EPLC Education Notebook – Friday, April 1, 2011

Content in this edition:
Pennsylvania Policymakers
– House
– Senate

Announcements
Datebook

The EPLC Education Notebook (current and past editions) also is available by visiting the EPLC website at http://www.eplc.org/category/education-notebook/.

PENNSYLVANIA POLICYMAKERS

House

On March 28, the House Appropriations Committee held the following budget hearings:

Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE):  Chancellor Dr. John C. Cavanaugh,  Dr. Karen Whitney, President of Clarion University, and Dr. David L Soltz, President of Bloomsburg University made a brief statement to committee members about the difficult challenges facing the PASSHE system and obligations owed to the 120,000 PASSHE students and their families, of which 90 percent are Pennsylvania residents.  Several legislators had questions and requests on a wide range of issues including: faculty salaries, textbook publishing, measures to curb drug and alcohol abuse on college campuses, and student community outreach.  Others were interested in the percentage of PASSHE students receiving PHEAA and Pell grants and the impact proposed cuts for those grant programs would mean to their students.  According to Cavanaugh, a little less than 40 percent of PASSHE students receive PHEAA grants and about 34 percent receive Pell grants.  

Members wanted to know how PASSHE used the $38 million in federal stimulus dollars.  Cavanaugh answered that they were used entirely for personnel costs (part-time), as they were aware these funds were not going to be long term. 

The PASSHE graduation rate was also a topic of interest to legislators.  Cavanaugh explained that there is much confusion surrounding the calculation.  Non-traditional students, which account for about 40 percent of the students in PASSHE, skew the results.  Students who leave prior to graduation for a variety of reasons such as: family obligations, medical conditions or military service are deemed as failures under the current calculation.  Even students who transfer to another school but still complete their degree in four years are not counted as a graduate.  

While the PASSHE has already engaged in cost cutting measures such as leaving vacant positions unfilled and replacing full time employees with part time faculty, these efforts have also undermined their ability to offer accredited programs.  Looking to the revenue side of the equation, one lawmaker asked for reaction to legislation that would have Marcellus Shale funds flow to the schools since there are six campuses located in Marcellus Shale territory.  Cavanaugh said he would be interested in exploring these options.  There was also discussion on mandate relief.  Cavanaugh cited two areas where improvements could be made: construction projects and procurement procedures/ law.

In addition to the impact the Governor’s proposed budget would have on PASSHE students and faculty, the economic implications for the surrounding communities were also discussed.  Dr. Whitney explained that Clarion University is the largest employer in Clarion County.  If Governor Corbett’s proposed budget were to be enacted, Clarion would lose 176 full time positions.  Also, the College of Business would have to be eliminated. 

Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA):  Jim Preston, President and CEO of PHEAA, provided a brief overview of the agency’s success over the past few years in managing the economic downturn.  In June 2009, PHEAA was awarded one of four federal loan servicing contracts.  In order to handle additional student loan capacity and meet federal requirements, PHEAA upgraded several systems and implemented additional security measures within the agency.  In addition to the upgrades necessary for the federal servicing contract, PHEAA recently launched a new website to assist borrowers and schools about repayment options, provide online access for students to manage their accounts, and provide default prevention materials to schools. 

Based on the Governor’s proposed budget, PHEAA expects the maximum grant for 2011-2012 to be $3,862 and the average award to be $2,530.  Lawmakers questioned whether a shift in several programs, as proposed under the Governor’s budget, from PDE to PHEAA, would present any issues.  PHEAA representatives indicated that such a transfer would not have a significant impact on the agency.  Existing PHEAA personnel would administer the transferred programs.  Members of the committee asked Preston to comment on the Pell Grant funding debate going on in Washington.  He noted that the Obama Administration wants to maintain Pell Grants at their current levels, but said that they could drop to $4,000 on average.  According to PHEAA’s testimony, PHEAA uses 100 percent of Pell Grant eligibility in its calculations, which could cost an additional $8 million to the state to make up the difference if PELL funding changes.  Several legislators expressed concern about student debt, the decrease in state aid for PHEAA as proposed by the Governor while the number of qualifying individuals is on the rise, and the significant cut (50%) to institutional assistance grants (IAGs).

On March 29, the Senate Appropriations Committee and House Appropriations Committee held separate budget hearings on the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE).  Acting Secretary of Education Ronald Tomalis responded to legislator inquiries on a host of issues including: proposed teacher salary freeze, the 9.5% cut in basic education funding, elimination of accountability block grants, tutoring programs, and dual enrollment.

According to Tomalis, the Governor’s proposal to have school districts freeze teacher salaries would save a projected $400 million and perhaps save 9,000 school district jobs.   He said that since 2008-2009, $1.1 billion has been spent on pay increases in public education.  Tomalis was asked by lawmakers to explain the administration’s view that Basic Education was receiving an increase instead of a 9.5 percent decrease.  Tomalis responded that the budget does not include the stimulus funding and they decided the subsidy at the 2008-2009 level.  

Tomalis was also asked his thoughts about the costing out study.  He replied that he has many reservations with the firm that conducted the study.    In addition, he was also questioned about the Governor’s decision to eliminate accountability block grants, tutoring programs and dual enrollment.  Tomalis stated that it was the objective of the Governor’s plan to keep the Basic Education Funding line item level funded, while facing a $4 billion deficit.   Tomalis said that dual enrollment should not be viewed as a separate item but an extension of education.  Asked how districts will be able to continue these programs, Tomalis replied that school districts will need to make tough decisions to focus resources on programs with the most impact on student achievement.   

Tomalis was asked his thoughts on a parental choice voucher bill.  He responded that he is very hopeful that “a very robust choice program” will be implemented.  Tomalis was also asked how the Governor’s budget impacts rural school districts.  One lawmaker pointed out that it is difficult for rural school districts to get additional revenue.  Tomalis explained that he feels the mandate waiver proposal would benefit such school districts by providing flexibility to realign staff with economic furloughs.   Also affecting rural communities would be the Governor’s cut to Community Education Councils which coordinate post-secondary education options.  Tomalis agreed that this will present some difficulties, but noted that the line item is usually funded by the legislature.

On March 30, the House Appropriations Committee held a budget hearing on:

Community CollegesDr. Jerry Parker, President of Delaware County Community College, and staff of the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges testified that the Governor’s proposed budget represents a 10 percent reduction in current funding levels for community colleges.  According to Parker, the reduction includes the loss of $21.5 million (9 percent) from federal stimulus dollars used previously to replace state funding.  Dr. Parker stated that while it seems less significant than other cuts being proposed under the Corbett plan, the 10 percent decrease will have an impact on their institutions as they consider how to minimize the burden on students and still maintain access to community colleges.  The cut would require them to increase tuition and eliminate programs.  The community colleges have seen significant increases in their enrollment.  Since 2004, community colleges enrollments have increased by 41,000 students.

Dr. Parker responded to inquiries about the funding and the shared one-third sponsorship from the state, school district/ county and student.  He indicated that students often pay up to 50 percent of the tuition as the local share is not always sufficient.  He said, for instance, Delaware Community College has eleven school districts as sponsors that contribute 8.5 percent to the overall budget and the state contributes approximately 23 percent, leaving the student to pick up 60 percent.  Asked how tuition at community colleges compare to others across the country, Parker responded that Pennsylvania ranks among the highest in the nation.   

Lawmakers asked specifically how the Corbett proposed budget would impact certain community colleges.  For instance, at Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC), the 10 percent reduction amounts to $3.3 million and the 22 school district sponsors are cutting their share by 30 percent, which is $3.5 million.  There will be a projected tuition increase of 3.3% across the board.  HACC will cut 25 positions, faculty raises will be reduced from 3 percent to 2 percent and employees will pick up a greater share of their healthcare costs. The reduction in local sponsorship ($3.5 million) will require HACC to place a greater burden on the students from local sponsoring districts, raising the normal $7 per credit hour to $30 per credit hour. 

Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology: William Griscom, President of Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology briefed committee members on the school’s mission and the impact of the Governor’s proposed budget to reduce the college’s state aid by 10 percent.  According toGriscom’s testimony, the mission is to provide technical education opportunities to low income students at no cost to allow them to break the cycle of poverty and change their lives while meeting the workforce needs of the state.  Currently, the college has 873 full- time students (53 percent of the students live in poverty and 25 percent are minority).  Thaddeus Stevens College has a 96 percent placement rate and over 300 businesses across the state are owned by alumni. In addition, the college has a 60 percent graduation rate.

Legislators asked about the involvement of business partnerships and degrees offered.  Griscom said that the college is utilizing the Lancaster Community Hospital, noting that it currently houses 270 students and six Associate Degree programs in that facility.  Through their partnership with the Kutztown Small Business Development Center they offer workforce training.  Thaddeus Stevens is the only public two year technical college owned by the Commonwealth.

Senate

On March 28, Senator Jeff Piccola (R-15) and Senator Andrew Dinniman (D-19) introduced Senate Bill 904 which would create a statewide commission, independent from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, to be charged with oversight of charter and cyber charter school functions.  The commission would also serve as an independent authorizer of charter schools.  SB 904 would also allow institutions of higher education to approve the creation of a charter school, and an intermediate unit or local board of school directors would be allowed to create or convert an existing public school into a charter school.  The bill’s intent is to modify the application and appeals procedures for the state’s charter schools.  The legislation wouldmandate additional oversight and accountability on administrators and board members by requiring employees to adhere to the state’s Ethics Act and would establish clear prohibitions against any conflicts of interest.

ANNOUNCEMENTS

On April 12, the Pennsylvania Association for the Education of Young Children (PennAEYC) will be hosting Early Childhood Education Action Day.  Parents, care givers, providers and advocates from across Pennsylvania will be traveling to Harrisburg to visit legislators and talk with them about the importance of quality early childhood care and education.  To learn more, click here.

DATEBOOK

The Pennsylvania House will reconvene at 1:00 PM on Monday, April 4, 2011.

The Pennsylvania Senate will reconvene at 1:00 PM on Tuesday, April 5, 2011.

Senate Education Committee will hold a meeting on April 5 at 10:30 AM in Room 8, East Wing to consider the following mandate relief  bills: SB 202, SB 293, SB296, SB 329, SB 537, SB 612, SB 801, SB 802, SB 803, SB 814, SB844, SB 857, SB 858, SB 869, SB 870, SB 871, SB 872, and SB 873.

The House Education Committee will hold a meeting to consider HB 685 and HB 686 on Wednesday, April 6 at 9:00 AM

The House Education Committee will hold an informational meeting on the Pennsylvania Value-Added Assessment System (PVAAS) on Thursday, April 7 at 10:00 AM

The House Democratic Policy Committee will hold a public hearing on school vouchers in Harrisburg on April 7.

The Pennsylvania Association for the Education of Young Children (PennAEYC) will be holding an Early Childhood Action Day in Harrisburg on April 12. To register, call 888-272-9267.

Achieving in Higher Education with Autism/Developmental Disabilities (AHEADD) will host “Autism through the Lifespan Conference” in Pittsburgh on April 13-14. For more information, click here.

The Pennsylvania Parent Information and Resource Center (PA PIRC) will hold the Pennsylvania Family Engagement Conference in Harrisburg on April 14. For more information, click here.

April 18 is the deadline for registering to vote in the Primary Election (Tuesday, May 17).

For information on upcoming events, please visit www.eplc.org and click on “Events Calendar”.

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