This budget has a big but. Yesterday, Governor Corbett proposed a new state budget that includes a tiny increase for education funding, but he tied those funds to pension reform and threatened to withdraw the increase. Then he proposed a new block grant program for schools, but he tied that funding to the sale of liquor stores. That’s actually two big buts, and there’s even more trouble packed into the caboose of this education train.
Governor Corbett’s proposed budget increases the basic education subsidy by 1.67 percent. [Post-Gazette, 2-5-13] But he is holding that increase hostage to the specific pension changes that he wants to make for teachers and other public employees. While there is no doubt we need pension reform to deal with the looming crisis that will affect every single school district in the state, the Governor should not make education funding contingent on lawmakers approving the specific changes that he desires. He has actually promised to slash $175 million in overall state spending if he doesn’t get his way with pension reform – an amount that will entirely wipe out the $90 million increase he proposes for our schools. [The Morning Call, 2-5-13]
And let’s talk about that $90 million. Ron Cowell, president of the Education Policy and Leadership Center, points out that “the small increases that are suggested … don’t begin to get school districts and programs and services for students back to where they were two years ago.” [Post-Gazette, 2-5-13] Susan Gobreski, executive director of Education Voters PA, notes that the Governor “proposes to restore a mere 5% of what he has cut. This $90 million does not begin to address the lost programs and lost opportunities our children are experiencing, nor the crisis facing our schools and communities if we continue to systematically under-invest in education.” [EdVotersPA, 2-5-13] And taking inflation into account, a 1.67% increase is more like no increase at all.
The real problem is that the Governor cut $1billion from our schools in 2011, then locked those cuts into the 2012 budget. It wasn’t a one-time deal. Our kids are experiencing compounded damage and our schools are already shortchanged close to $2 billion. This proposed $90 million will still leave us in the hole close to $3 billion as the cuts continue to mount. Astonishingly, the PA Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis had the nerve to announce, “Governor Corbett has proposed to invest a historic level of funding into public education.” [PA Dept. of Ed., 2-5-13] One quick look at the following graphic from the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center shows that the Governor’s proposed budget doesn’t come close to filling the hole he created in 2011. In fact, Gov. Corbett’s plan does not even get us close to the state funding levels we were at before Pennsylvania accepted federal stimulus dollars and used them to help pay for education (the excuse this administration has used repeatedly to justify its outrageous budget cuts). [See “The Numbers Game.”]
And there are more buts: Gov. Corbett proposes adding $90 million, but will distribute it inequitably to our schools. State Rep. James Roebuck, the Democratic chair of the House Education Committee, said this will “add insult to injury” as “wealthier school districts would get larger percentage increases than lower-income districts.” For instance, Duquesne – the district struggling perhaps the hardest just to stay alive here in Southwest PA – will only get a 0.73% increase. Pittsburgh Public Schools would get 0.75%, while Fox Chapel would get a 3.1% increase and South Fayette 4.86%. [Rep. Roebuck, 2-5-13; Post-Gazette, 2-5-13] Anyone see the problem here? We had already dealt with this horrendous disparity back in 2007 when the legislature finally committed to a fair funding formula. But Gov. Corbett reneged on Pennsylvania’s promise to our children and reinstated this outrageous, inequitable formula.
Gov. Corbett also plans to add $1 billion in a four-year block grant program, but he made that funding dependent on the sale of state liquor stores and it is not sustainable. [See “Kids or Booze”] He claims that “Pennsylvania’s students deserve to have access to quality programs that will ensure their success in the future,” but he once again includes no increase for special education funding. Ron Cowell explains that flat funding of special education for many years has essentially shifted “hundreds of millions of dollars of additional responsibility to school districts without any state help available.” [Post-Gazette, 2-5-13]
Gov. Corbett talks about making “hard choices,” but this proposed budget will spend $6.6 million of our dollars on a new teacher evaluation system that relies on data from high-stakes-testing. [PA Dept. of Ed., 2-5-13] He does not plan to increase sales or income taxes, but he proposes cutting “business taxes by hundreds of millions of dollars.” [Delco Times, 2-5-13] Hundreds of millions for corporations sure makes ninety-million for schools pale in comparison.
Now it’s our legislature’s turn to grapple with this proposed budget for the next few months. They better take a long hard look at all those buts. Because right now, our kids are getting the butt end of this deal.