For more than five years, the Hourglass Foundation has researched key issues facing public education. That research included extensive conversations with school superintendents, leaders in the public education sector and state senators and representatives.
It was soon obvious to us that school employees’ pension costs threatened to overwhelm school budgets as the payments to the Pennsylvania Public School Employees’ Retirement System were set to increase every year into 2035.
That fact and its consequences, we discovered, were not well understood, especially by school boards and state legislators responsible for the system. Consequently, local school boards had little choice but to drastically raise real estate taxes to meet the pension payments.
Further, the state Legislature is reluctant to raise the money for pensions, leaving school boards in an untenable position.
It is common for people to think of public education in Pennsylvania as a monolithic entity. That thinking is dangerous and is the reason for a state education code that does not differentiate among districts. Districts vary in size, location, student bodies, management and results, so it is dangerous to legislate as if our school boards were a single entity, in the interest of simplicity.
Consequently, ever-restrictive rules propagated by the state Department of Education, and turned into law by the state Legislature, seriously hamper schools boards’ ability to effectively manage their districts. This challenges our boards as they strive to save money while fulfilling the state Constitution’s requirement to provide a thorough and efficient education. These rules come in the form of “mandates” that are, in our thinking, overly restrictive, especially for well-performing districts.
So, here is a list of nine top priorities critical in providing school districts the opportunity to do more with less money:
— Reduce the restrictions on school funding based on a district’s performance. If a district performs poorly against an appropriate standard, then the trust that district was given disappears and restrictions should return.
— Establish statutory authority for districts to furlough employees or eliminate positions for economic reasons.
— Eliminate seniority and tenure as the sole considerations for a reduction in staff.
— Improve evaluation systems for teachers and administrators. Allow schools to terminate employment for unsatisfactory and mediocre performance.
— Restrict labor negotiations to wages.
— Provide a statewide health plan.
— Fund education on a two-year rolling basis and set the budget by March to correspond with the state and schools’ fiscal years.
— Consolidate Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts.
— Establish academic and financial standards of accountability for cyber charter schools.
Following are seven more ideas that would help to more efficiently manage our schools:
— Allow the hiring of retired teachers on a per-hour basis without benefits.
— Eliminate retirement benefits for part-time workers.
— Create incentives for school districts to collaborate in providing special education services.
— Eliminate prevailing wage requirements from school construction.
— Streamline the currently slow approval process for new construction.
— Rely on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, or PSSA, exams as a determinant of educational effectiveness. Eliminate consideration of the Keystone exams as a graduation requirement. Such high-stakes tests do not serve well as the measure of subject mastery.
— Require a cost-benefit analysis for any new mandates along with the necessary funding.
Such changes that we have listed here have minimal to no added financial costs. Rather, such changes would result in lower costs and improved academic performance.
Arthur Mann, chairman of the board of the Hourglass Foundation, is board chairman at Donsco Inc. Co-authors Monty Milner and Carol Y. Phillips are, respectively, president and vice president of the Hourglass Foundation.