Pennsylvania Gubernatorial Race Centers on Education Issues

Pennsylvania’s Republican Gov. Tom Corbett and Democratic challenger Tom Wolf faced off this week in a debate on drive-time radio.  The gist was that Wolf believes Corbett failed to keep his promises of fiscal responsibility and economic growth and failed to provide the state’s education sector with the financial support.

Corbett sees Wolf, a businessman, as a prisoner of public-employee unions and a person who seems not to have the detailed proposals necessary to do what he says. Corbett thinks Wolf is making more promises than he will be able to deliver, according to Thomas Fitzgerald of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Corbett was accused of “cooking the books” by Wolf. The latest state budget had a series of one-time fund transfers and overblown revenue predictions which led to a projected $700 million deficit, which has been noted by financial agencies in recent downgrades of Pennsylvania’s credit worthiness.

“Are you accusing me of a criminal act?” shot back Corbett, a former prosecutor and state attorney general. He said budget-making is an inexact art, and contended that former Gov. Ed Rendell – in whose cabinet Wolf served – used some of the same tactics.

Polls show that education is voters’ top concern this year. Wolf said property taxes and class sizes have grown under Corbett’s watch because of state education aid cuts. Wolf promises to lower class sizes; ask the state to to take care of 50% of education costs; add a 5% tax on extraction of gas from the Marcellus Shale; keep a defined-benefit pension plan for state, municipal, and school workers. He also wants to change the state’s personal income tax so the middle class gets a break and the wealthy pay more.

Corbett has some political history which may work against him: his budget cuts caused staff layoffs, higher class sizes and program cuts, and he made a strong pitch for tuition vouchers instead of helping fix the state’s worst public schools.

Charles Thompson, reporting for The Patriot-News, says Corbett claims that Pennsylvania’s schools are “absolutely better off than he found them”.  He argues that he won new performance evaluation standards for teachers and administrators, had excellent Department of Education”school performance profiles”, and that his administration made modest re-investments in preschool programs, basic education and special education funding after the 2011-2012 budget reset.

Corbett and Wolf authored individual editorials in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review to share how they plan to solve the issues of pension reform, school funding, and unemployment.  The candidates agreed that improving Pennsylvania’s economy begins with a reliable source of funding for all schools. Lora Strum of PoliticsPA outlines each man’s statements.

Corbett seems to blame issues created from the one-time federal stimulus money and the Rendell administration’s school funding cuts. He disagrees with Wolf’s 5% severance tax, which he states would cost $3 billion more per year:

However, Corbett considers such tax increases inefficient, and vows to work “so that you can keep more of your hard-earned money.”

Wolf wants to prepare young job hunters and offers a three-point solution, My Technical Education Applied to Manufacturing (T.E.A.M.), which will improve the workforce by joining vocational and academic learning, ensuring that vocation training meets manufacturers’ standards, and guiding schools into adopting nationally recognized industry certificate.

In an article by Rebecca Nuttall for the Pittsburgh City Paper, Nina Esposito-Visgitis, president of Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, says, “We know what we’ve lost. The level of personnel in the schools has been drastically cut.”

“I think part of the reason people are so angry now, is that was one of [Corbett's] campaign promises, to make education better. In the city, I know you couldn’t find a teacher who says he has,” Esposito-Visgitis says. “It’s become less about education and less about quality and more about pinching every penny. The fact that education has become about the bottom dollar is maddening to me. It’s not about the kids.”

Polls are showing Corbett trailing behind Wolf by double digits at this time. Wolf’s campaign has about $1.7 million cash-on-hand advantage over Corbett’s.

“I’ve been behind in every race I’ve run,” Corbett said afterward, predicting a comeback win.