Pennsylvania Governor’s Race Focused on Education Funding

Gubernatorial opponents in Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Corbett and his Democratic challenger Tom Wolf, have a difference of opinion when it comes to education.  Wolf says the incumbent “took an ax” to schools with a $1 billion cut in education funding, causing 27,000 layoffs and a sizable increase in local property taxes.  In response, Corbett says he has increased state education to its “highest level ever”.

In his response ad, Wolf’s camp had an announcer say, “Tom Corbett, can’t trust him on education; can’t trust him to be for us.”

Republicans are calling Wolf’s representation of the governor’s stance on education the “Big Lie”. With education at the top of concerns for this year’s voters, and the widespread belief that schools are in trouble and property taxes are rising, is not helpful to Corbett’s run for reelection.  A Quinnipiac University poll released last week found that Wolf was ahead of Corbett by 24 percentage points with the biggest tipping point being education.

Back in 2009, when the economy bottomed out, President Barack Obama enacted a federal stimulus, including big payments to states for continuing services.  Then-Gov. Ed Rendell use $654 million for education in 2009, and just over $1 billion the next year.

“The goal of the stimulus was to be a bridge until recovery occurred,” Rendell said Friday in an interview. “I used stimulus money hoping that when recovery happened, the next governor would continue spending at that level with state money.”

In 2011, when Corbett took office, that money had been spent, and critics said that the economy was strong enough for Corbett to make up the difference. (At that time, the state’s revenue was $27.6 billion by mid-2012, about the same as in 2007.)  Corbett kept his campaign promise to cut business taxes at an estimated $410-460 million.  He also restrained government costs, but had less money to send to school districts.  He was left at the end of the fiscal year with $659 million,  Democrats asked why he had to cut back on education funding,

“I took a route that we were just going to live within what we had and we were going to grow ourselves back as the economy grew,” Corbett said Wednesday in an interview with editors and reporters at The Inquirer. Today, he said, “we spend more state money on education than at any time in the history of Pennsylvania.”

Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, says:

“If you remove all the smoke and mirrors and spin, it’s a little more state spending than it was.  We’re also four years down the road, on the other hand. The cost of everything has increased, and in real dollars, districts are not getting as much.”

Karen Shuey of Lancaster Online writes that Corbett, in order not avoid raising taxes, did cut the state’s basic education subsidy by $335 million, but he also had to increase pension contributions to $600 million in keeping with state law.  This year education funding was static in favor of the start of a $200 million Ready to Learn block grant program put in place by Corbett to give districts more flexibility.

In more political sparring last week, Nick Field, managing editor of PoliticsPA, says the state Republican Party praised Gov. Corbett for his stance on the Common Core standards.

“Today, Tom Corbett listened to the voices of Pennsylvanians who want a different direction for their children’s education,” PA GOP Chairman Rob Gleason said. “Today’s announcement serves as proof that Governor Corbett recognizes that children learn best when parent and communities are in control of their children’s education.”

In a rebuttal, Wolf’s PAC team brought up the issue of school funding by posting a YouTube video.  Part of the video’s narrative included this statement.

“Tom Corbett cut $1 billion from our schools resulting in over 27,000 educator layoffs, increases in class sizes, the reduction of important programs, and property tax increases throughout the commonwealth.  Tom Corbett has even admitted that he slashed education funding, but as election day approaches, he’s taken to the airwaves to mislead voters about his failed record.”

In an editorial in The Delaware County Daily Times, the editor says that Corbett, in a weak moment, agreed that the education system in Pennsylvania is broken, but it sounds like the governor may have a good plan in the Pennsylvania Basic Education Funding Commission.

This is a bipartisan panel suggested by Corbett and signed off on by the Legislature, which can fix or make more fair the funding of education in the state.  The writer hopes that the commission will help keep the playing field even when it comes to funding older, struggling districts, not just high-growth areas.  He adds that he hopes the blaming will stop and that fairness will prevail.