History of PSEA: A Narrative
“On March 4, 1968, that’s when we knew we had a union. That’s when we knew we had solidarity.’’
Three days after Christmas in 1852, Thomas H. Burrowes cast a large shadow among 24 “schoolmen’’ from around Pennsylvania who had gathered for a meeting in the Harrisburg Courthouse.
At age 47, Burrowes already had a pronounced reputation as an untiring advocate of “free schools.’’ Not only had Burrowes distinguished himself as a public education pioneer by serving as State Superintendent, he also was one of the country’s first “educational journalists.’’ Eleven months earlier in Lancaster, Burrowes published the first edition of “Lancaster County School Journal.’’
On this December day, however, Burrowes and his fellow schoolmen meeting along the Susquehanna River weren’t resting on any laurels. Quite the contrary. They had a vision for a coordinated statewide system that educated students, and provided quality recruitment and training of teachers.
Burrowes and his colleagues formed the “Pennsylvania State Teachers Association,’’ today the Pennsylvania State Education Association. Burrowes was named president and his publication became the new association’s official mouthpiece as the “Pennsylvania School Journal,’’ the forerunner of PSEA’s current membership magazine, “Voice.’’
PSEA is well known today as the collective bargaining agent for teachers and educational support professionals, as well as an advocate for public education funding and policies, and as a think tank on educational issues.
What is perhaps lesser known is that the history of PSEA is in many ways the history of public education in Pennsylvania.
Whether under the banner of PSEA, or the Pennsylvania State Teachers Association, the organization has been a driver behind great strides for schools, students and educators.
From “Normal Schools’’ to train teachers, to compulsory school attendance laws, to the Pennsylvania School Code, to tenure, to collective bargaining, to protecting and building upon those gains in the 21st century, the tree planted by Burrowes and his fellow schoolmen on Dec. 28, 1852 has been watered, nourished and vigilantly protected by succeeding generations of PSEA.
Different limbs have sprouted and the guardians have changed, but like those 24 schoolmen, the 191,000-member PSEA of the 21st Century looks forward with the same pronounced “Vision’’ for public education.
Advocacy 1800’s style
William Penn himself recognized “The Power of a Great Education’’ by making provisions for schools in his new colony in 1682.
Penn’s philosophy endured, and Benjamin Franklin and other notable Pennsylvanians of the 18th century pushed the concept of public education, getting it included in the state constitution in 1789-90.
But despite such significant developments as libraries and colleges, basic education was still a hodgepodge network that was far from inclusive.
Recognizing the vacuum, the early 1800s saw a number of informal gatherings around the state, such as the Society for the Promotion of Public Schools of Pennsylvania in 1827 in Philadelphia; the Philadelphia Lyceum of Teachers in 1835; the Schoolmasters Synod in Lehigh County from 1827 to 1829; and the Bucks County Education Society, the York Association of Teachers, the Mechanicsburg, Cumberland County Mutual Improvement Society, and the Teachers Association of Adams County, all in the period from 1827 to 1835.
State involvement in education was minimal during the initial decades of the 19th century, and these informal gatherings – along with the efforts of three men, Thaddeus Stevens, Timothy Pickering and Samuel Breck – were influential in getting the Free Public Schools Act passed in 1834.
But while the act was a milestone, there remained fervor throughout public education advocates that much more had to be done, that perhaps a formal statewide advocacy association was needed. Teachers, receiving about $12 a month for three months’ instruction, had classes as large as 100 students in sometimes unclean and unkempt buildings in remote locations.
So, at the urging of the Allegheny Association of Teachers, the 24 schoolmen came to Harrisburg in December 1852 to discuss what they felt were the state’s unfulfilled promises from the 1834 legislation.
“The convention was composed of an able body of men, most of them young, and just engaging in the career of life,’’ reported The Harrisburg Pennsylvania Telegraph. “But it was most cheering to find that they possessed a due appreciation of the responsibilities instructed to them, a proper energy to perform the duties of their trusts, and an ardent desire to advance the progress of education in our state.’’
After formally establishing the Pennsylvania State Teachers Association and naming Burrowes president, the founders immediately set top priorities: creating an independent state education department, appointing county superintendents, and creating “Normal Schools’’ to educate and train teachers. Means were then discussed “to agitate’’ this agenda “before the people, and to send memorials to the Legislature.’’
The message was being heard. In addition to being the association’s voice, the “Pennsylvania School Journal,’’ which was actually owned and funded by Burrowes at the time,’’ became the official state education publication in 1855. A law creating Normal Schools, which would eventually become state teachers colleges and today institutions in the State System of Higher Education, was signed into law by Gov. James Pollock on May 20, 1857.
The Normal Schools’ law wasn’t the only significant event in 1857 for the Pennsylvania State Teachers Association. It was one of 10 state associations that gathered in Philadelphia to unite in public education advocacy by creating the National Teachers Association – now the PSEA umbrella organization, the National Education Association.
Although “PSTA’’ was established and operated as a statewide organization, a Pennsylvania topography that imposed upon travel made it difficult to hold truly inclusive meetings of all members in the state.
That changed in August 1860, when what was really the start of annual meetings was held in Greensburg, Westmoreland County. Writing earlier in the summer about preparations for the session, F.A. Allen, chairman of the association’s executive committee, wrote: “We trust that a permanent union of the teachers of this State may be effected … and that the intervening mountains may no longer separate us.’’
‘Teachers Regiment’ holds Cemetery Ridge
But while the union of the Pennsylvania State Teachers Association was solidifying, the union of the United States of America was developing serious fault lines between northern and southern states.
The association deemed it “unwise to meet’’ in 1862 because of a threatened Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania. Besides, the war was taking Pennsylvania teachers, who were leaving their classrooms to join the Union Army.
The 151st Pennsylvania Volunteers was nicknamed “the Teachers Regiment’’ because of the large percentage of teachers in the unit. A principal from Juniata County, Lt. Col. George F. MacFarland, wrote to the School Journal in January 1863: “I hardly need to say they make great soldiers. Their intelligence, habits of study, and experience in learning and teaching, enable them to acquire and impart to others the necessary military knowledge … If this unequaled government, this glorious union is saved, future generations will tell by whom it was done; if it falls … the teachers of Pennsylvania at least will not be to blame.’’
Six months later, the “Teachers Regiment’’ helped hold the high ground at Cemetery Ridge against an advancing Confederate Army at the Battle of Gettysburg. It is a somewhat fitting tribute to these courageous teachers that today PSEA holds its annual “Gettysburg Summer Leadership Conference’’ near those same hallowed grounds each July.
As the 19th century marched on, the association evolved with it, though leadership was changing. Burrowes had moved on to become president of the State Agricultural College, which today has a fairly popular football team, the Penn State Nittany Lions. He also sold the “Pennsylvania School Journal’’ in 1870, a year before his death, to two fellow public education advocates, J.P. Wickersham and J.P. McCaskey.
Wickersham served as editor of the Journal and McCaskey as business manager. Although admirers of Burrowes’ publishing skills, they set about to transform the publication from “an inspirer, a shaper, and a chronicler of educational movements,’’ to one “more strictly professional, and (speaking) directly to and for teachers.’’
The association continued as a mover and shaker in educational progress in the state, both in terms of student instruction and teacher training. It would help bring about one more momentous achievement before the century ended – passage of the first compulsory school attendance laws in 1895. Pennsylvania’s law, long supported by the association, preceded national legislation by 23 years.
Coming of Age
The Industrial Age was in full swing as the country moved into the 20th century. The first decade of the 1900s would see the Wright Brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk., N.C., the advent of the “Teddy Bear’’ from a cartoon of Spanish-American War hero Theodore Roosevelt, and Henry Ford would market the first “affordable automobile.’’
The dawn of the new century also saw significant changes to the “Pennsylvania State Teachers Association.’’ The organization held a reorganization meeting in Williamsport in 1900 and emerged as the “Pennsylvania State Educational Association.’’
Twenty years later, another constitution was adopted, this one putting overall democratic governance into the hands of a House of Delegates; a full-time executive secretary’s position was created; the association purchased the Pennsylvania School Journal; the “al’’ was dropped, making the official name the “Pennsylvania State Education Association’’; and in a bit of an omen of what the later part of the century would bring, “convention districts’’ were created to “make the association more accessible to teachers.’’
In fact, the “new PSEA’’ described its mission as “a voluntary organization of teachers of the Commonwealth with these purposes: “to promote the general education welfare, to protect and advance the interests of its members, to foster professional zeal, to advance educational standards, and to establish and maintain helpful, friendly relations.’’
With the end of World War I, Pennsylvanians joined the rest of the country in rollicking their way through “The Roaring 20s.’’ At the same time, PSEA was really coming of age.
Pennsylvania School Journal, which PSEA took over as its own in 1921, hit 64,000 copies a month during the decade and was putting out a special section each fall “showing pictorially the progress made in the construction of modern school buildings.’’ But only 4,000 copies of the special sections were printed and sent to superintendents, supervising principals and secretaries of school boards. As a 1929 PSEA publication noted about the reason for not including the pictorial in all 64,000 Journal copies: “A free edition of this administrative number would well nigh bankrupt the Association. It retails at $1 per copy.’’
The large circulation figure of the Journal underscored the growth of the association since the 24 schoolmen founded it in 1852. Membership stood at 376 by 1900, then ballooned to 34,477 by 1920 and was nearly 60,000 by 1929.
This success prompted the executive council in 1925 to purchase a “substantial brick house’’ at 400 N. Third St, facing the capitol, for $52,500. A year later, an adjoining brick house at 402 and 404 N. Third St. was purchased for $50,000. All three houses were completely remodeled for a total project cost of $136,424.
The association’s nine full-time staff members worked on the first and third floors, and the association rented space to two stores and three offices at annual rental of $5,580.
The new site was described as “ideal and should serve the Association as long as we have public schools and public school teachers – as long as the Republic endures. On this site some day the Association should erect a modern office building.’’
Enduring the Depression, WWII
As impressive as the new association home and membership numbers were, PSEA’s contributions to significant public education accomplishments and progress for the teaching profession were equally so.
The association’s lobbying helped bring about the Pennsylvania School Code in 1911, and six years later the Public School Employees Retirement Bill allowed employees to apply for retirement at age 62.
By 1930, teachers and others in Pennsylvania were seeing minimum salaries PSEA termed “far larger than those dreamed of,’’ thanks to the association’s involvement in getting the Woodruff Salary Act of 1919 passed, as well as legislation the same year that required significant state aid toward transportation of pupils.
In 1921, the Edmunds Act established requirements for teaching training, further enhancing the need and function of “State Normal Schools’’ and fueling their evolution into “State Teachers Colleges.’’ Meanwhile, PSEA’s advocacy contributed to establishment of the State Department of Public Instruction, furthering strengthening of compulsory attendance laws, free textbooks and supplies, the creation of vocational schools, and increasing state appropriations to public education.
But while PSEA never took its eye off of the ball in advocating for public education and teachers, the playing field for the nation and the state was about to significantly change as “the Roaring 20s’’ closed.
With the Great Depression of the 1930s, many children dropped out of school to sell newspapers, shine shoes or find whatever other work they could to help put food on the family table.
The impact on education itself was monumental. Families that did manage to keep their homes often had trouble keeping up with taxes that supported schools. The funding difficulties forced many schools to work with worn textbooks with missing pages, to drop certain classes and in some cases to close outright.
Many teachers had their salaries cut, or worked for room and board. Some rural teachers actually lived in their one-room schoolhouse, and would cook on the school’s wood stoves.
Such New Deal programs as the Works Progress Administration and the Public Works Administration provided relief to beleaguered schools and students. In addition to putting people back to work, these programs replaced many one-room schools with larger buildings.
Despite the national struggles, the 1930s weren’t without significant legislation affecting public education. In 1937, another long PSEA issue became a reality when the state’s teachers received tenure, and while it wouldn’t affect educators in Pennsylvania for another three decades, laws were enacted recognizing and legalizing the fermenting organized labor movement.
Although it came under difficult circumstances for the country and its troops throughout the globe, the booming factories needed to support WWII stabilized the economy, which in combination with the New Deal programs allowed public education to regain its financial footing. Another WWII-era program, the GI Bill, would provide educational opportunities that prompted many veterans to pursue teaching careers.
The post-war “Baby Boom’’ and a greater middle-class emphasis on both primary and secondary education allowed for progressive reforms, including ones to teachers’ working conditions and compensation. Legislation in the 1940s provided state-mandated teacher salaries, recodified school laws and addressed such things as school bus safety.
PSEA would celebrate its 100th anniversary in 1952, and culminate the decade by laying the cornerstone in 1960 to erect that “modern office building’’ its officers foresaw when they purchased the Third Street property more than three decades earlier.
Nationally, the decade was closing with an event that shook the country: Russia’s launch of Sputnik I and II not only started the space race, it focused attention on science and math in America’s schools.
Some feel the current criticism – often misdirected and overblown – of U.S. education is rooted the Russian launch of the first Earth-orbiting satellites.
‘Times a changin’
Singer/songwriter Bob Dylan perhaps best captured what was brewing at the start of the 1960s: “The times they are a-changin.’’
The same fires of social unrest that were gripping the entire country were also starting to ignite under Pennsylvania teachers.
Salaries and benefits of teachers were not only well below those of comparable professions, they were also behind their counterparts in other states. As a result, in 1965, nearly 20 percent of graduating teachers were leaving Pennsylvania to teach elsewhere.
Women teachers faced particularly tough circumstances. Not only were their salaries often lower than male teachers, they also encountered a double standard socially. Certain places were off limits, single teachers had to be careful in dating, and married teachers faced the possible loss of their jobs if they became pregnant.
The good news was that that by the middle of the decade, both political parties in Pennsylvania were starting to recognize the inequities and the drain on educational talent. Legislation, with PSEA’s advocacy, was in the pipeline to adjust the state’s school code to upgrade teacher salaries and provide more state funding to local school districts.
But the embers of change smoldered too long, and on March 4, 1968, the fire of the times that was lit under teachers at the start of the decade erupted into an inferno.
‘We knew we had a union’
From that 1852 gathering of schoolmen in Harrisburg and through most of the 1960s, PSEA was an organization run by school administrators. Many would hand out association membership cards to new teachers at the time of their hiring and “encourage’’ them to join.
But an uneasiness was developing as the 60s wore on. Butch Santicola, then a young teacher in the Aliquippa School District and now a PSEA field representative in western Pennsylvania, noted that a new generation of teachers reflected the times.
They bristled, he said, as “we saw guys going into the mills and making two to three times what we were making.’’
Pointing to Vietnam, campus unrest and racial riots, Santicola said “the times were on our side … those of us who were just out of college were comfortable with militancy and taking to the streets.’’
Aliquippa and other districts staged “sickouts’’ resulting from “the chalk dust flu,’’ he said, until the decision came to join other western Pennsylvania districts in staging what in those pre-collective bargaining days were legally questionable and risky strikes.
Although some long-time teachers were uncomfortable with the stridency, Santicola noted the strike motion in Aliquippa ironically was made by a 38-year veteran named Mary Campbell.
“They were threatening to fire us if we walked,’’ Santicola said. “Mary Campbell was single and near the end of her career. Mary Campbell had no reason to stick her neck out, but she did.’’
Marylou Stefanko, a teacher in the North Hills School District, noted that the words “union’’ and PSEA weren’t used in the same sentence at the time.
Teachers’ positions were gaining understanding among administrators, legislators and the public, but Stefanko said the slow pace of reform and the plight of women teachers made it clear a union would be the only way to change what she termed “collective begging.’’
So they took to the streets, or more precisely the steps of the state capitol in Harrisburg, directly across from PSEA headquarters.
In the same ironic twist that saw Mary Campbell make the strike motion in Aliquippa, an assistant principal named Joseph Standa, then PSEA president, led a throng of educators 20,000 strong in a rally that will forever be infamous in both the history of PSEA and Pennsylvania organized labor.
Legislators and the public were so influenced and impressed that they did more than just adjust the school code to address compensation reforms. In 1970, the Legislature passed Act 195 giving collective bargaining rights to teachers.
“On March 4, 1968, that’s when we knew we had a union,’’ Stefanko said. That’s when we knew we had solidarity.’’
The ‘Vision’ Remains
Yes, the March 1968 rally was monumental and led to collective bargaining rights that have elevated teachers and in the process public education in Pennsylvania.
But Act 195 was followed by other key successes: early retirement benefits and cost-of-living adjustments for retirees; organizing and bringing collective bargaining to educational support professionals; and helping thwart so-called school choice vouchers in the 1990s that were anti-union and anti-public education proposals disguised as reform.
On March 4, 2001, PSEA members took to the streets of Harrisburg once again, to rally for children and public education and to reaffirm and re-establish PSEA's identity as a union.
Marc Kornfeld, a veteran UniServ representative in PSEA’s Southern Region, attributes a lot of PSEA’s success as a collective bargaining agent to the fact that its history of having organized local affiliates of teachers throughout the state made for a relatively seamless transition into union locals.
“The structure was already in place,’’ Kornfeld said. “And many seasoned teachers went on to staff positions within PSEA. We picked up some very good staff members.’’
The gale from Pennsylvania was among the gusts that were putting the wind behind the backs of teachers nationally in their drive to gain more respect and appreciation of the profession. The National Education Association was becoming a major national labor organization, and PSEA was among the more prominent state associations.
Wade Wilson, PSEA’s first black president, joined NEA’s Executive Council, and one of his successors at the PSEA helm, Helen Wise, went on to become NEA president from 1973-74.
But while it’s true PSEA has become an organization spearheaded by teachers in the aftermath of the 1968 rally and passage of Act 195 in 1970, the association is as passionate in its advocacy of public education in general as were its founders in 1852.
A large part of that passion is a firm belief that quality teachers and support personnel are crucial to quality education, and that recruitment and retention of staff is based on fair and equitable compensation.
The 21st Century is still young, and no one can definitively foresee where public education is headed. But PSEA has literally put down its vision by producing a first-of-its kind comprehensive report called “The Power of a Great Education: PSEA’s 20/20 Vision for the Future.’’
It is based on research by our in-house experts, research studies by think tanks and outside experts of differing ideologies, and the experiences of our members.
PSEA has evolved and changed since 1852, and from 24 schoolmen there are now 191,000 members. “The modern office building’’ foreseen by association leaders in 1930 is now 50 years old.
But PSEA still is all about what Thomas Burrowes and those other public education pioneers shared on that December day: A great understanding of “the power of a great education,’’ and the Vision to make it happen.
Image 1: Thomas H. Burrowes, PSEA's first president
Image 2: Thaddeus Stevens
Image 3: President Lincoln delivers the Gettysburg Address in Gettysburg, PA
Image 4: Pennsylvania classroom in 1906
Image 5: Unemployment lines during the Great Depression
Image 6: Public school classroom circa 1945
Image 7: Minority classroom circa 1960
Image 8: Educators rally at Harrisburg, March 4, 1968
Image 9: Cover of PSEA's 20/20 Vision for the Future
Image 10: Remember in November campaign graphic from early 1980s
(This narrative of PSEA history is based on documents on file in the PSEA Archives, past association publications, association videos, news coverage, and interviews with current and former PSEA staffers and officials.)