By Christen Smith
HARRISBURG (Aug.24) — Republican leaders may have to give up a lot more than $400 million to appease Gov. Tom Wolf's education spending demands and broker a deal on pension reform.
Exactly how much remains shrouded in mystery as the administration combs through the GOP proposal offered last week, but with less than 24 hours before an anticipated decision on the “take-it-or-leave-it” offer, one cabinet official says Wolf hasn't moved off his March budget proposals — including the decision to delay the new basic education funding formula another year.
“As of our last conversation with the governor, he really wants to push the new funding based on his proposal,” Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera told reporters after the Pennsylvania Press Club Luncheon Monday. “So ... we are really trying to build a strong foundation first, then support the work, which is amazing work, of the Basic Education Funding Commission.”
The 15-member legislative panel released its recommendations for a new formula in June — after a year of hearings and decades of pressure over the state's existing funding system, which uses a patchwork of subsidies to level-fund some districts while upping support in others.
Typically, districts unable to generate enough local tax revenue rely on state support to balance their budgets. So when the state reduces education spending, districts with larger subsidies face steeper cuts.
It's exactly what happened in 2011 when the $862 million wellspring of federal stimulus money dried up and the Legislature at that time — following the lead of the fiscally conservative Gov. Tom Corbett — wouldn't raise taxes to replenish it.
“When you reduce 10 percent of 40 percent, which many of our neediest school districts are still 40-percent state funded, it's much, much more than 10 percent of 8 percent,” Rivera said. “So if we don't build a strong foundation … it's not going to make a difference in our neediest communities.”
In the four years since, the state's basic education subsidy remains higher now than it was in the stimulus-augmented years of 2009-10 and 2010-11 — though it's those “foundation” years, which diverted the extra federal dollars to districts in need and ultimately resulted in higher funding, to which the governor wants to return before implementing the new formula.
Republicans, on the other hand, say the formula will ensure fairer distribution of state funds to the districts that need it the most — those struggling with the lingering effects of the lost stimulus.
It's why, despite the governor's opposition, the formula was written into the now-vetoed Education Code, say Republicans.
Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana, said Monday that while the GOP proposal didn't come with a formula requirement, it doesn't mean the caucus is willing to forgo implementing the new formula another year.
“It was mentioned then quickly dismissed as something we'll talk about later,” he said about the issue when it came up during meetings last week between legislative leaders and Wolf. “But there will have to be a discussion on it.”