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Education in Pennsylvania

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Education in Pennsylvania

There are numerous elementary, secondary, and higher institutions of learning in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania, which is home to 501 public school districts, thousands of private schools, many publicly funded colleges and universities, and over 100 private institutions of higher education.

In general, under state law, school attendance in Pennsylvania is mandatory for a child from the age of 8 until the age of 17, or until graduation from an accredited high school, whichever is earlier.[1]

As of 2005, 83.8% of Pennsylvania residents age 18 to 24 have completed high school. Among residents age 25 and over, 86.7% have graduated from high school. Additionally, 25.7% have gone on to obtain a bachelor’s degree or higher.[2] In 2009, the US Census Bureau reported that 87.9% of Pennsylvanians aged 25 or older have attained a high school diploma or better.[3]

Primary and secondary education

Pennsylvania’s public schools are operated and funded under the authority of the General Assembly and local school boards, whose members are locally elected (serve 4 year terms). There are many types of public schools, including elementary, intermediate, middle school, junior high, high, junior-senior high, vocational-technical, and charter schools. Each public school is headed by a school principal, who reports to the superintendent of schools appointed by the board of the school district.[4]

There are 500 public school districts in Pennsylvania, consisting of 3,287 schools and 120 charter schools. Three school districts do not operate high schools: Midland Borough School District, Duquesne City School District and Saint Clair Area School District due to low enrollment coupled with financial constraints. As of the 2005-2006 school year, there were 1,871,060 students enrolled in public schools in Pennsylvania, of whom 74.6% were Caucasian, 15.9% were African-American, 6.8% were Hispanic, 2.6% were Asian/Pacific Islander, and 0.2% were Native Americans. The average per pupil expenditure was $10,738, and the pupil/teacher ratio was 15.2:1.[5]

As of the 2007-2008 school year, there were 265,545 students enrolled in private K-12 schools in Pennsylvania.[6]

State students consistently do well in standardized testing. In 2007, Pennsylvania ranked 14th in mathematics, 12th in reading, and 10th in writing for 8th grade students.[7]

In 2004-2005, Pennsylvania elementary and secondary schools ranked 8th in revenue and 11th in spending out of 50 states and the federal district.[8] In 2009 Pennsylvania spends $25 billion in public education when federal, state and local taxation dollars are combined.[9]


Many regulations and programs regarding elementary, secondary, and higher education are administered by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, which is led by the Secretary of Education appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the State Senate.

The current Secretary of Education is Ron Tomalis was confirmed on April 26, 2011 by the Pennsylvania Senate. The vote was unanimous. Dr. Gerald L. Zahorchak was nominated by Governor Edward Rendell and confirmed by the Senate on February 7, 2006 He served until. Dr. Zahorchak, a career educator, previously served as the deputy secretary for elementary and secondary education, and as the superintendent of the Greater Johnstown School District. He stepped down in May 2010 to take the position of Superintendent of the Allentown School District.[10]

The State Board of Education is the principal administrative regulatory body for elementary, secondary, and higher education in the state. It has numerous responsibilities, including approving or disapproving an application for the creation of a new school district, or change in the boundaries of an existing school district; applying for and administering federal grants for education; adopting master plans for basic and higher education; and adopting policies for the Secretary of Education to apply in regulating schools and universities.

The State Board of Education has 22 members, ten of whom serve as the Board’s Council of Basic Education and ten of whom serve on the Board’s Council of Higher Education. Seventeen members are appointed by the Governor, with the approval of the Senate, and each serves a six-year term. Four members of the Board are members of the General Assembly who serve as long as they hold majority and minority chairs of the House and Senate Education Committees. The current chairperson of the State Board of Education, also appointed by the Governor, is Joe Torsella. The Secretary of Education serves as the chief executive officer of the Board and does not vote as a member of the Board.[11]

The state is divided into 29 intermediate units, which provide services to the 500 public school districts and 2,400 non-public institutions.[12]

State education budget

The state budget provides for extensive financing and regulation of education programs. In addition to basic education funding, reimbursement for transportation costs, social security costs and teacher pension costs, the state provides special education funding and competitive grants. Among the Commonwealth's competitive grants have been: Classrooms for the Future which paid for computers for high schools with teacher training (450 school districts participated); Science Its Elementary which paid for science programs in elementary schools, Environment program grants supervised by the Department of Environmental Protection and Common Cents which paid for outside auditors to assist school boards in identifying ways to save on a plethora of administration processes. The state also supervises the disbursement of federal funds like Title 1 funding, Special Education funding, School Improvement Grants, and 21st Century Learning grants.

Pennsylvania K-12 state budget
  • 2012 - $5.4 billion BEF plus $100 million Accountability Block Grant [13]
  • 2011 - $5.35 billion BEF plus $100 million Accountability Block Grant
  • 2010 - $5.52 billion BEF plus $271 million Accountability Block Grant
  • 2009 - $5.22 billion BEF plus $271 million Accountability Block Grant

The state budget allotted over $11.4 billion for education-related programs in the 2008-2009 fiscal year. Governor Rendell’s proposed 2009-2010 budget suggests a 1.5% increase in education expenditures.

The Rendell Administration has successfully proposed a number of education-related programs, including funding of pre-kindergarten and full kindergarten education. On February 3, 2009, in his annual budget presentation, Governor Rendell proposed a tuition relief program to make college more affordable for Pennsylvania residents. The proposal would benefit families earning up to $100,000 a year who have students attending any of Pennsylvania’s 14 community colleges or the 14 public universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. When the proposal was made, Education Secretary Zahorchak stated that the plan would start in the fall of 2009 with incoming freshmen and benefit more than 170,000 students once it is fully implemented. He also predicted that the plan would help approximately 10,000 students who would not otherwise be able to afford college or who would leave Pennsylvania to attend college. The proposal suggests funding through revenues collected from the legalization and regulation of video poker in bars and clubs in Pennsylvania.[14]

NCLB AYP levels

Under No Child Left Behind each state set its own rates for Adequate Yearly Progress. Children with disabilities received customized testing related to their IEP (Individualized Education Plan). While Science is tested in 4th, 8th and 11th grades, no AYP level is set. AYP is reported at a district level, a school level and a tested grade level. Attendance and graduation rates are included in achieving AYP each year.[15] A school district can achieve Adequate Yearly Progress status even though one or more of its schools do not.[16] If a school or school district does not make adequate yearly progress, it is required to create a School Improvement Plan to address academic deficiencies and submit it to Pennsylvania Department of Education for review and approval.

Pennsylvania backloaded AYP setting it as follows:

Adequate yearly progress results are reported for the student body as a whole and for subgroups several: boys, girls, low-income students, students who are limited English proficient, minorities and children with disabilities as mandated by NCLB. The law gave each state the power to define subgroup size, in Pennsylvania 40 students in the group. Additionally, the law permitted schools to report data using a statistical device called a confidence interval. When a school achieves AYP via a confidence interval a (CI) is noted on the school's official state report card of academic achievement.

In 2011, 94 percent of the 500 Pennsylvania public school districts achieved the No Child Left Behind Act progress level of 72% of students reading on grade level and 67% of students demonstrating on grade level math. In 2011, 46.9 percent of Pennsylvania school districts achieved Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) based on student performance. An additional 37.8 percent of school districts made AYP based on a calculated method called safe harbor, 8.2 percent on the growth model and 0.8 percent on a two-year average performance.[17]

Academic achievement assessment

Each year, the state conducts a series of tests (called assessments) to evaluate the progress students are making in attaining essential content and skills. All public schools, including school districts, charter schools and cyber charter schools, are required to participate. Some private schools have elected to participate.

The PSSAs began in 1998 as a state education initiative. Reading and mathematics were tested in 5th, 8 and 11th grades. With the passage of No Child Left Behind, the state added reading and mathematics testing in 3rd, 4th, 6th, and 7th grades. The content of the tests are based on the Pennsylvania Academic Standards. A writing assessment was added that examines student skills in informational writing and persuasive writing. The schools were provided with a writing rubric and sample prompts to guide their instruction along with specialized training for teachers. In 2007, the science tests were administered to 4th, 8th and 11th grades. The results were provided to the schools, but not made public. Beginning in 2008, the science test results were made public.[18]

Results on the PSSAs are reported as: Advanced, Proficient, Basic and Below Basic. The scores that constitute each level were established by working groups of Pennsylvania teachers when the examines are developed. The Pennsylvania Department of Education reports these results to the schools and each student's parents. Additionally, they PDE reports them to the community via an Academic Achievement Report Card website. These results are reported for the entire state, by each school district, by each school, by each grade in that school and by subgroups. These subgroups include: race, gender, student's family income, special needs and English language learners. The report cards also provide graduation rates for each school district, school attendance rates and teacher qualifications.[19]

Beginning in 2009, the Department of Education began reporting the results for each individual student as a part of the PVAAS report. (Pennsylvania Value Added Assessment System). This permits the state, the school district and the school to track each student's progress from one year to the next. Growth in achievement, regardless of the level of proficiency reached, is the focus of this assessment system. When students make 10% progress over last year, the school is credited with adequate yearly progress.[20]

2009 statewide graduation rate and attendance rate

All students - 89%, Attendance rate - 94% [21]
Males - 88%, Attendance rate - 94%
Females - 91%, Attendance rate - 94%
White - 93%, Attendance rate - 95%
Black - 77%, Attendance rate - 91%
Latino/Hispanic - 72%, Attendance rate - 92%
Asian - 93%, Attendance rate - 96%
Native American - 83%, Attendance rate - 92%
Individual Education Plan - 83%, Attendance rate - 92%
(Special needs) English Language Learners - 73%, Attendance rate - 93%
Economically disadvantaged - 79%, Attendance rate - 92%

Statewide Reading 11th grade results

2011 - 69% on grade level [22]
2010 - 67% [23]
2009 - 65% [24]
2008 - 65%[25]
2007 - 65%[26]
2006 - 65% [27]
2005 - 65% [28]
2004 - 61%[29]

Statewide Math 11th grade results

2011 - 60% on grade level
2010 - 59%
2009 - 56%
2008 - 56%
2007 - 53%
2006 - 52%
2005 - 51%
2004 - 49%[30]

Statewide Science 11th grade results

2011 - 40% on grade level
2010 - 39%
2009 - 40%
2008 - 39%
2007 - tested results withheld from public

Statewide 8th grade results

Science on grade level Statewide

2011 - 58% on grade level
2010 - 57%
2009 - 55%
2008 - 52%
2007 - tested results withheld from public

Statewide 7th grade results

Statewide 6th grade results

Official testing results began for sixth graders in the Spring of 2007

Statewide 5th grade results

Statewide 4th grade results

Official testing results began for fourth graders in the Spring of 2007
Science on grade level Statewide

2011 - 82% on grade level
2010 - 81%
2009 - 83%
2008 - 82%
2007 - tested results withheld from public

Statewide 3rd grade results

Official testing results began for sixth graders in the Spring of 2006

Public cyber charter schools

In 2012, there are 16 operating cyber charter schools operating in the Commonwealth. Over 105,000 students attend a public cyber charter school in 2012. While many provide a Kindergarten through 12th grade curriculum, some are targeted at subgroups like 9th through 12th grades.[34] These public schools receive funding from the state and federal government. Students attend through online enrollment. The local school district remits the payment for the tuition costs. Cyber school students are provided with a computer, books and materials by the cyber school entity. The students meet the same academic requirements, under No Child Left Behind, as traditional bricks and mortar schools.[35] While brick-and-mortar charter schools are authorized by the school board of the public school district in which they are located, cyber charter schools are authorized by the Pennsylvania Department of Education

In 2009, there were 11 public cyber charter schools available to Pennsylvania students K-12. In 2006-07, there were approximately 15,838 Pennsylvania students enrolled in cyber charter schools.[36] The cyber charter schools and brick and mortar schools are required to submit annual reports to the Pennsylvania Department of Education.[37]

In accordance with a Pennsylvania law passed in 2005, all K-12 students in a public school district, including those who attend a private nonpublic school, cyber charter school, charter school and those homeschooled, are eligible to participate in the local public school district's extracurricular programs, including all athletics. The children must meet the same eligibility rules as the students enrolled in the district's schools.[38]

Pennsylvania Cyber Charter Schools in 2012
  • 21st Century Cyber Charter School 6th-12 (Chester County)
  • Achievement House Cyber Charter School 9th-12 (Montgomery County)
  • ACT Cyber Charter School
  • Agora Cyber Charter School K-12 (Philadelphia County)
  • Aspira Bilingual Cyber Charter School K-12 (Philadelphia)
  • Central PA Digital Learning Foundation Charter School K-12 (Blair County)
  • Commonwealth Connections Academy Charter School K-12 (Cumberland County)
  • Education Plus Academy Cyber Charter School
  • Esperanza Cyber Charter School
  • Frontier Virtual Charter High School closed June 2012
  • Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School k-12 (Beaver County)
  • PA Distance Learning Charter School K-12 (Dauphin County)
  • Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School K-12 (Chester County)
  • PA Learners Online Regional Cyber Charter School K-12 (Allegheny County)
  • Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School K-12 (Montgomery County)
  • Solomon World Civilization Cyber Charter School opening fall 2012
  • SusQ Cyber Charter School 9th-12 (Columbia County)

Dual enrollment

The state's dual enrollment program permits high school students to take courses, at local higher education institutions, to earn college credits. Students remain enrolled at their high school. The courses count towards high school graduation requirements and towards earning a college degree. The students continue to have full access to activities and programs at the high school, including the graduation ceremony. The college credits are offered at a deeply discounted rate.[39] The state offers a small grant to assist students in costs for tuition, fees and books. The amount of funding for the district varies widely across the Commonwealth.[40] Under the Pennsylvania Transfer and Articulation Agreement, many Pennsylvania colleges and universities accept these credits for students who transfer to their institutions.[41] Over 400 schools district offered this program in 2009.

College remediation

According to a Pennsylvania Department of Education study released in January 2009, more than 40% of Pennsylvania high schools' graduates required remediation in mathematics and reading before they were prepared to take college level courses in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education or community colleges.[42]

College graduation rate

Less than 66% of Pennsylvania high school graduates, who enroll in a four-year college in Pennsylvania, earn a bachelor's degree within six years. Among Pennsylvania high school graduates pursuing an associate degree, only one in three graduate in three years.[43] Per the Pennsylvania Department of Education, one in three recent high school graduates who attend Pennsylvania's public universities and community colleges takes at least one remedial course in math, reading or English.


Many public and private schools participate in intramural sports and most outside competitions are sponsored by the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, which hosts 23 statewide championships in 16 different sports.[44] The PIAA sets an eligibility standard that permits a student to be failing two core academic courses and continue to practice and play. Some school districts have set a higher eligibility level especially for core courses required for graduation. Ultimately, eligibility is determined by the local school board.


In 1988, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed Act 169, which allows parents or guardians to homeschool their children as an option for compulsory school attendance. This law specifies the requirements and responsibilities of the parents and the school district where the family lives.[45]

Approved Private Schools and Charter Schools for the Blind and Deaf

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has 36 Approved Private Schools, including the Charter Schools for the Blind and Deaf. Students attending these schools come from across the commonwealth. The private schools are licensed by the State Board of Private Academic Schools. They provide a free appropriate special education for students with severe disabilities. The cost of tuition for these schools is paid 60% by the state and 40% by the local school district where the student is a resident. Pennsylvania currently has four PA chartered and 30 non-charter APSs for which the Department approves funding. These schools provide a program of special education for over 4,000 day and residential students. Parents are not charged for the services at the school.[46] The majority of these schools are located in the southeastern region and southwestern region of Pennsylvania.[47]

Higher education

There are dozens of notable private liberal arts colleges and universities located throughout Pennsylvania, as well as many publicly supported community colleges and universities. The state provides funding to (1) the Commonwealth System of Higher Education, consisting of four universities; (2) the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, consisting of 14 universities; and (3) 14 community colleges.

Commonwealth System of Higher Education

The Commonwealth System of Higher Education consists of four prominent universities, which are publicly supported but are operated and controlled independently. These institutions are:

  • Lincoln University (Pennsylvania), which serves approximately 2,000 students.
  • Pennsylvania State University, one of the ten largest public universities in the United States, which serves more than 84,000 undergraduate and graduate students at 24 campuses, the largest of which is in State College, Pennsylvania.
  • Temple University, which serves over 34,000 undergraduate and graduate students on several campuses in the Greater Philadelphia area.
  • University of Pittsburgh, which serves approximately 34,000 undergraduate and graduate students in western Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education

The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education consists of 14 universities in which more than 112,500 students are enrolled. It is led by a 20-member Board of Governors, each of whom serves a four-year term, with the exception of three students, who are chosen from among the universities’ student government association presidents and serve until graduation. The members include individuals selected by the Governor of Pennsylvania, and four legislators chosen by the majority and minority leaders of the State Senate and House of Representatives. The Governor of Pennsylvania or a designee also is a Board member, as is the state Secretary of Education.[48]

Community colleges

Pennsylvania community colleges served 189,000 students in credit programs and over 256,000 students in non-credit programs during the 2005-2006 school year. On average, annual 2005-2006 tuition and fees were $2,327. Many community college students transfer to four-year programs at colleges and universities.[49]

Financial aid

The U.S. Department of Education as having one of the lowest default rates among all major guarantors through its highly successful default prevention initiatives.[50]


The fourth-oldest institution of higher learning in America, and arguably the oldest university, is the University of Pennsylvania, founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1740.

Data from the indentured servant contracts of German immigrant children in Pennsylvania from 1771-1817 showed that the number of children receiving education increased from 33.3% in 1771-1773 to 69% in 1787-1804. Additionally, the same data showed that the ratio of school education versus home education rose from .25 in 1771-1773 to 1.68 in 1787-1804.[51] The increase in the number of children being educated, and the fact that more students were being educated in school rather than at home, could help explain how near-universal literacy was achieved by 1840.[52]

Lincoln University, founded in 1854 and later named for President Abraham Lincoln, was the nation’s first historically black university to provide arts and sciences education and degrees to African-American students.

Until the Civil War, almost all education was conducted either in private schools or at home. Public schools first came on the scene in the second half of the nineteenth century.

The forerunner to the Pennsylvania Department of Education was created in 1834. The State Board of Education, which adopts regulations for the Department, was created in 1963.

See also


  1. ^ [1] 'Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE). Retrieved on 4-12-2009.'
  2. ^ [2] 'National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Retrieved on 4-12-2009.'
  3. ^ US Census Bureau (February 2012). "Education Attainment in the United States: 2009". 
  4. ^ 'PDE.'
  5. ^ 'NCES.'
  6. ^ 'PDE'
  7. ^ 'NCES.'
  8. ^ [3] 'U.S. Census Bureau (Table 11). Retrieved on 4-12-2009.'
  9. ^ Sen Andrew Dinniman, Testimony before Pennsylvania Senate Education Committee regarding the Costing Out Study, January 2010.
  10. ^ Sojak, Frank., Zahorchak leaving as Education Secretary, The Tribune Democrat, April 22, 2010
  11. ^ 'PDE'
  12. ^ [4] 'Pennsylvania Association of Intermediate Units. Retrieved on 4-12-2009.'
  13. ^ Pennsylvania Department of Education (2012). "Basic Education Funding 2012-2013 Fiscal Year". 
  14. ^ [5] 'The Official Site of Pennsylvania Governor Edward G. Rendell.'
  15. ^ Pennsylvania Department of Education (September 29, 2011). "About Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in Pennsylvania". 
  16. ^ Weaver, Rachel., Publics' edge: Districts can make AYP even if a school fails, Pittsburgh Tribune Review, January 24, 2012
  17. ^ Pennsylvania Department of Education, State wide AYP report 2011, 2012
  18. ^ Pennsylvania Department of Education, Pennsylvania System of School Assessment web site. Accessed April 2010.
  19. ^ Pennsylvania Department of Education Academic Achievement Report Card website Accessed April 2010.
  20. ^ Pennsylvania Department of Education, Pennsylvania Value Added Assessment System (PVAAS) website, accessed April 2010
  21. ^ Pennsylvania Department of Education Commonwealth Academic Achievement Report Card 2009
  22. ^ Pennsylvania Department of Education, State Report Card 2011, September 29, 2011
  23. ^ Pennsylvania Department of Education Commonwealth Academic Achievement Report Card 2010
  24. ^ Pennsylvania Department of Education Commonwealth Academic Achievement Report Card 2009
  25. ^ Pennsylvania Department of Education Commonwealth Academic Achievement Report Card 2008
  26. ^ Pennsylvania Department of Education Commonwealth Academic Achievement Report Card 2007
  27. ^ Pennsylvania Department of Education Commonwealth Academic Achievement Report Card 2006
  28. ^ Pennsylvania Department of Education Academic Achievement Report Card 2005
  29. ^ Pennsylvania Department of Education Commonwealth Academic Achievement Report Card 2004
  30. ^ Pennsylvania Department of Education Academic Achievement Report Card 2005
  31. ^ Pennsylvania Department of Education, State Report Card 2011, September 29, 2011
  32. ^ Pennsylvania Department of Education, State Report Card 2009, September 14, 2009
  33. ^ Pennsylvania Department of Education, State Report Card 2005, 2005
  34. ^ Pennsylvania Department of Education, Four More Cyber Charter Schools to Open in the 2012-13 School Year, July 09, 2012
  35. ^ Pennsylvania Department of Education (2012). "Pennsylvania Charter Schools 2009". 
  36. ^ Testimony of Dr. Gerald L. Zahorchak Deputy Secretary, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education Pennsylvania Department of Education before the Pennsylvania House Education Committee, Informational Meeting on Cyber Charter School Funding. Tuesday, July 31, 2007
  37. ^ Pennsylvania Department of education (2012). "Charter School Annual Reports and Enrollment Data". 
  38. ^ Home-Schooled, Charter School Children Can Participate in School District Extracurricular Activities, Pennsylvania Office of the Governor Press Release, November 10, 2005
  39. ^ 2010-2011 Pennsylvania Department of Education - Dual Enrollment Guidelines.
  40. ^ 2010-2011 Pennsylvania Department of Education - Dual Enrollment Grants by school district report 2009.
  41. ^ Pennsylvania Transfer and Articulation Agreement. Site accessed March 2010.
  42. ^ Pennsylvania College Remediation Report January 2009
  43. ^ National Center for Education Statistics, United States Department of Education, accessed April 2010
  44. ^ [6] 'Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association. Retrieved on 4-12-2009.'
  45. ^ [7] 'Pennsylvania Department of Education: Home Education and Private Tutoring. Retrieved on 4-12-2009.'
  46. ^ Approved Private Schools and Chartered Schools for the Deaf and the Blind, Pennsylvania Department of Education website, accessed April 2010.
  47. ^ Pennsylvania Department of Education, Approved Private Schools and Directory, April 2010.
  48. ^ [8] 'Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. Retrieved on 4-12-2009.'
  49. ^ [9] 'Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges. Retrieved on 4-12-2009.'
  50. ^ Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency 'WorldHeritage: Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency. Retrieved on 4-12-2009.'
  51. ^ 'Grubb, Farley. "Educational Choice in the Era Before Free Public Schooling: Evidence from German Immigrant Children in Pennsylvania, 1771-1817" The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 52, No. 2. (Jun., 1992), pp. 363-375.'
  52. ^ History of education in the United States 'WorldHeritage: History of Education in the United States. Retrieved on 4-12-2009.'
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