By Kevin Zwick
LANDISVILLE (Jan. 29) – In next week’s budget address, Gov. Tom Corbett is expected to propose an overhaul of the education code that would allow school districts to opt out of certain requirements, but which could spur a fight with some public and private sector unions and their supporters in the Legislature.
“What we wanna do is say, what provision of the code gets in the way of these types of things happening? And we’re willing to look at a lot of different sections of the code that school districts may bring to our attention and say, you know we wanna do things differently, so we’re gonna let ‘em,” Education Secretary Ron Tomalis said Tuesday, after touring “Open Campus PA” at the Hempfield School District.
The spectrum of mandates would rely on feedback from school districts, Tomalis said. Although he offered little on specific types of mandates, they can range from instructional to operational requirements.
Hempfield School District Superintendent Brenda Becker suggested removing the requirement that certain school construction projects adhere to the state’s “prevailing” wage law.
The prevailing wage – the average wage and benefits of a particular region – is paid to workers on publicly financed construction projects. House Republicans pushed to increase the threshold for when prevailing wages are paid on projects from $25,000 to $185,000. Changes to the law, heavily favored by conservatives, were blocked last session by union-supported Republicans, Democrats and private-sector construction unions. Any effort to do so again could run into similar stumbling blocks this session.
Another issue would be giving school districts the ability to furlough teachers based on performance, not seniority. Furloughing based on seniority is a current requirement in Becker’s district and is typical in most collectively bargained contracts.
“If the goal is to find ways to ease the school funding crisis, eliminating or giving school districts the ability to furlough people more quickly isn’t the answer. The answer is to find ways to adequately fund the school districts,” said David Broderic, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.
The proposal would not impact mandates required by the federal government, but the Corbett administration wants to look at options for meeting those requirements, Tomalis said.
“The federal requirements are always gonna be there. We’re gonna see if there’s new ways to look at the delivery of education that still meet our requirement under federal law, but do things a little differently,” he said.
The department would need the Legislature to approve changes to the education code before allowing school districts relief.
Tomalis also hinted the governor’s education spending plan could include the use of a block grant, giving funding “flexibility” to school districts.
“We’re looking at that as an idea to give school districts the greatest amount of flexibility at the local level,” he said, but gave no detail about what line items could be included in the block grant.
Last year, the governor’s budget proposal combined several education budget line items into a block grant, which was unpopular with the Legislature and ultimately rejected in the final budget.