Proposed education cuts termed 'catastrophic'

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No one expected Gov. Tom Corbett to propose spending more for education, but his proposal to spend more than $1 billion less -- including slicing state money for state-owned and state-related universities in half -- has left some reeling.

"It's even worse than I thought it would be," said Ron Cowell, a former state legislator who is president of the Education Policy and Leadership Council based on Harrisburg.

The governor's proposed budget also would affect school districts across the state. Pittsburgh Public Schools estimated its loss at $34.1 million. Mr. Corbett also called for a public school employee wage freeze and sought greater freedom to furlough teachers.

A news advisory from Penn State University called the cuts "catastrophic."

The 50 percent loss in state funding applies to the 14 state-owned universities -- including California, Clarion, Edinboro, Indiana and Slippery Rock -- as well as four state-related schools: the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State, Temple and Lincoln universities.

If enacted, they likely would amount to the largest single-year cut ever in American public higher education, according to the Washington D.C.-based American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

"There have been some very large proposed cuts from governors this year, but this is so far off the charts it doesn't even seem plausible," said Daniel Hurley, the association's director of state relations and policy analysis.

He said universities that had already faced repeated state cutbacks the last decade won't be able to offset a hit this large simply by raising tuition, even though predictions of a sizable increase in-state tuition are already reverberating on campuses.

"I'm just curious as to what the governor is expecting," Mr. Hurley said.

There are many ways to calculate how much the level of education funding has changed because part of the 2010-11 budget was funded by federal economic stimulus money that will not be renewed. Mr. Corbett doesn't count the economic stimulus money in his comparison. The bottom line is this: The enacted 2010-11 state budget shows a total of $11.5 billion for education. Mr. Corbett's proposal shows a total of $10 billion, a decrease of $1.5 billion.

Some said the magnitude of the cuts to higher education would undermine a relationship dating to the 1960s under which the state-related schools held down in-state tuition rates in return for sizable appropriations.

At Pitt, Chancellor Mark Nordenberg called the proposed cuts "stunningly deep." He said the subsidy that the governor wants to chop in half has enabled his school to keep base undergraduate tuition nearly $10,000 lower for Pennsylvanians.

"It would be virtually impossible for us to maintain the size of differential that exists today," he said. "There would have to be a very significant increase in the in-state tuition."

Pitt not only faces losing $80 million, but also the elimination of $17 million in state aid to support programs in the health sciences, including the medical school, dental school, Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, and the Center for Public Health Practice.

Mr. Nordenberg said Pitt also stands to lose $9 million in biomedical research support from the tobacco settlement fund on top of more than $7.5 million in federal stimulus funding that expires this year.

Noting that Pitt attracts $800 million annually in research that supports 28,000 jobs directly or indirectly, he said the proposed budget was a "puzzling retreat" from the governor's own agenda of job creation.

Mr. Nordenberg said the governor's cuts target a sector "that helped shield this region from the starkest effects of the recession."

Penn State is feeling the sting too. It stands to lose $182 million, or approximately 52 percent of its subsidy.

If approved, it would mean the portion of the university's operations covered by the state would slip to 4 percent. Mr. Nordenberg said the share at his school would also be less than 5 percent. In the mid-1970s, the state subsidy represented 30 percent of Pitt's operating budget.

Some students interviewed Tuesday said the governor ought to be more sensitive to struggles of those on campus today who are trying to get an education just as he once did -- especially in a state where public university prices are already the fourth-highest in the country.

"You're breaking people's dreams," said Kaitlyn Grzywinski, 19, of Saxonburg, a freshman at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. "This decision will ruin some people's chances of going to college. Cost is a huge factor."

To cope with the loss of stimulus money at the local level, Mr. Corbett called on public school employees statewide to agree to a one-year pay freeze, which he said would save districts $400 million.

Mr. Corbett cannot order such a freeze because employee pay is governed by existing contracts.

Mr. Corbett also called for relieving school districts of certain mandates that may add to costs, such as limitations on reasons they can furlough teachers.

James Testerman, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, noted hundreds of teachers had been laid off in anticipation of the budget.

"Our members recognize that this is a time for shared sacrifice," Mr. Testerman said in a statement. "We would expect that school districts have a clear plan showing how any savings from a freeze would go back into programs to benefit students."

Linda Hippert, executive director of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit which serves 42 school districts in Allegheny County and manages the Duquesne School District, said she thought that some school districts would find creative ways to save money, such as shared classes delivered via teleconference.

But the impact could be profound in low-income districts, such as Duquesne, she said, which rely heavily on state aid.

In a written statement, Pittsburgh Schools Superintendent Linda Lane said, "The state funding cuts to education, as proposed by the governor, will severely hamper our ability to continue to make progress toward our shared goal of improving the life prospects of our students."


Tracie Mauriello contributed. Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955. Bill Schackner: bschackner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1977.


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