Wolf delivers on his promise to boost Pennsylvania education spending
March 4, 2015 12:00 AM
Matt Rourke/Associated Press
Gov. Tom Wolf delivers his budget address for the 2015-16 fiscal year to a joint session of the state House and Senate in Harrisburg on Tuesday.
Matt Rourke/Associated Press
Gov. Tom Wolf delivers his budget address for the 2015-16 fiscal year to a joint session of the Pennsylvania House and Senate on Tuesday in Harrisburg, Pa.
Matt Rourke/Associated Press
Gov. Tom Wolf delivers his budget address for the 2015-16 fiscal year to a joint session of the state House and Senate in Harrisburg on Tuesday. Behind the governor are House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, left, and Lt. Gov. Michael Stack.
By Eleanor Chute, Mary Niederberger and Bill Schackner / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In his first budget proposal, Gov. Tom Wolf delivered on his campaign promise to increase support for education, boosting spending and savings by about $1 billion and spreading it around to preK classes, school districts, community colleges and public universities.
The proposal includes:
• $6.13 billion in basic education funding, an increase of 7 percent or $400 million. The total includes accountability and Ready to Learn block grants. It also takes into account his expectation that the Legislature will enact a new funding formula for spending this money after the bipartisan Basic Education Funding Commission issues its report on June 10.
• $1.1 billion for the special education subsidy, an increase of 9.6 percent or $100 million.
• $256.5 million combined for PreK Counts and Head Start Supplemental Assistance, both of which provide preschool education, an increase of about 88 percent or $120 million. That would add 14,000 children to the 17,000 now served.
• For higher education, double-digit increases in general support for the 14 state-owned and four-state related universities, part of a two-year plan to restore tens of millions of dollars in campus cuts from previous state budgets. Community colleges would see a $15 million increase. In return, the governor has asked for a tuition freeze at the community colleges and State System.
In all, the increase to education funding — counting PreK-12, higher education and the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency — amounts to about $820.7 million, an increase of about 7 percent. In addition, the governor cited the savings of $160 million from lowering the fee districts pay to cyber charter schools as well as $25 million sought from the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency for dual enrollment and other programs. He also has proposed other potential savings, including with the possibility of saving an additional $150 million in shared services and other savings from changes in the state pension system.
The proposal comes after schools across the state have faced tight budgets after the end of nearly $1 billion in federal stimulus money about four years ago. Estimates are that about $500 million to $600 million of that on an annual basis have not yet been restored.
“This is what parents have been waiting for,” said Jessie Ramey, a Point Breeze parent who writes the Yinzercation blog and has been active in lobbying for more state education funding. “This is really going to put us on track to get us back to where we were before the education cuts four years ago.”
News releases containing at least some praise for his proposal poured in from numerous education organizations.
However, the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools sees the governor’s proposal as a threat to the existence of charter schools, said executive director Robert Fayfich.
Mr. Wolf’s proposal includes reducing the fee school districts pay for each resident who attends a cyber charter school student to no more than $5,950 for a regular student, with additional amounts for special education students.
In addition, Mr. Wolf has proposed that regular charter and cyber charter schools be required to refund money to their sending school districts if the charter school’s audited expenditures are less than its tuition revenue. Mr. Fayfich said charters need such balances to meet unexpected expenses.
“It’s a very concerted effort from our perspective to try to kill the charter school option for parents,” Mr. Fayfich said.
The governor's proposed spending plan would provide larger increases in state funding for poor districts with above average special education populations and high charter school tuition bills.
Under Mr. Wolf's proposal, the Woodland Hills School District would see the biggest increase in special and basic education funding at 15.62 percent.
“I applaud him for being cognizant of the fact that districts like ours are really experiencing a crisis that is directly tied to funding,” said Woodland Hills superintendent Alan Johnson.
In Sto-Rox, where the district would see a 10.48 percent funding increase, superintendent Terry DeCarbo said the funds, if they do materialize, “will be funneled right back into the classrooms to better educate our students.”
Several superintendents and business managers said they were happy to see the governor addressing charter school issues, in particular the reinstatement of some charter tuition reimbursement and a flat rate tuition for cyber charter students. Among the four state-related universities, Penn State would get the highest percentage increase, 21.9 percent increase to $282.5 million. The University of Pittsburgh would receive a 10.9 percent boost to $151.2 million; Temple University would get a 7 percent increase to $155.4 million, and Lincoln would see a 7 percent increase to $14.1 million.
The 14 state-owned universities belonging to the State System of Higher Education would see an 11 percent boost to $458.1 million.
The governor’s office said the state-related universities were not being asked to freeze tuition because the state contributes a smaller share of their costs.
State System spokesman Kenn Marshall said the 14 state-owned universities still face budget uncertainties, including unresolved contract talks with most of its unions including faculty.
“We certainly will do all that we can to hold tuition level, but that’s not something we can completely commit to at this point,” he said.
After hearing his 41st budget address, Ron Cowell, former state legislator and president of the nonprofit Education Policy and Leadership Center, said the governor has “raised some really important questions, questions that for the most part state policymakers have ignored for a generation or more,” such as why public college tuition is so high or why the state is so heavily dependent on local property taxes to pay for K-12 education.
Now it remains to be seen how much support Mr. Wolf can garner from legislators.
David Hall, director of finance and operations for the North Hills School District, likened the impending legislative process to sausage making.
“[The governor is] throwing a whole bunch of stuff in the sausage machine. Something will come out the other end, and it will be fun to watch,” Mr. Hall said.
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