There's a game-changer on the horizon, a piece of legislation rumbling through the halls of Harrisburg that, if passed, promises to alter forever the landscape of public education in Pennsylvania.
It's called Senate Bill 1085, referred to by many as, "The Charter Reform Bill."
Proponents say it will raise the standards by which charters are opened and evaluated, while ensuring the creation of more high-quality educational options for all Pennsylvania's students.
Opponents say it will create a "wild, wild west" scenario in which charters be able to "grow unfettered," while bringing about the "death knell" of traditional public education.
The bill has passed a key Senate committee, but the timing of a full Senate vote is unclear.
Of the major provisions of the bill, the most contentious debate surrounds its creation of "university authorizers." This would allow institutes of higher education to authorize and oversee new charter schools without the input of local school districts.
To build a charter
Right now, when a group wants to open a bricks-and-mortar charter school in Pennsylvania, it must first win approval from the local school district.
In charter-law-speak, the local school district is the "authorizer."
To some, this makes sense. Local school districts need to be able to predict how many students they're going to be responsible for educating in order to set a financial plan and appropriately staff their schools. The money colleges would get to run charters would be taken out of the budgets of the students' home school districts.
But to others, this system of authorization seems a conflict of interest.
"In most cases the district sees the charter schools as competitors, and they then have absolute control over whether those competitors exist or whether they don't," said Robert Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.
His coalition advocates for the bill's passage, calling the the existing charter law, written in 1997, "outdated and antiquated."
Proponents like Fayfich say that school districts in Pennsylvania have never been great authorizers (and thus have authorized some poor-performing schools) in part because they haven't appropriately staffed their charter offices.
In Washington D.C., a governing board separate from the D.C. school district oversees charter growth. There, 26 staffers (including two communications officers) oversee 60 charter schools.
In the Philadelphia School District, which oversees 86 charters, the same work is done by seven staffers.
Colleges and universities who have the desire to improve public education would authorize and oversee charters in a much more robust and fair-minded way, proponents say.
As written, the bill would allow any college or university with at least 2,000 students to apply to become an authorizer. If accepted, it could authorize an unlimited amount of charter schools within its home district.
If the college or university offers a bachelor's degree in education, it could authorize an unlimited amount of charters anywhere in its home county.
If the college or university offers a doctorate degree in education, it could authorize an unlimited amount of charters anywhere in the state.
All college or university authorizers would need to have their "primary campus and operation" within the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
All told, the bill would potentially create 100 new authorizing bodies, 15 being community colleges, dozens being religiously affiliated.
Skin in the game
But just because a college is in the business of post-secondary education, does that mean it should be entrusted with the state's constitutional mandate to provide a "thorough and efficient" education for all of Pennsylvania's students?
Opponents of this bill shout a loud and clear 'no.'
"Presumably, any college or university that has absolutely no experience in running K-12 education could now authorize a new charter school," said David Lapp, staff attorney at the Education Law Center's Philadelphia office.
To him, the scary thing is that universities could authorize new schools without having any financial "skin in the game."
The school budgets that would lose resources to pay for a college's charter startup already are very tight, he says.
"Many of us have seen that as the potential death knell of school districts across the commonwealth who are really struggling, particularly right now," said Lapp.
He says the bill seems particularly designed to "kill [the school district of] Philadelphia," which has put a moratorium new charter expansion in order to slow the hemorrhaging of its students to charter schools.
The Senate bill would not only put an end to the moratorium, but forbid the district to impose enrollment caps on the city's already-existing charters.
The Philadelphia School District agrees this bill would be devastating to its future and put its finances in "jeopardy."
"It will basically put a hole in [our] budget," said district spokesman Fernando Gallard.
He argued that allowing authorizers who aren't privy to the district's financial picture to make decisions about how the district's money is spent would make it "close to impossible" for the district to create a budget that would adequately serve the city's students.
"If we are putting together a budget for a fiscal year that we believe is going to cost us 'x' amount, and then someone else comes in and says, 'Well, no, we believe that the best use of those dollars is 'over here'...We have already hired employees. We have students in school," Gallard said. "No institution can survive that way."
To the tune of more than $700 million a year, the Philadelphia school district spends 30 percent of its budget on educating students in charter schools.
State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Philadelphia) said S.B. 1085 needs to be assessed in conjunction with Republican governor Tom Corbett's cuts to education line-items in the state's budget.
"They've created an environment for failure," Hughes said. "You defund the school district, and now folks want to come in a pick the meat off the carcass."
Supply and demand
State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams (D., Philadelphia), who co-sponsors the legislation with lead sponsor Lloyd Smucker (R., Lancaster), says the idea that S.B.1085 will "kill Philadelphia" is a gross overreaction.
"No one's going to go willy-nilly spending money that's not available," said Williams.
Refering to preliminary talks with the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, and Temple University, Williams said that parties that have "expressed interest in" the university authorizer part of the bill will "work with the school district to help make Philly schools better."
Those universities declined to comment for this story.
Advocates of the bill say that districts who oppose it are putting their own financial interests ahead of the desires of families.
In the past five years, enrollment in the Philadelphia school district's traditional schools has decreased by 29,348 students – from 160,811 students in 2009 to 131,463 this year.
In roughly the same time period, students enrolled in the city's bricks-and-mortar charters rose by 28,648 students – from 31,527 students in 2008 to 60,175 this year. Upwards of 5,000 students in Philadelphia attend cyber charter schools.
"Parents, more than anyone else in this education debate, are purest in their motivation, and their only motivation is to do what's best for their child," said Robert Fayfich of PCPCS.
Proponents like Fayfich and Williams point to the recent CREDO study done by Stanford University which found that the states with the best-performing charter schools have a diversity of authorizer-types. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have independent chartering authorities, in addition to the state or local boards.
Although some worry that colleges and universities may authorize a slate of "bad" charter schools, proponents say those fears are overblown.
"They'd lose a lot more 'PR' brand if they're authorizing a low-quality portfolio of schools," said Jonathan Cetel, executive director of the reform-advocacy group PennCAN. "They're going to enter this work because they want to open up high quality schools."
Williams envisions the university authorizer model as one of "partnership, not autocracy." So to him the choice is simple: If the district is going to be paying for charter schools, why not allow them to be represented by some of the best learning institutions in the region?
Where university authorization is already in place, he said, "they've raised the grade and quality of the charters."
Both Williams and Cetel pointed to New York State as a model of great university authorization, where 9-percent of charters up for renewal are voted for closure.
But there are several key differences between what's being proposed in Pennsylvania and what's already in place in New York. There, the only university authorizer is SUNY, New York's State University System.
Pedro Noguera, professor of education at NYU, resigned last year from SUNY's authorizing board because he felt the New York state legislature was "clearly allowing charters to be used to undermine public schools."
Despite his departure, he says the SUNY model is one of the best in the nation and one that could serve as a blueprint for Pennsylvania.
But S.B. 1085, as written, he says, "is far too loose."
"You already have lots of colleges with low academic standards," said Noguera, "so why would you put them in the business of authorizing charter schools?"
ELC's David Lapp echoed that idea.
"If I'm a bad charter operator, now my chances [of being authorized] are better," he said. "I'm going to go to the easiest place that I possibly can go. I might go to the school district, but if they're too restrictive, then I'm going to go to the university and try my application there."
In the last two years, Philadelphia's School Reform Commission has voted to close four charter schools, but all continue to operate, a fact district spokesman Gallard attributed to the closure process for Pennsylvania charters being "too cumbersome."
Gallard said the district is "looking into" what he called another slate of "needed" closures.
Proponents of the bill say that quality concerns will be addressed by the provision in the bill which creates a new set of standardized metrics by which all charters would be authorized, overseen, and, if necessary, closed.
The exact nature of these metrics would still need to be created by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Criteria would include: performance on standardized tests, graduation rates, attrition rates, attendance, school safety, and parent satisfaction.
Ideally, proponents say, working from these standards, independent university authorizers will have the desire and the resources to oversee charters in ways that districts haven't in the past.
"When you have a good authorizer," said PennCAN's Cetel, "they're looking at your annual report every year, and if something's not going well, they have the ability to revoke."
All roads in this debate eventually lead back to the fundamental question of equity.
Even if, as proponents predict, colleges only stick with charters that perform well, might that still create a bleaker picture for Pennsylvania's most vulnerable students – such as special-needs students and English language learners?
The bill's critics say such students often can't get into charters, and would be left to languish in struggling schools with shrinking resources.
"It's helping a few at the harm of the whole," said Lapp. "Many of us would say that's great to increase opportunities for students, but that should be accompanied by insurances that the schools that we have–the school districts that we have–are adequately funded and adequately resourced to provide better education themselves."
The path from here
S.B. 1085 passed out of the Senate appropriations comittee on a near party-line vote on Nov. 18. There's no timetable for a vote of the full Senate. The legislature takes its winter break on Dec. 18 and doesn't return until the New Year.
Similar legislation has been proposed for the last three years without gaining enough votes for approval. The House of Representatives passed its own version of a charter reform bill, sans university authorizer provisions, in September.
Below is a breakdown of some of the key provisions of the Senate bill, the first five of which are opposed by the Philadelphia school district:
Institutes of higher education would be able to authorize and oversee new charter schools without the permission of local school districts. (Colleges and universities could begin applying to become authorizers on July 1, 2015).
School districts would be disallowed from implementing enrollment caps on charter schools.
School districts that don't make payments to charter schools will have funds deducted by the state department of education. Philadelphia's School Reform Commission, which currently has assumed the authority to suspend this provision, would be stripped of that right.
The Philadelphia school district cannot suspend (as it has done) the provison which compels it to hear all new charter school applications.
A charter operator that runs two or more charter schools (Mastery, KIPP, Universal etc...) could become a "multiple charter school organization," whose growth and evaluation would become the purview of the state department of education, not the local school district.
Charter operators would have the "right-of-first-refusal" to buy or lease vacant district property at or below fair market value.
A new set of standardized metrics would be created by which charter schools would be authorized and overseen, and, if necessary, closed. The exact nature of these metrics would still need to be created by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Criteria would include: performance on standardized tests, graduation rates, attrition rates, attendance, school safety, and parent satisfaction.
The renewal period for charter schools that meet academic benchmarks would be extended from five years to 10. Schools not meeting academic benchmarks would continue to be subjected to a five-year renewal.
Cyber charters would accept an 5 percent cut to their funding streams, saving local school districts money.
Charter schools would be limited in the size of the fund balance they could retain. Leftover funds would be returned to the local school district.
School districts would be able to deduct 30 percent of the costs they incur in reimbursing charter schools for teacher pension plans. The state will deduct 50 percent of the costs it incurs for the same expenditure. Currently, neither the state nor local districts can make any deductions.
A state advisory panel would be created to analyze the method by which brick-and-mortar charter schools receive funding. The panel would not explore the impact of charter growth on school districts.
In 2011, charter school supporters were optimistic that Pennsylvania was finally going to make some much-needed updates to its charter school law. Over the past three years, there have been a number of attempts to do so, but they’ve come up short each time.
While Pennsylvania lawmakers have failed to act, policymakers in other states have been making significant improvements to their charter laws. As a result, Pennsylvania’s charter school law continues to fall in the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ annual rankings. It came in at #12 in January 2010, but fell to #19 by January 2013. With a number of states making improvements to their laws this year, Pennsylvania is sure to drop even further in our next report in January 2014.
In the most recent attempt to overhaul the state’s charter school law, a coalition of six organizations–the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, Philadelphia Charters for Excellence, Philadelphia’s Black Alliance for Educational Options, Students First PA, PennCAN, and StudentsFirst–released a “Position Paper on SB 1085 Charter School Reform Legislation.”
This paper details some important and overdue changes that these organizations are supporting in Senate Bill 1085, including allowing universities to serve as authorizers, creating an academic performance matrix to inform authorizers’ decisions during the charter renewal process, and allowing high-performing charter schools with multiple campuses to combine and operate under the governance of a single board. The paper also calls for the creation of a commission to study how charter schools should be funded in the state.
As the organizations acknowledge, SB 1085 is not perfect, and they are working to improve the bill as it makes it way through the legislative process. SB 1085 recently passed the Senate Appropriations Committee with additional amendments on a 15-11 vote. The most controversial issue is university authorizers, which isn’t surprising given the potential game-changing impact of that provision. The amended bill now moves to the full senate for a vote, either later this year or in January. We remain hopeful that the hard work of Pennsylvania’s charter school advocates will result in a bill that creates more high-quality public charter school options for the state’s students.
Todd Ziebarth is the senior vice president for state advocacy and support at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
But for the more than 35,000 Pennsylvania students attending the state's 16 cybercharter schools, it's just another day of the hitting the e-books.
The question now is: Should those numbers climb higher?
In the past few weeks, six prospective cyberschool operators have made pitches to the state department of education in hopes of gaining a charter.
Looking at the performance of the 16 existing cybercharters, some education advocates say the state's decision should be easy.
Analyzing the state's recently released School Performance Profile information, the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Research for Action found Pennsylvania's cybercharters to be some of the lowest performing schools in the state.
Of the 11 cybercharters for which information was available, none met the the statewide average for publicly funded schools (77.2). The state's cybercharters received a score of 44.7, far below the scores of brick-and-mortar charters (67.3) and traditional public schools (77.8).
Researchers also found that the average cyberschool had a much higher than average annual student turnover rate. In 2011-12, 27 percent of the students in cybercharters withdrew from school.
"While it's clear that virtual education is going to be increasingly a part of what the future holds in education, that particular model of working entirely at home at all times is not proving to be very effective," said David Lapp, staff attorney for the nonprofit advocacy group Education Law Center.
It's not just poor performance. To public education advocates such as ELC, cybercharters also raise eyebrows with their prolific advertising practices.
"They're ubiquitous. We see them all across the commonwealth on billboards, radio advertisements, television advertisements, websites. Everywhere we look, there's cybercharter school this, cybercharter school that, and this costs money," said Lapp. "This is millions of taxpayer dollars."
Last year, eight prospective cyberschools applied for charters; all were denied by the state Department of Education.
Those denials were supported by Jonathan Cetel, executive director of PennCAN, a group that advocates for more "high-quality seats" in public education.
Although Cetel acknowledges that the performance of the state's cyberschools has been "empirically poor," he would not go as far as joining ELC in its call for a moratorium.
Each applicant, he says, deserves thoughtful consideration.
"There's still a chance that the right individual comes along with the right proposal," he said. "And we should give them a chance."
Pennsylvania's 16 existing cybercharters cost $366.6 million statewide; $49.2 million of that is spent by the Philadelphia School District.
The Department of Education said it did not have the statutory authority to implement a moratorium. Spokesman Tim Eller said the department would analyze the applications with a "laser focus" while "increasing the rigor of the review process."
The department will announce it decisions on the six applicants by the end of January.
Beginning with the class of 2017, students in Pennsylvania will have to pass a state standardized test to earn a high school diploma.
The Pennsylvania Independent Regulatory Review Commission approved the Keystone graduation test requirement Thursday in a 3-2 vote that broke down along Republican-Democrat party lines.
In the wake of the decision, some education advocates are calling the requirement an "unfunded mandate."
"To make graduation depend on meeting state standards that require way more resources than are being given to Philadelphia students and many other students around the state is really putting the cart before the horse," said Michael Churchill, staff attorney for the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia.
Churchill calls the requirement "a tragedy" that will only widen the equity gaps among the state's students. Pennsylvania's wealthier districts invest as much as $250,000 more per student over 12 years of education than districts in poorer areas.
"All students, if they're going to be held to the same standards, deserve the same resources," Churchill said. "I think there are many people who are utterly callous on what the impact [of the new graduation requirements] will be on students."
At the hearing Thursday, acting State Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq told the IRRC panel that the new plan wouldn't incur any additional costs, a claim Churchill derided as "ridiculous."
"There's going to be an enormous amount of investment in new curriculum and new books and in training of teachers in order to know how to help their students with what are admittedly more difficult and better standards," he said.
Students who fail the test once will have the opportunity to re-take it. If they fail again, they can try to do a portfolio project to prove their merit.
The state Department of Education says it believes that every district in the state currently receives enough funding to adequately prepare all students for the state tests.
Some education advocates applauded the IRRC's decision.
"The idea that we have to 'wait, wait, wait' until we have more funding: I don't think that's fair," said Jonathan Cetel, executive director of PennCAN, one of the education-advocacy groups that lobbied for the measure. "I just don't believe that until there's more money, we have to put on hold high expectations for kids."
Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children also advocated for the measure.
"Every school district in this commonwealth has been graduating some portion of its kids who have failed to show proficiency on standardized tests, and yet they've been getting diplomas," said spokesman Mike Race. "We're cheating those kids, we're cheating their families and we're cheating taxpayers."
In 2012, one-third of Pennsylvania's high school graduates (48,000 students) did not score at proficient or advanced levels on the 11th-grade PSSA test or the 12th-grade retake.
Numbers like these are the reason that Donna Cooper has long been an advocate for more definitive graduation requirements.
Before her current role as executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, Cooper served in former Gov. Ed Rendell's administration as director of policy and planning. While there, she worked with researchers at Penn State University who found in a 2009 study that just 18 of the state's 500 school districts had performance-based requirements for conferring diplomas.
Although she helped craft an earlier version of the provision that was just passed, she now says it's wrong for the state to implement the change after making drastic cuts to the education budget.
"We're really putting districts in a very difficult position of saying every kid needs to do really well — which everybody should agree with — but taking the resources away that make it possible to happen."
At the time Cooper was pushing for the change, the state was making $296 million in annual contributions above the basic education subsidy that were specifically set aside for kids who were struggling to stay on grade level. This funding stream vanished as the Corbett administration trimmed state spending during the recession.
While Philadelphia-based advocates reacted strongly on the equity issue, the effects of this decision will be felt across the state, including the Philadelphia suburbs.
According to recent reports from PCCY, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Bucks counties have lost $43 million dollars in state education funding over the last three years. The poorest districts in these counties – Coatesville, Norristown, Bristol Bourough and Chester-Upland – have lost $12 million in that time.
In the most recent tests on record, 60,000 students in these suburban counties did not score at least proficient on the PSSA.
"These districts are in a position where they have to do more to help the kids demostrate proficiency," said PCCY's Cooper, "but they're losing state investment."
State Sen. Andy Dinniman (D-Chester) criticized the test decision sharply.
"Maybe the truth is we should stamp 'failure' on ourselves, the legislature," he said. "Maybe the truth is the governor should stamp 'failure' on himself as well because we haven't given the resources to ensure that every student can learn to the top of the curriculum."
On Monday afternoon a coalition of education groups called on the Philadelphia School District to bypass negotiations and unilaterally impose new contract terms on the district's teachers.
The groups, led by Philadelphia School Partnership and PennCAN, specifically want the district to do away with teachers' union seniority provisions that give teachers with more years of experience their preference among available positions.
Instead, these advocates say the district should implement a system of 100 percent "mutual consent," where principals and prospective teachers agree on every new placement. This system — referred to within the district as "site selection" — is already in place in 169 of the district's 212 schools.
In 2012-13, nearly half of 1,047 open full-time positions were filled through the site selection process, the rest by traditional seniority procedures.
Reformers say the status quo prevents principals from building school teams that believe in the principal's approach.
The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers strongly opposes eliminating seniority as a factor in placement.
A 1st-grade 'travesty'
Nina Liou, parent of a kindergartner and second grader at Bache-Martin Elementary in Fairmount (where she's also Home and School Association president), was there to advocate for the change.
She said, in recent years, one of the school's first-grade teachers was laid off and eventually replaced by someone with more seniority — a district employee who had been working as an administrator at district headquarters. Liou claimed the person came back into the classroom after a 10-year absence in order to ensure full retirement benefits.
Liou called the year a "travesty" for the students.
"The ground that these first-grade students in her classroom lost and the lack of the educational progress that they had as a result was unconscionable" said Liou, "and is something that no child or family in the district should ever have to encounter."
Jonathan Cetel, executive director of Pennsylvania Campaign for Achievement Now (PennCAN), agrees.
"This year, in schools all over the city, teachers with higher seniority have been able to 'bump out' less experienced teachers as a result of school closings and budget cuts," Cetel said. "In some cases, the teacher being bumped is the better teacher — perhaps even one of the district's best teachers."
Mark Gleason, Philadelphia Schools Partnership executive director, said the time to make this reform was overdue, and hoped the district would make the change before it began "leveling" – the process by which teachers are shuffled around the district to compensate for unexpected spikes in student enrollement.
"We're a month past the expiration of the contract, we're a month into the school year," he said, "and it's time for management to use the authority and responsibility it has."
Gleason and others believe the School Reform Commission has the power to impose this work-rule change based on Act 46 of the Pennsylvania state school code — the same law that, in 2001, eliminated Philadelphia's local school board and placed the district in the hands of the five-member SRC, with three members appointed in Harrisburg and two by the mayor.
They point specifically to the provision of Act 46 which says that "no distressed school district of the first class," (Philadelphia is the state's only city "of the first class") "shall be required to engage in collective bargaining negotiations ..." regarding "staffing patterns and assignments, class schedules, academic calendar, places of instruction, pupil assessment and teacher preparation time."
If "mutual consent" were made official district policy, PSP and PennCAN believe that change would induce the state to release the $45 million it has been withholding from the district – waiting for it to adopt a "reform agenda."
They think the change will also give state legislators the greater "confidence" they need to invest additional funding into Philadelphia's schools.
"It's hard to make that argument for more money when there's still broken parts of the system," said Cetel of PennCAN.
Some, though, dispute the notion that the SRC actually has the power to unilaterally impose new contract terms.
In an interview in August, Superintendent William Hite — who supports eliminating existing seniority provisions — said about unilateral contract terms, "I'm not even sure that's a true statement that that power is even available."
The actions of SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos suggests he agrees with Hite's assessment that the law is fuzzy.
In 2012, he lobbied the state to specifically delineate that power.
Appealing to Republicans in the state legislature, Ramos said Act 46, as written, didn't give the SRC "enough juice."
According to the Inquirer, Ramos wanted an amendment that would specifically give the SRC the power to nullify union contracts and unilaterally dictate salary and benefits to School District employees.
When Philadelphia's state delegation found out about Ramos' request, the proposed amendment died without getting through committee.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan defended the seniority system. In a written statement, he said that "the seniority provisions in the school code were implemented to protect school employees from the atmosphere of patronage clearly favored by PSP and PennCAN."
"The bottom line is this," Jordan wrote. "When our schools are properly funded, children and educators have the tools they need to improve teaching and learning. That is why we don't often hear about debates over teacher seniority in better-funded school districts."
Hiram Rivera, executive director of Philadelphia Student Union, called the reformers' pitch "a ploy to blame the teachers' union for the [current funding] crisis."
"What teacher seniority has to do with a funding crisis," said Rivera, "I don't know."
District spokesman Fernando Gallard quickly extinguished any hopes that the SRC would soon impose new contract terms.
He said that while the district believes in the "placement of teachers in accordance with the needs of students," it "would continue to negotiate in good faith."
How long that good faith would continue, Gallard wouldn't say, but least for now, "nuclear" is off the table.
A group of education reform advocates is pushing the Philadelphia School Reform Commission to use its power to eliminate seniority as a basis for assigning teachers.
Seniority has been a major issue in the ongoing negotiations between the school district and its teachers’ union. Now, two groups – the Philadelphia School Partnership and PennCAN – want the School Reform Commission to use its authority to eliminate union seniority rights when assigning staff.
“Imagine a professional sports team, what it would look like if the league could just assign veteran players to the team and bump out the younger players,” says PennCAN executive director Jonathan Cetel. “That wouldn’t work in sports, and yet that’s exactly what we’re doing in the School District of Philadelphia every day.”
PSP executive director Mark Gleason says eliminating seniority would go a long way toward freeing up $45 million in funding being held by the state (see related story).
School district spokesman Fernando Gallard would only say that the district is still negotiating with the union.
“At this time we’re still at the table, and that’s where we are,” he tells KYW Newsradio.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ president Jerry Jordan said in a statement, “This attack on seniority will do nothing to restore laid-off school staff [or] put books in the hands of schoolchildren.” Jordan said, “The seniority provisions in the school code were implemented to protect school employees from the atmosphere of patronage clearly favored by PSP and PennCAN.” The action comes on the eve of the introduction of a bill in Harrisburg that would eliminate the part of the school code that requires layoffs and recalls to be governed by seniority.
Seniority for public school teachers is in the crosshairs in Philadelphia and soon will be a target across Pennsylvania.
Frustrated by the slow pace of negotiations for a new contract for Philadelphia teachers, a coalition of education and parents' groups says it will call on the School Reform Commission Monday to immediately pull seniority off the bargaining table and give Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. a free hand in assigning staff.
The announcement urging the move, scheduled for midday Monday, is expected to rekindle fierce debate over powers granted to the SRC under the law that led to the state takeover of city schools in 2001.
"If somebody wanted to create a legal atomic bomb, this is it," Ralph J. Teti, the lawyer who represents the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said Sunday.
On Tuesday, a bill is to be introduced in Harrisburg that would strip language from the state school code that requires layoffs and recalls to be determined by seniority.
Jonathan Cetel, executive director of the state group PennCan, which seeks to speed the pace of education improvement, said Sunday both efforts were aimed at bringing reform to "an outdated model," in which the most recent hires are laid off first and brought back last.
Cetel, whose group is heading Monday's call for action from the SRC with the nonprofit Philadelphia School Partnership and Parent Power, said negotiations with the PFT had been going on for seven months. Those talks, he said "have made little or no progress, and it is time for immediate action to improve public education in Philadelphia."
He also said imposing the seniority changes could help trigger the release of $45 million from the state so Hite can recall more counselors and other staffers laid off in June. The legislature required the district to show it was making changes to get the grant.
Jerry Jordan, president of the 15,000-member PFT, said Sunday he was stunned to learn of the proposal to jettison seniority.
"These are issues that are subject to collective bargaining," he said. "I think it's a very bad thing for them to try to do this after all the years that the system has been in place. It works."
Jordan said "seniority is certainly the fairest way to make a determination when people are restored from layoffs, as well as when they're laid off."
The SRC provoked a firestorm from the PFT and others over the summer when it voted to suspend part of the school code dealing with seniority to give Hite the ability to return some of the 3,859 staffers laid off in June to the schools where they worked.
Pedro Ramos, chairman of the five-member SRC, said Sunday he had not heard about an impending announcement by PennCan and others and did not know what they might say.
"The SRC gets its advice from Dr. Hite, his team, the negotiators at the table, and our labor lawyers," Ramos said.
He would not say what legal advice the SRC had received about its powers under the takeover law.
"We don't discuss legal advice or strategy in public," Ramos said.
Hite could not be reached Sunday.
Mark Gleason, executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership, said the coalition believed the law gives the district control over staffing.
He said it was crucial for the SRC to give Hite that authority as the district begins to reassign teachers Oct. 1 to address overcrowded classes, a process known as "leveling."
"In the past, that process was driven by seniority," Gleason said. "Parents and students know seniority is not always the right way to do that. With all these buildings understaffed, it's especially important to have a right fit."
He said a recent city poll by PennCan found that 69 percent of respondents favored assigning teachers based on their performance and school needs, rather than on years of employment.
But Teti, the PFT lawyer, said the union and district had negotiated changes related to seniority in the last three contracts. He said most assignments are not based on seniority because the number of schools using a process that gives principals much more say in the hiring of staff has increased.
"It sounds like somebody wants to undermine the ability of the PFT and the school district to reach an agreement," he said.
"I would hope that the SRC would have better sense than to listen to anyone lobbying for the imposition of anything," Teti said.
He said the PFT would wait to see what the SRC does and then weigh its options. But morally, politically, and legally, Teti said, he thinks the PFT has the upper hand.
Gleason said several parents were scheduled to speak Monday about why they believe the district should scrap seniority.
"This is really about bringing new voices to the table," he said.
One belongs to Luciana Boone of Southwest Philadelphia, whose daughter Tahira Branch-Boone is a 10th grader at Girls High.
"I believe the principals or the superintendent should be able to make the decisions about what is in the best interest of the schools, the students and the neighborhood," she said.
Boone, who cannot attend Monday's event, said longevity does not always mean effective teaching. "There may be some teachers who have 15 to 20 years of experience teaching, but there may be someone with five years who is more adept with students and technology," she said.
As for the proposed state legislation, Cetel said the Protecting Excellent Teachers Act would be introduced Tuesday by State Reps. Tim Krieger (R., Westmoreland) and Vanessa Lowery Brown (D., Phila.)
Cetel said the bill would change state code to allow economic furloughs and require layoffs to be based on results of the teacher evaluation system rather than seniority.
He said the measure also would reform tenure so it is awarded after five years instead of three.
Should we send Monroe County's school districts to summer school, or is the grading flawed?
It's been 11 years since No Child Left Behind, President George W. Bush's legislation to hold schools accountable for student progress.
Yet in the Poconos, some students are still being left behind.
Student performance among school districts varied widely, according to standardized tests given for publicly funded schools last year.
Only one Pocono district scored above a C.
Delaware Valley led all school districts with a B-minus, while Pocono Mountain scored the lowest with a D.
The report cards were released in March by education advocacy group Pennsylvania Campaign for Achievement Now based on last year's standardized Pennsylvania System of School Assessment scores.
Those tests measure the reading and math proficiency for grades three through eight, and 11.
"The report cards are a tool for parents and advocates," PennCAN Executive Director Jonathan Cetel said. "They simplify existing school performance data and make it accessible and easy to understand for parents."
That's not exactly the way the districts feel.
"It is misleading and (using the scores to compare schools) should not be the intended purpose to the data," Stroudsburg Area School District Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum William Riker said.
Although he said it has caused districts to pay closer attention to certain groups of students, it's also harmed education.
"It is the state's decision to provide a black eye to public education, and the decision to publicize those results that appear to have grown greater legs in the media than the way school districts are able to utilize the results to change programming and instructional methodologies," he said. "I'm less concerned with how we do compared to other schools, and more interested in our efforts toward continuous improvement."
Pleasant Valley School District Superintendent Carole Geary questioned the accuracy of the entire analysis.
"Much of the data referenced for our school district is inaccurate. For example, PVSD enrollment hasn't been above 6,400 students since 2008-2009, the graduation rate is incorrect, the free/reduced lunch is inaccurate," she said.
The report card grades though, with a couple of exceptions, are based on Pennsylvania Department of Education PSSA test results.
Geary, who became the district's superintendent on Aug. 1, said differences in demographics, financial resources and home support make it unfair to compare district's performance on these tests.
It's the law
The federal No Child Left Behind legislation in 2002 required each state to assess the proficiency of all students in reading and math, according to Tim Eller of the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
Every student is required to take an assessment test, although not all special education students take the same one.
"Some students with a disability do take the PSSAs," Eller said. "However, students with a severe cognitive disability take the PASA, or Pennsylvania Alternate System of Assessment."
The overall grades combined reading and math proficiencies. A school with higher grades indicates more students are academically proficient compared to other schools.
The report card also examined graduation rates, low-income, black and Latino students sub-group performance, and the difference in performance between white students and the sub-groups.
The proficiency standards were developed using a complicated set of studies and testing. The state Department of Education, though, does not use the results to compare schools, Eller said.
Bigger isn't better
Larger schools generally tested less proficient than smaller ones. Pocono Mountain and East Stroudsburg school districts, the largest in the group, had the lowest scores, at D and D-plus, respectively.
Delaware Valley, with the second-lowest student body, had the highest proficiency rates.
The report card also measured what it calls an achievement gap — the difference in proficiency between low income, black and Latino students compared with non-low income and white students.
Each district scored within a tight range of B-minus to C-minus, with Pocono Mountain showing the greatest performance gap between the groups.
"We know that the achievement gaps in our state are unacceptably wide and achievement across the board is too low," Cetel said.
Pocono Mountain School District spokeswoman Wendy Frable said the numbers and research reports on student achievement "show that districts with more student subgroups, higher percentages of economically disadvantaged and IEP students, higher transient rates among the student population and larger minority populations face different challenges than other districts."
Only one out of every five Pocono Mountain School District students who enter the district in kindergarten are still in the district in 12th grade.
"Also, while our enrollment has declined, the number of special education students enrolling in our district has not," she said.
Delaware Valley's Superintendent John Bell agreed.
"I think districts should be compared to other similar districts in terms of student demographics," he said.
Students on the move
East Stroudsburg Area School District Superintendent Sharon Laverdure said a deeper understanding of the achievement gap grades show some positive results.
"I think that the fact that the achievement gap grade is higher than the student performance proficiency grade indicates that many of our students are coming into our high schools already identified as at-risk of failing, and yet many of them do meet the performance target. And this achievement is occurring while the number of teachers is reduced and class sizes are increasing."
Laverdure also cited mobility as having an effect on performance.
"The transitory nature of the students across Monroe County has a huge impact on our assessment results," she said. "Students that attend a single month in our schools count equally as those students that have been in our schools for three or more years."
Laverdure would like to factor into the results the years a student spends in the district along with the portion of students with learning disabilities.
All about being there
Each district interviewed for this story agreed the PSSA proficiency rating is only one of the ways to measure a school's performance.
The many other means include a variety of testing tools and advanced placement participation, attendance and higher education rates.
Attendance was a key measure, according to Delaware Valley's Bell.
"We also work very hard to get kids involved in extra-curricular activities. Reason being that kids who are involved have better attendance, and the research strongly links attendance to achievement," he said.
Bell added that money spent in non-testing areas like clubs, band and chorus "helps develop the whole child and ultimately improves our students' performance in the testing areas as well."
Yet, it's not all about the numbers, according to PV's Geary.
"A school is about more than test scores, it about children," she said. "How do we measure our success? "» When a second-grader asks to meet with her principal because she wants to help organize a fundraiser to help the children in the school that was destroyed by tornadoes in Oklahoma, I know we are successful. When a group of high school students organize because they want their school, district and community to be a positive place, that spreads encouragement and support to one another through hope."
Regarding the Aug. 27 editorial "Virtual Indictment: How Pa. Regulates Charter Schools Is on Trial, Too": The recent allegations against Nicholas Trombetta and Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School expose the urgent need to pass a comprehensive reform of Pennsylvania's public charter schools. Lawmakers had the opportunity to pass legislation that would have paved the way for a better charter funding formula, increased accountability and stronger charter authorizing on at least three occasions over the past few years. But each time, political gridlock got in the way of what was right for kids.
Shocking allegations of financial abuse always generate headlines. But the bigger fraud that deserves more attention is the subpar education that some cyber charters are providing. Nearly every cyber charter school failed to surpass the statewide high school graduation rate of 83 percent, and in many cyber schools less than two-thirds of eighth-graders are proficient readers.
In order to expand high-quality options for students, we must increase academic accountability and support good authorizing practices so that bad schools are closed and good schools have the opportunity to grow. With more than 30,000 families enrolled in cyber schools, it's clear that virtual education is an important -- albeit underperforming -- part of the public education landscape in Pennsylvania.
It's now up to the lawmakers and interest groups to pass legislation that not only strengthens the financial accountability but also ensures that these students—and the thousands more on waiting lists for schools across the commonwealth—receive the high-quality education they deserve.
In the fall of 2010, Dominique, known by her students as "Ms. D," made the choice to voluntarily transfer to teach in one of Philadelphia's most challenging neighborhood high schools. She wasn't alone.
The principal had articulated a vision of building an excellent school by recruiting a dream team of passionate, hardworking teachers. A small cadre of idealistic young teachers embraced the challenge of trying to turn around a high school where only 6 percent of seniors were proficient readers and just 3 percent were proficient in math.
By winter, Dominique and her new colleagues were making progress with students, and she was in discussions with her principal about becoming a grade group leader the next year to coach their talented but mostly inexperienced staff.
Then budget cuts happened. The Philadelphia School District only laid off 2.4 percent of its teachers, but, because most of the teachers who worked with Dominique in this challenging turnaround environment were young and lacked seniority, a majority of them were released. Dominique was one of the lucky ones. She wasn't a victim of the layoffs, but when she saw the dedicated staff around her dismissed with no consideration of their talents, Dominique decided to leave the school and ultimately, the teaching profession.
This story is not unique to Philadelphia. In Pittsburgh, nearly 200 teachers and staff were laid off last year, including some of the district's most talented. One of them was Jamie Passinault. After teaching in Colorado Springs for a couple of years, she moved back to Pittsburgh because she wanted to teach in her hometown. She received an "effective rating" and was widely respected by her colleagues and families for her fierce dedication to her students.
But since she was new to Pittsburgh, she had little seniority and was first on the chopping block. Frustrated by the experience and unable to find a full-time classroom teaching job during a recession, she decided to pursue a graduate degree at Carnegie Mellon University and hopes to do some substitute teaching next year.
More of these stories are likely to come. The problem is that state law requires districts to use seniority as the sole factor in determining which teachers to lay off, but a recent study from the New Teachers Project confirms that more experience doesn't always add up to greater effectiveness. There are great teachers with three years of experience and great teachers with 33 years of experience.
Seniority made more sense when we lacked any objective way to assess teacher performance, but, in June 2012, the Pennsylvania Legislature approved a new teacher evaluation system and Gov. Tom Corbett signed the bill. Teacher performance will now be based on a combination of classroom observations and multiple measures of student achievement.
The purpose of this evaluation system is first and foremost to provide teachers with meaningful feedback so that they have opportunities to improve their practice and grow into highly effective classroom leaders. But if we are going to build a 21st century education system, we need to professionalize the teaching workforce by rewarding excellent teachers and protecting them in times of layoffs. Factoring in performance-based evaluations for teachers during layoffs could be an effective and natural way to do so.
Unfortunately, teacher layoffs remain an inevitable reality as mandated costs like pensions increase while state and local revenues remain stagnant. Protecting excellent teachers is not an issue that should be partisan or controversial.
In Indiana, Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels signed legislation making teacher effectiveness the No. 1 consideration in layoff decisions. And in Colorado, Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper did the same. There are a lot of complicated issues in Pennsylvania. This isn't one of them. We hope Gov. Corbett and the Pennsylvania Legislature do the right thing and reward excellent teachers by protecting them from layoffs.
JONATHAN CETEL, of Philadelphia, is executive director of PennCAN. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Pennsylvania. As an undergraduate, he co-founded an after-school group for students in West Philadelphia. After graduation, Cetel joined Teach For America to teach reading and social studies. He has worked as a community organizer for Good Schools Pennsylvania, has been a consultant to the Pennsylvania Department of Education and served as director of strategic initiatives for KIPP Philadelphia Schools.