If the reception he received from the Senate Education Committee is any indication, Secretary Pedro Rivera is poised to cruise to a second term as Pennsylvania’s top education czar.
Gov. Tom Wolf has nominated Rivera to be reappointed to his post as head of the Department of Education, which sets policy for Pennsylvania’s 500 public school districts, as well as its brick-and-mortar and cyber charter schools.
The 50-member Senate voted unanimously in 2015 to appoint Rivera as secretary. On Tuesday, the Senate Education Committee voted unanimously to send the former classroom teacher and superintendent of the Lancaster School District to the full Senate for a reconfirmation vote.
Since taking the helm of the Department of Education in 2015, Rivera has worked with the Legislature to enact a new fair funding formula for Pennsylvania’s public schools, which funnels education funding increases to school districts based on student poverty levels, enrollment, and the wealth of a district’s tax base.
Rivera’s Department of Education also provided technical guidance to Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster, who is attempting to reform Pennsylvania’s teacher evaluation system. The resulting bill passed the Senate on Monday and may be incorporated into Pennsylvania’s updated school code, a piece of budget-enabling legislation, this week.
His department also overhauled its school assessment website last year, replacing it with the new Future Ready PA Index. The new rating system brought Pennsylvania into compliance with federal education law and evaluates schools on a host of new accountability measures, including student growth rates, chronic absenteeism, and career readiness.
Rivera also oversaw changes to Pennsylvania’s graduation requirements and secured funding last year for career and technical education — the first such increase in a decade, Rivera said Tuesday.
More recently, Rivera petitioned the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas to initiate a state takeover of the Harrisburg City School District, which has been overseen by a state-appointed recovery officer since 2012.
It was Rivera’s first use of Pennsylvania’s controversial receivership law, which offers the state a last-resort option to save failing school districts from mismanagement.
Senators commended Rivera for his tenure in an hour-long committee hearing on Tuesday. But lawmakers from both parties also highlighted the need for the state to enact sweeping charter school reforms.
Sen. Robert Tomlinson, R-Bucks, said Pennsylvania lawmakers need to limit the special education funds districts can send to charter schools, which are privately managed but funded by public tax dollars.
Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-Chester, also pressed Rivera for his stance on replacing Pennsylvnaia’s Keystone Exams with the SAT as its federal accountability exam. U.S. education policy requires states to report standardized test results as an indicator of student achievement.
Rivera said his agency is “agnostic” on what accountability tool Pennsylvania uses. He said he’s open to discussing the SAT transition over the summer, but as a former classroom teacher, he wants to take a measured approach to policy changes that affect school curriculums.
“I know what the impact of state standards are on a classroom,” Rivera said. “There’s a lot that happens after we make decisions at the policy table.”