Corbett defends education record against Democratic challengers

Loss of stimulus aid from Washington central in debate

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In a series of campaign stops last week, Gov. Tom Corbett has spotlighted his proposals to direct more state money to education, an issue on which he has faced unrelentingly criticism from the Democrats who want his job.

Even before the Legislature deals with his newer plans, such as a $225 million block grant proposal for K-12 education, or a new $25 million scholarship program, Mr. Corbett's been boasting, in ads and in person, that his administration has steered a record amount of state dollars to basic education. Yet, at the same time, Democrats and school districts complain that his administration cut $1 billion from education.

The claims seem contradictory, but if you accept the definitions of each side, both are correct because they're not, strictly speaking, talking about the same things: The amount of state tax dollars devoted to the budget's basic education line item has climbed -- but the total amount of aid sent to school districts from the state has fallen since Mr. Corbett took office in the wake of the world financial crisis.

The big variable that explains the contrasting claims is the expiration of the federal stimulus program enacted to buffer the effects of the Great Recession. That program sent hundreds of millions of dollars to Pennsylvania, but its end came as this administration was crafting its first budget. For the school districts, the source of dollars distributed from Harrisburg was less important than the fact that the total amount they were receiving was cut dramatically.

Ron Cowell, president of the Education Policy and Leadership Center, and a former Democratic chairman of the House Education Committee, noted that the Rendell administration had taken advantage of the stimulus, allowing it to boost overall funding for education while at the same time cutting the amount of state tax dollars earmarked for schools.

In the 2009-10 fiscal year, the Democrat used some $650 million from the stimulus to shore up education spending. A little more than half of that, roughly $350 million, supplanted state tax dollars, freeing them for use in other areas of the budget, but $300 million represented a net increase for schools.

In the first few months of the Corbett term, the federal funds were still available but they dried up by the end of that fiscal year. The ensuing cuts to education programs meant a reduction of close to $1 billion for school districts across the state.

Mr. Corbett argues that everyone knew that stimulus program was temporary by design, and that schools districts should have anticipated the loss of those funds. The Republican, who took office facing a deficit projected at more than $400 million, said the cuts were among the tough choices that he was forced to make in the face of those harsh budget realities. Other departments, such a public welfare, also faced severe cuts.

The state dollars appropriated for basic education have crept back up in the last three years, justifying the Corbett claim of record spending in that area. But his first budget included other cuts in education spending, such as a block grant to reimburse school districts for the costs of charter schools, and that spending has yet to be fully restored. Critics also point out that an increasing share of state eduction dollars are being used to support payments for teachers' pensions, but Mr. Corbett has countered that the teachers' benefits represent a clear educational expense.

"It depends on what you count,'' Mr. Cowell said. "If you count dollars available for programs and support for services for students, school districts are still down hundreds of millions [of dollars] from where they were a few years ago.''

One result has been the loss of tens of thousands of teacher and support staff jobs across the state. Democrats complain further that administration funding polices have had a disproportionate impact on less affluent districts. The end of a block grant for the charter school reimbursement, for example, was felt particularly heavily in Philadelphia, which has a higher concentration for charters than most districts.

With the exception of state Treasurer Rob McCord, the Democrats running for governor don't claim that they could immediately restore all of the education cuts they complain of. All four candidates would find education dollars in a new severance tax on natural gas. Mr. McCord, of Montgomery County, has proposed a 10 percent levy, twice the rate proposed by his competitors. He projects that would produce first-year revenue of $1.8 billion and says that he would earmark $1.3 billion of that for education.

His competitor Katie McGinty, of Chester County, contends that a 10 percent rate is unrealistic and would never pass the Legislature. She has called for a 4.5 percent tax on the gas production coupled with a fee tied to the volume of gas produced and would devote all of that revenue to education. U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, of Montgomery County, and businessman Tom Wolf, of York, have called for a 5 percent levy. Ms. Schwartz said it would take her administration four years to gradually ramp up its education spending to a level that would restore school districts to adequate spending levels.

Mr. Wolf and Ms. McGinty have argued that the state should fund 50 percent of education costs to relieve the burden of local school taxes. Currently the state's pay about a third of those costs. That would represent a state spending increase well beyond the $1 billion figure the Democrats typically mention, and neither has spelled out how they would come up with those additional dollars.

The Democrats complain further that while the state has sent more tax dollars along in the second and third years of the Corbett administration, it is not distributed according to a predictable formula that would allow better long-range planning. In one of their many areas of policy agreement, the four candidates say they would impose such a formula rather than make the aid dependent on each year's legislative bargaining.

The Rendell administration meted out new education spending according to such a formula in its second term but it was set aside under his successor.

Politics Editor James O'Toole: or 412-263-1562.

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