Back to School Review: Five days of education policy in Pa. | Opinion

As COVID-19 continues to dominate education policy conversations, many other pressing issues will impact students

(c) Chinnapong –

By David Lapp

Back-to-school for Pennsylvania students—many to in-person learning for the first time in one and a half years—provides a moment to take stock of issues that are expected to drive pre K-12 education policy discussions during the 2021-22 school year. 

Of course, the most pressing issue—one that is all-consuming for families, students, and staff working inside school buildings—is whether schools can safely operate in person while mitigating the spread of COVID-19. As documented in Where Do We Go Next?, a joint report from RFA and GradNation, the pandemic’s upheaval on public education has taken a heavy toll on students. Successful return is key to support student learning.

But the task is daunting, especially if states and school systems fail to take even the most basic recommended precautions, such as universal indoor masking, mandating vaccines for all teachers and staff (with student vaccine mandates possibly coming soon, already issued in Los Angeles), regular asymptomatic testing, high quality ventilation indoors, and maximizing use of outdoor space, especially during lunch

After an unsuccessful effort to get the Pennsylvania General Assembly to act, Gov. Tom Wolf issued a statewide mask mandate for schools by order of the Department of Health. While mandates have been banned in some states (an action that may be illegal under federal law), Gov. Wolf’s leadership may relieve some school board members who have faced threats of violence for implementing local mask mandates in efforts to keep students and the community safe.  Even if it does contain a loophole

Yet as COVID-19 continues to dominate education policy conversations, many other pressing issues will impact students. Each day this week I’ll highlight one of the issues in Pennsylvania education policy that I’ll be following closely this year, with some editorializing for good measure.  Let’s get started! 

Day one tweet: 


Day 1: School facilities

Unfortunately, risks to student health and safety are not limited to COVID. A new national report documents the dismal state of school infrastructure across the country and a recent report by Women for a Healthy Environment identified serious environmental hazards from aging infrastructure across Pennsylvania school districts. Low wealth Pennsylvania communities operate hundreds of schools built prior to the 1950s. School openings for several schools in Philadelphia have been complicated by these concerns. 

A major influx of federal funding could have been used to ameliorate these issues, but Pennsylvania instead extended a moratorium on new applications to PlanCon, the state’s established approach to reimbursing school districts for school construction expenditures. Last year in State Funding to Ensure Safe and Healthy Facilities: Lessons for Pennsylvania, RFA found that recent amendments to PlanCon have put the program in line with emergency facilities funding systems in neighboring states, at least in theory. 

The point of improving PlanCon, was for school leaders to actually use it to improve school facilities. So long as the moratorium continues, that can’t happen and students in our least wealthy districts will continue to attend the most outdated and too often unsafe school facilities.  

Day two tweet: 

Day 2: Freedom to teach accurately about racism

The past year has been fraught with attacks against the 1619 Project and misinformation about critical race theory (CRT) in K-12 schools, presenting CRT as something other than an effort to more accurately understand history and social policy. These attacks feel particularly notable with the recent passing of James Loewen, author of the seminal Lies My Teacher Told Me. Some policymakers apparently want teachers to keep telling those lies. 

Legislation has been introduced in several states including Pennsylvania that, as historian Jelani Cobbs explained are “ultimately concerned with an imaginary world in which white people were actually the victims in need of protection from racism.” Several Pennsylvania school districts have issued their own curriculum bans

This is occurring in a state where 94 percent of teachers are white and at a time when nearly half of students nationally already have little to no opportunities to discuss racism in the classroom and more than one-third have been taught little or nothing about the history of racism. In some communities, it is students themselves who are pushing back on these bans against learning. Even if these bills or local bans do not find traction, they create a chilling effect on accurate teaching about racism and American history.

Day three tweet:

Day 3: Teacher workforce

Within schools the quality of the teacher workforce is the most important factor on student achievement. While the average pay gap between teachers and comparable professions is smaller in Pennsylvania than in most states, there are wide disparities across the state, with high pay in high-wealth districts and low pay in low-wealth districts. In a 2018 study, the Philadelphia Education Research Consortium (PERC) documented substantial levels of teacher turnover in Philadelphia—where teachers already are paid less to teach under more challenging circumstances than nearly all of their neighboring school districts, leading to existing shortages and equities in how quality teachers are distributed. An upcoming Allegheny County Education Research (ACER) brief explores teacher mobility in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, finding students facing wide disparities across county schools and particularly high teacher mobility in charter schools. Meanwhile, the stress of COVID and the culture wars on schools are taking a toll on teachers with some predicting major teacher shortages across the nation. 

Teacher shortages and high mobility rates are already a reality for early childcare and education providers—some of the most important educators in our entire school system. These providers have long been Budgeting for Survival and, as explained by RFA’s Rachel Comly, often cannot pay a living wage. The staffing shortage for childcare is keeping families out of the workforce and the sector is in desperate need for additional intervention, such as the American Families Plan.

One weakness of Pennsylvania’s overall teacher workforce is its lack of diversity. As RFA found, Pennsylvania has one of the starkest disparities in the nation, with 36 percent students of color compared to just 6 percent teachers of color. Over 1,000 Pennsylvania schools have only employed White teachers over at least the past seven school years. Even in Philadelphia, which employs the majority of Pennsylvania’s Black teachers, the number and percentage of Black teachers has declined over the past two decades with the same phenomenon happening in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. 

Note: Figure based on data from Chalkbeat Philadelphia and RFA

Policy recommendations and toolkits from members of the Pennsylvania Educator Diversity Consortium provide policymakers a helpful roadmap to improving recruitment and retention. And the growing impact of the Center for Black Educators Development, driving modest increases in the number of Black male teachers in recent years, and a comprehensive pipeline initiative piloted by the Pennsylvania Department of Education called Aspiring to Educate demonstrate that this is a problem with ready solutions to patch the leaky teacher pipeline.

Day 4 tweet: 

Day 4: Fair school funding

Pennsylvania operates one of the most inequitable school funding systems in the country, one that is particularly biased against students of color. This unfair funding creates large gaps in the educational opportunities available to Black students compared to White students in Pennsylvania schools and between students in poverty and students who are not in poverty. RFA’s Educational Opportunity Dashboard ranks all 50 states on 14 indicators of educational opportunity—including student access to experienced or certified teachers, access to a low student/teacher ratio; or access to schools that offer Calculus, Physics, and Advanced Placement courses; and access to schools with low suspension rates. While troubling race and income disparities in access to educational opportunity exist in most states, the size and pervasiveness of PA’s gaps are among the most severe in the country.  

The fact that the most needy students receive the fewest educational opportunities figures to be compelling evidence in the upcoming October trial in Pennsylvania’s landmark school funding lawsuit, led by the Public Interest Law Center and Education Law Center-PA. The lawsuit challenges the Pennsylvania General Assembly’s failure to comply with its state constitutional mandate to “provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.” Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Art. III, § 14.  

Also relevant will be the use, or failure to fully use, Pennsylvania’s two fair funding formulas to measure district need and distribute state funding. Both the Special Education Funding formula (SEF formula) and Basic Education Funding formula (BEF formula) are coming due for five-year review and recommendations from their respective funding commissions. Despite hearings two years ago, including testimony based on a joint report from RFA and the Education Law Center on how to improve the formula, the SEF Commission has delayed its report several times. Will the SEF Commission finally release a report by their new December 31st deadline? Will a BEF Commission be reconstituted by July as required by the school code

* Quick aside – Pennsylvania actually has another funding formula––one that policymakers appear to have forgotten about––the original fair funding formula enacted in 2008. Under Governor Corbet, the state abandoned use of the 2008 formula to distribute state funding. But Section 2502.48 of the School Code is still requires the Pennsylvania Department of Education to use that formula to calculate “adequacy targets” for each school district. PDE hasn’t done so since 2010, but Dr. Matthew Gardner Kelly, an expert witness in the fair funding lawsuit used available data to do it for them.   

Finally, what will be the status of Level Up funding in next year’s school budget? Both the BEF and SEF formulas are used for only a small portion of state funding, with the majority of state resources distributed without any rational formula, but rather a “hold harmless” approach which drives the school funding inequities. Level Up is an innovative way to use the current BEF formula to more rapidly close those state funding inequities by targeting the 100 poorest and most inequitably funded districts. Last year’s state budget distributed $100 million through Level Up, locking those revenues into the BEF base funding for those districts. But the budget increases were minimal considering the billions in surplus from federal stimulus and improved revenues, much of which the legislature squirreled away into the state’s rainy day fund. Those fighting for fair school funding, such as the PA Schools Work campaign, will likely push the General Assembly to distribute those resources to schools in future budgets and watch closely to be sure they are distributed more fairly than how some CARES Act funds were distributed in 2020. 

Increased state funding is so important is because school districts mandated costs (costs required by law such as pensions, charter school tuition payments, and provision of special education) are rising faster than state revenues, forcing districts to either cut programs or increase local property taxes.  As explained by PASBO’s Tim Strom, “[T]he impact of how the state chooses to pay or not pay for a mandated cost clearly matters. Districts that could tax more, did so, and those who could not, still taxed a little more but at lower levels even as they cannibalized programmatic and other areas of the budget. Over the past decade, the commonwealth’s inability to adjust school finance policy even while watching all this unfold, drove educational funding gaps wider and wider.” 

One way to provide some relief to districts, would be to enact the charter school funding reforms in H.B. 272 and S.B. 27 which have bipartisan backing and overwhelming support from school boards. These bills would create a flat rate for cyber charter school tuition and fix the flaws of perverse incentives baked into Pennsylvania’s current charter school special education tuition calculation (the Triple-Whammy in the current system is demonstrated in RFA’s first episode of PACER TV). Now would be an ideal time to implement such reforms, as the myth that charter schools receive significantly less funding than district schools has been debunked (in studies by both PASBA and the Afton Group) and because cyber charters in particular are receiving massive amounts of federal dollars, without experiencing any revenue loss. 

Day 5 tweet: 

Day 5: School performance metrics

One issue expected to confound policymakers, school leaders, researchers, and the public alike in the coming years, is how to measure school performance after years of potentially invalid data due to pandemic-related disruptions. Pennsylvania has multiple metrics intended to measure school performance, including the most recent dashboard, the Future Ready PA Index, and it’s predecessor, the School Performance Profiles which is still used as part of the state’s educator effectiveness system. Many individual districts and charter schools use their own measures. For example, the School District of Philadelphia publishes School Progress Reports and Annual Charter School Evaluations

One thing all these metrics have in common is heavy reliance on state standardized tests –– the PSSAs and the Keystone Exams––including both raw proficiency rates and PVAAS, a metric of academic growth. But tests were canceled for the 2019-20 year and delayed in 2020-21 for many districts, causing serious concerns about the misuse of invalid data. 

This may provide an opportunity for policymakers to consider alternate measures of school performance, focused on inputs that measure the richness of educational experiences that schools provide to students (quality teachers and staff, rich and challenging curriculum, extra-curricular offerings, small classes, and adequate facilities), the quality of school climate (use of trauma-informed approaches and limited police involvement and reduced exclusionary discipline), and the extent to which schools reduce segregation and equitably serve students with the greatest needs. RFA’s Equity-Focused Charter School Authorizing Toolkit provides examples of how to hold schools accountable for serving students experiencing homelessness (which PA schools often under identify), students in foster care or returning from the juvenile justice system, English learners, students with disabilities, and students in poverty.

This is also a time for policymakers to remember that metrics to measure “school” performance are often not the sum of their parts because results are driven by out of school factors. This is why housing policy, health care policy, employment policy, environmental policy and more, are all education policy. To paraphrase Jean Anyon in Radical Possibilities, the impact of reforms that improve out-of-school circumstances “can make a mockery” of (still important) school improvement. 

David Lapp is the Director of Policy Research, at Research for Action, a Philadelphia-based education research organization.

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Capital-Star Guest Contributor
Capital-Star Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.