Planned $1B education grant brings controversy

A billion-dollar education grant – a cornerstone of the state budget Gov. Tom Corbett proposed on Tuesday – could be whittled down in the coming months, as lawmakers fight over its controversial prerequisites and skeptical school administrators await a final ruling.

Corbett detailed his “Passport for Learning” grant, a cash windfall that would offer schools hundreds of millions of dollars annually for four years. The caveat: that money will be available only if legislators agree to dismantle the state liquor system and sell off its licenses.

State legislators have already questioned how far Corbett may have to compromise on his liquor-privatization plan, while Democrats and teachers’ unions have disputed its long-term benefits to schools.

“A billion dollars? We get that much in four years anyway,” state Sen. John Wozniak, D-Cambria, said, referring to existing liquor taxes. “That’s extremely short-term.”

Wozniak called Corbett’s plan a “gimmick,” and he’s hardly alone in Harrisburg. In a news release, directors of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center attacked the plan for tying school funds to an as-yet-unresolved political issue.

According to Corbett’s budget summary, the $1 billion would be spread over four years beginning in 2014, with recipient schools free to use the funds for safety enhancements, early elementary programs, individual student-proficiency plans or science and technology classes.

Corbett’s statements didn’t detail how grant recipients would be chosen, and state Department of Education representatives didn’t return calls seeking comment Tuesday.

Local school administrators said they’d naturally take grant money if it’s offered, but questioned how long the windfall could last.

“Obviously we are in a situation where any money we can get helps us,” Hollidaysburg Area School District Superintendent Paul Gallagher said. “If it’s money that can help us for now, well, nobody is going to turn that away.”

Gallagher said the district could use extra money for safety upgrades, but he isn’t certain whether Hollidaysburg would qualify for the grant.

Altoona Area school board member Tim Lucas said his district could use security funding as well – but with the grants planned for just four years, they couldn’t cover permanent expenses the upgrades might incur.

“The problem with these types of grants is that there are strings attached and it’s a one-and-done thing. Historically, government has done that,” he said.

Lucas said he’s uncertain whether Altoona schools would qualify, as Corbett might plan to reserve grants for the state’s poorest or lowest-achieving schools.

Corbett made education a focus of his 2013-14 budget proposal on Tuesday: He proclaimed this year’s proposed school funding an all-time record, with $5.5 billion set for basic education. But critics scoffed at the nearly $100 million Corbett said he’ll add to district funding after years of political battles over education cuts.

In his speech, the governor struck at the 2009 federal stimulus as a “one-time” federal windfall to schools – a criticism some state Democrats are now leveling against his grant plan.

But all the Passport-grant forecasting will be for nothing if Corbett’s budget fails to survive the Legislature.

“It’s going to end up being negotiated,” said Wozniak, who sits on the state Senate Appropriations Committee. “I’ve been around a long time, and I do not see that happening.”

The appropriations process could leave Corbett’s liquor plan compromised or weakened, Wozniak said.

“We will beat our chests and make strange noises and bang our antlers around,” he said. From that, a very different budget may emerge.

Eric Shirk, a spokesman for Corbett’s office, acknowledged that the 2014 start date for the education grants depends upon the Legislature’s cooperation.

Politicians – including Republicans – have said the proposal includes weaknesses. Some in recent weeks have expressed a willingness to find a middle ground.

“I was not supportive of giving [the state-store money] to the schools,” state Sen. John Eichelberger, R-Blair, said Tuesday. “I thought it was a bad message to mix the liquor with the schoolchildren.”

Eichelberger said public schools have misspent one-time cash bonuses in the past, citing the 2009 federal stimulus as an example.

“They complained and criticized the state for not giving them more money. … For them, it’s not enough,” he said.

Eichelberger noted that past governors, including Tom Ridge, have tried and failed to privatize the liquor system. Corbett’s plan – tying the sell-off to a massive education bonus – may not be enough to get it through the Legislature unscathed, he said.

“It’s going to be very difficult for him to get everything through,” Eichelberger said. “I think it will likely be smaller than a billion.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457. Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.