[*This story has been updated]
A proposal to make Pennsylvania’s teacher evaluation system fairer to educators in high-poverty schools passed a key Senate committee hurdle on Tuesday without the support of the state’s most impoverished school district.
The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster, would change how Pennsylvania grades its public school teachers to better acknowledge how poverty affects student achievement. But the Philadelphia school district, which educates more children living in poverty than any other district in the state, said it needs more time to review the bill.
*The Philadelphia school system has not taken a position on the legislation, which the committee approved on a 9-2 vote. District officials are still trying to assess the impact of the legislation. And they’re hoping lawmakers will delay a vote until there’s an accord.
Aument first backed the evaluation legislation when he was a member of the House. Seven years later, he says its outsized emphasis on student test scores has unfairly penalized teachers in high-poverty school districts.
“What we have seen is the current evaluation system absolutely serves as a barrier for high quality students wanting to serve our most vulnerable students,” Aument said Tuesday.
Under his new bill, the evaluations will rely more heavily on a teacher’s classroom observations, which school administrators conduct using a nationally recognized methodology.
Teachers would still be accountable for their students’ standardized test scores. But a formula Aument developed with the Department of Education would adjust those test scores based, in part, on a school’s aggregate poverty level.
The Pennsylvania State Education Association, which represents teachers in small urban, suburban, and rural districts across the state, supports Aument’s reforms. In a statement issued Tuesday, PSEA President Rich Askey called the new evaluations “a more accurate and fairer evaluation system that works better for students and educators alike.”
But teachers in in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, who belong to the American Federation of Teachers, say Aument didn’t consult them about the bill, which could become law this month as part of the state’s omnibus school code — a piece of budget-enabling legislation.
That led some Democratic lawmakers on the committee to vote against the reform.
“I have total support for what you’re trying to accomplish, but two of the largest unions repping the two largest school districts feel genuinely and honestly that they’ve been left out,” the panel’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Andrew Dinniman, of Chester County, said.
Aument denied the charge that he excluded the urban teachers unions from discussions about the bill. He said he’s spoken publicly for more than two years about his intent to reform the teacher evaluation system, and all the while invited input from teachers, administrators, and union representatives.
“I did work with educators to work out the language, and we had conversations with anyone who was interested,” Aument said. “I’m disappointed that the [Pittsburgh and Philadelphia unions] would say that it was not an open process. I disagree very strongly.”
Sen. Lindsey Williams, D-Allegheny, said she didn’t see the bill until late last week. That didn’t give her enough time to review the legislation and discuss it with the 10 public schools in her western Pennsylvania district, she said.
“The poverty index looks good — it looks great,” said Williams, a former lawyer for the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. “But nobody has had the time to figure out if it’s accurate and if it’s doing what it’s supposed to be doing.”
Democrats on the Education Committee also fear they won’t have a chance to amend the bill now that it’s passed through the committee.
As the General Assembly finalizes the state’s 2019-20 budget, it will consider dozens of stand-alone code bills — omnibus pieces of legislation that govern everything education to agriculture.
Leaders in the House and Senate could wrap Aument’s bill into the state’s school code.
Since the school code comprises hundreds of statutes, it’s all but impossible to make line-item revisions from the floor of the House or the Senate, Dinniman said.
The only way to prevent an objectionable provision is to reject the code bill entirely — something that Dinniman said has never happened in the 13 years he’s been a state senator.
Code bills allow lawmakers to tie up unfinished business before they adjourn for a summer recess. But Jeffrey Coyne, director of government affairs for the American Federation of Teachers in Pennsylvania, said that the teacher evaluations are too important to fast-track during budget negotiations this month.
“Instead of trying to rush this through because everyone walks out the door on June 30, we feel like we should be able to sit there work through this data,” Coyne said. “We want a bill that works for everyone.”