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Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf Plans to Sharply Increase Education Spending

By Benjamin Herold

Newly elected Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf used his first budget address to call for a staggering increase in funding for public education in that state—and to offer a dramatic repudiation of the policies of his Republican predecessor.

"Over the past four years, Pennsylvania took a step in the wrong direction by trying to balance our state budget on the backs of schools," said Mr. Wolf, a Democrat. "That's why the very first thing my budget does is restore the $1 billion in cuts to public education that occurred under the previous administration."

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Last fall, Mr. Wolf, a businessman from York, Pa., defeated Tom Corbett, becoming the first challenger to oust an incumbent Pennsylvania governor in more than 40 years.

Among the educational priorities the new governor outlined are an increase in the state's basic- and special education subsidies, funding for expanded enrollment in prekindergarten, and a boost for career and technical education. Mr. Wolf also aims to partially restore previous cuts to funding for Pennsylvania's state colleges and universities, in exchange for an agreement to freeze tuition.

The massive spending plan would be paid for primarily via a 5 percent severance tax on natural gas extraction. Mr. Wolf also aims to significantly increase the state sales and personal income taxes. Those hikes would be offset by reducing property taxes by up to 50 percent, or about $1,000 annually, for the average Pennsylvania homeowner.

State Republicans—and some Democrats—expressed astonishment at the nature and scope of the proposed tax increases. Passage of Mr. Wolf's first budget is expected to be an uphill battle.

If approved, Mr. Wolf's Pennsylvania Education Reinvestment Act would yield about $159 million in new revenue for the cash-strapped Philadelphia School District. In a statement, Superintendent William R. Hite said such funds would allow the 128,000-student system, by far the state's largest, to "move our focus beyond gap-filling exercises."

The district had projected an $80 million funding gap this year. 

"The district cannot make substantial progress without recurring revenues and resources," Mr. Hite said. "We are deeply appreciative of Gov. Wolf's proposed investments in education that will support a statewide system of equitable, high-quality schools."

Local, state, and national teachers' union groups—who were major contributors to Mr. Wolf's successful campaign last year—also expressed elation at the governor's proposals.

During his speech, the Mr. Wolf highlighted a teacher named Katy Beth Klinger of the 17,600-student Reading, Pa., school district, who the governor said has been substitute teaching at her school even though she has "not been able to return to permanent work" since a mass furlough in 2011.

The previous administration "left us with 25,000 educators out of work. It forced 75 percent of school districts to cut academic programs,"  Mr. Wolf said.

"My budget puts teachers like Katy back in the classroom," he said. 

Photo: Gov. Tom Wolf delivers his budget address for the 2015-16 fiscal year to a joint session of the Pennsylvania House and Senate on Tuesday in Harrisburg, Pa. Speaker of the House of Representatives, Rep. Mike Turzai, is at left, and Lt. Gov. Michael Stack, is at right. --Matt Rourke/AP

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