Could you imagine teachers in California or Illinois donating to a cause that was hurting students in Philadelphia? That would come as a shock, given most public school teachers’ passion for education and fairness.
Unfortunately, it’s true, with one caveat: Teachers don’t have a say in the matter.
For decades, government unions have been using their members’ dues to finance politics in states like California and Illinois, which, not coincidentally, are both facing a severe public pension crisis. In Pennsylvania, this egregious system is being showcased front-and-center courtesy of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).
The AFT pools dues from teachers nationwide to fund their national political agenda. These dues are usually deducted from teachers’ paychecks using taxpayer-funded payroll systems.
What’s worse, the union’s political agenda ends up hurting students by putting perks and benefits ahead of quality education. There’s no better example of this than the battle currently playing out in Philadelphia.
In the School District of Philadelphia, 70 to 80 percent of the district’s students are not reading or doing math at grade level, and only 64 percent of students graduated on time in 2012. With results like that, you wouldn’t expect anyone to fight for the status quo, but that’s just what the teachers’ unions are fighting for.
The AFT is bankrolling a campaign dubbed “Fund Philly Schools,” which lobbies for more spending and higher taxes while blocking proven solutions. They’ve fought against needed seniority reforms and in favor of gutting charter schools as a way to “fix” the school district’s budget deficit.
Minor salary concessions could save $100 million and prevent teacher layoffs, but the local union has refused to budge. Philadelphia’s average teacher salary is $68,000 per year, while the average in Pennsylvania is just $61,000.
But it’s not just high salaries that have broken the budget. Employees contribute almost nothing for their health insurance, costing taxpayers $165 million, with an extra $66 million for vision, prescription, and dental benefits.
Need more perks? How about $2.6 million for legal services—including preparing a will to buying a home to $15.3 million in severance pay? Such giveaways are utterly foreign to the taxpayers footing the bill.
Philadelphia schools will remain in crisis unless the district makes spending reforms, and the local union puts students first. Otherwise, the school district could spend upwards of $2,361 per pupil by 2020 on retiree costs alone—an increase of more than tenfold from its current level, according to the Fordham Institute.
Despite the mounting evidence of the district’s structural fiscal problems, union leaders remain obstinate.
Sadly, the fiscal problems in Philadelphia are common to many school districts and local governments across the country—from San Jose, to Chicago, Detroit, to Central Falls in Rhode Island. In each of these cities, government unions’ political agenda is driving the crisis. But what gives them so much political power?
In the 26 forced-union states, teachers, and government workers can be required to join a union or pay a fee just to keep their jobs. Moreover, in Pennsylvania, government union contracts often require automatic dues collection – where taxpayer-funded payroll services deduct union dues, fees, and even PAC money from employees’ paychecks.
With steady streams of funding, it’s no surprise that unions are giants of political advocacy. Nationally, union leaders spent a whopping $1.7 billion on lobbying and electoral politics over the last two years, according to an analysis by the National Institute for Labor Relations Research. Indeed, 11 of the top 20 federal political donors are unions.
Unions do have a right to get involved in policy debates. However, taxpayer resources should never be used to support anyone’s politics. Moreover, teachers shouldn’t be forced to bankroll – and kids shouldn’t have to suffer from – government unions’ partisan political agenda.
It’s time we ended the unfair practice of automatic dues collection and level the political playing field for students and taxpayers alike.
Brouillette is the president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation (CommonwealthFoundation.org), a free-market think tank.