EPLC Education Notebook

Monday, March 16, 2009

    Content in this edition:
    EPLC News
    Federal Economic Stimulus
    - Pennsylvania Department of Education
    - U.S. Department of Education
    Pennsylvania Policymakers
    - State Senate
    - State House
    - State Board of Education

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



    The March 6 edition of the EPLC Education Notebook incorrectly listed the current PSERS employer contribution rate as 7.13%.  The correct rate is 4.76%.  Click here for additional information.



    EPLC will host a Parent and Community Leadership Institute in Philadelphia during the spring of 2009.  The Institute is a program for people who want to know more about education policy issues and want to join a network of community leaders who are able to influence important statewide and local education policies.  The free 12-hour program will be presented over four evening sessions on Tuesday, May 5, Tuesday, May 12, Wednesday, May 20 and Wednesday, May 27.  For program details and to register online, see www.eplc.org/PCLI/philadelphia.html.
    Details for a similar program in the Pittsburgh area will be made available later this week.



    Pennsylvania Department of Education

    PDE has released a guide for school districts on investing the estimated $2.7 billion Pennsylvania will receive in federal economic stimulus dollars for education.  The Department also will host two webinars for school district administrators on March 17 and March 19 to answer questions about the stimulus funds.

    The guide provides advice to districts in evaluating their needs and setting priorities for spending stimulus dollars.  PDE encourages districts to focus federal funds on programs that increase student achievement and that are aligned with current academic strategies that are effectively aiding the lowest-performing students, while being mindful of the time frames for using funds envisioned in federal law and the duration of available federal funding.  The Department said it will work with school districts to minimize the paperwork required to help districts take advantage of federal funds as quickly as possible.

    PDE plans to fund the state’s basic education subsidy through the current state funding formula using $418 million in stimulus funds in 2009-10 and $735 million in stimulus funds in 2010-11.  Under current law, school districts must spend any dollars received above the rate of inflation on a menu of programs proven to improve academic achievement, including early childhood education, longer school days or year, tutoring and more.  The state also expects to distribute $317 million in State Fiscal Stabilization funds using the Title I formula.  These funds can be used to support the modernization, renovation and repair of facilities; basic education; special education; career and technical education; and adult and family literacy.  An additional $383 million in Title I funds will be available for improving reading and math instruction in high-poverty schools.  The Commonwealth also anticipates receiving $384 million for special education through IDEA funds and $12.6 million in funding for technology upgrades through Title II-D funds.

    U.S. Department of Education

    The U.S. Department of Education (USDE) last week released initial guidance on federal economic stimulus funding for education.  The Department plans to release $44 billion in stimulus funding to states within the next 30 to 45 days.  Specifically, this month the USDE will release half of Title I, Part A stimulus funds ($5 billion) and half of IDEA (special education) funds ($6 billion) without requiring new applications from states.  Additionally, by the end of March governors will be able to apply for 67% of State Fiscal Stabilization Funds (SFSF) and discretionary SFSF funds ($32.5 billion).  SFSF funds will be released within two weeks after approved applications are received.  Click here for additional details from the USDE.

    The Department’s goals for economic stimulus are to spend funds quickly to save and create jobs; improve student achievement through school improvement and reform; ensure transparency, reporting and accountability on the use of funds; and encourage states and school districts to invest these one-time funds thoughtfully to minimize future funding cliffs.

    Of the $53.6 billion in State Fiscal Stabilization Fund (SFSF) dollars, the Department said it will award approximately $48.6 billion to governors by formula in exchange for advancing certain education reforms – 1) implementing college and career ready standards and high-quality, valid assessments for all students; 2) establishing data systems to track student progress over time; 3) improving teacher effectiveness and ensuring an equitable supply and distribution of qualified teachers; and, 4) supporting effective interventions for the lowest-performing schools.  To receive the first round of SFSF funds, states must commit to make progress on these four key education reforms, share certain baseline data and meet record-keeping and transparency requirements.  To receive the second round of SFSF funding, states must provide evidence and plans for progress on these measures.

    The Department also will administer a $5 billion discretionary grant fund.  Of this, a $4.35 billion “Race to the Top” fund will assist states with bold plans to improve student achievement and $650 million will assist school districts and non-profit organizations with strong track records for improving student achievement.  Applications will be available later in the spring.  State grants for these funds will go out in two rounds over the next year, beginning in October 2009.



    State Senate

    The Senate Education Committee gathered at Lincoln Charter School in York on March 12 to vet a proposal by Governor Rendell that would modify the way charter and cyber charter schools are funded.  Currently, school districts pay a per student rate to charter and cyber charter schools based on the school district of residence’s costs.  In 2007-08, these costs ranged from $5,400 per student in the Reading School District to $15,000 per student in the Jenkintown School District, meaning taxpayers in Jenkintown paid $9,600 more than taxpayers in Reading for a student to receive the exact same education in a charter school.

    The Governor plans to introduce legislation to establish a statewide tuition rate for the state’s 11 cyber charter schools.  Rendell proposes setting a maximum rate of $8,856 per student for regular education and $13,695 per student for special education in 2009-10, but never more than a school district’s existing charter tuition rate.  In the future, cyber charter tuition rates would increase by the rate of inflation.  The maximum rates were calculated based on the amount spent by cyber charter schools that are making adequate yearly progress.

    The Governor also will propose limiting the excess fund balance a cyber charter school can hold in reserve by the same limits placed on school districts.  The state’s 11 cyber charter schools have currently a collective fund balance of $10 million.  According to PDE, if the same limits for school districts are placed on cyber charter schools, $2.5 million will be returned to school districts.

    Rendell also will propose creating two tiers for funding special education in both cyber charter schools and brick and mortar charter schools.  To recognize that speech and language disabilities require less intensive services at a lower cost, Rendell wants to establish a charter school tuition rate for students with speech or language disabilities equal to the regular education rate plus 20% of the calculation for special education.  Further, the Governor wants to use the auditing process to ensure that special education payments made to charter schools that are not used for that purpose are returned to school districts.  According to Rendell, in the last year for which audited figures are available, charter schools collected $78 million for special education but spent only $50 million on special education.

    Finally, the Governor’s proposal also would let charter and cyber charter schools receive payment directly from the Department of Education, rather than directly from school districts; however, school districts would still be able to challenge payments they believe are incorrect.

    Representatives of charter and cyber charter schools told the Senate Education Committee they oppose the Governor’s proposed changes which they say would effectively cut funding for charter schools at a time when the Governor is encouraging increased state support for public education.

    The costs to develop, sustain and continually upgrade cyber charter school programs are different than those of traditional schools, not less, argued Lawrence Jones, President of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Charter Schools.  Joanne Jones Barnett, CEO of the Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School, said the Governor’s funding plan fails to recognize differences among cyber charter schools’ program offerings, size, salaries, and geographic cost-of-living and questioned why the Governor would treat special education funding differently for students in charter schools than for students enrolled in traditional school districts.  Charter advocates also say maintaining a fund balance is necessary because many school districts do not remit payments on time or at all and they rely on reserve funds to remain fiscally sound.  These advocates would like to participate in a comprehensive review of the entire charter school law and suggested specific statutory changes such as granting charter schools with a record of success a 10 year charter upon their renewal.

    Charter advocates also called for changes to the charter approval process and said the state should authorize independent entities to grant charter school charters.  Daniel Fennick, a lawyer representing charter schools, said school board members do not have the time or expertise to fully consider the vast materials required in a charter application and make an informed decision.  As a result, Fennick said the charter process has become highly politicized.  He asked that the law be changed to create a non-biased, independent body of educational experts to review charter applications.

    Matthew Malinowski, of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, expressed school districts’ concerns that current state law has led to a situation where “we have vastly different payments to cyber charter schools, depending on the sending district; school districts paying more than the actual cost of instruction, and some paying less, which leads to some school districts subsidizing other school districts’ charter school students; charter schools receiving more funding than they need to educate students; charter schools having unlimited ability to hold local tax dollars; resident districts managing truant students enrolled in charter schools; and school districts’ administrative duties becoming more burdensome.”  Malinowski asked that the state establish a single statewide cyber charter school tuition rate; link cyber charter school payments to the Act 1 index; impose fund balance limitations on charter schools; create a verification process for students enrolled in cybers and other charters through PDE’s current data collection system; and, restructure the payment of special education costs to charters where special education services were not previously provided by the district.

    The Committee also heard from representatives of school boards, who made additional suggestions for changing state policy regarding transportation of charter school students, school districts’ access to charter school records, and more, and from representatives of teachers, who provided an analysis of the academic performance of charter schools.

    Click here for the complete testimony provided to the Senate Education Committee.

    State House

  • Last week, the House Education Committee adopted House Bill 240, which would require institutions of higher education and private licensed schools to establish sexual violence awareness programs.  HB 240 has been recommitted to the House Appropriations Committee.

    Also approved by the Education Committee was House Bill 520, which would prohibit school boards from selling unused and unnecessary land or buildings for less than 50% of the fair market value.  Under this measure, school districts would be allowed to donate the building to a charity or a political subdivision.  If the land or the building cannot be sold for at least 50% of the fair market value, the building must be demolished within 10 years of becoming unused.  The school district would not be required to demolish the building if they plan to use it in the future and it is being maintained in accordance with state and local building health and safety ordinances; is located on school property with at least one other school building that is used for the instruction of students; or if it was built before 1940 and has been determined to have historical significance by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.  HB 520 also changes the definition of building to allow school districts to include a permanent structure that contains or is attached to portable or modular classrooms in the calculation of school districts’ charges eligible for state reimbursement for construction and renovation.  HB 520 awaits further consideration by the House Appropriations Committee.

    The Committee also voted to adopt two resolutions.  The first, House Resolution 91, urges institutions of higher education that receive state funding to recognize American Sign Language coursework for foreign language credit.  The second, House Resolution 35, encourages the Department of Education to create stimulating ways to implement geography education in our public schools.

  • On March 11, the Senate and House Committees on Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness held a joint hearing to receive testimony on the Governor’s proposed closing of the Scotland School for Veterans’ Children (SSVC).  Spokespersons from the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs (DMVA) and the Department of Education (PDE) testified that they believe operating the SSVC should not be a function of state government, nor is it a military benefit.  According to PDE, the residential school – which has an enrollment of less than 300 – spends approximately $45,000 per student, of which $28,000 is for actual educational expenses.  If the Governor’s plan is approved, the state would save $10.5 million.  PDE also noted that last year the SSVC was placed on warning status as a result of the school’s failure to meet state academic targets for math and reading.  It noted, too, that SSVC’s academic performance ranks below 39 charter schools operating in the Philadelphia school district, and that the school offers no high level courses, no Advanced Placement courses, and one world language.

    The PDE plan to transition students from the SSVC includes asking the Philadelphia School District to extend application deadlines for magnet and charter schools, or the students may re-enroll in their home school district.  Seventy percent of SSVC students reside in the Philadelphia School District.

    Representatives and students of the SSVC expressed their dismay with the Governor’s plan.  SSVC officials testified that they were informed of the Governor’s plan to close the school from the Philadelphia School District and not the DMVA.  According to their remarks, SSVC has a 100% graduation rate with all graduates attending colleges and universities or enlisting in a branch of the armed services.  This year, 32 graduates were awarded $100,000 in educational scholarships.  Panelists from SSVC urged the members to keep the school open and see it as a valuable benefit to veterans and their families.    

    Legislators expressed concern over the short notice to school personnel, parents and students about the school closing.  Other members asked what consideration was given to the costs of transferring students and relocating employees, to the disposition of the property and grounds, and to the waiting lists of charter schools.  The Coalition of Charter schools reported that there are approximately 24,000 students on charter school waiting lists.  Lawmakers also asked the DMVA and PDE whether they considered options other than closing the school such as increasing the school’s capacity, privatizing the school, altering its mission or cutting staff.

    State Board of Education

    The Pennsylvania State Board of Education met in Philadelphia on Friday for a public hearing on high school reform.  For more information, contact the Board at (717) 787-3787.



    This week…

  • Governor’s Conference on Higher Education: Pathways to College Success takes place on March 17-18 in State College.

  • The House Education Committee meets Wednesday to consider House Bills 713 and 794.

  • The Pennsylvania State Board of Education meets March 18-19 in Allentown.

  • The House Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Education holds a public hearing on education and fiscal stimulus on Thursday in Harrisburg.

  • The National Science Teachers Association holds its national conference on March 19-22 in New Orleans.

  • 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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