Education is an essential service of our government. Pennsylvania’s constitution guarantees “The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth”. During my time in the classroom, I saw education inequities firsthand. I have seen and experienced the hard work teachers do in order to close gaps and support students and families. Having taught during the era of high-stakes testing, accountability and data-driven decisions, I am excited to help set education policy for our state.
Furthermore, as a mother of three, I know how challenging the last few months of COVID-19 have been for students, their families, and teachers. I continue to reach out to educators to understand the challenges and opportunities presented by remote learning. I know that our top priorities now must include:
- Developing a plan to safely reopen schools – this will require creativity, flexibility, and the input of teachers, administrators, and families within each locality to be responsive to the unique needs of every community.
- While remote learning remains, mitigating the effects of the digital divide by increasing access to technology devices and to high-speed internet.
- As we focus on what is essential during times of non-traditional learning, we must maintain a focus on whole child development and ask whether our children’s physical, social, and emotional needs are met, in addition to their cognitive growth.
Prolonged physical distancining, illness and death of family members, and economic changes to a household will all take a toll on students’ mental health. For many, this pandemic will be yet another adverse childhood experience affecting the wiring of their developing brain. We must use trauma-informed practices in teaching and classrooms to support all students.
Beyond the immediate crisis, our schools face many challenges aside from responding to COVID-19. Here are some of the top priorities I hope to address within our schools:
- Teacher recruitment training & pay – In order to achieve positive outcomes for all students, we need to ensure that teaching is a respected and well-compensated profession. This includes our early childhood educators, many of whom make thousands less than even the modest starting pay for a K-12 teacher. Re-envisioning our teacher recruitment and preparation programs also offers a critical opportunity to diversify our teaching force.
- Increasing interactions between professionals and students – The main factor affecting a student’s achievement is the quality of their relationships at school. We need to ensure that professionals in school buildings — whether teachers, counselors, librarians, or paraprofessionals — are able to spend time working with students and not complete burdensome administrative tasks. This also means we must provide resources for schools to maintain appropriate ratios of students to teachers, as well as nurses, counselors, psychologists, and social workers.
- Reducing high-stakes testing – We need to reframe standardized tests as only one measure of one type of student success. We need to permit teachers to use more authentic, project-based learning that develops the skills which employers are demanding – collaboration, communication, and creativity.
- Student health & wellness – We need to acknowledge the role of schools in supporting the physical and mental health of children, along with cognitive development. Today’s students have an increasing need for trauma-informed practices, greater access to mental health professionals, and an increase in play opportunities as a teaching and learning tool.
I will fight to ensure that all young children have at least 20 minutes of recess each day, and recess should not be taken away as a consequence for negative behavior. Children should have opportunities to be outside whenever feasible and participate in freeplay. Allowing teachers and students the freedom to play can improve student achievement.
Finally, we need to recognize that many schools offer children their only opportunity for a healthy meal. We need to move away from the corportizing, cost-cutting measures that permit marketing pre-packaged food to our children and fund schools to use fresh produce and from-scratch cooking in school buildings.
In addition to these priorities, Lissa knows that many of the challenges facing our schools are influenced by factors beyond the control of teachers and our school system. Persistent generational poverty and lack of opportunity are too often blamed on our schools and teachers. Lissa believes we can and must do more to even the playing field. That’s why she’s released an entire plan to eliminate childhood poverty.
When it comes to our education system and funding, there are a number of improvements that are necessary:
- Fair Funding – there is a constitutional obligation for the Commonwealth to support the education of all children in our state. However, the state provides less than 40% of the cost of public education, and Pennsylvania ranks near the bottom nationally in the state share of public education funding. In the current state budget, too many districts are not receiving their fair share of state resources (based on population, student need, and the ability of the local tax base to contribute). I support transitioning to a fair funding formula, while ensuring that all schools have the necessary resources to teach and support children.
I am very interested in exploring taxing methodologies that would ensure that those who have the most pay the most, while those who struggle or who are on fixed incomes are not pushed out of their home or community. One way to do this is through expanding the property tax rebate program for seniors and individuals on fixed incomes.
- Early learning and Pre-K programs – Developments in neuroscience have shown that the most rapid period of brain development occurs between birth and age 5 – long before children enter Kindergarten. It is during this time that children learn the social and emotional skills — self-regulation, goal-setting, persistence, communication, and teamwork — that are necessary for their entire schooling and beyond into their careers. I support moving towards universal pre-k, with programs offered in our existing mixed delivery system of schools and high-quality child care programs.
- Charter school reform – as public schools, charter schools should not be able to play by different rules than school districts and still receive public funding. I support legislation increasing transparency in charter school budgets — including compensation for leadership, marketing expenses, and special education services. Charter schools should also have more stringent reporting about the children they are choosing to serve and how they do so, particularly in relation to special education and English language learning populations. The rates that charter schools receive from their local school district budget should reflect the charter school’s actual spending on students, school-based teachers and staff (those who regularly interact with children), and classroom and learning materials.
I support more rigorous oversight and the ability to shutter underperforming charter schools. All children deserve to attend a high-quality public school, and local school boards should have the largest role in monitoring this. Local school boards are best able to evaluate the success or failure of charter schools, and the power to renew or revoke charters must remain in the hands of local elected officials.
- Special Education Funding – In recent years, the growth of school districts’ local spending on special education has grown over 20 times greater than the rate at which state investments in special education have grown. This challenge compounds the underfunding of basic education. We need to ensure all students with exceptionalities receive the services and supports that they need to succeed.
We need to better identify children who qualify for early intervention to avoid some of these costs. We also need to view special education and the associated transition planning as worthy work — both because it is morally right to help all students become productive members of society, and because it prevents more expensive services for an entire lifetime.
The education of our children is one of the most critical services that our government can provide. If schools in Pennsylvania are to serve as the great equalizer that they can be, we need to ensure that all schools have adequate resources and all students have an equal opportunity to receive an excellent education. Supporting our future generations in the only way to ensure a better future for all of us.