Pa., Maine faced with ed-tech budget woes

Two states are taking very different approaches when it comes to managing spending cuts and sustaining education technology budgets.

In Pennsylvania, Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell has proposed cutting his signature Classrooms for the Future initiative, which provides laptops and training to the state’s schools. Maine, despite economic worries of its own, is expanding its one-to-one laptop initiative to all state high schools.

A majority of states have taken major steps to balance their fiscal year 2010 budgets. But even before those budgets take effect, new evidence shows that many already are out of balance or soon will be, according to reports from the nonprofit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).

“Receipts from sales, income, and corporate taxes–states’ main sources of revenue–have declined even more than was expected when lawmakers set 2010 budgets just a few weeks ago. Of the roughly two-thirds of states that adopted fiscal year 2010 budgets before [July 1], 12 reported that shortfalls totaling $23 billion have opened up that will require action during the year to restore balance,” the CBPP web site says.

Forty-eight states, with the exception of Montana and North Dakota, faced or still face total budget shortfalls for 2010 of at least $166 billion, according to the new reports.

In an effort to tackle a budget shortfall of $3.2 billion, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell has proposed cutting $212 million from the state’s education fund, including all $22 million of the state’s Classrooms for the Future program, which gives technology equipment and training to schools throughout the state.

“Obviously, a $212 million reduction in education funding will mean some difficult decisions have to be made,” said Pennsylvania Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak.

“Important programs like Classrooms for the Future, which already has benefitted about a half million students in nearly 90 percent of the commonwealth’s school districts, will be impacted. But the governor keenly recommended schools make an effort to use stimulus funds to continue such worthy programs and to advance their technology needs.”

The $22 million cut would wipe out funding for the program for the upcoming academic year, said Leah Harris, a spokeswoman for the state’s education department.

“We knew that there would be a shortfall in terms of [state] funding this year, and we would have to make some extremely tough cuts,” she said. “Classrooms for the Future is an extremely successful program. Hopefully, we can start offering it again maybe in another year.”

Classrooms for the Future allowed districts to receive one-year grants with the opportunity to get additional grants the next two academic years, Harris said.

All districts involved in the Classroom for the Future program already have received their initial grants, but will have to find other sources of funding if they want to continue growing their technology programs, she said.

Despite funding from the federal economic stimulus package, Pennsylvania lawmakers say they are faced with huge budget difficulties.

In fact, Rendell and state lawmakers could not reach a budget agreement by the state’s June 30 deadline. When the new budget year began July 1, the state had a curtailed authority to spend money.

The state has an estimated $3.2 billion revenue shortfall for the current fiscal year and a similar gap to fill for the 2009-10 year.

To help support his proposal, Rendell is pushing for a 16.3 percent increase in the state’s personal income tax–a major sticking point with top Republican legislators–in addition to tapping into nearly all of the state’s $750 million rainy-day fund. Republicans are pressing for a bare-bones spending plan that would not raise taxes and would reduce spending by as much as 9 percent, cutting even further into education spending and leaving the state’s rainy-day fund intact.

State Republicans want to use stimulus money to let the state spend less of its own revenue on areas such as education.

Rendell stressed that his administration’s efforts to balance the state’s budget include making painful but necessary funding reductions to many important programs.

“Make no mistake–we must make cuts to the budget, and we are. I have proposed $2 billion in cuts over the last year, and just yesterday I announced $500 million in cuts–many to programs for which I care deeply,” he said. “But I will not stand by and allow cuts that threaten our ability to dig ourselves out of this recession and compete in the long run.”

Education Secretary Arne Duncan sent a letter to Rendell, after Rendell expressed concerns over his state’s budget battle, warning the governor that Pennsylvania’s use of stimulus funds intended for education will be examined.

The rainy-day fund “can be used to both support education jobs and advance much-needed reforms. I was disappointed to see that, instead of tapping into the state’s rainy-day fund, the Pennsylvania Senate recently chose to reduce the percentage of the overall budget being spent on education,” Duncan wrote.

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