Beth Ann Rosica: Pennsylvania Senate makes smart moves for student success

The state Senate has been busy over the last few weeks working to pass education legislation that could benefit many Pennsylvania students. The bills now move to the House for consideration.

Senate Bill 801 – Literacy for all Pennsylvanians – is co-sponsored by Senator Anthony Williams, a Democrat from Philadelphia, and Senator Ryan Aument, a Republican from Lancaster County. The bipartisan bill was crafted almost a year ago due to abysmal reading scores across the Commonwealth. It calls for the implementation of evidence-based reading instruction in all public schools.

With overwhelming bipartisan support from the Senate, the bill passed 48 to 1 in early June; therefore, it seems likely that it will pass the House. This is potentially great news for thousands of students who are not proficient in reading, and the early identification process mandated in the bill should help prevent struggling readers from falling through the cracks. Teachers will also benefit from ensuring that students learn to read proficiently in elementary school.

Senator Aument also sponsored Senate Bill 1207 — Limiting Access to Smartphones and Social Media in Schools — which aims to reduce mental health issues, bullying, and distractions from learning in public schools across the state. Similarly, this bill received bipartisan support, passing 45 to 5 last week.

State legislatures across the country are considering similar laws, and Florida was the first to pass a bill last year. Additionally, many school districts, including Los Angeles — one of the largest districts in the country — are enacting similar policies to ban cell phones in school.

While I initially questioned the government overreach on this bill, after much research, I reconsidered my stance as I explained several weeks ago.

Senator Aument’s office issued a press release. “Senate Bill 1207 would establish the Cell Phone Lockable Bag Pilot Program to award grants to participating schools to purchase secure, lockable smartphone bags in which students would deposit their mobile devices until the end of the school day. The bill would then require participating schools to track certain metrics like academic performance, mental health, and instances of bullying and other behavioral issues to study the impact of a smartphone-free school on students.

After the bill passed, Senator Aument said, “I think the drastic mental health and academic decline of our kids is one of the most pressing issues facing education today, and smartphones are at the root of it. Giving our kids a break from the phones during school hours will go a long way towards improving these alarming trends, and for that, I am so pleased at the strong bipartisan support this bill has received from my colleagues in the Senate.”

As a pilot program, schools will have the opportunity to test whether the system works and use the data collected to make the best decisions going forward. Hopefully, many schools across the Commonwealth will enroll in the program.

In addition to bipartisan bills, the Senate Republicans have also been working on one of the most controversial issues in the state: education options for families. Senate Bill 1280 — Child Learning Investment Tax Credit — would provide an $8,000 tax credit for families whose children are not enrolled in public schools to use towards learning expenses. Proposed by Senator Judy Ward, a Republican representing five counties in central Pennsylvania, the bill was passed by the Senate Finance Committee last week along party lines with a vote of 7 to 4.

School choice options continue to be a major issue but do not necessarily break down by party lines. While the majority of Democrats are not supportive of school choice options, there are some, like Senator Anthony Williams from Philadelphia. In June, black pastors from across the state called on the Governor to enact Lifeline scholarships for students stuck in the lowest performing public schools.

The bill will now go to the full Senate for consideration, and if passed, will then go to the House.

Senate Bill 1183 – Requiring the Pennsylvania School Board Association to be Subject to the Right-to-Know Law – is another contentious bill proposed by Senator Kristin Phillips-Hill, a Republican from York County. This bill passed the full Senate last week, primarily along party lines with the exception of one dissenting Democrat and one dissenting Republican with a 28 to 22 vote. 

As I explained previously, the Pennsylvania School Board Association (PSBA) is a private organization that is largely funded with taxpayer dollars. Virtually every school board in the state is a member of the association and pays their dues with tax revenues. Furthermore, the employees who work for PSBA receive the same retirement benefits as public school employees. Phillips-Hill, a former school board member, argues that if PSBA employees have state funded benefits, then the organization should be required to comply with the Right To Know law. Currently, they are not subject to the law.

In a press release, Phillips-Hill said, “this legislation is a crucial step to ensure that all entities that receive public benefits are transparent and accountable. The public deserves to know how their tax dollars are being spent.”

The press release notes the importance of the timing of the bill. “The Senate’s decision comes shortly after the House of Representatives narrowly approved a measure that would mandate new school directors to undergo training by the PSBA. This sequence of events underscores the critical timing and importance of the Senate’s legislative approval.”

The “narrowly approved measure” is House Bill 1743 — School Director Training — sponsored by Representative Maureen Madden, a Democrat from Monroe County. The bill passed the House in May with a vote of 103 to 99.

The House Democrats basically voted to establish a monopoly regarding school director training that is mandated by the Department of Education. As I detailed in May, all school board directors are required by state law to attend specific training sessions. This bill, if passed, would all but guarantee the PSBA to become the sole provider of training for school directors. The timing of this bill is suspicious since a new, rival organization was formed a mere six months ago to offer alternatives to the left-leaning PSBA.

While unlikely that all the Senate bills will pass the House, all four of them would be beneficial for students across the state. It is refreshing that two of the bills passed with bipartisan support and disappointing that the other two were split mostly along party lines.

We still have a lot of work to do to ensure that all students are proficient in reading and math and ready to enter the workforce. The extended school closures exacerbated an already struggling system.

Ensuring students can read, minimizing the negative impacts of extended cell phone use, granting tax credits for school choice, and imposing transparency on a taxpayer funded organization are all important issues to put our students first and prepare them to be the next generation of leaders.

Beth Ann Rosica resides in West Chester, has a Ph.D. in Education, and has dedicated her career to advocating on behalf of at-risk children and families. She covers education issues for Broad + Liberty. Contact her at barosica@broadandliberty.com.

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