Tuesday, May 16, 2017

What's Happening in Legislative Advocacy?

At the State Level
As many of you know, I am a member of the committee known as ACSIPA, which is involved in legislative advocacy for Christian school education in the state of Pennsylvania.  Specifically, we represent the 160 Christian schools in Pennsylvania that are members of ACSI.  Since many of the issues that affect us also affect other private, religious-based schools, we work together with a couple of the smaller Christian school organizations, along with Catholic Conference, the Jewish educational association and the Quaker schools.  ACSIPA is a member of the Pennsylvania chapter of the Council on American Private Education, which also includes independent private schools that are not necessarily associated with a church or religious organization. Only Catholic Conference has an office and staff member in Harrisburg for their school issues.  The rest of us send volunteers several times a year to meet with legislators and their staffers.

We're fortunate in Pennsylvania to have a level of independence and autonomy as a private, Christian school that allows us to develop our educational system as we see fit.  Our Christian schools are known for excellence, we do a good job of meeting, and exceeding the expected student outcomes, and we meet our acceptable yearly progress benchmarks.  As a result, there is little interference with what we do.  And at the present time, from a legislative perspective, there is a high level of pro-school choice support among the members of the PA house and senate.  In addition to the tax credit programs, our schools also share in the state's transportation funding and in the textbook and equipment fund.  The legislature appears headed toward an expansion of the tax credit caps by as much as a third of their total value, and there is support for further measures which will increase the choices parents have in their children's education.

Pennsylvania legislators have considered school choice measures like voucher programs in the past.  There is some movement in the legislature to consider similar programs this session.  We've been told that the voter voice we use on the ACSIPA website is helpful, and legislators do pay attention to the email they receive.  To keep updated on what's going on in Pennsylvania, you can look at the ACSIPA website at http://acsipa.org.

Common Core is also a state-level initiative.  In Pennsylvania, the Keystone Exams reflect Common Core objectives as minimum standards for passing and graduating from high school.  There are a lot of myths about Common Core, many of them promoted by the media.  This was an initiative started by the National Governors Association through state departments of education in 48 states and the District of Columbia.  The aim was to develop uniform standards based on states where best practices were achieving the objectives and expected outcomes, and establish basic minimums in English/language arts and mathematics.

In Pennsylvania, private school students are exempt from being required to pass Keystone Exams to graduate from high school.  Our standards and objectives exceed those of Common Core at every grade level, and the means of measuring our acceptable yearly progress, which includes the Terra Nova test, the PSAT and our SAT scores, show that PCS students exceed the expectations of Common Core objectives.  Our Terra Nova scores average around the 70th percentile, which is about 12% higher than state or national scores, and our PSAT scores also run 10-12% higher than national norms.  PCS has always placed an emphasis on mathematics and language arts objectives, including the instruction of writing skills beginning in middle school.  

At the Federal Level
Many people have asked about what might be developing now that Betsy DeVos is Secretary of Education and what that might mean for private, Christian schools, since she is a product of them.  To answer that question requires an understanding of how the department works.

DeVos met with leaders from CAPE (Council on American Private Education) a few weeks ago, and outlined her plans for the department.  Primarily, the DOE will be focused on helping implement the ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) passed by Congress and signed by President Obama in January of 2015.  The ESSA is the protocol for the DOE, replacing the act known as No Child Left Behind.  It contains provisions and program initiatives for continuing to raise standards for public education, and oversight of the distribution of funds that have been allocated for the implementation of its programs. There are some benefits in the ESSA for private schools, most notably funding to assist with STEM initiatives, and some supplemental funds for textbooks, equipment and supplies for students.

A voucher program at the federal level would not originate at the DOE, but would have to come from Congress.  There are a few legislators who have proposed bills, but the house study committee, which sets the legislative agenda for the year, and is controlled by the party in power, has not placed consideration of vouchers for private school students on the agenda.  Federal expenditures on education average about $2,000 per student per year, so it is not likely that any federal level voucher program would provide enough money to cover all of the tuition and fees for private education.  There are also a number of court decisions which restrict the channels through which federal tax dollars can be channeled into private education, especially religious-based schools. 

I am also part of a group of about 20 school administrators from across the country who meet in Washington, DC in September to advocate for Christian schools and private education issues.  There is just one legislative liaison in the nation's capital who works on behalf of all of the Christian schools in the US, so volunteers are used to help there as well. 

PCS remains one of the area's highest achieving private, Christian schools.  Ranked as the #2 Christian school in Greater Pittsburgh by Best Schools, based on parent surveys and school data, our staff continues to work toward accomplishing our mission and purpose, glorifying God, serving Jesus, partnering with family and church, and instilling high standards in our students.  We value the unique combination of religious freedom and educational autonomy which allows us to incorporate Christian discipleship into the whole learning experience of children and youth. 

Our needs include resources that will allow us to expand our ministry and share its benefits with other Christian families who live and work in our area.  We believe that families have the right to choose the kind of education their children will receive, in the kind of environment in which they want them to receive it. 

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