By Sen. Scott Martin (R-13)
As a father, one of my highest priorities is ensuring my kids have real opportunities to chase their dreams and achieve whatever they can possibly imagine. Most parents I know share these same feelings.
To help all families meet those goals, state lawmakers need to make sound policy decisions that expand opportunity and give our young people the tools they need to succeed. Thankfully, a bipartisan package of education reforms enacted this year will do exactly that – putting our students on the right track toward a brighter future.
First and foremost, nothing is more important than ensuring our kids are safe from harm. As part of this year’s state budget, $200 million in new state dollars will be directed to school safety initiatives and student mental health; this represents the largest investment in school safety in Pennsylvania’s history.
Also, schools will also be required to incorporate school safety and security training for educators and administrators, giving parents the peace of mind to know every effort is being made to ensure their children are protected.
Supporting education also means encouraging new learning options, no matter where the instruction takes place. Record new funding for the state’s popular Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) scholarship program will ensure more kids can learn in an environment that suits their unique educational needs, including both public and private schools.
For years, the EITC program had massive waiting lists, denying many students a chance to participate. The new funding should all but eliminate the backlog of families who want to explore different schooling options.
In addition, special provisions were included to expand participation and increase scholarship amounts for the economically disadvantaged schools program, opening up a world of new educational possibilities for students in low-income families.
While these changes are important, we also must recognize that we need great teachers in the classroom to help students reach their full potential. Recent news articles have pointed to a potential teacher shortage, threatening to create learning disruptions for our children.
We took the first steps toward attracting more quality educators to our schools by streamlining the process for out-of-state teachers to receive certification in Pennsylvania. This critical provision will help get teachers who move to Pennsylvania into the classrooms quicker without any unnecessary delays due to red tape.
Additionally, we extended continuing education requirements to ensure good educators aren’t taken out of the classroom when we need them most. We also created a new Committee on Education Talent Recruitment that will provide grants and other resources to ensure we get the best and brightest teachers in front of students.
With statewide graduation requirements going into effect this school year, I am proud the reforms also included a proposal I authored to create an alternative graduation pathway for students impacted by COVID-19.
One of the most important steps forward in education this year was the elimination of onerous regulations that would have shuttered many quality charter schools.
Charter schools offer unique educational opportunities for public school students throughout the state, filling needs that would otherwise be ignored. We need to foster this kind of innovation in the education community, not stifle it.
While we still have work to do to ensure all charter schools meet the highest levels of accountability and transparency, I am relieved that we took action to prevent the worst consequences that would have resulted from these policies – the loss of learning opportunities for students.
Providing a quality education to young people also means preparing them for the rigors of higher education and the workforce.
Lawmakers expanded dual enrollment so more high school students can enroll in higher education classes. This offers more young people a chance to earn college credits before high school graduation, better preparing them for college and allowing them to reduce the total cost of earning a degree.
A new Commission on Education and Economic Competitiveness will also be created to ensure schools offer students the tools they need to be competitive in the global economy and meet the needs of employers, both now and in the future.
Two other important provisions that I authored were also included in the final package of reforms. The measures will extend pilot programs for cosmetology and barber training to expand career training opportunities for students, allowing them to earn course credit and valuable experience working in salons and barber shops.
Each of these policies are important individually, but taken together, they encompass a giant leap forward for education in Pennsylvania — and a promise kept to our kids.
This op-ed originally appeared in LNP/LancsterOnline on Aug. 24, 2022.