EPLC Education Notebook

Friday, January 13, 2006

    Special Session on Property Tax Relief

  • The Senate Committee on Legislation will hold a second hearing on Senate Bill 854, which now includes the House-approved amendment and plan for property tax relief, on Wednesday, January 18 at 9:25 a.m. The hearing will be held in Hearing Room #1, North Office Building. For more information, contact the office of Legislation Committee Chair Noah Wenger at (717) 787-4420.

  • Links to legislation introduced in the Special Session are available on the EPLC web site at www.eplc.org/clearinghouse_k12finance.html#legislation.

    Pennsylvania Education Policy Activity

  • The Senate Labor & Industry Committee held a public hearing Monday on legislation ( Senate Bill 910) that would outlaw teacher strikes and establish last-best-offer binding arbitration as a way to resolve collective bargaining stalemates between teacher unions and school boards. In the case of stalemated negotiations, the bill calls for the establishment of a three-member panel - comprised of a school board appointee, a teacher's union appointee, and an impartial member agreed to by both parties (or appointed by a local judge if both sides cannot agree to a neutral arbitrator). Such a panel must be formed if a contract agreement is not reached by April 30 of the year during which the current contract expires. If no agreement is reached through mediation by June 30, the panel would accept a "last best offer" from each side and make a recommendation on one offer to the president judge of the local court of common pleas, who would issue a final ruling on the recommended contract proposal by August 10. The judge's ruling would be based on "the interest and welfare of the public, including the financial ability of the tax-paying public; a comparison of the conditions of employment to other employees in comparable communities; and, the terms of the collective bargaining agreements negotiated between the parties in the past." If the judge does not adopt the panel's recommendation, the last best offer proposed by the other party would be adopted. The legislation requires the "last best offer" to be accepted in its entirety by both sides in the dispute.

    Bill sponsor Senate Minority Leader Robert Mellow said his legislation sets a timeline for settling contracts that will prevent disruptions at the beginning of the school year. His bill is similar to a Connecticut law based on the idea that "when each side is aware that the other side's entire plan may be adopted, they have great incentive to craft a reasonable proposal in hopes that their plan will be the one chosen." In Connecticut, said Mellow, only 2 percent of contract impasses reach the stage of requiring submission of a last best offer. Parents and a superintendent from school districts that have experienced prolonged contract impasses spoke in support of the legislation because of the negative impact strikes have on students' education, disruption to family life, and creation of animosity within a community. Maureen Conahan, a parent from the Abington Heights School District, said she supports SB 910 because it establishes "a process with deadlines and closure" for ending contract negotiations. However, the state's teachers unions and the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA) have concerns with the bill.

    PSBA said SB 910 "could create the need for higher local taxes to pay for a cost that would be out of the hands of the school board" by requiring boards to pay for contract settlements imposed by an outside party. School district solicitor Charles Sweet said the bill is unconstitutional because it requires public school employees to submit binding arbitration to a third party. The Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) agrees with using binding arbitration as a means of closure, but says school employees should have the right to strike for one year before binding arbitration would occur. The Association also wants a final contract settled by an arbitration panel, not a local judge who has not been part of the deliberative process. Finally, the union feels parties should not be required to accept a last best offer in its entirety, but should have the local choice to submit issue-by-issue arbitration. Pat Halpin-Murphy, spokeswoman for the AFT Pennsylvania which represents teachers in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh school districts, reiterated comments from PSEA and other testifiers that the right to strike should be maintained because "it is a basic right of working people in a free country to withhold their labor in protest." The Associations representing schools boards and teachers each said the current law - Act 88 of 1992 - is working. Teachers gained the right to strike in 1970 under a law that had no limitations on the frequency or duration of work stoppages, resulting in an average of 67 strikes per year during the 1970s, according to PSEA. Strikes have declined to about 9 per year since the law was tightened in 1992 to place limits on a strike's time line. PSBA suggested ways the current law can be improved by creating a disincentive to strike by imposing financial penalties on teachers for days lost to strikes, providing greater state support for school districts' health care costs (a central issue in many labor disputes), requiring strikes to be authorized by secret ballots, or outlawing the right to strike while maintaining other current collective bargaining provisions. SB 910 awaits further consideration by the Senate Labor & Industry Committee.

  • The House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Family Law met Tuesday to gather input on legislation ( House Bill 2291) that creates a new law within the state Crimes Code related to child abuse reporting and expands the list of persons legally required to report suspected abuse to include those who volunteer with children in athletic, recreational, religious or social organizations and public or private schools. HB 2291 also establishes criminal penalties for failure to report. Certain individuals - such as teachers, school administrators and school nurses - already are required to report suspected abuse under the Child Protective Services Law (CPSL), however, reporting is only required if the offense is committed by a parent, guardian or individual residing in the child's home and if the child comes before an individual legally required to file a report. HB 2991 would require reporting of suspected abuse by any individual.

    Charles Gallagher, of the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, said the PA District Attorneys Association favors HB 2291 to close the loopholes caused by narrow definitions in the current mandatory reporting law. Gallagher recently served as supervising prosecutor for the Grand Jury investigating child abuse in the Philadelphia Archdiocese which recommended tightening the state's child abuse reporting statute. But, Nancy Hardy, Deputy Secretary of the Office of Children Youth & Families in the PA Department of Public Welfare (DPW), said while DPW agrees with the intent of the bill, it has reservations about requiring volunteers - such as little league coaches and girl scout leaders - to report suspected "serious violent or sexual crimes" against children without being trained to understand what crimes must be reported "given that their failure to report is considered a crime" under the proposed legislation. Rather than requiring volunteers to be "mandated reporters", Hardy said DPW could work with large volunteer organizations to provide training in recognizing signs of child abuse. Social service administrators also agreed with the intent of the bill, but suggested changes to the current CPSL, rather than additions to the Crimes Code. The suggested changes would require current mandated reporters to report suspected abuse by any individual but would not include volunteers as mandated reporters.

    HB 2291 also requires the state police to collaborate with DPW to establish a hotline for reporting suspected abuse to law enforcement. DPW already maintains such a toll free reporting system (ChildLine) as required by the CPSL, but HB 2291 is unclear as to whether it calls for the development of a second hotline, which could create a confusing dual reporting system. Representatives of DPW, county children and youth administrators, and the Pennsylvania State Police all said DPW's ChildLine should solely serve this purpose and be equipped to handle the expected increase in calls if the legislature expands reporting requirements. Calls related to abuse by an individual who resides in the child's home are referred to county social service agencies; calls related to abuse by other individuals are referred to law enforcement. The issue, as summarized by Rep. Kathy Manderino, is not whether reports are handled properly once filed, it is whether the reports are made at all. For more information about HB 2991, contact the office of bill sponsor Rep. Katie True at (717) 705-7161.

  • The House Select Committee on Academic Freedom held two days of public hearings at Temple University in Philadelphia this week. The Select Committee was established by House Resolution 177 to investigate "the academic atmosphere and the degree to which faculty have the opportunity to instruct and students have the opportunity to learn in an environment conducive to the pursuit of knowledge and truth and the expression of independent thought." For more information about this week's hearing, contact the office of Committee Chair Tom Stevenson at (717) 787-2047.

  • All legislation from the Pennsylvania General Assembly, including bills cited in this Notebook, can be found at www.legis.state.pa.us/cfdocs/legis/home/session.cfm.


  • New Publication...The updated Pennsylvania Education Finance Primer (December 2005) is now available for purchase. This annual publication from The Education Policy and Leadership Center explains how Pennsylvania funds its public school system, with emphasis on state and local financing. It is designed to help policymakers, parents and other citizens understand the complex $18.6 billion funding system and be better prepared to address critical education funding issues that challenge Pennsylvania lawmakers and taxpayers. Copies of the Primer can be ordered by going to Copies of the Primer can be ordered by going to www.eplc.org/reports.html.

  • Next Week...The House Education Committee holds an informational meeting on funding for charter schools on Wednesday and an informational meeting on high school reform on Thursday. EPLC hosts two Pennsylvania Education Policy Forums - a Capital Breakfast Series on Wednesday and a Western Pennsylvania Breakfast Series in Pittsburgh on Thursday. The Pennsylvania State Board of Education meets on Wednesday and Thursday. For information on these and other upcoming events, see www.eplc.org/calendar.html.

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