Governor Corbett’s Proposed Budget: Too Many Strings Attached for Schools

Governor Corbett recently announced his 2014-15 budget, and its focal point is an increase in education spending.  But a solution to Pennsylvania’s public school funding crisis it is not.  In fact, not only is it short of where it needs to be to meet the needs of our students, it’s still short of where it was before he cut $1 billion from it when he first took office.  The Governor’s proposal is a good place to start the budget conversation, but with early childhood education funding still 10% below pre-cut levels and grant-based regulations preventing school districts from directing the money where it’s most needed–not to mention questions about its feasibility, it cannot be the end of the conversation.

Nearly all of the new funding comes in the form of a new, $241 million “Ready to Learn” block grant program that uses a transparent formula to allocate funds to districts.  It’s a good sign that they will use a formula based on number of students, English language learners and concentration of poverty, but there’s a catch.  Poor, low performing districts will be handcuffed in how they can spend the funds.  The state is restricting the use of the funds to STEM education, tutoring and efforts to boost early literacy.  All good ideas, but it means that the school basics of rehiring classroom teachers to return class sizes to normal, nurses, counselors and librarians can’t be paid for with these funds.  Meanwhile, wealthier districts like Lower Merion will get to choose how they spend the money, with possibilities “including expanding pre-K options, extending the kindergarten school day or offering supplemental instruction in biology, English and algebra,” according to Newsworks.

The School District of Philadelphia looks to get $29 million from the block grant program.  Not only does this money come earmarked, it barely comes at all.  “The beleaguered district needs any money it can get,” the Inquirer reports, “but the new funds will not fill the hole of more than $100 million created by nonrecurring money in this year’s spending plan.”  That hole cannot be filled without additional money added to the basic education subsidy, which represents the majority of the state’s support of the district, a solution absent from the Governor’s plan.

The early education portion of Corbett’s proposal features a $10 million boost to Pre-K Counts, which could cover services for 1,670 children.  However, the Child Care Subsidy, which accounts for the vast majority of early childhood funding, is still down more than $60 million dollars from 2010-11.  That leaves early childhood education still well behind where it was when the Governor took office.

Of course, all this comes with a pretty big question.  Can the state actually find the money without raising taxes, as the Governor hopes?  “Corbett’s budget plan banks on hundreds of millions of dollars in savings from yet-to-be-approved initiatives,” the Inquirer points out.  “One would rein in the cost of public-employee pensions by postponing payments until later years; another would make changes to the state’s Medicaid program. The latter requires federal approval.  Both are big ifs.”  Increasing funding is a step in the right direction, as is beginning to implement a formula for education.  But ultimately this proposal needs to be a starting out point, as it does not go far enough in restoring the Governor’s cuts to education and prevents districts from using the funding in the most important ways.  Ultimately, though, it might not matter.  If the precarious funding plan is as unlikely as it seems, this might all be moot.  And it will be Pennsylvania’s children that pay the price.