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‘He’s a liar’: Hot debate over education in Pa. governor’s race

Wolf won election in 2014 after pledging to remedy education cuts. Four years later, state education spending is up — but many school districts are still struggling.

Gov. Tom Wolf, pictured at a press conference at a Philadelphia school in June, says he's reversed his predecessor's cuts to education.
Gov. Tom Wolf, pictured at a press conference at a Philadelphia school in June, says he's reversed his predecessor's cuts to education.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Three weeks into taking over as Pennsylvania's governor in 2015, Tom Wolf began his push to send money into public schools across the state.

The plan he announced that day in the Coatesville School District — for a new tax on natural gas drilling — hasn't been enacted. Nor has his call in his first budget to dramatically ramp up the state's share of education funding.

More dollars have flowed from the state to school districts during Wolf's tenure. But the increase is less than what he aimed to achieve. And it hasn't covered growing costs to districts, including in Coatesville, where the district has raised property taxes 15 percent in four years.

"Even with the additional funding, there's still a bigger shift back to the local taxpayers," said Jeff Ammerman, the business manager in Coatesville. The district closed an elementary school last year and eliminated 30 jobs through attrition.

Wolf, a Democrat, made history four years ago, knocking off incumbent Republican Tom Corbett in no small part because voters were angry with how Corbett handled education cuts. Now up for reelection against Republican Scott Wagner, Wolf is making his education record a big selling point, boasting that he's reversed the cuts and made other gains.

Wagner, too, is trying to position himself as the true champion of education, following a popular campaign playbook here and elsewhere. Everyone wants good schools, and education is the top state general fund expenditure in Pennsylvania; it also consumes a huge chunk of local property taxes.

Though state education spending is up under Wolf, the story is more complicated than Mission Accomplished.

While state education spending has grown by $2 billion since 2015, excluding higher education, nearly two-thirds of the money is going toward school-employee retirement costs, according to an Inquirer and Daily News analysis.

And property taxpayers continue to pick up most of the tab. While Wolf wanted to increase the state's share of funding for school districts to 50 percent, the state contributed less than 37 percent in 2016-17, the most recent data available.

Even so, Wolf may have done enough to win a second term in November: Polling shows he appears to have assuaged voters' concerns over education, and the state teachers union and other groups that had vilified Corbett are standing behind Wolf.

"I have put money into education, made investments in all levels — early childhood, basic education, higher education," Wolf said in an interview on Tuesday. "So I'm proud of that legacy. I ran on that, I did my best, and focused laser-like on that in my first term."

Wolf has double-digit leads in public polls, and as of early June had a 10-1 fund-raising advantage over Wagner, a former state senator who won a bruising primary campaign in May.

Wagner, a York County businessman who owns waste-hauling and trucking firms, also has made education a key plank of his campaign. Wagner says Wolf would seek broad tax hikes and shift funding to school districts where the governor is popular. He also says the governor has prioritized public workers' pensions over student achievement.

The Republican nominee wants to provide grants for high-performing teachers. On Thursday, Wagner announced a plan he says would dramatically increase funding for schools without raising taxes. He wants to privatize alcohol sales and lease the state's liquor wholesale system, among other measures. High-school graduates "don't have the skills necessary to compete in today's economy," he said in an interview Thursday.

Wagner has attacked Wolf over the governor's stated support for sending all money to schools through a funding formula enacted in 2016. Doing so would require a redistribution of dollars, forcing deep cuts in many school districts.

Wolf says he would not enact such a change without additional funding — and has blasted Wagner for supporting education cuts under Corbett.

Though costs have risen for school districts, "with me, they got a governor who actually understands the importance of investing in education. And I have pushed that to the extent that I can," Wolf said.

Education advocates don't fault Wolf for falling short of his goals, crediting him with proposing tax increases to pay for increased school funding.

In addition to the natural gas severance tax, Wolf had called for sales and income tax increases with his first budget plan. The Republican-led legislature blocked the hikes.

"He didn't have a magic wand. I wouldn't fault him for his inability to get the General Assembly to consider revenue," said Jay Himes, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials.

Faced with a conservative legislature, Wolf has been "as effective as he can be," said Donna Cooper, policy chief to former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, and now head of the advocacy group Public Citizens for Children and Youth.

Nationally, teachers have emerged as powerful political forces in red states like Oklahoma, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Arizona, and purple ones like Colorado.

Fed up with low pay and insufficient school funding, teachers have gone on strike and protested in state capitals, in some cases winning pay increases.

In Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker became a conservative hero in 2011 for weakening public-sector unions. Now running for a third term, he's casting himself as "the pro-education governor."

Perhaps sensing a similar opportunity in Pennsylvania, Wagner, another anti-union stalwart, is running ads warning that Wolf wants a "drastic school-funding shakeup."

"Your school could see a big cut, so that Philadelphia gets a whole lot more," the narrator says in the 30-second spot.

Wolf said earlier this summer that he supported running all money for education through a funding formula that targets money to school districts based on need. The state adopted the formula in 2016, directing additional money to districts with high enrollment and large numbers of students in poverty. But it only applies to a fraction of what the state spends on education.

Disparities between Pennsylvania's wealthy and poor districts have gotten worse despite the new formula, according to plaintiffs suing the state over school funding.

But distributing all money through the formula would mean steep cuts for many school districts.

Wolf says he wouldn't support the change until the state had additional money and got lawmakers' input. "The goal should be that no school gets a reduction in the investment that the state makes in public education," Wolf said Tuesday.

Of Wagner's claim the incumbent wants to shift funding, Wolf said: "First of all, he's lying. Second of all, he's running for governor. And I guess that's what you do when you run for office, you make up things."

Wagner responded in kind, saying the campaign was "about a governor who will lie and say anything he has to say to win. He's a liar."

"I'm getting so sick of this guy," Wagner said.

Wagner, who has previously said the state spends enough on schools, is proposing $1 billion annually in new education funding. Some of the money would be targeted to grants for high-performing teachers. Wagner says he would also help struggling teachers, with money for mentoring programs.

"The problem that we have now is that the money that is going into the schools is being sucked up by benefits," Wagner said, adding that he supports more changes to pension benefits for new employees.

Thus far, education funding isn't resonating with voters the same way it did four years ago. Federal stimulus money ran out early in Corbett's tenure and the governor made deep cuts, keeping his pledge not to increase taxes.

While 25 percent of registered voters identified education as the most important problem facing Pennsylvania in the fall of 2014, just 7 percent agreed with that sentiment as of June, according to polling by Franklin & Marshall.

"We were under attack by every schoolteacher, every alphabet soup organization out there," said Mike Barley, a GOP strategist who managed Corbett's reelection campaign. "I certainly haven't seen that with Gov. Wolf."

The top problems identified in the latest Franklin & Marshall poll were government and politicians (13 percent), taxes (12 percent), and the economy/finances (9 percent).

"There isn't a single issue that the candidates can talk about that resonates to the point where it's likely to change the outcome of an election," said G. Terry Madonna, the poll's director.

The governor has powerful allies on education, especially in organized labor.

Records show the Pennsylvania State Education Association, which represents some 180,000 teachers and other members, has contributed $1.1 million to Wolf's reelection campaign, making the union one of the governor's biggest financial backers.

"The governor ran being an education governor, and he's not disappointed us," said Dolores McCracken, the union's president. In addition to increasing funding, she credited Wolf with cutting back on standardized testing and vetoing a pension bill that "would have been much more harmful" than changes the governor and lawmakers ultimately passed last year.

Wagner — who in 2015 flew a helicopter over a few schools with nice facilities to show a reporter that schools had enough money — may have trouble persuading voters that he's the better choice on education.

"The bottom line is I love teachers," Wagner said.