Like clockwork, several things occur each September in Pennsylvania: Kids have a hard time getting out of bed, compasses required for math class are never used; and, most predictable, teachers will strike.
On that last point, the teachersâ€™ union in Methacton School District in Montgomery County did not disappoint. Just as students and teachers were settling into a rhythm, the union called for a walkout. The result? More than 400 teachers are walking the picket line â€" potentially for weeks â€" while 5,000 students sit idle, leaving their parents frantically scrambling.
And itâ€™s not just Methacton, as other strikes are occurring in Pennsylvania, with more surely to come. Itâ€™s time to end the recklessness of holding parents and students hostage â€" especially because there is no downside for teachers, as they will be fully paid for all 180 days of school, regardless of the outcome â€" and reform our stateâ€™s inefficient and expensive educational system.
To modify the legendary quote from Dean Wormer in â€œAnimal House:â€ Arrogant, greedy and aloof is no way to go through life.
But thatâ€™s exactly how the teachersâ€™ unions in Pennsylvania have behaved for decades.
With millions in forced dues â€" monies automatically deducted from teachersâ€™ paychecks even if they donâ€™t belong â€" the unions have constructed a statewide political empire, using their muscle to crush any opposition.
To their credit, they have been immensely successful in squeezing every last penny from broke school districts and overtaxed residents. In good economies and bad, they demand and receive large raises and benefits, including, in many cases, free or highly subsidized health care.
So itâ€™s no surprise that Pennsylvania leads the nation in school strikes, with some years seeing more walkouts than all other states combined. As a result, its teachers are near the top in salaries and benefits. Inexcusably, the same cannot be said of student achievement, as SAT scores, literacy, graduation rates and students going on to college are perennially much lower.
And you canâ€™t simply blame city schools for dismal student achievement. A quarter of Methactonâ€™s 11th graders arenâ€™t proficient in math, and almost one of five is deficient in reading. Yet over the last 15 years, the number of students in that district has dropped by 10 percent while spending has more than doubled, to almost $110 million per year. In other words, thereâ€™s more money to educate fewer students, but student achievement isnâ€™t where it needs to be, and yet the teachersâ€™ union authorizes a strike because it wants more, more, more. You donâ€™t need an education to know thereâ€™s something seriously wrong with that picture.
And that has left many citizens scratching their heads.
Teachers are universally respected for the priceless role they play, but when they strike, itâ€™s seen as a slap in the face â€" especially as the private sector continues to hemorrhage jobs, with many paying astronomical health-care costs.
Of course, to the unions, more money is the cure-all to improved student performance. Pay the teachers more and give them even better benefits, while increasing funding for public education, and all problems will be solved. But weâ€™ve been doing that for decades, and education achievement hasnâ€™t improved.
The global economy is here to stay, so our dismal academic performance has become dire. Our students are no longer competing solely against 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 and rein in out-of-control unions. Here are two steps to accomplish that:
1) Inject competition by enacting school choice. When parents have a choice in their childrenâ€™s education, schools that do well will attract more students and succeed, while 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 would actually learn the skills necessary to succeed in life.
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 â€" our children â€" are not considered equally essential.
Strikes are disruptive to all parties. Parents endure incredible stress in their frantic search for child care, often risking job security by tending to their children (and blowing hard-earned vacation), and studentsâ€™ disciplined approach to schoolwork is shattered, with no possibility of a seamless transition after a long strike.
And whom 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, weeks after exams have been taken? In effect, students are held hostage so that teachers can justify their salaries and school districts donâ€™t jeopardize their state subsidies.
Often overlooked is that teachers are also victimized by strikes. They become pariahs in their communities, and respect for their profession takes a hit. Letâ€™s be crystal clear: Many teachers often donâ€™t agree with union leadersâ€™ decisions. But when that leadership calls for a strike vote â€" and refuses to use a secret ballot, as is almost always the case â€" there is virtually no chance of opposition. The risk is simply too high, and 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 â€" and teachers.
But if you outlaw strikes, basic fairness dictates that there should be a method to resolve an impasse. Perhaps the most viable alternative would be final best offer arbitration, 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. Thatâ€™s inefficient, 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 final best offer arbitration, the arbiter canâ€™t compromise. He must take one of the two proposals in its entirety. That being the case, both sides innately understand the need to be reasonable in their one-and-only proposal, or risk getting blown completely out of the box. Cooler heads would prevail with final best offer arbitration, which is definitely in the taxpayersâ€™ best interest.
Is final best offer arbitration ideal? No, since you are placing an unelected arbiter in a position of power, but in the real world, itâ€™s the best we have to stop unaffordable contracts. It is a classic example of philosophical versus practical, and in this case, the practical side should prevail.
But thereâ€™s a huge irony. 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 law: Passed by the Legislature and affixed with the governorâ€™s signature.
Arbitration, however, requires a constitutional amendment, a difficult process and one that would take at least four years. So the unions are facing the possibility of seeing their right to strike abolished, with no chance of arbitration as recourse. In effect, our teachers would be completely beholden to the school boards, and that is certainly not in anyoneâ€™s best interest, most of all our childrenâ€™s.
But right or wrong, they made their bed, and now they may have to lie in it.
Aware that their backs are to the wall, the unions have spent considerable sums on candidates sympathetic to their â€œplight.â€ Unfortunately for them, theyâ€™ve suffered huge losses, and the head of the dragon is in danger of being decapitated, as Republicans hold sizable legislative majorities, and the upcoming governorâ€™s race could easily swing to the GOP.
Hopefully, the do-nothing state Legislature will stop sleeping in class and strike while the ironâ€™s hot, outlawing school strikes once and for all.
If our state lawmakers do that, they would deserve an A.
Chris Freind is an independent columnist and commentator. His print column appears every Wednesday. He can be reached at [email protected]