Pennsylvania Teachers’ Unions Are Losing Their Cool

And their power

Author’s note: For your viewing pleasure, here’s a link to FOX 29’s fiery “non-debate” on school strikes. Is it any wonder why the PSEA won’t talk about the merits of strikes, and instead engages in personal, factually incorrect attacks (in Latin, no less!) on extraneous issues? P.S.: I am sending PSEA the bill for my blown-out eardrums.

To modify the legendary quote from Dean Wormer in Animal House: Arrogant, greedy and aloof is no way to go through life. [SIGNUP]

But that’s exactly how the teachers’ unions in Pennsylvania have behaved for decades.
With millions in forced union dues, they have constructed a statewide political empire, using their muscle to crush any and all opposition.

To their credit, they have been immensely successful in squeezing every last penny from broke municipalities and overtaxed residents. In good economies and bad, they demand and receive large raises and benefits, including, in many cases, free healthcare.

In Bucks County’s Neshaminy School District, for example, the unions have steadfastly refused to renegotiate their healthcare plan. Can you blame them? They don’t pay one cent toward their Rolls Royce plan, which costs $27,000 per teacher, per year. Meanwhile, those in the private sector are shelling out 30 or 40 percent of their healthcare costs, with many shouldering the entire burden. And when Neshaminy teachers retire, they are guaranteed healthcare until age 65. And as an added retirement “incentive”, they are handed almost $30,000 just to walk out the door.

Amazingly, Neshaminy isn’t the exception. Unfortunately, such excess is commonplace throughout the state.

To make the sin mortal, Pennsylvania leads the nation every year in school strikes. In fact, the Keystone State experiences more teacher strikes than all other states combined.

And that is the reason so many citizens are scratching their heads. Teachers are universally respected for the priceless role they play, but when they strike, especially in a recession where the private sector continues to hemorrhage jobs, it is seen as a slap in the face.

While Pennsylvania teachers are first in school strikes and top five in salaries and benefits, the same cannot be said of student achievement — as evidenced by their 42nd –ranked SAT scores.

And you can’t just blame city schools for bringing the numbers down. In suburban Neshaminy, 33 percent of 11th graders aren’t proficient in reading, and 28 percent can’t perform basic math.

To the unions, money is the cure all. Pay more money (and better benefits) to the teachers while increasing funding for public education, and all the problems will be solved. But we’ve been doing that for decades, and education achievement hasn’t improved.

Given that the global economy is here to stay, our dismal academic performance becomes more dire every year. Our students are no longer competing against just those in San Francisco and Seattle, but Stockholm, Singapore and Sydney. Yet compared to our top 30 global counterparts, the U.S. is, at best, in the middle of the pack and more often, much lower.

The solution is to instill accountability to our schools and rein in the out-of-control unions. And with a new Governor and state legislature poised to tackle the tough issues, the political will to enact meaningful changes is not just possible, but probable. Here are two immediate steps that would help bring vast improvement to Pennsylvania’s educational system:

1) Inject competition by enacting school choice. When parents have a choice in their children’s education, schools that do well will attract more students and succeed, and those that continue with the status quo will lose students and fail. The free market system that has served us so well will have the same effect on our educational product.
And for the first time in generations, our students will actually learn the skills necessary to succeed in life.

Governor-elect Tom Corbett made school choice a cornerstone of his campaign, and with solid Republican majorities in the House and Senate, look for that to take shape in some form this year.

2) Outlaw school strikes. No public sector union should have the right to strike, which is why our police and firemen are prohibited from doing so. It is beyond explanation that teachers, in whose hands we place our most valuable asset — our children — are not considered equally essential.

Strikes are disruptive to all parties. Parents experience incredible stress in their frantic search for child care, often risking job security by tending to their children, and students’ disciplined approach to schoolwork is shattered, with no possibility of a seamless transition after a long strike.

And who are we kidding? Sure, the law mandates a 180-day school year, but are students really learning anything sitting in a classroom over the Christmas break? Or in late June, days or weeks after exams have already been taken? In effect, students are held hostage so that teachers can justify their salaries and school districts don’t jeopardize their state subsidies.

But it is important to understand that teachers are also victimized by strikes. They become pariahs in their own communities, and respect for their profession take a hit. Let’s be crystal clear on one thing: many teachers often do not agree with the union leaders’ decisions. But when that leadership calls for a strike vote — and refuses to use a secret ballot, as is almost always the case — there is virtually no chance of opposition. The risk is simply too high, and the mob mentality rules the day.

At the minimum, there should be a law requiring secret ballot votes for school strikes, monitored by the Pennsylvania Department of Labor. That common sense, practical solution would be overwhelmingly supported by the public — and the teachers.
If you outlaw strikes, though, basic fairness dictates that there should be a method to resolve an impasse. Perhaps the most viable alternative would be final best offer arbitration (FBO), the same system Major League Baseball uses with great success.

In regular arbitration, both sides throw out a number, with the arbiter often adding them together and dividing by two. That’s an inefficient system, because when one side makes a reasonable offer while the other side comes in with a pie-in-the-sky proposal, the result is lopsided in favor of the greedier party.

But with FBO, both sides innately understand the need to be reasonable in their proposals or risk getting blown completely out of the box. Cooler heads would prevail with FBO, and that’s most definitely in the taxpayers’ best interest.

Is FBO ideal? No, since you are placing an unelected arbiter in a position of power, but in the real world, it’s the best we have to stop the unaffordable contracts. It is a classic example of philosophical versus practical, and in this case, the practical side should prevail.

But there’s a huge irony here. Because the union leadership has pushed the envelope for so long, the pendulum may be swinging back hard, to the point of potentially being unfair.

Outlawing school strikes — as they are in 37 states — can be enacted like any other legislation: pass both chambers and have the Governor sign the bill. That may well happen in the near future.

However, arbitration requires a constitutional amendment, a process that will take at least five years. So the unions are facing the distinct possibility of seeing the right to strike abolished, with no chance of arbitration as recourse. In effect, our teachers would be working as slaves to the school boards, and that is certainly NOT in anyone’s best interest, most of all our childrens’.

But right or wrong, they made their bed, and now they have to lie in it.

Aware that their backs were to the wall, the unions spent massively this campaign season on candidates sympathetic to their “plight.” Unfortunately for them, they suffered huge losses, and the head of the dragon is in danger of being decapitated.
From this point on, it’s a whole new ballgame.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has blazed a path to success in dealing with unions, and enjoys rising popularity every time he calls out their arrogance and greed. And his accomplishments have come with the Democrats controlling both legislative chambers.

In much the same mold, Tom Corbett’s vision is closely aligned with Christie’s, especially on education issues. With the GOP now in firm command of Harrisburg, they may yet provide Pennsylvanians with hope and change we can all believe in.

Taxpayers could only be so lucky.

Chris Freind is an independent columnist, television commentator, and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, Readers of his column, “Freindly Fire,” hail from six continents, thirty countries and all fifty states. His work has been referenced in numerous publications including The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, foreign newspapers, and in Dick Morris’ recent bestseller “Catastrophe.” Freind, whose column appears nationally in Newsmax, also serves as a guest commentator on Philadelphia-area talk radio shows, and makes numerous other television and radio appearances, most notably on FOX. He can be reached at