By Mary C. Tillotson | Watchdog.org
Pennsylvania lawmakers considered reforming special education funding and ending the system of seniority-based layoffs, but ultimately failed to act before the legislative session recessed last week.
EDUCATION: Pennsylvania’s lawmakers had a chance to look at some important education issues, including teacher layoffs and special education funding, but failed to act.
Lawmakers could bring the issues back up when they meet briefly in the fall, but the session ends shortly before the November election in which all the House seats and half the Senate seats are up for election.
“Only fools predict what’s going to happen in the Legislature, even on a day-to-day basis,” said Robert Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition for Public Charter Schools.
“Our best guess is that (the special education bill) will be revisited in the fall, but a lot can happen over the summer in discussions.”
The election, timing of the state’s budget, and habits of the Pennsylvania Legislature are likely to prevent anything from happening until the spring, said Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin and Marshall College.
“The Pennsylvania Legislature historically doesn’t do much unless pushed, really, by deadlines or a crisis of some kind,” he said. “I don’t know about seniority-based layoffs. I mean, you can’t rule it out. The one thing we always have to be careful about is occasionally they do the unpredictable. They actually do something.”
Teacher layoffs were considered in a bill cosponsored by state Rep. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster. If the bill had passed, it would have required layoff decisions to be based in part on teacher performance, as measured by the state’s new evaluation system. As it sits, layoffs are based on seniority, a system supported by the teachers union.
“The problem is, Pennsylvania public unions, particularly the teachers unions, are very powerful, and they have a lot of even Republican support,” Madonna said. “Now, they could pick up some Democrats, but Democrats in Pennsylvania are often union-backed. I think it’ll be very tough to move that legislation.”
Republicans control both the House and the Senate, and Madonna estimated a roughly 100 percent chance that the House remains Republican after the election, and a 70 percent chance for the same in the Senate. With so many lawmakers hoping to keep their seats, it’s unlikely that the bill will be moved before the election.
“I just have my doubts that they’re going to take up these controversial things,” he said. “They can barely get things done that are a big priority.”
Teacher effectiveness is the most important in-school factor in student learning, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality, and Aument said the bill was designed to protect the jobs of excellent teachers. Seniority-based layoffs can leave an effective, but junior, teacher without a job, while a longtime but less effective teacher has better job security.
Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission attempted to sidestep that part of the law, but the state’s Supreme Court recently ruled that the commission did not have the authority to do so.
“I don’t know the impact on things they’ve already done, if they have to go through and re-lay-off people or redo the hiring process, but going forward, it does mean that (while) the school district continues to struggle with funding and rising pension costs, there’s certainly going to be need for future layoffs, and they’ll have to do it by seniority, regardless (of effectiveness),” said Nate Benefield, vice president of policy analysis for the Commonwealth Foundation.
Pennsylvania lawmakers also considered reforming the special education funding system. Public schools receive a static amount of funding for special education, regardless of the number of students with special needs the school has to serve.
Historically, special education funding was distributed by student need, which gave districts an incentive to over-identify special needs, said Lauren Morando Rhim, co-founder and executive director of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools. Pennsylvania’s static system attempted to fix that issue, but leaves schools with less money per student if they enroll more students with special needs.
Lawmakers considered a three-tiered formula based on different types of special needs. But the system would have been implemented differently in charter schools and traditional district schools, and many charter school advocates were concerned.
School districts distribute money to the charter schools, and the funding formula would have been applied before the money reached the charter schools.
“The net result is a significant decrease in the amount of money that a charter school would get for addressing the same issues for a student in a traditional school,” Fayfich said. “There was a concern about an unequal or inequitable treatment for providing support for special education, based on what public school (the student) attends.”
Pennsylvania’s Senate passed an amendment that addressed most of the charter schools’ concerns, Fayfich said. Charter school students would be funded according to the current model, and new students would be funded through a combination of the new and old models.
If the bill is not revisited in the fall, it will have to start the lawmaking process over from the beginning in the 2015 session.
Contact Mary C. Tillotson at firstname.lastname@example.org.