The Pennsylvania State Education Association: Compelling Teachers, Lobbying Politicians, and Increasing Taxes

Executive Summary

Originally founded as the Pennsylvania State Teachers Association in 1852, the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) has transformed itself from a professional development organization for educators into one of the wealthiest, largest, and most politically active labor unions in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

With more than 160,000 members, an annual income of more than $66 million through compulsory payments and other sources, and 276 full-time employees, the union’s success depends on its ability to:

  1. Organize employees into collective bargaining units and secure compulsory dues agreements from school boards;
  2. Influence legislation by financially supporting, electing, and lobbying elected officials at every level of government; and
  3. Secure increasingly larger amounts of taxpayer money for the public schools and—ultimately—the union itself.

In the 1980s, Pennsylvania State Education Association membership numbered a mere 80,000. But with the passage of Act 84 in 1988—a law that granted labor unions the power to compel dues or fee payments from employees as a condition of employment—PSEA membership has more than doubled to over 160,000 today. The PSEA’s success in organizing teachers, cooks, janitors, bus drivers, and other school and health care personnel has provided the union the numbers and wealth to influence public policy in a manner that is virtually unrivaled in Harrisburg.

The PSEA has evolved into a powerful political machine with full and part-time political operatives in the state capital and in 11 regionally positioned offices throughout the Commonwealth. The labor union’s extensive network of personnel is able to directly and indirectly influence local, regional, statewide, and national political campaigns through hard and soft dollar contributions totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars. But by completely politicizing public education at every level, the PSEA has effectively marginalized parents, children, and even teachers in communities throughout Pennsylvania.

Ultimately, 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. To this end, the labor union has been highly effective.

In the years preceding the passage of Act 84 (1968-1987), public school tax revenue from state and local sources grew respectively at rates 9 and 13 percent faster than inflation. However, in the years following Act 84 (1988-2000), public school tax revenue growth from state and local sources outpaced inflation by 102 and 133 percent, respectively.

And during the post-Act 84 time period, property tax increases outpaced inflation by 149 percent, compared to a 12 percent increase in the preceding nineteen years. Although Pennsylvania teachers receive the highest salaries in the nation (when adjusted for the cost of living), the real beneficiaries of the PSEA’s financial and political power are the PSEA staff and officers. In 2000-01, the average salary for a PSEA employee was more than $73,000. Even more startling, 84 out of 276 employees received more than $100,000 in salary alone.

The success of the PSEA in organizing employees, influencing politicians, and encouraging tax increases should be a concern for every Pennsylvanian. In addition to profiting from the $17.4 billion in taxpayer money that is annually spent on public education, the PSEA heavily influences what is legislated in the statehouse and what occurs in our schools—which are supposed to educate our children and help prepare them for responsible citizenship and productive lives.