Testimony of Matthew J. Brouillette, President, Commonwealth Foundation
Thank you Chairman Stairs and members of the Committee for the invitation to testify this afternoon on Governor Rendell’s “Rewarding Results and Accountability” plan for education.
My name is Matthew Brouillette and I am the president of the Commonwealth Foundation, a Harrisburg-based research and educational institute that focuses on Pennsylvania public policy issues with a particular emphasis on education policy. I also bring with me many years of practical experience on the frontlines in the classroom as a teacher at the middle school, high school, and university levels.
I want to begin by applauding Governor Rendell for recognizing Pennsylvania’s abysmal state of educational affairs. His frequent references to the fact that too many of our children fail to perform proficiently on our state’s basic skills tests (Class of 2003: 51% in math, 41% in reading, and 30% in writing scored below “Proficient”) reminds us of the very real crisis in which our schools are mired. Even the most recent SAT college entrance exam scores, where Pennsylvania’s Class of 2003 placed 46th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, reveal that all is not well in our classrooms.
But our students’ lackluster performance is hardly due to a lack of financial commitment on the part of state and local taxpayers. Today, Pennsylvania public schools receive the third-highest per pupil revenue in the nation, when adjusted for the cost of living. And over the past seven years, public school expenditures in Pennsylvania increased more than 131 percent faster than the rate of inflation.
Yet despite the ever-growing body of evidence which reveals little to no correlation between increased spending and improved academic achievement, many Pennsylvania policymakers keep hoping that some how, some way, more dollars will produce more scholars in the Commonwealth.
Indeed, much of Governor Rendell’s “Rewarding Results and Accountability” plan is a continuation of the same education policies of the past that have failed to improve our schools. While the five House Bills (1300, 1301, 1323, 1324, and 1325) under consideration today would provide even more tax dollars to our public schools, these proposals provide little to no incentive for significant qualitative improvements in public education.
Consider HB 1325, which is the “accountability” portion of the governor’s plan. In part, this bill is intended to hold administrators more accountable for results in their schools and districts. This, of course, is a good thing. However, the reality is that while this proposal would give superintendents and principals greater responsibility, they will continue to lack the important authority to make substantive decisions and changes in their schools.
For example, the bill states that “District superintendents shall … recommend for board approval and retention quality administrators….” This provision means that the power to hire and fire key school leaders does not reside with the appropriate supervisor. By only allowing superintendents to “recommend” changes, they are hamstrung from the very beginning. In addition, superintendents are further inhibited by 3-5 year binding contracts with building administrators (principals, assistant principals and vice principals). Although an improvement over the current system, these changes are still inadequate and will continue hinder district leaders from making timely and important management decisions.
Likewise, the bill would also give terminated principals “the option to become a professional employee at the highest core salary category….” In other words, a poor-performing principal who was fired would have to be absorbed into the teaching ranks at the highest pay level by the very district that terminated him. This clause would be highly counterproductive and would create the potential for even greater managerial problems.
As for principal accountability, they too would be given little to no authority over shaping their team of professionals in the classroom. The research on effective schools demonstrates the necessity of a strong leader who can build a cohesive “school team” around a shared common vision. If we expect our principals to shoulder accountability for school results—and we should—they must also have the ability and freedom to manage their personnel. They must have the flexibility to compensate teachers according to competency, demand, and knowledge, and they must be able to immediately remove those who do not produce satisfactory results in the classroom.
These school-level managers are in the best position to know who teaches well and who teaches badly. They have access to far more significant information than any government agency or board. Principals—not distant bureaucracies—should decide who can join and who can remain on each school’s team.
Common sense suggests that teachers of subjects in which qualified educators are in short supply should be paid more than those in fields that are abundantly supplied. It is also common sense that teachers working in hard-to-staff schools would have to be paid more than those working in schools with hundreds of applicants for teaching slots. And few people would argue that mediocre teachers should be paid more than outstanding educators. Yet today, the typical union salary schedule allows for none of these commonsensical approaches to teacher pay.
As a former teacher, I look forward to the day when our best teachers, teachers in fields where qualified professionals are scarce, and teachers who shoulder difficult challenges, are paid six-figure salaries. But this is not going to happen under HB 1325, because it fails to untie the hands of those who should be held responsible for shaping teams in our 501 districts and the more than 3,200 schools across the Commonwealth.
This bill also attempts to establish an accountability system for schools. Unfortunately, the proposed system is long on the use of rewards and assistance for schools but short on real consequences for failing to educate our children or squandering taxpayer money.
In fact, under this bill, schools that fail to achieve their “Performance Targets” will see increased resources and no real incentives to make improvements. These additional monies, as described in HB 1324, would be for the “purpose of developing and implementing a school improvement plan….” While an improvement plan would be appropriate where schools are not meeting standards, true accountability must include real consequences for failure. Unfortunately, there are none in this bill.
Nor should we expect any from the Department of Education. Indeed, a recent message from Secretary Phillips’ press secretary and director of communications to public education employees reveals the department’s intended approach to school accountability. He writes:
“… I’m writing to inform you that we need your help—in a big way. We have been attending school board meetings and finding that our Plan for PA needs much more support. Even if there are things about it that you don’t like or understand, please know that we (the PDE) will do EVERYTHING possible to be flexible where we can be and tweak where it’s possible once we get this through. Remember, nothing is a mandate and the PDE wants to be a PARTNER with schools, not a compliance monitor. …” (Emphasis in original; accessible at http://www.pafpc.org/pde.html)
If the Pennsylvania Department of Education does not intend to be a “compliance monitor,” who will be? Indeed, wouldn’t compliance be the primary role of PDE under Governor Rendell’s education plans? And if “nothing is a mandate,” doesn’t this suggest business as usual—but with more taxpayer money?
And that’s precisely what another proposal, HB 1323, provides—more money. According to the bill’s language, “the department may bestow a monetary or other reward on a distinguished school or a distinguished school district….” While it is nice to financially reward schools and school districts for teaching our children, isn’t this what taxpayers are already paying for today with the highest average teacher salaries in the nation and more than $10,000 spent per child?
Unfortunately, while this bill and its companions would spend more money and likely have negligible impact on spurring academic improvements, House Bill 1301—the “Distinguished Educator Program”—would actually spend more money while actually harming our schools.
On the surface, Governor Rendell’s program has a laudable objective: “recognizing outstanding qualified educators and organizing them into a State corps of educators for the purpose of making them available throughout this Commonwealth to help eligible schools improve the quality of education.”
Indeed, the creation of school improvement teams consisting of high-performing teachers that assist troubled districts or schools sounds great. However, it is the unseen consequences of this proposal that will be counterproductive and expensive.
First of all, we are to assume that these “Distinguished Educators” are our public schools’ best teachers—teachers who excel in the classroom. But this program will remove them from their classrooms and schools for at least 1 semester with an open ended return. But what happens to that vacated classroom? The likelihood of the substitute teacher being at least as competent as the departing teacher is doubtful.
In addition, the financial and qualitative costs encountered by the resident district would be borne by local taxpayers because, according to the bill, PDE “shall not pay any costs incurred by a school district to fill a vacancy resulting from the absence of a Distinguished Educator during the leave granted….” This is not an insignificant cost.
Finally, the financial incentive for these high-performing teachers will be to never return to their classroom—or any classroom, for that matter. As a “Distinguished Educator,” the PDE will pay an additional 50% of the participating teacher’s salary. Hence, a teacher making $75,000 a year would receive a salary boost to $112,500 to not teach children anymore. So in an effort to assist struggling schools and districts, this program would serve to water-down the overall quality of teaching in Pennsylvania while inflicting both financial and qualitative harm on the vacated schools and classrooms.
In conclusion, my testimony examines just some of the glaring problems in the bills before the committee today. In the appropriate setting, I would be happy to discuss in greater detail the finer points and problems of the governor’s education plans. However, my general assessment is that this package of bills fails to provide any real short or long-term solutions to our public schools’ poor performance. But they do guarantee spending a lot more taxpayer money doing it.
Thank you, and I look forward to answering your questions.
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Matthew J. Brouillette, a former teacher, is president of The Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg, PA.