PSEA. The school board and the teachers’ union have both indicated they will not budge on their positions. A fact finding report would have meant that the average teacher salary of $56,000 would have risen to $63,419 by the final year of the four year contract.

Note that Allegheny Valley’s school tax rate has increased 30% from 2003 to 2010, faster than the average increase for districts in Allegheny County (17%). Think taxpayers in the district want to hear about the complaints of the teachers’ union about unfair contracts, pay levels, or having to contribute to health care costs?

When will Pennsylvania opt to remove itself from the small group of states that permit teacher strikes and end its position as the perennial leader of such stoppages?

Will the State Transition New Teachers?

Under a plan proposed by the PA School Boards Association-as part of a larger discussion on what to do about the massive problems looming with the state teachers’ retirement system (PSERS)-new school teachers hired after June 30th would receive a "hybrid" plan that would combine features of defined benefit and defined contribution (401k) plans.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures several states have plans that "provide features of both defined contribution and defined benefit plans…that do not allow an employee to choose between the two elements". Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Ohio, Oregon, and Washington fall into this category and apply to state employees, teachers, or both. Others-Alaska, Michigan, and Nebraska-use a defined contribution plan as their primary retirement plan after establishing a phase-in for employees hired on or after a particular date.

Predictably, the statewide teachers’ union does not like any proposals for change with the head of the union stating that such a plan would take "a secure retirement promise and erase it for our new members". It can be taken to the bank that union officials will resist alteration with the same ferocity that police and fire unions fought municipal pension reform.