How Taxpayers are Funding Big Labor’s Education Failures

Who would ever let a fox into your hen house, pay him for his time, then take his word every morning that all the chickens are present and accounted for?   Well, that’s apparently what Pennsylvania taxpayers have done as millions in education dollars are being funneled to unions and their lobbyists to work against the best interests of taxpayers, parents, students and teachers.

School districts use precious taxpayer resources to garnish union dues and “fair share fees” from employee’s paychecks.  Only tax collectors and unions have the rare power to take money out of worker’s paychecks without their approval.  At the same time, public schools are paying for membership in an array of other acronym-associations, who turn around and lobby state lawmakers with their tax dollars.

More than $92 million in taxpayer dollars for public education is being funneled through school districts back to these special interest groups, including the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA). These groups that profit from the $26 billion Pennsylvania taxpayers dole out on public schools have formed a coalition against school vouchers, ramped up their lobbying efforts and run attack ads against school choice and other education reforms.  Our tax dollars are funding organizations working to protect their fiefdom of failure against the best interests of taxpayers and school children.

The PSEA is leading this charge, using its dues to buy radio ads under the name “Pennsylvanians Opposed to Vouchers,” a coalition many taxpayer-supported educational organizations have joined to campaign against school choice. In another case, a Democrat consulting firm, TeamBlue Politics, is running radio and TV ads pretending to be a tea party group, labeling school choice as a “voucher tax.” 

Union lobbying isn’t limited to vouchers. The PSEA is lobbying hard to keep “Last-In-First-Out” (LIFO) hiring rules, forcing school officials to lay off teachers based solely on seniority, not performance—the measure used in every other profession. LIFO hurts good, young teachers and harms educational quality.  Children should learn from the best teachers, regardless of their seniority.

Not all the acronym-associations are unified on this front. The school boards’ association joined with education reformers to support furloughs for economic reasons based on teacher performance. But deeper coffers allowed union lobbyists to water down legislation in the Pennsylvania Senate by inserting the LIFO rule.

Education unions also continue their lobbying for more funds. This spring the president of PSEA argued the $500 million in unanticipated tax revenue should be given to public schools, ignoring that public education spending has doubled over the past 15 years.  And the PSEA and other acronym-groups are fighting reforms to give voters a voice on school tax increases—a control that voters in most other states already possess.

Meanwhile, PSEA union lobbyists have helped create a crisis in public pension plans.  Not only did the PSEA support pension benefit increases, but also lobbied for a deferred payment approach.  While decrying that the state wasn’t paying its “fair share” into pension funds, the PSEA proposed, endorsed, and lobbied for legislation in 2003 and 2010 to pay less into pension funds.  These deferrals drive up unfunded liabilities and future costs—making taxpayers pay more and putting teachers’ pensions on riskier footing.

No one should be surprised that public school unions and associations are fighting for their own benefit and not “for the kids;” but the degree to which their agenda ignores the plight of children is astonishing.   In Pennsylvania, 60 percent of 8th grade students score below proficiency on the NAEP reading and mathematics exams, while fewer than one in five students pass the NAEP reading or math test in Philadelphia.

In the 2009 school year, the bottom five percent of schools reported seven rapes, 1,983 assaults on students, 1,027 assaults on staff and two official riots. No wonder about 30 percent of children in urban school districts drop out.

For decades, education unions have been using our tax dollars to convince us that more time and more money was needed to improve the commonwealth’s schools, ignoring the body of evidence that demonstrates school choice and reforms that spur competition are good for children. It’s time to stop using taxpayer resources to fund this misinformation campaign and put a stop to giving the foxes keys to the henhouse.

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Elizabeth Stelle is a Policy Analyst and Nathan Benefield is Director of Policy Analysis with the Commonwealth Foundation,