Analyzing Teacher Strikes in Pennsylvania


Believe it or not, for the first time since the 1970s-as far back as reliable data is available-Pennsylvania might have just had its first school year without a teacher strike. 


There was an impasse in the Old Forge School District in Lackawanna County in the school year that concluded in June, but it is going to take the determination of some outside party to rule whether the work stoppage was a strike or a lockout.


We have written for many years as to how Pennsylvania is one of a small handful of states that permit teacher strikes. It allows collective bargaining for school employees along with 34 other states, but 22 of those forbid strikes as a way to settle bargaining disputes.  And among the states in the “strikes allowed” category Pennsylvania in most years led the nation in strikes, even though there are states with more school districts and, presumably, more opportunities for strikes.


Our most recent full-length report looks at strike data from 1997-98 through 2012-13 in Pennsylvania.  After eliminating strikes that occurred at technical/career centers and intermediate units, as well as those carried out by support staff, we found that there were 115 teacher strikes over the period. The high point was 2006-07 with 14 strikes while 2002-03 and 2005-06 each had more than a dozen strikes.  All strikes over the time period occurred in 80 of the state’s 500 districts in 33 of the state’s 67 counties.  


The data show district enrollment where the strikes took place.  By taking that enrollment and multiplying it by the length of the strike, we were able to tally a measurement of “student days out of class”.  For example, a ten day strike in a district with 1,000 pupils would result in 10,000 student days out of class.  In districts with more than one strike over the time frame (either in the same year or separate years) we totaled the number of strike days and averaged enrollment counts to arrive at the student days out of class.


In cumulative terms, between 1997-98 and 2012-13 the total number of strike days was 1,177 and affected 311,674 pupils, resulting in 3,835,856 student days out of class due to strikes.


Moving from the big picture level to a more detailed analysis, we found that seven districts had strikes resulting in more than 100,000 student days out of class.  The district of Pennsbury (Bucks) had a 22 day strike in a district with more than 11,000 pupils totaling 253,924 student days out of class.  Strikes in Bethel Park (Allegheny), Seneca Valley (Butler), and Central Dauphin (Dauphin) had between 170,000 and 199,999 student days out of class. 


Twenty three districts had multiple strikes with the districts of Abington Heights and Old Forge (both in Lackawanna) having four strikes apiece.  Eight others had three teacher strikes each and the remainder had two strikes each.  The student days out of class ranged from 199,720 in Bethel Park (it had two strikes in the 16 year period lasting a total of 40 days and affecting close to 5,000 students) to 17,319 in Weatherly Area (Carbon).  This latter district had three strikes: in total, the number of strike days was 23 and the average enrollment was 753. 


We did further examination of the data based on regions of the state, dividing counties into six separate areas to focus on the data.  Only one region-north central Pennsylvania-was spared a teacher strike over the time period.


We could not account for all the impacts from teacher strikes, from parents having to arrange for childcare and effects on education from loss of continuity to changes to plans families must make when a strike necessitates extending the school year well beyond the scheduled end date.


Taxpayers, students and parents might be unaware that this strike free year (if the Old Forge dispute is ruled a lockout) occurred even though the Legislature has not enacted a statute outlawing teacher strikes. There have been many attempts to take away the right to strike; none have come close to being successful. And that means the 2012-13 year was almost certainly an anomaly and probably won’t be repeated. But it would be nice to think a new, strike free era has started.   



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?

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.

Day of Bizarre Education Stories

Man bites dog. The headline every reporter is salivating to use. Well, there is now a perfect opportunity courtesy of the Bethel Park School District. Parents are protesting teachers who are on strike. Not just taxpayers, but parents whom teachers normally count on to defend union demands and urge the Board to cave.

This is big news. Too bad it has taken so long for this to happen. Perhaps the parents will begin to consider supporting state office candidates who will vote to eliminate the right of teachers to strike. Still, if more parents and other taxpayers will join in and set an example, there is a chance such protests will spread and begin to undermine the teacher union belief that there are no consequences to walking off the job.

Then there was the report of City Council honoring Superintendent Roosevelt as he prepares to depart to head up a completely failed educational institution as opposed to the Pittsburgh Schools that are barely holding on to any semblance of respectability that he has decided to abandon. What a joke. Spending per student has risen above $20,000 under Roosevelt, enrollment is still falling despite the Promise Program and 11th graders have shown no improvement in academic achievement. Other than that he has been just swell as superintendent.

Of course City Council’s governance of the City gives them no standing to honor actual examples of superior performance, or for that matter an example of adequate performance. How would they know the difference?

The World Where Public Employees Are in Charge

In a version of the inmates running the asylum, we are witnessing what happens when public sector employees get enough power to dictate policies and performance.

Three news reports today illustrate this distressing development. Moon teachers are threatening to walk off the job if they do not get a satisfactory contract. And that undoubtedly means wage increases and cushy working conditions to go along with their already ultra generous pensions. Port Authority drivers are suing the Port Authority because it wants to change the days major holidays are recognized, presumably for purposes of reduced service. Drivers are incensed because it will interfere with the ability of senior drivers to choose to work on the paid holidays and they might therefore miss out on double time and half or greater pay.

And the most preposterous example of what the world where unions dictate how things are run has to be France. Airports are so undermanned and fuel supplies so tenuous that the government is asking carriers to reduce the number of flights into France. Tourist destinations are closed, travel within the country iffy and unpredictable. All traceable to the insanity engendered during the revolution and the philosophy of its intellectual progenitors and defenders.

Can we be far behind? Pennsylvania certainly is not. The Commonwealth ranks high among the states that have travelled farthest down the path of ceding ever increasing power and control to public sector unions. And this is exactly what Madison warned us against, i.e., the state becoming partners with special interests and, in the case of public sector unions, developing an incestuous and freedom destroying relationship.

One Strike Ends, Another Begins

Taxpayers, families with school age children, and students hoping to attend classes in two Allegheny County districts are likely exhibiting different reactions today. In the northeast corner of the County the Allegheny Valley School District just ended its walkout today.

It began on September 16th but the end of the teacher strike does not mean the dispute is over. The impasse now goes to non-binding arbitration under Act 88, the law governing collective bargaining for school employees. Since that law also prohibits the school from hiring people to teach who have not worked at the school for the previous twelve months, it was up to administrators to keep classes going for seniors who hope to graduate on time. "Parents were very grateful. There were phone calls and e-mails from quite a few parents" said one administrator.

Gratitude will likely be in short supply in the south hills Bethel Park School District, however. Teachers in that district announced that they intend to go on strike this coming Tuesday because of unsatisfactory negotiations on a contract that expired at the end of June. Like Allegheny Valley and other districts that have seen public education interrupted by a work stoppage, the teachers’ union there is looking for "a fair and equitable settlement while maintaining the quality of and access to our health care, and to reduce class size to provide a better learning environment for our students".

Allegheny County holds the distinction of being the only county in the state to see a teacher strike thus far this school year according to the PA School Boards Association.

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?