Measuring Teacher Union Power

Take the fifty states and the District of Columbia and measure the strength of their teachers’ union based on resources, political activity, state policies, and the perceived influence of power. That’s what a recent report by the Thomas Fordham Institute attempts to do. One of the key areas they focus on is collective bargaining: what is the legal treatment in the state? Are strikes legal? And can the union automatically deduct dues and collect agency fees from non-members?

With mandatory collective bargaining, no prohibition on teacher strikes, and permission to withhold and collect dues and fees, the Keystone state gets a ranking of fourth most powerful teachers’ union in the report. It was bested by Hawaii, Oregon, and Montana.

In the top ten strongest states, all have mandatory collective bargaining and all permit automatic dues deductions or agency fee collections. Two states-New York and New Jersey-prohibit teacher strikes and one, Washington, neither permits nor prohibits them.

Now look at the states ranked at the bottom (having the unions with the least amount of power). One state, Oklahoma, permits collective bargaining; in Florida it is mandatory, and in Arizona and Mississippi it is neither permitted nor prohibited. Only Louisiana permits strikes and South Carolina is silent on the issue. States in this group where collective bargaining is prohibited (Texas, Georgia, Virginia, Arkansas, and South Carolina) also prohibit any type of dues deduction or fee collection.

Allegheny Valley Teacher Strike—The Bad and The Ugly

With apologies to the spaghetti western and Clint, there is no good to be found in a teacher strike.

The Ugly is the disruption imposed on parents, students and the education process for the duration of the strike. Making it even uglier is the fact that during these harsh economic times, teacher unions are unwilling to give an inch of relief to taxpayers, many of whom are hard pressed. The union attitude is; too bad. If you want it as cushy as we have it go to work for government and join a public sector union, especially one where the law requires the customers to show up-at least when the teachers deign to be at work-and the taxpayers must pay whatever the union demands to provide the service.

It gets uglier when one considers that the teachers will lose no pay for missing work. Law requires 180 days of school and teachers will get paid for all 180. It might necessitate keeping kids in class until late June, but what the heck, what do unions care about a little inconvenience for students and their parents?

All this is done to show the school board and the community who holds the power in these negotiations. And this is one of the main reasons Pennsylvania spends so much on education and gets such mediocre results.

The Bad? While classes are cancelled and no learning is taking place-the reason we have and pay through the nose for schools-extracurricular activities will continue. This will include football games. Presumably, faculty members who coach the team or instruct band members are allowed to cross the picket lines. What does this tell us about the priorities of the community and the teachers? Not much that is good-that’s for sure.

Pennsylvania is #1…in Teacher Strikes

We have pointed on many occasions how Pennsylvania is one of a handful of states that give teachers the right to strike if collective bargaining does not produce a contract.  Teacher strikes are often high profile and garner a lot of media attention.


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Merger Hopes Meet Union Reality

The product of the Commonwealth’s first voluntary school district merger-Central Valley District in Beaver County-could be headed for a work stoppage. That’s right: the district that had to deal with how to align schools, levy and collect taxes, and come up with a unified name and mascot apparently didn’t pay enough attention to its workforce. As the head of the PSEA stated "our members want to see this merger work. They also need fair and reasonable contracts."

And in Pennsylvania those members can walk off the job without punishment and shut the school system down. With issues of vacancies, transfers, work hours, and health care in contention, it is not much of a stretch to think that there are hurdles with how to align the separate work units that existed in the previously un-merged districts. Recall that is a recent blog we pointed out how the high school would have two principals.

Merger advocates-whether they be in the camp of combining school districts, municipalities, or counties and municipalities-take note: public sector unions are not an issue to take lightly in a proposed consolidation. Even the task force charged with studying a Pittsburgh-Allegheny County merger sidestepped the thorny issue, noting that "personnel costs often rise when two different pay and benefit systems are integrated, because, most typically, employees move to the more generous compensation and benefits package". Think that dynamic is not at work in Central Valley?

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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One City in the Institute’s Benchmark Takes a Big Action

Last week we released our most recent Benchmark City report updating data to reflect 2010 budgets. But the school district in one city in the Benchmark-Charlotte, NC-is showing signs that it is preparing for the economic hardships that are surely ahead in the coming years.

Just this week the district announced that it plans to layoff 600 teachers for the fall term and is cutting pay for 224 assistant principals. According to the Superintendent "performance" will be the guiding factor in determining who gets laid off.

Let’s put the 600 layoffs into perspective: Charlotte-Mecklenberg School District has 10,497 teachers and support staff employees listed in their most recent annual report. Letting 600 teachers go amounts to a 5% downsizing. If Pittsburgh Public Schools were to layoff 5% of the workforce classified as teachers/support staff, it would amount to 115 people (based on 2,303 teachers and academic coaches listed in the most recent school CAFR).

Consider too that enrollment in Pittsburgh is falling while enrollment in Charlotte-Mecklenberg has been on the upswing (since 2004, Pittsburgh is down 26%, Charlotte is up 15%) yet, on a per 1000 student basis, Charlotte has 79 teachers/support staff and Pittsburgh has 88 teachers/coaches, 14% higher in the Steel City (total overall staffing is even more disproportionate with Pittsburgh having 39% more employees per 1000 students).

Imagine what rancor 100 layoffs in the Pittsburgh Public Schools would cause. And if those layoffs were based on performance without regard to seniority the ire among teachers would be off of the charts. Ironically the teachers’ union in Pittsburgh would want to set aside performance for layoff decisions while it tries to define what constitutes good performance to satisfy the requirements of the Gates Foundation grant. Moreover, under the union contract and state law it is unlikely that either spending or layoffs will occur in Pittsburgh no matter how tough the economic environment. Indeed, raises for teachers will have to be paid according to contract terms no matter the hardship for taxpayers in Pittsburgh and across the state. Somehow the state and Federal government will be counted on to fill any gaps.

What a difference in approach in NC, a state that has no recognized public sector unions and where teacher and other public employee strikes are not allowed and would result in serious penalties if they occur.

Pittsburgh’s school board just voted to close two schools because of falling enrollment. Is there a chance a single teacher will be let go as a result of declining numbers of students? Not in Pittsburgh where public sector unions are in firm control.

And Pittsburgh taxpayers have not seen the worst yet. The school board requirement to boost funding sharply for teacher pensions in a couple of years will cause school tax rates to jump. Then too, the 2012 county wide reassessment will undoubtedly cause enormous heartburn for people whose properties are seriously undervalued currently. One must wonder how charitable toward teachers’ unions taxpayers will feel by then. But unless they are willing to vote differently they will just have to grin and bear the higher tax burdens.

$40 Million to Learn What Makes an Effective Teacher

Pittsburgh has received $40 million from the Gates Foundation to figure out how to define and promote effective teaching. That is more money than many school districts spend in a year-true, not nearly as much as the outrageously expensive Pittsburgh school district that should already know what makes an effective teacher.

After unimaginable amounts of money spent by governments, philanthropic organizations, schools of education and private research over the past century or more, one would have thought we would know what makes a teacher effective. Granted, technology changes, curriculum content changes, etc., mean teachers might need to adapt pedagogically and to reflect technology. However, the basic thrust of imparting knowledge, encouraging interest, inspiring students and rewarding achievement seem to be timeless.

Indeed, it is entirely possible that the concept of "effective teacher" has been studied to death. Some teachers are more effective than other for a variety of reasons. Love of the subject, love of the profession and burning desire to make a difference in children’s lives and futures. It is doubtful that after $40 million of expenditures Pittsburgh will be able to define precisely what makes an effective teacher. They will conclude there are a number of factors that appear in different levels among effective teachers.

One thing we know for sure. Teachers whose primary interest is union membership and ever bigger paychecks and benefits will probably not be the ones who will do the most to help with the $40 million effort to define effective teaching.

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.

Money for Teachers, Not for State Police

Pennsylvania’s Governor has insisted on massive increases in education spending, much to the delight of his close allies in the teachers union, hikes that are a major factor in the state’s current fiscal crisis. But now we learn there is no money for a cadet class of state police troopers. How derelict in the state’s duty to its citizens.

The state police are a key and important core function of government. There can be no excuse for the underfunding of these police when more spending is being squeezed out for teacher funding. Teachers have paid no price during the recession and fiscal crisis across Pennsylvania. Raises have continued, health care benefits paid, few if any layoffs have occurred, and the right to strike remains in place.

And what have we got in return for the big jumps in education spending in recent years? Flat to lower SAT scores-the gold standard when it comes to measuring educational attainment. Since Rendell became Governor Pennsylvania’s SAT scores have actually declined slightly. North Carolina, where average spending per student is thousands of dollars less per year than Pennsylvania, has marginally higher SAT scores. And the union argument that Pennsylvania has a greater percentage of students taking the test does not hold water. The percentages in North Carolina and Pennsylvania are close (in 2003, 74% in PA, 70% in NC).

All this points to an unfortunate reality: to wit, the political power of the unions and the education establishment, who together can so distort government policy to their wants, is nothing short of breathtaking.

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.