News Column

With his state budget, Corbett places education at the forefront

February 5, 2014

By David Mekeel, Reading Eagle, Pa.

Feb. 05 --Gov. Tom Corbett says he's a big supporter of education. He's so supportive of it, he said during his annual budget address Tuesday, that it's the single largest item in his budget. He proposed spending $10.1 billion , more than 40 percent of the total budget. "Every child in this state should be ready to learn, ready to grow, ready to succeed," he said during his address, which had education getting far more attention than any other area. "And my budget sets an agenda in that spirit." Touting increases in special education funding, an expanded block grant program, relief from skyrocketing pension payments and more money for pre-kindergarten, he proudly claimed his budget will move education forward in Pennsylvania . But educators aren't so sure. "Gov. Tom Corbett's state budget proposal falls far short of a responsible spending plan, and fails to address the school funding crisis that his nearly $1 billion in school funding cuts have caused," read a statement from the Pennsylvania State Education Association , the state's largest teachers union, which was released shortly after the governor's address. Corbett has claimed, and did again Tuesday, that he has in fact increased the state's education spending over his first three years in office. He cites the loss of temporary federal funding that was used by the state for education as the reason for the claims that he cut funding. The PSEA statement went on to complain that new block grant funding in the governor's budget comes without flexibility, with schools required to spend the money on specific programs and initiatives. And basic education subsidies, the main funding stream for public schools, would receive no increase, it pointed out. Impact seen minimal By some accounts, the governor's proposed education funding increases aren't going to be game-changing for local districts. The state's 500 districts would divide up $241 million in increased block grant funding, and $20 million in special education increases. In Berks , that amounts to anywhere from about $131,000 in Kutztown to $520,000 in Muhlenberg to $4.4 million in Reading . And while local educators are happy to be seeing increases, one official said Tuesday the governor's budget won't erase the budget crunches most districts have faced the past few years. "The most significant source of state funds for local school districts is the basic education funding, so while there are increases in some specific areas like the block grants, the flat-lined budget on basic education funds will continue to impact districts, especially with continued rising costs," said Andrew Potteiger , Brandywine Heights superintendent. Potteiger also said it is unclear what impact special education funding increases will have, if any, on particular districts. The state has not yet said how that money will be divided. The pension factor Potteiger said the most important part of Corbett's address was his mention of fixing the state pension system, something the governor tried unsuccessfully to do last year as well. In Brandywine's case, he said, the amount the district's pension costs is expected to rise is larger than the state-set limit on how much it can raise taxes. Corbett has proposed decreasing the size of school districts' payment increases, and moving new employees to a 401(k)-style plan. His plan would also decrease future benefits for current employees. Corbett claims his plan will help ease the pension burden for both the state and school districts. "The major issue impacting school district budgets is the pension increases," Potteiger said. "When the pensions' (cost) increase alone meets or exceeds the allowable Act 1 tax limit, it really puts districts in a situation of figuring out how to pay for fixed costs and normal increases such as oil, gas, electric. "The emphasis on pension reform is critical to the financial health on public education," Potteiger continued. "It simply can't be kicking the can down the road and extending the increases, but rather a re-evaluation of the benefits offered, especially to new employees." John A. Fielding , an Antietam School Board member and chairman of the Berks County Republican Party , was more positive about the budget proposal. He said additional funding for special education would be welcome in a small district like his because coming up with an education plan for one student with significant problems can cost a district $100,000 a year. Without more state funding, that cost would have to be passed on to local taxpayers, he said. "More money for special education is music to my ears," Fielding said. "That matters to us." Reporter Mary E. Young contributed to this story. Contact David Mekeel : 610-371-5014 or dmekeel@readingeagle.com . ___ (c)2014 the Reading Eagle (Reading, Pa.) Visit the Reading Eagle (Reading, Pa.) at readingeagle.com Distributed by MCT Information Services


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Source: Reading Eagle (PA)


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