July 21, 2008

Districts Must Account for How They Spend

By Tim Puko, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Jul. 21--A $275 million boost in state money for public schools includes unprecedented accountability measures for districts with the biggest gains.

The state demands that districts with basic education funding boosts of more than 4.4 percent apply the money directly to improving student achievement. Districts must submit plans for using state money, and state education officials can veto plans for districts not meeting yearly progress targets.

"The accountability piece is big here," said Sandra Zelno, an Education Law Center associate who helped lead the push for education funding reform. "If they think this (money) is going to come every year without strings, they're wrong."

Most districts began accounting for the money by using proposed numbers Gov. Ed Rendell released in February. Many have spread the money throughout their budgets.

The law gives those districts eight strategies they can use for spending the money, all focused on student achievement. The section is titled "accountability to commonwealth taxpayers."

"It's not rocket science," Department of Education spokeswoman Leah Harris said. "The programs work, researchers know these programs work. So if we give this money, we want to make sure that money is used in programs that help students learn better."

One option is to increase the amount of instructional time. That could include tutoring, extending the school day or calendar or providing additional support for students not fluent in English.

Schools can implement new courses and programs and train teachers for such programs. They can reduce class sizes or start pre-kindergarten or full-day kindergarten programs.

Top teachers and principals can be given incentives to work in schools targeted for improvement because of low test scores. Schools can use the money to upgrade libraries.

At least 80 percent of the money must be spent to start or expand such programs. Only 10 percent can be used to maintain existing programs. Another 10 percent can be used for other ways of meeting academic performance targets or to pay for one-time costs such as books and supplies.

The law does have limitations, said Ted Hershberg, a University of Pennsylvania professor who has advocated the use of accountability standards to improve the state's public schools. Although some measures -- such as smaller class sizes -- are promising, research has not definitively shown they improve student performance, he said.

"Compared to what has been done, this is a big step," he added. "Compared with where we need to be, there's still a long way to go to improve the state of our public education."


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