Higher education takes another budget hit
By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year would overhaul how Pennsylvania distributes money to school districts, but it would maintain the current level of state subsidies for basic education.
Corbett on Tuesday introduced his second consecutive no-tax budget that holds spending in line with the current year's revenue. Corbett said he wanted to avoid cutting basic education, and his new budget keeps school districts funded at the same level as last year.
But the governor is making some changes, including a proposal to revamp the funding stream between the state and the districts.
Rather than receiving money through various line items, districts now will get almost all their state tax dollars through a block grant program, Corbett said. The changes will allow for greater flexibility at the district level, which, he said, is “bound up in a thicket of outdated and time-consuming regulations and mandates.”
“The rationale here is clear. Local districts know better how to spend and allocate resources than do bureaucrats in Harrisburg,” Corbett said. “There are no cuts. In fact, you will find a slight increase.”
Overall, the state will spend $9.5 billion on basic education, up from $9.2 billion in the current budget. But Corbett's budget plan would cut higher education spending by about $240 million.
The Student Achievement Education Block Grant combines basic education funding, pupil transportation funding and school Social Security payments into a single budget item.
The administration said all districts would receive at least as much in state aid as last year, though district-by-district breakdowns were not available as of Tuesday afternoon.
Democrats and teachers unions criticized Corbett for failing to increase basic education funding, particularly to the poorest districts and those facing financial hardship.
“School districts are in deep trouble,” said state Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-Chester. "You will see almost every single school district in this commonwealth raise the property tax because they have almost no choice but to do so."
Republican lawmakers said the block grant approach would give superintendents and school boards something they have been asking for: more flexibility with financial decisions in a difficult economic environment.
“Sometimes they may not need all that money in transportation and they can put it into the classroom,” said state Rep. Bill Adolph, R-Delaware, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. “I like that concept, because I’ve heard that a lot from our local superintendents and school boards.”
Michael Crossey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, or PSEA, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said the budget plan would not avert the growing financial crisis in public education.
“This proposal is an unwise experiment with the education of 1.8 million public school students,” Crossey said in a statement.
While public education is essentially flat-funded from last year, higher education took another whack from Corbett’s budget ax a year after he initially proposed a 50 percent reduction in state spending on colleges and universities.
The proposal introduced by Corbett on Tuesday morning will reduce funding for the three of the state’s four state-related universities — Penn State, Pittsburgh and Temple — by 30 percent each.
The fourth state-related school, Lincoln University, is flat-funded in the new budget plan.
The four state-related universities get about 5 percent of their overall funding from the state and are funded mostly through private support.
The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, or PASSHE, the 14 state colleges that are primarily supported with state taxpayer funding, will receive a 20 percent cut in the governor’s proposed budget.
Corbett also announced a commission to study the cost of higher education in the state and the impact of state spending.
"We need to have a thorough, public and candid conversation about how best to deal with the spiraling costs and our own obligations," Corbett said.
Steve Hicks, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, the union representing 6,000 employees in the state college system, said the budget cuts were short-sighted.
“PASSHE has a state-mandated mission to provide accessible, affordable, high quality education at the lowest possible cost to students. Our universities cannot continue to meet these goals without critical state support,” Hicks said.
Charles Zogby, Corbett's budget secretary, said increasing mandated costs in other parts of the budget is forcing reductions in higher education because it is one of the largest discretionary portions of the state budget.
The governor’s proposal also cuts about $27 million from the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, which provides taxpayer-backed loans to students attending Pennsylvania colleges.
While education funding was front and center in Corbett’s address, the proposed budget also includes $3.7 million to continue the development of a new teacher evaluation system for the state’s public schools and $15 million to continue developing a new statewide standardized test to replace the existing PSSA assessments.
In a break from last year, Corbett failed to mention school choice or his charter school reform plan during the budget address.
Corbett proposed cutting more than $1 billion from basic education a year ago, a number that was reduced to about $850 million in the budget passed last June.
Republicans pointed out — correctly — that state-level spending on basic education actually increased slightly last year, though school districts were left coping with cuts because of a reduction in federal money that came with the end of the federal stimulus program.
But Democrats said parents, students and schools are hurt by the overall reduction, whether it comes from Washington or from Harrisburg.