Excerpted from Mary Niederberger, Public Source
Pennsylvania Secretary of Education, Pedro Rivera, is not letting uncertainty at the U.S. Department of Education derail any of the plans his department has set in motion for improving education in the state.
Newly installed U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has talked about abandoning the Common Core and promoting school vouchers and charter schools over traditional public school districts.
But Rivera, in an interview this week with PublicSource, said the current education agenda will remain in place. The priorities have included implementing the Pennsylvania Core standards, aligning state tests and curriculum to those standards, revising the system for assessing quality in schools, creating new high school graduation requirements and working to increase equity among public schools.
The secretary said the decision was made in consultation with his staff and Gov. Tom Wolf.
In Pennsylvania, Rivera says the PA Core (the state’s version of the Common Core) will remain in effect regardless of what happens at the federal level.
He said the standards in the state’s core were created to ensure students receive a rigorous education and, in particular, focus on reading by third grade and math proficiency by seventh grade.
Third-grade reading proficiency is important because if students can’t read by third grade, they have difficulty in other subjects such as math, science and social studies, which require reading comprehension.
Seventh-grade math proficiency is essential because, without it, students may be unable to excel in the more difficult math they face in high school.
DeVos has said she wants to limit the size and scope of the federal education department and return much of the responsibility for education back to the states.
If that happens, Rivera said he’s confident his department can handle the responsibility because leaders on his staff all have education experience. They have either risen from the ranks of teachers to superintendents or have moved from education to working in the Legislature.
Rivera said his department has been hearing from parents of special education students who want to know what will happen with the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act — federal legislation that promises a free and appropriate education to all students with a disability.
The secretary said he stands with those parents and predicted they would fight any effort to dismantle the law or reduce federal funding for special education.
Rivera said he wasn’t sure if the federal government could force a voucher system on the states, but he believes such an action would require involvement of the state Legislature and would be a lengthy process.
School choice is a good idea, Rivera said, when done equitably, with quality and “the needs of students and communities in mind.”
For Rivera, the goal is far more substantial — to create equity among school districts. He wants to narrow the variance in the amount spent per pupil between wealthy districts and poor districts, which leads to achievement gaps that separate students by class and race.