Education Love Fest Starts, But Is It The Real Thing?

In the weeks leading up to the release of a proposed state budget in February, governors typically schedule photo ops to announce some new budget initiative popular with the public. This signals the administration’s priorities, keeps the good news from getting lost in the overall budget story, and builds up political capital for the budget fight ahead.

So it was not a surprise to read in The Philadelphia Inquirer on Friday that the Corbett administration was considering a $200 million increase in basic education funding. The Governor was scheduled to appear at Philadelphia's Central High School that morning, and the release was no doubt an attempt to have reporters ask him about the planned funding hike rather than the ongoing effects of past funding cuts.

Things did not go so well. The Governor cancelled the planned visit, his first to a Philadelphia public school, moving the presentation to the Commonwealth’s offices at the swanky Bellevue on Broad Street. Protesters followed him there too, but the environment was somewhat more controlled thanks to a healthy contingent of state police.

As for the funding increase, opinions are mixed. The Inquirer article stated that the increase could be as much as $200 million, but $100 million of that could be linked to pension “reform” savings (remember the $800 million proposed last year from the proposed sale of the state liquor stores). Perhaps the savings comes from reducing the state’s employer contribution — again.

$200 million is better than the $90 million he proposed in last year’s budget, but a far cry from the $688 million needed to bring classroom funding back up to where it started in 2011. Philadelphia lost more than $200 million in funding that year and will need at least that much back to begin to recover its educational programs.

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives, meanwhile, signaled that it, too, wants to appear education friendly in anticipation of the 2014 elections. The House passed, by a vote of 187-9, State Representative Bernie O’Neill’s bill to establish a Basic Education Funding Commission.

The bill is modeled on the legislation establishing the Special Education Funding Commission, which released its final report on December 11. That commission, whose members came entirely from the General Assembly, was hailed by participants as a breath of bipartisan fresh air.

I had to see who voted against the Basic Education Funding Commission bill: here’s the roll call. No surprises there.

The Commission idea has some good points and bad points. Pennsylvania has no functioning funding formula and desperately needs a predictable and transparent way to distribute $5.5 billion in basic education funds to school districts. On the flip side, the Special Education Funding Commission sidestepped the issue of how much it will cost to fund Special Ed (which hasn’t seen a state increase in six years), and came up with a weighted funding plan that seemed to be pulled from thin air.

The challenge here will be to keep lawmakers focused on education and to ensure they do something real. No small task.

Finally, as if it couldn’t get any worse: the Commonwealth owes school districts another $1 billion in overdue payments for 350 approved construction and renovation projects. The state has a moratorium on funding for new construction projects which has left school districts in yet another bind. State Reps Seth Grove and Steve Santarsiero plan to introduce legislation to change the construction planning and approval process (known as PlanCon).

But hey, it’s all about the kids right?

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