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Education Update for February 23, 2015

In Budget and Funding News…

New Report on School District Budgets - Challenging situations are getting worse in schools statewide, according to an update to the annual Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA) and Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO) budget survey. According to the report (released statewide today, 2-23-15), school districts overwhelmingly implemented last spring’s projected budget cuts, staff reductions, and tax hikes in their final spending plans for fiscal year 2014-15. Ninety-nine percent of respondents project more of the same or worsening fiscal conditions in 2015-16.

“Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, school leaders are saying they will need to do less in order to balance their budgets,” said PASA Executive Director Jim Buckheit. “The state has an obligation to provide equity and adequate basic education funding for all schools. This is an annual problem that is within our reach to fix this year.”

The report is a follow-up to the June PASA-PASBO report, which identified significant externally imposed costs that would present challenges for districts even if state funding were adequate, equitable and predictable. With an increase in pension obligations of $562 million from the prior year, the school pension crisis topped the list with 100 percent of spring survey respondents anticipating increased pension costs for the 2014-15 school year.

The fall report notes the percentage of districts experiencing increases since the 2013-14 fiscal year in the cost of health care (81 percent), special education (78 percent) and charter payments (56 percent), and a continuing increase in local property taxes to cover those costs and others. According to the report, with nearly all districts raising property taxes at least once over the past five years, more than 60 percent of districts said they raised property taxes in every fiscal year.

The survey also found that the burden of local funding increases fell most heavily on Pennsylvania’s poorest communities. When sorted into quartiles, the most impoverished and second poorest group of districts reported increasing local education spending by 11 and 17 percent respectively since 2008-09 – roughly two to three times the increases these districts received from the state. In addition, districts reported ongoing staffing reductions, cuts in programs and extracurricular activities, and increases in class size due to persistent underfunding, in addition to increased local costs for construction, delays in purchased services, and cuts in transportation services.

“The facts, figures and case studies in this report provide further evidence that action is needed this year to fix the way our schools are funded,” said PASBO Executive Director Jay Himes. “PASA and PASBO stand ready to work with lawmakers to change this pattern of despair in many schools throughout our Commonwealth. We need a predictable and fair school funding system with new revenues that reflects our shared responsibility to support a quality education for all students in every community.”

Click here (pdf) to read the report.

Update on School Funding Lawsuit – On November 10, 2014, the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia (PILCOP), in partnership with the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania and a national, private law firm, filed a lawsuit in Commonwealth Court on behalf of six school districts, seven parents, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools (PARSS) and the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference against legislative leaders, state education officials, and the Governor for failing to uphold the General Assembly’s constitutional obligation to provide a system of public education that gives all children in Pennsylvania the resources they need to meet state-imposed academic standards and thrive in today’s world.

PILCOP reports that, in response, state officials have now filed preliminary objections asking the court to dismiss the case without a trial on the grounds that courts should not decide claims that school funding violates the state Constitution. On February 17, the plaintiffs filed a brief in response to the state’s preliminary objections in the case. Amicus or “friend of the court” briefs are also expected to be filed over the next few weeks.

The state’s argument is the same one used in a previous funding case tried in the late 1990s. In that case, the court ruled that it could not address problems with school funding because, at that time, it did not have any manageable standards by which it could measure what students needed to learn and whether they were meeting those standards. Since the 1999 ruling, the situation has changed substantially. The state adopted strict academic standards, including the PSSAs for grades 3 through 11, and the newly-implemented Keystone graduation exams. In addition, in the vast majority of states, from Rhode Island to Kansas to South Carolina, courts have found constitutional challenges to school funding are justiciable.

The state also argues that differences in funding levels in different areas of the state are simply a part of a free-market economy and cannot be stopped, leaving students in more impoverished areas inevitably to suffer. To the contrary, the response brief demonstrates that the state Constitution was designed to protect all students from the whims of the economy: “But that is precisely what the framers sought to prevent by enshrining the right to a ‘thorough and efficient system of public education’ in the Pennsylvania Constitution. Through this clause they declared that public education is not a product that can be left to the whims of the free market, nor are Pennsylvania’s children mere consumers who can be deprived of basic educational necessities based solely on the happenstance of their zip code. Public education is the cornerstone of our society, and it must be treated as such.”

Oral arguments have been scheduled for March 11, 2015, at 9:30 a.m. in Courtroom 5001 of the Pennsylvania Judicial Center (601 Commonwealth Avenue) in Harrisburg.

Click here to read more about the court challenge.

In Legislative News…

Legislative Calendar – Both the House and Senate will be in session this week, the Senate for three days and the House for five days. A number of issues are on the table – such as liquor privatization and charter school law – which is sure to make for a busy session week for the General Assembly.

Last Week’s Legislative Action –

SB 4: passed by the Senate. The bill proposes to amend the PA Constitution to give the General Assembly the authority to define what constitutes an institution of purely public charity for purpose of determining tax exempt status. The Senate Finance Committee had approved the bill on Jan. 22, but, following widespread pushback about how quickly the committee was moving the legislation (without any public hearings), committee leadership indicated they would hold at least two hearings on the bill before it was considered by the full Senate but held only one. Several of those who testified at the hearing argued that the General Assembly did not have the authority to make that definition. (Read more about the hearing: “Aument’s Bill Giving Lawmakers Power to Decide Tax-Exempt Status Gets a Hearing” (from lancasteronline.com, 2/5/15).

House Floor Schedule – The following bills are on the agenda for consider by the full House this week:

  • HB 141: amends the School Code to clarify that penalties for violation of the compulsory attendance requirements only apply if the violation was intentional and, for a violation, require that parents and guardians attend a parenting education program or perform community service or, as a last resort, be incarcerated for failure to pay court-imposed fines. The bill, introduced last year as HB 2356, was developed in response to a case in which a parent arrested for failure to pay fines died in jail. In testimony last year before the committee on HB 2356, PASA called for a comprehensive approach to the problem of truancy. “It is clear that truancy is a serious, widespread problem that can only be effectively addressed through collaboration among schools, the judiciary, law enforcement, county children and family services agencies, social and human service agencies and families,” PASA testifiers said. “The issue begs a comprehensive legislative and policy review that extends beyond the scope of authority of the education committee.” The House last session passed a resolution (HR 1032) directing the Joint State Government Commission to conduct such a review and report its findings by October 2015.    

  • HB 147: amends the Pennsylvania Constitution to permit taxing jurisdictions to exempt from taxation up to 100% of the assessed value of a homestead property.       

  • HB 158: amends the School Code to provide the Secretary of Education with the authority to issue weather, safety and health-related emergency declarations on a school district, county or statewide basis under which a school entity may satisfy the 180 instructional days requirement by one or more of the following: approving, by a majority of the school board, a school year meeting the minimum hour requirements in lieu of 180 days; or approving, by a majority vote of the school board, scheduling additional instructional days on not more than one Saturday per month to complete 180 instructional days or to meet the minimum hour requirement.         

  • HB 210: amends the Public School Code to streamline and automate the PlanCon process, make changes to some of the current criteria, create a transparent website to determine project status, allow lump sum reimbursement with the approval of PDE and the school district and allow districts that engaged in construction projects during the moratorium to remain eligible for reimbursement (similar to legislation introduced last session.    

Committee Schedule –

Wednesday, Feb. 25: House Education Committee to hold a voting meeting on the following bills:

  • HB 530 – proposes comprehensive amendments to the Charter School Law. The bill modifies the cyber charter tuition calculation by allowing districts to deduct their food services costs and, for a 2 year period, their cyber charter tuition expenses when calculating the tuition rate for cyber charter school students. The bill also makes several other changes to the current law including the creation of a charter school funding commission, the implementation of some accountability and transparency provisions related to charter school administrators, trustees, foundations and education management service providers, the requirement of direct pay, the capping charter school fund balances, the imposition of a performance matrix tied to charter school renewal and the creation of multiple charter organizations.(Read a summary of HB 530.)   

  • House Resolution 102 – establishes a Select Subcommittee on Technical Education and Career Readiness within the House Education Committee to focus on making recommendations how to improve career and technical education, including how to improve pathways between schools and the business community, eliminate negative biases towards technical education and expand career training programs.  

  • HB 512 – requires institutions of higher education to develop uniform standards for recognizing and accepting credit for prior learning, such as credit for AP courses.

Tuesday, March 3: House Finance Committee to hold a public hearing to hear testimony from local government associations, including education associations, about their finance-related legislative priorities

In State News…

Right-to-Know Decision – Pennsylvania government agencies may not release people’s home addresses under the Right-to-Know Law without first making them aware their addresses have been requested and giving them a chance to fight it, a state court ruled last Tuesday. A divided Commonwealth court came down in favor of the state’s largest teachers union and against the Office of Open Records in a decision critics say could make it more difficult to access information far beyond the addresses of school employees involved in the case. Read the rest of the AP story: “Pennsylvania Court Sets Rules for Release of Home Addresses” (as published on philly.com, 2/17/15).

Across the State…

Charter Schools in Philadelphia –

  • Decision of School Reform Commission: Amid intense pressure from all sides, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission voted last Wednesday to approve five new charter schools from among the 39 applications at the end of an often tumultuous evening. The successful applicants were offered three-year charters with a long list of conditions. SRC Chairman Bill Green said the charter operators and the commission have until May 31 to agree on terms…. Wednesday was the first time the commission had approved new traditional charter schools since 2007. Since that time the SRC had authorized converting low-performing district schools into Renaissance charter schools and has also expanded existing schools. The five-member commission navigated a tricky path. It ignored pleas from education advocates, Gov. Wolf, and many local and state politicians and candidates - including five of the six Democrats running for mayor - who called for a moratorium on new charters until the district has solved its financial crisis. Read the rest of the story: “SRC Approves Five New Charter Schools” (from philly.com, 2/19/15).  

  • Before the Vote: Legislative Pressure to Approve Charter Schools: Just days before the fate of 39 new charter-school applications is decided, pressure on the School Reform Commission is building from all sides. Top state Senate Republicans have sent Chairman Bill Green a letter saying they were "confident" that the SRC would approve strong charter schools. The letter, obtained by The Inquirer and sent Friday by Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson), Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre), and Education Committee Chairman Lloyd Smucker (R., Lancaster), said the leaders were "hopeful that the SRC will approve these qualified charter schools in the very near future." The SRC is scheduled to vote on the charter applications, the first new proposals considered in seven years, on Wednesday. If the commission approves 15,000 new seats, the six-year price to the financially troubled school system could be close to $500 million, district officials say. Read the rest of the story: “Pressure Builds on SRC to Approve New Charters” (from The Philadelphia Inquirer, 2/17/15).  

  • Charter Enrollment in Philadelphia: If you listen to the applicants clamoring to open 39 new charter schools in Philadelphia, it sounds like the School Reform Commission has kept a lid on charter seats since 2007. But that's not true. Though the SRC has not approved any new traditional charters in eight years, it has converted 20 low-performing district schools into Renaissance charters and allowed several others to expand and even add campuses. The result? Charter enrollment in the city has more than doubled - from 29,700 in 2007 to 62,358. That's 30 percent of the total number of the district's 204,358 students. Read the rest of the story: “Charter Enrollment Has More Than Doubled Since 2007” (from philly.com, 2/16/15).

Awards for Student Volunteers – Conner Hagins, 18, of Bishop McCort Catholic HS (Johnstown), and Hanna Maier, 12, of Prospect Park School (Interboro SD), have been named Pennsylvania’s top two youth volunteers of 2015 by The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, a nationwide program honoring young people for outstanding acts of volunteerism. Hagins created a charity that collects stuffed animals and other toys for sick and hospitalized children, while Maier persuaded four towns to adopt anti-bullying resolutions and initiated annual community walks that have drawn more than 700 participants over the past two years to discourage bullying and promote kindness among kids.  

The two honorees each will receive 1,000, an engraved silver medallion, and an all-expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C., in early May.

Eight other Pennsylvania students also were recognized as Distinguished Finalists: James Feldman (North Allegheny Senior HS), Brynn Hackett (Manheim Township HS), Amy Li (Upper Dublin HS), Cavan McIntyre-Brewer (The Cove School), Cameron Ohrwashel (Nazareth Area HS), Jenna Shumar (Brownsville Area HS), Norman Stark (Cathedral Preparatory School, Erie), and Courtney Thurston (Commonwealth Connections Academy).

The awards program is conducted by Prudential Financial in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

College Credits for High School Students – Cumberland Valley seniors soon can take Penn State University courses at the high school and earn college credits, potentially reducing their total college expenses by nearly $8,000. The Cumberland Valley School Board on Monday night unanimously approved an agreement with Penn State to conduct continuing and distance education courses at the high school building during the school year and in the summer. Through this agreement, seniors could earn up to 22 college credits toward a bachelor's degree. Read the rest of the story: “Penn State to Offer College Courses for Credit and Cumberland Valley High School” (from The Patriot-News, 2/17/15).

In National News…

ESEA Reauthorization Update – The House is set to clear a rewrite of the No Child Left Behind Act on Friday (Feb. 27). A new schedule laid out last week would send the Republican-backed bill, which the education committee passed on a party-line vote Feb. 11, to the floor for debate Wednesday and Thursday, with a final vote scheduled for Friday morning. The House Rules Committee, which sets parameters for how bills are debated on the floor, set a deadline for members to file any amendments they wish to offer by Monday at 3 p.m. The committee plans to set the rule for the bill Tuesday before it goes to the floor the following day. What can we expect for debate on the floor? Read the rest of the story: “House Set to Pass NCLB Rewrite on Friday” (from Education Week, 2/19/15).

Across the Nation…

Ohio: Developing a Funding Formula – Legislators are going to change Gov. John Kasich’s proposed school-funding plan. The only question is how. House Republicans have turned to a soft-spoken veteran legislator and former Supreme Court justice to take the lead in deciding which levers to pull inside a complex proposal that would spend an additional $459 million over two years but leave more than half of all school districts with a funding cut. “We are in the very preliminary stages,” said Rep. Bob Cupp, R-Lima, who served on the state’s high court from 2007 to 2012. “The (district funding) printouts we’ve seen have some anomalies. Until you pull it apart to see why it’s doing that, it’s hard to say whether it’s working properly or not.” Read the rest of the story: “Legislators Will Change Gov. Kasich’s School-Funding Plan” (from The Columbus Dispatch, 2/20/15).

Oklahoma: Banning AP History – This week in things we wish were just a Colbert Report sketch, an Oklahoma legislative committee overwhelmingly approved a bill that would cut funding for the teaching of Advanced Placement U.S. History. The 11 Republicans who approved the measure over the objections of four Democrats weren't trying to win over Oklahoma's lazy high-school juniors. Tulsa World reports that Representative Dan Fisher, who introduced the bill, lamented during Monday's hearing that the new AP U.S. History framework emphasizes "what is bad about America" and doesn't teach "American exceptionalism." It's a complaint that's been spreading among mostly conservative state legislatures in recent months and has some calling for a ban on all AP courses. Read the rest of the story: “Why Oklahoma Lawmakers Want to Ban AP US History” (from nymag.com, 2/18/15).

On the Calendar…

  • Feb. 26-28 – AASA National Conference on Education (San Diego)

  • March 3Governor's budget address   

  • March 5 – Education Research Symposium (Harrisburg)    

  • March 5-6 – PASA Education Congress (Harrisburg)    

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