Students, take your seats: it’s time to talk about the education budget.


On Feb. 4, Governor Tom Wolf announced that the 2020-21 general fund budget for Pennsylvania would total $36.056 billion, an increase of $1.46 billion or 4.22% over last year, in order to fund new and existing initiatives in the realms of education, workforce development, reducing gun violence, ensuring the safety of senior citizens, and encouraging environmental protection and job creation.


“This budget is a blueprint for unleashing a new wave of prosperity for our Commonwealth,” Wolf said in his speech to the General Assembly. “It will make a tangible difference in the lives of millions of people. And, folks, we can actually do this – together. Because this budget does not ask any of you to vote for any new taxes. It does not ask any of you to join me on some wild-eyed ideological crusade. It merely asks that you join me in imagining what this Commonwealth can offer to each of its people.”


Wolf’s administration has frequently emphasized their mission to prioritize “strengthening Pennsylvania’s educational opportunities,” and the proposed budget certainly appears to back that notion up.


Hallmarks of Wolf’s education plan include universal free full-day kindergarten for all students, increased funding for early childhood education, increased spending to alleviate costs associated with child care, charter school reform and more, all of which adds up to over $14 billion, a 2.07% increase over the 2019-20 appropriations.


Here in Monroe County, that proposed budget produced plenty of reactions from local politicians, offering either a gold star, or a note for Wolf to see them after class.


On a recent episode of Monroe Matters, Rep. Maureen Madden (D-115) discussed the prospective education budget, lauding Wolf’s focus on early childhood education and full-day kindergarten.


The 2020-21 budget currently calls for $25 million for Pre-K Counts and $5 million for the Head Start Supplemental Program, which Wolf’s administration said will allow for approximately 3,270 additional children to enroll in the early childhood education initiatives.


Madden said that such programs provide a great launching point for young learners.


“The empirical evidence consistently proves that the younger you get to a child, the best chance they have,” Madden said. “And certainly if they’ve gone through Pre-K and Head Start, kindergarten full day is not going to be too much for them to handle, it’s going to be an absolute benefit for them.”


Madden went on to note that in order to compete in education, the state has to take a hard look at the current state of programming and the money that has gone into it.


“We have to get the best out of our education dollars, and I think a half-day where you have a snack and a nap on your mat is not the same as going to school all day and tackling reading and tackling math and tackling all the fundamentals of education that start at such a young age,” Madden said.


Sen. John Blake (D-22) applauded Wolf’s education budget, calling attention to the large increases – “$100 million increase for basic education, a $25 million increase for special education and a $25 million increase for Pre-K Counts” – that “will ensure that our students get a quality public education.”


One of the more sizable items in infrastructure spending is the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program funding expansion of $1 billion, which will allow school districts to apply for lead and asbestos remediation assistance.


“Locally, Scranton and other school districts are facing fiscal challenges in making our schools safe for children and teachers,” Blake said. “This state grant funding is timely and necessary to improve our schools.”


But Sen. Mario Scavello (R-40) has argued that this cash injection may be going to the wrong patients.


“I strongly support our historic levels of state education funding and I have always been a big supporter of public education, but the governor is proposing to reward the school districts who did not clean up their schools with a billion dollars of funding,” Scavello said. “Wouldn’t that billion dollars be better used to help our seniors stay in their homes?”


Opinions also differed when the discussion graduated into higher-education spending.


Blake and Scavello clashed on Wolf’s proposed higher education spending plan, especially in regard to $204 million of funding that is slated to be repurposed from the Pennsylvania Race Horse Development Trust Fund to the Nellie Bly Tuition Program.


The Nellie Bly Tuition Program aims to provide financial assistance to “targeted full-time students in the PASSHE system” if the students agrees to stay in the commonwealth for the same amount of time that they received the benefit.


“I also applaud the governor’s plan to encourage graduates of our State System of Higher Education schools to remain in Pennsylvania by reducing the debt these graduates incur in obtaining their degrees,” Blake said. “Further, as a member of the board of the PA Higher Education Assistance Agency, I commend the governor’s proposal to increase funding for PHEAA’s grant program which provides essential support to reduce the cost of higher education in this Commonwealth.”


According to Scavello, though, the governor’s plan to fund scholarships for students attending Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education schools fails to address another option.


“He wants to spend $204 million for students going through the PASSHE system,” Scavello said. “Why not encourage students to first go to a community college, get your electives there, and then go to a state school? By doing that they can graduate debt free.”


Meanwhile, Madden argued that the millions earmarked for Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education schools could prove to make education more accessible for those who want it.


“People are free to go to school wherever they want, but from my standpoint, with 14 wonderful, academically-great PASSHE schools, I think we should be looking to make our PASSHE education as affordable and as high-quality as possible,” Madden said on Monroe Matters. “And so I think the scholarship program along with the consolidation and the improvements, administratively, academically, I think it sets us on a good path in higher education, and it will increase our enrollment.”


Scavello argued that placing all of the focus on PASSHE schools steers attention away from what could be a more lucrative option for many students.


“And while the Governor has talked about all-day vocational and technical education funding in the past, he does not show his support in this budget by providing more dollars,” Scavello said. “As a Commonwealth, we need to support and promote our students pursuing careers in these productive and profitable jobs,” Scavello said.


The Senate Appropriations Committee has scheduled a three-week series of departmental budget hearings, where the Appropriations Committee will hear cabinet officials detail plans for the upcoming fiscal year, for a start date of Feb. 18.


With both proponents and detractors eyeing the weeks and months to come hoping to either preserve or revise the proposed budget, clearly, there is still some homework to be done.


“I hope that in the coming weeks, through budget hearing discussions and as more details are shared by the administration, we can get closer to developing a final budget that more closely aligns with the needs of Pennsylvania citizens,” Scavello said.