What I learned as Senate Education Committee Chair

I was honored to serve as the Senate Education Committee chair during the 2013 – 2014 Session of the General Assembly.  Education is a key role of state government.  It accounts for over 38% of the state budget.  Taxpayers have been very generous supporting education, spending $856 every second in federal, state, and local tax moneys.  “Governing” Magazine lists Pennsylvania as the 11th highest state for education spending per pupil ($13,467).

My goal as Education chair was to put students and their parents first.  As I’ve said on numerous occasions, I believe the best way to do this is with educational choice.  However, there is insufficient support for this.  As a result, much of what is done in education is maintaining the status quo.

There are an astounding number of organizations established to tout education.  My frustration with most of them is they focus more on money and the employment of adults than the education of children.  For example, Pennsylvania’s largest teachers’ union lists six core values of its organization.  Just one mentions students.  If education is about children, then let’s focus on children.

Meeting with students was one of the best parts of chairing the Education Committee.  It was also one of the most disappointing experiences when adults used children to advance a cause.  Recently, a group of students gave me a poster they had drawn.  The group included:  Laylan, Justin, Elijan, Daniel, Jasmine, Jay Jay, Parker, Alyssa, William, Victor, and Chrissette.  Interestingly, their “issues” included:  Nurse Family Partnership, Keystone Stars, Child Care Works, Head Start Supplemental, Workforce Development, Pre-K Counts, Fair funding for early childhood, Licensing standards for health and safety, and PD opportunities for children.

Throughout 2014, I held a series of town hall meetings on education with parents, business leaders, and educators.  I appreciated everyone who attended these meetings but found it interesting there were more educators at a town hall meeting for parents than there were at the town hall meeting for educators.  I was also concerned a student teacher at that same meeting talked about how much she was looking forward to being a teacher so as to change social inequality.  What’s she teaching her students?

Although I will no longer chair the Senate Education Committee, I hope to continue to advance the recommendations of those who continue to attend my Education Work Group meetings.  These recommendations include:  “true” pension reform, Common Core, repeal of school mandates, school consolidation, and changes to the State Board of Education.

While I recognize it’s difficult to see the link between many of these issues and the education of children, these were among the top issues shared with me by parents, businesses, and educators.  My fear is protection of the status quo will make meaningful changes on any of these issues difficult.

For example, any legislative initiative to change pensions results in a barrage of opposition.  From 3:30 p.m. on (and sometimes earlier), we receive call after call opposing proposed changes.  Sometimes, these calls are supplemented by public pension retirees asking the General Assembly to approve a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA).

Each day there are no changes to Pennsylvania’s public pension systems means another $10 Million in new, unfunded liabilities (an additional $3 Billion in red ink each year that nothing is done to address the unfunded liabilities of the public pension systems).

Salaries, benefits, and pensions are part of the overhead of our education system.  Statewide, these costs are just over 58%.  For every $1 spent on education, 58 cents goes for salaries, benefits, and pensions.  Without meaningful pension reforms, these overhead costs will continue to rise.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania’s student population has been falling.  In 2006 – 2007, there were 1,809,005 students in Pennsylvania.  In 2012 -2013 (the latest period for data), the student population was 1,748,356 students – a decrease of 3.35% (60,649).  Over the same period, the number of professional educators went from 151,858 to 148,518, a decrease of 2.2% (3,340).

The recent gubernatorial election highlighted education funding and I’m sure there will be continued debate on how much funding education will receive in the future – and whether there will be any tax increases to give education more taxpayer dollars.

Hopefully, these deliberations will include not just how much we spend on education but also how we spend it.  Deferring unsustainable pension liabilities does not make future liabilities sustainable and makes pension insolvency a significant risk within 15 years.  Prevailing Wage adds costs but doesn’t help with the education of children.  Neither do unfunded mandates.

More money without significantly changing the status quo will not benefit students or their parents.  To the contrary, it will make things worse.

That’s what I learned as chair of the Senate Education Committee.