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Teacher seniority could matter less under proposed Pennsylvania school code

Natasha Lindstrom
| Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017, 8:39 p.m.
Cheryl Carnicelli, an elementary art teacher at Hutchinson Elementary School in Greensburg, stands in front of Greensburg Salem Middle School with fellow union members and teachers on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015.
Evan Sanders | Trib Total Media
Cheryl Carnicelli, an elementary art teacher at Hutchinson Elementary School in Greensburg, stands in front of Greensburg Salem Middle School with fellow union members and teachers on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015.
An elementary student selects an apple while getting lunches during summer classes at Jeannette McKee Elementary School on Thursday, June 29, 2017, in Jeannette.
Shane Dunlap | Tribune-Review
An elementary student selects an apple while getting lunches during summer classes at Jeannette McKee Elementary School on Thursday, June 29, 2017, in Jeannette.
The Pennsylvania Capitol building in Harrisburg
The Pennsylvania Capitol building in Harrisburg

The state Senate is set to take up an omnibus bill next week that could strip Pennsylvania's longtime teachers of job security, mandate schools teach children about opioid abuse and hold off on requiring students to pass a high school exit exam until at least 2020.

The proposals are among a slew of changes that would apply to the state's 500 school districts in 2018 if a plan backed by House Republicans makes it past Gov. Tom Wolf's desk.

On a 105-81 vote, the state House approved Wednesday House Bill 178, a 75-page measure that includes the chamber's annual proposed amendments to the Pennsylvania School Code .

Its fate, however, remains uncertain amid portions that previously have drawn opposition from Wolf.

The biggest potential obstacle: new rules governing teacher layoffs.

Currently, school district officials operate on a so-called “last in, first out” policy, known as LIFO, which means the length of a teacher's tenure takes precedent when deciding who to lay off first. Districts aren't allowed to make layoffs for financial reasons, instead limited to using the option because of declining enrollment, consolidating schools or scaling back on programs.

HB 178 would allow districts to furlough teachers during times of economic hardship based on annual performance evaluations.

Seniority would be a deciding factor if two teachers earned the same performance scores.

Wolf, a Democrat, vetoed a stand-alone bill calling for similar changes in May. The proposal — dubbed the Protecting Excellent Teachers Act — had garnered support from business groups and the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and opposition from teachers unions.

“Teacher evaluations should be used to help teachers improve their craft,” Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers President Nina Esposito-Visigitis said in July . “They should not be used in a debate about economic furloughs.”

Wolf's office would not say Thursday whether he would go so far as to veto HB 178.

“Gov. Wolf has some serious concerns, but he will evaluate the bill if and when it gets to his desk,” Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott told the Trib.

The state Senate is expected to consider the omnibus bill as soon as Monday. A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, a R-Centre County, did not immediately return a requests for comment.

Here are several more items of interest folded into the proposed school code bill :

Keystone exams delayed, again

Students not so fond of standardized tests wouldn't have to worry about passing one in order to graduate from high school until the 2019-20 school year at the earliest.

Pennsylvania developed the series of subject-based tests called the Keystone Exams several years ago, but the General Assembly has been reluctant to make them a graduation requirement amid concerns raised by school officials and anti-testing groups.

In July, Wolf signed a bill that ensures even if the Keystone exam becomes mandatory, high schoolers in career technical education programs would be able to demonstrate competency in other ways.

HB 178 would stall any exit exam requirement altogether until the Class of 2020, or this year's 10th-graders.

No more lunch-shaming

School districts would have to develop explicit policies that prohibit the practice of lunch-shaming , which describes publicly identifying students with outstanding school lunch debt. Lunch-shaming has made national headlines in recent years, with reports of students around the country denied meals, made to do chores to work off debt or forced to wear a ribbon indicating that they owed lunch money.

In some cases, parents weren't included in conversations with principals or administrators about a student's meal debt.

Under HB 178, schools would be required to provide food to students whether or not they can afford to purchase meals.

The bill outlines appropriate ways to collect unpaid lunch debts — starting with making at least two attempts to contact the student's parents before taking them to court.

As the Trib's Jamie Martines has pointed out , doing so falls in line with a similar federal law already in effect. The U.S. Department of Agriculture mandated last year that districts operating the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program must put policies in writing. Those policies were supposed to have been put in place as of July.

Many districts have had similar internal policies for years. Canon-McMillan School District in Washington County adopted one this year .

Mandatory training for school boards

Newly elected or appointed school board members would have to undergo free training provided by the state Department of Education.

No such statewide requirement exists, though some school districts have developed local policies or allocated money for board member education programs.

The proposed statewide school director training program — based on a proposal by state Rep. Stan Saylor , R-York County — would start in the 2018-19 school year and apply to traditional school boards as well as charter schools.

Re-elected board members would have to undergo advanced training in their fifth year and again once every four years.

Bigger subsidies for private schools

The bill would increase the amount of available tax credits to fund scholarships for needs-based students who want to attend private schools, up to $135 million in 2017-18.

The allocation of tax breaks available to businesses, individuals and families would include $85 million for Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit program (OSTC); $37.5 million for the K-12 Educational Improvement Tax Credit program (EITC); and $12.5 million for private preschool programs.

Charter schools can join forces

Two or more charter schools could team up and become a single entity, called a “multiple charter school organization.”

Charter schools would have to seek approval from their trustees, the local school district authorizer and the state Department of Education.

Charter schools that fail to meet achievement and financial requirements in the past two years would not be allowed to do so.

Money for cash-strapped schools

The state would set aside a $5 million pot of money — $500,000 more than last year — to assist school districts grappling with severe financial challenges in 2017-18.

To be eligible, districts would have to be placed in financial recovery or financial watch status — for example, those that are confronting problems akin to Penn Hills School District and Erie School District.

The bill also adds requirements to schools that get assigned to financial watch status.

More scrutiny over superintendents

School boards would be required to discuss contracts for superintendents as well as assistant superintendents — generally among the highest-paid positions in the public school system — at least 90 days before the contracts expire.

The bill also would extend the PlanCon moratorium on school construction projects; give schools more flexibility around fire and security drills; and ensure that the Legislature have ongoing oversight and opportunities to provide input on the state's federal Every Student Succeeds Act plan .

Question? Comment? Input to share on schools-related issues with Pennsylvania's policymakers? Reach the Trib's education team at schooltips@tribweb.com.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514, nlindstrom@tribweb.com or on Twitter @NewsNatasha.

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