State Legislators Attend Northern Area Principals' Association Meeting

Written by FCAHS Students Alex Smolar and Daly Trimble

 On April 8, Pennsylvania General Assembly legislators attended a day-long meeting of the Northern Area Principals’ Association (NAPA) at Fox Chapel Area High School to discuss education policy and create connections with local teachers and administrators. The NAPA was created by Fox Chapel Area’s very own Dan Lentz, Ph.D. and Rebecca Cunningham, Ed.D., and includes principals from all school districts in northern Allegheny County. The association holds quarterly meetings where principals come together to discuss the most pressing issues in Pennsylvania education. For the final gathering of the year, the school leaders felt that it would be very helpful to bring educators and state-level policymakers together to address educational developments in Harrisburg. Dr. Lentz was a strong advocate for this meeting, stating, “With growing concerns about decisions being made at the state level… we wanted to rally. The goal… is to address some concerns or some questions about state legislation… and show them that we are knowledgeable… and would welcome partnering with them in the formation of education legislation.”

All legislators expressed how much they valued the conference and noted that they frequently benefit from constituent input. As Representative Frank Dermody stated, “This meeting is very helpful to open up lines of communications between us and the school districts. Teachers are the experts.”

To ensure that NAPA can regularly offer the policymakers advice and guidance on school legislation, Dr. Lentz and Dr. Cunningham created a directory for the legislators that contained contact information of all principals and districts in the association.

Those invited and attending were Republican Senator Randy Vulakovich, Republican Representative Hal English, Democratic Representative Dom Costa, and Democratic House Minority Leader Frank Dermody. The agenda for the meeting included topics such as the state budget, the reimbursement structure for local schools, referendums and school boards’ ability to tax, the future of state testing and technology block grants, updates on truancy and attendance changes, the adoption of the Every Student Succeeds Act, and the use of technical center programs such as the A.W. Beattie Career Center. Here are some of the highlights of the special meeting:

The Budget
The budget has been a daily concern for Pennsylvania school districts, and it dominated a large portion of the meeting. The principals asked for an update on the passage of the 2016-2017 school budget, and Representative Dermody and Senator Vulakovich said that they hope to get it passed by May. However, both Democrats and Republicans chastised extremists on the left and the right, and as Senator Vulakovich said, “the moderates are those who get things done.”

Nevertheless, the meeting would not be one with politicians without the occasional debate between Democrats and Republicans, as Representative Dermody advocated for a personal income tax to garner the money for the education budget, while Senator Vulakovich made the case for an increase in sales tax. In addition, Representative Costa shared his idea for a two-year budget to avoid a stalemate every year. Multiple principals and teachers noted that the came so late last year that many school districts struggled to plan funding allocations and were forced to dismiss teachers. Senator Vulakovich warned that, in light of the continuing state fiscal crises, “Nobody is going to be happy, no matter what we do. The art of compromise in bad times, that’s the way it is.”

State Testing and Vocational Alternatives
Senate Bill 880 also captured much of the meeting, in part due to the considerable effects it could have on the school environment. The bill’s passage placed a two-year moratorium on Keystone Exam graduation requirements, a result all legislators present argued was their motivation for signing. However, school districts are concerned about the bill’s caveat. When the Keystone Exams are required again in 2021, 10 tests will be required in place of the previous three. Senator Vulakovich urged the group to understand that, “We passed this thing to give us a period of time to kill it… I don’t like the other stuff we put in it; but we got a moratorium.” The legislators were, however, surprised to hear of the months-long delay school districts must wait to receive student results. Tests that are administered in May are returned in October, months after the data could have been a useful benchmark.

While educators recognized the need for a normed and standardized testing tool, Dr. Lentz spoke for the group when he said that, “These three exams have become all we do. If we got to 10, everything will be magnified immensely… the logistics of exam administration disrupt the education of every student in the building.” Principals of vocational-technical institutions, such as A.W. Beattie Career Center, advocated for the use of the National Occupational Competency Testing Institute (NOCTI) exams so students pursuing an alternative education can perform to their strengths.

Cyber Education and Truancy
According to NAPA, Senate Bill 359 is a new complication in the relationship between school districts and cyber schools. Currently, students are free to sign up for the cyber school of their choice, and the school district of their residence is obligated to supply that cyber school with funding equivalent to the district’s per-pupil cost, despite online education being inherently cheaper. The districts are also frequently absorbing the burden of “runners,” students who migrate through multiple cyber schools, are difficult to track, and often wind up in a public school in need of remediation. The NAPA is concerned with SB359 because it obligates cyber schools to report truant students (those who have not logged on for 10 days) to their districts only at the end of the year, a delay that principals argue would make it almost impossible to ensure that cyber students are receiving the education being paid for and are not in a dangerous environment.

A recent NAPA victory has come through with Senator Vulakovich contacting principals for advice while crafting amendments for the bill less than 48 business hours after the meeting concluded.

Every Student Succeeds Act
Senate Bill 1159 details Pennsylvania’s adoption of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which is the evolved version of the since-expired No Child Left Behind initiatives. The NAPA discussion of it revolved around the state’s current attempts to standardize teacher evaluations, a process most school leaders would argue is very difficult to homogenize given the vastly different regions, local economies, teacher backgrounds, and evaluator perceptions throughout the state. While all principals agreed with the need for a metric, protest was placed again on oversimplification and the inefficient delays in data. Representative English acknowledged the needs of context-aware analysis, arguing that, “My goal is to let teachers be teachers.”

More information about the bills, the leaders present at the meeting and state education policy can be found at www.education.pa.gov and www.legis.state.pa.us.