With state revenues exceeding expectations, Pennsylvania’s education secretary on Tuesday said that Gov. Tom Corbett will propose an increase in public education funding when he unveils his 2013-14 spending plan next week.
“I think that many people will be pleased to see some of the things … in the budget address,” Education Secretary Ron Tomalis said following a visit to the Hempfield School District in Lancaster County.
Tomalis wouldn’t say how much of an increase Corbett will propose during his address to the General Assembly Tuesday. Corbett allocated $11.4 billion for early, basic and higher education for the current budget year.
“This is a transformative time in education and we do need to invest in our students in a way that’s a little bit different,” Tomalis said.
Some of that investment will come in the form of local relief from some mandates; increased emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math; and investments in a new educator evaluation system.
Mandate relief, he said, could be the keystone of the administration’s new education emphasis.
“The reason why laws get passed is they get put in place to address an issue. Sometimes, those issues have been in place for a long, long time and we get used to dealing with things in a certain way,” Tomalis said. “What we want to say to a school district is, come to us and look for an opportunity for you to do things better for your kids, for the operations of your district and we’ll see what we can do to relieve those mandates.”
Tomalis admitted the state’s ability to extend mandate relief to school districts depends on whether legislators will change state law. He said the administration will work with legislators to make sure that happens.
“We really shouldn’t have to think about creating a statute in the school code to get things out of the way so that people can be innovative at the front lines,” he said, noting that the state couldn’t supersede federal mandates.
Lower Bucks school district officials said they would welcome that reprieve.
“I believe we would welcome the ability to apply some flexibility to our operations against the many mandates that are imposed on school districts by the Department of Education,” said Council Rock Superintendent Mark Klein.
Samuel Lee, superintendent of schools for Bristol Township School District, expressed his optimism as well. “I’m encouraged by the secretary’s words and look forward to the details related to them,” he said.
David Baugh, Bensalem Township School District superintendent, also expressed hope of easing up on state mandates.
“We would welcome relief from any unfunded mandates and the opportunity to be more flexible and creative to meet the needs of our students,” he said. “We are slowly implementing STEM so grants and support could really help us jump start our efforts in this vital area of curriculum and instruction.”
On other elements of the governor’s message, Baugh said he was “delighted” with the promise of additional state funding for public education.
But he expressed “grave reservations” about the push for teacher evaluations. “Top experts around the nation believe that these sorts of evaluations are neither helpful nor constructive for improving teaching and learning,” Baugh said.
Tomalis said the governor’s educator evaluation system would reward educators and districts that break norms and innovate and bring those innovations to other educators and districts.
“More than anything else, it’s that quality of instruction that we see in the classroom that’s going to change the life of those students. Administrators want to make sure the tools are in place so that we can do more and more strong professional development,” Tomalis said.
Tomalis said there must also be pension reform, though it might not happen simultaneously with the adoption of the 2013-14 budget. The state Constitution requires that a balanced budget be adopted by June 30. The fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30 of the following year.
“We are, today, spending record amounts of state funding on K-12 public education. We’re at a level we’ve never been before. A lot of those dollars are dedicated to our obligations to meet the pension requirements. We may see a $500 million-a-year increase to meet those pension requirements if we don’t get changes to pension reform,” the education secretary said.
The Public School Employees’ Retirement System, known as PSERS, has seen its annual pension line jump from $260 million in 2011, Tomalis said, to $800 million now. Without pension reform, he said the system’s pension budget line would soon balloon to $1.2 billion.
Corbett has suffered politically with his past two education budgets, but Tomalis argued that the Republican governor has done what he could to offset dramatic drops in the economy and the disappearance of federal stimulus dollars. He said the lack of stimulus, the pension explosion, and the drop in state revenue were “whammies.”
“The biggest cut in public education funding that happened in PA happened two years before the governor took office. The governor increased the funding to basic education to get back to the pre-stimulus level in the first year but in addition to that we had the pension obligations,” Tomalis said.
“Now, we see the changes in the revenue coming in because of the changes in the economy and the governor wants to support, and is going to be supporting, increased commitments to pub education all across the board,” he said.
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