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February 7, 2013

Education chief defends Corbett’s budget

— Some critics of Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed budget mischaracterize a plan to connect educational funding to liquor privatization as objectionable to some lawmakers, state Education Secretary Ron Tomalis said Thursday.

The 2013-2014 budget proposal unveiled this week provides an extra $338.1 million for education, including $326.5 million for basic education, from existing tax revenues.

An additional $1 billion in grants from the sale of liquor licenses for supermarkets would not be available until the next budget year, provided the Legislature approves the plan, Tomalis said in a meeting with The Tribune-Democrat editorial board.

Grants can be used to upgrade school safety, improve preschool and early learning programs, create more individualized learning opportunities or boost science, technology, English and math learning, Tomalis said.

The grants are not intended to create new programs that would require ongoing funding, he said.

“This is an opportunity to put in science labs and other one-time expenses,” Tomalis said. “They can upgrade programs and push them along.”

Although Corbett has been criticized for massive cuts in school funding in his first two budgets, Tomalis presented data showing that state funding cuts actually came before Corbett took office. Schools saw an increase because the cuts were more than offset by federal economic stimulus funding.

“State support was cut, and it was backfilled with stimulus money,” Tomalis said. “School districts were told: Don’t use these stimulus dollars for ongoing operational costs or you are going to see a fiscal cliff (when the stimulus program ends).”

Schools reached that cliff during the last years of former Gov. Ed Rendell’s term, leaving the Corbett administration with a $4.6 billion deficit to address, he said. Part of the solution required holding the line on state education funds, which led to less money for schools.

“We made some of the tough decisions we had to make,” Tomalis said. “Now the economy is starting to turn around.”

The governor is also asking the Legislature to approve shifting teachers to a 401(k) type of retirement plan while preserving pension benefits already earned. The proposal would save $138 million.

Another proposal would allow school districts to apply for waivers from certain mandates when creating initiatives to improve education.

Greater Johnstown Superintendent Gerald Zahorchak pointed out the $326 million increase does not offset cuts over the past two years, adding that those cuts hit Johnstown harder than some smaller schools.

“It costs more for children of low income to educate them,” Zahorchak said Thursday.

Zahorchak commended Corbett’s increase in support for early learning programs.

“We never have enough to get to all the children who need it, but this is a good start,” he said.

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