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Brewster eyes education reform

| Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013, 5:01 a.m.

An area lawmaker will propose education reforms when the General Assembly returns to Harrisburg Tuesday.

Sen. James Brewster, D-McKeesport, said he is sponsoring four bills that address the accountability of charter and cyber charter schools, and, he said, “ensure that the legislature moves toward a better comprehensive education system.”

Brewster's chief of staff Tim Joyce said he anticipates a high number of co-sponsors for bills 1201-1204.

“Sen. Brewster believes the merits of the bills will lead to robust bipartisan support,” Joyce said.

That is vital in the state Senate, where Republicans outnumber Democrats, 27-23

Brewster's proposals address teachers laid off because of public school closings, and a federal plan for pre-kindergarten funding.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Scranton, and 11 of his colleagues announced the “Strong Start for America's Children Act,” or “Prepare All Kids Act,” on Nov. 13. It is a 10-year plan to improve learning opportunities for children up to age 5, based on a framework set by President Obama in his 2013 State of the Union address.

It boosts funding for high-quality preschool programs serving low- and moderate-income families; increases the quality of infant and toddler care offered by providers; supports improvements to child care programs; and bolsters the federal Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting program.

Brewster called it “an excellent example of how we can tailor investments to help our children achieve greater success in school.”

“We do highly support high quality pre-K classes for all children, because we know that when children fall behind at an early age, it is very difficult for them to catch up,” said Linda Hippert, executive director of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit in Homestead.

She said she wonders where the money will be found for Casey's plan.

“Will programs such as Head Start suffer because of this?” Hippert asked.

Another Brewster bill may cover a possible transfer of Duquesne Education Center students to another district, as Duquesne's receiver Paul B. Long is seeking to do as part of his financial recovery plan.

Brewster's bill would form a pool of teachers and support personnel when a public school is closed and students are transferred elsewhere. Districts that accept the transferred students would have to tap the pool if a vacancy occurs and qualified personnel are available.

“I would be absolutely supportive of creating a pool whereby there would be any individuals who are looking for a job or have been misplaced or displaced because of a school closing,” Hippert said.

“However,” she said, “I would not be supportive of automatically guaranteeing that those individuals would be hired. I would be willing to say they will be interviewed.”

When Act 45 of 2007 mandated the transfer of high school students from Duquesne to East Allegheny and West Mifflin Area, South Allegheny joined a subsequent lawsuit because the bill mandated that any district near Duquesne accept the laid-off employees to fill vacancies.

Another of Brewster's bills would put a one-year moratorium on new charter or cyber charter schools, and require all charter school teachers to be certified, rather than 75 percent as is now the case.

“My legislation would halt the approval of any new charter or cyber charter by the state appeals board or the Department of Education,” Brewster said. “The moratorium would not be applicable to any charter or cyber charter that is currently in operation or already approved.”

That could halt at least one charter school proposal in Brewster's 45th District.

A group led by former Duquesne school director Connie Lucas filed an appeal when Duquesne's now-dissolved Board of Control refused to act on her proposal.

State Department of Education spokesman Tim Eller said arguments have been heard by the state Charter Schools Appeal Board, and a vote will be taken on Dec. 10.

Eller declined to comment about Brewster's bills until his department reviews them.

Because charter schools hire their own teachers and design their own curricula, Brewster said the qualification standards must be the same as in public school districts.

“There is no one-size-fits-all education policy,” Brewster said. “When managed responsibly, charter schools offer parents a public school alternative that still delivers the high-quality of education students deserve.”

Hippert applauded Brewster's proposal.

“I think the charter schools that are doing a good job would welcome that,” she said. “They don't want to be put in the mix with the charter schools that are not doing that well.”

Patrick Cloonan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161 ext. 1967, or

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