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.   



More Excusitis from Public Education Defenders

Pennsylvania Senate Democrats want the Governor to eliminate the use of Keystone Exams as a graduation requirement-according to a report in the Tribune Review on May 14. Why the request? Folks who follow education issues will not be surprised to learn the request is based on the claim that schools do not have the resources to administer the test. The Education Secretary says other requirements are being waived or eliminated so resources will be freed up so there should be no net increase in costs.

But there is a deeper issue here. School districts in Pennsylvania spend $150,000 to $250,000 to teach kids for 13 years. A large share of that money comes from the Commonwealth coffers. Moreover, the state, for good or ill, is the creator of school districts, empowers them to levy taxes and maintains a substantial degree of regulatory control over the schools and has a commensurate responsibility to insure that graduates from Pennsylvania achieve a minimum level of educational proficiency.

When SAT scores and PSSA scores are so weak in many districts, the state has an obligation to take steps to address the problem. Requiring tests in order to get a diploma that purports to tell colleges or employers that the student has achieved a 12th grade level of proficiency seems entirely reasonable. Furthermore, there is no reason for administrators and teachers to be unable to arrange the time and place to administer the Keystone Exams. The argument that resources are not available implies teachers and administrators are incompetent. Is that really the argument public education hardline defenders want to use?

Are union work rules or prerogatives really the source of objections? Or is it the bigger problem of the failure of so much money to produce educated children and the politicians’ need to deny the culpability of the unions and education establishments for the failures?

Was it a Strike or Not?

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association collects and publishes data on labor impasses that tend to occur from time to time in one (or more) of the state’s 500 school districts. Last year we noted that the 2012-13 school year was nearly the first year without a strike in nearly forty years, only to be spoiled by the Neshaminy School District, where teachers walked off the job twice.

Thus far in the 2012-13 school year there has not been a strike…unless you ask the school board of the Old Forge School District in Lackawanna County. Because they definitely feel teachers went on strike in December. However, the union representatives insist that the teachers were locked out. A strike means no unemployment compensation, a lockout means employees can collect.

Teachers went back to the classroom on January 2nd, but the issue is not resolved. When the board met to act on the 2013-14 budget (which contains a property tax increase) and union grievances the language referred to a lockout, which prompted one board member to ask that by accepting that language the board would be creating a problem for itself. The solicitor for the District stated "They can word it however they want, we are just denying it". PSBA officials don’t yet know how to categorize the issue as that decision comes from the PA Labor Relations Board.

Super Predicts Pension Calamity

In discussing the financial picture of the Pittsburgh Public Schools-the director of budget, management, and operations reiterated his position that the District will be insolvent by 2015, a statement he made in November of last year-the Superintendent handicapped the Governor’s pension proposal that would affect the District as it pays into PSERS, the state retirement system covering public school employees. That proposal, which we recently wrote about, would affect future earnings of current employees and would put new hires into a defined contribution type plan on a certain date if enacted.

Noting there would be "a lot of pushback", which is not surprising since the state teachers’ union has already stated its position, the Superintendent opined that "Even if it were to go through, it would result in a rush to the exit in 2015 like this state has never seen" and then possibly causing a teacher shortage, especially in certain subject areas, and "That would be a real statewide human resources issue".

Lots of governments, state and local, have made changes to retirement benefits that have affected new hires or close the window on existing benefits but allow those that retire before the changes go into effect to leave with their benefits intact. That’s happened locally with the Port Authority and Pittsburgh police and fire. Existing teachers that could retire before changes to current benefits might; it also happens with early retirement incentives. Those seeking to enter the teaching profession now might be put off by the thought of being employed in Pennsylvania if they had to be in a 401k type defined contribution system. If so, the latest data from the National Conference of State Legislatures shows that 40 states (including Pennsylvania, as no changes have occurred) offer only a defined benefit plan to elementary and secondary teachers. Only Alaska has a mandatory defined contribution plan; Indiana, Oregon, Rhode Island and Washington have mandatory defined benefit/defined contribution hybrids; Virginia and Kansas are moving to db/dc and cash balance plans in the next few years; Florida, Utah, and Michigan allow employees to choose the type of plan.

While the PPS is certainly on hard times and has been for a while, Census data on local government employment and payroll shows that full time equivalent employment in elementary and secondary education (instruction and other) rose by about 50,000 from 1993 to 2011. Teachers, on a per 10,000 person basis, rose from 121.7 to 142.2 over the nearly two decades shown by the Census. Note that all other local government employees-police, fire, librarians, water workers, welfare employees, parks, etc. fell slightly from 131.8 to 129.5 per 10,000 people.

And what of a state like Alaska, where in 2006 the switch was made for teachers by enrolling new hires in a defined contribution plan? In 1993 there were 8,386 teachers, or about 140.2 per 10,000 people. In 2011, five years after the pension change, the Census count of teachers is 11,233, or about 155.1 per 10,000 people. Sure, many of those are still likely working under the old pension plan, but has there been a problem attracting new teachers to the point there is a shortage?

Tallying Other Benefits

With the delivery of the budget for FY 2013-14 and the announcement of how to wrangle pension costs for state and school employees (our Brief discussed the highlights of the proposal) it should be noted that there is a lot more to the benefit puzzle.

The spring edition of Education Next documents, through the use of Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the cost of teacher health care vs. private sector health care (teachers pay less toward single coverage, more toward family coverage as a percentage share) and on union and non-union rates of contribution (teachers aren’t broken out as a sector by the BLS, but the authors did run comparisons overall to see that union health coverage costs were higher than non-union costs). Finally, the piece looked at Wisconsin, where changes to collective bargaining resulted in decreases to district costs on single and family coverage.

How does this translate locally? Let’slook at the largest district in the County, the Pittsburgh Public Schools. In 2011, the district paid $72.4 million in "employee benefits": dental insurance, life insurance, income protection insurance, social security contribution, retirement contribution, unemployment contribution, workers’ compensation, self insurance medical health (39% of the total), retiree health care, and other employee benefits. In 2013, the current fiscal year, employee benefits are totaled to come in at $85.3 million (18% higher than 2011) with the expected PSERS contribution doubled since 2011 and the self insurance medical health up $10 million from 2011 and representing 45% of the total of benefits.

Chicago Teachers’ Strike: Union Power Run Amok

In a scenario remarkably similar to those played out all too frequently in Pennsylvania schools and transit agencies, strikes and threat of strikes are being used in Chicago to boost public employee pay, benefits and working conditions. Teachers walked off the job this morning making good their threat of two weeks ago.

Like a bad relationship, this is a gift that keeps on giving. The right of teachers to strike in Illinois, one of the three leading states for teacher strikes and one only a handful that still permit strikes, should be a wakeup call for taxpayers around the country. Demands of public sector unions are the primary force in the rapidly growing number of state and local governments facing financial chaos.

Chicago teachers already earn far more than the average Chicago household, $71,000 to $47,000, and receive substantially more benefits. Yet they are demanding a 30 percent pay increase over the next four years in addition to job security guarantees. All this against a backdrop of a school district facing nearly a billion dollar deficit by the need of the school year. Where will the money come from? State taxpayers that just recently saw a huge increase in their income tax rate? Local property taxes? This in a state with horrendous financial problems of its own.

What’s even more deplorable is the abominable academic performance in the public schools in Chicago where only 15 percent of fourth graders are reading at fourth grade level and only 56 percent of students ever graduate. It is little wonder that 50,000 of the City’s 400,000 students are enrolled in charter schools-where there is no strike and students are going to school.

The taxpayers are almost certain losers in this episode, the way they always are in Pennsylvania public sector work stoppages. The shame is that people with the power to shut down vital public services have learned that enough is never enough. And experience tells them the taxpayers, the students and the parents of students can just shut up and take it. And they will take it until they grow a backbone strong enough to vote out the legislators who insist on protecting public sector unions.

Given the Mayor’s strained relationship with the union and his opposition to the demands of the teachers, it will be interesting to see how the President reacts and which side he will support. Will it be loyalty to his former chief of staff or go where the votes are-the teachers unions as representative of his most formidable voting bloc?

Predictably Wrongheaded Comments at the Labor Parade

What would a Labor Day parade be without a few choice parade attendee comments demonstrating a lack of economic understanding and faulty logic? Gems from this year include the parade’s theme, a steelworker’s opinion and a head scratcher from a school teacher.

According to the head of the Allegheny County Labor Council "the message of this year is bring our jobs home." Presumably, he means bring back the factory jobs that have gone overseas or to states with a better business climate. He cannot mean teacher, transit driver, or firefighter all of whom provide local government services that cannot be supplied from Taiwan or Alabama.

So what does it mean to "bring our jobs home"? How can they be "our" jobs if someone else has them? Were they "our" jobs before they left? Were they the workers’ jobs? Were they the unions’ jobs? How interesting. Who hires the workers and pays them their wages and benefits? If the jobs belonged to the workers or the unions, how were they able to pick up and move? Clearly, to the extent jobs can be owned by someone they are owned by the employer. The labor effort belongs to the worker, but the job must belong to the owner.

And why did the jobs leave in the first place? Some were lost due to productivity improvements or technological changes that eliminated jobs or made fewer workers necessary. Some were lost due to less expensive or higher quality imports that lowered demand for U.S. made product. Some were lost as companies sought better business and labor climate locations for their production facilities.

If the Labor Council wants to see more job growth in the sectors that have seen huge losses over the decades, the first thing they must do is to quit thinking in terms such as "bring our jobs home." To business owners and decision makers, that phrase conveys the notion that the same old adversarial labor-owner attitude persists. After all, in many cases it was labor’s exorbitant and intransigent demands regarding compensation, work rules, time off and grievance procedures that caused a lot of the jobs to move away. Until labor leaders (as well as rank and file) in the private sector realize what intense competition means and learn to deal with it, the odds of "their" jobs returning will remain extremely slim.

Meanwhile, back at the parade, a steelworker offered the opinion that President Obama needs a second term because it takes two terms in order to get anything done. One has to smile at that in light of the hash the President’s policies have made of the economy, the debt that has piled up, the impending tax hikes, the runaway job killing regulatory environment and the loss of business confidence in the President’s economic leadership. And beyond that, it is amusing to consider how the unions excoriated earlier Republican Presidents at election time arguing they did not deserve a second term even when the economy was in far better shape than it is currently.

Finally-and the cake taker-came from a local teacher who said, "Every child should have the right to learn the same-not the best education their parents can pay for." Here some speculation as to meaning is called for. Surely, it cannot mean that if a parent can afford a high quality education for a child that child should learn the same as everyone else. More likely, the teacher means that public education is needed to ensure that all children have an opportunity to attend school. But like most public school teachers, this teacher believes that government provided education must be a government monopoly run education. Consider students in the Pittsburgh school district where spending is well in excess of $20,000 per pupil. If the taxpayers could switch $12,000 per year to parents so they could choose their child’s school and educational opportunity, does anyone doubt the parents could afford and find a much better education than the average student in the Pittsburgh schools is receiving?

So, the unjustified assumption underlying the teacher’s comment is that because the taxpayers subsidize education, the schools must be a public monopoly. That of course is not the only option. But in the union dominated public school system that is the mindset. Teachers are the most important element in the education equation, not the students. And certainly the taxpayers get no consideration at all as witnessed by the demands teachers continue to make and the strike threats even when the economy and taxpayers are struggling.

Paraphrasing the teacher’s comment, "We need to make more money so parents cannot possibly afford to pay for a good education for their children and only taxpayers can be squeezed for that much money."

PPS: What Results from Staff Reductions?

Following last night’s school board meeting, the Pittsburgh Public Schools will have fewer staff members at the start of the 2012-13 school year, including 176 K-12 teachers. A look at the audited financial statements of the District shows what we have pointed out for many years: enrollment continues to fall. In the 2005-06 school year there were 32,529 students, and at the beginning of the 2011-12 school year that just concluded there were 26,652 students. Note that in the audit enrollment is taken on the first day of school. Recent numbers provided by the District that we reported in a blog put enrollment at 24,624 on the last day of the 11-12 year.

If we use the audited enrollment and audited headcount shows that all classifications of employee groups fell from 2005-06 through 2011-12 with the exception of health service, which reported one more employee in 11-12 than in 05-06. Administration, instruction, pupil affairs, operations/maintenance, and food service all reported fewer employees. The key measure is the group in instruction identified as teachers: in 2005-06 there were 2,722 and the pupil-teacher ratio was 11.9. In 11-12 there were 2,196 and the pupil-teacher ratio was 12.1.

If the layoff/furlough of teachers stands, there will be 2,020 (assuming pre-K teachers who were laid off are not included in this total) teachers at the start of the 2012-13 school year that begins next month. If enrollment at the beginning of the year remains around 24k or so the pupil-teacher ratio will not change much. If enrollment at the beginning of the year slides even further from the 24k, let’s say to 23,900 on the first day of 2012-13 with 2,020 teachers, the pupil-teacher ratio will stand at 11.8.

There’s A lot of Admin Space at the PPS

Lather, rinse, repeat. An outside reform group says that the Pittsburgh Public Schools have done a good job on costs but more needs to be done. The head of the teachers’ union says that the District’s teachers at the top of the scale don’t make nearly as much as the typical teacher at the top of the scale in western PA and that there is too much administrative bloat. "There still seems to be a number of people [at the District’s headquarters]" said the head of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers.

The union head does have a point. We wrote a Brief in 2010 which looked at the student to employee ratios for "teachers" and "non-teachers" and saw that the ratio for teachers had stayed the same over the decade while it had doubled for non-teachers. The audited data has not been updated, so one wishing to see how many students per teacher or non-teacher still has to use 2009 data. That’s true too of the District’s measure of "Building Functional and Educational Capacity" which measures the number of buildings and square footage the District devotes to certain uses. Not only are there more people at headquarters but there is much more space in the District devoted to that use.

In 2000 the District had two buildings and 129,000 square feet devoted to administration and finance (referred to as A/F). It had a total of 9.5 million square feet, meaning about 1% of the total space was used for A/F. It also means that 9.398 million was used for something other than A/F. In 2000, there was 72.8 square feet of non-A/F use for every 1 square foot of A/F use.

In 2009, total square footage of capacity had fallen to 7.343 million as a result of closings. But the square footage of A/F had risen to 390,600 (and an additional building), pushing the percentage share up over 5%. The ratio of non-A/F space (6.953 million) to A/F space (0.390 million) was 17.8 square feet to 1.

Will there be a pitched battle between the teachers and administrators in the PPS that will rival the coming battle between drivers and mechanics and supervisors and management when the Port Authority’s contract gets heated?