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Keystone State quiet on strike front — for now

By   /   September 11, 2012  /   No Comments

By Eric Boehm | PA Independent

HARRISBURG — As teachers in Chicago grab national headlines with a strike that has left 404,000 kids out of school, Pennsylvania may be losing its infamous place as the most strike-prone state in the nation.

Like Illinois, Pennsylvania is one of a dozen states that allow teachers to go on strike. As recently as the 2006-07 school year, 13 strikes have occurred across Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts, and Pennsylvania has accounted for nearly half of all teachers’ strikes in the United States since 2000.

Teachers who plan to go on strike only have to give 48 hours notice under state law.

“There has to be some kind of reforms here,” said Eric Montarti, senior research analyst for the Allegheny Institute, a free market think tank in Pittsburgh. “It’s a powerful tool, and it inconveniences parents and costs taxpayers.”

After only one strike during the 2011-12 school year, none of Pennsylvania’s 500 districts have been on strike since the beginning of the new school year.

Montarti said a number of factors have reduced strikes in recent years, including the economic pressure on school district budgets and the unions’ recognition that strikes would not be well-received by the public when so many people are struggling to make ends meet.

Dave DaVare, research director for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said the low number of strikes this year is partially due to many districts adopting the wage freeze Gov. Tom Corbett requested in 2011.

In effect, that wage freeze caused existing contracts to be extended for a year longer, meaning fewer districts have contracts coming up for renewal now, he said.

State Rep. Todd Rock, R-Franklin, introduced legislation to prevent teachers from going on strike, but it has not moved out of committee.

Currently, state law prohibits firefighters, police officers and prison guards from striking. When they need to negotiate a new contract, they go through an arbitration process in the event of an impasse.

Proponents of the legislation say it is necessary to curb teachers’ strikes that force students out of the classroom, inconvenience parents and cost taxpayers. The Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, argues that strikes are relatively uncommon in Pennsylvania despite its position as the national leader.

In testimony to the House Education Committee last August, PSEA vice president Gerard Oleksiak pointed out that only three districts went on strike during the 2010-11 school year, when nearly 300 districts were in contract negotiations.

Strikes are on the decline statewide, according to PSEA data. After an average of 34 strikes per year in the 1970s and 20 per year in the 1980s, the average from 2001 through 2010 is less than seven strikes per year.

“We recognize that work stoppages are difficult for the students, family, community and employees involved, but they are hardly rampant throughout the commonwealth,”  and not worth the changes that would be caused by House Bill 1369, Oleksiak said.

Simon Campbell, a school board member in Pennsbury School District in Bucks County and an outspoken critic of teachers’ unions, said strikes are a form of “legalized blackmail” that throw children out of school and leave parents unable to hold the unions accountable.

If residents are unhappy with their school board, they can vote them out.  But if they are upset with union demands, there is no recourse, he argued.

“We need a law that puts public service back into public schools,” he said. “And if the teachers don’t like their salaries and benefits, they are welcome to seek alternative means of employment.”

Contact Eric Boehm at [email protected] and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter.