PA School Districts

Should Pennsylvania Schools Get Report Cards Too?

Schools have always issued report cards grading our students, but new legislation would require the state to issue report cards grading our schools too.  Under HB 1300, schools and school districts would receive a letter grade – A through F – every year.

“Coupled with providing options in education, providing this data to parents just really empowers them to get involved and make those decisions about their child’s education,” explains Ashley DeMauro, state director of StudentsFirst. “So I think as long as we’re empowering parents, obviously, it will have a positive impact.”

All public schools would be subject to the proposed new grading system, including charters and cyber charter schools. 

DeMauro says the letter grades would be based on multiple data measures, including students’ test scores and schools’ progress in closing achievement gaps.  The state already generates the data, but DeMauro recognizes that it’s often difficult to analyze.  She believes a school report card would paint a clear picture for parents, students and taxpayers. 

A spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA) says the group has not conducted a thorough analysis of HB 1300, but suggests it would be unnecessary based on work the state is already doing to implement the PA School Performance Profile website.  DeMauro, however, says the bill was actually crafted to enhance the forthcoming SPP. 

In an email, the state Department of Education press secretary tells Radio PA the governor has been a supporter of making sure that parents understand the quality of the schools their children attend.  “The Governor would like to have a system that is easily understandable to all Pennsylvania families.  The administration will review this proposal,” the statement concludes.  

This is not a new issue, conceptually, but it is the first time such legislation has been introduced in Pennsylvania’s General Assembly.  The bill was just introduced this month and has been referred to the House Education Committee.

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.

Gov’s Basic Ed. Budget Plans Already Being Debated

Pennsylvania policymakers still aren’t on the same page when it comes to the current fiscal year’s public schools budget, let alone Governor Tom Corbett’s newly proposed education spending plan.  For instance, Governor Tom Corbett made it a point to stress that basic education funding was not cut in June. 

“When the Obama Administration handed states billions of dollars in stimulus monies, the previous administration reduced the state’s share in the Basic Education funding formula.  In its place, they put the stimulus funds.  Almost a billion dollars worth,” Corbett said during Tuesday’s budget address.  “That money is gone.  It’s not coming back.” 

As for his new spending plan, Corbett says there are no cuts to the basic education funding formula.  “In fact you will find a slight increase, just as we did last year,” Corbett said to a partisan applause from lawmakers gathered in joint session.  

Corbett’s new education budget does have a new look however, as the Basic Education Funding, Pupil Transportation, Nonpublic and Charter Transportation and Social Security line items have all been lumped into a $6.5-billion dollar block grant.  

Bill Adolph

Bill Adolph addresses the media following the governor's annual budget address.

“We’ve heard for years that local school districts needed more flexibility,” says House Republican Appropriations Chair Bill Adolph (R-Delaware).  “I think what the governor has laid out today… will give the school districts this type of flexibility.  Sometimes they may not need all of that money in transportation, and can put it into the classroom.”  

But House Democratic Appropriations Chair Joe Markosek (D-Westmoreland) is wary of the block grant approach, and he’s identified $124-million dollars in cuts to education programs.  “I think most school directors would tell you they will have less money to spend, in spite of what the governor has said,” Markosek tells us.  

He’s referring primarily to the elimination of something called the Accountability Block Grant, which received $100-million dollars in the current fiscal year.  It’s a program that primarily helps to fund full-day kindergarten classes across the commonwealth.  

While Governor Tom Corbett’s new approach to education is being interpreted in different ways, there’s not debating the challenges created by a different education line item.  The state’s contribution to the Public School Employees’ Retirement System is slotted for a $315-million dollar (53%) increase in FY2013.

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.

PSEA Releases Survey on Public Schools

Governor Corbett plans to make an announcement on education policy in the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, the state’s largest teacher’s union has released a poll showing strong support for its blueprint for education reform.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association says Pennsylvanians oppose recent funding cuts to education and oppose creating a taxpayer funded voucher system for private and religious schools.  The Terry Madonna Opinion Research survey found strong support for reduced class size, tutoring and alternative student placement programs.

The poll found 69% somewhat opposed or strongly opposed the cuts in education funding in this year’s budget, while only 27% favored the action. 59% percent said they were strongly opposed or somewhat opposed to vouchers, while only 38% were in favor.  

Jerry Oleksiak, Vice President of PSEA, says the association spent a lot of time looking at what, from their own experience and the research, works.  He says the things that families and the public are concerned about, things like discipline, safety, smaller classes, and alternative programs are things they’ve been calling for, for years.  He says they’ve formalized the recommendations in their document “Solutions That Work”.   

Oleksiak says they know what’s going to work in the schools; their members are there every day.  He says some of the “silver bullets” we’ve been hearing about, such as vouchers, merit pay or loss of seniority- those kinds of things is not going to help our schools.

Oleksiak says the survey is one more hard piece of data they can show to the legislature to show that the public supports public education and knows what works in the schools.  He says close to two-thirds of those surveyed are satisfied or very satisfied with their schools.   He says that number is higher for families with kids under 18.

Oleksiak says people know the schools are working and they don’t want to see funding cuts or vouchers that are going to take away from the success of the schools.

Committee to Consider Charter School Reforms this Fall

Jeff Piccola

State Sen. Jeffrey Piccola (R-Dauphin/York)

Pennsylvania’s charter school law was considered one of the nation’s best when it was enacted in 1997, but 14-years later many are calling for reforms.  “A number of states… have surpassed the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in adopting stronger charter laws, all with the goal of making charter schools more viable and a high quality option,” says Senate Education Committee Chairman Jeffrey Piccola (R-Dauphin).  Piccola convened a capitol hearing, Thursday, on his comprehensive, 145-page charter school reform legislation.   

The bill has been two years in the making and has some bipartisan backing.  Minority Chairman Andy Dinniman (D-Chester), one of the bill’s cosponsors, says it insists on transparency and accountability.  “We say, are you fiscally accountable?  Do you provide what you need to provide at the best cost and in the most productive manner?”

SB 904 would – among other things – create an independent commission to oversee and authorize Pennsylvania’s charter schools, allow for direct state funding of charter schools, and create a new task force to investigate funding issues.  Pennsylvania currently has 90,000 students enrolled in charter schools, and 30,000 students on waiting lists.  Most of the students waiting for charter school slots are in Philadelphia.

Daylin Leach

State Sen. Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery)

The committee’s charter school reform push isn’t without its critics though.  The Pennsylvania School Boards Association testified that almost all charter school funding is provided by the districts, and SB 904 does not provide any meaningful funding reform.  State Senator Daylin Leach also raised concerns about the impact on the schools that students are leaving.  “It is a net loss to the school, and since the school is just a building, it is a net loss to the other students who are in that school.” 

Sen. Piccola anticipates action on charter school reform this fall.  Other big education issues, on the horizon, include school vouchers and mandate relief.