HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — The centerpiece of Gov. Tom Corbett's budget proposal, a big new grant program for public schools, is getting pushback because it attaches strings to the use of the money at a time when Corbett is against giving a general increase in state aid to education.
The criticism from major Pennsylvania schools groups was swift, coming within hours after Corbett outlined the $340 million grant program Tuesday while unveiling his budget plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1. The program needs to be approved by lawmakers, who could make changes.
Department of Education spokesman Tim Eller defended the grant program as distributing money through proven methods of improving student achievement.
"This is an increase in funding targeted to student achievement," Eller said Wednesday. "Schools are in the business of helping students achieve, and that's what this money will do."
But the criticism from groups including the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and the state's largest teachers' union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, will not help the administration. Districts need maximum flexibility over state aid, and the grant program will tie the hands of school officials, the school boards association said.
"They're working in the field, they know what works best in their communities," association spokesman Steve Robinson said.
The Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials echoed the other groups in pushing for Corbett to distribute the new money to schools through the general schools appropriation that helps underwrite the cost of instruction and operations.
"With rising costs on all fronts and the recent program and personnel cuts school districts have had to endure over the past several years, this is not the appropriate time to tie additional funding to new programs and initiatives which handcuff schools trying to make difficult budget decisions," the group said in a statement.
The $340 million block grant program will provide a menu of options to public schools on how they can use the money. That menu expands for schools that fared better in the first school performance profiles that Corbett's Department of Education released last year.
Charter schools also would get $19 million in aid from the grants, the first time state aid would flow directly to the institutions, instead of through school boards. That also could spark opposition from school boards and teachers' unions.
Aid to public schools for instruction and operations would remain unchanged from this year's $5.5 billion.
Corbett's cuts to public school funding to balance the state budget in 2011 remain a sore spot, particularly for the state's poorest districts. PSEA spokesman David Broderic said schools are still trying to figure out how to replace teachers, librarians, tutors and other school employees who lost their jobs in the aftermath.
"Attaching strings to new state money will not help to solve the school funding crisis and that is the most important problem that policymakers need to solve this year," Broderic said.
Overall, Corbett's budget would increase aid to public schools by 3 percent in the next fiscal year, compared with an approximately 10 percent cut in 2011.