HARRISBURG, Pa. — State lawmakers questioned Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Education on Monday about Governor Tom Wolf’s record demand for school spending during the latest round of budget hearings at the state Capitol. .
The inquiries have centered on the governor’s request for a $1.55 billion increase in basic education spending, with some Republicans doubting that more funding is the answer to improving student academic performance.
Workforce recruitment and retention strategies were another area of focus for lawmakers concerned about shortages of teachers, bus drivers, and the like. Investing in early childhood education, rehabilitating school buildings with toxic infrastructure, and using federal pandemic relief funding were all discussed during the more than four-hour meeting.
State Rep. Torren Ecker, R-Cumberland, and Rep. Natalie Mihalek, R-Allegheny, each separately reported a budget report based on the Pennsylvania Independent Tax Office’s performance. In it, the office noted that there was “little or no correlation” between student performance on school assessments and spending per student.
Wolf’s budget proposal calls for a $1.55 billion increase in basic education funds for public schools. Last year, the final budget added $400 million.
Lawmakers wondered why more money would solve poor school performance.
Mihalek noted that some districts with poor scores spend well above the state’s average cost per student.
“We need to make sure there is a strong rationale for this request,” Mihalek told Education Secretary Noe Ortega.
Ortega said “resources and certain factors” affect student performance, especially in special education. The IFO’s conclusion does not take into account all factors, Ortega said, including successes beyond the assessment results, such as transitioning to a career and being productive citizens. Fixed costs are also not factored into per-student spending calculations, such as salaries and benefits, Ortega said.
State Rep. Greg Rothman, R-Cumberland, asked the department if it could require schools with toxic infrastructure such as lead paint and asbestos to use federal pandemic relief funding for sanitation. Few refunds have been requested for the funding so far.
Hannah Barrick, an assistant in the Department of Education’s office of administration, said many schools undertake such projects with these funds, but did not say whether the state could mandate it. The funds come from the federal government and have an approved set of regulations and restrictions.
On a question from State Rep. Stephen Kinsey, D-Philadelphia, Ortega said the labor shortage extends beyond teachers and bus drivers. There is a shortage of support staff and mental health professionals, he said, adding that the challenge is global for a school’s entire workforce. Ortega suggested policy solutions such as relaxing some criteria for entering the education career field.
“As we think about the importance of promoting more educators in the field,” Ortega said later during the hearing on a related topic, “we need to make sure they feel like it’s It’s a path to the middle class, which attracted a lot of people early in the career.
Rep. Lynda Schlegel Culver, R-Northumberland, asked about the proposed $60 million increase for Pennsylvania Pre-K Counts, which is a half-day and full-day program for children 3 and 4 years old.
Tracey Campanini, assistant secretary of the Office of Child Development and Early Learning, said the funds would enable an additional 2,300 children to enroll.
Current funding has served approximately 40% of income-eligible children. She couldn’t say how many might be on the waiting lists.
Culver pointed out that the budget proposal calls for increases in rates paid to suppliers. Campanini said the funds would invest in recruitment and retention and that eligibility extends beyond school programs to private schools, child care providers and others who may be financially disadvantaged.
As lawmakers demanded greater accountability from school leaders for academic achievement and financial management, Ortega himself was criticized.
House Appropriations Speaker Rep. Stan Saylor, R-York, began the hearing by asking why a letter he sent to the department nearly three months ago has gone unanswered. He sought answers to questions about the $150 million in pandemic funds available for nonpublic schools.
Saylor also criticized the department’s late release of student and school performance in state assessments administered in 2021, and noted that lawmakers had almost no time to review the written testimony of Ortega since he had been returned about an hour before the hearing.
“It seems like the Department of Education has struggled to deal with one thing after another,” Saylor said.
Rep. John Lawrence, R-Chester, demanded an apology from Ortega for insinuating in a letter to members of the Tamaqua-area school board that they risked personal litigation for decisions they made as elected officials regarding COVID-19 mask mandates. Lawrence said established case law protects school board members from such litigation and noted that the warrants were rescinded shortly after the district received the letter.
“I stand by what we were trying to do at the time with the mandate. This is to protect the health and safety of our students and teachers in in-person learning,” Ortega said.
Although initially critical, Saylor closed the hearing by commending Ortega and department staff for their work.
He called on Republican and Democratic lawmakers to do more to hold school boards and local superintendents accountable for students’ poor academic performance, and said the state could consider revoking superintendents’ certifications in perennially problem districts.