Let's start with two things.
First, Scott Wagner is wrong when he says Gov. Wolf wants to cut funding to rural schools to give more to urban schools.
He's wrong because Wolf doesn't want to do that (couldn't if he did); and because this is just the old dog whistle pitting rural Pennsylvania against Philadelphia.
Second, Wolf was wrong when he said "yes" he supports driving education dollars through a formula that helps poorer, larger schools — without adding "when and if" the legislature provides a boatload of new money to fairly fund all schools.
For Wolf, it was a public blunder. Or a political pander to Philadelphia and public education advocates in an election year.
Whatever it was, the result has Republican Wagner hammering the notion Wolf wants to feed his own Democratic base and starve the rest of the state.
This includes a new TV ad: "The cat's out of the bag. Tom Wolf's plan for a drastic school funding change. Your school could see a big cut so that Philadelphia gets a whole lot more. Hundreds of our schools would see crippling cuts. Even Democrats are saying Tom Wolf's plan would be immediately devastating. Typical Tom Wolf. Scott Wagner is on our side, fighting so that all our children have the opportunity to receive a great education."
The irony here is too heavy to lift.
Wolf is a white knight for public education. Wagner is more of its Darth Vader.
And the ad is misleading. There's no plan to cut funding to any school district. So, there's no cat.
The "plan" is to implement (somehow, someday) a state "fair funding formula" offered in 2015 by the bipartisan Basic Education Funding Commission.
The commission was charged with finding ways to fix the state's nationally recognized funding inequities. Its recommendations included using factors such as enrollment, poverty rates and local taxes when distributing state dollars, which indeed benefits Philadelphia.
And if that was done immediately, with the $6 billion currently budgeted for basic education, everyone says it would be devastating. Cuts to hundreds of districts. But it's not being done. Nor will it be.
Right now, only new education dollars, less than 10 percent of annual totals, are pushed through the formula. Fully implemented "fair funding" would cost billions (by one estimate, $32 billion) more than the current $6 billion. Not happening.
Plus, the issue is tied up in court and opposed by a legislature that hates new spending on anything other than itself.
But Wolf since has made it clear he's for full funding only over time. No specifics, of course. How could there be? The issue is knotted in so many ways.
Ron Cowell, president of the nonpartisan, statewide Education Policy and Leadership Center, says, "We've been working on this for 15 years. All the money should go out through such a formula. But you can't do that currently without making winners and losers. And nobody wants to take money away from their districts."
Even Rep. Chris Rabb (D., Philadelphia), who introduced legislation (HB 2501) in June to push all basic education money through the formula, says it can't happen now, soon or ever without much greater funding. So, Rabb is introducing a statewide carbon tax bill next month, a controversial measure not unlike one pushed by U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R., Pa.) on the federal level.
That will generate a whole other fight.
But this school funding thing? All about politics, not policy.
Wagner uses it to gin his base because he needs rural Trump-like turnout to unseat Wolf in a year expected to favor Democrats. And even though his case against Wolf is hooey, it's a distraction requiring a response.
So, Wolf's campaign released a new TV ad Saturday calling Wagner's charge "the big lie," and touting Wolf on education.