March 2015 Newsletter

School Funding & Pension: Separate and Equally Urgent

Governor Wolf has been in office fewer than 30 days. Like elected officials before him, he is realizing that election night might have been the high point and it is all downhill from the inauguration parties. Or uphill when it comes to the battles he must wage to keep his pre-election promises.

Having acquired a General Assembly with a Republican majority, Governor Wolf’s agenda brings attention to a lot of high profile programs where change comes with high risk and not much return. It will take a lot of change to make up for the inherited $2 billion budget deficit.

From an education perspective, Governor Wolf knows that fixing the school funding formula is the number one priority. And he must hold firm against the Assembly’s notion of eliminating property tax. It is one of the remaining reliable sources of school funding since previous administrations’ business tax breaks failed to draw new businesses to Pennsylvania. Taxing companies drilling here for natural gas is a start, but it can’t be expected to make up the entire funding shortfall. Whatever this new tax revenue generates and is assigned to education, it is crucial that distribution aligns with composition of the students, learning and economic levels, and district tax contribution to education. In terms of division and distribution, equal in this case will not mean fair.

Something else that needs attention is the pension fund. For years, Pennsylvania has deferred payment and there is real risk that the future our education employees are planning for will be unavailable to them. While a portion of teachers’ pay (on average about 7 ½ percent) goes to the fund with every regular paycheck, our state and our school districts have not done the same. For years, they have deferred payment and redirected the funds elsewhere. Act 120 of 2010 directed Pennsylvania to begin making up the pension deficit with increased payments beginning in 2011– which also have been deferred.

Because school funding and pension are both suffering due to a lack of available resources, it might be tempting to link them. That would be a mistake. School funding impacts the manner in which students learn, because it limits resources available to teach them. Equitable school funding is crucial to the future of Pennsylvania’s schools. The pension fund is our educators’ future security — their deferred compensation. They have entrusted their future to a covenant made by Pennsylvania and action toward keeping that promise is essential.

Governor Wolf, it may be uphill but we are still behind you.

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Educators’ Role on The Cycle of Affluence & Poverty

Montgomery and Bucks Counties rank second and third in wealth in Pennsylvania. Like all communities the world over, where there is wealth there is also poverty and usually a great deal somewhere in the middle. Or as a myopic one-percenter commented to a colleague, “The servants have to live somewhere.”

Our students come to school from one of these places and that impacts how they learn. It is important not to make assumptions. We might think the distinctions are easy to spot. The attire, the country club confidence compared with last year’s or older fashions and less than fresh-scrubbed good looks. We need to look deeper.

Studies among teens indicate that there is an increasingly higher degree of distress among those from higher levels of affluence. (Psychology Today, November 5, 2013). Historically, poverty generated those at risk for substance abuse, and social and behavioral problems; that is no longer the case. The pressure for über achievement is leading to risky behavior where we might not think to look for it.

And what of those students where the bar has been set low? Must the cycle remain unbroken? Many from places of low expectations have achieved great things. Media mogul, Oprah Winfrey, Rapper Jay-Z, Apple’s Steve Jobs, Author Stephen King, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, among many others.

Studies have shown that schools that are successful for students of less affluent backgrounds are demonstrated to have high expectations for their staffs, collaboration among teachers, place a priority on academic expectations, excellence and improvement, offer small group instruction and ongoing high quality professional development for instructors. (Success Despite Socio Economics: A Case Study of a High Achieving, High Poverty School, Tilley, April 2011).

As educators, we don’t have the luxury of “Let them eat cake,” moments. It is our job to see beyond where a student may have started in life and look for a poverty of unmet emotional needs among the seemingly affluent as well as the untapped brilliance of someone who has just not yet found his or her way to excel.

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On Balance

Whether your day starts in front of a class of elementary or high school students or in the guidance or administrative office, chances are there was not much separation from the day before. And that day likely slipped from the school to your home in the evening. While you were helping your own children with homework, your mind was probably not far from your other children for whom you are responsible. Like nearly all professions in modern times, there is no separation from work and life, and the notion of balance brings a laugh.

Finding a balance and holding onto it is a hard won achievement for anyone. Like the study habits we encourage among our students, we have to encourage habits of balance to maintain our levels of success at school and at home.

Some of these might help regain equilibrium:

Elevate the importance of your family and friends and special personal interests. Prioritize time with those important to you and those interests you enjoy, and keep them separate from work.

Take time each week for yourself; to read or exercise or take a hike. Whatever you find rejuvenates your mind and body, find some time to do it. Cross-training with the school’s sports team does not count.

Be realistic about what can be achieved. There will always be one more plan to complete, one more paper to read, one more test to grade. Do what you can but don’t let it intrude on numbers 1 or 2.

Be positive. When everyone around you is equally overwhelmed, the negative sharing can bring everyone down. Don’t ignore the realities, but don’t allow yourself to be drawn into it. Find something positive to share and start to bring colleagues up rather than down.

Share successful solutions. If you have found a way to be more efficient or to balance the pressures, share your success among your peers. They will thank you for it and help you when you begin to tilt.

Remember, achieving balance is not a once and done endeavor. It is a habit that will bring long-term benefit to you, your family and your organization.