The PSEA: A Worm in the Apple

Every taxpayer in the Commonwealth should be aware of the influence and agenda of the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA).  Despite its name, the organization’s top priority is not educating children.

The PSEA is a statewide union representing public school teachers, and it is one of the wealthiest and most powerful special interest groups in the Commonwealth.  It boasts more than 187,500 members, an annual income of more than $85 million, and 286 full-time employees working in Harrisburg and at 13 regional offices.  The union exists to: 1) compel public school employees into collective bargaining units and  pay union dues and fees; 2) elect pro-union politicians at every level of government; and 3) lobby public officials for pro-union policies, benefits and ever-larger sums of tax money—ostensibly for educational improvement, but ultimately for itself.

It wasn’t always this way. At one time, the PSEA was a professional organization for teachers. But Act 84 of 1988 turned the PSEA into a full-blown labor union, with the power to compel public school employees to pay fees to the union as a condition of employment, whether or not they want union representation.

Today, the ability to influence politics and public policy is vital to the union’s survival. Therefore, the PSEA annually expends millions of dollars from dues and compulsory fees in the political arena to influence elections at all levels of government and lobby policymakers. 

In the 2005-2006 election cycles, the PSEA’s political action committee, which is the second wealthiest in the state, made nearly $2 million in “hard” contributions to candidates for public office. In addition to direct cash contributions to politicians’ coffers, the union also provided its endorsed candidates with “soft dollar” support such as phone banks, door-to-door canvassing, and other invaluable services. The PSEA’s ability to use soft money to mobilize union activists is virtually unmatched by other special interest groups. In 2007 alone, it spent nearly $2 million on such activities. 

The union’s lobbying effort is as redoubtable as its commitment to impacting election results. The PSEA has nine full-time lobbyists earning an average salary of $125,957. In addition to generous salary and health benefits packages, PSEA personnel receive such perks as golf outings, ski resort trips, and rooms in luxury hotels—all paid for with members’ dues and non-members’ fees.
By politicizing public education, the PSEA has marginalized parents and children while driving up taxes. Every year the PSEA sets its agenda through resolutions expressing the union’s position on various issues. These resolutions reveal the union’s mission. Here is a sampling:

Opposition to merit pay for teachers. Merit pay attracts, rewards, and retains quality teachers and encourages low-performing teachers to improve or find another line of work. The PSEA’s opposition to merit pay reveals that it isn’t concerned with teacher quality.

The “right” to strike.  The PSEA has firmly opposed anti-strike laws and believes strikebreakers should be subject to “member discipline.” Thirty-seven states prohibit teacher strikes because they only inhibit education by serving as a heavy club for unions to pound taxpayers into submission. 

Lavish health insurance coverage. Although private sector employees usually pay all or a portion of their health care insurance premiums, a PSEA chapter will frequently strike over being asked to pay a minimal amount of the premium for their taxpayer-funded health insurance coverage. 

Opposition to home schooling. The PSEA believes that home instruction should be discouraged and that students should be taught only by union members with state teacher certification.

Opposition to “paycheck protection.” The PSEA defends its use of members’ dues for political purposes without their approval, which violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The PSEA agenda is costly to taxpayers, particularly homeowners. The union’s success in lobbying policymakers and bargaining for increasingly expensive contracts has driven up local property taxes by 89% (after adjusting for inflation) from 1988-2007.  And while taxes and teachers’ salaries have soared (Pennsylvania public educators are the fourth-highest paid in the nation after adjusting for cost-of-living), our students’ 2008 SAT scores rank a lowly 43rd in the nation.  

The PSEA works hard to convince citizens that it represents the best interests of children and education. The evidence, however, reveals that the union has its own interest at heart. Pennsylvania lawmakers can make  education of our children a priority by outlawing teacher strikes, eliminating monopoly bargaining rights and compulsory unionism, and allowing parents’ tax dollars to follow their children to the school of their choice.

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Matthew J. Brouillette, a former teacher and school board member, is president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation (, a public policy education and research institute located in Harrisburg.