Corbett's 'Ready to Learn' education budget favors wealthier schools, advocates say
by Kevin McCorry for NewsWorks
Here's an accurate headline you could have written about Gov. Corbett's Pennsylvania budget address earlier this week: Corbett calls for $387 million in increased state education funding.
But many education advocates are quick to say that hardly tells the full story.
They say that most of this proposed funding increase is a one-time influx of cash that's delivered with many strings attached.
Corbett's "Ready to Learn" grant initiative calls for $240 million to be distributed to the state's 500 school districts by way of what the governor's team calls a predictable, transparent, student-based formula.
Districts with more students overall, more English language learners, and higher concentrations of poverty will receive a greater share of the money.
But districts will not have the autonomy to decide how to use the cash. Those with higher School Performance Profile (SPP) scores – which are based in large part on standardized test scores – will have greater leeway in making spending decisions.
Under the plan, the Philadelphia School District will receive $29 million (by far the most of all districts).
But given its overall SPP score of 57.5, it will only be able to spend the money on certain prescribed initiatives.
For schools with SPP scores below 60, the state's top priority is to ensure that schools align their K-3 curriculum to the state standards.
"The department is recommending that there are some very core elements in raising student achievement that need to be addressed first, and one of those is making sure the curriculum is aligned to the state standards," said Carolyn Dumaresq, acting state education secretary.
By comparison, the Lower Merion school district will receive $272,140 under the plan.
With its overall SPP score of 92.5, it will be free to use the proposed money for a host of other "Ready to Learn" initiatives, including expanding pre-K options, extending the kindergarten school day or offering supplemental instruction in biology, English and algebra.
Also, as a district with SPP scores in the 90s, Lower Merion is eligible for Corbett's "Expanding Excellence" grant program. Through this initiative, the state will divvy up $1 million among some of its top-performing schools in hopes that the high performers will pass on best practices to struggling schools.
None of the increased funding will go into the state's basic education subsidy, which will remain at $5.53 billion. Funds from this pot will continue to be distributed through a combination of formula and legislative politics that many education advocates criticize as inadequate and unreliable.
The governor's proposed budget also increases special education funding ($20 million), provides assistance to 1,670 middle- and lower-income families to send kids to pre-K ($10 million), and creates a college scholarship fund for middle- and lower-income high school graduates ($25 million).