Pennsylvania’s Education Secretary Expands Review of Standardized Test Results

After an examination of 2009 standardized test scores raised questions, the state Education Secretary is expanding his review.  The forensic analysis conducted on the 2009 PSSA test results from around Pennsylvania raised questions about scores in nearly 3 dozen districts and some charter schools.

Education Secretary Ron Tomalis first ordered a review and follow up with the schools listed in it. The schools must investigate the reasons they were flagged and report back in 30 days.

Now, the secretary has ordered a review of all exams since 2009. Education department spokesman Tim Eller says a similar report will be conducted for the 2010 PSSA

State Education Secretary Ron Tomalis

State Education Secretary Ron Tomalis

tests. He says the contractor was already preparing the 2011 report and will add the 2010 report to its review.

Eller says the 2011 forensic review should be ready by the end of this month and the 2010 review is expected by mid-September.

Eller says the analysis of the 2010 PSSAs will result in an additional cost of $108,000. He says the secretary believes the integrity and security of the PSSAs is of paramount importance.  He wants to ensure the results the state is getting from the tests, which are an indication of how students are performing and meeting state standards academically.

Eller says approximately 1.8 million tests are given statewide each year.  He says it’s important to ensure there’s no misconduct going on with the tests. He says the secretary is very concerned with the results of the initial 2009 report, but adds it’s important to note that the report is not an indictment of cheating or misconduct being done.

Eller says having three years’ worth of analysis will give the department a trend of the schools that appear on the report for irregularities, and allow the department to focus on areas where there could be potential issues.

State Education Department to Review Report on 2009 PSSA Tests

State education officials are taking a closer look at an analysis of the 2009 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment test results.   The report raised questions about standardized math and reading test scores in nearly 3 dozen districts and some charter schools. It was prepared under the previous administration, but only recently came to light.

Education Secretary Ron Tomalis has ordered a review and follow up with the schools listed in it, according to state Education Department spokesman Tim Eller.  He says the reports highlights possible questionable areas at the school building level where irregularities exist with PSSA testing.  Eller adds the report does not specifically say problems occurred, it indicates some further examination needs to be done.

Eller says the secretary got the information yesterday.  He could not say exactly why the information is coming to light now.  He says it appears it was not a priority of the prior administration.  He says the report, to their knowledge, has not been reviewed or acted on in the past.

Eller says the forensic analysis was not performed last year; it was not funded in the department’s budget.  The Secretary had already revived it for the 2011 tests before questions began about the 2009 report.

Eller says many of the schools flagged in the report are in Philadelphia, but there are schools in other parts of the state as well that are listed within the report, which was prepared by a state contractor.

Corbett Signs Budget Ahead of Deadline

PA Budget Signing Beats Midnight Deadline

The $27.15-billion dollar, no-tax increase budget trims state spending by more than a billion dollars.  It passed the legislature with zero Democratic support Wednesday night, but Governor Tom Corbett waited until all of the supporting bills were in place before finally putting pen to paper late Thursday night. 

The administration reports that 66-line items were eliminated, 226-line items were reduced, and 52-line items were consolidated.  Basic education funding will receive $5.35-billion dollars in the new fiscal year.  That’s down from a total of $5.77-billion dollars last year (a number which included federal stimulus dollars).  The State System of Higher Education is already responding to 18% funding cuts.  Its board of governors approved a 7.5% tuition hike on Thursday.  Similarly, the state related universities (PSU, Pitt, Temple and Lincoln) face 19% reductions in state support.    

Governor Corbett calls the lean spending plan an important first step in putting PA’s fiscal house back in order.  “It spends no more than we have and it doesn’t pretend that we have more that we haven’t budgeted,” Corbett said referring to Democrats’ calls to use last year’s unexpected revenues to mitigate cuts to education and welfare programs. 

At Thursday night’s bill signing, Governor Corbett said the budget was crafted to grow PA’s economy: “Make no mistake here. This is a budget for Pennsylvania families, for Pennsylvania working families.  It is a budget that imposes no new taxes on them.”

Governor Corbett also hailed legislative passage of a new bill to limit Act 1 exceptions – thus requiring a voter referendum if a PA school district seeks to raise property taxes above the rate of inflation.  While it was technically an unrelated bill, it represents a Corbett priority and the final piece of the budget package.  “I believe we need to give the citizens of Pennsylvania, in the school districts, the ability to voice their opinion in more than just the election of school board directors,” Corbett tells reporters.     

However, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association is concerned that this will result in additional reductions in educational programming.  They know that voter referenda on property taxes are extremely difficult to approve.  “The problem is, less than 25% of the population has children in schools, so there’s 75% of the population that the districts need to reach that they don’t necessarily reach on a routine basis,” says PSBA director of research Dave Davare.  “Districts are not willy-nilly raising taxes,” Davare tells us. 

With this year’s budget work behind them, the State House and Senate have each recessed until September.  This marked the first time in nine years that PA’s state budget was signed by the constitutional deadline.

Operating Budget Awaits Governor Tom Corbett’s Signature

A $27.15- billion dollar state spending plan has now passed both chambers of the legislature, with zero Democratic support.  Wednesday night’s House vote was 109 – 92.  Two Republicans joined all House Democrats in opposition to the bill

House Republican Appropriations chair Bill Adolph (R-Delaware) says it represents about a 4% reduction in general spending.  “This is only the third time in nearly 40-years that Pennsylvania will be spending less than the prior year budget,” Adolph said during House floor debates.  He contends the budget is built upon realistic and sustainable revenues.  “This budget will not create a deficit by spending beyond our means.” 

The Republican-backed spending plan would tap into some of the higher-than-anticipated state revenues, which have accumulated this year, but Adolph says they do not rely on that money to sustain the budget.  Most state officials expect the final surplus number to be in the range of $700-million dollars.  While many Democrats say more of that money should be spent to mitigate painful spending cuts, Republicans are quick to point to a long list of liabilities, including: growing pension obligations, state debt payments, a potential Mcare settlement, an unresolved transportation funding gap and more.

As Republicans tout the fiscal responsibility of the spending plan, Democrats – like Appropriations chair Joe Markosek (D-Allegheny) – say they relied on gimmicks to keep the spend number artificially low.  “This is a budget that is full of hide and seek and sleight of hand,” Markosek said.  “This is not open government.”   

Democrats complained even more loudly about more than a billion dollars in cuts to basic and higher education.  The 14-universities in the State System of Higher Education will see an 18% funding cut, and we may soon learn whether it will significantly affect tuition rates.  The ‘basic education funding’ line item, in the budget, stands at $5.35-billion dollars.  That’s down from $5.77-billion dollars last year.  But that number included federal stimulus money, and Republicans say this year’s state investment in basic education is the largest ever.

In all, Pennsylvania is losing about $2.7-billion dollars in stimulus money, which was used to balance last year’s budget.  Senate Republican leaders say the loss of federal stimulus dollars means that difficult but necessary budget cuts needed to be made.   

The legislative work isn’t over yet, as there are still auxiliary budget bills that need to be enacted.  But, if Governor Tom Corbett signs the budget today, it will break a streak of eight consecutive late budgets in Pennsylvania.

Capitol View from East Wing

House Members Introduce Their Own School Choice Measures

With no action expected on Senate Bill 1 this summer, some state House members are introducing their own school voucher legislation.   Representative Curt Schroder (R-Chester) has introduced two measures as alternatives to the Senate bill.

HB 1679, the “Opportunity Scholarship and Educational Improvement Tax Credit Act”, will offer $5,000 opportunity scholarships to all students.  Representative Schroder calls it true school choice. It would include a public-to-public school option and would also expand the Educational Improvement Tax Credit, offering that credit to home school families.

HB 1678, called the “Failing Schools Student Rescue Act”, would offer a $5,000 voucher to all students who attend or live within the attendance boundary of a persistently low achieving school. Representative Schroder says where Senate Bill 1 established income limits for voucher eligibility in its failing schools option; all students would be eligible under his bill.

Representative Schroder says if a school is failing to educate students, all students are endangered regardless of family income and must be given the opportunity to get out of the “failure factories that some of our schools have become.”

Don Adams of the Independence Hall Tea Party Association has concerns about Senate Bill 1.  He says the concepts behind it are so complicated, that the bill is difficult to promote.   Sharon Cherubin of UNITEPA and the Grassroots Coalition for Real School Choice also favors Representative Schroder’s bills, saying the legislation would empower all parents.

Representative Schroder says they’d anticipate passing only one of those bills.  He says they were offered as  alternatives to Senate Bill 1.

Meanwhile, another house Republican, Jim Christiana (R-Beaver), has introduced a bill that would limit vouchers to low income families in under-performing districts while expanding the EITC for middle income families.

HB 1708 is called the “Students and Schools Rescue Act”.  The bill also has some bipartisan support. Representative Tony Payton Jr. (D-Phila) is a cosponsor. House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R- Allegheny) has also signed on to the bill, which would incorporate the language expanding the EITC program as passed earlier in HB 1330.

Bill Calls for Funding, Accountability Changes for Charter, Cyber Schools in Pennsylvania

The Democratic chairman of the state House Education Committee is proposing changes to the funding and oversight of cyber charter and charter schools in Pennsylvania.    Representative Jim Roebuck (D-Phila) says the amendments to the state’s Charter and Cyber Charter School law would improve administrative oversight and accountability.

Roebuck says the bill would establish state responsibility for funding cyber charter schools, relieving school districts of a major funding mandate.  He adds that school districts would not receive any state funding for students residing in their district who attend cyber charter schools.

Roebuck says since it is the state, through the Department of Education, that approves, renews and monitors cyber charter schools, he believes it should also be the responsibility of the state to fund those schools.  He says the state cannot afford to delay the issue of funding cyber charter schools, calling the current system an unfair funding mandate on local school districts.

Representative James Roebuck, Jr.

Matt Pryzywara, chief financial officer of the School District of Lancaster, agrees that  a change is needed in the way cyber charter schools are funded.  He says school districts make vastly different payments, with some paying more than the actual cost of instruction and some paying less.  He says this leads to some districts subsidizing cyber school students from other districts.

The bill would also create an office of Charter and Cyber Schools within the state Education Department which would have oversight responsibilities and could investigate complaints of fraud, waste and mismanagement.

Other bills (SB 904, HB 1348) to amend the Charter and Cyber Charter School law have been introduced in the Senate and House.  Representative Roebuck’s bill differs from those in several ways, most notably regarding the funding of Cyber Charter Schools.

PA School Districts

Survey Projects State Budget’s Impact on Schools

More than 70% of PA school districts are planning to cut educational programs, according to a new survey conducted by the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO) and Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA).  Music, the arts, physical education, social studies, health and more would no longer be available or be greatly reduced, according to PASA executive director Jim Buckheit.  “Not only will the things that students particularly enjoy… be reduced, but elective courses and even some core instructional programming will be reduced.” 

The survey results are based on responses from 263 of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts.  Among its other findings: 86% of districts plan to reduce class sizes, 70% plan to lay off staff, and 31% plan on nixing full-day kindergarten.  Buckheit says these numbers show that education is not the place to cut.  “If we want to improve our economic chances in the future, we need to education our children because they’re the workforce of tomorrow.” 

The survey was conducted largely prior to the introduction of House Republicans’ budget plans.  The majority caucus expects to vote this week on a budget bill (HB 1485) that would restore about $210-million dollars to public schools, compared to the billion-dollar cuts initially proposed by Governor Tom Corbett in March.  “It’s a step forward, but it’s still a big hole to fill for school districts across the state,” Buckheit says.  Even if additional state revenue comes in, Buckheit tells us, it may not alleviate the cuts described in the survey.  The state budget deadline is June 30th.