Gov. Tom Corbett wants to infuse schools with an extra $387 million — much of it from a program that would reward those that score higher in a new state assessment.
Better performing schools would have more flexibility to decide how to spend their share of a $240 million “Ready to Learn” block grant.
The program is designed to ensure money is spent on proven classroom strategies, said Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq. It would be based on scores calculated in the state’s new School Performance Profiles, unveiled last fall. Poor performing schools must use their grants for improving their pre-K to grade three curriculum and training to support early childhood education or science, technology and math. The best schools in the state can get part of a $1 million grant to share their secrets of success.
Corbett, who was widely expected to boost school spending in the budget released Tuesday, was hesitant to just fold new money into the $5.5 billion already given to schools through the basic education funding formula, Dumaresq said. That formula has been roundly criticized; the House recently voted to impanel a commission to devise a new way to divide education dollars.
Corbett’s new education plan drew its own share of critics. The Pennsylvania State Education Association dismissed the block grant as requiring schools to follow “a short list of state prescribed initiatives.” Democrats said the increase in school spending doesn’t make up for cuts in prior years.
“Pennsylvania students, taxpayers, teachers and administrators have had to absorb significant cuts over the past several years,” said Sen. John Wozniak, D-Cambria County. “The increase that is contained in this budget for education still leaves our school districts hurting. Plenty of ground still needs to be gained just to get even.”
Sen. Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, the Senate minority leader, said the $29.4 billion budget that Corbett introduced Tuesday is filled with “political talking points” and “one-time gimmicks” designed to improve his odds at reelection in November.
“This is a campaign budget,” Costa said.
Republicans defended Corbett’s budget and noted that the governor’s belt-tightening during his first three years in office put him in a position to increase school spending in the 2014-15 budget, which takes effect July 1. House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, said the expiration of federal stimulus money and a recession made that increase in school spending impossible until legislators could “right size” the government.
Sen. John Gordner, R-Columbia County, said this budget, which is Corbett’s fourth, is the best he has offered.
“He’s hitting the things people care about,” said Gordner, adding those items are jobs, education and health care.
Corbett’s plan depends largely on federal approval of a proposed alternative to Medicaid expansion under the federal Affordable Care Act, as well as a significant change to how the state operates its pensions. Neither is guaranteed.
Critics say the federal government is likely to reject Corbett’s Healthy PA plan because it requires beneficiaries to look for work and includes premium payments.
Republican lawmakers have defended it.
“Medicaid is broken,” said Gordner, who noted many doctors no longer accept Medicaid patients. Adding a half-million more patients doesn’t make sense, he said, without first correcting the problems with the program.
Even with savings from the Healthy PA plan, the state will spend $133 million to implement the federal Affordable Care Act, said Corbett’s budget secretary, Charles Zogby.
Corbett also wants the Legislature to reduce contributions this year to the two major pension funds for public employees — saving the state $170 million and local school districts another $131 million. To help address pension costs, Corbett proposes moving $225 million in investments and cash reserves from a tobacco settlement and health investment venture account.
Zogby said Corbett hopes the Legislature enacts a long-term pension reform this spring that addresses the funds’ growing costs. Without action, the Corbett administration has said the state’s annual contribution will grow by $600 million in the coming budget.
Some lawmakers agreed that the state desperately needs pension reform.
“The costs are going to kill us,” said Sen. Elder Vogel, R-Lawrence County.
Democrats did find some things to support in Corbett’s budget.
Rep. Bryan Barbin, D-Cambria County, said he agrees the state needs to capitalize on the growth of its energy sector. The state can’t just export natural gas, he said. It should also seek ways to harness that resource to power business development.
A strong advocate of natural gas development, Corbett Tuesday touted Pennsylvania’s emergence as the nation’s second-largest producer of natural gas.
State Rep. Jaret Gibbons, D-Lawrence County, said he is pleased the governor wants to spend more on early childhood education and college scholarships. Corbett proposes adding $21 million to a variety of preschool intervention programs, as well as a scholarship that provides merit-based awards of $2,000 to low- and middle-income students to attend college in state.
Gibbons, a member of the Higher Education Assistance Agency, said middle-class students struggle to pay for a college education without piling up mountains of debt.
What’s county getting?
Following is a list of school districts in Lawrence County and their 2013-14 state allocations.
The school year’s allocation is followed by the amount proposed for each district from the Ready to Learn block grant.
•Ellwood City — $11.25 million, $485,688
•Laurel — $7.5 million; $333,845
•Mohawk — $9.8 million; $398,381
•Neshannock — $3.1 million; $192,849
•New Castle — $22.1 million; $1.07 million
•Shenango — $7.2 million; $285,460
•Union — $4.6 million; $205,704
•Wilmington — $5.6 million; $287,586.