Seven big takeaways for education in the new Pa. budget

A flurry of hotly-debated education proposals have been decided in this year’s Pennsylvania budget. Here are the latest updates on six major issues.

Gov. Wolf signed the  budget on Friday June 28, 2019. (Ed Mahon/PA Post)

Gov. Wolf signed the budget on Friday June 28, 2019. (Ed Mahon/PA Post)

As Pennsylvania lawmakers finalized this year’s budget, a flurry of hotly-debated education proposals have been decided.

Below are the latest updates on seven major education issues — from funding to charters, school security to teacher evaluations — that made headlines in Harrisburg over the last few months.

No bump for the lowest-paid teachers

In Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget address, he called for a salary increase for the lowest-paid public school teachers in the state, saying they “have too often been getting the short end of the stick.”

Wolf wanted to raise the minimum annual salary for teachers from $18,500 — which was set in the 1980s — to $45,000. 

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Across the state, 180 out of 500 Pennsylvania school districts would have received money.

The Wolf administration estimated the change would affect about 3,200 teachers, school nurses, counselors and other professional staff members — many in rural parts of the state. It did not include charter school teachers. The cost was estimated at nearly $14 million — a relatively small amount in the state’s education budget.

But Republican leaders and the Pennsylvania School Boards Association warned that bumping up the minimum salary could lead to a ripple effect and higher salaries for all teachers, which would be funded by local taxpayers.

And some lawmakers expressed concern about how the salary money wouldn’t follow the state’s new student-weighted formula. Still, the proposal did receive some bipartisan support. And the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, plans to advocate for the proposal in the fall.

“We are disappointed, but we are not defeated,” said PSEA spokesman Chris Lilienthal, adding that the salary push is relatively new in Pennsylvania. “Sometimes it takes a little bit longer for really big ideas to get across the finish line.”

During a new conference on Friday afternoon in the Capitol rotunda, Wolf echoed that idea.

Status: Not part of the budget package; could return in the fall.

More years in schools

Pennsylvania will raise the number of years that students are required to spend in schools.

Currently, the compulsory school age in Pennsylvania is 8 to 17 — so nine years total. 

Most states require more time in school, according to a 2017 report from the Education Commission of the States. Some states, though, allow exemptions with parental permission. In Pennsylvania, exemptions include farm work.

Wolf proposed changing the compulsory age to 6 to 18, and although the issue helped derail passage of the budget on Thursday, lawmakers approved the idea Friday morning.

Status: Passed the General Assembly as part of the budget package. Wolf signed it.

More private school tax credits (but not as many as some hoped)

Republican leaders advocated strongly for a bill that would have nearly doubled the size of a tax-credit program that helps parents afford private school tuition.

Governor Tom Wolf vetoed the legislation, but will okay a compromise that permits the program to grow modestly and makes other changes.

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At issue are two tax-break initiatives: the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC). The programs incentivize businesses and individuals to donate money for private school scholarships. In return the donors get a break on their state taxes — up to 90 percent of their donation.

State law caps the number of tax credits available, but that number has risen significantly since the program began in 2001.

With this most recent update, Pennsylvania will raise the limit on EITC tax breaks from $160 million to $185 million. The OSTC cap will jump from $50 million to $55 million, with all of that new money specifically steered toward those private schools that serve a large share of “economically disadvantaged” students.

Lawmakers also raised the eligibility limits, meaning more Pennsylvania families will be able to receive scholarships through the tax-credit programs.

A family of four will now be able to make about $121,000 a year and still receive tuition help, up from $116,000.

Supporters of the EITC and OSTC programs say it’s a cost-efficient way to help families afford a private school education, especially poor families.

“These increases will allow thousands more scholarships to be awarded next year,” said Nathan Benefield of the Commonwealth Foundation, a libertarian think tank, in a statement.

The Commonwealth Foundation said the $25 million EITC increase is tied for the largest one-year jump in the program’s 18-year history.

On Friday, Wolf said the $100 million included in the bill he vetoed was “excessive.”

“These are expenditures. They have a fiscal impact on the commonwealth. We have to be careful,” Wolf said. “I was willing to go along with $25 [million].”

Critics argue the programs lack transparency and subsidize tuition for families who could otherwise afford private school.

Status: Wolf signed two new school code bills, one of which contains the changes to EITC and OSTC.

Money, money, money

As always, money was at the heart of this session’s education discussion.

Governor Tom Wolf asked for increases in several major education spending categories, and got most of what he requested.

The basic education budget will go up by $160 million, a bit shy of Wolf’s ask. On the special education front, Wolf’s $50 million request was delivered. Meanwhile, another $25 million will go to Pre-K programs.

Wolf has stumped for greater education spending since his first run for governor, and he has continued to secure increases.  But the boosts haven’t kept pace with the rise in mandated costs that districts continue to face for special education, healthcare, and charter schools.

“At best, this budget keeps many schools from falling further behind, but will likely necessitate local tax increases and does not make adequate progress toward providing districts the funds necessary to provide excellent education to all students,” said PA Schools Work, an advocacy group, in a statement. 

A coalition of Southeastern Pennsylvania lawmakers, activists, and union officials fell short in their attempts to create a special fund for emergency school repairs. Most of the money would have gone to fix dilapidated schools in Philadelphia.

Lawmakers also debated changes to the state’s special education funding commission, which convenes every five years. New language passed this week limits the commission to studying special education funding in traditional public schools. Some advocates want the state to change its special education funding formula for charter schools, which they say incentivizes charters to enroll students with lower-cost disabilities.

Status: Wolf signed the budget into law Friday afternoon.

Security and a call for a veto

Senate Bill 621 passed this week — and, on Friday, an anti-gun violence advocacy group was urging Wolf to veto it.

 The bill’s prime sponsor, state Sen. Mike Regan, R-York, said it would:

  • provide direct authority for school security guards to be armed;
  • correct an oversight that prevented sheriffs and deputy sheriffs from being school security guards;
  • and establish a baseline training for school security workers, whether they are armed or not.

CeaseFirePA, which supports increased gun restrictions, is urging Wolf to veto the bill. In an email, the group said the bill will “arm more school personnel” and “open the door to arming teachers.” The Education Law Center, which advocates for vulnerable student populations, also opposes the bill.

Mike Straub, a spokesman for the House GOP Caucus, disputed that it would open the door to arming teachers.

“The bill’s language specifically focuses on school resource officers, the word teacher is not found anywhere in the bill,” he said in an email. 

House Democrats oppose arming teachers, said caucus spokesman Bill Patton, and he said they “don’t see that in this bill.”

Regan’s chief of staff, Bruce McLanahan, said his office doesn’t think the bill opens the door to arming teachers and that was never the intention of the bill.

Gov. Wolf opposes arming teachers, and he said he wouldn’t accept a bill that does that.

“I’ve tried to get this bill in a shape that it doesn’t do that,” Wolf said. 

As for the concerns from CeaseFirePA and the Education Law Center about a broader expansion of which security personnel can carry guns, Wolf said he’s trying to strike the right balance for school safety.

“It’s a tough, tough issue,” he said. “I want to do this right.”

Status: The legislation, Senate Bill 621, passed the General Assembly. On Friday afternoon, Wolf said hadn’t decided whether he would veto it. 

Charter reform fails again

Another year, another failed attempt to reform Pennsylvania’s two-decade-old charter school law.

House Republicans passed a pair of bills that drew the ire of teachers’ unions and other charter opponents. Neither bill will become law this session.

The first would have created a standardized, statewide application for groups looking to form new charter schools or renew existing charter schools. That standard application would have included “conditions for renewal and termination of the contract.”

Several school districts said the standardized application would curtail their ability to police charter schools and close poor performers. They also thought it would give charters the ability to expand at their discretion, which some charter skeptics saw as a threat to school district budgets.

The second bill would have given charters first dibs to buy or lease unused school district facilities.

Both bills failed, along with a pair of other charter proposals that had bipartisan support.

“Unfortunately, partisan politics took precedence once again over the best interests of Pennsylvania’s students and the four charter reform bills,” said Ana Meyers, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, in a statement.

Charter critics, like the Philadelphia teachers’ union, applauded the demise of the two controversial charter bills.

“The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers is pleased that the General Assembly’s school code legislation was free of catastrophic charter expansion language,” the PFT wrote in a press release.

Status: Stuck in 20 years of limbo

Changes to teacher evaluation system

State Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster, is trying to change a law that he sponsored in 2012.

On Monday, Aument’s legislation to change Pennsylvania’s teacher evaluation system passed the Senate with a 38-11 vote.

He said the new plan would give greater flexibility to administrators, by increasing the observation portion of the score, and better recognizing the effect poverty has on student performance.

Status: Passed the Senate. It is not part of the budget package, but discussions are expected to continue in the fall. 

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