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Corbett pledges school funding amid state deficit

Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review
Governor Tom Corbett discusses his “Ready to Succeed” scholarship program, which would provide up to $2,000 in financial assistance to postsecondary education student’s whose family earns less than $110,000 annually, in the Founders Hall Amphitheater at Westmoreland County Community College on Friday, May 9, 2014.

Saturday, May 10, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

On a swing through Western Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Corbett made substantial promises for pre-K, special education and across-the-board school grants, though state leaders say he has a long road ahead if he hopes to repair his reputation as no friend to education.

In Pittsburgh on Thursday and Friday, the governor touted millions to the three “Ready” arms of his budget proposal — Ready to Learn, Ready to Grow and Ready to Succeed — each designed to target different age-appropriate needs.

At Small World Early Learning Center II on Penn Avenue, Corbett read to preschoolers and talked shop with law enforcement, emphasizing a proposed $35.5 million state surge to Pre-K Counts and early childhood education.

“We can invest better than we have in the past,” he said of budgets. “Too many children get to middle school, high school and college unprepared. As a prosecutor, I saw too many of them in a courtroom. This money will help (temper) that.”

At a Friday morning conference on science, technology, engineering and math, Corbett addressed kids inside the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, encouraging them to “be scouts, always seeking the next generation of talent.”

That afternoon at Westmoreland County Community College, he talked about the rising cost of higher education, pledging up to $2,000 per year to any full-time student who maintains a 3.25 grade-point average and whose family earns up to $110,000 annually.

Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, introduced a bill to that effect on Monday.

“Gov. Corbett's been making these kinds of appearances all across the state. Most don't garner much interest,” said Wythe Keever, Pennsylvania State Education Association spokesman. “The education funding crisis is ongoing and getting worse. No amount of stump speeches or photo ops will reverse that.”

Moody's Investors Service has warned it plans to cut the Philadelphia School District's bond rating, now at junk status, because leaders lack $216 million they need next fiscal year to not “materially imperil its ability to provide students with an adequate education.”

Nearly 75 percent of the state's 500 school districts are weighing huge staff and instructional cuts for the third year in a row, according to a joint survey by the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators and Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials.

Corbett's 2014-15 budget includes a combined 3.3 percent increase, including $241 million in Ready to Learn block grants for Pennsylvania classrooms.

Jim Buckheit, head of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, said he tells member districts “to be very cautious about including that money in their budgets for this year.”

“Given the news last week about the state deficit, we're obviously seriously concerned if the money he proposed will actually pass,” Buckheit said.

The governor's office projects an $800 million deficit. The Harrisburg-based Independent Fiscal Office estimates that figure at $1.2 billion.

“Some districts don't plan for extra money at all,” Buckheit said. “They figure if it comes, that's gravy. Others, if they don't get this cash, they'll be amputating limbs.”

Megan Harris is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-388-5815 or Staff writer Kari Andren contributed to this report.

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