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New report on Pa. schools affirms student mental health as top concern

Daily Item - 2/5/2024

Feb. 5—HARRISBURG — The greatest challenges to classroom instruction are issues extending beyond the classroom, according to a new analysis from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

Mental health, attendance and problems with family or in the community are the top factors disrupting student achievement as identified in PSBA's eighth annual State of Education report released late this week.

Student mental health proved the top concern for chief school administrators on the whole, not just in the classroom.

PSBA said 276 of 493 public school superintendents responded to its fall 2023 survey. Among them, 66.3% identified student mental health as the biggest challenge, slightly down from the year prior. Following closely are staffing shortages at 58% and budgetary and funding pressures at 53.4%.

Nearly half of the administrators said at least 60% of their students had mental health needs.

Matthew Splain, superintendent of Otto-Eldred School District and president of the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, said mental health issues pop up daily among students. He said staff across the board, not just teachers but support staff, cafeteria workers and secretaries all have to be prepared to intervene if they detect something is off.

"These kids are having bad days more and more often," Splain said.

Andrew Christ, PSBA's senior director of education policy, said mental health struggles manifest in at least three areas: Academic performance, attendance and behavioral issues. The biggest challenge to addressing the issues, he said, is a lack of qualified healthcare providers.

"I was a little surprised by how big the issue was. It was surprising to see so many superintendents say so many of their kids have mental health needs. Last year, mental health and staff shortages were tied. This year, mental health ranked a little higher," Christ said.

State lawmakers have been attentive to the topic. The state House Education Committee advanced three different bills in mid-January addressing the issue in different ways. And, the current year's budget includes $100 million to address mental health schools — the bulk of it intended to support in-school counseling and related resources.

As Gov. Josh Shapiro's next budget address approaches Tuesday, Christ said administrators hope such investments continue.

"They have been able to provide additional supports, services and programs to their students because of the support the state government has provided in the last couple of budgets. Without that, school leaders are sensing that they probably couldn't provide those additional supports. That is something we hope to see continue," Christ said.

Splain said money isn't the sole solution. There's a lack of providers and it's challenging for rural and urban schools to fill positions like school counselor or psychologist.

"I'm not sure everyone understands that throwing money at this is not the solution. We can't hire counselors. The workforce to support the kids is just not there," Splain said.

Academics, proficiency

Though academics slotted as the fourth greatest challenge facing schools at 28.4%, an analysis of state education data reiterated how students are struggling compared to the pre-pandemic era, especially in charter schools — brick and mortar and cyber.

State of Education 2024 reviews the results of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exam. The standardized test is taken by public school students in grades 3 through 8.

Results on English exams in public school districts are mixed when comparing 2019 and 2023, however, the proficiency rates dropped considerably for charter school students. Students in traditional districts showed improvement in math, too, at least in the earlier grade levels. The rates fell in grades 7 and 8. The rates for charter students fell, however, in almost all grade levels and charter types.

In terms of learning loss due to the pandemic, 82% of administrators said students haven't yet recovered from missed learning opportunities, however, there is improved confidence among them that students are generally more prepared for life after graduating high school.

Charter costs

School administrators see the current system of cyber school tuition as lost money. The majority of charter school funding is redirected from students' home school districts. PSBA previously reported statewide charter school tuition totaled $2.6 billion.

The cost of charter school tuition grew by 134% from 2011-12 to 2021-22, according to PSBA. Pension costs grew even faster in that time, 367%.

Along with special education, these mandated costs are cited as the top stressors on local school budgets. PSBA supports a pending bill that advanced out of the state House and onto the Senate, House Bill 1422, which would institute a flat tuition rate for charter schools and collectively save brick-and-mortar districts hundreds of millions annually.

Chris Lilienthal, spokesperson, Pennsylvania State Education Association, said the state's largest teachers union supports the restoration of reimbursement for a portion of charter tuition costs. He said it was eliminated in the 2011-12 budget.

"The restoration of the charter school reimbursement would be a game changer for so many school districts," Lilienthal said.

Budget address

Between pending charter reforms, continued debate on a school voucher system, school facilities needs and the court-ordered redesign of how the state distributes its subsidies to public schools, education issues will again be at the center of budget negotiations.

"I think there will be a lot on the table with education," Christ said.

How Shapiro intends to approach these matters will be revealed next week when he releases his budget proposal during an annual address in an unusual place — not the House chamber which is closed for renovations but from the Capitol Rotunda.

The Basic Education Funding Commission, a bicameral, bipartisan panel of state lawmakers and governor appointees, advanced a Democratic-backed plan to revamp the state's funding system that calls for a $5.4 billion increase in state spending.

The current system was previously ruled unconstitutional by a state appellate judge who found that an over-reliance on local taxes caused wealth gaps in school districts with low property values and low household incomes.

A plan backed by Republicans didn't pass through the commission and didn't include an estimated cost, but it did include enacting school vouchers — a concept Shapiro has expressed support for.

"Next week, we are hoping to hear the governor put forward a budget that implements the first of the Basic Education Funding Commission's seven-year plan to fund our schools in a way that passes constitutional muster," Lilienthal said.

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