By John Finnerty
Gov. Tom Corbett will likely call to boost funding for schools in today’s budget address, according to analysts who say the proposal will have much to do with the coming gubernatorial election.
Corbett’s plan would come after years of bickering between Republicans and Democrats over who is to blame for school cuts that arrived when he took office three years ago, and how steep the damage has been.
Corbett has consistently maintained that a $1 billion decrease in school funding wasn’t his fault. The bulk of the funding cuts, he has argued, were tied to expired federal stimulus spending.
But Democrats have identified education funding as an issue that resonates with the public. As a result, most candidates seeking to challenge Corbett in the fall have been hammering on school spending.
“Corbett lost the narrative on school cuts,” said Terry Madonna, a professor of political science at Franklin and Marshall College. “It’s emerged as a top issue of the campaign. That’s why most people think he’s going to include an increase in school district funding in his budget proposal.”
Senate Democrats have called for a $300 million boost in school spending in the upcoming budget. The Philadelphia Inquirer, citing anonymous sources, said Corbett is expected to announce a $200 million increase.
That would come despite Corbett’s warnings that the state must close a $1.2 billion budget gap — largely due to increases in contributions to the two major public pension systems.
Even a $200 million boost would mean schools have $500 million less in state funding than they did when Corbett took office, said Wythe Keever, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association.
The association, which represents 182,000 educators in 483 of the state’s 500 school districts, has tracked local funding cuts throughout the commonwealth. Its tally shows that every district is making do with less help from Harrisburg, even after last year’s modest increase in state spending on schools.
The three-year cuts have ranged from less than 5 percent in some districts to double-digit cuts in others.
The Greater Johnstown School District’s 2013-14 state allocation was 12 percent less than it received three years earlier, in 2010-11, the school year before Corbett’s first budget.
The situation was mirrored across rural Pennsylvania. The Sharon School District in Mercer County received 12 percent less. Crawford Central School District in Crawford County received 11.2 percent less.
The union’s estimates are lower than the state Department of Education’s, largely because the union refuses to count things like transportation and retirement costs.
“We focused on things in the classroom,” Keever said.
Nor did the union include the cost of special education. Its analysts noted that special education funding has been flat for five years, so factoring that would not have altered the downward trend in state spending.
The Pennsylvania School Board Association would be concerned if school funding increases are hitched to some other Corbett priority, such as pension reform, spokesman Steve Robinson said. The governor last year tried tying a boost in school spending to liquor privatization, a proposal that died just before the budget was passed in June.
The future of a school funding boost could be doubtful if it’s contingent, for example, on the Legislature changing how pensions are funded, Robinson said.
“That’s a big, ‘if,’” he said.
Changes in state school funding since 2010-11
2013-14 allocation: $10.9 million
Drop since 2010-11: 9.9 percent
Drop in per pupil spending since 2010-11 — $531
2013-14 allocation: $15.6 million
Drop since 2010-11: 11.2 percent
Drop in per pupil spending — $494
2013-14 allocation: $18.6 million
Drop since 2010-11: 8 percent
Drop in per pupil spending — $481
Other area school districts
2013-14 allocation: $3.77 million
Drop since 2010-11: 8 percent
Drop in per pupil spending since 2010-11 — $656
2013-14 allocation: $10.33 million
Drop since 2010-11: 6 percent
Drop in per pupil spending — $303
2013-14 allocation: $2.9 million
Drop since 2010-11: 12 percent
Drop in per pupil spending — $537
2013-14 allocation: $6.6 million
Drop since 2010-11: 7.7 percent
Drop in per pupil spending — $466
2013-14 allocation: $13.27 million
Drop since 2010-11: 8.1 percent
Drop in per pupil spending — $580
2013-14 allocation: $9.2 million
Drop since 2010-11: 2 percent
Drop in per pupil spending — $195
Source: Pennsylvania State Education Association