A daily round-up of education news and views for the Keystone State.
9th June 2021

A daily round-up of education news and views for the Keystone State.

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Wolf urges education investments
As the state budget deadline nears, Gov. Tom Wolf is doubling down on calls to make historic investments in education as the state sits on a $10bn nest egg made up of $7.3bn in federal coronavirus aid and a $3bn state revenue surplus. Wolf on Tuesday called on lawmakers to approve a $1.35bn increase in basic education funding, including a $1.15bn increase that would be run through the state’s Fair Funding Formula, which allocates new school funding using a weighted formula based on a district’s wealth and student needs. Wolf said that because the Fair Funding Formula only applies to new basic education funding that exceeds 2014-15 levels, the $1.35bn investment is needed to ensure that all of the state’s basic education funding is run through the formula. The proposal is one of multiple education initiatives included in his budget plan for the 2021-22 fiscal year, along with charter school reforms and proposed increases in pre-K and special education funding. “We have a chance right now to bring education funding into the 21st century where it belongs,” Wolf said.
Penn Hills expands dual enrollment program options
Officials at the Penn Hills School District have further expanded its dual enrollment for next school year, with Seton Hill University now a partner. The program allows high schoolers, primarily juniors and seniors, to earn college credits while in high school. Other colleges that have partnered with Penn Hills include LaRoche University and the University of Pittsburgh. Classes are paid for through Title IV funds and the highest course cost is about $300, which is a fraction of the tuition if enrolled at a university.
Hempfield Area School District culls staff through attrition
Leaders in the Hempfield Area School District have unanimously voted to eliminate about a dozen positions through attrition, in response to declining enrollments and a decision that supported a balanced 2021-22 budget. Superintendent Tammy Wolicki noted there will be no furloughs. Members in May approved the preliminary budget, which included $98.8m in revenues and $99.5m in expenditures, but the projected deficit remains. If approved, this would be the third consecutive budget district leaders are not raising property taxes, leaving the rate at 83.46 mills. A final budget vote will take during the June 21 meeting.
Large number of failing grades in Central Dauphin
Parents of 9th, 10th and 11th graders in the Central Dauphin School District have been cautioned over a large number of students with failing grades. According to the state, Pennsylvania is receiving $4.9 billion in federal relief to help pre-K to 12th-grade schools, and they must use at least 20% of the money to address learning loss and help underrepresented students.
Seneca Valley Board approves five-year staff contracts
The Seneca Valley School Board has approved a new five-year contract with the Seneca Valley Education Support Professionals. The district and SVESP — a labor group that represents the District’s 144 secretaries and paraprofessionals —had been negotiating since January. The agreement includes wage increases each year, a high deductible medical plan and additional contributions by employees for healthcare. The current average wages for the 2020-21 school year were $20,394 for paraprofessionals and $34,156 for secretaries.
Pandemic pushes some states to pass struggling third graders
A number of U.S. states are revising policies stipulating that schools hold back struggling 3rd graders who don’t pass state standardized reading tests. Two states, Florida and Mississippi, decided this year that pupils who fail reading assessments won’t be held back. Lawmakers in a third state, Michigan, are debating the same policy. Proponents of letting students pass say states should focus resources on strengthening classroom instruction and literacy intervention efforts. Franki Sibberson, a retired 3rd grade teacher and former president of the National Council of Teachers on English, says she understands the importance of assessments, but that focusing on one high-stakes test doesn’t provide teachers with a complete picture of a student’s progress. This emphasis on test scores makes it difficult to meet the child’s needs, she stresses. The U.S. Department of Education granted states flexibility on testing this spring, including altering the administration of tests and waiving accountability and school requirements under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, known as ESSA.
State takeovers have 'limited effect' on struggling schools
A new national study, written by Beth E. Schueler of the University of Virginia and Joshua Bleiburg of Brown University, casts doubt on the notion that states are better positioned to run schools than locally-elected officials, finding little evidence that districts see test scores rise as a result of being taken over. The study focuses on the 35 school districts from across the country that were taken over by states between 2011 and 2016. These takeovers often happened in small cities and the vast majority of affected students were Black or Hispanic and from low-income families. Schueler and Leiburg used national test score data to compare districts that were taken over to seemingly similar districts in the same state that retained local control. In the first few years of the takeover, the schools generally saw dips in English test scores. By year four, there was no effect one way or the other. In math, there were no clear effects at all. Some places, including Camden, New Jersey and Lawrence, Massachusetts, did see improvements in the wake of takeover; others, such as East St. Louis, Illinois and Chester Upland, Pennsylvania, saw their academic records get worse, relative to other schools in the states. One reason results might have diverged so much is that there’s no single playbook for what happens after a state takes control from an elected school board. It’s also possible that state takeovers don’t typically improve student achievement simply because they often don’t lead to meaningful changes in per-student spending, class sizes, or the number of charter schools.
Digital divide persists, latest survey indicates
While the country moves toward connecting more households to the internet than ever before, insufficient bandwidth remains a challenge for school districts and limits what tools students can use at home. The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) has surveyed 400 districts across the country, finding that basic internet access is less of an issue in distance learning than an inability to use bandwidth-intensive content, such as video conferencing and streaming. Ninety-four percent of districts faced challenges with video conferencing during remote learning. For 66% of those districts, the problems were caused by insufficient bandwidth. Respondents listed slow connections and multiple users as the top technical problems they faced. CoSN chief executive Keith Krueger said that part of the problem is that the federally recommended broadband thresholds for households don’t meet the needs of remote learning. Families may have plenty of bandwidth to stream or download content, he said, but not enough to upload. Most households have two or more students, compounding the problem.

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