Gov. Shapiro, Choose School Choice Over Union Power Grabs - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Gov. Shapiro, Choose School Choice Over Union Power Grabs
Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro (OogImages/Shutterstock)

Pennsylvania’s government unions are reaping the benefits of their political donations, further inflating the costs of collective bargaining agreements — at taxpayers’ expense.

Government union PACs spent more than $20 million in Pennsylvania during the 2021–22 election cycle. More than 92 percent of those contributions went to Democratic candidates and causes. The money helped Democrats gain a majority in the state’s House of Representatives for the first time in 12 years.

House Democrats, plus one lone Republican, have now backed the top priority of union executives. House Bill 950, a proposed constitutional amendment that would impose union mandates on employees who do not necessarily share the political agenda of union leaders, passed 102 to 99 on May 3. The bill takes its inspiration from a law out of Illinois that prohibits elected officials from advancing right-to-work initiatives that safeguard First Amendment rights.

Josh Shapiro, the commonwealth’s Democratic governor who took office in January, has been a consistent opponent of right-to-work laws. However, he has not yet publicly commented on the push for union mandates in the current legislative session. Unlike other bills in Pennsylvania, proposed constitutional amendments can bypass the governor, but support in both chambers must prevail in two consecutive legislative sessions in order for an amendment to appear on a ballot for voter approval. HB 950 now goes to the state Senate, which would presumably resist the amendment since it has a Republican majority. However, it is worth noting that Republicans in key elected positions are not immune to the influence of public-sector union bosses. Democrat state Senate candidates received more than $2 million from government unions, but Republican Senate candidates were not exactly left out, as they received $374,000.

Any pliable elected Republican senator could potentially put Pennsylvania on par with union mandates that are now operative in Illinois. Who would be on that list? Sen. Frank Farry, a Bucks County Republican, received $112,350 from government unions in the most recent election cycle; this was by far the most of any Republican. Sen. Ryan Aument, a Lancaster County Republican, came in second with $36,000.

School Choice as an Alternative to Union Power Grabs

Assuming the proposed union power grab stalls in the Senate, Shapiro could pivot in the direction of another proposed policy change that would put him squarely on the side of parents, students, and teachers, whom he claims to represent. The problem is that the governor would need to cut a path that conflicts with the anti-education agenda of his union benefactors.

During his campaign, Shapiro voiced support for lifeline scholarships, which would return tax dollars to parents of students who attend the bottom 15 percent of the commonwealth’s lowest-performing public schools. A version of the proposal passed the Pennsylvania House last year. That proposal would provide parents with almost $7,000 in scholarship funds that could be used to cover private school tuition, tutoring services, and other alternative forms of education. But unions that endorsed and financially supported Shapiro, including the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), have consistently lobbied and pressured lawmakers to reject scholarship programs and other school choice initiatives.

Candidate Shapiro received more than $5.5 million from government unions, according to an analysis of campaign finance records from the Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market think tank based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The bulk of these donations to Shapiro came from the teachers unions, with the PSEA and the AFT contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Moreover, the research shows that government unions contributed a combined $571,875 across the 16 state House districts that flipped from Republican to Democrat. During the same 2021–22 cycle, 99.6 percent of government union PAC contributions to candidates for statewide office went to Democrats, and 92.3 percent of overall PAC contributions went to Democratic candidates and causes. Money talks and offers a strong “why” for the push by the Democratic majority in the House for legislation that would make the entire General Assembly subservient to the directives of union bosses.

David Osborne, the Commonwealth Foundation’s senior fellow for labor policy, drove home this point in testimony before the Pennsylvania House Labor and Industry Committee this past April.

“Because this is a state constitutional amendment, it would supersede any state laws passed by the General Assembly and not just labor issues,” Osborne said. “In fact, whether it was intentional or not, this language effectively ‘constitutionalizes’ nearly everything public-sector unions do. Think: if the government can’t lift a finger or even ‘diminish’ the right to organize or bargain, then every organizing campaign, strike, or collective bargaining agreement trumps any state law, and unions never lose another battle. Union executives will be more powerful than any lawmaker or elected body.”

The amendment would provide government unions with even further leverage to obstruct school choice initiatives that have broad public support nationally and in Pennsylvania. In a warning to lawmakers who will be voting on the amendment, Osborne described how union leaders put their self-interests above Pennsylvania residents during the COVID-19 pandemic:

The American Federation of Teachers, the national affiliate for Philadelphia’s and Pittsburgh’s teacher unions — demanded that Congress provide not just masks and other health-related resources, but another $750 billion in new federal funds for state and local education spending. But AFT was unwilling to give anything in return; AFT insisted on keeping schools closed, suspending teacher evaluations, reducing class size, and eliminating student evaluations during the pandemic.

Clearly, teacher unions view policy changes that would empower parents with more autonomy over their tax dollars as a potential game changer. Imagine, for a moment, if students in low-performing, union-controlled schools could suddenly break free. There would certainly be an exodus in parts of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Yet, would scholarships “weaken public schools” as a whole and deprive school districts of much-needed resources? That’s what some union leaders suggest.

But a new report from EdChoice, a nonprofit that favors educational freedom, finds that the reverse is true. The report’s review found that 25 out of 28 studies on the subject conclude that school choice programs improve the academic outcomes of public school students. EdChoice also said that 68 of 73 studies show positive financial benefits for school districts and taxpayers. Another EdChoice study determined that school choice programs saved a cumulative of $12.4 billion–$28.3 billion, or, on average, $1.80 to $2.85 for every dollar spent on the programs.

Apparently, public schools step up their game once forced to compete. Everybody wins with school choice except union leaders who place a greater premium on their dysfunctional bureaucracies than they do on students.

Unfortunately, the legislative activity in the Pennsylvania House indicates that campaign contributions from government unions may yet win out over the facts and evidence. There are currently 11 states with Education Savings Accounts that are similar to but more ambitious and expansive than Pennsylvania’s proposed Lifeline Scholarship Program. These are also mostly right-to-work states that are free from union mandates.

The battle for school choice is a heavy lift in politically divided states like Pennsylvania. The lift will become still heavier if the amendment becomes operative.

Campaign records show that AFT’s affiliates contributed more than $700,000 to Shapiro in the last election, which gives them a substantial voice in the realm of labor policy. The governor has already made it clear that right-to-work laws are a nonstarter while he’s in office. So, he’s already offered some payback to his biggest donors.

But Shapiro has also repeatedly told parents that he’s open to some form of lifeline scholarships. State government figures show that 252,053 students reside in areas eligible for the program. As a matter of policy, it’s hard to argue against the merits of offering a “lifeline” to the neediest students. It’s also hard to see any political downside for siding with parents and students who are victimized by the worst schools in the state.

Kevin Mooney is a Senior Investigative Reporter at the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank, and writes for several national publications. Follow him on Twitter at @KevinMooneyDC.


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