With charts and statistics, the two sides parried over teacher pay and state aid to schools, eliciting loud cheers from the audience when they hit their points.

"Government funding does not affect educational performance," a debater declared.

"The economy cannot function without a well-educated workforce," countered another.

The spirited back-and-forth wasn't taking place in the Wisconsin statehouse or the marbled halls of Harrisburg, but in the poorly lit auditorium at Pottsgrove High School in Montgomery County.

The debate last week was organized by seniors Tyler Jacobs and Matt Zarley - neither of whom plans to attend a state college, by the way. But that doesn't mean they don't worry about the impact of state funding cuts on their friends and on middle-class Pennsylvania students in general.

"We want people to get both sides and let them make their own opinion," said Jacobs, 18, an athlete headed for the Marine Corps after graduation.

With an audience of 11th and 12th graders, the debate pitted four students on each side of the issue, followed by a Q&A with their state representative, Republican Tom Quigley.

They even invited Gov. Corbett, but were told he was booked for the day.

The friends originally wanted to stage a walkout over Corbett's proposed cuts in aid to schools. But when assistant principal Yolanda Williams got wind of the plan, she met with them and suggested an alternative.

"If you want to make a statement, you have to think big," she said she told them. She also noted that "walking out of school to protest cuts to education is not a good idea."

So the two got the ball rolling by sending out a text chain message, and within 90 minutes "everybody knew about it," said Zarley, who plans to attend Ohio University as a theater major and who last week played the lead in Pottsgrove's production of Aida.

Theirs is not a wealthy school district. Many students go on to community or state colleges. That's why Zarley and Jacobs wanted to send a message - both feel it's important that higher education remain as accessible and inexpensive as possible.

"People say, 'You're the next generation. You have to solve all our problems.' How can we do that if we aren't able to go to college? It's going to be so expensive, how can people afford it?" asked Jacobs, who said he might go to college after the Marines because the government would foot the bill.

Corbett sent shock waves through campuses this month when he proposed to halve aid to 14 state-owned universities and the "state-related" universities: Lincoln, Pennsylvania State, Pittsburgh, and Temple. College officials warned that such cuts - part of Corbett's plan to close a $4 billion budget gap - could cause tuition hikes, layoffs, and canceled programs.

There were rallies Wednesday at several campuses. At East Stroudsburg University, students lined up 60 pairs of shoes to represent faculty jobs that could be slashed. A student protest is slated for Monday in Harrisburg.

Corbett also wants to cut $550 million in aid to public schools and $259 million in block grants that help pay for all-day kindergarten. All this would cost the Pottsgrove district $1.5 million, jeopardizing kindergarten and a pact with Montgomery County Community College that lets high school students earn college credit, Superintendent Bradley Landis said.

But first the cuts must go through the legislature, and Quigley said lawmakers would look to trim elsewhere to restore some state aid to schools.

In last week's assembly, the pro-Corbett debaters argued that such aid does not affect student performance. They said that staffing at public schools had grown while enrollment dropped, and that tuition at state colleges had continued to rise despite state aid.

The other side said cuts would hurt the state's economy by lowering graduation rates; more dropouts would mean more people winding up in prison. Instead, the students argued, Pennsylvania could help balance its books by taxing natural gas extracted from the Marcellus Shale. Corbett opposes such a tax.

Sophomore Brandon Stone, 16, touched on the national debate over public employees' contracts when he said the rising cost of college proved state aid was "not going to students, just to teachers."

Jason Mansmann, 17, a senior headed to Mount St. Mary's in Maryland in the fall, countered that Pennsylvania teachers earned an average of $37,000 to $53,000.

"It's not like teachers are breaking the bank and making a lot of money. In fact, many are making below the national average," Mansmann said to loud applause.

But he got an even bigger hand when he noted in his closing speech that many inner-city schools were already struggling, and that funding cuts would jeopardize programs such as Head Start.

"If they're struggling now, when the money is gone what chance do they have? . . . They deserve the same opportunities that we have," he said.

"Jason," Jacobs said as he took the stage to introduce Quigley, "you are the man."