Pennsylvania governor signs budget, education reforms, strikes deal to halt tuition increases

Just hours before the start of the next fiscal year, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett passed a state budget, and along with it, sweeping education reform. The new reform bills will move the state to a performance based pay plan for K-12 teachers and also restores funding for higher education. The new evaluation system provides more data on overall teaching ability according to the Governor.

The budget signed into law late Saturday night looks very different from the budget originally proposed by the Governor in February. Some programs originally slated for cuts have made it through, while others are now seeing their budgets tighten. Record funding is now being spent on education in the state including higher education, an area originally slated for cuts that will now see spending stay at 2011 levels.

The state budget invests more than $11.35 billion in funding to early, basic and higher education, however current evaluation methods fail to provide much data on what the state gets for that $11 billion. The current system only allows for two ratings, satisfactory or unsatisfactory, and provides no meaningful feedback in areas where an educator could improve. Under new rules enacted this weekend, the number of possible ratings will be expanded to four: distinguished, proficient, needs improvement and failing.

The new evaluation method, to be implemented in the 2013-14 school year, will include multiple measures of student achievement, such as the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, the Pennsylvania Value Added Assessment System, graduation and promotion rates, as well as elective data to be determined at the local level. The new methods and business process has already been tested through early stage pilots in schools across the state. When fully implemented, over 30,000 teachers will be evaluated through the new system. 22 other states have similar systems in place for public educators. The Pennsylvania system had remained unchanged for 40 years.

“Research shows that the performance of an educator has a direct impact on the future success of students,” Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis said. “An educator simply moving from below average to average performance results in a $250,000 increase in earnings for a classroom of students.”

In addition, a new Educational Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit program in which businesses could contribute to scholarship organizations is established to provide funding to eligible students who reside within the attendance boundary of a low-achieving school. The governor also signed into law a measure to provide assistance to school districts confronted with financial difficulties.

The Department of Education will establish an early warning system to identify and assist school districts experiencing mild financial difficulties. In extreme situations, the Secretary can declare a school or school district in need of financial recovery and appoint a financial manager to oversee spending activities within the troubled area. The law also calls for the creation of a loan program in which an eligible school district could apply for a long-term, interest-free loan. Loan funds would be immediately due and payable if a district fails to implement a recovery plan and is not progressing toward financial stability.

In addition to K-12 the Governor also kept higher education spending at 2011 levels. He noted that overall state revenues had come in better than expected this year, and as such he sought to make education his top priority. More than 40 percent of Pennsylvania’s total budget is spent on education. This year, for the second consecutive year, state funding for early, basic and higher education will total $11.34 billion, an increase of $378 million, or a 3.5 percent increase over the 2011-12 budget. Higher education will receive $1.58 billion.

In return for $937.9 million in state funding, postsecondary education leaders promised minimal, if any, tuition increases to protect taxpayers and students from continually rising costs.

“Coupled with the largest amount of state taxpayer dollars ever put toward basic education, this financial commitment should leave no doubt: in Pennsylvania, education is our top spending priority,” Corbett said.