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Democrats unveil proposals for more money for schools

Democrats from Philadelphia's state Senate delegation unveiled a plan Thursday to provide $300 million more for education across the state.

Democrats from Philadelphia's state Senate delegation unveiled a plan Thursday to provide $300 million more for education across the state.

During a briefing at the School District's headquarters, senators said the increased aid for schools would not require any broad-based tax increases.

State Sen. Vincent Hughes, Democratic chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said the proposal "just marks the down payment" on the nearly $1 billion needed over the next three years to restore cuts in school funding since Gov. Corbett, a Republican, took office.

Hughes said the briefing was one of seven held across the state Thursday by Senate Democrats to outline their spending priorities prior to Corbett's Feb. 4 airing of his state budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The senate Democrats' plan would restore several line items that Corbett had cut from the state budget: $100 million for accountability block grants; $85 million in charter-school reimbursements to districts; $50 million for tutoring; $40 million for early learning and $25 million for special education.

Lawmakers said they would pay for the increases through savings and new revenues.

Once again, they said expanding Medicaid coverage through the federal Affordable Care Act could free up $400 million in state funds.

The Democrats other proposals, include freezing the planned phaseout of the capital stock and franchise tax, which they said would produce $75 million. Improving tax collection could generate $55 million. Taxing smokeless tobacco, long cigars and other tobacco products could provide $36 million.

"Most of the revenue ideas raised by the senate Democrats [Thursday] have been discussed before - there's nothing that seems particularly innovative," said Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Republicans.

The ideas will be reviewed during budget discussions, he said.

Timothy Eller, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, disputed the Democrats' assertion that Corbett had cut money for education.

"State funding for public schools has not been cut," Eller said in an e-mail. "In fact, Gov. Corbett has increased the state's support of public schools by nearly $1.2 billion over the last three years."

Eller said the governor "has consistently invested in Pennsylvania's students and will continue to do so in the upcoming budget."

Corbett, who is battling low poll numbers, has said his next budget will call for some increased aid for schools, including more money for pre-kindergarten and a new program where academically successful districts can seek grants to help struggling districts.

Although Philadelphia's cash-strapped schools have fewer teachers and counselors and diminished programs this academic year, the Philadelphia senate delegation said there is wide support for boosting education funding.

Sen. Shirley Kitchen, the delegation chair, said 75 percent of districts in the state have had to raise property taxes for schools to make up for budget shortfalls.

More than 20,000 school employees including teachers have been laid off by districts across the state, Kitchen said.

"Our children's education is in crisis right now," she said. "These cuts disproportionately hurt poor school districts like Philadelphia." 215-854-2789