Pa. Remains National Leader In Teacher Strikes
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – Contract negotiations between public school unions and school boards get under way in earnest at this time of year, and it’s a process that inevitably raises the prospect of strikes – something that happens more often in Pennsylvania than in all other states combined.
Thirty-seven states do not permit teachers to strike, and with Republicans poised to control the governorship and both chambers of the Legislature next month, some are hoping for progress in what has been a long crusade to ban strikes.
Gov.-elect Tom Corbett said on the campaign trail this fall that he was not opposed to a ban and thinks the state needs to develop more ways to avoid them, including expanding the use of binding arbitration.
In the Legislature, the effort to stop strikes has tended to be a Republican issue, and the agenda will be solidly in the GOP’s control for the next two years.
Although more than half the nation’s teacher strikes have occurred in Pennsylvania every year since 2004, their frequency is actually far lower than it once was.
There were eight strikes in Pennsylvania last year, eight in 2008-09, and seven in 2007-08, according to the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. The state experienced 850 strikes between 1970 and 1992, when the Legislature passed new rules that govern public school collective bargaining. Since 1970, the average strike has lasted 13 days.
An element of that 1992 law goes into effect in the Pittsburgh suburb of Bethel Park on Monday, when classes will resume after a strike that began Oct. 25.
Bethel Park teachers still do not have a contract, but the ‘92 law requires them to return to work anyway because it is the last date possible that will leave enough time to provide 180 instructional days by the end of June.
The Bethel Park strike by about 400 teachers and other employees is among just three in Pennsylvania so far this academic year – the others were in the Allegheny Valley and Moon Area school districts, according to the Education Department.
School boards everywhere are under continual pressure to control expenses and prevent property tax increases in the face of rising health insurance and pension costs. Districts have seen basic education subsidies increase every year under Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, but policymakers speak in apocalyptic terms about next year’s state budget, suggesting that streak of greater and greater levels of state funding may end.
Any sudden spike in the frequency of teacher strikes could prompt the Legislature to act.
“If things would go in the trend of seeing more strikes when people are out of work, people are facing higher medical insurance premiums, I think there would be a growing willingness by the Legislature to consider such legislation,’’ said Rep. Doug Reichley, R-Lehigh.
Tom Templeton, an assistant executive director of the school boards’ association, said that school directors are generally committed to treating their employees fairly while still accomplishing their primary goal of student achievement.
In recent years, he said, there seem to be more districts continuing to bargain after their contracts expire.
Strikes inconvenience parents and students but they are not academically harmful, said Wythe Keever, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.
Keever noted that about 200 contracts for districts, intermediate units and vocational schools are up for renewal each year, and only a small fraction produce strikes.