Teachers’ Union Head Claims State Shortchanging Education

To no one’s surprise the head of the state’s largest teachers’ union is again complaining about the unwillingness of the state to replace the Federal stimulus spending that ended in 2011. Moreover, the union head is unhappy that a large fraction of the $1.25 billion increase in funding since Governor Corbett took office is going to pensions and social security. 



The union president is also upset that state law limits the ability of school districts to raise property taxes. And he wants one of the most important pro-business policies adopted by the Legislature-the phasing out of the Capital Stock and Franchise Tax-curtailed to produce more tax revenue. Presumably the union wants most of any such increase to be allocated to education.


This preposterous and one sided view came from the Pennsylvania State Education Association’s (PSEA) recently released Sounding the Alarm 2 report.


As we, along with other analysts, argued back in 2009 when the Federal government was pouring enormous amounts of “stimulus” money into the states to keep public employees on the payroll, it would have been prudent for school districts not to treat the funding as permanent and to take steps to begin reining in expenses against the time when the “stimulus” would end. So, in effect, the impact of the recession on public spending was muted and postponed. But it is happening now. Making the impact of the delayed recession effects worse, the state employees’ and the state teachers’ pensions are seriously underfunded and are necessitating large amounts of tax dollars to be allocated to meet those obligations.


The argument that school districts cannot raise taxes is misleading. Districts are limited by state law as to how much they can raise taxes in a given year. However, districts can apply to the Department of Education for an exemption if they need more money for pensions, special education, or construction.  Most exemptions are granted.  Districts can also put any tax increases before the voters in a referendum.  The real limiting factor is not state law; it is the willingness and ability of taxpayers to absorb an even greater burden along with their ability to force school boards to heed their wishes. In a weak economy and with already heavy property tax burdens, it is very difficult to ask taxpayers to accept higher tax levies. As we saw in the Plum School District, the school board opted not to raise taxes and instead announced the layoffs of 23 personnel.  Why? Because of the need to ante up a million dollars for pensions and the unwillingness of the teacher union to agree to a wage freeze for the coming year.


There are three parts of this problem. The right of teachers to strike that leads to overly generously contract terms, the very rich pension formula for retirees, and the law that prevents layoffs for economic reasons, forcing the elimination of entire programs.


If the head of the teachers’ union insists on resisting reforms in all three of these areas by bringing to bear the powerful political influence of the teachers’ union, then the future will bring more of the same-demands for higher taxes, layoffs and a worsening education environment. 


Indeed, it is time for taxpayers to ask a question. What concessions are teachers willing to make to help the state and school districts get through the period of subdued growth? Pennsylvania teachers are on average very well compensated compared to the nation and receive exceptional benefits.  But there is no gainsaying the fact that the right to strike and state law regarding layoffs create an imbalance of bargaining power in favor of the unions.  Pennsylvania needs to take a look at Wisconsin’s reforms. Education quality need not be sacrificed in order to rein in costs while eliminating work rules that preclude good management. 


And the unions need to explain how it is that with enormous levels of per pupil spending districts including Pittsburgh, Wilkinsburg, and Harrisburg cannot achieve acceptable levels of academic proficiency. The time for excuses is over. If teachers have good reasons for the failure of many public schools that spend loads of money, they should come forward with those solutions. And asking for more money is not an answer. Taxpayers have the right to expect responsibility and accountability.  Public employees who are not willing to be part of a solution will remain part of the problem.  Taxpayers have done their part.

New PSEA Head Certified to Teach Economics—But What Kind?

The morning news brought the startling revelation that the newly elected head of Pennsylvania’s largest teacher union (PSEA) has a certification to teach economics. Two questions come to mind immediately: what kind of economics is he certified to teach and does it bear any resemblance to real economics?

Bear in mind that the first principle of economics is the law of scarcity. The first principle of unions is to ignore the law of scarcity. Any student with a knowledge of Economics 101 sufficient to get a B grade in the course can tell you that wage rates are a price and that competitive markets for labor are the efficient and best way to allocate labor and determine wages. He would also know that wage rates in different occupations and industries must reflect worker productivity and the price of the product being and sold.

The objective of unions is to do away with market forces and ignore the role of supply and demand. The results, as we have seen, have been catastrophic for U.S. industries such as steel and autos. Now with the Obama administration becoming the heavy-handed advocate in chief for unions, their ability to wreak havoc on the economy is being renewed and the impact on our ability to grow curtailed. When the head of the AFL-CIO is the President’s leading economic advisor, the nation is in serious trouble.

Moreover, and to our great misfortune, in the public sector, where the new PSEA head operates, the forces of international competition can play no countervailing role in suppressing the destructive force of rapacious unionism. Many government services are monopolies that cannot be outsourced. So when unions enter the picture with incessant demands for compensation, favorable work rules and endless grievance procedures, government services become more expensive and are of lower quality than they would otherwise be.

In light of union antagonism to the laws of economics, one must wonder; just what was the nature of the economics covered by the PSEA head’s economic certification?

Bills to End Teacher Strikes Introduced in Harrisburg

“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more:” A Shakespearian cry from Henry the Fifth urging soldiers to take advantage of an important military opportunity that could soon be lost. And so it is that Representatives Metcalfe and Rock are proposing a package of bills that would outlaw teacher strikes and impose sizable monetary penalties for teachers who violate the no-strike statute.


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New PSEA Head Wants to Improve PA Education—Really?

Quoted in Monday’s Tribune Review, the new president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association-the teachers’ union-says he wants to work with the Governor and other state officials to make public schools the schools of choice. He also maintains that our schools are doing really well although there are still problems. Naturally, these are problems he believes could be solved with more resources, i.e., taxpayer dollars.

How sad that the teachers’ union has appropriated the title "education association" for itself rather calling themselves what they are-a union for teachers.

The new president says assessment test scores are improving in every grade. But that claim is dubious. SAT scores have not improved and that is the litmus test of how schools are doing. Moreover, as the Allegheny Institute has documented in its Policy Brief series, the big improvements in the 8th grade scores are questionable. Then too, 11th grade reading scores have not improved and the math scores remain dreadfully low. And, if we look beyond the reading and math tests, where so much time is spent preparing students for the tests, to the performance on science, we find abysmal results.

The teachers’ union president wants to make public schools the schools of choice which means he wants to protect public school employee jobs. If he truly cared about quality education for Pennsylvania’s students, he would be focused on helping create alternatives to the public school monopoly. But as is sadly the case for union leaders, he cannot square the circle. The union is about promoting the union members’ interests; the interest of students will always be secondary-if not even less important. The union’s interests include electing legislators who will serve them first and foremost. Students and taxpayers always receive short shrift from these elected officials. If they were honest and opened their eyes they would see the damage resulting from teacher strikes and the law disallowing layoffs for economic reasons. These union-coddling statutes represent massive assaults on the marketplace and unconscionable degradation of taxpayers. And so it goes in Pennsylvania.

Regional Districts Cold to Pay Freeze Proposal

As part of his budget address the Governor put forth the idea of a pay freeze for public school employees, noting that "…a statewide freeze of teacher pay could save districts about $400 million". Soon after the head of the state’s largest teachers’ union encouraged his members to enter into talks with school boards over a pay freeze.

So has the idea gained traction since then? The Pennsylvania Association of School Boards (PSBA) has collected a list of schools that have communicated to the association that they adopted a wage freeze for the upcoming fiscal year. Five districts have adopted what could be termed a district wide freeze: that is, administrators, staff, and teachers have taken a wage freeze. Three districts have a wage freeze that does not affect staff; five have a freeze that does not involve teachers; the largest group, involving 25 districts, have adopted a pay freeze for administrators only.

The idea has been slow coming in southwestern Pennsylvania: only two districts (Belle Vernon and Seneca Valley) out of the 38 total have adopted a pay freeze. Neither one involves teachers in the freeze.

About one-fourth of the districts in Allegheny County have teacher contracts that are set to expire this year. The largest district, Pittsburgh, just negotiated a five-year contract in 2010 and has no intention of reopening it at this time. The County still has the distinction of being the only one in the state that have had teacher strikes this year and the contracts in those districts (Allegheny Valley, Bethel Park, and Moon Area) are not yet resolved.

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?

Teacher Union President Needs Some Education

In an opinion piece earlier this week the president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association set out the teachers’ association position on the impending requirement for massive contribution increases to the Public School Employees Retirement System (PSERS). Those increases will almost certainly necessitate hikes in state and school district taxes. Basically, teachers will help craft a solution to the pension funding crisis as long as they are not required to shoulder any of the burden.  That is to say, the unions will strongly oppose any reduction in future retirement benefits and any efforts to shift to a defined contribution system such as 401(k)s. So much for any real assistance. 


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With Friends Like These…

In an opinion piece in today’s PG the president of the PA State Education Association laid down several markers on the impending PSERS pension spike and how to solve it: to wit, the teachers did not cause the mess (even though PSERS participants got enhancements in 2001), teachers are underpaid compared to other college grads but they did not get into the profession to get rich, and switching to a 401k type arrangement would promote a race to the bottom.

But rest assured that the teachers’ union is willing to come to the table to find a long-term viable solution that is acceptable to taxpayers, teachers, and students alike. Just so long as we all realize the three unmovable tenets laid out by the president.

The union will fight to the end to keep the pension system as is, no matter the fallout in the way of state and or local tax increases. This includes resisting any move to a defined contribution system. Why? Because the responsibility for managing investments and the placement of risk moves from the taxpayer to the employee. It does not erase the trajectory of the planned rate spike or the accumulated unfunded liabilities, but it begins the transition to a day when the public pension system becomes affordable and sustainable.

Penn Hills Teachers End Strike Early

Striking teachers in the Penn Hills school district offered to return to work a day earlier than required by the state. The district has accepted the offer. Mr. Santicola-the spokesman for the state teacher union association and the Penn Hills teachers-in a statement on the issue said, "it’s a gesture to all parties that we want this thing resolved".

Why would the teachers make such a gesture? It would seem fairly obvious. They were heavy losers in the public relations battle. In the current economic environment and given the utter weakness of their case, that was to be expected. Yet they called a strike anyway.

The real reason for the strike? The union leaders wanted to create as much aggravation for the Board as possible and remind taxpayers of the power teachers wield by having the right to strike. In this case, the small number of days they could be out curtailed their ability to have frustrated parents and propagandized students go to bat for them at Board meetings. All in all a very poor strategy. All they have done is reveal the depth of their disdain for taxpayers and students. But they have also added one more reason for Pennsylvania to end the ridiculous policy of allowing teachers to walk out with no loss of pay.

Wonder if the voters in Pennsylvania will ever see the light and demand an end to teacher strikes? In the end, it is they who must force the issue. Their elected officials are too afraid to do it.