HARRISBURG - Gov. Corbett will propose hundreds of millions of dollars in new education funding as the centerpiece of the budget he unveils next month, according to sources familiar with the plan.
Addressing one of his perceived political liabilities, the governor will call for what one source described as a "major investment" in basic education with more modest investments for colleges.
The details, including where the money will come from, remain under wraps. But one source estimated the plan will call for $200 million in new funds, and others said the governor hopes to rely on pension reform to net $100 million.
A Corbett spokesman would not confirm or deny the plan Thursday. "We won't release any details of the proposal," said spokesman Jay Pagni.
Corbett is scheduled to deliver his annual budget proposal Feb. 4 in the Capitol.
On Friday morning, the governor will make his first appearance at a Philadelphia school since taking office. In a stop at Central High School, he is scheduled to present academic achievement awards to three schools. The visit is expected to draw a crowd of protestors, angry over funding cuts in past years.
Corbett also faces a new slate of critics in 2014: the eight Democrats hopefuls seeking to replace him this year and who routinely assail him over education cuts.
The governor and his supporters contend that he has devoted more money to basic education - $5.5 billion last year - than his predecessors, and that he's been unfairly blamed for the loss of $1 billion in education funding that was caused more by the end of federal stimulus in 2011.
Regardless of the source, the pain has been felt in school districts across the Commonwealth, none more acutely than the Philadelphia School District, which has shuttered schools, laid off thousands of staffers and cut programs to offset the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Three-quarters of the state's 500 other school districts raised taxes to cover shortfalls.
In all, more than 20,000 Pennsylvania teachers and staff have been laid off in the past three years, and pre-kindergarten, counseling, athletic and other school programs scaled back or eliminated in many districts.
Corbett is hoping to turn that around in his fourth state budget despite projections of a deficit of more than $1 billion.
"Education and jobs are a priority and you will see a reflection of that [in the budget] in terms of a major investment," said a source familiar with the plan.
Corbett will not be proposing new revenue sources to cover the investment, the sources said. Pension reform could provide a significant measure of "budget relief" to reinvest in the schools, one said.
It is unlikely that Corbett will link the funding increase for public schools to another policy item, such as legalizing online gambling, that doesn't have wide support, said legislative staff members familiar with the budget plan.
"It's just not good tactics in an election year," said one Republican staff member. "In an election year, you have to be able to deliver what you're promising."
Education funding - or lack thereof - had been considered Corbett's primary weakness in this election year, and the Democrats seeking to challenge him have pounded that point home in stump speeches across the state.
Union leaders have echoed that sentiment and pledged to fight cuts to pension benefits.
"We are still $700 million below 2010-2011 levels in overall education funding that needs to restored," Wythe Keever, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union. "We need to distribute funding based on actual needs; Corbett abandoned that."
Keever said the question is how to pay for it. "Corbett has refused to look at other sources of revenue such as a Marcellus Shale gas tax and reducing corporate tax breaks," he said.
Sen. Jake Corman (R., Centre), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he was not aware of the governor's plan but welcomed it.
"It will be interesting to see how it is accomplished," said Corman, given an anticipated $1.5 billion in new costs for pensions, Medicaid and prisons.
The prospect of $100 million in pension savings "is a step in right direction," Corman said, "but we will need substantial revenue or savings above that to invest in education."