OP-ED: Time to lay 'ghost teachers' to rest
Halloween decorations are springing up in schools statewide, but one particular apparition has been haunting Pennsylvania classrooms for decades. This ghost robs students of teachers, schools of seasoned employees, and taxpayers of hard-earned money.
I'm talking about "ghost teachers" — individuals hired by public schools to educate our kids but then snatched from the classroom to work full-time for teachers' unions.
Few are aware of the practice, which is often termed "release time" and buried in teachers' contracts. For decades, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers have used this underhanded tactic to staff their political operations. Shockingly, ghost teachers can receive taxpayer-funded salary and benefits, accrue seniority, and amass credit toward their pensions — just as if they were in the classroom.
This is a very personal matter to me. Before coming to Harrisburg, I served on the Dallastown Area School Board in York County. I knew, as did those who entrusted me with the office, that my priorities were the students, parents, teachers and taxpayers of the community.
Imagine what the response would have been had I proposed pulling public resources out of our schools and handing them to a private, political organization. The outcry should be just as passionate when it comes to unions spiriting teachers away from our cities' classrooms and the students who desperately need them.
While the School District of Philadelphia struggles to retain and add new teachers, more than 20 ghost teachers have "vanished." They can be found working for the union, many of them for more than 15 years. What's worse, their contract allows up to 63 ghost teachers to be removed from the classroom at any given time (up to 16 Pittsburgh school teachers can be pulled to do union work).
The most egregious example is Philadelphia union President Jerry Jordan, who remains on the public payroll as a "classroom teacher" while working full time for the union for the past 30 years. This is allowed to take place while one of my House colleagues from that area says the school district has "had to do more with less for far too long."
Meanwhile, dedicated teachers are left to bear the impact. "Last-in, first-out" seniority rules mean teachers who have invested years in the classroom could be let go in favor of ghost teachers who have spent years working out of the classroom. That devalues the sacrifices teachers make for our kids on a daily basis.
The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers will tell you they reimburse the district for much of the teachers' salary and benefits. This is hardly reassuring. The union is not required to pay back any of that money. Despite this good-natured "gesture," taxpayers statewide are on the hook for more than $1 million in state pension costs since 2000 as a result of ghost teachers.
Hard-working Pennsylvanians expect their tax dollars to support education, not union work. It's time these phantom teachers are brought back to life in the classroom to do the job for which they were hired.
My colleague, state Rep. Jim Christiana, R-Beaver County, and I have introduced House Bill 1649 to end full-time union leave and return ghost teachers to the students who need them in the classroom. Hard-earned taxpayer dollars should never be used to advance a private political organization. School teachers who are hired with the trust of taxpayers to serve our children should not be staffing union offices.
To me, it's a simple matter of public integrity. There is, however, legal precedent for ending this practice. In August, an Arizona court struck down a release-time provision for certain public workers, confirming that public employees should be doing the jobs they were hired to do.
Gov. Tom Wolf wants to direct an inordinate amount of state education funding to Philadelphia. More money is not always the answer, and this issue is a great example of why that is so. If we truly want to ensure public resources are being used to serve our students, then it's time to lay ghost teachers to rest, once and for all.