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.

RadioPA Roundtable

Radio PA Roundtable 06.29.12

Radio PA Roundtable is a 30-minute program featuring in-depth reporting on the top news stories of the week. Professionally produced and delivered every Friday, Roundtable includes commercial breaks for local sale and quarterly reports for affiliate files.

Click the audio player below to hear the full broadcast:


Corrections Secretary Optimistic About Prison Reforms

Pennsylvania’s prison population increased by 40% between 2000 and 2011, driving General Fund spending up by 76% over that same time.  State prisons currently house more than 51,000 inmates, and nearly 45% of those released will be back behind bars within three years.

These were just a few of the trends confronted by the “Justice Reinvestment Working Group,” which got all of the stakeholders together to discuss ways to create a more efficient and effective prison system. State Corrections Secretary John Wetzel is optimistic their recommendations will not only drive down the prison population, but reduce crime too.

“At six months out we should start seeing some progress in the numbers; 18-months out we should be seeing some strong population reduction, and improved outcomes.” says Wetzel.  “More people in to programming, shorter waiting lists, people being processed faster and people being successful when they get out.”

The reforms included in the bill will, in part, keep low-level offenders and technical parole violators out of state prisons.  It will also help officials to better match offenders’ needs with the appropriate treatment programs.

Pennsylvania is the 16th state to take the Justice Reinvestment Approach.  “It’s been a real range of states – large & small, red & blue – that have gone through this process,” explains Marc Pelka, senior policy analyst with the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

The savings could amount to $350-million dollars over the next five years, and some of that money will be earmarked for reinvestment in programs that prevent crime.

SB 100 has already received unanimous support in the General Assembly and now awaits Governor Tom Corbett’s signature.  The reinvestment language is pending in separate legislation.

You can hear our entire interview with Corrections Secretary John Wetzel on this weekend’s Roundtable program.

Under the Capitol Dome

State Budget Votes Near

The state’s current budget was enacted with zero Democratic support last year.  This year may not be much different if Wednesday’s House Appropriations Committee meeting is any indication.  After two hours of debate, the committee advanced the $27.7-billion dollar spending plan along party lines.

The spend number may be almost 2% above this current budget, but most of the increases are due to mandatory costs like pension obligations and medical assistance.  “This budget contains no tax increases,” Appropriations Chairman Bill Adolph (R-Del.) repeated twice for emphasis.

While better-than-expected revenues in the spring allowed Republican budget negotiators to spend a half-billion more than what was first proposed in February, Adolph told the committee the state is still on pace to end the fiscal year nearly $200-million dollars in the red.

“This is a sustainable budget that meets the needs of Pennsylvania residents,” Adolph concluded.

The recently released spreadsheets show $100-million dollars restored to the Accountability Block Grants that fund full-day kindergarten programs across the state.  Add that to $50-million being set aside for distressed school districts and budget supporters say all school districts will receive at least the same amount of state funding they got this year.

State Rep. Joe Markosek

State Rep. Joe Markosek

That doesn’t satisfy House Democrats though.  “I would challenge anybody in this room to go to any school director in the Commonwealth, in the public school system, and ask them if they think they are getting more money for educational purposes,” says Democratic House Appropriations Chair Joe Markosek (D-Allegheny/Westmoreland).

Markosek also lamented a planned tax credit for “big business” at a time when county human services are facing 10% cuts.  That 10% cut, however, is half of what was proposed back in February.

Final House votes could come as early as Thursday, with Senate votes to follow.  The state’s new fiscal year starts on Sunday.  Details of other budget season priorities – like education reforms and the ethane tax credit – are still being finalized.

Governor Touts Human Service Block Grants But Faces Opposition

Surrounded by a bipartisan group of county commissioners this week, Governor Tom Corbett called on lawmakers to pass his proposed Human Service Block Grant to replace current state funding in seven human service areas.

State Senate Republicans released details Tuesday of a proposed 27.7 billion dollar budget for the next fiscal year, and it did  not include the block grant approach yet.  A spokesman says it’s still under discussion.

Governor Corbett says the current approach to funding human services provides no flexibility and enforces rigid rules that make it hard for people to receive individualized services.  He says the block grant approach will allow counties to prioritize the needs at the local level and cut the red tape.

The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania backs the block grant approach. President Jo Ellen Litz, a Lebanon County Commissioner, says it will give counties the flexibility they need to provide people with the services they need.

The group’s Vice President, Christian Leinbach of Berks County, says counties can better decide how the money should be spent and there are safeguards. He says local plans must be published, voted on by the commissioners in public and approved by the Department of Public Welfare.  He believes it provides more transparency and accountability than the current system.

But Representative Gene DiGirolomo, a Bucks County Republican, is against combining state money for seven human service areas into one funding stream.  He calls it a monumental shift and says the administration is moving too fast. He called for a pilot project to test the concept.

Human service providers say there are already waiting lists for many services and giving counties greater flexibility could leave them fighting each other for limited dollars. Even with the block grants, human service programs face a 10% reduction in funding.

Child Abuse Bills Await Governor’s Signature

Under current law teachers are “mandated reporters” of child abuse, but state Senator Pat Vance (R-Cumberland) says only 15% of school districts provide any kind of training to help them recognize it.  Vance is the prime sponsor legislation that will require school employees, who have direct contact with children, to receive at least three hours of training in child abuse identification every five years.

“It’s always been important but since the recent publicity coming out of State College it has become even more vitally important,” says Vance, who has introduced this bill before.

The reference to “recent publicity,” of course, refers to the Jerry Sandusky trial.  Vance’s bill received unanimous House votes on June 18th (day five of testimony in the child sex abuse trial).  The Senate unanimously concurred in House amendments on June 25th (the first session day following Sandusky’s conviction on 48 charges of child sex abuse).

Jerry Sandusky is currently locked up in the Centre County Correctional Facility. He will appeal the conviction.

Jerry Sandusky is currently locked up in the Centre County Correctional Facility. He will appeal the conviction.

Also awaiting the governor’s signature is legislation that will allow expert witnesses to put sexual assault victims’ behavior into context at trial.  “We have seen how the defendant in the sexual assault case being heard in Centre County was permitted to provide an expert witness to explain the defendant’s behavior but Pennsylvania case law prohibits the prosecution from presenting expert witnesses,” Rep. Cherelle Parker (D-Philadelphia) explained in a June 21st statement.  That was also the date the Sandusky jury began its deliberations.

The changes to Pennsylvania’s child abuse statutes may not stop with these two bills.  A Task Force on Child Protection was tapped in the wake of the Sandusky grand jury to review the state’s child abuse policies and procedures.  The task force’s final report is due by November 30th.

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.

Jerry Sandusky Guilty: Now What?

The conviction of Jerry Sandusky on 45 of 48 counts of child sex abuse sent the former Penn State assistant football coach to jail while he awaits sentencing, which is expected in September. Meanwhile, the defense is preparing an appeal of the conviction.

Lead defense attorney Joe Amendola says there are several grounds for an appeal, but he did not seem to be surprised by the guilty verdicts handed down Friday night. To the jeers of a crowd gathered outside the Centre County Courthouse in Bellefonte, Amendola did indicate that he believed his client is innocent.

Sandusky will be housed in the Centre County lockup until he is sentenced in about three months. Given the number of counts and the seriousness of the crimes, it is expected that the sentence will put Sandusky away for the rest of his life.

RadioPA Roundtable

Radio PA Roundtable 06.22.12

Radio PA Roundtable is a 30-minute program featuring in-depth reporting on the top news stories of the week. Professionally produced and delivered every Friday, Roundtable includes commercial breaks for local sale and quarterly reports for affiliate files.

Click the audio player below to hear the full broadcast:


Negotiators Agree to Budget Framework, Tax Credit

Governor Tom Corbett has repeatedly said that June 30th means something to him.  With Wednesday night’s announcement that he and top Republican lawmakers have agreed to a $27.656-billion dollar budget framework, it appears that Pennsylvania is on pace to meet a second consecutive budget deadline.

Neither Corbett nor the legislative leaders were willing to discuss the details, as rank-and-file lawmakers are still being briefed on the specifics and a few details are still being finalized.  However, $27.656-billion is the same spend number the state Senate used when it passed a budget bill in May.

One of the Senate’s top priorities at the time was the restoration of proposed 20% cuts to the State System of Higher Education and proposed 30% cuts to the three big state-related universities (Penn State, Pitt and Temple).  The planned restorations came with a promise from those universities to keep next year’s tuition increases below the Consumer Price Index.  Whether these restorations made it into the final deal has yet to be confirmed.

We do know that 40.3% of the budget is comprised of education spending and 38.9% is spent on social services.  So, any movement in the spending plan – either up or down – will likely come from those two categories.

In addition to the budget framework, negotiators have confirmed agreement on an ethane tax credit that’s designed to lure a massive new petrochemical plant to western Pennsylvania.  “We are investing I believe… in a new industrial revolution in Pennsylvania,” Governor Corbett said earlier on Wednesday.  “We are investing in the opportunity for thousands of Pennsylvanians to have a good job.”

The American Chemistry Council estimates 10,000 construction jobs, 400 direct plant jobs in 17,000 spinoff jobs in chemical and manufacturing industries if the proposed Shell Oil petrochemical plant comes to fruition in Pennsylvania.

While Corbett was joined at the capitol by a large & diverse group of tax credit supporters, critics are wary of giving taxpayer money away to big industry.  One of those critics is state Rep. Jesse White (D-Washington).  He’s already proposed an alternative that would fund the incentives through a surcharge on Pennsylvania’s natural gas wells.  “We should not be socializing costs while privatizing profits,” White said in a statement this week.