Rendell to push for increase in PA funds
by Barbara Bloom
"Our schools are in great need of our increased support," Governor Ed Rendell wrote in the cover letter to the 2003-2004 budget he submitted to the legislature on March 4.
A substantial increase in state funding for public education in Pennsylvania is on the line as state lawmakers battle over Rendell's proposed state budget. Political maneuvering over increased funding for public education in Pennsylvania is in high gear.
But some are concerned that Rendell's education proposal will not go far enough to equalize funding in a state that ranks near the bottom nationally on measures of school funding equity.
Both as a candidate and since winning the November election, the new governor has discussed taking immediate steps to dramatically increase state aid to public education. Inadequate school funding from the state has been one of the most persistent complaints from Philadelphia for over a decade.
Two-part budget plan
The governor's plan for educational improvements and how to pay for them was not ready in time for the March 4 budget message.
What Rendell proposed to state legislators was the first installment of his plan -- an austere budget. It fulfilled his legal duty to balance the budget through serious reductions in spending, including a 10 percent cut in all government administrative costs as well as reduced monies for social services, library improvements, and colleges and universities.
Only two items, economic development and K-12 education, were spared severe cuts.
Even K-12 education, however, would see some reductions in Rendell's plan. It eliminates all monies for several programs, such as school improvement grants and performance incentives. Cuts would reduce state funding to Philadelphia by approximately $25 million.
While presenting the budget, Rendell told legislators that he hated it "with every fiber of my body" and asked them to wait until March 25 for his "Plan for a New Pennsylvania," the second part of the proposal, designed to revitalize the state's economy.
Rendell said part two of his proposal will include substantial increases in state funding for public education, including funding for reduced class size, pre-kindergarten programs, and full-day kindergarten. The proposal is expected to cut local property taxes by at least 30 percent and increase the state's share of education funding to 50 percent.
Rendell's plan for financing his education initiatives is likely to include both tax increases and a measure legalizing slot machines. Legislators have predicted that Rendell will propose a substantial increase in the state income tax.
House votes for austere version
Despite Rendell's requests that state lawmakers not take action until after hearing the March 25 proposal and his new spending plans, House Republicans engineered a hasty approval of the bare-bones budget on March 6, bypassing public hearings.
The Governor could face the possibility of having to veto his own proposal if the Senate also approves the austerity budget. Once the state budget is adopted, it becomes more difficult to introduce and pass new spending initiatives like Rendell's education plans, because there is no time pressure on the legislature to act.
Shelly Yanoff, executive director of Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth, a child advocacy group, was irate about the speedy actions of the House in passing a bare-bones budget.
"A budget that hurts children and families will not help Pennsylvania thrive economically, educationally, or safely. The Governor was elected to make a difference in these areas," she said.
Line item approach criticized
Tim Potts, executive director of Pennsylvania School Reform Network, said he was skeptical of both the legislators' actions and of the Rendell budget proposal for not adopting a comprehensive approach to the funding problem.
Potts and the Network have advocated for a new school funding formula providing an adequate and fair level of state funds to every school district.
Potts criticized the budgetary approach that makes changes by changing line items. He said it "forces the district to do what the legislature wants -- but it is rarely enough, is too easy to eliminate, and is not always appropriate."
The tendency of Harrisburg to micromanage is a real problem, and line items are a principal tool," stated Potts.
Instead, Potts called on the Governor and legislature to "construct a new system from the ground up," that would build into the general fund the expectations and money needed to support the costs of providing an adequate and equitable education. That way, he said, each school district could decide for itself, depending on its unique circumstances, how to allocate money to reach acceptable standards.