HARRISBURG – Education officials and advocates discussed school reforms involving accountability for all schools, school choice, charter schools and other potential changes to benefit students during a Senate Education Committee hearing today, according to Committee Chairman Scott Martin (R-13).
Several testifiers expressed support for reforms that would expand school choice options. Christian School Association of Greater Harrisburg Superintendent Philip Puleo testified about the importance of funding students instead of systems.
“It’s never been clearer that one size doesn’t fit all in education. That’s why it’s essential we re-think how we fund education in Pennsylvania,” Puleo said. “Every child deserves an excellent education. For some, the local district school provides what they need. But many children need other options.”
Harrisburg parent Najimah Roberson spoke about the experience of enrolling her children in two different private schools and one charter school because their unique educational needs were not being met in her school district.
“Once upon a time, my children attended Harrisburg School District public schools. But we had too many issues from the crowded schools to the other children to the staff,” Roberson said. “Today, my children attend three different schools that fit each one of them. … As soon as my children come through the door they are excited to tell me what they learned at school.”
Bridge Educational Foundation Executive Director Natalie Nutt testified about the success of Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit program. However, she expressed concerns about Governor Wolf proposed changes to the EITC program, which she said could lead to scholarship organizations passing along their administrative costs to low-income families through application fees.
Rabbi Ira Budrow, Head of School at Abrams Hebrew Academy in Yardley, also discussed how the EITC program has supported student achievement at his school.
“The Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program has allowed our school to serve any child who would like to be here,” Budrow said. “With continued growth of that program, we can see a stronger educational landscape emerge in Pennsylvania. Access to a quality education of a family’s choice, which best suits that child, positions our kids for future success.”
Lancaster Catholic High School senior Nevin Roman testified about the importance of scholarship programs in supporting his education.
“Without tuition assistance funds – especially EITC/OSTC funds – I would not be standing before you proudly wearing my Lancaster Catholic uniform,” Roman said. “I am proof of your return on investment.”
South Eastern School District Superintendent Nathan Van Deusen agreed that school choice helps students, but cautioned that the current charter funding model has flaws that should be addressed.
“The truth is that the public school system does not meet the needs of all children, and parents should have options that will meet the needs of their children,” Van Deusen said. “That being said, I implore this committee to revisit the charter school PDE 363 calculation structure. This current draconian structure financially harms the local school district and taxpayer by paying excessive amounts money to charter schools to provide services that those charter schools do not provide.”
Pennsylvania Department of Education Deputy Secretary Matt Stem encouraged lawmakers to pursue charter school reforms to provide additional flexibility and innovation for the entire public education system. However, Avon Grove Charter School CEO Kristen Bishop testified that charter schools face requirements that public schools do not.
“PA’s public charter schools must adhere to all the same state and federal reporting requirements as school districts, but we also must provide our local district with an annual report of our operations, and every five years, we must endure a rigorous renewal process,” Bishop said. “Most importantly, PA’s public charter schools are accountable to the families we serve. At any time, they can choose to leave us if we are not providing a high-quality learning environment for their children. The same cannot be said for school districts in which students are forced to attend based on their home address.”
Reach Cyber Charter School CEO Jane Swan also suggested education reforms should provide more opportunities for charter school students, including standardizing the charter application, approval and renewal process, creating equitable access to career and technical centers and allowing charter schools to offer dual enrollment programs like their public school counterparts.
“Dual enrollment is celebrated by K-12 educators and postsecondary leaders as a way to introduce advanced coursework to students and lower tuition rates for students planning to attend college,” Swan said. “Unfortunately, our vision to inspire and nurture future success for all students is sometimes diminished when our students are not afforded the same opportunities as students in school districts.”
The committee also heard testimony on the use of learning pods. This model allows parents to form a small group of students to learn directly from a teacher in a home environment. Learning pods have grown in popularity during the pandemic as many schools remained closed to in-person instruction.
“One of the main benefits of learning pods is that they are bottom-up solutions and are innovating in a permissionless environment,” said Grant Gulibon, Deputy State Director with Americans for Prosperity-Pennsylvania. “Parents are discovering solutions that can better meet their needs and those of their children. The legislature should identify areas where there is regulatory overreach and exempt this sort of activity from statutes that can hinder the ability of families to come together and address the unique educational needs of their children.”
Dr. Eric G. Rosendale, Executive Director of Beaver Valley Intermediate Unit #27, suggested that as lawmakers consider charter reforms and school choice proposals, attention should also be given to expanding the availability of broadband coverage.
“Perhaps one of the greatest inequities within education is the access to broadband,” Rosendale said. “Today, technology is central to providing a high quality 21st century K-12 education for our children.”
Video and written testimony from the hearing are available at https://www.pasenategop.com/blog/041221/.
CONTACT: Terry Trego (717) 787-6535