School advocates prepare to defend a funding boost

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - August 8, 2010

After all, the K-12 school subsidy got a substantial increase - $250 million, or 4.5 percent - at a time when recession-ravaged tax collections and a Legislature unwilling to raise taxes demanded belt-tightening in many, if not most, programs.

"The place we'll look (to cut) first, the one area that got a significant increase in the budget, is obviously basic education," said Senate Appropriations Chairman Jake Corman, R-Centre. Over the last two years, as tax collections tanked and budget negotiators worked to prop up the budget, "everyone had to make sacrifices, except basic ed," Corman said. "It did very well."

That $250 million increase that Gov. Ed Rendell insisted upon in the budget he signed last month lines up neatly with the approximate size of the budget gap expected from a recession-related federal aid package that was smaller than officials had hoped it would be.

Education advocates know the hatchet may be coming to the $5.8 billion that's budgeted and are preparing their defenses. They say they recognize that budget makers are hounded by a long list of groups competing for state taxpayer money but maintain that education of children is the most important.

"We urge them to do what they always try to do, and that is remember the needs of kids high on that list," said Joan L. Benso, president and CEO of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children. With the Rendell administration working to increase the state's share of public school funding, "to cut the state appropriation now would take us backward," said Ron Cowell, president of the Harrisburg-based nonprofit advocacy group, Education Policy and Leadership Center.

A U.S. Census report in June became the latest in a long line of reports that underscored Pennsylvania's below-average public education spending, ranking the commonwealth 31st in state tax dollars spent per pupil in the 2007-08 school year.

At about $5,200 per pupil, Pennsylvania ranked behind each of its neighbors, but above several high-population states, including Texas, Florida, Illinois and Georgia. Historically, the state of Pennsylvania supplies less than 40 percent of school spending. Nationally, the average is near 50 percent, the Census said.

As a result, the majority of school funding comes from whatever districts can raise, putting students in poor districts - where there's a shallower pool of wages and property values - at a huge disadvantage.

Even though the state runs its tax dollars through a formula that favors poor districts, the pure amount is too modest to overcome the disparities caused by differences in local wealth, Cowell said. The disparity means that some wealthier districts are spending $10,000 more per pupil than some poorer districts, he said.

Earlier this summer, state Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard and law enforcement officials stressed the need for more early childhood education funding to put at-risk children on the right path and cut law enforcement and corrections costs.

"We've learned that involvement in early childhood education is some of the best dollars you can spend in terms of providing opportunities for children to succeed in K-12 and ultimately to succeed in life," Cowell said. "The documentation is there. This is money well spent."

On Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives is expected to approve a $26 billion extension of last year's federal aid to recession-battered states and school districts.

The bill, if approved, would provide about $600 million to the Pennsylvania state treasury, leaving a $250 million hole in a budget that was balanced with the expectation of $850 million from the federal aid extension. The measure also includes about $380 million for Pennsylvania's public schools to pay teachers or school staff.

While education advocates said they expect districts to stretch that money out for up to three years, Corman said that sum would deliver more school funding than originally budgeted by the state - even if the $250 million increase is wiped from the books.

"I think at the end of the day, everyone comes out ahead," Corman said, "and we don't have to go back and ask anybody else for cuts or a tax increase."

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Marc Levy covers Pennsylvania politics for The Associated Press in Harrisburg.

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