The Pennsylvania State (Everything But) Education Association

Almost as predictable as the beginning of the football season is the start of the strike season by public school employees in Pennsylvania. And the kick-off to the 2002-03 school year was quite eventful with nearly 150 school districts facing potential strikes by teachers and other school employees represented by the state’s largest, wealthiest, and most politically powerful labor union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA).

But Pennsylvania parents and taxpayers who pay higher taxes for the union’s demands are noting that the education of children is rarely, if ever, the reason for work stoppages. Take, for example, the Council Rock School District in Bucks County where the average teacher salary last year was $75,000, and about 40 percent of district teachers received more than $87,000.

When offered a 3-year, 9.25 percent salary increase by the school board, union members in the PSEA-affiliated Council Rock Education Association (CREA) headed for the picket line instead of their classrooms. The CREA wanted a four-year contract with salary increases totaling near 18 percent, with no employee contributions to health benefits for entire families. After forcing parents to find education alternatives for their children for many days, the CREA accepted a contract that will require an additional $6 million in new tax levies to fund salary increases of 9 percent over the next five years.

Although Council Rock may be the exception rather than the rule in Pennsylvania, the PSEA is working to change that. A recent policy brief from The Commonwealth Foundation shows how the education of children will always give way to the union’s own financial and political agenda.

While the PSEA attempts to convince citizens that it represents the best interests of teachers, children and public education, the evidence reveals that in addition to unionizing employees, negotiating compulsory dues agreements from school boards, and lobbying elected officials, the union’s number one priority is securing increasingly large amounts of taxpayer money for the public schools and—ultimately—the union itself.

The tipping point for the PSEA came in 1988 with the passage of Act 84 which granted labor unions the power to compel dues or fee payments from employees as a condition of employment. As a result, “membership” multiplied from 80,000 members in the mid-1980s to more than 160,000 today. Although the union bills itself as a “voluntary” membership association, it is one of the few organizations where non-membership cost teachers more than $345 in fees in the 2001-02 school year.

At the end of the day, the PSEA’s health and prosperity is based on its success in getting elected officials to increase taxes on Pennsylvanians. Because salaries and benefits of public school employees—and, indirectly, union employees—are paid for by taxpayers, the union has a strong incentive to push for higher taxes.

With more than 275 full-time employees, 11 regional offices, 160,000 members, and an annual income of more than $66 million, the PSEA runs a political machine of union operatives and activists that is virtually unmatched by any other special interest group in Pennsylvania.

But while the PSEA faces “competition” for taxpayer dollars at the state level, the union has a virtual monopoly of nfluence over power local taxation units of government—school districts.

In contract negotiations, local PSEA affiliates have secured increasingly larger amounts of taxpayer money via higher property taxes with the complicity and/or pressuring of school boards. The PSEA’s success in raising property taxes is startling. In the nineteen years before the compulsory union act of 1988, property taxes grew 12 percent faster than the concurrent rate of inflation. However, in the thirteen years following Act 84, local property taxes for schools increased by 149 percent.

But despite double and triple the rate of inflation tax revenue increases over the past thirty years for the public schools, it is union officials—not teachers—who are the real financial beneficiaries. In 2000-01, the average PSEA employee salary was $73,388—or 48 percent higher than the average teacher and 116 percent more than the average worker in Pennsylvania—and nearly 1 out of 3 PSEA employees received more than $100,000 in salary alone.

Every Pennsylvanian should be concerned about the financial incentives and political agenda that drive the Pennsylvania State Education Association and its local affiliates. It is the only labor union that holds inordinate sway over both Pennsylvanians’ paychecks and our children’s education.

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Matthew J. Brouillette, a former teacher and public school board member, is president of the Commonwealth Foundation, an independent, nonprofit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg, PA.