Penn Hills School District is cancelling classes in response to a teacher strike. This situation is all too commonplace in the state that annually leads the nation in teacher strikes.
Contract negotiations reached an impasse over issues of pay raises and contributions to health care. The District asked for a freeze in wages and for a ten percent contribution to health care costs. The union led off negotiations by asking for a 15 percent increase in wages in each of the five years of the contract and for the teachers’ 1.2 percent contribution to health care to be decreased to as little as 0.4 percent. They also wanted the District to offer health coverage from the time a teacher retires until they qualify for Medicare—an action that could add significantly to the District’s legacy costs. The union now claims it can be flexible on the size of the raises as they are willing to accept a six percent annual increase.
These demands come at a time when the nation and area are struggling to recover from a recession and many people are unemployed. As one PTA president said, "…teachers ought to be happy they have a job." But this only underscores just how public school teachers have become a privileged class in Pennsylvania—emboldened by the right to strike and the knowledge that school funding is effectively guaranteed and underwritten by state and local taxpayers, no matter how poorly a district performs. They are heavily protected from firings and layoffs and have pension plans that are second to none—and with the impending large funding shortfall for teacher pensions, this too will be propped up by even greater extraction of money from taxpayers.
The Penn Hills teachers’ union says it just wants pay in line with other Allegheny County public school teachers. According to 2007-08 Pennsylvania Department of Education data the county pay average was slightly more than $52,000 while the Penn Hills average was just under than $49,000.
While the average salary appears to be within shouting distance of the county average, how does the performance of the students in their charge compare to even neighboring districts? In 2009 college bound students from the Penn Hills District scored an average 885 on the SAT exam, well below the averages from Gateway (1022), Plum (994) and less than that of Woodland Hills (933). All four districts had roughly the same number of students taking the exam as the districts are close in enrollments. Over the past five years Penn Hills students were heavily outscored by both Gateway and Plum students while besting those from Woodland Hills in only three of five years. A score of 885 doesn’t even begin to compare to the best school districts in Allegheny County such as Upper St. Clair (1148), Mt. Lebanon (1147) or North Allegheny (1135).
While the SAT’s compare only college bound students, the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA), tests all students from certain grades. For eleventh graders in the Penn Hills District—those closest to graduating and entering either college or the workforce—only 41.7 percent of the students scored proficient or advanced in math while 55.8 did so in reading on the 2009 PSSA exam. Having nearly 60 percent of your students not performing at grade level in math and almost 45 percent not performing at grade level in reading is unacceptable and certainly calls into question the outrageous teacher compensation demands.
What is needed in Penn Hills and across Pennsylvania is for the Legislature to pass and the Governor to sign a ban on teacher strikes and get the state and its school districts out from under the thumb of unions as they are in 37 states where teacher strikes never occur and nine more where they rarely occur. This atrocious bending over backwards in servile obeisance to public sector employees is the epitome of self-destructive policy.
All that will happen in Penn Hills is that students will be out of school for six or seven days with the attendant hardships for parents and caregivers. Undoubtedly, the probable short duration of the strike will not be long enough to engender sufficient public support for the strikers to brow beat the school board into caving in to union demands. So, the strike is happening for one reason only—to create as much disruption of students’ lives as possible and to create difficulties for working parents who must find child care.
That is what we have come to because of the right to strike which has allowed and encouraged these public employees to act with willful disregard for the people and community they supposedly serve and who pay their salaries and generous benefits.
Sad, but true.
Frank Gamrat, Ph.D., Sr. Research Assoc. Jake Haulk, Ph.D., President
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