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'Hybrid learning' ahead, says Pa. Department of Education Secretary Tomalis

| Friday, March 29, 2013, 12:13 a.m.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Former State Education Secretary Ronald Tomalis
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Ronald Tomalis visited the Tribune-Review's Pittsburgh offices in March 2013 while he was secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Education. With him is Timothy Eller, the agency's spokesman.

With help from the Internet, schools one day will tailor education to individual students, who might choose from among 100 languages to learn, the state's top education official predicted on Thursday.

“I think the new parents will drive that conversation,” Ronald Tomalis, secretary of the state Department of Education, said during a wide-ranging discussion with Tribune-Review editors and reporters.

Young parents are accustomed to having an abundance of choices, he said, making an analogy to the variety of channels on cable television they watched as children.

Tomalis believed they'll expect a similarly wide array of educational options for their children, ranging from the traditional brick-and-mortar schools to online lessons to “hybrid learning” that combines the best of both.

Tomalis is optimistic about Gov. Tom Corbett's proposal to sell the state's wine and spirits stores and use the expected $1 billion in proceeds for four-year competitive grants to school districts. Districts could spend the money on one-time expenses in school safety; getting students to perform at grade level by third grade; individualized learning programs; and science, technology, engineering and math programs, he said.

The proposal requires the state Legislature's approval. The House passed it and, if it becomes law, schools could begin getting money in 2014-15, Tomalis said.

The state is making it a priority to reduce districts' pension costs. Its reimbursement to districts is projected to grow from $856.1 million this fiscal year to nearly $2.5 billion in 2017-18. Corbett's proposed budget would save districts $138 million in pension contributions next school year.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association, the statewide teachers union, argued that the governor's plan would gut pensions.

“The average public worker, including teachers, would see their pension diminish by 26 percent ... and that would be in the first month of their retirement and for the rest of their lives,” union spokesman Wythe Keever said.

He said Corbett's proposed $11.7 billion education budget for the fiscal year starting July 1 fails to include a “meaningful” Marcellus shale extraction tax and leaves open a loophole that allows corporations based in Delaware but doing business in Pennsylvania to avoid Pennsylvania taxes.

“Those two measures alone would have created several hundred million dollars in revenue a year,” Keever said.

Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or bzlatos@tribweb.com.

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