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New Pa. education secretary details priorities

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Thomas Gluck, named Monday to replace Gerald Zahorchak as Pennsylvania’s secretary of education for the remainder of Gov. Rendell’s term, said that much of his work over the next several months will involve money.

High on his priority list is preserving the governor’s proposed $335 million increase in the basic education subsidy for next year’s budget, maintaing the two-year-old education funding formula that distributes state aid to districts based more closely on need, and winning hundreds of millions of federal grant dollars through the Race to the Top competition.

Rendell, who has made education a priority in his administration, is one of the few governors who has increased education spending during the recession; in other states, including neighboring New Jersey, drastic state aid cuts are forcing local districts to scramble.

Gluck also said he would work on getting the legislature to pass revisions to the state’s Education Empowerment Act, which would give the state more power over low-performing schools and districts, and the state charter school law — particularly how these schools are funded.

Gluck was executive deputy secretary in the department for five years and before that spent 10 years as the Democratic executive director of the Senate Education Committee. He has also worked as a spokesperson for the state chancellor of higher education and for the Milton Hershey School.

"I’ve had the good fortune to be involved in nearly every education policy conversation in Pennsylvania for the past 20 years," he said in a conference call with reporters.

Gluck expressed confidence that Pennsylvania would win in the next round of competition for the coveted federal Race to the Top money, which could bring Pennsylvania as much as $400 million in additional funds.

The state lost out in the first round, when only two states were chosen, Delaware and Tennessee. Pennsylvania’s application came in seventh overall — apparently hampered because only one-fourth of the 500 school districts had signed on to fully participate in the menu of reforms required as a condition for getting the funds, including aggressive school turnarounds and the ability to tie teacher reviews to student achievement.

"We are in a very strong position going into Phase Two" of the competition, he said.

Gluck said that retaining the new funding formula is also a top priority. The formula has already come in for criticism by some of the current gubernatorial candidates, including state Sen. Anthony Williams of Philadelphia. The formula came about as a result of a "costing out study" mandated by the legislature that determined what each school district needed to educate all its students to high standards and set a five-year goal for meeting that standard. It drives more money to schools in Philadelphia — but Williams is pushing for more school choice and more charter-friendly policies.

"After a 20-year logjam, we now have a funding formula that meets the real needs of students and communities," Gluck said.

On that note, another of Gluck’s statements — that he wants to revise how charter schools are funded — could open a political can of worms. He specifically mentioned special education funding. Depending on the school district, charter schools may get three times as much per student for each special education student as for regular education students.

"We know from looking at data that the dollars that flow for special education under the current formula exceed expenditures at charter schools for that purpose," he said. He said there are a number of proposals to reconcile that "and make it more fair."

He also wants to beef up oversight of charter schools. He said that newspaper and other investigations of misconduct at some charters, raising questions about spending and the ability of founders and employees to make profits from ancillary businesses and real estate arrangements, "frankly threaten the charter schools movement. We need to beef up accountability to assure that when public dollars are used, they are used well and appropriately."

He also wants to look at how cyber charter schools are financed; right now, each district pays a different amount. He likes an idea to make the state subsidy equal to the per-pupil spending at the most successful cyber charter.

At the same time, Gluck said he believes that "high-quality charter schools are an important ingredient" in the educational landscape.

Despite Rendell’s lame-duck status – the governor’s office will change hands in January – Gluck said that they would be "working until the last day" to preserve some of the educational advances made during his term.

Zahorchak is leaving May 7 and will take over as the Allentown superintendent on July 1.