First lady Susan Corbett has been working on decreasing the high school dropout rate in Pennsylvania. Her efforts have produced a technology-based system to detect middle-school students who may later drop out and provide them with interventions.
Meanwhile, she recognizes that the state's public education funding and focus on high-stakes testing have been criticized as factors that could increase dropouts.
The first lady told the Mirror that she accepts research that says high-stakes testing like Keystone Exams can increase dropout rates. But she does not oppose plans of her husband, Gov. Tom Corbett, and the Legislature to make Keystones a graduation requirement beginning with the Class of 2017.
"We realize the dropout rate may actually have a little bump up at first because of it," she said, "because they are raising the bar. But what they've found, and the reason they've instituted the new exams, is because businesses and the military were complaining that kids were coming out of school and weren't ready. Or you look at the number of kids who come out of high school and go to college and spend a tremendous amount of money on remedial courses because they didn't learn in high school what they should have learned," she said.
The exams came out of the state's partial adoption of the national Common Core Standards.
Plans to make the exams a graduation requirement have met opposition from Democratic lawmakers and the state's teachers' union.
Susan Corbett stressed that Common Core is "not a federal program but begun by governors, not the federal government, to come up with national standards for a high school diploma."
"This is an effort to make sure kids who have a diploma earned a diploma," she said.
In regard to her middle-school dropout prevention effort called "Opening Doors," she said while sixth- to eighth-graders won't be included in graduation rate statistics until they reach high school, she believes attendance and the number of middle-school students moving successfully to the next grade will increase.
On the issue of state funding, research states dropout rates are correlated to a lack of it. According to a recent study published by the Harrisburg-based Education Law Center, "High dropout rates, and the resulting social and economic problems will persist in low-wealth communities without extra financial and technical support."
The state's share of total education spending in Pennsylvania has fallen from more than 50 percent in 1975 to only 37 percent in 2010, the education law center said.
"The funding issue is a complicated issue," Susan Corbett said. "What's driving the funding issue is pension costs. Until the Legislature is willing to address our pension crisis - and Tom talks about it - it's going to continue to put a strain on schools. Contributions to pensions have doubled since he became governor. And its going to get worse. Until the Legislature is willing to address the pension issue, it is going to continue to get worse.
"And Tom is going to continue to advocate for pension reform."
A budget analysis published by the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center stated that during the past two budget cycles during Corbett's administration, temporary federal stimulus funds were fully replaced for the corrections and welfare departments but not for education.
"An argument that education cuts were driven by the loss of temporary federal funds misses a significant fact - expired federal funds were replaced almost dollar-for-dollar with state funds in other departments, but not in education," the analysis stated.
When asked for a response, the first lady provided statistics from the Department of Education.
In the final two years of the Rendell administration, state support of public schools was cut by $540 million - from $9.1 billion to $8.5 billion. Over that two-year period, nearly $1.7 billion in one-time federal stimulus funding was used to replace and inflate education funding, she said.
"Not only did the stimulus money leave, but what happened [during the administration of Gov. Ed Rendell] was the state contributions to schools was spent other places and stimulus money backfilled the state funding and increased funding overall."
Since taking office, Gov. Corbett has increased state support of public schools by $1.17 billion, or 14 percent, to $9.75 billion, according to information she provided from the state.
Susan Corbett's Opening Doors initiative is scheduled to be fully available to schools next fall. The initiative is part of a national goal to end the high school dropout "epidemic," and to raise the nation's graduation rate to 90 percent by 2020. Currently one in five Pennsylvania students drops out.