EPLC Education Notebook

Friday, April 15, 2005

    Pennsylvania Legislative Activity

  • The Senate Education Committee approved reporting requirements for scholarship and educational improvement organizations that receive funding through the Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program (EITC) that would pare down the new reports sought by the Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED). At a hearing Tuesday, DCED outlined new reporting criteria that asks scholarship organizations to submit the number of students who received scholarships, how many awardees attended public schools during the previous year, the number of schools to which scholarships were provided, and the average household income of families receiving the tuition assistance. Reporting is optional this year but would become mandatory next year. Additionally, the Department of Education wants performance information collected for the innovative education programs funded through educational improvement organizations to learn which programs are effective in improving student achievement.

    Some Education Committee members questioned whether DCED has the legal authority to solicit information that is not specifically required by state law. Committee members who oppose DCED's new requirements say the information would have no impact on the agency's ability to administer the EITC program and creates burdensome paperwork for funding recipients. Following discussion, the Committee adopted Senate Bill 507, which delineates reporting requirements for organizations that receive funding through the EITC program. Under SB 507, scholarship organizations would report only the number of scholarship recipients and the total and average amounts of scholarships awarded. Educational improvement organizations would report the programs to which grants are awarded and the grant amounts, a description of the programs and demonstrated or expected educational improvements, and the names of public schools and districts that received grants.

    The EITC provides state tax credits to businesses who donate to approved scholarship and educational improvement organizations. The state currently awards $45 million in tax credits annually ($26.666 million to scholarship organizations, $5.000 million to pre-kindergarten scholarship organizations and $13.333 million to educational improvement organizations).

  • The Senate Education Committee also passed legislation that increases the state reimbursement rate for school construction and renovation projects; rates for state reimbursement to school districts have not been changed since 1986. Senate Bill 417 increases the reimbursement for elementary school construction projects to $4,700 per pupil and secondary school construction projects to $6,200 per pupil. The bill provides additional reimbursements for buildings that use a design pre-approved by the Department of Education, meet certain energy efficiency and environmental design standards, or undertake alterations or additions in lieu of new construction. The Committee also adopted Senate Bill 390, which exempts retired educators who return to teaching for up to 180 days from the state's professional development requirements; retirees who teach for more than 180 days would be subject to the requirements. Additionally, SB 390 changes the status of retirees' teaching certificates from inactive to active. Currently, individuals with an inactive certificate may only teach for up to 90 days. Committee Chair James Rhoades said maintaining a retiree's certificate as active will help alleviate districts' need for substitute teachers by allowing retirees to work for more than 90 days. Finally, SB 390 requires the Department of Education to provide access to free, online professional development courses to all educators, not just those currently employed by a public school entity. Both bills await consideration by the full Senate.

  • The Senate Appropriations Committee moved forward legislation that details information to be reported on the State Report Card ( Senate Bill 151). The Committee also moved forward Senate Bill 327, which reimburses school districts for mailing costs associated with Act 72 (The Homeowner Tax Relief Act) and legislation appropriating FY 2005-06 funding to the Pennsylvania School Employees Retirement Board ( Senate Bill 609). All three bills now go to the full Senate for further consideration.

  • The House passed a FY 2005-2006 state budget bill on Wednesday ( House Bill 815). Almost 300 amendments were added to the bill that now heads to the Senate. Once the upper chamber passes its version of the budget, the legislation will go to a conference committee to hash out a final 2005-06 spending plan. For more information on the proposed state budget, and to access a copy of the amended House budget legislation, see EPLC's Education Policy Information Clearinghouse at www.eplc.org/clearinghouse_2005-2006budget.html.

    This budget amending process in the House has become an annual exercise that has hundreds of amendments offered over two to three days with practically every one of them being approved, usually by a nearly unanimous vote, and typically with no debate. In other words, all House members get to vote in favor of well-intentioned and politically attractive amendments, but with little likelihood that the final state budget will look anything like the amended budget approved by the House this week.

  • The House passed legislation establishing the Independent Higher Education and Community Financing Program within the Department of Community and Economic Development. House Bill 616 authorizes $50 million in bonds per year for five years to assist independent colleges and universities with capital projects for educational facilities and facilities that have an economic development benefit to the local community. The state would provide funding for 50 percent of the debt service on up to 30-year bonds.

  • On Wednesday, the House Education Committee passed multiple bills that address student health and nutrition issues. House Bill 185 regulates contracts for the sale of food and beverages sold in competition to a school's cafeteria (such as contracts with soda vendors) and contracts for advertising in schools. House Bill 191 requires school districts to establish advisory health councils to assist with developing a health and wellness plan. Councils would address issues related to physical education, health education curriculum, the nutritional value of food and beverages sold in the district, and more. HB 191 also designates the executive team of Pennsylvania Advocates for Nutrition and Advocacy as the Pennsylvania Child Health and Nutrition Advisory Committee. The Advisory Committee would draft a child health and nutrition plan and advise state authorities on issues related to child obesity and related illnesses. House Bill 100 increases the state reimbursement to school districts for school lunch programs (from ten cents to twelve cents per meal) and breakfast programs (from ten cents to eleven cents per meal). The Committee also adopted House Bill 586, which defines extracurricular activities. All four bills await consideration by the full House.

  • On Tuesday, the House Education Committee passed House Bill 628, which requires school boards to make proposed school budgets available in the format required by the Department of Education and to make those budgets available for public duplication. The bill requires duplication fees to be reasonable. Individuals who do not comply with the law could be charged with a summary offense. The bill now awaits consideration by the full House.

  • On Monday, the House Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee passed legislation that defers student loans awarded through PHEAA for active duty members of the armed services ( House Bill 1173). The Committee also adopted House Bill 1259, which extends the time period for receiving student assistance grants beyond five years for individuals who serve active duty in a combat zone. The bills now await action by the full House.

  • No Child Left Behind

  • The Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools (PARSS) and The Education Policy and Leadership Center (EPLC) co-sponsored a public hearing on the impact of No Child Left Behind on rural schools on Thursday. The hearing is part of a series being conducted in approximately 20 states by the National Rural Education Association. Representatives of rural school districts and intermediate units spoke about the challenges of NCLB for rural schools and offered suggestions for improving the law. Panelists identified assessment of special education students as the number one issue that needs to be addressed and suggested assessing students using assessment aligned with each student's Individual Education Plan (IEP) or a method that measures each student's' annual academic growth. Panelists also discussed overarching assessment issues and said that rural districts are subject to significant year-to-year variations in assessment results because of the schools' small sample size. They suggested holding rural schools accountable for achievement over a multiple year average to account for this potential variation.

    Rural administrators also expressed concerns about the uncertainty of future grant funding for initiatives districts undertake using, for instance, the Accountability Block Grants or Reading First grants. They fear that if grant dollars disappear their districts will be left with the financial burden to continue those valued initiatives, such as expanded kindergarten programs. They said some districts are already bracing for the potential loss of federal Title I funds next year due to updated Census data and a new definition of poverty that is being used to distribute funding. Finally, panelists expressed concern about the impact NCLB has caused for "tightly staffed" rural districts.

    Testimony from the hearing will be presented to the National Rural Education Advocacy Coalition (NREAC) for use in meetings that are being held with Congressional and U.S. Department of Education staff to discuss changes needed in the law or in department policies and practices. PARSS will also use the testimony as a focus for work with the Pennsylvania Department of Education and the State Board of Education to see that Pennsylvania's state plan does not place unrealistic, or unfair, barriers in front of rural special needs students. For additional information, contact Joe Bard, Executive Director of PARSS, at (717) 236-7180.

  • Research and Reports

  • The Mid-Atlantic Regional Advisory Committee delivered its final report on the educational challenges and technical assistance needs of the mid-Atlantic region to the U.S. Department of Education. The report will be used to guide the Department's development of new regional technical assistance centers. Find the report at www.rac-ed.org/Default.aspx?tabid=331&mid=916&ctl=EntryDetails&EntryId=943.

  • A special task force of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education released recommendations for improving K-6 teacher preparation at the system's 14 universities. In " Teachers of Tomorrow: Recommendations for the Preparation of Highly Effective Elementary Teachers," the group suggests changes around five themes: knowledge and skills of elementary teachers; assessment of elementary teacher candidates and preparation programs; development of clinical skills; professional growth for all teachers; and university and public policy. Read the recommendations at www.passhe.edu/teachersoftomorrow.

  • Next week...Tuesday: The House State Government Committee holds a public hearing on House Bill 130, which provides limited windows for early retirement for educators with at least 30 years of service. Wednesday: The House Education Committee holds an informational meeting on dual enrollment (high school students taking college courses). The House State Government Committee holds a public hearing on House Bill 339, pertaining to sharing of annuitant information. EPLC hosts two Pennsylvania Education Policy Forums on Wednesday, April 20 (Capital Breakfast Series) and Thursday, April 21 (Western Pennsylvania Breakfast Series). For details about these and other upcoming events, see www.eplc.org/calendar.html.

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