Intrepid reporter Kristen Graham of the Philadelphia Inquirer unearthed several details from contract negotiations between the school district of Philadelphia and the local teachers’ union, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT). Currently, the district is operating under the most recent labor contract, which expired three years ago. Per Graham, the district proposed a $100 million offer—despite facing a $500 million shortfall by 2021:
The deal would include restoration of "step" increases, or pay bumps for years of experience. It would also include incentive bonuses over the life of the four-year pact for teachers in hard-to-staff schools, and it would give raises to teachers now at the top of the pay scale, according to sources familiar with the talks.
For union leaders, health care concessions have long been a sticking point:
The deal on the table would also require teachers to begin contributing toward their health-care costs. They do not currently pay toward those premiums.
That the district insists on teachers paying something toward health premiums is promising. These contributions are commonplace in the private sector and among public employees.
Notably, the district prefers to fill teacher vacancies with the best available candidates, not simply the teacher with the most seniority. This irks PFT President Jerry Jordan:
All future teacher vacancies would be filled by "site selection" rather than seniority, giving principals and school communities the power to hire candidates based on fit rather than be forced to accept them based just on experience.
Jordan called that proposal "very disrespectful to members." Now, principals can remove teachers from buildings not for performance, but for "compelling reasons," a practice he said sometimes results in unfair treatment.
Hite said that universal site selection has generated real improvements in schools and that it would be better to put processes in place to deal with potential unfair treatment than to scrap the system.
How strange that an organization billing itself as serving students’ best interests would defy reforms that staff classrooms with the most qualified candidates. Nevertheless, the union is not responding warmly to the district’s offer. Jordan says he will not even take it to his members for consideration.
Where do negotiations go from here? It’s difficult to predict. Graham quotes a source who described the union’s counter-offer as “fiscally irresponsible and completely unworkable,” which doesn’t instill confidence in a quick resolution.
It would be illuminating to know more about the terms of each side’s proposal, but unfortunately these negotiations take place behind closed doors, without taxpayer input. All the more reason for enhanced contract transparency at the local level.
Three critical bills stalled last week amidst a flurry of last minute legislative activity. Failure to reform pensions, repeal the e-cigarette tax, and prohibit ghost teaching were missed opportunities that will compound challenges facing lawmakers in 2017.
A compromise proposal to place newly-hired state workers into a hybrid pension plan fell three votes short of passage in the House. The bill provided a 401(k) component paired with a smaller defined benefit component. Employees could also choose to opt-in to an entirely 401(k)-style plan, providing ultimate portability and retirement control. Although the legislation provided little in immediate cost savings, it shifted future financial risk away from taxpayers and provided a predictable system for measuring costs.
Union leaders and lobbyists campaigned hard against the bill, and it was narrowly defeated without seeing a vote.
Reducing the E-Cigarette Tax
Revising the punitive e-cigarette / vape tax from a 40% retroactive wholesale tax to a 5 cents per milliliter tax failed to advance in the House. Meanwhile, the Senate was reluctant to add any session days to send the bill to Gov. Wolf. This inaction will eliminate thousands of jobs and bring in far less revenue than the $13 million originally projected.
Vape businesses are already beginning to close.
Expelling Ghost Teachers
Lawmakers were unable to prohibit release time provisions that enable unions to pluck teachers from the classroom to perform union work on school time. These ghost teachers continue earn salaries, rack up pension benefits, and accrue seniority while working for the union. Worse, the union may not be formally required to reimburse school districts for these costs. In other words, resources are being diverted from the classroom to line the pockets of a private organization. Strictly limiting the practice of ghost teaching, as would HB 2125, would have saved taxpayers millions and corrected an obvious injustice.
HB 2125 will be reintroduced next session.
Philadelphia's teacher shortage is making headlines, and city council is demanding the district solve the problem. A classroom without a permanent teacher is certainly unfair to students, yet Philadelphia teachers are regularly pulled out of classrooms to work full time for the teachers' union.
Each year, up to 63 district employees may be plucked from Philadelphia's classroom to do full-time union work on the taxpayers dime.
These employees, known as "ghost teachers," aren't unique to Philadelphia. Across the state, dozens of teachers and other school district employees are absent from the classroom. Instead, they work full-time jobs with the local teachers’ union. These teachers stay on district payroll, receive health benefits, amass pension credits, and accrue seniority, just as if they were actually teaching
Ultimately, lawmakers should end Pennsylvania's ghost teaching problem by passing HB 2125. The bill would ban ghost teaching with two exceptions: extended leave for statewide teacher union officers and 15 days of annual release time for all other teachers. This reform would also require the unions to reimburse every cent associated with the cost of absent teachers.
Students deserve more than ghost teachers who never show up for class, and taxpayers deserve more than paying for an empty teacher’s desk.
The school board and the local teachers union in the West Shore School District are in conflict. The two sides have been unable to agree on a contract for two and a half years, and now the negotiation process itself is in dispute.
In a nod to transparency, the school district decided to publicize its contract offer to the West Shore Education Association (WSEA). The union—upset with the move—accused the district of hijacking negotiations. The president of the WSEA claimed the district promised not to negotiate in public.
Ideally, all public-sector contract negotiations should involve the public. After all, the taxpayer is footing the bill.
Instead, the typical collective bargaining process is conducted in secret, shutting out the very people who make the process possible.
To give communities a greater voice, Senator Pat Stefano introduced SB 645—legislation that would require public employers to provide public notice of collective bargaining agreements two weeks before they’re approved. Releasing the details before final approval gives taxpayers the ability to advocate for changes to contracts they deem unacceptable.
School boards could go even further, opening up negotiations to the public and providing a summary of each contract. Of course, the district should make it clear these steps will be taken before the process begins to avoid accusations of negotiating in bad faith.
Pennsylvanians are already benefiting from transparency over state contract negotiations. Lawmakers now have an opportunity to build on their good work.
That’s the upshot of the 10th annual public opinion survey from Education Next, which covers a range of topics including school choice, school spending, personnel policy, testing, and accountability. The entire poll results are worth reading—check out the interactive results from 2016, as well as trends over the last decade—but here are a few key findings.
On the topic of school choice:
- Tax credit scholarships are favored 53-29 by the general public, 64-17 by African Americans, and 60-25 by parents. Tax credit scholarships, including Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credits, are the most popular school choice mechanism.
- The general public supports charter schools by a 51-28 margin, including 45-33 among Democrats.
- Support for both means-tested and universal vouchers is slightly greater among Democrats than Republicans. Hispanics support universal vouchers 57-24.
Regarding school spending:
- The general public underestimates the average amount spent on children in public schools, which mirrors the experience in Pennsylvania. When asked to estimate the per-pupil cost, respondents guessed $8,500. The actual average is more than $12,000.
- The general public estimates the average yearly teacher salary is roughly $40,000, which is 30 percent below the actual average teacher salary ($58,000) reported by the National Education Association. Even teacher respondents underestimate average teacher salaries—they guessed $46,000.
Finally, on personnel policy:
- 62 percent of the public supports “basing part of the salaries of teachers on how much their students learn,” also known as merit pay. Only 20 percent of teachers are supportive of merit pay.
- Support for teacher tenure has declined by 10 percentage points since 2013, with the general public opposing teacher tenure 54-28.
- By a margin of 44-35, the public opposes agency fees—which require non-union members to nonetheless pay roughly 80 percent of full-member dues to the union.
- The public is split, 33-32, on whether unions have a negative effect on public schools.
CF reviewed labor contracts in each of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts and uncovered several interesting findings. These contracts, known as collective bargaining agreements, are negotiated behind closed doors between local teachers’ unions and school boards. They include routine information about salaries and benefits, but the contracts also outline maintenance of membership clauses, fair share fees, and ghost teacher arrangements.
- Teachers in 62 percent of districts are trapped in their unions by maintenance of membership clauses, which stipulate teachers may only exit a union during a specific time period—often just days—near the expiration of a contract.
- Nearly 4 in 5 school districts require non-union members to pay fair share fees to the union. These teachers are forced to pay more than 80 percent of traditional dues to the union, even though they have chosen not to be members.
- More than 9 in 10 labor contracts include release time language, allowing school employees to attend union conventions, serve as union delegates, or conduct union business. Release time also establishes the basis for ghost teachers, whereby school employees accrue seniority, receive taxpayer-funded salary, and amass pension benefits, all while conducting full-time work for the union, a private organization. Read more about ghost teachers.
These provisions tilt the playing field toward teachers’ unions at the expense of students, teachers, and taxpayers alike.
In a victory for taxpayers, the Public School Employees Retirement System (PSERS) has revoked pension credit illegally given to Allentown “ghost teachers” who were hired to teach but instead worked full-time for the local teachers’ union.
Even as the Allentown School District laid off 272 teachers in the past five years, the district used tax dollars to fund the salary and benefits of the full-time president of the Allentown Education Association.
In response to a lawsuit filed by the Fairness Center, PSERS determined the tenures of the current and previous AEA presidents were “non-retirement-covered compensation and years of service credit were removed for the same number of years that each served as union president…”
With this announcement, reported by the Allentown Morning Call and the Easton Express-Times, PSERS declared more than $1 million in salary earned by these ghost teachers ineligible for pension credit.
But pensions aren’t the end of it. Allentown taxpayers have also funded the salaries and other benefits of the city’s ghost teachers—even while the cash-strapped district laid off hundreds.
Pennsylvanians expect their education tax dollars will actually fund education. The fact remains that taxpayers should not be on the hook for union work, and teachers should be paid to teach.
Members of the General Assembly agree. Last month legislation that would strictly limit ghost teaching (HB 2125) advanced in the House.
PSERS’ decision is an important first step toward protecting taxpayers from funding employees of a private organization and making sure teachers are actually in the classroom.
Are ghost teachers about to be put to rest?
Ghost teachers in Pennsylvania would be strictly limited under legislation approved by the state House Education Committee today. HB 2125 restricts teachers unions’ ability to pluck teachers from the classroom to work full-time for the union while remaining on the public payroll.
In Allentown, taxpayers have paid more than $1.3 million to fund the salary and benefits of the Allentown Education Association (AEA) president—using money meant for educating students. That practice is being challenged in a lawsuit by local taxpayer Steven Ramos and former school board member Scott Armstrong.
Another lawsuit is pending in Philadelphia, where last year, 16 ghost teachers earned $1.5 million while working for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
HB 2125 ends ghost teaching with two exceptions:
- Statewide teachers’ unions (like the American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania State Education Association) could have three officials on leave for up to six years, and
- School district employees may be on leave for 15 total days each school year but no more than three consecutive days.
Most importantly the bill requires teachers unions to reimburse every cent associated with school employee leave. CF's James Paul explains:
Year-in and year-out, Pennsylvanians are asked to contribute more and more of their hard-earned dollars to public education. The least state government can do is ensure this funding is used in the classroom and not tapped to staff private organizations. HB 2125 strictly limits ghost teaching and is a victory for Pennsylvanians.
The Pennsylvania Department of Education recently released a video featuring Secretary Pedro Rivera congratulating students for completing a school year. He praises children for “show[ing] up each and every morning ready to learn,” and encourages them to “above all, have fun with learning.”
Most interesting, however, is Rivera’s remark 50 seconds into the clip. Speaking directly to public school teachers, Rivera says, “Studies have shown that effective teachers have the greatest impact on the success of students…know that the governor and the Department of Education appreciate your efforts.”
While it is true effective teachers have the greatest impact on student achievement, this is a galling statement from an administration that recently vetoed HB 805, the Protecting Excellent Teachers Act. This legislation would have retained teachers based on performance, rather than simple seniority, in the unfortunate event of school district furloughs. The bill passed both chambers of the state Legislature, only to be promptly rejected by Gov. Wolf, who sacrificed high-performing teachers in return for union approval.
It’s nice the Wolf administration took time to acknowledge Pennsylvania’s excellent teachers. But it would have been more meaningful to protect their jobs and ensure a high-performing teacher in every classroom.
Teacher Linda Misja is a religious objector to unionism, and as such, can donate the equivalent of her fair share fee--otherwise owed to the union--to charity. But four years ago, the Pennsylvania State Education Association rejected Linda's charity of choice and instead has been holding her money in a union-controlled escrow account.
Today, the House State Government Committee voted in favor of HB 267 to protect religious objectors, like Linda, by eliminating a legal loophole that lets union leaders roadblock employees’ charitable contributions.
Under current law, public employees who object to union membership on religious grounds must donate the equivalent of their “fair share” fee, otherwise owed the union, to a non-religious charity they and the union agree upon. The PSEA, however, has repeatedly rejected teachers’ charities of choice simply because they don’t support the union’s political ideology.
Yet, a list of charities pre-approved by the union spent $27 million on political activity, according to the Fairness Center, which has filed lawsuits against the PSEA on behalf of Linda and two other Pennsylvania teachers.
Unfortunately, the law gives no clear instructions in the event that a union refuses to accept the employee’s charity of choice. If a dispute ensues, the money may be placed in a union-controlled escrow account indefinitely.
HB 267, sponsored by Rep. John Lawrence, would protect the right of religious objectors to give their money to a recognized 501(c)3 of their choosing--even if it doesn't align with the ideology of the PSEA.
CF President and CEO Matt Brouillette explains the treatment of religious objectors is just one more instance of teacher unions putting their interest before the interests of teachers:
Government unions already enjoy the perk of using taxpayer funded payroll systems to collect their union dues, which they then use for political purposes. And unions already trap their members, letting them leave the union only during short windows of time. As if this weren’t enough, union leaders also want to control nonmembers’ paychecks.
Today’s vote is an important first step in protecting the constitutional rights of Pennsylvania’s public employees.
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