Tuesday, July 29, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Corbett budget likely to include extra school funding

HARRISBURG - Public schools in Pennsylvania stand to get a $400 million boost in the $29.4 billion budget Gov. Corbett will unveil Tuesday, setting the stage for the largest cash infusion into education since the governor took office three years ago.

Philadelphia's cut: just shy of $30 million.

The majority of the new money, or $240 million, will fall under a new initiative called "Ready to Learn" that administration officials say lets school districts choose the educational programs to get extra funding. The range of choices would be tied to academic performance - poorly performing districts would have fewer options than their better-performing counterparts.

But administration officials said the money would be doled out with a "bias" toward poorer districts, factoring in not just a district's enrollment, but also the percentage of its students who were English-language learners as well as the percentage of aid it would receive from the state.

"There will be a range of uses for those dollars," Budget Secretary Charles Zogby said in an interview. "The lower you are on the performance scale, we are going to be more prescriptive in how those dollars are spent. The farther up you are on the performance scale, you are going to have a bigger beachhead of choices."

He added: "The governor is clearly focused on ensuring kids have the tools to succeed academically, as well as enhanced learning opportunities and particularly at the younger grades, K-3. That will be a major discussion item in the budget."

Delivering a budget speech that could have broader political implications as he eyes reelection in November, Corbett is also expected to call for pension and health-care overhauls, and to highlight job-creation programs.

But education is likely to take center stage, as many school districts are still feeling the effects of budget-balancing cuts to public schools in his first year in office.

Though only a fraction of the Philadelphia district's $2.4 billion budget, the extra $30 million is likely to be cheered in the city, where schools have endured massive layoffs and program cuts.

Corbett administration officials were reluctant Monday to reveal the details of that funding or to say how much other districts could receive. That information will be released Tuesday.

In his late-morning presentation to the legislature, the governor is also expected to announce a sizable increase in special-education funding, the first in more than a half-decade. In all, the governor is looking to add $20 million to special-education funds, from $98 million to $118 million, administration officials said.

On pensions, the Republican governor is expected to propose temporarily lowering the minimum amount state governments and school districts have to pay into the pension funds. The practice, known in Harrisburg as placing "collars" on pension obligations, is not without controversy. The criticism is that it simply pushes the state's financial day of reckoning to a later date. Still, there was little political will last year for Corbett's more aggressive pension-overhaul plan, which included making significant changes in the way future benefits were calculated for current employees.

This year, the governor is banking on legislative giveback on pensions: A sizable chunk of the $400 million in new public-school funding would come from pension savings. Zogby said last week that the so-called pension collars would save school districts $130 million.

Corbett, who faces sagging public-approval ratings, needs a win on education. It is an issue on which poll after poll shows he is most vulnerable, with his administration dogged by the steep cuts it made in his first year to public-school funding. Few districts have felt those cuts more acutely than Philadelphia. The district, which relies on Harrisburg for about half of its funding, has many schools that lack extracurricular programs, full-time guidance counselors, and nurses.





Angela Couloumbis and Kristen A. Graham Inquirer Staff Writers
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