Education basic subsidy up, but some say levels are too low
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Gov. Tom Corbett's proposed state education budget for 2013-14 contains enough ideas to spark a lively debate for months.
First, there's the money. After school districts lost about $1 billion largely in federal funds in each of the last two years, the proposed budget provides $90 million additional for basic education funding, which the governor's materials described as "the first increase [in basic education subsidy] in two years."
That would bring the basic education subsidy for K-12 schools to $5.49 billion, a 1.67 percent increase.
Higher education funding to both state-owned and state-related universities as well as community colleges would remain $1.2 billion.
In his budget address Tuesday, Mr. Corbett noted the public university leaders had agreed to keep tuition increases "as low as possible."
"I think the best news is that the cutting has stopped for K-12 and higher education," said Ron Cowell, president of the Education Policy and Leadership Center.
"Beyond that, the small increases that are suggested for K-12 -- and it is only a $90 million increase -- don't begin to get school districts and programs and services for students back to where they were two years ago."
That $90 million is allotted across the state's 500 school districts, so that all would get at least as much basic education subsidy as they did in the current year and a formula will determine extra.
The result is that Pittsburgh Public Schools would receive an increase of 0.75 percent in basic education subsidy, the second-lowest percentage in Allegheny County next to Duquesne's 0.74 percent, while the highest percentage in the county would be 4.86 percent in the South Fayette School District.
Pittsburgh Public Schools spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said officials were glad to see an increase was budgeted, saying that helps financial stability and planning.
In North Hills, which would have a 2.93 percent increase, superintendent Patrick Mannarino said, "After the past two years of education-crippling budget cuts, Gov. Corbett's intention to increase public education funding signifies a welcome change. However, the monies proposed are a minimal improvement and do not begin to come close to making up what was lost by public education in recent years."
Mr. Corbett's proposal calls for the sixth consecutive year of flat funding for special education at $1 billion.
Mr. Cowell said the flat special education funding over the years has shifted "hundreds of millions of dollars of additional responsibility to school districts without any state help available."
The governor's proposal includes an increase for early childhood education, providing additional amounts of $5 million for early intervention, $4.5 million for pre-K Counts and $1.9 million for Head Start, for a total of $348.4 million, an increase of 3.4 percent.
Mr. Corbett's proposal also includes about $1 billion over four years for "Passport for Learning Block Grants" -- if the state sells its liquor stores and uses proceeds to pay for the grants. The plan calls for grants to be awarded in spring 2014 and $200 million to be available for school districts in 2014-15.
Mr. Cowell said the Passport money would be temporary and would not provide districts with long-term help.
The Passport money would support four initiatives: school safety; ensuring students are at grade level by third grade; individualized, self-paced learning aimed at mastery; and STEM -- science, technology, engineering and math -- skills.
In his budget address, Mr. Corbett spoke of what his proposal would accomplish.
"My budget works to provide our public schools with enrichment funding to help them achieve academic excellence at all grade levels. It provides for enhanced learning opportunities, career-focused training and -- most importantly -- a safe learning environment," he said.
Both teacher unions issued statements criticizing the governor's proposed education budget.
In a news release, Mike Crossey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said, "This proposal is not only shortsighted and unsustainable, but it also treats the education of our children as a pawn in some larger political game."
Rosemary Boland, executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers -- Pennsylvania, released this statement: "At a time when Pennsylvania needs sustainable education funding, Gov. Corbett offers little new funding and a small restricted block grant in exchange for acquiescing to his agenda of privatizing public employee pensions and selling the state's liquor stores for private profit."
Joan Benso, president and CEO of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, gave a more positive review of the governor's proposal.
In a news release noting early childhood increases and other state spending for children, Ms. Benso said, "Gov. Corbett's spending plan begins to move Pennsylvania in the right direction when it comes to common-sense investments in our children, who are without question Pennsylvania's greatest resource."
The news release called the $90 million increase in basic education funding a "meaningful installment toward a larger, long-term investment to close the adequacy gap for public school districts."
First Published February 6, 2013 12:17 am