Published Online: July 11, 2011

Corbett's Education Agenda Shrivels in Pa. Legislature

Four months ago in a frozen state capital, Gov. Tom Corbett presented his vision of public education.

"Pennsylvania needs to re-think how best to educate our children," he told a joint session of the House and Senate on March 8. "We simply can't work within a broken system."

Corbett, borrowing reforms from other Republican governors, rattled off his proposals:

• Roll back basic education funding to pre-federal stimulus levels.

• End districts' charter school and Social Security reimbursements.

• Call on all public school employees to take a one-year pay freeze.

• Eliminate all exceptions allowing districts to hike taxes beyond state-set inflation caps.

• Create a merit-pay system linking teacher salaries to student test scores.

• Allow teacher layoffs, regardless of seniority, for economic reasons.

• Provide private school vouchers and increase state tax credits for businesses donating to private schools.

But by Friday, when the new governor put his signature on his first budget bill, only a portion of his education agenda survived.

Corbett got the GOP-controlled Legislature to return basic education funding to 2008-09 levels. But the Legislature rebelled, restoring $100 million of the $259 million Corbett had cut for tutoring and early childhood education grants. It also opted to reduce funding for 18 state-supported universities by about $220 million as opposed to $624 million as Corbett had wanted.

The Legislature allowed school districts to keep three of 10 exceptions—grandfathered construction debt, pension and special education costs—allowing them to raise taxes above inflation rates. It also restored the districts' reimbursements for Social Security taxes paid on behalf of employees, but not the charter school reimbursements.

None of his other reform measures passed, but he got most of what he wanted on the dollars and cents.

For example, Corbett's bully pulpit failed to persuade many school boards to institute across-the-board pay freezes, which occurred in only 44 of the 500 school districts for 2011-12, according to the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

"A lot of these were budget-driven reforms, and I don't think he ever made a very good case that these are in the best interest for education goals," said Chris Borick, political science professor and pollster at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. "But on the other hand, he set the parameters of the debate with the bold budget numbers he came out with."

G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor and pollster at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, said Corbett's call for wage concessions from school employees turned disingenuous in June when he approved new contracts for unionized state employees. The contracts call for average wage increases that amount to more than 10 percent over the life of the proposed four-year deals.

Madonna, who conducts statewide polls on voter attitudes, said it will be interesting to see if polling will show whether Corbett's success in getting a budget passed on time and without a tax increase will haunt him and the Republicans in the Legislature. Or whether voters will give them a pass by blaming local school boards for increased taxes, layoffs and cuts to their children's programs, he said.

After Corbett's March budget address, district administrators across the Lehigh Valley and state began planning program cuts and layoffs to offset the unexpected drop in state funding.

"The result of this terrible education budget is the furlough of hundreds and hundreds of jobs," said state Rep. Steve Samuelson, D-Northampton, who voted against Corbett's budget.

State Education Secretary Ron Tomalis said teacher layoffs are not the governor's fault. Before the Great Recession, school districts used increases in real estate tax revenue and extra state funding from then-Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, to hire extra teachers.

When the recession hit, Tomalis said, Rendell used federal stimulus money to prop up education spending. All of which led to unsustainable local and state education budgets.

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"I don't think people really understood the magnitude of the fiscal crisis the governor inherited in January," Tomalis said. "There was a $4.2 billion structural deficit."

Those cuts could be fresh in the public's mind come fall when Corbett's administration plans to make another go at passing merit pay, tenure changes and vouchers in the fall.

Tomalis said the administration wants a merit pay system for educators as part of a larger bill that would change tenure protection rules, allowing school districts to lay off staff regardless of their seniority in bad economic times.

As a first strike in drumming up support, Tomalis directed the Department of Education to post on its website every school district's evaluation forms for teachers and administrators. The website does not list teachers' names, only the number of teachers in each school and the final outcome of the evaluation.

Tomalis said state law now allows districts to fire teachers who receive poor evaluations two years in a row. The public will see that rarely or ever happens, he said, because 99.4 percent of teachers in the state were rated satisfactory in 2009-10.

"I think it's critical we no longer treat teachers like widgets, and that unfortunately is the way we do things and have done things in the evaluation system," Tomalis said.

If a statewide merit pay or tenure bill passes, it could not alter existing local contracts struck between unions and school districts. The bill would have to include a specific date as to when the statewide law takes effect.

David Broderic, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the umbrella group for most local teachers unions, said PSEA has been in talks with the administration to refine the teacher evaluation system. But he said the current system is not broken, as evidenced by the annual increases in students' math and reading scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests.

With the tenure hot button pressed, the Legislature, unions, school boards and private schools will be back in the throes of a new voucher bill, similar to the one Corbett dropped in the waning days of June after it became clear the House would not approve it.

"That could be a long debate," Samuelson said.

Tomalis said the administration will begin talking this summer with lawmakers to reopen debate on a school choice bill.

But Corbett will have to lead the voucher charge without the unbridled support of Sen. Jeffrey E. Piccola, R-Dauphin, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, who was the Legislature's biggest champion of vouchers leading up to passage of the budget.

On June 29, Piccola released a statement expressing his frustration over the voucher bill's failure and said Corbett will have to take the lead with a new voucher bill.

"I am ready, but it is clearly the responsibility of the governor if this remains on his agenda to define the parameters, initiate the process and drive that process to a successful conclusion," Piccola said.

Borick, the Muhlenberg professor, said Piccola's statement shows the senator feels let down by Corbett, who may not have the will to throw his full political weight behind vouchers.

"There's no love lost on this issue and in those words," Borick said. "It'll be interesting to see how that plays out."

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