Jeffrey Piccola

TESD School Board Meeting . . . Senate & House Hearings re School Budgets Continue

Monday’s Public Hearing on the land development authority and decision for final authority to remain with the Planning Commission took up much of the conversation yesterday on Community Matters.  However, there was also a T/E School Board meeting on Monday night.  Ray Clarke attended the meeting and sent along his comments which are posted below.  As always, I am grateful for Ray and his coverage of school board related issues.  At the upcoming Finance Committee on Monday, March 28, we will look for serious budget talk from school board members re expenses, programming and out-sourcing options.

March T/E Board Talk – video TESD has a new T/E Board Talk video available online.  In the 9 min. video, school board member Dr. Pete Motel provides an overview of the T/E School District’s long-range facilities plan from the Facilities Committee meeting of February 14.  The Facilities Committee meetings are not generally telecast so I highly recommend that you take the time to watch the very informative video clip from the meeting.  Click here to watch the podcast.

Monday’s School Board meeting was most notable for the legislative update from Dr. Rich Brake:

  1. Senate and House Committee Budget hearings will continue through next week (the 31st, I think).  The School District has a form letter on its website that you can modify and send to your representatives. (Click here for the sample letter.)  Community Matters readers will likely want to add their own flavor to the letter.
  2. Our own Senator Dinniman and Senator Jeffrey Piccola are working with their Senate Education Committee to come up with relief from the infamous state mandates (to which the form letter, above, refers).  Apparently there will be a press release on Tuesday.  (Update:  To add to Ray’s comments here, there was a State Education Committee meeting yesterday and I will have separate remarks on that topic later today.)
  3. The Senate has a version of the furloughs-allowed-to-solve deficits bill (SB 612, I think).  There will be (Education Committee?) hearings on this in early April.

In response to my question about a reaction to the PSEA statement encouraging local discussions about salary freezes and other cost saving measures, the Board stated that they “are in continual discussions with the union”.  If the direction from the union leadership can be translated into more than a one year expense deferral (present value at today’s zero interest rates = zero), it has the potential for a significant budget impact, so hopefully there will be something to report at next week’s workshop.

Perplexingly, Kevin Buraks reported that the Policy Committee decided to retain two consultants to tell them how to take advantage of opportunities to sell advertising rights (say, at Teamer).

The County Intermediate Unit gave a rather too slick presentation about its budget for next year, and the Board asked some good questions.  Whether those can translate to any cost avoidance is maybe doubtful.

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Continuing Tuition Voucher Discussion . . . What’s the next step for SB1?

Continuing the discussion of the tuition voucher program, a Community Matters asked for a list of the 144 low-performing schools cited in the proposed SB1 legislation. The plan would allow the parents of a needy child to take the state subsidy that would have been directed to their home school district and apply it to the public, private or parochial school of their choice.  For the Harrisburg School District, for example, that amount would equal approx. $9,000/yr.  Here is a link to the schools; listed in the order of performance, #1 is the lowest performing school.

The five lowest-performing schools in Pennsylvania are:

#1:  Learning Academy North, Philadelphia City School District (0.00)
#2:  University City High School, Philadelphia City School District (5.12)
#3:  Washington Education Center, Ephrata Area School District ((7.69)
#4:  West Philadelphia High School, Philadelphia City High School (9.64)
#5:  Simon Gratz High School, Philadelphia City High School (10.54)

The number in parenthesis following the school represents the combined reading and math proficiency level in percentages. There is no other explanation but I read this to mean that Simon Gratz HS averages 10.54% of students performing at the required reading/math level.  Assuming that the ‘0.00’ attributed to Learning Academy North is not a misprint, and if I understand the statistic correctly, it would seem as though no students at this school are effectively performing at the required reading/math level.  Could this be possible? It would seem unbelievable . . .  where is the accountability?

I decided to see if I could find any information about Learning Academy North, the lowest-performing school in Pennsylvania. It is a new school, only opened its doors 4 years ago.  The district-run high school is small with only approximately 100 students and is a “nurturing alternative for expelled students” according to one article I read.  Learning Academy North is located on N. Front St., in Philadelphia and is listed as one of the eight ‘Philadelphia Accelerated Schools’ (thought that an interesting category,  given it’s english/math proficiency level).  These specific schools offer full-time academic programs, for students, ages 16-21, who have earned fewer than 8 high school credits and who wish to return to school.

The school accommodates students who have been expelled from the District or are waiting for their expulsion hearing.  Students at Learning Academy North can earn an official Student District diploma. In theory, this type of school looks like a good alternative for the older, returning students. However, based on the performance level, that does not appear to the case.

The Pennsylvania School Board Association (PSBA) is mounting a major anti-voucher campaign to oppose any tuition voucher plan and is asking public school officials to join the effort by contact their legislators.  No doubt caving to public requests, the PSBA has now added the survey charts from Opinion Research to their website.  The summary presents the findings of a survey of 805 Pennsylvania adults conducted Aug. 25 – Sept. 24, 2010.  Ten questions were asked in the survey (click here for survey questions and responses).

The Berks-Mont newspaper (www.berksmontnews.com) reviewed the survey and offered the following observations on January 31:

  • About two out of three Pennsylvanians (67%) oppose giving public money to parents so they can send their children to a private school. Only a small minority (13.7%) of Pennsylvanians strongly favor taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers. Most older Pennsylvanians, aged 55 or older, oppose taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers and, in fact, 51% strongly oppose them. Over 70% of individuals surveyed under the age of 34, strongly or somewhat oppose tuition vouchers, more so than any other respondent age group.
  •  For respondents declaring a political affiliation, a majority of both Democrats and Republicans indicate opposition to taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers. Democrats more so than Republicans, however, oppose taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers 69% to 58%, respectively. Independents also do not embrace tuition vouchers with 68% of them indicating that they either somewhat or strongly oppose them.
  • Regardless of zip code, opposition to tuition vouchers is universally held across all Pennsylvania regions. More than two-thirds of Pennsylvanians oppose tuition vouchers in all areas of the state except in the northeast (61% oppose tuition vouchers) and the southwest (64% oppose tuition vouchers).
  •  Strong opposition to tuition vouchers is almost equally shared by whites and non-whites alike. More than two-thirds (69%) of non-white individuals indicated that they somewhat or strongly oppose taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers. This is slightly more than whites where 66% said the same. Only 10% of non-white respondents said they strongly favor taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers.
  • Two-thirds of Pennsylvanians (66%) oppose state law that requires school districts to pay the tuition of students attending privately operated charter and cyber charter schools. Like the issue of vouchers, Pennsylvanians hold very strong opinions on charter school tuition. Respondents holding opinions of strong opposition against charter tuition payment by school districts (44%) is almost four times greater than those strongly favoring tuition payments to charters by districts (11%).

The PSBA conducted a call-in program on Feb. 3 about taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers.  Click here for the  link to the 47 PowerPoint slides that were used during the call to PSBA members.

What is the next step for the tuition voucher plan . . . proposed SB1 legislation will be subject of a public hearing in the Senate Education Committee on Feb. 16.  PSBA will present testimony at that meeting.  Gov. Corbett’s budget proposal on March 8 will probably include the voucher plan. Following the budget address, the General Assembly will recess for a few weeks in order for the Appropriations Committees in the Senate and House to hold hearings and discuss various components of Corbett’s budget.  The voucher bill will not move until mid to late spring.

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Is Pennsylvania Ready for a School Voucher Plan? Would you use school vouchers for your kids if you could?

Is Pennsylvania Ready for a School Voucher Plan?  Would you use school vouchers for your kids if you could?

I wonder if the school voucher discussion is going to threaten the position of teacher unions, especially during contract negotiations.  Gov. Tom Corbett is planning to make good on his campaign promise to move forward toward school vouchers for Pennsylvania parents.  Contained in his inaugural address were the words, “Our education system must contend with other nations and so we must embrace innovation, competition, and choice in our education system.”  Corbett issued a commitment to a voucher program, stating “Today’s Pennsylvania’s tradition of character and courage carries on in the single mother who works an extra job so she can send her children to a better school.”

However, pushing a school voucher program is not strictly a Republican initiative.  Senators Anthony Williams, a Philadelphia Democrat and Republican Jeffrey Piccola from Daphin County have co-sponsored legislation that would give state money to poor students who want to transfer to a private school or another public school.  In its current design, the Senate Bill 1 initially will only affect the 144 poorest-performing Pennsylvania schools. (101 of the schools are located in either Philadelphia or Delaware counties.) After two years, the program would expand to include all low-income students in the state. In the current budget year, the state is spending more than $9 billion on education, with more than $5.1 billion on basic education alone.  This year the state is spending more than $14,000 per student in the public school system, though the amount per student fluctuates from district to district.

Sen. Williams believes that school choice is a civil rights issue.  In a statement accompanying the introduction of the voucher bill, he states “Standing in the way of school choice for needy kids is like Gov. George Wallace standing in the doorway of a classroom to continue to the segregation of the ’60s. Why would we block access to great schools for children in need? … Let’s open the doors to freedom and opportunity.”

Not surprising, the powerful state teacher unions and their supporters are not fans of a school voucher plan, claiming that this type of legislation amounts to abandonment of public school education. Can one argue that this type of school voucher plan actually removes financial support from the public school that need more support rather than less?  Teacher unions worry about accountability for private and religious schools, which are not held to the same governance standard as public schools. What happens if school choice passes and a student leaves a failing school and does not improve at a charter or private school? Whose fault is it then?

Former Gov. Tom Ridge failed with his school choice initiative in the 1990s. Is there significant change in the political climate in 2011 to support a voucher initiative? If Philadelphia is any indicator, there seems to be a movement among parents in big cities wanting better (and safer) schools for their children.  Historically, there has been support for unions in the big cities, but parents are tired of waiting for the public schools to improve. To succeed, Corbett and his legislative supporters will need to balance the interests of urban parents who want better schools for their children with the suburban parents (like those in the T/E school district) who believe that public school may not need to change.

I support the right of all children to attend ‘safe’ schools but as we know from news reports, that is not always possible in Philadelphia. Is a school voucher plan the only option for parents to keep their children safe from violence, gangs, drugs in some of Philadelphia’s inner city schools?  Unsafe public school must change, but how?

Does anyone share my uneasiness that a school voucher program may potentially violate Article III, the separation of church and state, contained in the state’s constitution?  A voucher system cannot regulate where the money goes . . .  I would think that using state tax money for religious schools would violate the constitution. 

Would you use school vouchers for your kids if you could?  I’m curious to hear what others think about a school voucher plan. Do you think that the school voucher discussion is going to affect the teacher contract negotiations, one way or the other?

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