Strike-Free Education Act opens can of worms

Teachers in Western Pennsylvania's largest school district gave themselves a powerful bargaining tool when they authorized a strike. They reached a tentative contract with Pittsburgh Public Schools last week without a walkout. In the fall, striking Seneca Valley teachers shut down schools for five weeks in one of the area's fastest-growing districts.

The founder of a group dedicated to stopping teacher strikes does not see a statewide ban coming soon. "I do not think we will ban strikes overnight, given the massive power of the teachers unions. But we feel there is growing attention to this," said Simon Campbell of Bucks County, who started Stop Teachers Strikes in Pennsylvania after his three children were put out of class during a strike in the Pennsbury School District in the 2005-06 school year.

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association has not reached a consensus on banning strikes, which 37 other states have done, and has assembled a task force of 11 school directors from across the state to study the issue. The task force meets for the first time Tuesday in Harrisburg.

"School board members generally see collective bargaining as their responsibility," said Tim Allwein, a spokesman for the association.

Some members of the association said they believe strikes could increase as a result of Act 1, which limits the ability of school boards to raise property taxes, which pay teachers' salaries.

Some legislators are pushing for a strike ban.

"This is a change that needs to be made for the good of our communities. It's hard to believe you would allow such an interruption to occur," said state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, who represents the majority of Seneca Valley residents.

The district's strike ended in November without a new contract because of a 1992 law that effectively sets limits to the duration of walkouts. The law requires a district to complete 180 days of instruction by June 30.

"In the '70s, there were 25 or 30 school strikes a year. The number of strikes is down a lot, and you do not have a whole array of people pressuring to ban strikes. And, as long as Democrats control the state House, they will never even bring this to a vote," saidG. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster.

Metcalfe signed on as a co-sponsor to the proposed Strike Free Education Act, which was introduced last year by two Republicans from Franklin and Somerset counties. It has no support from Democrats.

There have been three teacher strikes in Pennsylvania this school year.

Jake McElligott, an education law specialist at Duquesne University, said proposals to ban strikes could quickly lead to a debate about unionism in general.

"You are asking for significant changes to the state's labor law, and this is a very union-friendly Legislature and state. Pittsburgh itself is lauded as the birthplace of unionism," McElligott said.

Any move to outlaw strikes faces opposition from the state's largest teachers' union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, a powerful organization in Harrisburg and local communities.

"We see a strike as a basic right to withhold work to achieve fair compensation. A strike ban would hand all the power to the school board," PSEA President James Testerman said.

Campbell predicted opposition to strikes will gain momentum because of the tie between taxes and teacher salaries.

"This is about property taxes, and taxpayer outrage is a hot issue," he said.

School board members aren't so sure.

"It would certainly be good for kids. But as far as a ban? Well, the devil is in the details, so I really don't know how I feel," said Marilyn Reed, who left the Pine-Richland School Board last month after serving 12 years and voting on three teacher contracts.

Lynn Evans, a member of the Avonworth School Board, echoed Reed. "I'd really have to see what gets gained and what gets lost," Evans said.


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