Statewide Teacher Contract Will Destroy The Teaching Profession In Pennsylvania

Testimony of Matthew J. Brouillette, President, Commonwealth Foundation

Thank you Mr. Chairman, Rep. Wilt, and Members of the House Labor Relations Committee for the invitation to testify this morning on the “Statewide Teachers’ Contract Analysis Act.” I am Matthew Brouillette, President of The Commonwealth Foundation, a Harrisburg-based public policy research and educational institute.

The Commonwealth Foundation supports the idea of the General Assembly studying the feasibility and impact of policy proposals before simply implementing them. This would hopefully improve the quality of legislation being implemented on the people of this state. However, this proposal to spend upwards of $500,000 of taxpayer money to explore how to fully unionize the teaching profession in Pennsylvania is a step in the wrong direction.

I have spoken with Rep. Wilt about this issue and I understand his motivation to consider a single, negotiated statewide collective bargaining agreement. On its face, this proposal would seem to streamline and simplify a process that needs significant reform.

This idea becomes even more attractive when one considers the anecdotal and empirical evidence that shows how the collective bargaining process has evolved into a money grab for unions and higher property taxes for Pennsylvanians.

From the standpoint of anecdotal evidence, the Council Rock School District in Bucks County will likely be the poster child for collective bargaining reform for years to come. Less than three weeks ago, the local PSEA affiliate struck over salary and prevented the start of school for many days.

Striking teachers were not an uncommon sight across the state this past fall. However, what makes Council Rock unique is the fact that 404 of its 850 union members made between $81,000 and $91,000 last year. For those of us who work 12 months a year, that equates to between $108,000 and $121,000 a year. Now, maybe the citizens of Council Rock can bear the tax increases necessary to fund such generous salaries, but it is the rate of local tax increases to fund union salary demands that have driven the General Assembly into the current Special Session on property tax reform.

But even more startling than the anecdotal evidence, is the empirical evidence that points to the need for reform. In the 13 years following the passage of the Compulsory Union Act of 1988—the law that granted labor unions like the PSEA the power to compel dues or fee payments from employees as a condition of employment—property tax increases for the public schools outpaced inflation by 149 percent. This is compared to a mere 12 percent increase relative to inflation in the previous nineteen years. (See enclosed Policy Brief, The Pennsylvania State Education Association: Compelling Teachers, Lobbying Politicians, and Increasing Taxes, pp. 7-8.) It is the increased power of the school employee labor unions to influence property tax increases that is effectively driving low and fixed-income citizens from their homes because they are unable pay their school taxes.

Clearly, something must be done to rein in the ability of unions to prevent schools from opening and influence tax increases on Pennsylvanians. However, despite these egregious problems, a statewide teacher contract is not the solution.

The Commonwealth Foundation’s opposition to the concepts contained in HB 1653 is twofold.

First, although this bill calls for a “feasibility” study, it already contains conclusions that would produce much more harm than good—and at a cost that taxpayers cannot afford.

How will the General Assembly justify spending upwards of $500,000 of taxpayer money to “study” an idea when just a few months ago it passed the single largest tax increase on all Pennsylvanians in more than a decade? I would argue that this would be an extremely inappropriate use of taxpayer money, particularly given the current fiscal and economic situation in this commonwealth.

There are other problems that cause great concern about this bill; however, I would like to focus the remainder of my testimony on the most important reason why House Bill 1653 is a bad idea.

If the General Assembly were to implement a statewide teacher contract, it would effectively destroy the teaching profession in Pennsylvania.

Public education in Pennsylvania hardly suffers from a lack of unionism. Yet more unionism is exactly what a statewide contract would impose on every teacher in this commonwealth.

What the teaching profession suffers from today is a lack of professionalism—something that neither established labor union will ever restore to the education profession. Yet a statewide teacher contract would serve to prevent improvements in the quality of people who enter and remain in the teaching profession by expanding the control and influence of labor unions over the teaching profession.

Let me explain.

Teaching—unlike other white-collar occupations—is one of the few professions where salaries have little or nothing to do with competency, demand, or performance. In most Pennsylvania public schools, teachers are paid according to a union-negotiated, one-size-fits-all, seniority-based salary schedule.

This means that high-performing teachers are paid the same as mediocre or incompetent teachers. But we know that physics teachers are in shorter supply than are phys ed teachers; and we also know that some teachers, regardless of their subject matter, add greater value to a school than do others. Yet by standardizing teacher pay, union contracts deprive school managers the ability to pay market values to attract and retain highly qualified individuals to the teaching profession.

It is truly a shame that good teachers are not paid like good doctors, engineers or other professionals. However, the solution is not in simply elevating the pay of all teachers, regardless of merit, through a statewide salary schedule. Teacher pay will become more equitable only when the teaching profession becomes more competitive like other professional careers.

The key difference between teachers and other professionals is that they can practice their profession in a variety of ways. For example, doctors and engineers can be employed by organizations, partner with others, or work for themselves in private practice. School teachers lack such important professional choices.

Traditionally, teachers must enter their profession as employees of schools or school districts. We already know that many qualified teachers leave the profession in order to pursue more autonomous or financially rewarding careers. In addition, other potential teachers never even consider entering the profession due to the lack of professional opportunities for compensation, development, and advancement.

Therefore, if we ever hope to improve the teaching profession, we must allow educators the flexibility to work for themselves or the freedom to collaborate with others. They must be able to negotiate their own salaries and establish their own value in the education marketplace.

Unfortunately, we are a long way from creating the type of teaching profession I just described. But that’s only because the PSEA and PFT are adamantly opposed to allowing teachers to exercise the freedoms enjoyed by other professionals. Yet if we embrace a statewide collective bargaining contract with either the PSEA or PFT as the “exclusive representative” of all of the commonwealth’s teachers, Pennsylvania will never be able to implement the same incentives that drive continuous improvement, innovation, and compensation that doctors and engineers benefit from today.

While the problems exemplified by the Council Rock Education Association and the PSEA’s ability to influence tax increases on citizens do require legislative action, the implementation of a statewide teacher contract is not the solution. Although a statewide contract may appear to solve these short-term problems, the long-term outcome would be the effective destruction of the teaching profession in Pennsylvania.

I strongly urge this committee not to spend $500,000 of taxpayer money to thrust Pennsylvania into territory into which we should never venture. It is clear that the teaching profession needs more freedom and professional choices, not less.

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Matthew J. Brouillette, a former teacher and public school board member, is president of the Commonwealth Foundation, a non-partisan, non-profit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg, Pa.