Jane Ladley was a special education teacher in Chester County for more than 25 years until she retired this year. She may have left teaching, but she has a bone to pick with the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), the union that represents some 180,000 educators around the state.
In a landmark step, Ladley and Lancaster County teacher Chris Meier sued the PSEA for violating their rights as "religious objectors." It's the first case for newly established public interest law firm, the Fairness Center.
Ladley and Meier are fee payers—teachers who don't officially join the union, but by contract rules and state law are forced to pay a "fair share fee" to the union to cover representation. However, both teachers became religious objectors who, because their faith conflicts with union support of policies such as abortion, decided to have their fee instead donated to a charity.
In this case, both teachers got stuck in limbo. The PSEA accepted their religious objections, but have nixed the charities the teachers chose. Christen Smith from Capitolwire (paywall) reported on Ladley's experience:
“I first chose a scholarship in our local community for students who showed an interest in the Constitution, which is definitely close to my heart,” she said in editorial submitted to newspapers by her attorney, Nate Bohlander, assistant general counsel for the Harrisburg-based Fairness Center. “They looked at the organization sponsoring it and said they would not agree to it based on it being a political group.”
Ladley said she searched for another charity with a similar mission — she chose one that offers classes on the Constitution, instead — but the PSEA hasn't approved it to date, either.
“They are telling me which groups I have to choose,” she said. “It’s a wrong that needs to be righted. I’m doing this on principle and for the other teachers coming up through the ranks, so that they have these options available to them.”
The PSEA has 20 days from the filing of the lawsuit (September 18) to respond.
According to the Fairness Center, the PSEA is exploiting a loophole in Pennsylvania law that effectively silences teachers: The 1988 agency shop law requires the money to go to a "non-religious charity" both union and teacher agree on, but doesn't prescribe a procedure or deadline to reach that agreement.
Ladley says the amount of money at stake or whether she's still in the classroom is irrelevant. "Why should I have to fund an organization that counters my faith and values so I can work as a teacher?" she said. Even if only future Pennsylvania teachers see their rights better protected, for her, it's worth the fight.
Most workers are shortchanged by Pennsylvania’s public employee pension programs, according to two recent studies.
The Urban Institute gives Pennsylvania's State Employees' Retirement System (SERS) an "F" grade, ranking it third worst in the nation—better than only Massachusetts and New Jersey.
The September 2014 report says:.
The plan scores poorly because it is inadequately funded, it penalizes work at older ages by reducing lifetime benefits for older employees, and it provides few retirement benefits to short-term employees"...
One in five employees with at least five years of completed service lose money by participating in the plan because pensions they earn are worth less than their required plan contributions.
SERS gives 76 percent of the benefits to 25 percent of employees, according to the Urban Institute.
A similar disparity is found in a Bellweather Education Partners study of the nation’s pension funds for public school teachers, including the state’s Public School Employees' Retirement System (PSERS).
Generous benefits for long-term teachers are partly paid at the expense of those who leave teaching earlier or move from place to place within the profession, according to the study, Friends without Benefits: How States Systematically Shortchange Teachers’ Retirement and Threaten Their Retirement Security.
Less than 25 percent of Pennsylvania’s teachers ever become vested in the pension system, compared to a national median of approximately 45 percent, says Bellweather.
In contrast, defined contribution plans like the 401(k), offer many features better for younger workers. In addition to portability and better benefits for short-term employees, our recent pension study outlines several reason why transitioning to a defined contribution retirement system is an improvement for many employees.
- Ownership. Workers with higher risk preferences can pursue their own investment strategies without restrictions.
- Potentially higher returns. A growing body of evidence suggests that a lifetime of defined contribution retirement investments produce higher returns than individuals cashing out of a defined benefit program.
- Security. By definition, defined contribution plans are fully funded. All of the funds promised to an employee are paid up front and become the employee’s property. There is no risk of reduced benefits from municipal bankruptcy as in the case of Detroit.
The primary obstacle to a more equitable retirement system are teacher unions notes the Bellweather study, saying “the teachers who remain in the system long enough to maximize their benefits—an ever shrinking group—are the most organized politically, via teachers unions and other stakeholder groups."
Unfortunately, government unions' refusal to acknowledge the need for pension reform will hurt workers for years to come. Pension reform is essential to not only protecting taxpayers from enormous debt and rising property taxes, but to give workers a higher quality retirement system where benefits are better distributed.
Legislation to protect children from predators in the classroom has stalled in Harrisburg.
Union executives are standing in the way.
Currently, teachers who sexually abuse or have been otherwise accused of harming children are permitted to reach a "confidentiality agreement" with their district and quietly resign. If the same teacher applies for a position in a new district, they are not required to inform the new school of their alleged misconduct.
An in-depth report from PennLive explains the teacher unions' unpopular position:
Child welfare advocates blame teachers' unions for not backing transparency throughout the background check process. Union representatives refute that claim, saying they're generally neutral on the bill.
"We support efforts to keep schools safe, but we also support due process for teachers and other school employees," Pennsylvania State Education Association spokesman Wythe Keever said.
Due process is not the issue. The issue is an outrageous loophole in state law allowing accused teachers to resign and relocate without having to inform their new district of alleged abuse.
Far from denying due process, the legislation provides for more thorough background checks and allows employers to know if a potential hire was previously investigated.
We all know the vast majority of teachers are committed to the well-being of their students. But apparently union executives won't lift a finger to make classrooms more safe.
Repeating the same lie over and over does not make it magically come true. Yet this hasn’t stopped the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) leadership from an endless campaign of deception regarding education funding in the commonwealth.
A recent release from the PSEA claims that state funding cuts are causing disproportionately poor test scores for low-income students.
Unfortunately for the “research division” of the PSEA, the truth is state education spending has increased since 2010-2011 and is currently at a record high. What’s more, there is considerable evidence that increased spending has no relationship with improved academic performance.
When calculating education spending, the PSEA refuses to acknowledge rising pension costs, which are an enormous cost driver for districts across the state. You can’t have an honest discussion about education policy without talking about pension reform—unless you’ve buried your head in the sand. In fact, every governor since Milton Shapp in the early 1970s has included pension costs as funding for public schools.
Growing pension costs are directly responsible for layoffs and program cuts. By standing in the way of responsible pension reform, the PSEA holds much of the blame for the current pension crisis.
Since 2009, the state has seen a $1.9 billion increase in Public School Employees Retirement System (PSERS) payments. To put that increase in perspective: $1.9 billion is equivalent to the salary of 33,400 public school teachers.
The PSEA claims that Pennsylvania should “just let Act 120 work”—referring to legislation passed in 2010 that slightly reduced benefits for new employees and relied on unrealistic projections of future investment returns. But letting Act 120 "work" will result in pension costs continuing to skyrocket in coming years. School districts will thus have less money to spend in the classroom, and property taxes will sharply increase to keep pace with pensions.
Of course, higher property taxes are a desirable outcome for PSEA leaders. “Let Act 120 work” essentially means “let higher property taxes fund our retirement.” Between 2012-13 and 2016-17, the average Pennsylvania household will pay nearly $900 in new taxes as a result of pension obligations.
The PSEA doubles down on faulty arguments by pointing the finger at imaginary spending cuts for low scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA). A study conducted by The 21st Century Partnership for STEM Education, however, found “either no or very weak association between levels of education expenditures and student achievement.”
This is just another piece of the growing evidence that throwing more money at struggling schools will not improve student performance, but it will hurt property owners—particularly seniors on fixed incomes.
The PSEA is entitled to its own opinions, but not its own facts. Government union bosses should stop deliberately confusing Pennsylvanians with false and misleading claims.
As part of National Employee Freedom Week, we sat down with two western Pennsylvania teachers who successfully left their teachers’ unions last year. John Cress is a middle school math and special education teacher and Rob Brough is a 20-year history and reading teacher. Both were motivated to opt out after seeing the political nature of their unions’ activities.
Why is an annual educational campaign designed to inform teachers of their right to opt out of full union membership even necessary? Teachers’ unions don’t make such information widely available. Indeed, both Rob and John thought they had to join the union as full members in order to get their first teaching jobs.
Brough says, “The bottom line is: No. I can say with absolute certainty that none of those options were given to me . . . If a person doesn’t know that their rights even exist, how can they exercise those rights freely?”
Cress agrees, saying, “There should be full disclosure on where the dues are going and the educator should be permitted to make the decision by him or herself as to whether or not to continue to contribute to those causes.”
After years of union membership, Brough determined that the teachers’ unions weren’t designed to help improve his effectiveness in the classroom: “I was learning nothing about becoming a better public servant. I was, however, learning about politics. I was learning about organizations that were designed to increase the union’s effectiveness.”
Cress disagreed with his unions’ political stances but was powerless to change them: “It was very frustrating every time one of those [political] emails came because I was thinking, ‘Why do I have to be part of this organization? Why do I have to support these causes just to be a teacher? I should have free will. I should be able to have an open mind, but I was under the impression that I couldn’t.”
Follow Commonwealth Foundation’s SoundCloud stream for more of our audio content.
Heather Lister and Joe Connolly are both Pennsylvania educators, and they couldn’t be more different. Heather is a 25-year-old library media specialist and a registered Democrat. Joe is a veteran high school guidance counselor and a proud conservative.
On the surface, the teachers are poles apart, but there is something they agree on: Lister and Connolly both believe that labor union membership should be voluntary.
You might wonder why that’s such a big deal—don’t teachers already have a choice? The short answer is no.
In the 26 states that are not “right to work,” most public school teachers who decide not to join a union must still pay union fees—whether they want union representation or not. That's why Commonwealth Foundation is participating in National Employee Freedom Week (August 10-16), a broad grassroots effort to inform teachers and other unionized workers of their labor rights.
It seems clear that there is widespread agreement—across party lines and ideological barriers—that we must address school seniority rules and tenure reform.
Check out this stunning video from MSNBC's Morning Joe and take note of who is sitting around the table: liberals, conservatives, moderates, and independents. Everyone seems to agree that all children deserve access to the highest quality teachers.
Everyone, that is, except the teacher union leaders—who fight tooth and nail to retain inflexible seniority rules and status quo tenure policies.
As mentioned in the clip, teachers are not interchangeable parts. They should be treated, evaluated, and compensated like any other professionals, which is based on performance. Seniority rules mandate that teachers be placed and furloughed simply according to their years in the system, not how effective they are at instructing students. This results in the best teachers being left out in the cold, while those who are less effective, but longer tenured, are protected.
There is a solution to this problem in the commonwealth. HB 1722, sponsored by Rep. Tim Krieger, would ensure that furlough decisions are based on actual job-performance, as well as increase the benchmark for tenure from three to five years.
This important legislation would dramatically improve the quality of education throughout Pennsylvania.
Good news from the Pittsburgh School District, where the Pennsylvania Department of Education granted three year approval of Pittsburgh’s new teacher evaluation system. This despite the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers’ efforts to undermine and weaken the standards it originally helped craft.
As we've noted before, the evaluation model identifies both successful teachers and those who need to improve. In the 2013-14 school year, 28 teachers were evaluated as unsatisfactory by the new system. A second straight year of unsatisfactory performance could lead to dismissal. The district will provide teachers who receive unsatisfactory evaluations with extra support in order to develop their skills.
Previously, Pittsburgh teachers were evaluated solely on classroom observation. The new system maintains a strong observation component, but it also accounts for student performance. Accurate, reliable, and meaningful feedback is the only way to ensure that teachers—or any other professionals—have the necessary tools to grow and improve.
Sophisticated teacher evaluation models are an important reform for school districts seeking to retain their best talent and move away from inflexible seniority rules like "Last-in, First-out" (LIFO). In the event of layoffs, LIFO puts up-and-coming teachers at greatest risk—regardless of job performance. And since schools in poorer districts have large numbers of new teachers, LIFO disproportionately affects schools in low-income areas.
If a school is in the unfortunate position of needing to reduce staff, it must be able to make decisions based on the specific needs of its student population. A longer-tenured teacher is not necessarily a more effective teacher, and it is precisely the most effective teachers who should be protected and rewarded—be they young or old.
Thankfully, the approved Pittsburgh evaluation system offers a robust measurement of teachers' classroom performance.
While union leadership continues to repeat the myth that union dues cannot be used for politics, the latest newsletter from the Pennsylvania State Education Assocation again reveals, in small print, that 12 percent of members’ dues will be spent on politics next year.
That should not surprise anyone, given the rest of the magazine is chock full of political ads, endorsements, and calls to action.
This is on the heels of increasing political activism out of the national teachers' unions. In case you missed it, last week the American Federation of Teachers decided to increase their union dues to bolster their political spending.
To bolster the union’s coffers for the legal and political battles to come, the AFT leadership is asking members to support a two-stage dues hike that would add $5.40 a year to their bills this year and another $6.60 in 2015.
Most of the increase would go toward the “militancy/defense fund” and state and national “solidarity funds,” which support litigation, political activism and lobbying.
The $12 increase (over two years), would mean the AFT will collect almost $19 million more each year that can be used on politics. Last year, the AFT spent more than $28 million on political activity and lobbying, while more than half its spending went to the category "other," including gifts to other advocacy organizations.
Their sister organization, the NEA, spent $44.8 million on politics last year, not including their list of gifts to other political organizations. And as the Wall Street Journal reports, the recent NEA conference was full of political debate, while eschewing union transparency.
Delegates debated whether the union's president should write a letter to Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder denouncing the NFL team name's "institutional racism." They also discussed a resolution supporting reparations for "the lingering impact of slavery" and "subtle Jim Crow policies and thinking" including "unconscious bias." These items were referred to a private committee for further discussion.
Some business items approved by the delegates did pertain to teaching. Delegates signed off on drawing up a list of books, for students from pre-K to graduate school, "that have LGBTQ and gender non-conforming themes" ($6,500) and a lobbying campaign for legislation that requires "sensitive and respectful discussions of gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation" ($24,140). They also adopted a resolution to promote "clean energy" in curriculums ($10,760).
The attendees voted down some in-house items: a proposal that would require the NEA's board to provide written justification for executive officers' raises, and another that urged the NEA to "bargain in good faith" with its internal union, the Association of Field Service Employees (AFSE), thus exemplifying "the behavior we advocate for in negotiations."
As for Pennsylvania, many teachers disagree with both the PSEA and NEA's spending on politics—and the lousy job the union does telling educators about it. As teacher Steve Calabro noted last month, one obscure notice does not make for notified teachers on such a critical issue.
"How much money is the government owed from teachers who don't take this into account when filing taxes?" Calabro askked. "This information should be a separate mailer that goes out the first week of January, not smothered in the back of a summer issue of a magazine that no one reads."
While labor unions nationwide have been on the defensive for the past few decades—especially in light of pro-worker measures in states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana—Pennsylvania remains a bastion of union power, according to a series of articles in the Central Penn Business Journal (CPBJ) on the "State of the Unions."
According to the Business Journal, unions are confident that they are stronger and more united than ever. And if this past budget season tells us anything, it's that unions, particularly the powerful government employee unions like the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776 (the state liquor store clerks' union), have wielded their immense political influence to stop Paycheck Protection, stymie pension reform, and sink liquor privatization efforts.
Given the government unions’ power, it’s no surprise to see Pennsylvania ranked fourth in the nation in union membership, trailing only California, New York, and Illinois. However, union membership in the state has been in steady decline, mirroring national trends. At the same time, union membership among those in Public Administration has risen slightly between 2003 and 2013.
One CPBJ editorial (pay wall) pointed out that while the businesses interviewed have often found private-sector unions to be willing partners who have adapted to declining union power and a changing marketplace, the public-sector unions have continued to thwart necessary government reforms.
"Nobody seems to care about the citizens and businesses that foot the bill for preserving the status quo. It's about time they did," the CPBJ editorial concludes. We wholeheartedly agree!
Total Records: 141
Who are We?
The Commonwealth Foundation is Pennsylvania's free-market think tank. The Commonwealth Foundation crafts free-market policies, convinces Pennsylvanians of their benefits, and counters attacks on liberty.