EPLC Education Notebook

Friday, November 2, 2007

    Content in this edition:
    EPLC News
    - PA Education Finance Symposium
    Pennsylvania Policymakers
    - State House
    - State Board of Education
    Pennsylvania Bulletin

    The EPLC Education Notebook (current and past editions) also is available by visiting the EPLC website at www.eplc.org/ednotebook.html.

    EPLC’s Annual Education Finance Symposium is only two weeks away! The Symposium is a great opportunity to become better informed about all of the major issues shaping the education finance picture in Pennsylvania.

    The hotel block at the Radisson Penn Harris (Camp Hill) for the November 15-16 PA Education Finance Symposium closes today (Nov. 2). Early bird registration of $89 closes on Friday, November 9. See a symposium agenda, a full list of co-sponsoring organizations, program registration form and hotel information at www.eplc.org/financesymposium.html.

    State House

  • Representatives of school boards, school administrators, teachers and insurance underwriters appeared before the House Education Committee on Monday to discuss legislation to create a statewide health benefits program for school employees. House Bill 1841 would establish a 12-member Public School Employees’ Benefit Board to study the feasibility of developing a statewide health benefits plan for school employees, and to create and administer the plan if the board determines it is cost-effective. If it determines a statewide plan is not feasible or if it cannot agree on a statewide plan, the Board would examine alternative cost-saving measures for districts, such as utilizing best practices or building on the regional health-care consortia already used by some school districts.

    The Board would consist of four representatives of the state (the Secretaries of Budget, Education, Administration, and the Insurance Commissioner), four representative of school employees, and four representatives of school boards. School employee and school board representatives would be selected by the Governor from nominations made by their respective associations. The Board must first study whether establishing a statewide plan is feasible. If its findings are positive, it must then work to design a statewide benefits plan. Approval from at least two members of each stakeholder group must be given to all major decisions of the Board, such as the design of the benefits package, cost-sharing requirements, eligibility criteria, adding providers and more.

    If a statewide plan is developed, all teachers would receive the same basic health care benefits. The Board also would create optional packages with additional benefits that school employees would be able to purchase individually.

    If created, the statewide plan would be mandatory for all school districts except Philadelphia, though Philadelphia would have the option to opt in. Districts would enter the program as their current collective bargaining agreements expire. As districts transition in, they would start off paying the amount they paid in the year before entering. After the transition, payments would be set on a regional basis. The state also would contribute toward future premium increases once reserves from the program’s initial cost savings are depleted. The Commonwealth would pay up to half of increased premium costs annually, limited to the rate of inflation for private sector health insurance. Further, the state’s contribution would be targeted to provide the most resources to the districts with the greatest financial need.

    HB 1841 lays out an 18-month timetable for the exploration, creation and adoption of a health care plan.

    According to Tom Gluck, Executive Deputy Secretary at PDE, school district health care premiums increased by 24% between 2003 and 2005 and districts now spend $1.5 billion on medical and prescription drug coverage, meaning nearly $1 out of every $6 in school property taxes goes to health care. Gluck said the Rendell Administration supports exploring a statewide health benefits system because of its tremendous potential for savings and because it reduces the prospect of teacher strikes by taking health insurance off the collective bargaining table.

    The Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA) also praised the proposal’s potential to reduce school district costs, but expressed concern with some aspects of the bill’s implementation. Among its concerns, PSBA said the bill could force districts to provide insurance to employees currently not covered, which could increase costs. It also expressed concern that school districts could be left holding the bag to cover costs because the bill limits the commonwealth’s funding contribution and does not establish thresholds for employee cost sharing. PSBA wants to see a meaningful financial contribution from all three partners on the Board as it feels this is “the only way that all three will have a continuing incentive to keep costs down.”

    According to the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO), there currently are about 33 health care consortia operating across the state, though these collaborations operate in different ways. Some have collectively pooled together to negotiate a lower rate for purchasing health insurance, while the most common model are self-funded programs, meaning the base cost of participation is based on claims because there is no purchase of insurance. PASBO said it is difficult to project cost savings from a statewide plan because, unless the scope of the plan reduces benefits, there will be little or no benefit for existing consortia who, for the most part, are claims payers, not insurance purchasers.

    PASBO expressed additional concern with unknown costs of the statewide administration of the plan, disruption in existing coverage during the transition period, and the creation of a more complex bargaining process that would involved both the state and local level and that does not fully remove health care as a local collective bargaining issue (since dental and vision coverage and benefits for retirees would remain local decisions). PASBO would like to see the legislation “require the use of existing consortia and preclude financial structure disruption until data can be collected on actual plan implementation in a full region.”

    The Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools (PARSS) cautioned that the bill could financially penalize districts if the standard benefits package developed by the Board is higher than what a district currently offers, and if rural and small schools that currently operate lower cost health care plans are forced to pay an averaged cost that reflects the higher fees typically seen in urban and suburban areas within the region. PARSS also noted the use of regional health care consortia and requested that any governing board tasked with administering a statewide plan be required to make use of the expertise of administrators and managers of current school district health care consortia. PARSS also spoke in opposition to the cap on the state’s fiscal contribution in HB 1841.

    While the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers opposes the plan, the local union’s statewide affiliate – AFT Pennsylvania – has not yet taken a position on HB 1841. However, AFT PA told the Committee that the composition of the Benefits Board is slanted more heavily toward employers than employees (by considering state officials on the Board as employers in this situation) and asked for balanced representation on the Board. The AFT also asked that HB 1841 be amended to allow various school employee unions to be represented on the Board, rather than the current language which appears to allow only one union on the Board.

    The Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), the state’s largest teachers union, spoke in support of the process of exploring a statewide plan to provide quality health care, and estimates HB 1841 could save school districts 15-25% of current health care costs.

    Opposition to the proposal was expressed by the Pennsylvania Association of Health Underwriters.

  • The House Finance Committee on Wednesday debated and adopted two pieces of legislation to provide greater school property tax relief. House Bill 1600, introduced by Rep. David Levdansky and adopted by a 21-8 vote, would increase the state sales (by 0.5%) and state personal income taxes (by 0.22%) in exchange for school property tax relief. House Bill 1489, a pared down version of HB 1600 introduced by Rep. William DeWeese, would increase only the sales tax (by 0.5%) to generate funds dedicated to property tax relief. EPLC will provide a more detailed analysis of this lengthy legislation next week.

    In debating the legislation, Rep. Mike Sturla cautioned the Committee that HB 1600 will institutionalize inequities in the current school funding system where some students are supported by $7,000 and some by $17,000. Some members said they could not support the bill because it did not go far enough to completely eliminate property taxes – a move they said Pennsylvania’s citizens are crying for – while others felt HB 1600 is a good first step that would allow the state to provide the maximum property tax reduction currently allowed by the state Constitution. Rep. Mario Scavello, who represents the Pocono region, opposed the total elimination of property taxes, projecting it would spur even more development in the northeastern part of the state where local infrastructure is already hard-pressed by the rapid development it is experiencing now.

    Rep. Daryl Metcalfe opposed the legislation saying it did not do enough to control rising school district costs. The Committee defeated an amendment offered by Metcalfe that would have required all future school tax increases, except those needed to address health and safety issues, to go before voters for approval. The amendment would have eliminated the referendum exceptions enacted into law by Special Session Act 1 of 2006. Reps. Rick Taylor and Bill Kortz questioned Metcalfe about how his amendment would affect the quality of education.

    The House Finance Committee also passed the following legislation on Wednesday:

    House Bill 93: Requires Philadelphia to use the revenue it would receive if HB 1600 is enacted into law for homeowner property tax relief, with 25% if the funds dedicated to relief for people who are disabled, infirm or low income.

    House Bill 1889: Requires PDE to develop a prototypical school facility plan clearinghouse.

  • The House Education Committee approved the following legislation on Wednesday (both bills await further consideration by the full House):

    House Bill 1695: Requires school entities to adopt policies and procedures for parental notification of students involved in incidents that occur on school property. Schools must keep contact information for parents on file and make a reasonable effort to contact parents using the preferred method indicated by the parent (unless the school is in an emergency situation in which case the school may use alternative methods to notify parents). Further, school entities must offer parental notification training to all staff who come into contact with children. The bill allows the Secretary of Education to withhold funding to school districts that fail to comply with this legislation.

    House Bill 734: Prohibits a school board member from resigning during his term in office and subsequently being appointed to fill a vacancy on the board until the expiration of the term to which the member was elected or appointed.

  • The House Appropriations Committee passed the following legislation this week:

    House Bill 1129: Establishes the College and University Sexual Violence Education Act, which would require higher education institutions and private licensed schools to provide matriculating students with educational programs in sexual violence awareness. HB 1129 awaits further consideration by the full House.

  • State Board of Education

    The State Board of Education committee working on revisions to the state’s special education regulations held a special meeting Thursday to present the final form regulations it plans to adopt on November 15. The revised proposal includes changes that require evaluations or re-evaluations of students for special education services to occur within 60 calendar days, rather than the current 60 school day timeline. However, calendar days would not be counted during a school’s summer break. Further, by July 1, 2010, instructional paraprofessionals must have two years of postsecondary education or an associate degree or demonstrate competency on a state or local assessment. Additionally, both paraprofessionals and personal care assistants must annually complete 20 hours of staff development relevant to their area of assignment.

    The regulations also emphasize the use of positive behavior supports, and prohibit the use of prone restraints in educational programs. Changes provide for a definition of “restraints” that clarifies the difference between the use of physical force to restrain a child and to appropriately guide a child. Further, if a restraint has been used to control a student’s aggressive behavior, parents must be notified and the child’s IEP team must be convened within 10 days. Finally, the regulations establish four criteria that must be in place in order to include the use of restraints in a student’s IEP. Additional changes define teacher case loads for full-time, itinerant and supplemental services in a manner that decouples the services from the place such services are provided.

    The House Education Committee this week submitted its comments on proposed revisions to Chapter 14 (Special Education) and Chapter 16 (Gifted Education) to the State Board. Read the Committee’s comments at www.eplc.org/CH14comments.pdf.

    Information about the Pennsylvania General Assembly, including details on contacting your local state representatives and locating bills cited in this Notebook, is available at www.legis.state.pa.us/index.cfm.

    The October 27 edition of the Pennsylvania Bulletin includes notice of 2007-2008 Career and Technical Education Equipment Grants to support projects from December 3, 2007 to June 30, 2008. Grant applications are due by November 30, 2007. For details, see www.pabulletin.com/secure/data/vol37/37-43/index.html.

    Next Week...

  • Tuesday is Election Day. Polls are open 7:00 a.m. until 8:00 p.m.

  • The National Association for the Education of Young Children holds its annual conference on November 7-10 in Chicago.

  • The National Middle School Association hosts its annual conference in Houston on November 8-10.

  • The Education Trust holds its national conference in Washington, D.C. on November 8-10.

  • For information on these and other upcoming events, see www.eplc.org/calendar.html.

    EPLC Education Notebook is published by The Education Policy and Leadership Center (EPLC). Permission to reprint or electronically redistribute the Notebook in whole or in part is granted provided attribution to EPLC is provided.

    The Education Policy and Leadership Center is an independent, non-partisan and not-for-profit organization. The Mission of EPLC is to encourage and support the enactment and implementation of effective state-level education policies in order to improve student learning in grades P-12, increase the effective operation of schools, and enhance educational opportunities for citizens of all ages.

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