• Student and Teacher
  • Jennifer Egmont
Categorized As:
Education & Talent

2015 Educational Outlook: Issues to Watch

2015 may mark the beginning of some big changes in education in Greater Philadelphia -- many of which align with the priorities laid out in our shared World Class agenda. From key policy issues like fair funding to debates over curricula and teacher evaluations, here are a few key areas to watch this year:


Education Funding


In Pennsylvania, education funding is arguably the biggest story. The state is one of just three in the country without a k-12 funding formula (the others are North Carolina and Delaware). The absence of a fair, consistent formula makes it difficult for districts to plan and contributes to vast inequity in spending across districts. For example, the gap between what the average public school spends per year to educate a student in Lower Merion and Philadelphia is more than $12,000 ($26,812 vs. $14,683).


In recognition of these issues, efforts are underway in Pennsylvania to identify a more equitable and predictable way to allocate education dollars. The Basic Education Funding Commission, which has been holding hearings across the state since last August, will propose a formula no later than mid-June, and likely much earlier. In the meantime, a broad, statewide Campaign for Fair Education Funding is pushing for adoption of a “fair, sustainable and predictable method for funding public schools.”


However, while there is broad consensus that a formula is needed, a formula won’t, by itself, solve the state’s education funding challenges. In a recent Pew report examining formulas in other states, researchers found that formulas that account for student needs, demographics, and the local tax base typically benefit struggling districts – like Philadelphia – but don’t guarantee adequate funding. The total amount of state funding is a crucial piece of the solution, and this must be a part of any conversation about education funding in the Commonwealth.


Pre-K Expansion Efforts


As evidence about the impact of high-quality pre-k continues to mount, New Jersey and Pennsylvania are among many states examining how to expand access to these programs.


As a result of the Abbot lawsuits, New Jersey has a robust public pre-k program that serves many of the state’s low-income children. However, a newly formed group of bipartisan, cross-sector leaders are working to make high-quality pre-k available to even more children in the state. This month, they are launching the Pre-K Our Way campaign to build support for expanding access.


In Pennsylvania, the Pre-K for PA campaign continues to push for increased access to high-quality pre-k and is working closely with the newly elected administration and state legislators to identify ways to serve more three- and four-year-old children.   


Standardized Tests and Teacher Evaluations


The contentious debate surrounding how students should be tested and how test results should be used has led to near-constant state policy changes nationwide. The states in our region have been no exception -- making it difficult to say what 2015 will hold on this front.


We do know that, beginning this academic year, New Jersey will be one of nine states to fully adopt the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) exams. The PARCC exams, which are aligned with the embattled Common Core standards, will replace state standardized tests when they are administered this March. In many districts, the PARCC exams will be the first assessment given exclusively online, raising concerns about the readiness of schools’ technology infrastructure. PARCC exam results will also be one of the measures by which teachers will be evaluated under new teacher assessment guidelines. Exactly how much weight the results will ultimately carry in these evaluations is yet to be determined.


Rather than adopting the PARCC assessment, Pennsylvania has chosen to adopt updated versions of state standardized tests that reflect “Pennsylvania Core” standards. As part of this roll out, beginning with the class of 2017 students will be required to pass the Keystone Exams to graduate. Administrators from around our region have expressed significant concerns about the time and resources required to adequately prepare students for the tests. While current state policy provides students who do not pass the exams with other paths to graduation, administrators have noted that managing individualized paths will be overly burdensome for teachers and principals. As in New Jersey, student test scores are slated to factor into teacher evaluations going forward, though exactly how evaluation results will be used is still uncertain.   


Charter Expansion


In Philadelphia, more than one in four students attend charter schools, placing Philadelphia among the cities with the highest number and share of students in charters. Philadelphia’s 86 charters schools currently enroll more than 64,000 students.


That number could grow as the School Reform Commission is now considering applications from charter operators to open 40 new schools across the city. Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY) recently released a report detailing the impact that approving all 40 schools would have on the district. As part of its analysis, PCCY analyzed data comparing charter operators and district schools based on test scores and student demographics. Their analysis revealed several charter operators that are making significant gains with the toughest-to-serve students.   


At the state level, advocates from all sides of the charter issue are pushing for reforms to the current law, which was last updated in 2002. The debate centers on how (and by whom) charters are approved, how they are funded, and what type of oversight they are subject to. Changes in state law regarding these issues may come as part of a new state education funding agreement. 


On the other side of the river, a massive expansion of charter schools made possible by the Urban Hope Act is underway in Camden. Three new operators opened four schools in the city this fall, and according to their contracts with the Camden City School District, each operator may open as many as five schools in the city over the next ten years. In a city with just 25 district elementary, middle, and high schools, creating 15 charter-operated schools has the potential to radically change the education landscape in the city.


During 2015, the Economy League and our partners will continue to focus on these issues, through research, analysis and active campaigns to expand pre-k access and fair funding. We’re optimistic this momentum will drive meaningful progress toward the World Class goals of ensuring that all of the region's children are prepared to start school and graduate from high school college- and work-ready.