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Block-Grant Proposal in Pennsylvania Touches Off Bitter

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Harrisburg, Pa--Pennsylvania Gov. Richard Thornburgh's attempt to establish a state education block grant, modeled after the Reagan Administration's block grants, has touched off a heated partisan political controversy, deepened the rift between the Governor and the state's largest teachers' organization, and led to demands that Governor Thornburgh fire the chief state school officer.

The Governor proposed in February that $127 million in "new" state education funds be distributed to districts through block grants, rather than the categorical grants now in use, and that districts be allowed to use the money for any of a dozen purposes--including special education and pupil transportation.

Echoing President Reagan's sentiments, Governor Thornburgh said the ''learning grant" was intended to give more "flexibility" to school districts and to "simplify" the complex system of school funding.

But Democratic and Republican lawmakers in the state assailed the $127-million block-grant proposal, saying it was a mask for underfunding that would force school districts to choose between raising local taxes and cutting programs.

And the Pennsylvania State Education Association (psea) charged that more than half of the 501 school districts in Pennsylvania would lose money under the proposed block grant--a charge that prompted state Secretary of Education Robert Scanlon to denounce the teachers' union during a hearing before the state House appropriations committee last month.

'Willfully Distorted'

In the latest development, Democratic legislators have introduced a resolution in the state House calling for the immediate dismissal of Secretary Scanlon, saying he "willfully distorted" school-funding figures to further the Republican governor's block-grant plan.

The Republican-controlled House defeated a motion to suspend rules to consider the measure immediately and sent it to the rules committee where, observers say, it is likely to remain.

In introducing the dismissal resolution, House Minority Whip James Manderino said Mr. Scanlon had "attempted to bamboozle the legislature and the news media" by distributing computer printouts that allegedly misrepresented school-funding figures to make the proposed state block grant appear more attractive.

"The false data put out to school districts have seriously misled them with respect to such basic decisions as hiring, firing, and raising of taxes," Mr. Manderino said. "This fudging of figures by Secretary Scanlon was unconscionable because we are not talking about politics; we are talking about educational quality; we are talking about local tax needs."

Mr. Scanlon, defending the block-grant proposal, blamed the leadership of the psea for "mangling" school-funding figures to deceive the public about the impact of the proposed "learning grant."

"I'm shocked and dismayed that psea's leaders would allow the release of clearly inaccurate information on a matter as important as this one," he told the legislators. "We can only assume that this was a willful attempt to mislead the public, alarm the education community, and confuse the issue for partisan gain."

The denunciation came only a day after Mr. Scanlon had threatened to fire any department employee who released non-routine information to psea officials without channeling the request through his office--and a few days after it was reported that the 130,000-member teachers' union would endorse the Democratic gubernatorial ticket.

Mr. Scanlon said the restrictive policy was needed to prevent psea's alleged "misuse" of information obtained from the department.

A public employees' union has filed both a charge of unfair labor practices and a federal lawsuit against the department, claiming that the gag order violated employees' rights of free speech and free association. After a preliminary hearing last week, a U.S. district judge refused to enjoin the department from imposing the order.

Mr. Manderino's resolution calling for the dismissal of Mr. Scanlon is not likely to go anywhere, observers say, particularly in an election year. But the resolution and the other disputes are typical of a continuing series of sharp attacks on the education policies of Governor Thornburgh's administration.

The conflict began more than a year ago, when the psea criticized Governor Thornburgh's position on state subsidies to schools. psea, the state's largest teachers' union, had supported Mr. Thornburgh in the 1978 election but split with him because he failed to bring the state's share of support for the basic-instruction subsidy up to the 50 percent provided for in state law. The state contributed 41.8 percent of the average district's basic instructional costs in 1981-1982.

The controversy over school funding intensified in February, when the Governor proposed putting $127 million--a small proportion of the overall education budget for fiscal 1983--into a block grant covering a dozen education programs, including: vocational education, special education, pupil transportation, the basic-instruction subsidy, authority rentals, employee retirement, em-ployees' Social Security, education of the disadvantaged, education of migrant laborers' children, instruction for homebound students, approved private schools, and payment in lieu of taxes. Under the proposed block grants, the state's share would drop to about 41 percent.

The Governor has proposed a 1983 budget of $7.6 billion for the state's general fund, of which $3.5 billion is for education. Of the $400-million increase over last year's budget, $178 million would go for education under the proposal; $127 million of that would be incorporated in the block grant.

Each school district would get a percentage of the block grant equal to the percentage of the basic instructional subsidy it received in 1981-1982. Under current law, the school districts receive separate amounts of money from the state for each of the 12 programs.

The governor has said he has no intention of firing Mr. Scanlon. And the Secretary says he does not intend to resign.

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