Harrisburg, PA − April 8, 2020 − The Senate adjourned Tuesday afternoon after the House Republicans indicated they would not be taking up Senate Bill 841, legislation that would have enabled local municipalities to hold their meetings remotely, permitted e-notary use; lengthened the time period a property tax payer can receive an early payment discount and delay penalties for late payments to Dec. 31st; and allowed businesses to make delayed payments on EITC. Another important amendment offered by Senator Pam Iovino (D-Allegheny) allowed school districts to renegotiate contracts to ensure contracted school workers can get paid and continue to receive benefits.
The amended SB 841 passed the Senate with bipartisan support. While the Senate Democrats and Republicans chose to put partisan difference aside, the House Republicans were pushing to please special interests and big donors. Intending to use this crisis as leverage, Speaker Turzai and his caucus passed legislation to prematurely allow businesses to reopen during this public health crisis and create a partisan task force to interfere with the Governor’s disaster response, both of which unnecessarily risk lives and threaten to expend the emergency.
“While the Governor and Department of Health Secretary offer leadership on public safety in daily briefings and Democratic members of the PA House and Senate draft legislation to protect working people who are either out of work or employed on the front lines of essential businesses, Republicans are putting lives at risk and undermining the Governor and Secretary Levine’s best efforts to end this crisis,” said Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa, Jr. “Instead of taking the advice of our Health Secretary, they are trying to slow down our response and hasten the re-opening of non-essential businesses against the guidance of every public health entity in the country.”
The House Republicans were seeking even more egregious measures to provide civil immunity to big businesses, upend school districts ability to pay their teachers, and leave our corrections department employees at serious threat of the Coronavirus. Perhaps worst of all, the language does nothing to protect frontline workers, provide assistance to those that are out of work, or to help small businesses weather this crisis.
In an amendment to Senate Bill 327, House Republicans designed a task force with partisan appointees to usurp the Governor’s ability to rapidly respond to this quickly-evolving crisis. Their bill would require the Secretary of Health to leave PEMA, take hours away from public health crisis planning and defend her work in front of a redundant, political body.
The Senate Democratic Caucus will not support these bills. Alternatively, this caucus will be supporting legislation on the following issues:
- The American Working Family Relief Action Plan for front-line worker protections (Collett/L. Williams)
- Protecting workers during public health emergencies (Santarsiero)
- COVID-19 Food Worker Safety Act (Tartaglione)
- COVID-19 Grocery Store Worker Safety Act (Tartaglione)
- Payment of contract services in schools (Iovino)
- Childcare assistance (Schwank/L. Williams)
- Emergency expansion of the Family Medical Leave Act to provide paid sick leave (Farnese)
- Crisis grants for volunteer fire and EMS companies due to COVID-19 (Brewster)
- Require business interruption insurance to cover COVID-19 related business closures (Hughes)
- Eviction protection for all disaster emergencies (Farnese)
- Coronavirus disease and schools: allowing for online instruction (Dinniman)
- Creating a Common Wealth Fund to collect donations from individuals to provide for essential needs of those in need (AH Williams)
- Providing a presumption of eligibility for Workers’ Compensation benefits for workers that get sick in the workplace (Tartaglione)
- Ensuring receipt of a stimulus check from the Federal government is not included in an individual’s income for purposes of qualifying for social safety nets (Schwank)
- Exempting stimulus checks from the Federal government from State and local taxation (Brewster)
- Collaborating with financial institutions to mandate mortgage loan forgiveness, assistance to homeowners that were laid off due to state emergencies (Farnese)
“While many working Pennsylvanians are suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic, facing lost hours or even complete unemployment, others who find themselves in more fortunate circumstances have expressed a desire to help their fellow citizens by either donating to a local charity or patronizing local businesses,” said Senator Anthony H. Williams. “By establishing the “Pennsylvania Common Wealth” restricted account, taxpayers could redirect all or a portion of their stimulus check to the state, which in turn would be authorized to direct those funds into programs which help the neediest Pennsylvanians – property tax & rent rebates, temporary assistance for needy families, CHIP or medical assistance.”
“Pennsylvania needs solutions that help protect its working people who have been hit the hardest by the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic,” Senator Vincent Hughes said. “We in the Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Caucus have put forth a number of policy proposals that would do just that, meanwhile House Republicans have chosen to ignore these needs and push an agenda that jeopardizes public health and puts additional pressure on working people by delaying immediate relief. Our mission should be helping people in this unprecedented time of need and we will remain vigilant in protecting hardworking folks across the commonwealth.”
“As public servants, our most important duty is to protect the health, safety and welfare of our citizens. This includes making difficult decisions in challenging times. We all want businesses to reopen, employees back on the job, students back in classrooms and some semblance of normal life to resume, but that cannot happen unless we first continue mitigation efforts and follow the advice of our scientists and experts,” said Senator Wayne D. Fontana. “Anything contrary can set back progress and cause further harm on our economy and most importantly, on human health. The bipartisan legislation the Senate approved provides some necessary guidance and relief to local governments, businesses, school employees and property taxpayers during this unprecedented situation. It is unconscionable that House Republicans blatantly disregarded that duty and have chosen not to act.”
“The spread of coronavirus has not quieted the voice of special interests in Harrisburg and that’s tragic,” said Senator Larry Farnese. “Mitigation through isolation is working and we have to recognize that sacrifice through legislation that actually helps front-line workers instead of just saying nice things on social media.”
“This crisis and the Commonwealth’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic requires leadership, transparency and cooperation – not partisan politics,” said Senator John Blake. “While we’ve worked well with the Senate majority on real solutions that actually help people in this crisis, the House majority looks to undermine the executive authority of the Governor as well as the advice of medical and scientific experts regarding public health. I applaud the work being done by Governor Wolf and his administration to keep Pennsylvanians safe and to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. I will continue to support important legislation to help our business community, front-line workers and medical professionals; and to protect our citizens, schools and local governments across this state. We need to remain vigilant in following the recommendations of the PA Department of Health and the federal CDC.”
“Issues that the Commonwealth was already facing have been exacerbated by this pandemic, and child care services and early learning programs are near the top of the list. Childcare centers are teetering on the brink of insolvency, which is why part of our legislative package addresses early childhood learning and safe, quality childcare. We will not be able to restart Pennsylvania’s economy without this key component,” Senator Judy Schwank said. “Additionally, it’s vital that the income requirements of state programs like PACENET and Property Tax and Rent Rebate are adjusted so that Pennsylvanians receiving federal aid are not penalized later.”
“The key to an effective response to the pandemic is to ensure that our citizens are protected, health risks are addressed, and our economy restarts quickly,” Senator Jim Brewster said. “That’s why I introduced a six-point stimulus plan that will help small business, protect workers and create jobs once we are clear from the threat posed by the pandemic. In addition, we need to make sure to address the immediate and long-term needs of first responders and all workers and businesses who are providing essential services during this time of extraordinary stress.”
“There is no segment of our Commonwealth that hasn’t been upended by this crisis. Everything is a priority. But in order to save livelihoods, we must first save lives,” said Senator Maria Collett. “As a nurse, I know firsthand the challenges our health care workers are up against and the urgency of passing legislation like the American Working Family Relief Action Plan for Front-Line Workers. Our doctors, nurses, first responders, senior care aides and others should not have to worry about getting sick or infecting others while performing their essential work.”
“It is irresponsible for the state to reopen businesses at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak. Those who are not essential workers should remain home,” said Senator Art Haywood. “We need to do all we can as legislators to support essential employees risking their lives on a daily basis,” said Senator Haywood (D-Montgomery/Philadelphia). “I will continue to support the work Governor Wolf and Secretary Levine have done to inform the public to remain safe and stay home.”
“The citizens of Pennsylvania are counting on their elected representatives to save lives by responding swiftly, pragmatically, and in a bipartisan manner to slow the spread of this highly contagious virus,” said Senator Pam Iovino. “To fulfill our duty to the public, we must follow the consensus guidance of public health professionals, focus on protecting front-line essential workers, and put in place protections that allow furloughed or unemployed workers and small businesses to weather the economic disruption.”
“As the Democratic chair of the Local Government Committee, I worked with stakeholders for weeks to craft the provisions of SB 841, I am disappointed these commonsense measures, which passed the Senate with bipartisan support, are being held up by House Republicans for little reason,” said Senator Tim Kearney. “The House should immediately pass SB 841 and focus on bringing relief to Pennsylvanians, rather than sabotaging the Governor’s efforts to keep our families safe.”
“Yesterday, the majority party in both chambers failed to use their legislative power, where they can literally pass any bill they want to, and instead decided to pack up and go home without,” said Senator Katie Muth. “Failing to pass meaningful bills when people are fighting for their lives is simply negligent.”
“Now is not the time to play politics,” said Senator Steve Santarsiero. “Saving lives has to be the first priority. In order to do that, we must all do our part and follow the Governor’s and Department of Health’s plans as they’ve been explained to us countless times. SB 841 is just one of many ways our caucus has worked in a bipartisan effort to provide relief to those who need it most. However, SB 327 is exactly what our healthcare professionals warn us against. Promoting a premature return to normalcy will only undermine our effort to keep the public safe, and further endanger thousands of lives.”
“Government’s most important role is the protection of its people. Since the COVID-19 crisis the Senate has met three times, with little to show for it. Communities across the commonwealth have no interest in the paralysis of government especially in the most desperate of times. What they do care about is the protection of our essential workforce, the interruption of our small businesses, job loss, staying in their homes and educating their children. The only thing that matters is the preservation and protection of every resource needed to keep families safe during this health crisis,” said Senator Sharif Street.
“We need to be back in Harrisburg, we need to get back to work. We must work together to ensure our communities are protected during uncertain times.”
“As thousands of Pennsylvanians continue to get sick and hundreds die, now is no time to play partisan politics,” Senator Tina Tartaglione said. “As public leaders, we must unite behind the common goal of reducing the threat of this virus and mitigating the harm being done to our constituents. The package of bills we have proposed will directly help all Pennsylvania families, including essential workers, displaced workers, first responders, school children, those who have become sick, and those in need. I urge all legislators from all political parties to support these bills.”
“Stopping the spread of COVID-19 and saving lives is our top priority. We also need to protect and support our constituents, our communities, and our businesses,” said Senator Lindsey Williams. “Our front-line essential workers – our hospital workers, grocery store workers, emergency service personnel and others – cannot afford to wait for PPE. They needed it weeks ago. Our childcare facilities need our help to stay open and provide care to the children of our essential workers while they risk their lives for us. Our small businesses need financial support to stay afloat. Our municipalities need the ability to meet remotely and make decisions that will ensure the safety of all of residents. There are a lot of needs right now and our constituents do not have time for us to waste playing partisan games or naming bridges. The Senate Democrats have offered concrete solutions that will help people. We should all be working together to get them to the Governor’s desk for signature as soon as possible.”
More information on the work of the Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Caucus during the COVID-19 crisis can be found at pasenate.com/covid19.
Harrisburg – February 1, 2017 – State Senate Democrats said that Gov. Tom Wolf should call a special session of the General Assembly to ensure that legislation that results in significant property tax relief or total elimination is passed and signed into law this session.
At a news conference today at the state Capitol, Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) said taxpayers of Pennsylvania have waited too long for relief from escalating tax bills.
“We believe there should be a full, complete and transparent discussion of any and all tax relief or elimination proposals,” Costa said. “A special session provides the kind of platform that is needed for citizens and lawmakers to understand specifics about each proposal.”
Leading the call for the special session, state Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Northampton) said, “Relief from property tax needs to be addressed without delay.”
In the letter to the governor, the Democrats stated, “Our taxpayers have waited far too long for action on this important issue. They want lawmakers to set aside partisan agendas and enact a significant property tax reform or elimination measure–NOW.”
Working families are struggling to pay mortgages and save for college for their children while seniors have to scrape resources together to make ends meet; property taxes add to their burden, the letter said.
Boscola, who has been a long-time advocate of property tax elimination and relief, said that “my goal is to pass legislation that will eliminate the property tax and replace it with a better system to fund public education. Our homeowners deserve it and our children need it.”
Another strong proponent of calling the special session is Senate Democratic Whip Sen. Anthony H. Williams (D-Philadelphia/Delaware).
“Addressing property tax relief or elimination needs to be a top priority, but is critical that we look at all the plans closely and find common ground,” Williams said. “A special session will force the General Assembly to focus on the issue, act assertively and come forward with a proposal that is balanced and equitable.
“Our property taxpayers have waited long enough.”
Senate Democratic Appropriations Chair Sen. Vincent J. Hughes (D-Philadelphia/Montgomery) endorsed the call for a special session.
“The issue of property taxes has been a top priority for Pennsylvanians, many of whom have seen significant tax increases over the past few years,” Hughes said. “This special session would serve as an opportunity to thoroughly examine how we can provide the sustainable property tax relief that Pennsylvanians want and deserve while ensuring that our school districts are still properly funded.”
Sen. John Blake (D-Lackawanna) said that a special session will allow lawmakers to fashion a plan that strikes a balance between property tax relief and reliable state support for public education.
“For many Pennsylvanians – particularly our seniors and lower income property owners – there is a very real school property tax crisis. I remain committed to a responsible solution that can significantly reduce and, if possible, eliminate the property tax burden on these lower income property owners,” Blake said. “I believe strongly that a special session on property tax reform can finally allow the legislature to strike the appropriate balance between property tax relief and the assurance of sufficient, predictable and reliable state financial support for public education.”
Sen. Jim Brewster (D-Allegheny/Westmoreland) said he hoped a special session will spur lawmakers to act.
“For too long our taxpayers have watched while the General Assembly has tried to deal with reducing property taxes,” Brewster said. “There are many plans now being drafted or considered and lawmakers need to come together on a plan that provided real relief or elimination. Taxpayers have waited too long.
“A special session is an excellent forum for all plans to be discussed, including the plan to totally eliminate property taxes.”
Sen. Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia) said that there are several approaches to address tax reform, but lawmakers need to be thoughtful about how tax elimination impacts schools.
“If we’re going to get serious about providing property tax relief or elimination, we must do it thoughtfully. We certainly can’t hastily approve an elimination plan at the expense of our public schools,” Street said. “There are several approaches to addressing property taxes, so a special session would provide us with a clearer path toward true relief.”
Sen. Judy Schwank (D-Berks), who has long been an advocate of property tax elimination, said school property tax is a complicated issue.
“One large source of revenue for school funding must be replaced with multiple other sources, and we must do this fairly and uniformly,” Schwank said. “Let’s use this special session to strike a balance between relieving the heavy burden property owners face, while also providing our schools with a reliable source of investment.”
Sen. Art Haywood (D-Philadelphia/Montgomery) said that property tax reform is a complex issue, but one that must be addressed.
“Property taxes remain an important issue to address. I still maintain that the appropriate solution will prove complex. We must dedicate time and effort to ensure the solution is successful,” Haywood said.
“The property tax is no longer sustainable as the sole source of funding for public education. It is high time for us to come together in the spirit of bipartisanship to develop and enact new and lasting solutions to the ongoing burden of rising property taxes on Pennsylvania homeowners,” Sen. Andy Dinniman (D-Chester) who serves as minority chair of the Senate Education Committee said. “This is a process that must involve both school districts and direct input from taxpayers and homeowners.”
The governor is empowered to call a special session of the General Assembly under the provisions of Article II, Section 4 and Article IV, Section 12 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.
Wilkinsburg, August 4, 2016 – At the request of state Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa, a joint state Senate-House Democratic Policy Committee hearing was held today on efforts and resources to fight blight within our communities, including the successes and challenges of land banks.
“Blight is a scourge that impedes both business and residential interest in a community,” Costa said. “We must do what we can to give our municipalities the resources, tools and flexibility they need to quickly eradicate blight and begin revitalization efforts.”
Costa said blight poses health and safety risks, reduces neighborhood property values, drains municipal revenue on enforcement and maintenance efforts, and discourages community investment and growth.
Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Northampton), who chairs the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, said “transforming dilapidated properties from community liabilities to revitalization linchpins must be our shared goal.”
Boscola added that Pennsylvania has approximately 300,000 vacant properties – many of them eye-sores. She said legislators should steer clear of “one-size-fits-all solutions” and give local government leaders the “flexibility to tailor revitalization efforts that fit their unique needs.”
State Rep. Ed Gainey (D-Allegheny), who co-chaired the hearing, said the state has passed several laws in recent years aimed at assisting local governments in blight removal and revitalization initiatives. He added that there are also numerous proposals under consideration in the legislature that would generate more funding for demolition and revitalization work and toughen penalties against absentee owners.
Costa said a 2012 law that established land banks provides an innovative way to acquire and ready properties for reinvestment. He pointed to the local Tri-COG Land Bank as a “promising program that numerous Allegheny county communities should look into.” Tri-COG recently received a pledge of $1.5 million in seed funding from the Heinz endowment.
A land bank acquires blighted properties, clears delinquent taxes and liens, and prepares the property for investment and revitalization – all aimed at returning the property to the tax rolls and productive use. A county or municipality must have a population of at least 10,000 to form a land bank. Local governments have the option of joining and must pay 5 percent of yearly delinquent tax collections to help fund the program.
Urban Redevelopment Authority Director Kyra Straussman lamented that a fourth of the city’s footprint is abandoned and vacant property that the government does not control.
“While our tax base is eroding, we are simultaneously directly paying millions in tax dollars annually to keep problem vacant and abandoned property just as it is,” she said.
Matt Madia, who serves as chief strategy and development officer for Bridgestone Capital investment program, discussed his firm’s revitalization work, including its $9.6 million effort to revitalize the Homewood neighborhood in Pittsburgh. He said some of their business loans have resulted in new businesses occupying commercial space that would otherwise be vacant. He said providing this core business sector with its products and services helps make a neighborhood “welcoming and livable.”
Mark Mohn, vice-chair state Association of Realtors Legislative Committee, said rising property local taxes has worsened the blight problem by making home ownership less affordable. He said lawmakers should consider shifting the tax burden away from homeowners to more broad-based local and state resources.
“It’s time to stop picking the pockets of homebuyers,” Mohn added, suggesting that lawmakers should consider allowing bond referendums and Social Impact Bonds where municipalities can pay back outside investors for transforming blighted properties into productive ones.
Others who testified were: Cynthia Whitman Daley, policy director of the PA Housing Alliance; Tracey Evans, executive director of the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation; A. William Schenck, TriState Capital Bank Board Member, Pennsylvania Economy League of Greater Pittsburgh; An Lewis, Director, Steel Rivers COG; Daniel Lavelle, board member, Pittsburg Land Bank; and Liz Kozub, Community Development coordinator, Turtle Creek COG.
Joining Costa, Gainey and Boscola were Senators John Blake (D-Lackawanna), Jim Brewster (D-Allegheny/Westmoreland), Wayne Fontana (D-Allegheny), and Representatives Chris Sainato (D-Lawrence) and Paul Costa (D-Allegheny).
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Harrisburg – October 28, 2015 – At the request of state Sen. Vince Hughes (D-Phila.), the Senate Democratic Policy Committee today held a hearing on the devastating impact that the state’s 120-day budget impasse is having on schools across the state.
“While many of the budget dispute points remain unresolved, what is clear is that the consequences of this impasse are far-reaching,” said Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Northampton), who chairs the committee. “This hearing gives lawmakers a sense of how schools are handling the funding shortfall, and what problems they’ll face if this stalemate continues to drag on.”
Hughes added, “A growing number of schools have been cornered into borrowing money and taking out credit lines just to keep their doors open. Hopefully, this hearing’s focus on this worsening statewide financial crisis will encourage greater urgency, cooperation and compromise in the ongoing budget negotiations.”
During the hearing, state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale testified that at least 27 school districts have taken out loans totaling more than $431 million. He projected that interest payments will total $30 million if the stalemate reaches mid-November.
Those who testified decried how the impasse has harmed students, depleted reserves and how taxpayers will be needlessly saddled with paying the interest on the growing number of loans and credit lines that schools are obtaining to keep their doors open.
Erie Public Schools Superintendent Jay Badams lamented that his district will need to borrow $30 million just to get through January.
“That’s $114,000 in wasted interest money that could have been used for so many badly needed educational expenses,” Badams said.
Dr. Joseph Roy, who serves as superintendent of the Bethlehem Area School District in Northampton County, added that “choices at the state level continue to hammer school districts.” He said the diversion of funds to charter and cyber schools and a “punitive” approach to public education has blown up school expenditures.
Dr. Rula Skezas, who serves as superintendent of the McKeesport Area School District in Allegheny County, noted that even if the district receives its proposed funding it would still fall short of what it received during the 2011 school year. She said McKeesport has taken out a $5 million line of credit to make it to December. She said the district has already eliminated 110 staff positions to try and make ends meet.
Hughes, who serves as Democratic chair of the Appropriations Committee, said public, charter and private schools are already reeling from years of being underfunded. He noted that the Philadelphia School District has already borrowed $275 million during the impasse. Fran Burns, who serves as chief operating officer for the School District of Philadelphia, testified that the district has struggled to contend with a “structural deficit.”
Lamenting the impact on local working families who fund schools through property taxes, Boscola pointed toward an educational survey conducted earlier this year showing that nearly 75 percent of districts were planning to impose property tax hikes, 30 percent were planning on making additional program cuts, and 41 percent were making more staff cuts. She said the state has withheld approximately $3 billion in school funds since the budget impasse began in July.
Joining Boscola and Hughes at the Capitol committee hearing were Senators John Blake (D-Lackawanna), Jim Brewster (D-Allegheny), Andrew Dinniman (D-Montgomery), Christine Tartaglione (D-Phila.) and Sean Wiley (D-Erie),
Those testifying included:
- The Honorable Eugene DePasquale
Pennsylvania Auditor General
- Fran Burns
Chief Operating Officer, School District of Philadelphia
- Joseph Gorham
Superintendent of Schools, Carbondale Area School District
- Dr. Joseph Roy
Superintendent of Schools, Bethlehem Area School District
- Dr. Jay D. Badams
Superintendent, Erie Public Schools
- Dr. Rula S. Skezas
Superintendent, McKeesport Area School District
- Marjorie Neff
Chair, School Reform Commission
- Anthony Pirrello
CEO, Montessori Regional Charter School of Erie, and Vice President of Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools
- Matt Przywara
Chief Financial and Operations Officer, School District of Lancaster
- Bill LaCoff
President, Pennsylvania School Boards Association
- Susan Gobreski
Education Voters of Pennsylvania
- Dr. Pearl English
School Nurse, School District of Philadelphia
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Brewster speaks about his legislation to revamp current system of student testing
Harrisburg, May 14, 2013 – State Sen. James Brewster joined with his Senate Democratic colleagues at a news conference this week to decry a new unfunded education mandate that could saddle cash-strapped school districts with a $300 million expense and threaten graduation for thousands of students across Pennsylvania.
There is no specified funding or plan to provide for the remedial instruction, the redesign of curriculum, or the project-based assessments for those who repeatedly fail the new testing that is part of the Corbett Administration Common Core mandate, according to Brewster (D-McKeesport). In addition, the senator said that an entirely new testing plan may be necessary.
“There is a serious need to look closer at student testing and develop a better approach that most accurately reflects student achievement and school performance,” Brewster said. “Today’s testing system is inherently flawed and in dire need of restructuring.”
Recognizing the growing frustration with how student performance is assessed, Senator Brewster has proposed Senate Bill 823, which would create a bi-partisan, bi-cameral commission to evaluate, revise or replace the current system of student testing.
The Student Performance Measurement Advisory Commission would make recommendations to either revise heavily or replace the current testing structures that apply to students, teachers and school districts.
“For too long, too many have had questions about student testing methods– especially now that student test scores are being used for more than evaluation of student performance,” Brewster added. “We need fair testing, fair standards and an equitable approach.
“Expanding the use of student testing to determine student and school performance, district distress and teacher proficiency is the wrong approach.”
Brewster said that he has spoken to many professional educators and they believe the current tests fail to account for socio-economic, environmental, economic disparities and cultural differences.
“Pennsylvania needs a fair, responsible student testing system that truly reflects performance in the classroom,” Brewster added. “We need to reorder and refocus what we are doing in regards to student testing. Using the commission that I’ve called for in SB 823 will give us the platform to make serious, systemic changes in our approach to student testing and its applicability.”