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POWERBOOK 2012: Putting students firstRon Tomalis challenges Pennsylvania educators

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Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis, in his office at the Department of Education in downtown Harrisburg, is a graduate of Camp Hill High School and Dickinson College. Photo/Amy Spangler
Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis, in his office at the Department of Education in downtown Harrisburg, is a graduate of Camp Hill High School and Dickinson College. Photo/Amy Spangler

Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis’ position as point man for Gov. Tom Corbett’s education policies has put him at the center of controversies over testing, funding, charter schools and teacher evaluation.

Tomalis said students are the No. 1 priority in all of his decisions.

"There are important changes that need to take place," he said. "This is about making sure kids have their opportunities to get a quality education, regardless of where they live."

After students come parents and taxpayers, then the professionals in the system, he said.

Jim Buckheit, head of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, has known Tomalis since the mid-1990s.

"Ron is a deeply committed, focused leader," he said. "He believes deeply in the policies he advocates for."

"The secretary has been a very good advocate" for reforms the business community supports, such as school choice and competition, said Gene Barr, president of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry.

Tomalis is a Camp Hill native and 1980 graduate of Camp Hill High School. Among his high school experiences, he fondly recalls being an exchange student in Italy. At Dickinson College in Carlisle, he majored in political science and American studies.

He first served in state government as executive deputy secretary of the Department of Education during Gov. Tom Ridge's administration. Tomalis worked under Secretary Gene Hickock, whose student Tomalis had been at Dickinson.

In 2001, both men moved to the George W. Bush administration's Department of Education in Washington, D.C., where Hickock became a department undersecretary.

Tomalis served as Hickock's chief of staff, as counselor to Education Secretary Rod Paige and as acting assistant secretary in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. Among his duties was implementing the No Child Left Behind law.

In 2004, Tomalis left to become an education adviser in the private sector. Corbett nominated him to be secretary of education in January 2011, and the state Senate confirmed him that April.

Tomalis recalls his own education fondly. Both in high school and college, he had teachers who challenged him and pushed him to excel "in subjects I didn't think I'd be good at," he said.

Today, he is challenging Pennsylvania educators at all levels to improve their outcomes — and to do so under budget constraints.

Administration critics charge the Corbett administration with imposing draconian cuts on education. The state's K-12 public schools received roughly $900 million less in the 2011-12 and 2012-13 budgets than they did in under Gov. Ed Rendell in 2010-11.

Their funding constrained, 70 percent of school districts increased class size, 44 percent reduced electives and 35 eliminated tutoring programs in 2011-12, according to the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators. Districts eliminated more than 10,000 teaching positions in two years, the PASA calculated.

Meanwhile, the targets set by No Child Left Behind are getting more ambitious, said David Broderick, spokesman for the teachers union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association.

"It's extraordinary to believe you can get better results with fewer resources," he said.

Tomalis, however, said critics are taking as their baseline two budgets swelled by federal stimulus money — $655 million for basic education in both 2009-2010 and 2010-2011.

Too many education discussions in Harrisburg start with the issue of money, Tomalis said. Educators need to make sure taxpayers are getting the return on investment they deserve.

Since the 1990s, total education spending in Pennsylvania has doubled, yet enrollment has dropped 10 percent, he said.

Tomalis's voice takes on a biting tone as he rebuts the arguments of the education lobby. Though he chooses his words carefully, it's clear he has limited patience for those who, in his view, see increased funding as the default solution for educational problems.

Political battles notwithstanding, "a lot of great things in K-12 education are happening," Tomalis said.

In higher education, he said, the state benefits from its unusually wide variety of offerings: A strong community college system, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, Penn State, other state-related colleges and more than 125 private institutions.

The governor's Advisory Commission on Post Secondary Education is asking "some of the fundamental questions" about education's future, such as the role of online education, he said.

During the Ridge administration, the business community helped lead the push for higher standards, he said. Today, they can continue to help public education by creating "a sense of constructive discomfort," he said.

Business leaders can help educators understand the system's strengths and weaknesses, he said, such as the "skills gap" many employers say they see in job applicants.

"We need (the business community) to get engaged," he said.

About Ron Tomalis

Age: 50

Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science and American studies from Dickinson College

Family: Wife, Liz; three daughters

Hometown: Camp Hill

Current residence: Camp Hill

First job: Kitchen staff at Holy Spirit Hospital

Last book read: “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” by Mark Twain

Guiding philosophy: “Priorities are always in this order: students, parents, taxpayers and education professionals.”

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