By Eric Boehm
State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale this week published a scathing report detailing neglect and mismanagement in the Pennsylvania Department of Education and the state Board of Education.
In a performance audit of the state’s top education agencies, DePasquale found academically challenged schools are forgotten by the PDE, that the department mismanages its employees and special advisers and the BOE hasn’t updated the master plan for basic education since 1999.
“PDE and the Board of Education must get their respective houses in order,” DePasquale said in a statement.
The master plan for basic education is a strategic blueprint guiding policymakers and educators to ensure the state’s education system funding and curriculum is relevant.
DePasquale found “misguided leadership” contributed to the absence of an update since Bill Clinton was in office. The report called BOE’s failure to update the plan every five years “disturbing.”
“The plan should be current, and it should be aligned with the ever-changing education landscape, including technological advances, requirements under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, and the explosion of charter schools,” DePasquale said. “The world is far different than it was in 1999, and our educational system must have a plan that can adapt to meet changing demands.”
Citing an expansion of its responsibilities and diminished resources, Chairman Larry Wittig said, in a written response included in the audit, the BOE is “doing the best that it can to meet all of its obligations.” Wittig said the board would begin working on updating the plan immediately.
“The Board of Education must get to work, and focus on, putting a master plan and related regulations and policies in place to make sure our students are getting the education they need,” DePasquale said. “We have the largest state board of education in the country, and they still haven’t fulfilled their main statutory requirement for 16 years. Clearly, something needs to change.”
Auditors found many underperforming schools around the state don’t receive assistance from the PDE to help prop up sagging academic performance because the agency wasn’t proactive in helping struggling schools. Instead of providing substantial support to all of Pennsylvania’s neediest schools — measures that could include sending in turnaround specialists — PDE only assisted those low-performers designated by federal Title I mandates.
Of 814 schools with performance scores below 70 during the 2013-14 school year, 561 got no extra help from the state. DePasquale said PDE failed to provide its own criteria for what constitutes a poor-performing school.
“The Pennsylvania Department of Education is failing our students and the taxpayers by essentially overlooking 561 academically challenged schools,” DePasquale said. “It is astonishing to me that so many schools — with more than 310,000 students — may not be receiving the extra support they need to help their students succeed academically. If PDE continues to overlook these institutions and the students they serve, more and more children will struggle scholastically further down the road.”
Auditors recommended changes to improve academic performance in a three-step plan that would bring together experts to develop deeper recommendations for improving the poorest-performing schools; evaluate PDE’s organizational structure to focus on improving academic performance of all schools; and create a partnership with school districts to provide direct support to those with academically challenged schools.
“The Auditor General’s findings validate what we have been saying for a long time: Too many schools are failing to make the grade, and accountability is needed at all levels,” said Sen. Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster, chairman of the Senate Education Committee.
Earlier this year, Smucker sponsored legislation allowing the state to take over struggling schools. Smucker’s Educational Opportunity and Accountability Act, still in committee, would lead turnaround efforts in Pennsylvania’s worst schools with the help of outside contractors. A state-run Achievement School District would operate similar to turnaround efforts in Louisiana and Tennessee, where there’s strong collaboration with charter school operators.
DePasquale’s team also found PDE failed to monitor the employment and work of special assistants and consultants, including a special adviser for higher education. The audit is critical of the employment of Ron Tomalis, the former education secretary and a special adviser to Gov. Tom Corbett. Tomalis got a salary of $140,000, though it’s unclear what kind of work he actually did.
“While there is evidence the special adviser for higher education showed up for work, there are virtually no work products or emails, with the exception of a budget memo he wrote — the content of which was never used in the final budget presentation,” DePasquale said. “At a nearly $140,000 a year salary, that’s nice ‘work’ if you can get it, and is one of the more egregious employee-related findings we have found in any of our education audits.”
In his written response, Education Secretary Pedro Rivera agreed with the audit’s findings and pledged the PDE would create more accountability measures to monitor contractors and special assistants.