PSEA is a community of education professionals who make a difference in the lives of students every day.
Phoenixville EA member John Odell is in his second successful career after 24 years with the Army.
PSEA is working with elected officials from both parties to reduce high-stakes standardized testing in our schools.
ARE OUR SCHOOLS BETTER OFF THAN THEY WERE FOUR YEARS AGO?
Four years ago, public schools and students were reeling from nearly $1 billion in public school funding cuts. Classroom sizes were significantly increasing, educators were being furloughed, class offerings were being reduced, students were losing extracurricular activities, valuable learning time was being lost to the crush of standardized testing.
As if what was happening in schools wasn’t bad enough, the hard-earned pensions of school and state employees were under assault.
Tom Wolf ran for governor opposing those bad policies, instead proposing to invest in public education and find ways to reduce testing and preserve pensions. Upon taking office, he went to work.
“Gov. Wolf has done a remarkable job in restoring funding cuts and in putting public education on a positive, forward-looking path,’’ said PSEA President Dolores McCracken. “What a turnaround from four years ago. It is imperative that he gets four more years to build on his impressive record.’’
Wolf discussed the past four years and his vision for a second term with Voice:
VOICE: When you took office four years ago, public education was reeling from nearly $1 billion in state funding cuts, resulting in increased class sizes, cuts to school staff, and reduced services to students. How important was it to restore those funding cuts? Why was this such an important priority for you? How did you secure the funding increases necessary to reverse these cuts?
WOLF: I took office after my predecessor had cut $1 billion from our schools, resulting in mass teacher layoffs, cuts to important programs like pre-kindergarten, and larger class sizes. When I took office, my top priority was investing in our education system to ensure that students were getting the education they deserved. I’m proud to say I have fully restored the $1 billion in education cuts and expanded career and technical education.
After fully restoring the $1 billion cut to education, we are now working to invest even more dollars in our classrooms. The most recent budget builds on prior-year increases in education funding to provide an additional $313.5 million, which will be invested in Pre-K and Head Start, basic education, career and technical education, and higher education, among other areas.
By investing in education, we have increased the number of children attending pre-kindergarten by nearly 50 percent, increased the number of students in career and technical education programs by 32 percent, and increased the high school graduation rate to nearly 90 percent. These are the positive results we can expect to see when we invest in education, and I am committed to building on this progress.
VOICE: Another important development related to funding was the creation of a fair funding formula that, over time, will ensure that every school district and every student will receive the amount of state funding necessary to provide every student with the power of a great education. Can you talk about how important this new state formula is to the goal of fairly funding public education?
WOLF: The fair funding formula takes the politics out of education funding once and for all, and ensures that all students have access to a quality education, regardless of their ZIP code. Pennsylvania had been one of the only states without a fair funding formula, and the result was massive inequities in schools, with our most vulnerable students hit the hardest. While the formula is not the final solution to the challenges in our schools, it does make significant progress toward bettering our education system.
VOICE: The Every Student Succeeds Act gave the state a great opportunity to reshape how Pennsylvania thinks about assessment, accountability, and supports for students and educators. Your administration was very committed to include stakeholders – the people who actually teach and serve kids every day – in the development of Pennsylvania’s ESSA plan. In fact, you included PSEA staff and members on a statewide task force to develop that plan. How important is it to include stakeholders, like PSEA members, in the formation of education policy? How does Pennsylvania’s ESSA plan open new possibilities for assessment, accountability, and student supports?
WOLF: ESSA is a huge step for Pennsylvania in ensuring that all students have access to an equitable, high-quality, well-rounded education. By providing critical resources to schools and a flexible framework, teachers and students can work toward eliminating achievement gaps while increasing student growth and school accountability. In developing the plan, it was important to me to have input from all key stakeholders, and that’s why I assembled four workgroups composed of teachers, charter school and district level administrators, advocates, civil rights leaders, former policymakers from both parties, and others.
In order for a plan like this to be successful, it must be formed with the input of those who have the most experience with the issue, such as PSEA members.
VOICE: PSEA members have long said that they spend too much time testing kids and that too much testing gets in the way of teaching. Your administration has reduced the time students in grades three through eight spend on state tests by 20 percent, and has reduced the time they spend on the math, English language arts, and science sections of the PSSAs by 25 percent. How do you view standardized testing and the role it plays in public education? How important is it to find the right balance between testing and teaching?
WOLF: The overtesting of our students has led to a number of significant challenges, perhaps none more so than the limits it places on educators. I respect and trust Pennsylvania’s educators to know the best ways to reach their students and to adapt to students’ learning differences. In addition to limiting a teacher’s ability to teach, overtesting leads to a neglect of subjects like art and music, penalizes kids who think differently, creates an unhealthy environment for many students who are prone to anxiety and, in its current form, offers little to no useful feedback.
Pennsylvania is required to maintain standardized testing for federal accountability purposes. However, I am committed to doing everything in my power to create more autonomy for educators and a healthier learning environment for students.
VOICE: Keeping Pennsylvania’s schools and students safe is a priority, and it’s certainly a priority for PSEA members, who shared nearly 1,000 specific school safety suggestions with you and lawmakers. You pushed for a comprehensive school safety bill that includes $60 million in school safety grants and signed that bill into law as Act 44 of 2018. How important was PSEA members’ input in developing this new law? How do you see these school safety grants making our schools safer? How does the flexibility in the use of these grants help schools to address their own unique, local school safety challenges?
WOLF: My administration reviewed those 1,000 suggestions and took them to heart. They helped shape the direction of our policy, particularly related to our efforts to prevent school tragedies before they occur. This is an excellent example of your power as educators to make the world a better place. Your thoughts, suggestions, and anecdotes made a tangible difference on matters of policy – and I believe they will help save lives.
Our children deserve to go to schools that are safe, and parents should have confidence that their kids will be protected when they go to class each morning. That’s why I created a School Safety Task Force to ensure we are doing everything we can to make sure that our schools are safe places for our children to learn. It was especially important for me to include the input of PSEA members in this task force because you are the ones who are in the classrooms every day and have the expertise necessary to understand what is best for our children.
The 2018-19 budget builds on our commitment to making our schools safer by increasing funding for school safety measures, community safety measures, the Safe Schools Initiative, and “It’s on Us PA.” Because each school is vastly different, there is flexibility for the use of the grants to ensure that we are doing what is best and most effective for each school.
VOICE: One of your key initiatives in this budget year is a new program aimed at connecting students in vocational-technical schools to good-paying jobs. In fact, you pushed for a historic increase in vocational-technical school funding that will go a long way to making Pennsylvania career and technical education programs even stronger. Why is it so important to invest in these programs? How does this emphasis on career and technical education programs reflect the changing nature of our state’s workforce and job market? How do career and technical education teachers contribute to this?
WOLF: I know that investing in workforce development has wide-ranging positive effects for Pennsylvania’s economy and families. That’s why I have made significant investments in career and technical education to help make Pennsylvania a better place to learn, a better place to work, and a better place to do business. My PASmart initiative makes significant investments in computer science and STEM education programs, apprenticeships, and industry partnerships.
The work that career and technical education teachers do ensures that more students are on a path toward high-wage, family-sustaining jobs. Developing a workforce that can compete and win in the 21st-century economy is the single best way to help Pennsylvania businesses grow – and attract new businesses to our commonwealth. It’s also the single best thing we can do to help more of our people find better jobs – not just tomorrow, but today.
VOICE: You signed legislation making school districts’ subcontracting of jobs more transparent and giving workers more protections against subcontracting. Your thoughts on this issue?
WOLF: As a result of this legislation, school districts must now provide a public review, identify costs, and hold a public hearing prior to the subcontracting of services or positions. This is important to me as someone who cares deeply about openness, accountability, and transparency in government. It is also far more fair to dedicated support professionals who do remarkable work to make our schools run and keep our students safe and whole.
VOICE: For years, some elected officials wanted to gut the pension systems that provide a secure retirement for state and school employees. You stood up and opposed these bad plans from the beginning, and succeeded in negotiating a new pension law that protects the pension systems and ensures that state and school employees will get the pensions that they have earned and paid for. Why were you so committed to protecting the pensions of working people?
WOLF: It is essential that we preserve hardworking state and school employees’ paths to retirement and make sure they receive the pensions they deserve while ensuring that our state pension system is stable and sustainable. In 2017, I signed bipartisan, comprehensive state pension reform into law that slashes Wall Street fees, lowers costs, drastically reduces risk to taxpayers, and pays down our debt.