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The Associated Press HARRISBURG, Pa. -- For the 1999-2000 fiscal year, Governor Tom Ridge, a Republican, is proposing broad increases in public school spending but saying nothing about tuition vouchers, a priority item on his education agenda. "That's an average of nearly a half-million dollars in new funds available for every school district," he said. School spending in the new budget will include $3.7 billion for basic education, a 3 percent increase over the 1998-99 budget, and $711.5 million for special education, a 5 percent increase. Ridge did not mention tuition vouchers, a plan to give parents financial support to send their children to the public, private or religious school of their choice. Since he took office in 1995, Ridge has tried and failed twice to push such a plan through the General Assembly. At a news conference following his speech, Ridge would not say whether he would propose a voucher program this year. Although he told reporters last week that if he were to present a program, it would cost more than $60 million, he declined to confirm that figure yesterday. If he decides to introduce a program, Ridge said that he will do so at this year's budget address, which he is scheduled to deliver to the General Assembly on February 2. Other initiatives include $35 million -- and a total of $100 million over the next four years -- to help boost students' reading skills through third grade and $20 million for new technology in schools. In addition, Ridge wants $16.8 million, a 25 percent increase, in grants to reward schools for improved performance. Last year, the state Department of Education awarded nearly $10 million to more than 900 schools that improved test scores and increased student attendance. "In Pennsylvania, we reward results," Ridge said. The Pennsylvania School Boards Association welcomed the spending proposals but was waiting to see how the governor intends to distribute the basic education money to the state's 501 school districts. Since 1996, the General Assembly and the administration have decided year-by-year how to distribute the money. "We're hoping there's some move to enact a meaningful funding formula," said association spokesperson Tom Gentzel. School boards are particularly interested in changing the formula for spending special education dollars. Gentzel said the state's method of distributing the money has been based on erroneous assumptions that have resulted in underfunding in many districts. This week, state Rep. Jess Stairs (R-Westmoreland), and Sen. Tommy Tomlinson (R-Bucks) intend to propose legislation endorsed by the school boards that would guarantee most school districts at least 50 percent of their special education costs. Poorer school district would get up to 80 percent of the costs. "There's an interest in changing the funding formula with regard to special education," Ridge said. "We have some ideas internally. I think the legislators have some ideas, and we would want to keep an open mind."

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