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May 18, 2013 by


By Matt Hess

The Senate Democratic Caucus held a press conference on the Capitol Media Center today to urge the Department of Education and the State Board of Education to slow down the implementation of the Common Core Standards.

Sen. Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) said implementation of the Common Core Standards is another example of the Corbett Administration’s “quiet changes” that “lack legislative input.” He compared the roll out of the Common Core Standards with bonus depreciation and the attempt to privatize the management of the lottery system. “Now we’re here today to fight the implementation of Common Core Standards and high risk graduation exams, a policy that would place the future of students at risk and the financial stability of our school districts,” he stated. “The subject matter may have changed but the circumstances are still the same. This is being done without necessary legislative input. Changes like these deserve a full and open transparent discussion that includes the legislature.” He added “we stand here asking the governor and Sec. Tomalis to take immediate action to slow this process down so we can all work together to provide for the future success of all of our students and their families.”

Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D-Chester), Minority Chairman of the Senate Education Committee, emphasized that the Senate Democratic Caucus “does not oppose Common Core Standards,” rather, “we object to how they are being put in place in Pennsylvania; what we object to is the standalone test that will determine whether you graduate or don’t graduate.”

Sen. Dinniman explained that the Independent Regulatory Review Commission and the caucus have a number of concerns about the standards. “It’s phony, it’s a sham when you raise standards but don’t have the financial resources available to the schools to make those standards a reality,” he stated. “How can we increase standards without the adequate financial resources?” He emphasized “these tests will result in an unfunded mandate on the school districts of Pennsylvania somewhere in the neighbor of $300 million if we believe the PSEA estimates; so of the groups that oppose standards have estimated it to be $645 million over a seven year period.”

Sen. Dinniman noted that a “legislative agreement” was to implement the Keystone Exams to comply with federal No Child Left Behind requirements but the agreement is now being used to justify the implementation of the Common Core Standards. “The Keystone Exams were not to be separate tests to determine whether you were to graduate or not graduate; they were to be incorporated in the course work a student would be doing,” he stated. “This was changed in the proposal that the department presented to federal authorities for a request for flexibility from No Child Left Behind. In that request for flexibility, they added these standalone tests as requirements for graduation.”

Sen. Dinniman explained that if a student fails the Common Core Standards exam the first time, the student gets two more opportunities to pass it and if the student does not pass it the student can take a project-based assessment. “This requires supplemental instruction,” he stated. “This requires teachers to help students with their project assessment. How is Harrisburg, Reading, York, Philadelphia, going to do this?”

Sen. Judy Schwank (D-Berks) emphasized that the plan does not include additional funding to help school implement the exams. “We can have Common Core Standards but if we do not support them financially, this is a disservice to our school districts and to our children,” she stated. “It could cost more than $500 million if every Pennsylvania school district is forced to fulfill what we now know is simply an unfunded mandate and a mandate that has skirted legislative oversight.”

Sen. John Blake (D-Lackawanna) took issue with the implementation of the Common Core Standards. “This so-called ‘reform’ is driven by self-interest and profit,” he stated. “Don’t think for a moment that it’s driven by a sense of noble interest in improving education because that’s not what this is about. There has been no fiscal note on this. No explanation of the costs that are going to be borne by our districts and I really believe at this point in time that the heavy hand of this administration is coming down even harder on our districts.”

Sen. Jim Brewster (D-Allegheny) also expressed concern about the implementation of the tests. “I get a little bit suspicious when I see a $1 billion cut, 20,000 teachers gone and now more restrictive guidelines,” he stated. “I keep thinking privatization of public education. That’s what I see happening, that’s me speaking. I think it’s a disgrace. 500 school districts, 400 had to raise taxes because of the performance of this administration.”

Sen. Brewster noted that he has sponsored SB 823 to examine testing in Pennsylvania. “It puts together the Student Performance Measurement Advisory Commission,” he stated. “It looks at all the testing in K-12 so we do it fairly and consider cultural differences, regional differences and socio-economic differences.”

Rosemary Boland, Executive Vice president of the American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania, took issue with standardized testing. “We waste four weeks per year testing,” she stated. “We came here today to ask for a moratorium on the passage of the Keystones, the PSSAs, the Core State Standards. The implementation has to be stalled for a while. Why? Because most of the teachers in this state have yet to be trained in any way at all with professional development. We are not opposed to the Core State Standards. We’re opposed to foolishness. We are opposed to going into a classroom each day when we haven’t been trained to do these tests to implement the Common Core Standards. The federal government has spent in excess of $300 million on this project and the states have done little if anything.”

Sen. Dinniman said the caucus wrote the governor asking for a moratorium on the tests but have not received a response. He indicated that the caucus will be drafting legislation to put a delay in the implementation of the Common Core Standards until all issues can be resolved.

Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia), Sen. Sean Wiley (D-Erie), and Sen. Timothy Solobay (D-Washington) were also in attendance at the press conference.

The senators then responded to questions from the media.

Common Core Standards English was implemented in July 2010. Former Gov. Rendell started the Keystones. Did the caucus stand up at the time?

Sen. Dinniman stated “Yes. The Keystones improved in 2010, the Keystones that exist in the School Code of 2012 were tests that were to be given in the course that were to be counted in one-third of the course. We worked hard to get legislative and state board agreement. What has occurred is this administration changed that to become high stakes exams which if you don’t pass you don’t graduate. You could pass the course with an A but if you don’t pass the exam you’re out the door.” Sen. Hughes noted “under Gov. Rendell’s leadership we were providing dramatic increases for public education annually. We should be clear that this governor and this budget are funding public education $250 million below what was funded for public education in 2008-2009.”

What is the link with the federal government here?

Sen. Dinniman stated “the federal government created, through No Child Left Behind, criteria that every state had to present for federal approval criteria by which it would ensure AYP. Most other states asked for an exemption to the NCLB. Pennsylvania was one of the last states to ask for an exemption. When they asked for the exemption they asked to replace the 11th grade PSSA with the Keystone Exams.”
The agreement with the administration was not spelled out in law but was an understanding with the governor and the legislature?

Sen. Dinniman stated “yes. It was not spelled out in law. They are justifying that they have legal authority based on the 2012 School Code. The provision that was put in there was based on that it would be one-third. I believe legal what they are doing will not hold up.” He added “the law says that they shall put into place the Keystone Exams. We all understood what the Keystone Exams meant. None of us felt we had to define them. They took advantage of what they consider to be a loophole. We believe, based on the constitution, that they do not have the authority to define perimeters that we might not have set. The courts have decided this in the past.”

If it’s not in law, how is it not legal?

Sen. Costa stated “the spirit of that understanding should’ve been adhered to and it wasn’t. We believe they violated the spirit of the agreement possibly through a loophole and the question is whether they have the legal authority to do that. As a result that is one of the avenues we are pursuing and looking at as we move forward. Today, we are here articulating and advocating for a slowdown of this process, a moratorium if you might, because of the concerns we have about the process, the concerns about the costs to school districts and the impact on our students.”


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