HARRISBURG - Facing a bipartisan barrage of criticism, the state's education chief Tuesday defended Gov. Corbett's proposal to slash $1 billion in aid to school districts, saying money doesn't make better schools.
"Education achievement or achievement of any kind cannot be measured in dollars and cents," Ron Tomalis told the House Appropriations Committee.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers, who are reviewing Corbett's 2011-12 spending plan, predicted dire consequences for some school districts if the cuts went through as proposed.
Sen. Lisa Baker, a Republican who represents six counties in the state's northeast corner, said officials in one Sullivan County district told her that it might have to close if the current level of cuts went through.
Other legislators said school districts might be forced to lay off hundreds of teachers, eliminate successful programs, and raise property taxes.
The unease that members of both parties have voiced to Corbett's proposed funding reductions is the strongest sign that a budget battle might loom between the new Republican governor and the Republican-controlled General Assembly. Education cuts include nearly 10 percent to schools and 50 percent to state-supported universities.
"It would be difficult to get the votes in the House and Senate. I told the governor that," House Speaker Sam Smith (R., Jefferson) said in an interview. "A 50 percent cut to higher education is not 'belt-tightening.' Let's see what else we can squeeze elsewhere in the budget."
Corbett unveiled his $27.3 billion state budget in early March, recommending eliminating $1 billion from the total basic education funding - including $250 million in grants that paid for programs such as full-day kindergarten - to help repair a $4 billion deficit without raising taxes.
The total K-12 education funding proposal is $5.2 billion, an amount that would be a rollback to 2008-09 school funding levels.
Tomalis, during six hours of testimony before the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, blamed part of the fiscal woes on the end of federal stimulus money and higher teacher and staff costs.
He acknowledged that less-affluent districts, which rely more heavily on state funding, would feel a drop in subsidies more deeply and that larger class sizes might be one result of the cutbacks.
But he said the budget reflected the Corbett administration's commitment to the "core mission" of public education.
"We want to make sure kids get the services they need," said Tomalis, who is awaiting Senate confirmation as education secretary. "I think we did that."
Some legislators begged to differ.
"You're taking more from school districts that had very little to begin with," said Rep. Mario Scavello, a Republican from Monroe County, which has 3,000 foreclosed homes. "I'm begging you to do something."
Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.) asked Tomalis how he could justify reducing state funding by 30 percent to 40 percent in struggling districts such as Chester Upland in Delaware County.
Tomalis said that school district had been a problem 15 years ago, when he served as deputy education secretary in the Ridge administration.
Later, Hughes said he believed there was a disconnect in the Corbett administration philosophy that seeks to give tax breaks to corporations while strangling schools.
"Money is relevant," he said, alluding to Tomalis' primary message of the day. "If it's not about money, let's tax Marcellus Shale." Corbett has pledged not to tax the extraction of the gas.
Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R., Montgomery) said that while he represents some fiscally healthy school districts, others have no surpluses to fall back on. He said he feared that lower-income property owners would be hit with tax increases they couldn't afford.
Greenleaf asked Tomalis to consider the formula under which the cuts were devised: "I need you to reevaluate the situation for these districts."