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Pennsylvania Legislature Rejects Plan For State Block Grants

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Harrisburg, Pa--The Pennsylvania legislature last week passed a $10.7-billion budget bill for fiscal 1983 after a House-Senate conference committee dumped a controversial Reagan-style education block grant proposed by the governor.

The block grant was eliminated from the spending package in a successful attempt to gain easy and early passage of the budget bill along straight party lines. The Republicans hold a 26-24 majority in the Senate and a 102-100 majority in the House.

Gov. Richard L. Thornburgh had proposed that about $127 million in "new" revenue be distributed to school districts in block grants, rather than the categorical grants now in place, and that the districts be allowed to use the money for any of a dozen programs, including special and vocational education. (See Education Week, April 21.)

But the block-grant scheme came under fire from lawmakers in both parties and from leaders of the state's largest teachers' union, who charged it was a disguise for underfunding the state's 501 school districts.

Ann Whitmer, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, said the new education money in the budget passed last week will be distributed to school districts in essentially the same way it has been in previous years.

Of the $400-million increase in state revenue over last year's total, $176 million has been set aside for education.

The total education budget is $3.5 billion, $1.5 billion of which would go toward the basic instructional subsidy. That is the same amount that was allocated in fiscal 1982, and the school districts would receive the same share they did last year.

In addition, the school districts will receive a share of a new $72-million fund called the "Equalized Supplement for Stu-dent Learning." Each district's portion of the new dollars will be determined by a modified version of the "Basic Instructional Subsidy" formula, which favors suburban school districts over urban school districts. The formula takes into account the actual enrollment and relative wealth of the district, but, unlike the instructional-subsidy formula, it does not consider other factors such as population density or poverty.

"There have been many conversations about this block-grants concept," Ms. Whitmer said. "Everyone fully expected this to be very much modified, if not taken out. We believe this is a sensible and reasonable compromise. ... There are concerns with the education budget, and we think this takes care of those."

Eugene Preston, executive director of the Pennsylvania State Education Association (psea), said his organization was pleased that the block-grant proposal had been removed from the budget, "since we saw it as having a long-term damaging effect on the funding and quality of education."

psea, the state's largest teachers' union, supported Mr. Thornburgh in the 1978 election but began sparring with him last year after he failed to bring the state's share for basic-instruction costs up to the 50 percent mandated by state law. The state last year paid 41.8 percent of the average district's costs.

Under the newly approved budget, the state's contribution will drop to about 39.3 percent, or 40.7 percent if the supplemental funds are considered as part of the basic-instruction aid.

Angry Democratic legislators charged that the budget had built-in deficits and would require a tax increase before the fiscal year ends on June 30, 1983. However, Governor Thornburgh's budget office said April's tax collections were $53 million above estimates and indicate that the budget is "right on target."

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