A new school year typically launches with optimism and enthusiasm. Regrettably, those good feelings are substantially tempered in school districts experiencing labor strife. And in those where hard feelings over past standoffs still fester.
Education is a high stakes undertaking, with many interests invested financially and emotionally. It is no surprise that a disruption of the process affecting students and the community provokes controversy. In the districts where strikes already occurred or are anticipated, there are mounting calls for eliminating the right to strike. However, simply scrapping a right in existence for nearly fifty years is not necessarily politically attainable or policy preferable.
True or false: Before Act 195, the school labor situation was relatively harmonious. Correct answer is false, naturally. Act 195 was approved to avoid brewing confrontations over illegal walkouts. Teachers were severely underpaid and becoming more willing to risk firing for asserting their rights. Check the history, and find nostalgia for the good old pre-strike days is misplaced.
Even though the number of strikes has dropped since the current rules were approved years ago, the emotional intensity has not diminished. In these divided times, even under the best of circumstances, it is hard to get school administrators, teachers, and taxpaying parents on the same page. Divisions deepen as costs rise and revenues lag. Strikes exacerbate the situation.
Banning strikes seems a reaction to disliked tactics, rather than a solution for the problem often at the heart of recent contract standoffs – health care coverage, costs, and contributions. With growing taxpayer resentment over the public pension problem, it is increasingly difficult to have a dispassionate discussion of health care packages.
Continuing rancor over Obamacare nationally provides a useful object lesson. Deeply held views over health coverage and costs continue to diverge. Thus, five hundred separate negotiations over health care costs and contributions in areas of disparate economic circumstances are not going to produce widely accepted standard contracts, particularly as taxpayer resentment rises. Without change, the equation seems fixed: Dogged disagreement = disruptive strikes.
Is there a viable alternative? Perhaps it is time to reexamine the possibilities of a statewide health care plan for education professionals. Surface that notion, and critics are quick to point out reasons why this is philosophically troubling and practically daunting. True, but can health care be any more acrimonious and difficult than the paralyzing state budget debates of the last decade?
Admittedly, the track record for proposals for consolidating health care contracts is not encouraging. In 2007, Governor Ed Rendell pitched a statewide plan. Rendell typically trotted out a batch of big ideas with his budget recommendations. Many became quick casualties of a shortage of state dollars to do everything he proposed. This plan met that fate, rather than dying because of facts marshalled against it. Nonetheless, pulling a notion from the Rendell remnant pile might not strike a lot of people as a promising approach.
But the roots of the concept reach farther back. A decade earlier, state Senator Hal Mowery from Cumberland County tried to push for creation of a statewide teacher contract, health care and all. Successful in the insurance business and experienced in serving on a school board, he had given this a great deal of thought. Yet this notion was roundly reviled and ridiculed. Since the merits of the idea never got much of a hearing, it was not entirely discredited.
This brings to mind a story about Mark Twain, who was asked about a speech that was poorly received and judged a failure. Twain countered that the speech was a great success; the audience was a failure.
Maybe changed economic conditions, draining disputes over health care, and heightened interest in saving taxpayer money have created a new audience across our commonwealth. Numerous state employees can be covered under one health care contract, so why not education professionals? Granted, designing and hammering out a benefit package that represents the best balance between the interests of the profession and those of taxpayers is a substantial political challenge. Much smaller Vermont has been having a raucous debate over such a plan.
Still, Pennsylvania should give the idea a serious look. The debate need not be purely speculative. Solicit bids from health care providers on plans with specifics on coverage levels and costs. See what scale and imagination produce. Given the size of the prize, maybe it becomes a consortium effort. Legislators will have to ultimately decide political questions as to what the co-pays and member contributions should be.
Opponents will likely conjecture a walloping pricetag on such a plan. Add up the tangible and intangible costs of all the legal wrangling over contracts and the costs of strikes, district after district, and the cost on transitioning to a statewide system might not seem so imposing.
Lessening the frequency and duration of contract disputes is a decided advantage. A potentially larger advantage is taking the teaching profession out of a no-win position. Whether teachers win or lose in dollars at the bargaining table, the loss of public respect entailed exacts a heavy price. The vitriolic arguments over education costs are further diminishing the trust and collaboration on which true education success depends. Even if a substitute is devised for despised local property taxes, the overall education is not going to reduced or frozen. The cost burdens will just be shifted around.
Everyone professes that teachers are the key players in the education system. Yet they are persistently criticized for their salaries and their perks and their training and their methods. Good teachers are finding more fulfilling positions in private education. Districts struggle to find willing and qualified substitutes. Weakening instruction is never going to enhance learning. So the buildup of anti-teacher sentiment is getting us … nowhere.
Turnover in the teaching ranks may help control costs, but the penalty will come in the experience lost. The enthusiasm of youth is a necessary infusion, but it does not compensate entirely for the value of experience. Arguments over the finances in individual contracts matter, but the larger and more consequential argument is over the terms and conditions of working for a profession on which we are deeply dependent. If we are unwilling to decide upon a better balance in the expectations and rewards of the teaching profession, our hopes for improved student performance will go unrealized, no matter how many standards and testing and accountability measures we throw at the problem.
David A. Atkinson is an Associate of the Susquehanna Valley Center’s Edward H. Arnold Institute for Policy Studies.
Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation before the General Assembly.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center.