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PSSA scores in PA up across the board -- coincidence?

The state Department of Education announced Monday that PSSA scores statewide in 2008-09 rose in every grade and in every subject for the first time ever.

Coincidence that this achievement coincides with the record increases in education spending last year that set the state on the course of closing the "adequacy gap" among Pennsylvania school districts?

PDE certainly doesn't think so.

These results show "that the strategic investments that have been made are paying off," said PDE spokesman Michael Race in releasing the PSSA results during a conference call with reporters.

Race said that schools with the largest adequacy gaps -- in other words, the districts that spent the least relative to what they needed for their students to get at least an adequate education -- had fewer students scoring proficient.

Among the 40 districts that are already spending what the costing-out study said they need, more than 80 percent of students reached proficiency in reading and math. But among those districts spending $3,000 or more per student less than what has been deemed necessary, only 65 percent of students reached proficiency.

Although district and individual school PSSA results won't be available for another month or so, PDE rushed out with the statewide news at a crucial juncture in the debate over the state budget. Nearly a month past the deadline, Gov. Rendell and the Republicans are still tussling over whether to increase education spending by $418 million this year -- and continue on the path of reaching "adequacy" in all districts by 2014 -- or retrench.

Rendell has proposed a six-year formula based on a legislatively-ordered "costing out study" in 2007 that found most Pennsylvania districts did not spend enough to give all their students an adequate education.

The goal is for the state to increase its share of education spending to 50 percent -- up from the current 36 percent -- thus relieving pressure on local property taxes while closing some of the huge gaps in per-pupil spending between poorer and wealthier districts. The governor proposes to use Pennsylvania's share of the $39.5 billion State Fiscal Stabilization Fund from the stimulus bill to fund this increase.

The Republican Senate wants to flat-fund education aid and use the stabilization fund money to reduce the state's budget shortfall. 

That strategy could essentially render Pennsylvania unable to compete for a slice of $4.35 billion in so-called "Race to the Top" money designed to promote innovation in schools.

Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak said that if the stimulus funds are used to fill in holes in the budget, "We might as well tear up our application for 'Race for the Top.'"

However, that point is in dispute. According to the Philadelphia Daily News, Republican legislators claim that they can work politically to smooth things over. According to GOP spokesman, the legislators are working with the state's two Democratic US senators to make sure the state gets its share even if it does defy this key requirement to be eligible for the funds.

Hmmm.

An article in Education Week, which is following the internal politics of this closer than anyone, sorts out better than any other analysis I've seen just what will render a state absolutely ineligible.

While the use of the stabilization funds is definitely a factor in the federal decison, it apparently is not a complete deal-breaker. The only thing that can do that is state legislation that disallows the use of student achievement information in evaluating teachers.

Only NY and CA currently have such laws. On other requirements -- being charter-friendly and being aggressive on "turning around" low-performing schools -- PA has a record that is in line with the federal guidelines.

Stay tuned. 

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Dale Mezzacappa

@dalemezz
Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.