Every year since taking office, Gov. Rendell has pushed for expanded school funding, including programs for early-childhood education, increases for poorer districts, and more for high school improvements.
Republicans fought spending increases and what they saw as an expanded state role in education. For the most part, Rendell prevailed.
This year, driven by the recession and budget deficits, the Republicans are sharpening their attack on Rendell's education plan, proposing to roll back almost all his priorities.
The GOP-dominated state Senate's version of the new budget, passed last week, would cut Rendell's proposed spending on public schools by more than $1 billion - about 10 percent.
State Sen. Jeffrey Piccola (R., Dauphin), chairman of the Education Committee, blasted Rendell's "bloated spending habits" and "reckless" approach to education funding.
Firing back, state Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak said the GOP budget "would be absolutely devastating" to education. "Schools would be set back; the steps forward we have taken would . . . be erased."
Such back-and-forth is typical in budget negotiations, but the recession has widened the differences this year, as the Republicans seek more sweeping education cutbacks than usual while Rendell pushes ahead with his agenda.
And the uncertainty about the final budget, which must be adopted by July 1, is making life even more difficult than usual for school boards wary of raising taxes during a recession while local revenue declines.
"Every dollar we don't get from the state, we have to get from the taxpayers in the district," said Gregory Lucidi, school board president in Bucks County's Pennsbury School District.
If the Senate plan goes through, the Philadelphia School District would be the biggest loser, going from a small projected surplus next year under Rendell's proposal to a deficit of close to $300 million.
Districts in the suburbs would get about $54 million less in federal stimulus money and in state basic-education funds, the main state allocation to school districts and the largest portion of the state education budget. There would also be sizable cuts in other programs, including early-childhood education and teacher training.
Rendell wants to use federal stimulus money to increase basic-education funding by $418 million. He also wants to use an additional $317 million in stimulus money for a onetime payment to districts to help them balance next year's budgets. He has pledged to increase basic education funding, which districts can use for a wide variety of purposes, by $2.6 billion over six years.
The Senate plan would use $730 million in federal stimulus money to replace state basic-education funding, leaving overall funding the same as this year's.
The Senate bill also calls for about $273 million in cuts to other Rendell education proposals, beyond basic education.
Rendell wants to increase prekindergarten and maintain state Head Start funding; the GOP would cut both to about half this year's levels. Funding for a Rendell program started in 2006 that aims to put laptop computers in every academic high school classroom would be eliminated.
The Senate budget would also eliminate a state subsidy for high school students taking college courses and an elementary school science program. State reimbursements to school districts for charter-school payments would be cut, as would many less-well-known programs, including teacher professional development and funding for programs in nonpublic schools.
If anything approaching the Senate's proposed cuts are enacted, the Philadelphia School District would also have to make cuts, said district chief business officer Michael Masch. Class sizes would have to go up, charter-school openings would be delayed, and about 1,500 budgeted prekindergarten and Head Start slots would have to be cut, he said.
He also said the district faced a projected loss of $116 million in school property-tax revenue next year, so it needed the increases Rendell proposes to fill the gap.
Piccola wrote in an e-mail that districts should not complain about cuts to the Rendell budget because Pennsylvania's combined federal and state education funding would increase this year even under the Senate Republican budget. Over the next two years, about $765 million in new federal stimulus money will go to state school districts, for special education, poor students and education technology. The Philadelphia district, for example, will get about $212.5 million in stimulus payments over two years.
Piccola said school districts should not use the proposed state cuts as an excuse to increase taxes. "Tightening our belts until this economy recovers is what taxpayers are demanding from every level of government," he said in a statement.
In Bucks County's Pennsbury School District, however, school board president Lucidisaid, "We're already tightening our belt. It is so tight right now that we can't tighten it any more without affecting our education program."
He added: "All the Senate is doing by passing that kind of legislation is shifting the burden to local taxes."
Democrats vow they will fight for the Rendell plan. "Just because we take away the money doesn't mean we would take away the need," said Johnna A. Pro, spokeswoman for House Appropriations Committee Chairman Dwight Evans. "Education is a signature issue for us."