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Working In These Times

Thursday, May 24, 2012, 10:46 am

Sneak Attack on Teachers’ Collective Bargaining Rights in Pennsylvania

BY Mike Elk

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Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett at a November 2011 news conference. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)  

Republican Gov. Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania is pushing a bill that could stealthily strip teachers' collective bargaining rights in some of the state's financially struggling school districts, according to members of the Pennsylvania State Education Association.  

Earlier this week, the Pennsylvania State Senate Education committee passed H.B. 1307, a bill allowing the state to declare school districts financially distressed and subsequently appoint an overseer to approve plans made by the school board. To the dismay of teachers' unions, the bill would also allow public schools to be turned over to private charter companies and give the receiver the power to null and void any collective bargaining contracts.

The legislation would declare four school districts financially distressed—Chester Upland, Duquesne City, Harrisburg, and York City—and grants the Pennsylvania State Board of Education full discretion to declare any school financially distressed in the future.

As the bill advances, teacher unions see the legislation as a sneak attack against collective bargaining, prompted by fears of union attacks like those in Wisconsin.

“I think they looked at Wisconsin and the outrage that occurred when they tried to take away all collective bargaining rights for public employees at once," says Mary Willis, a teacher and PSEA member in the Harrisburg School District. "I think they decided that they really didn’t want to have that kind of uprising in a big labor state like Pennsylvania and I think they decided they wanted to go after it piecemeal."

The move comes against the backdrop of a Pennsylvania schools funding crisis. Under Gov. Corbett, the state cut education funding by $860 million in the budget year 2011-12. According to PSEA, local school districts lost an average of 13.6 percent of state funding from the cuts, or approximately 3.4 percent of their overall funding. Corbett has also proposed to cut an additional $100 million in block grant funding for 2012-13. The funding cuts coincide with property value decreases in some Pennsylvania towns, decreasing the amount of tax revenue available for many local school districts.

At Willis's district in Harrisburg—which would be declared financially distressed—schools have been forced to eliminate kindergarten classes, pre-K programs, and an emotional support program for troubled students. As of last year, the district cut more than 200 teaching positions and last year's budget called for cutting another 153.

“There is a serious funding crisis in a growing number of our schools,” says PSEA President Mike Crossey. “But this bill isn’t a solution. The problem was manufactured largely by state underfunding in the first place. This bill is a bureaucratic power grab masquerading as a fix, and it leaves these struggling schools guessing about how to balance their budgets and educate their students.”

PSEA says that giving the state the power to null collective bargaining costs is a wrongheaded approach to fixing the state’s fiscal problems. The union argues that increasing labor costs are not behind the financial revenue shortfalls plaguing many school districts. According to “Sounding the Alarm,” a PSEA report, “Even with projected increases in pension contributions, salary and benefit costs will only increase from 62 percent of district budgets in 2009-10 to 63 percent of district budgets in 2017-18.” Instead, the union argues that the budget crisis is caused by a dramatic revenue shortfall.

In addition to the $850 million state-level budget cuts and decreasing local property taxes, a big part of the revenue shortfall stems from a law forcing local school districts to pay for children that opt into charter schools without any consideration of the cost to the school district. In 2010, Pennsylvania reimbursed school districts a total of $219 million, but in 2011-12, Gov. Corbett eliminated state reimbursement for schools that send students to charter schools. Many school districts are forced to pay for children that opt into charter schools, but since the number of students that leave does not facilitate closing down schools or ending of bus routes—there are often very little savings for the public school districts in sending their kids to charter schools.

Two school districts that would be declared financially distressed under the legislation—York City and Chester Upland—have been hard hit by the requirement to pay students to go to charter schools. Both school districts had already lost 7.5 percent of their budget from state budgets cuts. On top of that, Chester Upland paid 20 percent of its budget and York City paid 9.3 percent to reimburse charter schools, according to a report put out by PSEA.

Instead of implementing the draconian financially distressed school legislation, PSEA says the state is underutilizing potential sources of tax revenue to fund schools, like taxing profits produced by fracking in the Marcellus shale, closing a loophole that allows companies to incorporate in Delaware to avoid paying taxes in Pennsylvania, and implementing a tax on cigars and smokeless tobacco. In addition, PSEA says Gov. Corbett could roll back the $475 million in tax credits and cuts in his budget proposal.

“It’s amazing—I have been a teacher in Pennsylvania for 27 years, I have never seen anything so devious in my life,” says Mary Willis. “This budget crisis is a manufactured crisis being used to go after collective bargaining and expand charter schools.”

Willis fears that if the legislation advances, it would be used to launch a witch hunt against teachers unions.

“Instead of a collective bargaining agreement, where people are laid off in a fair and equitable matter, this legislation would allow them to lay off anyone. They would go after the union leaders. I am two years from retirement and I'm at the top of the retirement schedule. Who do you think they are going to go after first?” says Willis.

PSEA spokeswoman Lauri Lebo says that at this point, the “bill could go either way," which is why PSEA is launching a mobilization effort to defeat it. Lebo stresses more than just public education could be at stake, pointing to the fact that Corbett's largest campaign donor is for-profit Charter School Management Company owner Vahan Gureghian.

"Corbett is trying to privatize education," Lebo says. "This is why there is this slow strangling of teachers' unions. This is what these education cuts are about. He is trying to privatize education."

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Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.

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