HARRISBURG (Source: Steve Esack and John L. Micek The Morning Call, Allentown, Pa.) – Gov. Tom Corbett wants to fundamentally reshape the way Pennsylvania pays for all levels of public education, a move he says is good for the mind, soul and wallets of taxpayers in an economy that’s left state coffers $710 million short of revenue.
The biggest change in the $27.14 billion spending plan for 2012-13 would come in higher education, where Corbett proposes a $1.4 billion cut as part of what he calls an attempt to right-size the state’s system.
The Republican governor on Tuesday also proposed a new funding system that he says would give school districts greater flexibility in spending $6.5 billion he would allocate under it.
“What Harrisburg can do for education is to set standards — both for our schools and our government,” Corbett told a joint session of the state House and Senate.
But university administrators, suspicious union leaders and angry Democrats warned that Corbett’s plan for higher education, coming a year after he cut funding by almost 20 percent, will hurt families by forcing schools to raise tuition.
Meanwhile, skeptical public school officials, who endured double-digit percentage cuts last year, said Corbett’s new public school funding system would create a funding loss, despite his claims that funding would remain level.
Corbett would cut $330 million, or 20 percent, from the budgets of the 14 state-owned universities, including Kutztown and East Stroudsburg.
He would slice $147.4 million, or 30 percent, from state funds to three of the four state-related universities: Penn State, Temple and the University of Pittsburgh.
Community colleges were not spared. They would lose $8.8 million, or nearly 4 percent, for a total proposed budget of about $222 million.
Corbett also would cut 5 percent, or about $362 million, in student loans through the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency.
State Education Secretary Ron Tomalis said grants would be steered toward students who planned to pursue careers in “high-priority and economically stimulating fields,” such as energy, agriculture and manufacturing.
Those cuts come on top of a $160 million funding freeze Corbett issued last month in higher education to help stabilize a projected $500 revenue shortfall for 2011-12.
Corbett defended the cuts, calling them difficult but necessary. To make sure the state is getting the most bang for its higher education buck, he’s convening a review panel that will come up with recommendations on how “our universities can best serve the students and citizens of this new century.”
Tomalis said Corbett is strictly coming up with a way to deal with a “revenue issue” and is not trying to force the state-owned and supported universities to become private institutions as some have theorized.
But after two consecutive years of steep budget cuts, university officials were questioning Corbett’s priorities.
Guido Pichini, chairman of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education’s Board of Governors, and state system Chancellor John C. Cavanaugh said in a joint statement that the funding cuts will further hurt students, 80 percent of whom stay in the state upon graduation.
They said universities like Kutztown would be forced to decide whether to fix aging buildings or support students.
Officials at Temple, which would lose about $42 million, said they will rally students, parents and alumni to fight the proposed cuts. Last year, student-led rallies and a flood of phone calls from parents convinced legislators to reduce Corbett’s initial call for a 50 percent cut in higher education funds by more than half.
The university is “dedicated to providing a high quality urban education at the best possible price. We can only do this with your support,” Temple President Ann Weaver Hart said in a statement.
Penn State officials, meanwhile, are being more diplomatic in the wake of former PresidentGraham B. Spanier’s pitched battles with Corbett over the school’s appropriation last year.
The level of support Corbett wants to give Penn State would be equal to what it received in the late 1980s, said university spokeswoman Annemarie Mountz.
“But we were a very different university back then, without Penn College or Hershey, and with roughly 30,000 fewer students benefiting from that level of funding,” she said.
Under Corbett’s plan, funding for Pitt would drop about $41 million to $95 million. The fourth and smallest state-related school, Lincoln University, is flat-funded at $11.1 million.
Corbett’s spending plan for higher education was straightforward.
But his new system for funding preschool through 12th grade was open to interpretation.
Corbett wants to place $6.5 billion into a new funding mechanism called the Student Achievement Education Block Grant. The grant does not change the funding formula. It is meant to give the districts more spending leeway to allocate dollars by lumping basic education, transportation and Social Security payments under one funding stream.
“We leave the basic education funding formula at its current level,” Corbett said. “There are no cuts.”
David Broderic, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the largest teachers union, said Corbett is playing “a fairly complicated shell game.” He said the basic education funds are used to cover classroom learning, but Corbett wants to lump non-classroom funding into basic education too.
When you subtract the transportation and Social Security money, “it looks like a $94 million cut,” Broderic said.
Saucon Valley School District Superintendent Sandra Fellin said even though the budget says basic education funding would remain the same, she said it doesn’t say how that money would be parsed among the 500 school districts.
Joseph Roy, superintendent of the Bethlehem Area School District, said the governor may have changed the transportation formula, which would reduce how much money the district gets for busing students.
John Vignone, business manager of the Parkland School District, saw a transportation cut for his district of $100,000.
Allentown School District Superintendent Russ Mayo said the new block grant will give his district an additional $500,000 in basic education funding. But with a $12 million deficit, he said it’s not much help.
Nearly lost in the cuts to higher education and shifting of public education dollars is another cut to public libraries. They would lose 5 percent to bring funding to about $58.2 million.
Reporters Andrew McGill, Marion Callahan and Adam Clark contributed to this story..
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Source: Steve Esack and John L. Micek The Morning Call, Allentown, Pa.