Teacher Union President Needs Some Education

Member Group : Allegheny Institute

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.

In order to justify the PSEA intransigence, the president makes two basic assertions.

One, Pennsylvania’s students are doing much better academically in recent years and two, teacher compensation is falling behind. Is any of that true?

The president cites accolades from a national education organization for the state’s progress on achievement tests and states "if Pennsylvania students were a football team, we’d be celebrating their top rankings". Not unexpectedly, we must throw a flag on that attempt at analogy. Using SAT exam results as the best single measure of how schools are preparing students for the world after graduation, it is obvious that for whatever incremental progress being made at lower grades, Pennsylvania students are not making significant strides in preparedness for life after high school. Data from the National Center of Education Statistics (NCES) for the period from school year 2000-2001 to school year 2008-2009 shows state average scores on the reading portion of the SAT fell 1.4 percent and on the math portion posted a slight increase of 0.4 percent. By way of comparison, the U.S. average scores fell 1 percent for reading and rose 0.2 percent for math.

Comparable results have been found for the state’s PSSA test scores. Progress at lower grades appears to be fleeting and does not translate into sustained improvement by 11th graders. We cannot brag about third grade reading results if graduates are not also improving significantly. The PSEA president says a sign of better teaching is that more students than ever are opting for higher education after graduation. He does not mention that colleges also have to offer more and more remedial classes for incoming freshmen. That means more students are being accepted despite being inadequately prepared for post-secondary education.

The president then addresses the issue of pay, noting that according to one research report that "Pennsylvania teachers earn 18 percent less on average than other college graduates". There are several problems with this comparison. First of all, there are many occupations such as science, engineering, etc. where education requirements are more rigorous and demanding and for which compensation is justifiably higher as determined by market forces. Second, if pay is compared on an hourly rate basis, teachers are very well compensated.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ National Compensation Survey collects hourly pay data for an exhaustive range of occupations in metro areas around the country. We have looked at the data for the Pittsburgh CMSA (MSA plus Lawrence County) to see how teacher pay per hour stacks up against other occupations. In March 2009, elementary and middle school teachers across the region averaged $41.56 per hour and secondary teachers $37.92. That same month the survey found that registered nurses in the metro were earning $29.70 per hour, computer programmers $35.76, electrical engineers $36.94, and accountants and auditors $25.43.

A Manhattan Institute study in 2007 found that nationally the per hour pay of teachers at $34.06 exceeded the average $25.08 hourly pay of white collar workers (excluding retail related jobs) by 36 percent, or said another way the ratio of teacher pay to white collar pay was 1.36. By comparison in the Pittsburgh metro area the ratio of teacher hourly pay to white collar pay was 1.61, far above the national average ratio. For western Pennsylvania it is outrageous to talk about teachers being underpaid compared to other occupations.

And what about the PSEA head’s assertion that teacher pay is failing to keep pace with inflation? Elementary and middle school pay in the Pittsburgh region rose 9.2 percent between January 2007 and March 2009. Clearly that two year jump far outpaced inflation over the period. What’s more, teachers have continued to get scheduled contractual raises despite a sharp downturn in the economy that has cost tens of thousand of private sector workers their jobs.

And that raises another point the PSEA president conveniently overlooks. Teachers in Pennsylvania cannot be laid off for economic reasons. Nor do they have to forgo scheduled compensation increases regardless of financial problems in a school district. Only when enrollment drops or entire programs are cut can teacher jobs be eliminated. Pretty cushy arrangement most would say. Then too, they have the right to strike and lead the nation in such strikes, accounting for over half of all U.S. teacher walkouts.

As far as pension, health care, sick leave and other benefits are concerned, most Pennsylvania teachers have packages that private sector employees can only dream about.

The teacher spokesman also does not mention the generous increase in teacher retirement benefits handed out by the Legislature early in this decade that has precipitated the impending crisis. It seems doubtful the teachers lobbied against that provision. Now the proverbial chickens have come home to roost and as usual it is the taxpayers who will have to foot the bill for that act of profligate generosity.

Since we have seen no teacher union offer to voluntarily forgo salary increases under existing contracts despite the hardship many school districts face as result of economic weakness, it is unlikely teachers will offer any real help in dealing with the pension problem.

Absent some relief, can schools hope to sustain current education achievement levels, offer the variety of programs now offered and maintain their physical assets when huge additional amounts of money will be siphoned away to pay for retirement benefits? As we are witnessing in California and other states (as well as in the City of Pittsburgh), the burden of generous public sector pensions is becoming economically ruinous. Unless the Federal government bails out the under funded pensions, the crisis will just get worse. And as we have seen previously with such bailouts, they encourage irresponsible behavior by removing or reducing the consequences of such behavior.
JakeHaulk, Ph.D., PresidentEric Montarti, Senior PolicyAnalyst

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