Wolf’s proposed $100 million boost to Pa. education welcome but not enough, some say
Members of the education community are pleased to see that Gov. Tom Wolf hopes to increase education funding next year.
But some worries remain about how lawmakers will move forward with addressing mandated costs — expenses related to pensions, employee benefits, special education and charter schools, for example — that keep climbing.
“That’s something that really needs to be solved so that districts don’t have to put so much of their funding that they do get into those kinds of costs,” said Steve Robinson, spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. He hoped the General Assembly will look for ways to address this issue.
Wolf on Tuesday released his proposed 2017-18 budget, which includes a $100 million increase in basic education funding, $25 million for special education and a $75 million boost to pre-K and Head Start. The state system of higher education — which includes universities such as California, Indiana and Slippery Rock — could receive an $8.9 million increase in funding.
The proposal included plans to update the formula used to calculate state funding given to school districts, intermediate units and career and technology centers for student transportation. This could result in $50 million in savings by budgeting transportation costs more accurately.
Lawmakers will take a close look at the proposed spending increases and assess what will be affordable, said Steve Miskin, spokesman for the House Republicans. The House Appropriations Committee will dedicate a full day to education during budget hearings in March.
Given that special education services is one of the biggest costs for the Yough School District, Superintendent Janet Sardon said she was happy to see that the governor’s proposal included an increase in that area.
Public schools are obligated to provide services to students who need them. Those services, such as providing special equipment, hiring a classroom aide or arranging for a student to attend classes at an outside facility, are expensive, she said. In addition, there is no way to standardize those services or predict what students are going to need from year to year.
“It doesn’t always fit together like a nice neat puzzle,” Sardon said. If new students move into the district, or the needs of current students change, the district could incur high unexpected costs. She hoped that the final budget includes the proposed $25 million increase to special education, if not more.
Increases in basic education funding may not be enough to stop the patterns of budget cuts, property tax increases and spending down of reserves that have become familiar in districts across the state, said Jay Himes, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association School Business Officials.
“That’s just not enough new dollars,” Himes said.
Missing from the proposal was mention of career and technical education programs, said Linda Hippert, executive director of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit. It serves 42 public school districts and five vocational schools across Allegheny County, providing support in areas such as special education, teacher training, human resources and operations, and information technology.
Hippert pointed out that Wolf’s proposal did not include any additional funding for career and technical education, programs she said are key to making sure all of the state’s students are ready for college and jobs after high school.
“This is a goal, and particularly for Western Pennsylvania, to improve our workforce,” Hippert said.
Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-850-2867 or at [email protected].