09 Apr Rendell Would Increase Spending for Erie, Other Public Schools

April 9, 2010

Source: Erie Times-News

Gov. Ed Rendell was in Erie on Monday to promote increased funding for the state’s public schools despite a projected $800 million state budget deficit.

Rendell’s 2010-11 budget would increase basic education subsidies for local school districts by $354.8 million, including an additional $3.3 million for the Erie School District.

The increase would bring total basic education spending to $5.9 billion.

That’s despite lagging state-tax collections that Senate Republicans said could ultimately raise the deficit to $1 billion.

"We will deal with it," Rendell said of the deficit. "The question is, ‘Do we shortchange education to do it?’ And the answer is no."

Rendell spoke at Irving Elementary School on the first stop of a two-day, five-county tour seeking support for his $29 billion budget.

He acknowledg ed that increased basic education spending is likely to be a sticking point in Senate budget approval, as it was in 2009-10.

"It took us 101 days (beyond the June 30 deadline) to approve the budget last year, and that caused a lot of pain and a lot of grief throughout the commonwealth," Rendell said. "But it was a fight about whether we continue to step up to do something for our children, and for ourselves. And it still is."

The state’s investment in education is an investment in economic development, Rendell said.

"We used to compete with (other states); now we’re globally competitive. (Attracting business) used to be about natural resources and transportation; now it’s about the education of our work force and (the quality of) our students graduating high school and college and earning their Ph.D., and about how many engineers we have."

The investment has paid off in improved student achievement, Rendell said, citing a Center on Education Policy study that found Pennsylvania is the only state in which students improved standardized test scores in every grade and in every subject each year since 2002.

"You get what you pay for," Rendell said. "And the results have been dramatic."

Rendell’s budget would not increase spending for preschool programs or the state’s colleges and universities. The budget would cut support for some private schools, including $207,000 for the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine.

"I wish we could do more at every level, but we have to wait for an economic turnaround," Rendell said.

D uring his stop in Erie, Rendell also pushed for new and expanded taxes that he said will be necessary to avert state and local budget crises in coming years.

His budget calls for new taxes on natural-gas drilling and on cigar and smokeless-tobacco sales.

It also proposes cutting the state sales tax from 6 to 4 percent but applying the tax to 74 goods and services that are now exempt, affecting items as diverse as movie-theater candy sales and gold-bullion trading. Only food, clothing, pharmaceutical, nonprofit ticket and manufacturing sales would remain tax-exempt.

The budget additionally would eliminate the discount offered to major retailers for paying their taxes on time and would reduce the corporate business tax from 9.9 to 8.9 percent while eliminating "loopholes" that exempt corporations channeling profits to "tax-haven" states or countries.

The combined measures would raise an estimated $2.3 billion to help replace $2.7 billion in federal stimulus money supporting the state budget this year, Rendell said. Stimulus funding ends with the 2010-11 fiscal year.

Increased revenues could also help local school districts cover a coming spike in employee pension obligations, Rendell said.

He conceded that it may not be enough.

"Am I sure it will be enough money? No. But it’s going to be a good start, and it’s better than doing nothing," Rendell said.

Erie schools Superintendent Jim Barker supports the proposed budget and said increased state funding has provided technology, preschool, full-day kindergarten, after-school tutoring and dual enrollment for city students wit hout any increase in property taxes.

"Before the governor’s commitment to education, Erie School District was spending $8,000 per pupil when some other districts were spending $22,000. Governor Rendell has led the struggle to provide equal opportunity to each student," Barker said.

The state’s Democratic-led House passed Rendell’s proposed budget on March 23. The Republican-led Senate has not yet acted on the bill.

State Sen. Jane Earll, of Fairview Township, R-49th Dist., could not be reached for comment on the budget Monday.

Senate Republican leaders have called the budget’s 4-percent spending increase fiscally "irresponsible" in a continued tough economy. Lt. Gov. Joe Scarnati called the proposal to expand the state sales tax "dead on arrival."

Irving students invited to hear and meet the governor on their last day of spring break were less critical.

"It was cool," fifth-grader Jazmine Bennett said. "I’ve never met anyone famous before."

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