Tough budget year, says Pa. education chief

    Pennsylvania Department of Education Secretary Pedro Rivera says his department has been under pressure to come up with cost-cutting measures. (AP file photo)

    Pennsylvania Department of Education Secretary Pedro Rivera says his department has been under pressure to come up with cost-cutting measures. (AP file photo)

    Pennsylvania House members kicked off their third and final week of budget hearings with an all-day Q&A session with education officials.

    Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed plan includes a $100 million boost for general education funding, which returns the allocation almost to its 2011 peak.

    But talk has centered on what will be cut.

    With the commonwealth facing a nearly $3 billion structural deficit, the 2017-18 budget proposal is significantly leaner than Wolf’s previous plans.

    Education Secretary Pedro Rivera said that puts his department under some pressure.

    “This was an extremely difficult budget year,” Rivera said. “The governor is looking for an additional $2 billion in efficiencies.”

    Many of the cuts to education spending were spurred by the McKinsey report — an analysis by a third-party contractor Wolf hired to help him find savings.

    Some of the measures — such as ending state funding for the University of Pennsylvania’s Veterinary School — were tough to make, Rivera said.

    But those decisions allowed the department to prioritize funding for preschool, K through 12, and special education.

    State higher education won’t see much of an increase, however.

    Rivera said the department’s trying to improve struggling enrollment and retention rates in other ways.

    “Our college acceptance standards do not align with graduation standards,” he explained. “So one of the conversations we’re having now is bringing counselors, and higher-ed admissions counselors together to say, what must you graduate with in high school in order to move on seamlessly into higher ed.”

    Rivera said he wants the Legislature to make changes in a few areas — particularly school-funding equity.

    Despite a new funding formula that became law last year, Pennsylvania’s wealthiest public schools still get more than twice the money of poorer schools.

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