Public education is easily among the most regulated activities of government. Pennsylvania’s 500 public school districts are required to comply with hundreds of individual mandates. Mandates, put simply, tell public schools what they are required to do, how they must do it and ultimately, dictate how much they will spend in order to get it done. Mandates come from several sources. Some mandates come from the federal government, but most mandates come from state laws, regulations and other types of guidance from state agencies such as the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE).
Certainly, many mandates are necessary; they create standards of quality for learning and safety for student and staff, as well as expectations and accountability. However, school districts need relief from mandates that are cumbersome, expensive and in some cases antiquated.
PSBA believes that broad mandate relief is an integral part of reforming public education. Relief from burdensome mandates can save school districts and taxpayers money and result in more efficient operation. History has demonstrated that school officials can stretch available dollars further when restrictive state requirements are relaxed. For instance, some limited relief was achieved through the mandate waiver program that was created under Act 16 of 2000 and expired in 2010. Last year, a temporary waiver program was enacted as part of the emergency pandemic legislation.
PSBA calls for mandate waiver program
History has demonstrated that school officials can stretch available dollars further when restrictive state requirements are relaxed. PSBA is calling for a comprehensive proposal to permanently re-establish a mandate waiver program. One specific solution is the program established in Senate Bill 73 (Sen Langerholc, R-Cambria) and House Bill 1473 (Rep. Staats, R-Bucks) which would allow school districts to apply for a waiver from certain, but not all, state-imposed mandates in order to benefit students and taxpayers.
Under the program, school districts were able apply for waivers to suspend a wide variety of mandates on public schools. Under this new proposal, a school entity could adopt a resolution to apply to the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) for a waiver to suspend one or more provisions of law or regulations. When granted these waivers would enable the school entity to improve its instructional program, or operate in a more effective, efficient, or economical manner. Certain laws and regulations addressing significant issues such as student safety and health would be excluded from allowable waivers.
Key talking points on the need for mandate relief and the waiver program:
- At a time when school districts and the General Assembly are dealing with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, providing much needed mandate relief would make additional resources available without the need to increase revenues. Such relief would also allow districts to be more flexible and innovative.
- Considered separately, many mandates can be defended as a sincere effort to enhance the quality of education. Their combined effect, however, can become a burdensome task of complying with deadlines, reporting and other paperwork and procedures.
- While some mandates may impose only minimal costs, others are major cost drivers with a critical impact on district budgets. To pay for unfunded and underfunded mandates, school districts are forced to consider raising local taxes, using up reserve funds, or taking steps such as increasing class sizes, cutting staff positions, eliminating programs and other measures.
- State mandates often are painted with a broad brush; what may constitute a useful mandate in one school district may prove to be an obstacle to education reform in another.
- Locally elected school directors know best the needs of their district. The use of mandate waivers would help districts to control costs and provide enhanced educational programs.
- Public school leaders need a permanent solution. Senate Bill 73 and and House Bill 1473 (Rep. Staats, R-Bucks) would allow school districts to apply for a waiver from certain, but not all, state-imposed mandates. Certain laws and regulations would not be waivable, such as those relating to student health and safety, academic standards, special education, and a few others.
- Now is the time to allow school districts more latitude in operating their schools. The result would be more efficiently run districts and local taxpayer savings.