EPLC Education Notebook

Friday, March 6, 2009

    Content in this edition:
    Pennsylvania Policymakers
    - State House
    - State Senate
    - Special Election
    Pennsylvania Department of Education

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



    State House

  • Gov. Ed Rendell wants to use $418 million in federal economic stimulus dollars for the basic education subsidy in 2009-2010.  The new education funding plan will increase the Governor’s initial proposal for basic education subsidy by $118 million, allow the state to stay on schedule with phasing-in the new school funding formula adopted in July over six years, and provide full funding for the second year of the phase-in.  Rendell initially proposed increasing basic education by $300 million in state dollars; this state money now will be redirected to other budgetary needs.  Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak discussed the Governor’s revised funding plan and other education initiatives before the legislative Appropriations Committees this week.

    On Wednesday, Zahorchak told members of the House Appropriations Committee that Rendell plans to use $418 million in stimulus funds for basic education subsidy in 2009-2010 and $737 million in stimulus funds for the subsidy in 2010-2011.  Rep. Mario Civera (R-Delaware) raised concerns about the Commonwealth’s ability to sustain funding at these levels in three years when stimulus funds are gone if the state’s economy has not recovered.  Zahorchak said the funds are necessary to keep pace with meeting districts’ adequacy funding targets and to help school boards act responsibly and not turn to local taxpayers to fulfill this need.  For an overview of how federal stimulus funds will be used in Pennsylvania, visit this new website launched by the Governor’s office: www.Recovery.Pa.gov.

    Zahorchak faced questions from legislators regarding the Governor’s plan to close the Scranton School for the Deaf and the Scotland School for Veterans’ Children, as well as plans to provide college tuition relief by legalizing video poker, institute standard end of course exams, explore school district consolidation, and temporarily shutter the Governor’s Schools of Excellence.

    Zahorchak said the key question surrounding the Scranton School is whether the best allocation of resources is for the Commonwealth to operate the school and that in closing it Pennsylvania would join 17 other states that no longer directly operate a school for the deaf.  The Education Secretary said the school faces about $70 million in facilities needs, and that student services could still be provided in the Scranton region without the state’s direct involvement.  However, in closing the Scotland School for Veterans’ Children, students would have to return to their home districts.

    Legislators asked for details on the Governor’s proposal to provide tuition relief to students attending community colleges and state-owned universities by legalizing a limited number of video poker machines at private bars and clubs.  They also questioned whether the program realistically can be up and running by the projected September start date.  Zahorchak said qualifying students would be identified by PHEAA through the state’s current financial aid application process and that the state can connect the new video poker machines through its current centralized lottery system for efficiency in collection and monitoring.  It’s anticipated that the new revenue stream would provide $124 million in grants next year and $550 million in grants in four years when it is fully implemented.  Draft legislation on the initiative will be available in a week.

    Members of the Appropriations Committee also questioned whether this is the right time to spend state dollars to develop standard end of course exams given the state’s budget shortfall.  Zahorchak said the exams are part of a larger system of curriculum, diagnostics and other measures designed to support student achievement and that the state should set expectations for student success.

    Zahorchak also said the state is working with leaders of the Governor’s Schools of Excellence to discuss plans for this summer and that the Department of Education is open to leveraging private funds to keep these schools open.  Finally, in response to questions posed by legislators, Zahorchak said the Administration will soon introduce legislation proposing changes to cyber charter school funding and that it will continue to pursue expanding articulation agreements for students transferring credits between colleges.

  • Gov. Ed Rendell also wants to use $42 million in federal economic stimulus dollars to restore cuts to state-related universities (Penn State, University of Pittsburgh, Temple University and Lincoln University) in 2009-10.  But Penn State President Graham Spanier told members of the House Appropriations Committee the federal money will provide only a short-term fix to a long-term problem.  The presidents of state-related universities appeared before the Committee on Tuesday as part of its annual state budget hearings.

    The universities experienced a 6 percent mid-year budget cut for the current academic year when state revenues took a downturn.  Federal funds will allow the Governor to restore state funding in 2009-10 to the level authorized for 2008-09.  While leaders of the universities said they appreciate the federal funds, they noted that the stimulus dollars do represent a restoration – not an increase – in funding, and said a plan is needed to address long-term funding issues given that state support has been consistently declining over time.

    The state’s research universities also may benefit from $16 billion in competitive grants for medical, scientific and energy-related research included in the federal economic stimulus package.  Temple President Ann Weaver Hart said previous state investments in the universities’ infrastructure have put them in a strong position to compete for these funds.

    Finally, state-related university officials expressed disappointment that their institutions were left out of the Governor’s proposal to provide tuition relief to students through revenue from legalizing video poker.  Under the Governor’s plan, only students at community colleges and state-owned universities would qualify for the tuition relief grants.

  • On Tuesday, the House Appropriations Committee also met with Dr. John Cavanaugh, Chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) who said the 14-university system is experiencing a significant increase in applications.  Gov. Rendell proposed no increase over the 2008-09 appropriation for PASSHE.

  • Finally, Dr. William Griscom, president of the Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, appeared before the House Appropriations Committee to discuss the funding crisis facing the Lancaster-based institution.  Stevens is slated for a $2.2 million reduction in 2009-10 under the Governor’s proposed budget (from $10.750 million to $8.550 million).  The 800 student school will be forced to close four majors, put 150 students out of housing, and eliminate faculty if the funds are not restored.  Griscom said he is not suggesting the state spend more on higher education in a tough budget year, but said money should be driven out based on performance.  He touted the school’s 98% job placement rate and high employer satisfaction rate as measures of its success, and said Stevens’ graduates are in-demand for good-paying, high-tech jobs in growing fields.  He also touted the school’s success in helping students break the cycle of poverty with a higher graduation rate for at-risk students than most other postsecondary institutions.  In addition to meeting with state policymakers about their fiscal crisis, Griscom said Stevens will seek opportunities for funding from local workforce investment boards.

State Senate

  • This week, Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak also appeared before the Senate Appropriations Committee to respond to lawmakers’ questions regarding the Governor’s proposed budget for education.  Foremost on the minds of senators were the Secretary’s plans for school consolidation, standardized testing for graduation, tuition relief and use of the federal stimulus money.

    Also on the table for discussion were budget decisions pertaining to state and local libraries, autism, special education, Scranton State School for the Deaf, disruptive student programs, non-public services, transportation, Pre-K Counts and the Thaddeus Stevens School for Technology.  Senators expressed concern, too, over the proposed budget cuts for state-related universities and requested more detail on the Governor’s plan to fund tuition relief through the legalization of video poker machines.

  • The Senate Appropriations Committee also heard from representatives of the Pennsylvania School Employees' Retirement System (PSERS) and the State Employees’ Retirement System (SERS) as the committee wrapped up its annual budget hearings.  Members of the committee were most concerned with the fiscal health of the state’s pension systems, suggestions for addressing the projected spike in the PSERS contribution rate in 2012, and prospects of a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for retired school employees.  According to PSERS, the rate could exceed 28% in 2012-13; the current employer contribution rate is 4.76% and should be addressed before any COLA action.

  • Special Election

    Representative David Argall (R-124) won a special election this week to fill the 29th Senate District seat of the late Senator James Rhoades.  The 29th Senatorial District touches Schuylkill, Berks, Lehigh, Carbon, Northampton, and Monroe counties.



  • On Wednesday, the Pennsylvania Department of Education, State Board of Education and the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA) announced they have reached an agreement on high school graduation requirements and the end of course exams (Graduation Competency Assessments - GCAs) proposed by the state last year.

    Under the agreement, GCAs will be replaced with a series of state-developed standard final exams called “Keystone Exams” that will be offered to school districts, along with a voluntary model curriculum and diagnostic tools to identify and help struggling students.  School districts could still use locally developed and administered tests to make high school graduation determinations, provided that the tests have been independently validated to make certain they are academically rigorous.  Further, school districts that use an independently validated local assessment would not have to use the state-provided standard final exams.  The cost to validate local assessments would be shared equally between the state and the school district.  This had been a sticking point in the initial proposal of the State Board with school districts concerned that they alone bearing the entire cost to validate local assessments would make the local assessment option impractical.

    Schools also could continue to use other options for assessing high school students for graduation, such as student performance on the PSSA state math and reading exams, Advanced Placement, or International Baccalaureate exams.  The State Board of Education will continue to gather public input over the next several months and will be ready to take formal action on the agreement once the moratorium on regulations pertaining to high school graduation that was enacted by the Legislature expires in June.

  • Using data from a national study by Cornell University, Pennsylvania’s investment in Early Childhood Education programs in 2007-2008 has pumped more than $1.8 billion into the state’s economy.  Based on the research, for every additional dollar spent through Child Care Works and Keystone STARS, $2.17 is circulated in Pennsylvania’s economy, and for every dollar spent through Pennsylvania Pre-K Counts and Head Start Supplemental Assistance, $2.10 is dispersed into the market.  Click here for a county-by-county breakdown of the economic impact of early childhood education from the PA Department of Education.



Next week…

  • The Association for Career and Technical Education holds its National Policy Seminar in Arlington, VA on March 9-11.

  • The House Education Committee meets Wednesday to consider House Bill 240, House Bill 520, House Resolution 35 and House Resolution 91.

  • The House and Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committees hold a joint public hearing to consider the Scotland School for Veteran’s Children on Wednesday.

  • The National PTA Legislative Conference takes place March 11-12 in Washington, D.C.

  • The Senate Education Committee holds a public hearing on charter school laws in York on Thursday.

  • The Pennsylvania State Board of Education holds a public hearing on high school reform in Philadelphia on Friday.

  • The Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development holds its annual conference and exhibit show on March 13-16 in Orlando, FL.

  • 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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