The state budget that Gov. Rendell signed last night ensured that almost all school districts would get funding increases over last year.
The level of spending for education, the largest single item in the overall $27.8 billion budget and more than a third of the total, had been a point of contention between Rendell and many Republicans during the months-long standoff. But in the end, the agreement appeared to provide something for everyone.
"In a year where there is so much pain, with the economy the worst in anybody's memory, to be anything but happy about this budget would be foolish," Timothy Allwein, assistant executive director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said yesterday.
All school districts would get a hike of at least 2 percent in basic education funding, Pennsylvania's main subsidy to schools.
Statewide, the total K-12 increase, including federal funding, would be about $250 million over last year's level. Much of that would go to less wealthy districts.
"The school districts I've talked to are glad that they can now get down to implementing the programs they had planned on," Allwein said.
Baruch Kintisch, a lawyer with the Education Law Center, a legal advocacy group, agreed. "The state - the governor and the General Assembly - should really be congratulated for continuing to improve the education of our children," he said.
But he pointed out that even with the increase, Pennsylvania is one of the "worst states in the country" in the percentage of public school education funded by the state. About 35 percent of K-12 education spending comes from Harrisburg, ranking the state among the bottom 10 in the nation.
The Philadelphia School District would get several hundred million dollars more than it did last school year. But the district expects to get at least $160 million less than it had forecast when it enacted its budget in May because some state funding it had been hoping for ended up being cut, chief business officer Michael Masch said in a recent interview.
Masch will make a presentation on the district's budget status at Wednesday's School Reform Commission meeting, spokesman Fernando Gallard said yesterday.
Louis DeVlieger, superintendent of Delaware County's Upper Darby School District, said yesterday: "We're breathing a sigh relief for this year; this budget is a positive thing for us." He added: "The economic climate remains scary, so we are not all that excited. . . . We expect the times ahead to be tough."
During the 101-day budget stalemate, many social-service agencies suffered from the cutoff of state aid their operations depended on. But most school districts, though uncertain about how much funding they would end up getting, did not feel the same financial pinch.
From the start of this year's budget debate in February, Rendell insisted on an increase in basic education spending. He also wanted to hold the line on a number of other programs, mostly early-education initiatives.
The governor said the state must move ahead in implementing a funding formula for basic education, passed last year, that sends the bulk of the money to poorer districts with a higher tax burden. Rendell did not get all the basic education funding he had called for; still, the new budget allocates $300 million more in that category than the sum spent last year. The total spending for basic education would be $5.5 billion.
Special-education programs would get the same state funding as last year, and school districts would receive more money overall because of increased federal contributions. Funding for most prekindergarten programs would remain at last year's levels.
Republicans got some of what they wanted, as well. Because about $655 million in federal stimulus money was used to supplement basic education funding, total state K-12 education spending would actually decline this year by more than $500 million, something the GOP had sought.
And Republicans fought back a number of Rendell requests for even more spending. The final budget subtracts about $90 million from the amount the governor put forward as his bottom line in July, and overall about $200 million in state funding was cut from various other programs in last year's education budget. For example, funding for tutoring, teacher professional development, career and technical education, and alternative schools was cut. "A lot of the cuts will directly affect disadvantaged students," Kintisch of the Education Law Center said.
In February, Rendell had called for a series of cuts to the education budget that raised a storm of protest. He proposed closing the Scotland School for Veterans' Children, a residential program in south-central Pennsylvania. He also zeroed out funding for the Governor's Schools of Excellence, a series of summer programs for gifted students. The state's deepening economic problems and the duration of the budget impasse caused the battle over those programs to recede into the background, but both cuts came to pass. The Scotland School did not reopen this fall, and the Governor's Schools did not hold classes during the summer, though some universities operated similar programs with nonstate funding. There is no funding in the new budget for either.