Pennsylvania education budget gets mixed reviews

Basic subsidy static;

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Gov. Tom Corbett's proposed budget begins to move the needle on state education spending in some areas, although the 3.2 percent increase in the total doesn't necessarily fill the gap.

"This basically begins to restore what still in September 2013 was a $700 million shortfall of state resources to districts as compared to three years earlier," said Ron Cowell, president of the Education and Leadership Policy Center, a nonprofit group based in Harrisburg.

The $12.01 billion proposed education budget represents a $387 million increase over the current year, according to state budget figures. About $105 million of the increase goes toward rising school pension costs.

The majority of the increase, $241 million, is to be added to the existing $100 million accountability block grant to create a Ready to Learn Block Grant that schools could spend on specific programs.

Those include helping students to read by grade 3, supplemental instruction and STEM -- science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- education.

The budget proposal calls for flat funding of the basic education subsidy for school districts, increased special education funding for the first time in six years by $20 million to $1.05 billion and raising spending for PreK Counts by $10 million to $97.3 million.

In higher education, Mr. Corbett proposed essentially flat funding, although he wants to start a merit-based $25 million college scholarship program for families earning up to $110,000 a year.

In Pittsburgh Public Schools, superintendent Linda Lane described her reaction as "mixed," saying she would have liked to have more money in basic education subsidy. But she said it is "great" that the Ready to Learn Block Grant could result in nearly $3 million additional for the district.

"The things it can be used for are certainly aligned with our goals and milestones," she said.

The formula to determine the amount of block grant money each district receives is weighted toward those with higher poverty levels. Lower-achieving districts have more restrictions on the use of the funds than higher-achieving ones.

In Sto-Rox, acting superintendent Frank Dalmas said, "The Ready to Learn Block Grants will be a welcome relief from the restricted educational budgets in past years."

The West Mifflin Area School District will see $500,000 in Ready To Learn money under the governor's proposal, said superintendent Dan Castagna. The district will use the funds to support its all-day kindergarten program.

Mr. Castagna hopes the PreK Counts money will be enough to open another preschool section at Homeville Elementary.

The McKeesport Area School District could see an additional $752,000 in Ready To Learn funds, but business manager David Seropian said he's waiting to see how the district can use it.

"We don't need money with strings. We need money to be used for what we need to use it for, which is reducing class size," Mr. Seropian said. "The supplemental money will be great if it's for tutoring. They cut tutoring money before, and we have a need for that."

The Ready To Learn program includes $1 million for high performing schools to share their best practices.

Quaker Valley superintendent Joseph Clapper said his district could be eligible for such grants, but he said he needs more details.

"I'm not sure how you go about implementing it. While we have some things here that are phenomenal, what works here might not work somewhere else," Mr. Clapper said. "We are experts where we are."

The additional support for PreK Counts would add about 1,670 children to the 11,800 already served.

"We know it's a tough budget year, and we're happy to see the increase to PreK Counts," said Michelle Figlar, executive director of the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children, adding, "It's a good first step for getting more kids into high quality preK, but we still have a ways to go."

For Pennsylvania's state-owned and state-related universities, funding was generally unchanged, as was the level of support to the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency for its state grant program.

Mr. Corbett's $25 million merit-based scholarships of up to $2,000 would be geared toward middle-income families with earnings traditionally too high for PHEAA awards, said an administration spokesman Tim Eller.

The governor offered colleges and universities a challenge. "I urge these schools to match the grants," he said. "Let's give every Pennsylvania student a fresh start."

Responding to the $412.8 million pegged to help run the 14 State System of Higher Education member schools, board chairman Guido Pichini acknowledged Pennsylvania's financial difficulties and added, "Our students and their families face those same kinds of challenges every day."

He said the system "will continue to advocate for any additional funding that may become available, especially in support of our special initiative to develop and expand degree programs that meet the commonwealth's priority needs."

Reacting to the $136.3 million proposed for the University of Pittsburgh, spokesman Ken Service said: "We appreciate the efforts to sustain current levels of state support, but flat funding continues to put us at a significant disadvantage in building budgets."

Penn State University's appropriation of $214.1 million was level, but agriculture aid grew by $1.5 million to $47.7 million and $2.5 million was earmarked for Penn State's regional medical campus.

Penn State president Rodney Erickson expressed gratitude for those expansions, adding, "We hope that the revived economic environment will now also allow for a similar increase in the university's main appropriation."

Eleanor Chute: or 412-263-1955. Mary Niederberger: or 412-263-1590. Bill Schackner: or 412-263-1977.

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