Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era
Good news for schools here?
Good news for schools here? BY BRIAN WALLACE, Staff Writer
State Education Secretary Ronald Tomalis used a visit to Hempfield High School Tuesday to hint at details of Gov. Tom Corbett's 2013-14 budget, saying school officials will likely be "pleased" at the level of education funding it will include.
The spending plan, to be unveiled Tuesday, also will feature a new initiative to boost science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs, he said, along with relief from state mandates to enable schools to be more creative in how they deliver classroom instruction.
Tomalis was visiting Hempfield for a demonstration of the Open Campus PA initiative, a joint venture involving Hempfield, Manheim Township and Penn Manor school districts, which combined resources to offer online and traditional courses to students from all three districts.
Tomalis talked with students and teachers involved in the new program -- believed to be the first of its kind in the state -- and watched demonstrations of the classes before addressing the audience.
"I'm very excited, and I'm very optimistic about what I'm seeing," Tomalis said of Open Campus, which officials at the three districts said has reduced costs, expanded course offerings and provided more flexibility for students.
Tomalis pointed out that legislative action was required for Open Campus to become a reality because state attendance requirements and other mandates would have blocked the program.
That should not have been necessary, he said, and the state will work to remove such barriers in the coming year by streamlining and eliminating some mandates.
"We will not be putting the genie back in the bottle. This is here to stay," he said of the program.
Without sharing specifics, Tomalis said the Department of Education plans to work with the Legislature to change the way the state regulates schools to encourage more innovative practices such as Open Campus.
The department plans to change some mandates across the board and will respond to requests from individual school districts that want to implement new programs, he said.
"We have an education model that worked well for us for over 150 years. It's a model that basically said: Here's your school, here's your curriculum, here's your teacher," Tomalis said.
"But what we're hearing now from students is that they want more. If you have a great idea to put forward that will help students ... let's find a way to allow you to do this."
Saying it's "very clear" that the state's economy "has turned the tide," Tomalis hinted that school districts may get more state support in the 2013-14 budget.
In 2011-12, education funding was cut by about $870 million in Corbett's first budget, largely to make up for the loss of federal stimulus funds. The governor's 2012-13 budget called for no increase in education dollars, but the Legislature boosted some funding sources when it approved the budget.
Pressed for details on whether funding will increase next year, Tomalis said, "I think many people will be pleased to see some of the things that they'll see in the budget address."
He did say that more state funding would be directed to math and science instruction in an effort to give students a more solid foundation in both subjects, but he declined to provide specifics.
The budget "will enable school districts to access more resources to implement (math and science) programs, particularly in high schools," Tomalis said.
Corbett's budget also will include a new safe schools initiative, in the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Tomalis said.
He provided no details on what the proposal would call for, saying the security needs of schools vary greatly from district to district, with some schools requiring such simple upgrades as door locks and others considering adding armed police officers.
Asked if he supports allowing teachers to carry firearms, Tomalis said "that's not an issue (school officials) are bringing up to us."
Tomalis also addressed the state's mounting pension debt, which is shared with school districts, pointing out that school employee pension payments are costing the state $500 million more this year than they did in 2011-12.
"If we're trying to provide as much support as we can to our kids in the public education system, we'll be limited if we don't get pension reform, and that's one of the reasons why it's an issue we have to tackle this year," he said.
Corbett is scheduled to deliver his budget address Tuesday morning.
nEducation secretary, during visit to Hempfield High School, says officials will like the numbers in Corbett's budget.