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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Gov's Budget Plan: What does it all mean?

After the governor's budget address last week, you may be asking, "What does it all mean?"

The truth is that governor's education budget proposal is a mixed bag. Here's a quick summary of our analysis:

Governor Corbett has clearly heard that people across Pennsylvania have been very frustrated about the program cuts being experienced and how much people want this to be a priority of state policy and the budget. Pennsylvania needs a funding formula and enough money in it to provide every child with an opportunity to learn. 

The $241 million increase to Accountability Block Grant (ABG) funding proposed in the Ready to Learn program is clearly a nod to public sentiment. It is enough money to be more than a just a gesture.  Education advocates are examining the proposed distributions of those funds as well.  However, education policy analysts have identified a number of concerns:
  • As proposed, the money is non-recurring – this means this is a one-time pot of money for districts that can't be used for current basic education expenses, and there is no guarantee of future funding to maintain any new programs that are implemented. Grants are good, but giving grants for new programs when districts are struggling to fund their core responsibilities isn't the path we should be on.
  • The money depends on revenues that are not certain and may not have the political support necessary to be approved.
  • The money has a number of restrictions on it, and the poorest districts are the most restricted when it comes to determining how to spend that money.

Basic Education Funding: A key issue is that the “Basic Education Funding (BEF)” line did not receive any increase at all. Anytime we are not increasing support for basic education, we are going backwards due to rising costs for the programs that we have now.   Each year programs cost more, and with no additional support, cuts must be identified to remain within the current budget. There is work to be done to improve the allocation method we use now, but we can’t simply walk away from what we have now, while we wait for longer term structural fixes. Absent a formula, we must restore basic education support from the state so children do not experience any additional program cuts. 

Special Education Funding: The good news is the $20 million increase special education funding since special education has been flat funded for 5+ years. This shows what happens when the legislature steps up and gets serious about addressing the needs of children and delving into the the role of funding in meeting those needs. The legislature led on special education, and now we are seeing some forward movement.  However, it is worth nothing that this amount did not keep up with the cost of inflation (see the above note about flat funding) – so we still have a long way to go to ensure we are meeting the individual need of every child.

Pre-K Funding: More and more, we are coming to understand that early education is not just a smart investment, but an essential one – every budget, every year and every Governor of Pennsylvania must move us toward universal pre-K.  We are heartened to see some funding proposed for Pre-K and will work to ensure that this is funding is supported in the General Assembly.

Pension reform. We understand that pensions continue to be a point of contention but funding school programs and honoring the contracts and commitments we make with our workforce are responsibilities of the state and local government – it isn’t an either/or. Making any kind of program support contingent on pension reform is divisive. 

The take-away. People will be assessing this budget by how much it delivers opportunities for children. Do programs come back into our schools, do class sizes shrink, do children have libraries, etc.?   Overall, this is an improvement over the last several years, but we shouldn’t be in this situation with a gap in funding in the first place, and that continues to be a concern.

Over the coming weeks and months, we will keep you updated and ask you to take action to fight for a budget that meets the priorities of Pennsylvanians.

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