The Union Behind the Curtain

California’s Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is giving his 49 colleagues across the country a quick tutorial in political courage. And Gov. Ed Rendell would be wise to sit up in class and pay attention.

The “Governator” is engaged in a frontal assault on his state’s powerful school employee labor unions, breathing life into plans to overhaul an educational system that protects mediocrity while failing to reward excellence in the classroom.

In a recent interview, Schwarzenegger bristled at the suggestion that he was “taking on” public school teachers by proposing that salary increases be based on merit and continued employment be determined by classroom performance.

“I‘ve traveled to more schools than any politician has … I love teachers,” said Schwarzenegger. “And we need more teachers and they should get paid more. But I am against the unions, because the unions are the ones that are creating the big problem.”

Pennsylvania’s “big problem” is no different. Organized labor’s long arm into the classroom—the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA)—attempts to characterize itself as a professional organization for educators that acts in the best interests of “the children.” But the “for the children” curtain is being pulled back daily, exposing it for the political machine that it is.

It is no secret that the PSEA was the top political giver in the last gubernatorial election cycle—even outspending the trial lawyers. But in addition to providing direct political campaign contributions, the school union faithful act as foot soldiers for a single political party and the latest Left-leaning pop cause.

The union, of course, will claim that it is fighting for higher standards, better instruction, safer schools, and on and on. Yet things have only gotten worse in Pennsylvania public education. The reality is that the PSEA is more interested in maintaining its political power and privilege than in truly improving our children’s education.

The evidence is in how compulsory union dues from its 162,000 school employee members are used. Instead of challenging a system of high costs and low quality, millions of dollars are spent defending it. Increasingly, PSEA’s sole mission is to establish a permanent repellent to reform—and not just in public education.

This month’s cover story in the PSEA Voice magazine, circulated to its members, is proof of this anti-reform agenda—a virtual reprint of the Democratic National Committee’s talking points on Social Security reform. That’s right, Social Security reform. Not school choice or teacher quality, but opposing changes to the soon-to-be insolvent federal retirement program.

The Voice reads like a Nancy Pelosi stump speech, arguing that proposed Social Security reforms will hurt women, African-Americans, and younger workers. Obviously, it is a scheme concocted by a bunch of old white guys! One would expect that teachers in schools throughout Pennsylvania must be wondering: Why are my dues being used to lobby against Social Security reform in Washington, D.C., instead of working to improve education in Harrisburg?

The answer lies behind the curtain—the curtain Gov. Schwarzenegger is trying to pull back in California when he said “this is going to be a big political fight.”

And despite the gloom that envelopes Pennsylvania’s public education system, on February 9 this year, there was a glimmer of hope for Pennsylvania’s children. In Gov. Rendell’s budget address, he said that dramatic increases in taxpayer funding for the public schools “must be coupled with increased accountability to get the results that we need.”

He noted that “I stood before you last year, and the year before, and asked you to consider legislation that holds our academic leaders more accountable for the performance of every student,” including “basing superintendent and principal contract renewals, in part, on improved student performance. And by changing how we pay teachers so that they are rewarded for teaching skills—not just longevity.”

Yet despite enunciating these reasonable words, the governor has not proposed any legislation, nor has a “big fight” ensued.

Gov. Schwarzenegger recognizes that “This is a battle of the special interests versus the children’s interests.” And he asked, “Which will you choose?”

It is time for Gov. Rendell to choose as well.

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Jeff Coleman, a former member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, is vice president of the Commonwealth Foundation, a non-partisan, non-profit research and educational institute located at the foot of the Capitol in Harrisburg.