Gov. Tom Corbett has proposed a $29.4 billion state spending plan for fiscal 2014-15 that includes some positive investments for Pennsylvania's children, but also underscores the work that still needs to be done to help every child succeed. Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children (PPC) has reviewed some of the more notable budget proposals that impact the commonwealth's kids. Here is our recap:
The governor's proposed budget would keep basic education funding in fiscal 2014-15 at its existing 2013-14 level of $5.526 billion. Given this appropriation is the core funding source for educating every public school student in the commonwealth, PPC hopes there will be a substantive discussion during the budget process about moving Pennsylvania towards a school funding formula grounded in the principles of adequacy and equity, as well as financial predictability for schools and fiscal accountability to taxpayers.
Special education funding is slated to increase by $20 million (about 2 percent) to about $1.047 billion. This would mark the first special education funding increase in six years - a very important step forward. While there are no specific details yet on how the administration plans to distribute the special education funds, a distribution method based on the recommendations of Pennsylvania's special education funding commission is likely to be under consideration.
The governor also has proposed combining the $100 million appropriation for the Accountability Block Grant (ABG) with an additional $241 million in new funding for a "Ready to Learn" block grant program. ABG funds would be distributed in the same manner as in the past and could be used for the same purposes, as well as new uses included in "Ready to Learn."
The new funding in the "Ready to Learn" block grant would be available to both school districts and charter schools and distributed through a formula that incorporates average daily membership, aid ratio, the number of English language learners and the number of economically disadvantaged students.
How the "Ready to Learn" grants could be used by districts would depend upon each district's aggregated score based on school building data in the new state School Performance Profiles (SPP) that were released in the fall of 2013. Those scores would be used to classify each district into one of four tiers, and the menu of options within each tier expands as the SPP score goes up. Purposes include: pre-k to 3 curriculum alignment and extended learning opportunities; early literacy and STEM; pre-k; full-day supplemental instruction in biology, English language arts and Algebra I; implementation of state literacy plan; instructional coaches; STEM education; hybrid learning; and competency based learning.
The governor's proposed budget includes an additional $10 million for PA Pre-K Counts to serve an additional 1,670 children. This marks a down payment on the much larger investment that is needed to make high-quality pre-kindergarten accessible to more young learners. Today in Pennsylvania, there are only enough public funds to make pre-k available to help fewer than 20 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds access high-quality programs.
A recent statewide poll of likely voters found 63 percent of Pennsylvanians support increasing funding for pre-k and 58 percent of those polled say they favor increased funding even if it increased their taxes. Given the voter support for expanding pre-k accessibility, it's clear the commonwealth should continue to build on the governor's proposed increase.
Later this month, PPC will be releasing a comprehensive report assessing the state of pre-k in the commonwealth and exploring why stronger investments are a smart strategy for Pennsylvania and its taxpayers. In the meantime, please check out the recently launched "Pre-K for PA" campaign at prekforpa.org.
The governor's proposed early learning budget also increases child care services funding primarily with the use of nearly $21 million in expanded federal support that will be used primarily to reduce the waiting list for child care. Additionally, it allocates about $15.8 million awarded by the federal government for fiscal 2014-15 as part of the "Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge" grant program.
The proposed budget includes a more than $28 million increase for county child welfare services to help address increasing caseloads and investigations into reports of abuse and neglect. It also includes a nearly $5.8 million increase to fund child welfare information systems.
Also, for the first time ever, the state budget includes a separate $2 million appropriation for child advocacy centers. These centers help improve the commonwealth's ability to investigate and treat child abuse, particularly child sexual abuse.
The proposed budget includes additional funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) - funding the administration hopes to use to provide health insurance coverage to an additional 10,000 Pennsylvania children. However, it is unclear at this point whether the proposed increase also would continue to support new outreach efforts to find uninsured children and subsequently build on CHIP outreach efforts that were funded in the fiscal 2013-14 budget.