Pa. Senate Dems propose $300 million immediate infusion for state education

     Pennsylvania State Sen. Vincent Hughes of Philadelphia and other senators held a press conference at school district headquarters Thursday morning to present new methods to fund education. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

    Pennsylvania State Sen. Vincent Hughes of Philadelphia and other senators held a press conference at school district headquarters Thursday morning to present new methods to fund education. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

    A coalition of Pennsylvania Senate Democrats gathered at Philadelphia School District headquarters Thursday to propose 10 policy ideas the lawmakers say would generate $1.1 billion for a variety of state budget line-items – including $300 million for education – without raising any broad-based taxes.

    The group says the state can achieve these funding increases by finding savings in existing spending and generating additional revenue.

    The largest savings, the coalition says, would come from Pennsylvania accepting the federal Medicaid expansion. By accepting that provision of the Affordable Care Act, the lawmakers anticipate a windfall that would release $400 million from other state budget line-items.

    Other budget-cutting and revenue-raising options include modernizing (not privatizing) the state’s wine and spirit stores ($125 million); ending the “pension double dip” for charter schools ($85 million); freezing the planned phaseout of capital stock and franchise taxes ($75 million); and implementing a tax on smokeless tobacco ($36 million).

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    “Pennsylvania needs to go in another direction,” said state Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, before offering his own “State of the State.”

    Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate has climbed higher than the national average, he said, while private-sector job creation has dipped to 46th place. The state’s credit rating has fallen twice in two years. And local property taxes have been on the rise statewide, he said.

    Of the $300 million in additional education spending, the group proposes increases to the specific education budget line-items that have been slashed since Gov. Tom Corbett took office. These include increases to the accountability block grant ($100 million), charter reimbursement ($85 million), tutoring ($50 million), early learning ($40 million), special education ($25 million).

    ‘Putting it out there’

    “We know that education is something that people believe is the ‘number one’ issue … and so our job is to put it out there,” said Hughes. “Either the governor is going to win the day or we’re going to win the day, and I think the odds are, the public support is on our side.”

    The effects of budget cuts on the the Philadelphia School District have been well documented.

    Kwanita Williams, an English teacher at Franklin Learning Center High School, spoke at the press conference. Over the past few years, she said she’s seen the school shed three full-time deans, two guidance counselors, two school police officers, a full-time nurse and a vice principal.

    “The budget cuts have a direct impact on individual schools,” Williams said. “Our kids’ basic needs are not being met.”

    Aside from education, the remainder of the proposed funds would be dedicated to areas such as job creation, economic development, human services funding, and increasing the state minimum wage to at least $9 an hour.

    The coalition members – Hughes, Sen. Shirley Kitchen, Sen. LeAnna Washington. Sen. Larry Farnese, and Sen. Christine Tartaglione, all representing the city – say all 10 proposals can be accomplished before the fiscal year ends on June 30.

    The news conference at the school district headquarters mirrored those held by other state Senate Democrats across the state. Superintendent William Hite, who did not attend the gathering, was attending an education conference in Texas, a spokesman said.

    Corbett’s budget secretary, Charles Zogby, declined to comment on the record about the proposals.

    Chairman of education panel willing to listen

    State Rep. Paul Clymer, R-Bucks, who recently announced that he would not seek re-election, chairs the House Education Committee. In a telephone interview, he said that he’s willing to consider the coalition’s proposals, but expressed doubts that spending increases alone would improve educational outcomes for the state’s children.

    “When your mother or grandmother bakes a chocolate cake, just because they have the flour – which is a main ingredient – doesn’t mean that you’re going to get a chocolate cake,” said Clymer. “There are other ingredients that have got to be put in the mixing bowl in order to come out with that very delicious cake.”

    To Clymer, that metaphorical “delicious cake” represents an education system that includes ample parental involvement, ensures quality teachers and administrators, and emphasizes teaching “honesty and civility and respect.”

    Corbett will announce his budget proposals for the coming year Tuesday. He’s expected to announce hundreds of millions of dollars in increased education spending, while offering solutions to plug a projected $1.4 billion deficit in the state’s $28.4 billion budget.

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