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Educators give state budget an 'F'

Friday, March 07, 2003

By Jane Elizabeth, Post-Gazette Education Writer

School superintendents and other educators are sharing Gov. Ed Rendell's pain over his proposed state budget.

And the assurance that other states are experiencing even deeper budget cuts doesn't help.

"Somehow I don't feel a lot better off," said Baldwin-Whitehall School District Superintendent Charles H. Faust, one of about 75 Western Pennsylvania educators gathered yesterday at a forum in Oakland to discuss the state budget plan.

During his budget presentation to legislators Tuesday, Rendell called his proposal "bitter medicine" and said, "I hate this budget with every fiber of my body."

After getting an overview of the proposal, which calls for a 5 percent cut in state college funding and no increase in basic education funding for K-12 schools, participants at yesterday's forum sponsored by the Education Policy and Leadership Center concurred.

The quick approval of the budget yesterday by the state House was "disgraceful," said Ronald Cowell, president of the center and a Democratic state representative for 24 years. He called it a move of pure politics that "surely will not serve the needs of our children."

He also was critical of the lack of time for public input or even review of the proposed budget. With the plan's expected approval by the state Senate next week, legislators will be in the odd position of holding public hearings on a budget that's already passed, Cowell noted.

"We do live in interesting times," said Christopher Wakely, executive director of the Democratic staff of the House Education Committee.

This year's education budget proposal is $90,499 less than last year's allocation.

Several programs were eliminated from the budget proposal; not coincidentally, most of them were Ridge administration programs. Schools would no longer get "performance incentive grants" for improving their test scores and student attendance rates, and the entire $15 million allocation for the former administration's "Read to Succeed" program was cut.

Also facing big cuts are Ridge's "Classroom Plus" program, whichprovides tutoring money for students who score poorly on state tests.

Charter school planning grants, given to groups that are considering opening a charter school, also were wiped out. Superintendents won't lose sleep over that deletion; they have long complained that charter schools siphon money from their districts.

"We're going back to basics," Wakely told the group yesterday.

Some educators expressed concern yesterday over a $1,944,000 reduction proposed for teachers' professional development programs.

Although details have not been announced, both Wakely and Cowell said yesterday the reduction probably means the state's controversial teacher-testing program will be abandoned. The PDAP tests -- Professional Development Assistance Program -- have been unpopular with teachers unions.

The governor's proposed budget would put the level of state aid to the University of Pittsburgh $14 million below what it was last year; for Penn State, it's a $16 million reduction.

Most colleges and universities in Pennsylvania felt strapped enough last year to ask for significant tuition increases -- 14 percent at Pitt and 13.5 percent at Penn State.

But Wakely warned that "there is a growing concern and anger in the Legislature about double-digit tuition increases."

"The warning I'm hearing is, don't come back to us" with those requests, he said, because the sentiment is "that everyone else is tightening their belts and it doesn't appear that higher ed is."

Jane Elizabeth can be reached at jelizabeth@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1510.

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