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Students safe, thriving in public schools, association chief says

| Monday, Jan. 28, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Thomas J. Gentzel

Public schools remain among the safest places for children, says the new executive director of the National School Boards Association.

“As horrific and awful as the tragedy was in Newtown, it would have been much, much worse had teachers and administrators not followed the lockdown procedures they were trained to do, had they not shielded the students from additional harm,” said Thomas J. Gentzel, 61, who began his new job in Washington on Dec. 3 after 32 years with the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

He referred to the massacre in Newtown, Conn., where Adam Lanza killed 20 first-graders and six adults in Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Gentzel, who grew up in State College and received graduate and undergraduate degrees from Penn State University, went to work with the PSBA as a lobbyist before being promoted to head of governmental and member relations. He was named executive director in 2001. The group is searching for his successor.

Gentzel said he is troubled by the move toward public funding of online charter schools at the expense of traditional public schools.

“I realize charter schools are here to stay, but while most legislators want to see a successful public school system, the debate has changed somewhat,” Gentzel said. “Some so-called public-interest groups have an agenda against public education. And their motive is profit.”

He said he was encouraged by a November decision by federal education officials to back the PSBA's objection to the state Department of Education using more lenient criteria to evaluate charter schools' achievements. Federal education officials said the state must assess charter schools by the same standard as traditional schools and ordered the state to recalculate charter schools' results on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment examinations taken in 2011-12.

With the recalculation, no cyber charter school made adequate yearly progress, according to the state Department of Education. A smaller percentage of other charter schools made the grade under the more stringent calculation.

“There is no evidence of people taking vouchers and sending their students to other schools and they do better. Don't get me wrong, there are some high-achieving charter schools, but a lot them are pretty bad, too,” Gentzel said.

“Those schools are given relief from the mandates we have to follow, but there is no evidence out-performance is occurring. As a parent, I should be able to look at the performance of these schools — not only performance, but absenteeism, finances,” he said.

Paul Peirce is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.He can be reached at 724-850-2860or ppeirce@tribweb.com.

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