By Maura Pennington | Watchdog.org
PHILADELPHIA — Education funding will get a boost in next year’s budget if Gov. Tom Corbett has anything to say about it.
Corbett outlined his 2014-15 budget proposal Tuesday, focusing much of his 30-minute address on education programs that come with $387 million in new spending. At $10.1 billion, direct state support for education is the largest item in the budget.
“As we increase education spending, we are making certain that more of that money goes where it will do the most good, directly to our kids,” Corbett said.
While the state-level basic education funding for Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts has been set at $5.53 billion, a slight increase from years past, the highlights of Corbett’s plan for additional education funding come in a series of grant programs. Rather than administer the money to districts to manage as needed, the administration has made funds available for specific endeavors.
“We all recognize that the basic instructional formula needs an overhaul. And so before we put more money into a system that we all recognize needs some dusting off and some examination, we’ve decided to put it into a strategic investment in the block grant,” said Carolyn Dumaresq, acting secretary of education.
Corbett announced the allocation of $340 million through the new Ready to Learn Block Grant, which combines the Accountability Block Grant Program with student-focused funding. It will use the new Student Performance Profile to make supplemental money available for innovative learning initiatives.
Included in the Ready to Learn Block Grant is $1 million in competitive grant funds for high-performing school districts to mentor other schools in order to replicate best practices.
A further $10 million has been dedicated to the Hybrid Learning competitive grant program to be awarded to schools blending traditional instruction with new technologies.
Democrats have been critical of this approach.
“While the governor proposes a new block grant program for education, the flat funding of the basic education subsidy does not undo the damage done by the education cuts of his prior budgets,” said House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny.
Corbett also proposed an increase of $20 million toward special education. About 15 percent of students in Pennsylvania have special needs.
The governor’s budget also includes a funding increase for early intervention and education. Pennsylvania recently received a federal Race to the Top Grant to enhance early learning and development programs.
Additionally, $1.62 billion has been allocated for higher education. Corbett announced the launch of the Ready to Succeed Scholarship program, which provides $25 million to middle income students to attend trade school or college. This is on top of the $345 million for Grants for Students administered by the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency.
Yet some in the General Assembly see the governor’s education funding increases as nothing more than a fourth-year election maneuver.
Corbett will seek re-election in November and he has been dogged by critics for underfunding education during his first term, even though the administration maintains that education spending is now at its highest point in state history.
Through a political lens, Tuesday’s outline of new education spending can be seen as an effort to change that narrative — and perhaps the governor’s sagging poll numbers too.
“It’s a too-little-too-late political attempt to create some kind of positive legacy in terms of education, rather than being remembered as the governor who retreated from Pennsylvania’s commitment to public education,” said Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster.
But both sides can play that game.
Within minutes of the governor’s address, his campaign team was touting the additional funding for schools.
“This is a Pennsylvania budget that addresses the issues important to our commonwealth and brings common sense solutions to help all our citizens,” said Corbett’s campaign manager Mike Barley, in a statement.
Contact Maura Pennington at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @whatsthefracas.