Corbett budget plan for Pennsylvania raises special education funding

Governor also will seek scholarships, teacher training

HARRISBURG -- Gov. Tom Corbett today will call for new funding for special education, scholarships for higher education, teacher training and curriculum in a final budget proposal before he faces re-election.

The governor will propose creating a $240 million block grant, called Ready to Learn, that would be available to schools to train teachers and develop curriculum, though not to pay teacher salaries, said Jay Pagni, press secretary for Mr. Corbett. He described the money as "highly targeted, results-oriented, performance-based funding." High-performing schools would have a greater range of options for using the grant.

Mr. Corbett also will propose adding $20 million to a base of special education funding that has remained level, at $1.026 billion, for six years, Mr. Pagni said.

The governor will call for basic education funding, which makes up the bulk of state money for K-12 schools, to remain at the current level of $5.5 billion.

Universities in the State System of Higher Education, such as California University of Pennsylvania and Slippery Rock University, as well as state-related schools, such as the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State University, will receive the same funding as in the current year under the proposal, Mr. Pagni said.

But Mr. Corbett will propose creating a $25 million post-secondary scholarship fund for Pennsylvania students attending a college, university or trade school in the state, he said. Students with family incomes up to $110,000 who meet academic standards would be eligible for scholarships of up to $2,000.

Democrats and teachers unions have vigorously criticized Mr. Corbett's handling of education funding, particularly in the sharp decrease in subsidies that accompanied the end of federal stimulus money in his first budget. Legislative Democrats again have called for significant increases in state money for schools, with Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, saying last week that education should receive an additional $250 million to $300 million next year.

The administration shared the budget figures under the condition of a late-night embargo, precluding the gauging of reaction before publication.

A representative of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, reached this morning, dismissed the block grant proposal as "an election-year gimmick" designed to distract from previous cuts to education funding.

"Now he’s proposing to 'train' teachers on how to do more with less," spokesman Wythe Keever said in an email. "Perhaps the governor’s teacher training program could help train teachers how to teach with larger class sizes, and how to make up for eliminated programs that help students learn, like full-day kindergarten and after-school tutoring and Advanced Placement classes."

The teachers union did praise the proposed increase in funding for special education.

The education measures would be part of a $29.4 billion proposed state general fund, a $1 billion increase from the current year. Mr. Pagni said the administration expects the state to take in approximately $30.3 billion in revenue in the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Observers will be watching today to see how Mr. Corbett proposes closing a budget shortfall his administration projected at $1.3 billion. Among the mechanisms will be a proposed reduction in the increase in employer contributions to the retirement system for state and public school workers. State payments are scheduled to rise $610 million next year under current law.

Mr. Corbett will propose the reduction in payments alongside a call for newly hired employees to be enrolled in a new retirement system, he and aides said last week. Rather than a defined contribution plan, the administration is now considering a hybrid plan with components of both a traditional pension and a 401(k)-style plan.

In its proposal for special education, the administration will support the recommendations of a recent state report on such funding. The Special Education Funding Commission concluded that new money should be distributed through a formula that considers the number of special education students and the intensity of their needs, along with poverty levels, property taxes and whether the district is small and rural.

"You're going to see the first new investment in six years in special education," said Charles Zogby, Mr. Corbett's budget secretary. "We're looking to drive that money out in a way that's consistent with the special education commission report that came out recently."

For years, the state has allocated funding for special education without regard to the number or needs of students receiving services in particular districts. But the proportion of such students varies widely from the statewide rate of 15.2 percent, dropping to less than 10 percent in some districts and surpassing 25 percent in others.

In December, when the commission released its report, the recommendations were met with praise by the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators and the Education Law Center, a statewide legal advocacy group that supports increasing funding both for special education and overall K-12 education.

Karen Langley:, 1-717-787-2141 or on Twitter @karen_langley.

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