The school funding debate - it's complicated


Few things get folks in the Capitol more riled than the story of public school funding since Gov. Corbett took office.

And this being budget season, the issue is front and center again. Just today, Democrats were back at it, making the by-now familiar case that Corbett and his fellow Republicans in the legislature cut education funding by $1 billion.

Republicans have countered that the federal stimulus funds that were used under former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell to fund education created a false sense of financial security; and that, in reality, the GOP has increased spending on basic education, the meatiest of payments the state makes to school districts to use on classroom instruction and other areas.

Who's right? Both are, technically.

Under Rendell, the state spent just over $5.2 billion on basic education in the 2008-09 fiscal year.

Then, the recession hit. So in the next fiscal year, Rendell and the legislature actually cut funding for basic education to just under $4.9 billion, but backfilled it with $650 million in federal stimulus funds. The 2010-11 budget cycle followed a similar path, with stimulus money again being used to bolster education funding to levels that the state likely would not have otherwise.

When all was said and done, Democrats say that in Rendell's last year in office, roughly $6.3 billion was earmarked for public schools to spend directly in classrooms. That figure included state funding AND federal stimulus dollars for basic education, as well as money for charter school reimbursements and accountability block grants (many schools use the latter to fund early-childhood education).

Enter January 2011, when Corbett came into office. There was no more stimulus money to use as a crutch - and that, Corbett administration officials said, was not their fault, just cold, hard fiscal reality. They also noted that school districts were warned not to rely on stimulus money to balance their budgets, as it would disappear.

So with that money gone, Corbett and the Republican-controlled legislature allocated $5.3 billion for basic education, while slashing other line items, such as accountability block grants - on its face, a $1 billion decrease in money flowing to public schools.

But it's also true that the $5.3 billion was close to - in fact, slightly over - what Rendell had been giving schools before the stimulus money came into play. That funding increased slightly in this fiscal year, to $5.4 billion, and Corbett is proposing an additional $90 million for basic education for the fiscal year that begins July 1 (House Republicans are pushing for a $100 million spike).

For their part, House Republicans are even going so far as to say that their proposed budget would spend the most money ever on education funding. That, too, is technically true, although Democrats call the assertion laughable, as that includes upwardly spiraling pension and school transportation costs, rather than money spent on kids in classrooms.

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