Tag Archives: Teacher Pensions

Pedro Ramos is not Scott Walker, and Pennsylvania is not Wisconsin

by Christopher Paslay

SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos may be emboldened by Scott Walker’s recent victory over Big Labor, but the Keystone State is a far cry from the Badger State.       

It appears that Philadelphia School Reform Commission chairman Pedro Ramos is suffering from Scott Walker Syndrome.  His recent attempt to push legislation that would extend the SRC’s power to nullify union contracts and unilaterally dictate salary and benefits to School District employees is curiously timed.  You’d almost think Ramos has become emboldened by Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s Assembly Bill 11, also known as his “Budget Repair Bill,” which limits collective bargaining by public-sector unions, caps salary increases, and forces workers to pay more for their pensions and health benefits.

Members of the Philadelphia Democratic House delegation, however, do not seem to be as enamored by Scott Walker’s recent victory over Big Labor.  Walker may have survived Tuesday’s recall election, but this hasn’t inspired Pennsylvania state legislators to get on board with the SRC’s surprise legislative amendment that would further cripple School District unions and their bargaining power.

Although Pennsylvania’s Act 46 already strips the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers of their right to strike—giving the SRC the power to unilaterally impose contact terms and limit collective bargaining—Ramos feels he needs even more power.

According to Kristen Graham’s 6/8/12 Inquirer story:

State Rep. Michael H. O’Brien (D., Phila.), who was at the meeting, said Ramos admitted the SRC was attempting to sell a legislative amendment Ramos needed because current law “didn’t give the SRC enough juice,” in O’Brien’s words.

The SRC’s new ploy for more power was apparently an unpleasant surprise for many, including Mayor Nutter and members of the Philadelphia Democratic House delegation.

Someone, perhaps Nutter himself, needs to tell Pedro Ramos that he’s not Scott Walker.  And while he’s at it, he needs to explain to the SRC that Pennsylvania (and for the purposes of this argument, Philadelphia) is not Wisconsin.  For starters, Pennsylvania has a balanced budget (although the Philadelphia School District is still facing a deficit, but this deficit was created by the SRC itself).  Second, Pennsylvania’s Public School Employees’ Retirement System was just overhauled in 2010, cutting pension benefits and increasing member contributions.  Third, collective bargaining by the largest teachers’ union in the state—the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers—has already been severely limited for over a decade by the passing of Act 46.

Here’s a comparison between Pennsylvania and Wisconsin on three hot button issues: collective bargaining rights; retirement; and health insurance.

Collective Bargaining

Massive protests broke out in Wisconsin last year when Governor Scott Walker passed his Budget Repair Bill, which limited the collective bargaining power of public-sector unions.  According to the Greenbay Press Gazette:

The bill would make various changes to limit collective bargaining for most public employees to wages. Total wage increases could not exceed a cap based on the consumer price index (CPI) unless approved by referendum.

Contracts would be limited to one year and wages would be frozen until the new contract is settled. Collective bargaining units are required to take annual votes to maintain certification as a union.

Employers would be prohibited from collecting union dues and members of collective bargaining units would not be required to pay dues. These changes take effect upon the expiration of existing contracts.

But when you compare this to the restrictions imposed on the largest teachers union in Pennsylvania by the passing of Act 46 over a decade ago, it is relatively small potatoes.  According to an article in the University of Penn’s Journal of Labor and Employment Law:

The state takeover of Philadelphia city schools will obviously have an effect on Philadelphia teachers’ ability to bargain collectively for contract rights. . . . While the system is under the control of the SRC, teachers are prohibited from striking in order to secure contract rights. . . . For example, teachers could be faced with a significantly lengthened school year, less preparation time, and larger classes, all without the opportunity to bargain for any compensation for these impositions. . . . Also, the district would not be required to discuss “decisions related to reduction in force.” This allowance for the district, coupled with the fact that, under Act 86, the SRC may make decisions to suspend professional employees without regard to tenure protection has potentially dire consequences for the professional security of educators. In a situation involving layoffs, for instance, teachers who have years of experience could be suspended before new hires.

In effect, under Act 46, the SRC already has the power to unilaterally impose contract terms, overhaul traditional schools and turn them into charters, lengthen the school day and year without compensating workers, layoff teachers regardless of seniority or tenure, and takes away the union’s right to strike, among other things.

As for union dues: Philadelphia public school teachers can opt out of joining the union, but they are still required by the state to pay something called “Fair Share,” which basically means that they have to pay union dues anyway, which is about 1 percent of their salary.

Pensions and Retirement

Until Scott Walker passed his Budget Repair Bill, state, school district, and municipal employees in Wisconsin paid little to nothing for their pensions.  Now members of the Wisconsin Retirement System must contribute 50 percent of the annual pension payment, which means public school teachers have to start contributing about 5.8 percent of every check toward their pensions.

Since 2001, Philadelphia school teachers, who are members of Pennsylvania’s Public School Employees’ Retirement System, were required to pay 7.5 percent of every check to their pensions.  Legislation passed in 2010 now requires new teachers to pay 10.3 percent of every check toward their pensions if they want to receive the same pension as those hired before December of 2010; those new teachers who agree to accept a modified pension multiplier (smaller pension) can continue to pay at the 7.5 percent rate.

Health Insurance

Before the Walker bill, Wisconsin state employees paid about 6 percent of their health insurance costs.  Now they will be forced to kick in double that—about 12 percent of the average cost of annual premiums.

Philadelphia public school teachers have excellent benefits, and at little cost.  According to the current contract between the PFT and PSD, teachers have to contribute at most 3 – 5 percent of annual premiums, and many teachers pay nothing.  Co-pays do continue to go up, but teachers are in a good position here; it’s inevitable that in the future, sacrifices will have to be made, and employees may have to kick in more money.  This, of course, can be agreed upon at the bargaining table, and there is absolutely no need for new legislation to be proposed by the SRC to get this done.

The SRC’s recent attempt to push legislation to further cripple School District unions is uncalled for.  The SRC has already sent layoff notices to 2,700 service workers who are SEIU 32BJ union members, and is planning to privatize neighborhood schools and cut unions by turning 40 percent of District schools into charters by 2017.

Some can argue what Walker did in Wisconsin was justified; unions in the Badger State needed to be reeled-in to keep Wisconsin from falling off an economic cliff, which is why 30 percent of union workers voted in Tuesday’s recall election to keep Walker in office.  But the situation is a bit different in the Keystone State.

Pedro Ramos is no Scott Walker.  Shame on him for trying to use Walker’s momentum to push his misguided and unnecessary legislation to further cripple organized labor in Philadelphia.



Filed under PFT, School Budget, SRC

My Experience on the Glenn Beck Show

by Christopher Paslay

When it comes to Glenn Beck, adjectives like “kook,” “nut-job,” and “right-wing radical” have a tendency to get thrown around.  At least these descriptors are used in more liberal circles—places like Philadelphia where 85 percent of the population is registered democrat.

My colleagues at Swenson Arts and Technology High School have used similar terms to describe Mr. Beck, so when I told them that I was going to be on the Glenn Beck show on Friday, May 6th, I received mixed reactions (I’ll get to my experience on the show in a moment). 

Personally, I am a fan of Glenn Beck.  Although I disagree with some of his views on education (Glenn, like most journalists and talking-heads, has a more superficial understanding of public schools), I do agree with much of what he preaches otherwise—that our country must rediscover its traditional values; that personal responsibility is the key to change; that too much reliance on government and social programs is killing America’s entrepreneurial spirit; that both the Republicans and Democrats are corrupt; and that in order to restore honor in our country we must become more principle-centered.

Interestingly, there are many people (like my mother and father) who are fans of Glenn Beck as well.  His show has dominated its time slot for nearly two years, coming in at #1 on the Neilson Ratings for most of that time and never falling below #3; for the first three months of 2011, the Glenn Beck show had an audience of almost 2 million viewers. 

So he has a sizable following.  And the core of this following is made up of well-educated, well-informed people such as my parents and myself, people with diverse experiences and opinions; we’re hardly the right-wing radical Neanderthal “nut-jobs” we’re made out to be (to those name-callers who try to pigeon-hole Beck and his supporters I offer this challenge: watch his show every day for one week and then you can sling your mud.  I mean really watch the show, watch and listen and try to see all sides of the issue).

Now back to my experience on Beck’s show.  The theme of the show was “teachers who love their jobs but are frustrated with the education system.”  It was an audience-participation show that featured 40 teachers from the tri-state area, myself and my father (who taught 37 years in the Philadelphia School District) included. 

Before the show was taped we were each given a questionnaire to complete.  It asked us, among other things, to describe the things about education that frustrated us.  It also asked our opinions about teachers’ unions, and directed us to pose questions to Glenn Beck himself. 

Here were two of my responses. 

Concerning my frustration, I wrote: Education is one of the few professions in America in which policies are written and decisions are made by governing bodies outside the field. Doctors, lawyers, and engineers all govern themselves. Their panels and boards of directors are made up of other doctors, lawyers, and engineers. Not teachers, though. Politicians make the decisions when it comes to education in K-12 schools. So do researchers, think tanks, and lobbyists. Does it matter that most of these people have little to no experience teaching in a K-12 classroom? No, because they have the data and the power.   

When it came to teachers’ unions, I wrote: Teachers unions, like everything, have pros and cons.  The pros are that they protect the rights of workers and ensure teachers don’t get exploited or taken advantage of by school administrators or politicians (which was the case many years ago).  Another positive is that they serve as a teacher’s voice—something that isn’t given much value in American society.  On the other hand, in an effort to protect rights and maintain solidarity, unions do in some cases allow bad teachers to keep their jobs.  Also, they are too heavily rooted in politics.  Teachers need unions that police themselves and are more balanced politically.

When the show began (you can watch the show below), Glenn listed our concerns and frustrations with education.  Some of them were:

  • eliminate teachers’ tenure
  • teachers unions equal political machines
  • frustration with the NEA
  • huge retirement packages
  • teachers pensions are a problem

I must admit my gut reaction to this was anger; I felt like I’d been duped.  Which teacher in the audience, I wondered, wanted tenure eliminated?  Which teacher didn’t want the pension they’d been paying into their whole career?  Which teacher wanted no union representation? 

At this point I felt that Glenn and his producers had spun a few things, to put it lightly.  Our supposed “frustrations” sounded too scripted, too much like Glenn’s preset agenda.  In fact, by the end of the show, after 40 minutes of a town-hall style discussion, I felt like the whole thing was a bait-and-switch; I left the studio more frustrated than ever. 

That was my initial perception.  The funny thing about perceptions, however, is that they are not always accurate. 

After watching the show air Friday at 5:00 pm, (after a good night’s sleep to clear my head) my overall opinion changed.  Although Glenn did steer the conversation towards promoting school vouchers and reeling-in out-of-control unions, he did keep an open mind.  In fact, he both welcomed and respected the push-back he received from many teachers in the audience, myself included. 

In retrospect, I thought the show ended up being pretty well balanced.  Even Glenn himself admitted that he supported unions (and that his mother-in-law marched with Jesse Jackson).  It was the abuse of power and corruption, he noted, that he stood against, a point I must admit is valid. 

In the end, my experience on Glenn Beck was a positive one.  I was happy to have a discussion with such an influencial man, and to represent the concerns and issues of teachers from Philadelphia as well as the rest of America.             

Please click on the video below to watch the entire episode, commercial free (my father’s comment comes at 11:58 of the tape, and my two comments come at 13:15 and 25:58).


Filed under Holistic Education, Parental Involvement, PFT, Standardized Testing, Teacher Bashing