Proposed budget has few increases for education in Pennsylvania

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Modest increases in special education and block grant funding in the state budget that the Legislature approved will not be enough to overcome the challenge of flat funding in the $5.526 billion basic education subsidy for school districts, according to school officials.

"Anything more than you anticipate is good, but it's still basically flat-funded. It really doesn't make a big impact on your entire budget," said Dennis Cmar, business manager of the West Mifflin Area School District.

On the higher-education front, state-related universities, including the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State and the 14 state-owned universities, also will see their funding levels remain the same as in 2013-14, but community colleges are in line to get a $3.5 million increase across their 14-college system.

Elizabeth Johnston, spokeswoman for Community College of Allegheny County, said CCAC officials welcome the additional funding, but Pitt spokesman Ken Service pointed out that this marks the third year of flat funding for Pitt, "coming on the heels of a $47 million reduction in our operating budget. We believe that sooner or later, Pennsylvania needs to invest more in higher education."

Kenn Marshall, spokesman for the State System of Higher Education, declined comment until the budget becomes law. Gov. Tom Corbett has so far withheld his signature from the spending plan the Legislature approved Monday because it did not include a pension reform provision.

The state has released no official budget presentation, but advocacy and professional groups have released details in recent days through legislative documents and summaries.

Jay Himes, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business officials, and John Callahan, senior director of government affairs for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, saw some positives, given the increases, however slight, in special education, block grant funding and the $10 million added to the pot for school construction reimbursements to school districts, which are several years in arrears.

"We've had some successes here," Mr. Callahan said.

The basic education subsidy to school districts will remain at $5.526 billion, but the increase in special education funds includes $19.8 million that will be distributed to the state's 500 school districts on the basis of a three-tiered formula that considers the severity of a student's disability and other factors. In an earlier budget version, payments to charter schools were to be based on the tiered system but not in the final version, which disappointed the PSBA, Mr. Callahan said.

Ron Cowell, president of the Education Policy and Leadership Center, said while it's encouraging to see the increase in special education funding after six years of flat funding, it's important to note that special education costs to districts have risen more than $400 million during that time.

The increase in block grant funding comes in the form of $200 million in Ready to Learn block grants, a total that is $100 million more than what was available the previous year in Accountability Block Grants. The total is doubled from last year, but it is $141 million less than what the governor proposed in his February budget draft.

The Ready To Learn money is expected to be allotted figuring $213 per student plus other factors such as poverty and English language learners. Although appropriated amounts have been estimated for each district, districts must still apply to use the block grants for various purposes. The grants also are available to charter schools.

In Allegheny County, the awards for traditional districts range from $40,839 in Cornell to $1.2 million in Pittsburgh. For charter schools, they range from $9,227 at Academy Charter School to $41,538 at Propel Homestead. Cornell superintendent Aaron Thomas said his district likely would use some of the funds for Keystone Exams supplemental instruction.

The $10 million the Legislature added to the school construction plan known as PlanCon is significant because it ends a moratorium that has existed in the program in recent years, but it is a drop in the bucket in the fund, which will pay out $306 million this year. School officials say it will do little to ease the backlog of about $1.2 billion in construction reimbursements due to school districts, including more than a dozen in Allegheny County.

Also included in the budget for higher education costs is $5 million for merit-based Ready to Succeed scholarships of as much as $2,000 for students whose families earn as much as $110,000. The governor wanted $25 million for the scholarship fund.

The Legislature's plan for early childhood education funding mirrors the governor's, including a $10 million increase for PreK Counts, bringing it to $97.3 million.

Mary Niederberger:; 412-263-1590; Eleanor Chute:; 412-263-1955.

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