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Published in Print: May 15, 2002, as Casey, Rendell Rhetoric Hot In Pa. Democratic Primary

Casey, Rendell Rhetoric Hot In Pa. Democratic Primary

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Two Pennsylvania Democrats with big political name recognition are making school funding a key issue in an increasingly nasty and intense bid to win next week's gubernatorial primary.

The most recent polls show Edward G. Rendell, the former mayor of Philadelphia, carrying a narrow lead over Robert P. Casey Jr., the state auditor general and son of a former Pennsylvania governor. As the May 21 contest nears, the candidates have been trading barbs and ideas on how to better pay for the state's schools.

In debates and television ads, the soft-spoken Mr. Casey has painted the often- brash Mr. Rendell as a "serial prevaricator" who exaggerates how much he did to improve Philadelphia's schools when he was mayor from 1992 to 1999. Mr. Casey points out that two years after Mr. Rendell left office, the financially and academically struggling district was taken over by the state.

On the defensive, Mr. Rendell repeatedly points out that he instituted all-day kindergarten, brought thousands more volunteers into the schools, and presided over five years of rising test scores. Mr. Rendell, who once ran against Mr. Casey's father for governor and lost, suggests that Mr. Casey is riding the late governor's coattails and lacks sufficient political experience to take Pennsylvania's helm.

When they are not attacking each other, however, the two candidates are often talking about the need for Pennsylvania to increase its share of funding to its 501 school districts. The two Democrats and their Republican opponent in the Nov. 5 general election, Attorney General Mike Fisher, all say a better solution to education funding must be found because property taxes, on which schools depend heavily, are too high.

"The fact that all three candidates in Pennsylvania are talking about it as an issue is in itself significant," said Steven A. Peterson, the director of the school of public affairs at Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg. "It makes it pretty hard to duck once one of them gets elected governor."

Competing Ideas

That unanimity is good news to many in Pennsylvania, where pressure is building on state lawmakers to revamp school funding so it relies less on property taxes. In the past 30 years, the state's share of K-12 education funding has dropped significantly, while local property taxes have soared.

Mr. Rendell proposes to lower property taxes by 25 percent to 40 percent and restore the state's share of school spending to 50 percent or more by installing slot machines at horse-racing tracks, doubling the cigarette tax, and ferreting out wasteful government spending. He's said he would also consider riverboat gambling.

Mr. Casey has taken a more cautious approach.

He supports the idea of increasing the state's share of education funding to half, but insists it must be done gradually because of budgetary constraints fueled by the economic downturn. He offers more modest property-tax relief and would consider raising cigarette taxes to pay for schools, but rules out increases in state income or sales taxes. He contends that Mr. Rendell's plan to boost school funding wouldn't work without a significant tax hike.

Some experts believe that any significant property-tax cut would have to be offset by increasing a state tax.

"If the candidates are serious about solving the state's education finance problems, they need to leave the door open to considering an increase in state taxes," said Ron Cowell, a 24-year Democratic veteran of the state legislature who is now the president of the Education Policy and Leadership Center, an advocacy group in Harrisburg. "It would behoove the candidates to remind listeners that it isn't just about money. This is about financing what we expect kids to learn."

Others believe that discussing a funding crisis is misplaced. Matthew J. Brouillette, the executive director of the Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market think tank in Harrisburg, the state capital, said the schools "have already had billions pumped into them."

What they need now, he said, is not more money, but better incentives for good performance.

The gubernatorial debate on education represents to some observers the culmination of three years of increasing pressure for school funding reform. ("Forces Target Pennsylvania School Aid Changes," Nov. 28, 2001.) Timothy Potts, the director of the Pennsylvania School Reform Network, an advocacy group in Harrisburg, said the 1999 declaration by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that school funding inequities could be solved only by the legislature had catalyzed many policymakers, citizens, and educators around the issue.

Several proposals to lower property taxes and build up school coffers by increasing the state income tax are floating in the legislature.

"There is still a lot of denial in the state legislature that eventually they are going to have to raise taxes to pay for education," said Mr. Potts. "But their constituents are telling them they want them to solve this problem. They are going to have to do something."

Vol. 21, Issue 36, Pages 18,23

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