Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era
Justin Reese considers himself “the luckiest teacher in Lancaster County.”
The sources of his good fortune are his high-caliber students, said Reese, a social studies teacher at McCaskey High School.
“They show up, they work hard, and they’re a very caring group,” he said Friday, after about 50 of his junior and senior government students participated in a forum with state Education Secretary Ronald Tomalis.
The pupils displayed their forte at asking tough questions of Tomalis, who came to the packed class for a wide-ranging conversation on everything from bullying and teacher quality to paying for college and providing adequate funding for public schools.
Initially a bit timid, the pupils eventually opened up in the 90-minute exchange, peppering Tomalis with questions.
The state’s top education official repeated several themes he’s expressed in other public appearances, defending Gov. Tom Corbett’s education budget, a taxpayer-funded voucher proposal and the Keystone Exams that all high school students will have to pass in the coming years to earn a diploma.
Despite public sentiment to the contrary, Tomalis told the students, Corbett is spending more state dollars on education today than Gov. Ed Rendell’s administration did in its final year.
The extra money isn’t enough, though, to make up for the surging cost of pensions and the expired federal stimulus funds the state previously used to “backfill” the education budget, he said.
He said the state’s share of public pension costs has grown from $230 million in 2010-11 to $900 million in the new budget.
Tomalis praised the proposed taxpayer-funded voucher program, saying it would create “a system where the school you go to is the best school for you.”
The program — which has yet to come before the Legislature for a vote — would work much like the scholarships and grants the state now provides for college students, Tomalis said.
That program allows students to choose the schools that best fit their abilities and aspirations, and vouchers would enable public school students to do the same thing, he said.
Several questioners — including two students who said they were bullied in school — asked Tomalis about that topic.
Tomalis said he’s not willing to accept bullying as a normal “rite of passage” of going through school, and everyone — students, parents, teachers and administrators — has to combat such behavior.
“What helps is when you stand up collectively against that, and you don’t tolerate it as students. There’s a lot of strength in numbers. There’s nothing more positive … than when a group of kids comes together and says, ‘This has got to stop.’ ”
A student asked Tomalis why the Keystone Exams will be better than the PSSA tests pupils now take in 11th grade.
“I think it’s a step in the right direction because it gives us a better indicator of your academic abilities and achievements,” he said “How many of you take the 11th-grade PSSA seriously?” Tomalis asked, prompting only a smattering of hands.
“Why not? It’s because there are no consequences.”
Responding to a question about whether wealthier school districts do a better job than those with fewer resources, like School District of Lancaster, Tomalis said, “I’m not one who believes that it’s the amount of money we spend in public education that makes the difference.
“For me, I think it’s the quality of the person who’s standing in front of the classroom, and we should get as many highly qualified people in the classroom as we can.”
Tomalis did, however, say he believes good teachers should earn higher salaries.
At the end of the exchange, Tomalis urged the students “to keep asking the tough questions.”
“Ask them of yourselves, ask them of your friends, ask them of your teachers, and ask them of people in high positions. That way, you have learned, and you help us get better as we serve you.”
After the forum, student Herman Macklin said he was impressed with how candid and approachable Tomalis was.
The students had conducted similar exchanges with other state and local government officials, including Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray and state Rep. Mike Sturla, but Macklin said he felt Tomalis was the most “laid-back.”
“I think he was excited that there were students who cared,” Macklin said.
Read more: http://lancasteronline.com/article/local/655993_State-education-secretary-visits-McCaskey-classroom.html