House Majority Proposes Charter, Cyber Charter Funding Changes

The cyber school funding formula is at the center of the latest charter school debate in Harrisburg.  House Republicans unveiled a package of bills on Friday, which would allow school districts to make four additional deductions when calculating payments to cyber charter schools. 

“Our children are being treated as second-class citizens in the education world, and it’s not fair,” says PA Families for Public Cyber Schools Executive Director Jenny Bradmon.  On average, she says charter schools are already receiving just 70% of what it costs a school district to educate a child. 

But state Rep. Mike Reese (R-Westmoreland/Fayette) says it’s not about picking winners and losers.  “This is about making sure that there’s equitable funding for both brick-and-mortar public schools and our cyber schools in Pennsylvania,” he tells Radio PA.

“I believe cyber schools play a very important role in our education system, no doubt about that, but I think we have a responsibility to the taxpayers of Pennsylvania to make sure that their tax dollars are being spent wisely.” 

Among other things, Reese’s legislation would allow school districts to deduct 50% of the cost of extra-curricular activities and 100% of the cost of things like student health, food and library services. These are costs borne by a district’s taxpayers, but services that are not necessarily offered by the cyber schools.    

There are parts of the House GOP package that charter school advocates do support.  For instance, one provision would call for the state to fund charters directly in order to ensure timely payments.  Another would allow for longer charter terms, which would allow the schools to obtain better financing for their own capital projects. 

But Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools Executive Director Bob Fayfich says the so-called cyber funding reforms are arbitrary.  “They’re based not on what the cost is for a high-quality cyber education… but rather an arbitrary percentage of costs associated with the expenses of the district.” 

House Republicans call their bills a “starting point” for discussions with all interested parties. 

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA) and Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) have each released statements referring to the Republican package as a positive step toward meaningful charter school reform. 

More than 105,000 Pennsylvania students are currently enrolled in 157-charter schools and 16-cyber charter schools.  The statewide average for non-special education charter school payments is just over $9,400 per student.

New Teacher Evaluations Won’t Apply to Charter Schools

Something is missing from Pennsylvania’s new teacher evaluation law… charter schools.  The new teacher evaluation system approved in the late June budget rush will, for the first time, take student performance into account and provide assistance to educators who fall into the bottom two categories of a new four-tier rating system.

However, during House debate, state Rep. Michael O’Brien (D-Phila.) said he and others were surprised to see that publicly-funded charter schools were ultimately removed from the final product.  “What happens to get in the way of a kum-ba-ya moment?  The devil is in the details,” O’Brien said of the changes to language that previously earned unanimous support.

“We are spending public dollars that are not being accounted for,” lamented Minority Education Chair Jim Roebuck (D-Phila.) during House debate, as he emphasized the fact that charter schools are public schools.

But supporters of proposed charter school reforms say they will contain sufficient accountability and performance measures, which will make the teacher evaluations unnecessary.  Like teacher evaluations, many in Harrisburg expected the charter school reforms to be finalized as a part of a budget season education reform package.  That did not happen.

While time ran out to finalize the charter school reform language, Governor Tom Corbett says he will keep pushing for one of the key items on his education reform agenda.  “We still have more time in September.  You know me, I don’t stop.  I keep coming,” Corbett told reporters during a recent q&a.

Budget Package Signed Just Before Midnight Deadline

The new fiscal year began on Sunday with the second straight on-time, no tax increase budget.  “Today we reaffirm our commitment to job growth, to education, to the needy and to the taxpayers… our goal is growing new jobs,” Governor Corbett said upon signing the $27.7-billion dollar spending plan late Saturday night.

But critics say the new budget does little to preserve the social safety net.  They lament the elimination of a cash grant welfare program for more than 60,000 needy and disabled residents.  “A lot of men in my district will have no means of support.  And in my district, no means of support means take what you need,” explains Rep. John Myers (D-Philadelphia).  The administration has agreed to continue the program for one more month to ease the transition.

Governor Corbett says he’s pleased that an improving financial picture allowed them to restore funding to several areas, including the Accountability Block Grants that fund full-day kindergarten programs across the state.  Public schools are essentially being level-funded this year, while an extra $40-million dollars has been earmarked for the most fiscally distressed districts.

One of the biggest budget restorations came in the area of higher education, where state-owned and state related universities had been facing cuts of 20% and 30% respective, which would have been on top of last year’s 18% and 20% cuts.  The new level funding comes with a commitment from the university presidents that tuition hikes will be kept at a minimum for the upcoming school year.

Much of this weekend’s activity focused on the other executive and legislative priorities tied to this year’s budget.  Lawmakers signed off on a new system of teacher evaluations for public school teachers, and an expanded Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program that will give businesses tax breaks when they fund school choice scholarships for low-income students in the state’s worst-performing schools.

Another big victory for the administration was the so-called “ethane cracker tax credit,” which Governor Tom Corbett has described as a new industrial revolution in Pennsylvania.  It passed with broad, bipartisan support.

Charter school reform legislation did not get finalized before lawmakers’ summer break, however Corbett and leading Republicans vow to keep pressing the issue in the fall.  Also, there will be a pilot program to offer county human services funding in block grants vs. seven separate line items.  Up to 20-counties will be able to participate in the pilot; Corbett had originally proposed Human Services Block grants statewide.

Revamped Teacher Evaluations Bill is on the Move

Lawmakers may soon finalize a new system for teacher evaluations in Pennsylvania.  The amended bill has already garnered unanimous support in the state House, and the issue has long been one of Governor Tom Corbett’s top education reform priorities.

The current system, which is almost entirely based on classroom observations, allows for teachers to receive a rating of either ‘satisfactory’ or ‘unsatisfactory.’  “That system does not provide for useful or meaningful feedback,” state Rep. Ryan Aument (R-Lancaster) tells Radio PA.  99.4% of teachers are rated as satisfactory.

Aument has been leading the legislative push for a fairer system of educator evaluations; one that takes student performance into account.  His latest amendment, which specifically outlines the multiple measures of student performance to be considered, is building consensus around the issue.

“From day one we’ve made it clear that good evaluations are based on multiple measures,” says Pennsylvania State Education Association spokesman David Broderic.  While the bill is not perfect, according to Broderic, he says the PSEA is glad to be a part of the process.

Up to 50% of teacher evaluation ratings would be based on student performance under HB 1980.  Possible ratings would include ‘distinguished,’ ‘proficient,’ ‘needs improvement’ or ‘failing.’  Aument says teachers who fall into the bottom two categories would participate in a performance improvement plan. “Our goal was to put in place a tool that’s pro teacher, and pro student,” he says.

Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children President & CEO Joan Benso sees a disconnect in a system where 99.4% of teachers are rated as satisfactory, yet nearly 30% of children can’t read at grade level.  “Being sure that we have an evaluation system that not only rewards teachers that are performing well, but ID’s teachers that are struggling, so we can develop improvement plans for them to do better, will ultimately drive student achievement.”

Benso hopes lawmakers will adopt Aument’s bill before the summer break.  After passing the House with unanimous support, HB 1980 awaits Senate action.  If enacted, the new evaluation system is expected to be in place for the 2013/2014 school year.

State Capitol

Lawmakers Mull Expanded Education Tax Credit

Potential education reforms are being debated under the capitol dome ahead of Saturday’s state budget deadline.  One of them would expand the state’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program with a sub-program that targets low-income families in the state’s worst performing schools.  It was characterized at Monday’s House Education Committee hearing as “EITC 2.0.”

While the existing EITC program has long enjoyed bipartisan support, critics are characterizing the proposed expansion as a school vouchers program.  “85% – 90% of the kids who would get those vouchers are already in private schools,” says minority education chairman James Roebuck (D-Philadelphia).  “It’s not a means to get kids out of so-called failing public schools… it’s a subsidy to private education.” 

But the bill’s prime sponsor says it’s irresponsible to characterize his effort as school vouchers.  “Despite the fact that the student leaves to go to another school, their state, local and federal dollars remain in that classroom – thus elevating significantly the per-pupil spend of those classrooms they are leaving,” explains state Rep. Jim Christiana (R-Beaver).  He tells the House Education Committee the scholarships would be funded by businesses that choose to participate in the tax credit program.

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA) opposes the bill, because they say it would siphon valuable dollars from the General Fund at a time when school districts are struggling.

While it appears the push is on to pass an expanded EITC along with the state budget, Republican chairman Paul Clymer (R-Bucks) characterized the bill as a work-in-progress.

Education Reform Debate Roils

The call and response echoed through the state capitol rotunda:  “What do we want? Choice! When do we want it? Now!”  The hundreds of students and supporters spilling into the halls of Harrisburg were there to support Gov. Tom Corbett’s education reform agenda, especially the controversial issue of vouchers.  Highlighting the consequences of failing schools, Corbett told the crowd that half of those committed to Pennsylvania prisons read at a 6th to 8th grade level. 

Tom Corbett

Gov. Tom Corbett headlined a capitol rally for education reform.

SB 1 encompasses three of the four tenets of Corbett’s education reform agenda, including vouchers.  It passed the Senate 27 – 22 last month, and Sen. Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia) says the heat of Tuesday’s rally must be felt in the House of Representatives.  “If they make a choice not to support Senate Bill 1, we’ll make a choice on Election Day not to support them,” Williams said in his typical fiery fashion. 

Former Governor Ed Rendell has heard the rhetoric coming out of the education reform movement, and he came to the state capitol

Ed Rendell

Democrats like Babette Josephs joined former Governor Ed Rendell to highlight educational improvement.

Tuesday to remind people of the progress Pennsylvania made through his targeted investments in public schools.  “The students in the highest level of achievement on the PSSA test doubled during the eight years that I was governor.  But better still, the students in the lowest category on the PSSA test were cut in half,” Rendell says.  “These are incredible results that didn’t just happen.”

Regardless of what happens in the school vouchers debate, Rendell says state lawmakers should not take one dollar away from public schools, and rebuild the public education funding that he fought for during his two terms in the governor’s office. 

Aethists, School Choice

Holding the sign is PA State Director for American Atheists Ernest Perce V. He protested Tuesday's education reform rally because he opposes the use of public money to fund religious schools.