Gov. Corbett took Pennsylvania voters to school last week in "Statistics Class," a 30-second TV spot, complete with bar graphs, that asserts he has increased state education spending to "its highest level ever."

Democratic challenger Tom Wolf "and his special-interest friends," Corbett says into the camera, "have spent millions trying to mislead you that I cut education spending."

Wolf responded with his sharpest attack ad yet, a compendium of news clippings that say Corbett "took an ax" to schools with a $1 billion cut in education dollars that caused 27,000 layoffs and big jumps in local property taxes.

"Tom Corbett," a woman announcer concludes. "Can't trust him on education. Can't trust him to be for us." Those sentences are highlighted in red in the final frame.

So, the natural question arises: Who's right?

Well, it's complicated. Education funding has many variables, and depending on which of those you choose to highlight, it's possible to spin the issue a number of ways.

And in the race for governor, winning the argument is crucial.

Polls rank education at the top of state voters' concerns this year, and the widespread perception that local schools are hurting and property taxes rising threatens Corbett's reelection effort.

Democrats have been stoking that line of attack; Republicans call it the "Big Lie."

Twenty-nine percent of voters in a Franklin and Marshall College Poll said "education" when asked in August to name the biggest problem facing Pennsylvania today - ahead of taxes, jobs, and personal financial worries.

And a Quinnipiac University poll released last week found Wolf leading by 24 percentage points overall, with his biggest advantage coming on education; 61 percent said the Democrat would do the better job of handling the issue, while 29 percent picked Corbett.

Back to 2009

Needing to change the story line, Corbett struck first last Tuesday, saying he had cleaned up a school-funding "mess" left by Democrat Ed Rendell's reliance on nonrecurring federal stimulus money. Game on: Wolf's response was on the air the next day.

Figuring out who's right means going back to 2009 - after the bottom dropped out of the economy. That year, Congress and President Obama enacted the federal stimulus, which included large payments to state governments to maintain services.

In the 2009-10 budget year, then-Gov. Rendell's administration used $654 million in stimulus funds for education, and $1.04 billion in 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."

By 2011, when Corbett came into office, the stimulus money had run out. Rendell and other Democratic critics argue that the economy - and state revenue - had bounced back enough to give Corbett options for making up the difference. (Records show the state's total revenue had reached $27.6 billion by mid-2012, about the same level as in 2007, the year before the crash.)

But here the argument becomes a philosophical one: Corbett kept his pledge to cut business taxes and restrain the cost of government - leaving him with less money to send to school districts.

'No need'

Corbett's first budget, for fiscal 2011-12, had business tax cuts estimated at $410 million to $460 million. They included, for example, a continuation of the gradual phaseout of the capital stock and franchise tax, a phaseout that Rendell had frozen in his final two years.

Despite that overall reduction in revenue, the economy had recovered enough that the state would wind up with a $659 million surplus at the end of the year.

To Rendell, "there was no need to cut education funding."

Yet, the Corbett administration made different policy choices. Tax cuts would help spur economic growth, the governor believed, and he also wanted to focus on greater performance accountability for schools.

"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."

If the federal stimulus money is not counted, it is true: Corbett has increased the state's annual funding for basic education - to $5.5 billion in 2013-14 - although some line items, such as the reimbursement for districts that have charter schools, which was worth $226 million in 2011, have been eliminated.

In addition, the Corbett administration arrived at the $5.5 billion figure in part by counting money previous governors had not included under the label of basic education funding - mandated payments toward the state's share of school-employee pensions.

'A little more'

"If you remove all the smoke and mirrors and spin, it's a little more state spending than it was," said Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators. "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."

In electoral politics, perception often is reality. Analysts say it could be too late for Corbett's team to flip a narrative that has seeped into the public consciousness over the last two or three years. Numbers that support Corbett's argument may not erase memories of schools' having to cut programs or payrolls.

"Voters across the state have seen school budgets tightening," said pollster Christopher Borick, of Muhlenberg College in Allentown. "This happened on the governor's watch, and incumbents always get the blame. It's hard to shift that perception in a short time."