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Pennsylvania Governor's Education Budget Inspires 'New Pencils'

Though states are beginning to stand steadily on their own feet after years of budget misery, the process of recovery can be difficult fiscally and politically, even in places where significant funding increases for public schools are being discussed.

Consider Pennsylvania, where GOP Gov. Tom Corbett rolled out his proposed budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year, and included a 1.7 percent increase in basic state K-12 aid, to the tune of $90 million. That raises the total K-12 aid in the state to $5.5 billion, the highest in the state's history, Corbett said in his budget documents, and the first increase for public schools in two years, coinciding with Corbett assuming his place as governor. Of the $28.7 billion in general-fund expenditures he is proposing, 33.6 percent goes to public education, including prekindergarten.

"Additionally, the commonwealth will implement the new four-year Passport for Learning Block Grant for school districts with $1 billion in revenues realized from the privatization of Pennsylvania's state [liquor] stores system for enhancements to school safety, school readiness, and science and math programs," Corbett wrote in the introduction to his budget.

So, education funding advocates, on the face of it, have reason to be pleased with Corbett's proposals. But that doesn't mean they are, or at least not entirely. They have their own reasons for being wary.

The Education Policy and Leadership Center, an advocacy group in Harrisburg, Pa., that lobbies for equitable and adequate funding and universal access to all-day kindergarten, put out a response to Corbett's plan. It stresses that the K-12 funding increase Corbett highlights is just one-tenth of the $900 million in cuts Pennsylvania's public schools have endured over the same two years the governor references. In addition, the $90 million increase isn't weighted toward students in poverty or who are English-language-learners, the group says. Special education is also "flat-funded" in Corbett's proposals, the center notes.

As for that "Passport for Learning Block Grant," the center doesn't argue that the idea, and the education programs it would fund, are bad. Rather, it says things like school safety and math are precisely the areas that have suffered through the $900 million in cuts, and that even if Corbett's idea is approved, grant funding wouldn't kick in until 2014-15. (Recent polling appears to show support for the idea, particularly among those who buy alcohol.)

In the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette, a story highlights a forum the center held that turned into an airing of grievances regarding Corbett's budget. Another concern raised there is that the governor's plan falls more than $100 million short of adequately funding school employee pensions.

On the general matter of funding increases, one superintendent, Joseph Clapper, said that his Quaker Valley School District, which has an enrollment of about 1,940 students, would be getting a grand total of $28,000 in new money in Corbett's budget, or $14 more per student.

"So we're thinking new pencils," he quipped.

This might not be the last time you see governors talking about increasing K-12 spending, only to have advocates complain that it doesn't make up for the past few years of pain.

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