EPLC Education Notebook

Friday, June 16, 2006

    While the Special Session (and regular session) of the General Assembly has largely ignored the need to fix Pennsylvania's ineffective and unfair statewide education funding system, Representative Beverly Mackereth and others are suggesting that the Legislature tackle this issue and related education funding matters through the establishment of an independent school finance commission that would be directed to develop recommendations and report back to the General Assembly within a year. Mackereth is a third-term Republican member from the 196th District in York County, and also a former school board member. A resolution to create the independent commission may be considered before the summer recess of the Legislature.

    An independent commission, 1) with a majority membership comprised of non-state officials/employees, 2) supported with appropriate staff and budget, 3) informed by a comprehensive statewide "costing-out" study linked to the state's academic expectations for students, and 4) explicitly charged with reporting to the General Assembly and Governor those changes necessary to make Pennsylvania's education finance system work fairly for all students and taxpayers, is viewed by many as a pre-requisite for meaningful and long-term improvements in Pennsylvania's policies for education finance.

    Meanwhile, other discussions continue about various proposals to request a "costing-out" or "adequacy" funding study linked to the implementation of Pennsylvania's academic standards for students. In the House, Representatives Mike Veon and Jennifer Mann have each introduced resolutions to direct the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee to conduct such a study. In the Senate, Senator Pat Browne has introduced a similar resolution. Each of these resolutions has numerous co-sponsors indicating growing interest in this effort. The State Board of Education is also seriously considering its own plan to provide for a "costing-out" study, and this approach is also preferred by some legislators. Such a costing-out study is also provided for in the "independent commission" resolution being prepared by Representative Mackereth.

    These proposals suggest growing recognition among many state policymakers about the serious inadequacy and ineffectiveness of Pennsylvania's statewide education finance system.

    Special Session on Property Tax Relief

  • The compromise property tax relief plan ( Special Session House Bill 39) developed by a House-Senate Conference Committee this spring was approved by the House of Representatives on Wednesday and sent to the Governor for his signature. The bill was approved in the House by a vote of 137-61. The Senate had previously approved the legislation by a vote of 40-9. A vote on the bill was delayed for weeks by House Republicans who argued it did not provide substantial enough tax relief. At that time, House Republicans floated the idea of increasing the state sales tax to provide greater property tax relief. However, a subsequent vote to increase the sales tax for this purpose was defeated by the House on Wednesday. The conference report sent to the Governor requires school districts to reduce local property taxes dollar-for-dollar. It does not increase the total resources available for public education. It does not address the serious problem of disparities in educational resources available to students among Pennsylvania's 501 school districts.

    Specifically, Special Session House Bill 39:

    • Uses anticipated gaming revenue to reduce local property taxes for homeowners beginning in 2008, or later, depending on the availability of gaming funds.

    • Borrows revenue from the State Lottery Fund to provide tax relief for senior citizens beginning in 2007 (to be repaid to the Lottery Fund when gaming revenue is available).

    • Expands the number of senior citizens eligible for the state's property tax/rent rebate program by increasing income eligibility from $15,000 to $35,000 (excluding half of social security income). Also, increases the maximum rebate award from $500 to $650.

    • Allows voters to approve a local tax shift to further reduce school district property taxes by increasing local income taxes (not to exceed 1 percent). Local tax shift referenda would be held during the municipal election of 2007 in each school district except Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Scranton (special provisions are made for these three districts that already have local wage taxes above 2 percent). In the future, districts may choose to shift property taxes further to a local earned or personal income tax by holding a voter referendum in 2009.

    • Imposes a back-end referendum on future school tax increases that exceed an inflationary index (with 10 exceptions for certain costs such as special education, health care and pension obligations).

    Governor Rendell has said he will sign the legislation into law.

  • Pennsylvania Education Policy Activity

    Senate Actions

  • This week, the Senate passed legislation ( Senate Bill 414) that permanently places the "Science in Motion" program into state law. Science in Motion focuses on improving science instruction by providing state grants that make technology available to students, supplement science curriculum, and provide professional development to science instructors through partnerships between higher education institutions and public and non-public schools. SB 414 includes a $2 million appropriation to support the program in fiscal year 2006-2007. The legislation has been referred to the House Education Committee.

  • On Monday, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved legislation that cuts funding for tutoring programs by $7.305 million for the current 2005-2006 fiscal year in order to provide additional funding for Medical Assistance (MA). House Bill 2245 reduces the appropriation for the Education Assistance Program from $66.000 million to $58.695 million. The bill increases state MA funding by an equivalent amount, and increases the federal MA appropriation by $8.946 million. The legislation also prohibits the state Department of Public Welfare (DPW) from imposing a monthly premium on the families of certain disabled children who receive services through MA; premiums were proposed by DPW last year due to budget constraints. HB 2245 has been re-committed back to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

  • On Monday, prior to the House approval of the property tax relief legislation reported above, Senators Jeff Piccola and Joe Conti introduced legislation that would give voters superpowers over school budgets as part of a new property tax plan proposed by the duo. The Senators proposed to "either provide for the total elimination of all school property taxes by 2008 or give taxpayers the power to control these taxes through a 'super referendum'", according to a statement from Piccola.

    The plan would expand the base of goods and services subject to state sales tax, beginning in 2007, and combine the approximately $2.0 billion in new sales tax revenue with anticipated gaming revenue in order to reduce local property taxes. No details were provides as to which currently untaxed items would become subject to the sales tax, but the Senators said food and clothing would not be included. Meanwhile, the state would have until July 1, 2008 to develop a plan for the total elimination of school property taxes. If no such plan emerges, citizens would be required to vote on any future school tax increase, with no exceptions. Previous tax reform proposals have included a back-end referendum on future tax increases, but also included referendum exceptions that recognize school district needs related to inflationary growth, mandated special education programs, current health care obligations, and some other costs.

    The Piccola-Conti proposal was presented as a suggestion to break the impasse that existed at that time concerning the conference committee report on Special Session House Bill 39. Passage of House Bill 39 makes it very unlikely that anything else will happen with the Piccola-Conti proposal.

  • House Actions

  • The House passed the following legislation this week:

    House Bill 2055: Places limitations on superintendents' contracts. HB 2055 restricts contracts awarded to superintendents who have no prior experience to a maximum of three years. Individuals with experience as a superintendent or assistant superintendent would continue to be subject to current state law which allows them to be awarded three- to five-year contracts. Further, the bill requires that all superintendents and assistant superintendents have written contracts that: outline the terms and conditions of employment; specify duties, responsibilities, job descriptions and performance expectations; specify all compensation and benefits to be paid; define outside work that may be performed; and limit compensation for unused sick leave to the maximum provided to a district's teachers, as well as limiting sick leave transferred from previous employment to 30 days. The bill also obligates school boards to publicly disclose the reason for removal of a superintendent.

    Prior to final passage, an amendment was added to HB 2055 establishing conditional teaching certificates. This authorizes the Department of Education to award conditional certification to graduates of state-approved teacher education programs who have passed the subject content exams required for certification but have not passed all non-subject matter tests. Conditional certificate holders would be authorized to teach for two years, during which time the individual would be assessed by the school district and issued a permanent teaching certificate upon satisfactory evaluation. Conditional certificates may be issued to an individual only one time and time spent teaching on a conditional certificate would not count toward the requirements of teacher tenure. HB 2055 awaits referral to a Senate Committee.

    House Bill 2096: Exempts contributions made to TAP 529 college savings plans from state income tax (up to $10,000 per child annually). HB 2096 awaits referral to a Senate Committee.

    House Bill 529: Exempts distributions from TAP 529 college savings plans from state income tax as long as the distributions are used to pay for qualified educational expenses. HB 529 awaits referral to a Senate Committee.

  • On Wednesday, the House Education Committee moved forward the following legislation:

    House Bill 2608: Establishes the School-Based Mentoring Grant Program Act. HB 2608 was approved after extended debate about whether the legislation is the most effective use of limited Commonwealth funds, the need to include a program evaluation component in the legislation, and questions about whether the bill pertains solely to the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program. As written, HB 2608 would provide grants of up to $1,000 per student (plus a required up to 50% local match) to nonprofit mentoring organizations that are dues-paying affiliates with a national mentoring organization. The bill includes a $5 million appropriation to support the program in the 2006-07 fiscal year. HB 2608 has been re-committed to the House Rules Committee.

    House Bill 2629: Allows school districts and intermediate units to use an alternative reporting standard for the annual financial report. HB 1252 will eliminate reporting of duplicate data required by the state. HB 2629 has been re-committed to the House Rules Committee.

    House Bill 1252: Requires school districts to obtain permission from the Department of Education (PDE) to hire uncertified teachers through emergency permits and requires PDE to post notices of emergency permit requests on its web site for at least 30 days in order to advertise the job vacancy to prospective candidates. The bill also allows emergency permits to be renewed if no certified and fully qualified teacher is available to fill the position. HB 1252 was amended to apply to all school districts (the original bill applied only to Philadelphia). HB 1252 has been re-committed to the House Rules Committee.

    House Bill 1537: Requires teacher preparation programs to annually report data related to program performance, including the number of students who passed the PRAXIS exam for initial certification after one attempt and after multiple attempts, the average number of attempts taken to pass the PRAXIS, PRAXIS results by individual licensure area (only if 10 or more students were tested in that area), and data on the number of faculty with teacher certifications and classroom teaching experience. The uniformly reported information would be compiled in a statewide report by PDE, which would be made publicly available to students and to the public. HB 1537 has been re-committed to the House Rules Committee.

  • Representative Michael Hanna (D-76) has joined the House Education Committee. Hanna took the seat formerly held by retiring State Representative James Shaner (D-52). Hanna is currently serving his eighth term in the Pennsylvania House.

  • Other Pennsylvania Education Policy Activity

  • The U.S. Department of Education has accepted Pennsylvania's revised policies to comply with the highly qualified teacher provisions of NCLB. After a review conducted in fall 2005, the federal government notified the Commonwealth that certain aspects of its NCLB teacher quality plan were out of compliance with the law. In response, the state developed two new paths through which elementary teachers certified prior to 1988 and secondary level teacher of multiple core academic subjects can attain highly qualified status, which were approved by the PA State Board of Education last month. For details on the State Board's action, see the May 22 edition of the EPLC Education Notebook at www.eplc.org/notebook2006/May22.html. For a letter from the USDE approving these new programs, see www.ed.gov/programs/teacherqual/hqtltr/review/pa2.doc.

  • 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.

    Research and Reports

    Early Childhood Education

  • Pennsylvania's law enforcement leaders are calling on the legislature to increase support for early childhood education as a crime prevention strategy. A new report from Fight Crime, Invest in Kids Pennsylvania says research "shows dramatic reductions in future crime when at-risk kids attend Head Start or other quality preschool programs." Access the report, "Head Start and Pre-Kindergarten in Pennsylvania: An Investment in Crime Prevention", at www.fightcrime.org/reports/paprek06.pdf.

  • High School Reform

  • A new report from Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children (PPC) examines what it takes for today's youth to succeed in college and in the workforce. According to the report, shifts in the labor market to more high-skilled jobs make it imperative that all students complete rigorous academic coursework in order to achieve personal success and for the country to maintain a vibrant economy. Research shows "the math and reading skills needed to be ready for success in workforce training programs are comparable to those needed for success in the first year of college". PPC says while there are multiple pathways to obtain these skills that do not require all students to obtain a bachelor's degree, "some form of postsecondary education is essential in order to gain the skills necessary to become competitive in the new economy."

    Pennsylvania needs to address these issues considering that approximately 22% of high school students fail to graduate in four years and almost half of the state's 11th graders are not proficient in math and 35% are not proficient in reading. The PPC report, "Preparing PA Youth for Success in a 21st Century Economy", includes action steps the state should take to ensure that Pennsylvania's youth are prepared for success in college and career. Access the report at www.papartnerships.org/pdfs/ReadyBy21FactSheet.pdf.

  • Public Libraries

  • "Americans prize public library services and see libraries as potential solutions to many communities' most pressing problems," according to a recent survey conducted by Public Agenda. In "Long Overdue: A Fresh Look at Public Attitudes About Libraries in the 21st Century", citizens and public leaders identified four library services as valued investments: (1) providing stronger services for teens; (2) helping address illiteracy and poor reading skills among adults; (3) providing ready access to information about government services; and (4) providing even greater access to computers for all. For more information about the survey, see www.publicagenda.org/research/research_reports_details.cfm?list=99.

  • Other

  • The Education Policy and Leadership Center congratulates the 2005-2006 class of the Pennsylvania Education Policy Fellowship Program on its graduation. Twenty-nine Fellows completed this rigorous professional development program on Tuesday, June 13. During its first seven years, more than 175 educators, policymakers, and community leaders have completed the Fellowship program. EPLC is now accepting applications for next year's Fellowship Program, which will begin with a two-day retreat in September. For more information about the Fellowship Program and a 2006-2007 schedule and application, see www.eplc.org/fellows.html.

  • Datebook

  • Next Week...The House Select Committee on Academic Freedom meets Tuesday in Harrisburg. The Governor's Regional Institute on Tutoring takes place June 19-21 in Monroeville. The National Center for Education Statistics hosts a workshop on using NAEP data for research and policy analyses in Washington, D.C. on June 20-23. The National PTA holds its Annual Conference June 23-26 in Phoenix. For information on these and other upcoming events, see www.eplc.org/calendar.html.

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