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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Heading in the Wrong Direction.

Yesterday, Feb. 27th, I attended the Senate Appropriation Committee budget hearing for the Department of Education. At this point I’ve heard Secretary Ron Tomalis speak many times and had a feeling of what he would, or more importantly, would not say. I went there more interested in what questions the Senators would ask and also how much tolerance there would be for the administration’s inertia towards leadership on critical issues, transparency and accountable and, of course, public education in general.

Quick background: the Secretary was there to defend the Governor’s $94 million in cuts for next year’s budget, in addition to the $900 million cut from this year's budget. The Secretary (and the Governor) constantly state that $900 million was federal dollars and not state dollars; that it was the school districts who decided to use stimulus money to fund key programs and not the state who used the federal funds to supplant state funds; that school districts should have known these funds were not going to be replaced next year. Then why did the state restore the federal funds used to fund the Dept of Corrections??? Hmmmm. Check out the photo below courtesy of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center.

Here are some key highlights:

Sen. Jim Ferlo told the Secretary that the Administration was “passing the buck” to local tax payers and backing away from the Commonwealth’s commitment to public education. He advocated for the need for a basic core subsidy. (check out Ed Voters piece on how to have a sensible approach to funding schools). Sen. Greenlee concurred, urging the Administration to lead the charge in relieving the property tax burden many school districts are experiencing.

Sen. Dinniman, the Minority Chair of the Senate Education Committee, pushed the Secretary to provide the names of financially-distress districts, which the Secretary refused to do. Sen. Dinniman claimed the state legislator cannot help these districts if they do not know who they are and how bad the situation is.

Sen. Pat Vance stated she hates that school districts have been held harmless, meaning receiving the same amount of funding despite a potential decrease in student enrollment. She advocated that we need to fund students and not institutions (again, check out our handout on this.)

Sen. Piccola, the Majority Chair of the Senate Education Committee adamantly disagreed with the Secretary and the Administration’s decision to reduce the number of test to be administered through the Keystone Exams. These exams were developed by Govs. Tom Ridge and Ed Rendell and Sen. Piccola claimed the elimination of the other 8 planned exams “guts” a key long-running state accountability program (do you see a pattern here?).

Sen. Tomlinson expressed his concern regarding the additional cuts to the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education who are experiencing a 30% cut this budget and a mid-year freeze of $20.6 million. In the Governor’s current budget, PASSHE would receive only $2 million more than the system received 24 years ago in 1988-89, despite adding 23,000 students since then. (There are two bills currently in the House and Senate Education Committee)

Special Education concerns were expressed from Sen. Baker and Sen. Pippy who noted that there has not been an increase for special education for the last four years. Special education funding is distributed on the assumption that 15% of the students have a disability, regardless of whether the number of students with a disability had increased or decreased.

The Chairman of the committee, Sen. Jake Cormen told the Secretary that if we want these institutions of higher education to remain “public schools” than we need to restore ALL funding to them.

Though I still left the hearing still frustrated with how the Administration is handling public education in Pennsylvania, this frustration was slightly eased knowing that the Senators were all just as frustrated as I was. It’s as if in all of our guts, we all knew we are not heading in the right direction. Next week, the Secretary gives his testimony to the House Appropriation Committee….this should be interesting.

Let me know your thought below.

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