As we get closer to the Nov. 4 general election, I will take a look each day at a state election of interest. (If you’ve missed my election reporting from California, Florida, and Georgia, you’ve still got time to catch up!) I’ll look at polling numbers and the candidates’ general positions on K-12 issues, and I’ll also highlight the political and policy environments that are influencing the debate about public schools. For the sake of brevity, I’ll only focus on the Democratic and Republican candidates. Today I’ll focus on the race for governor in Pennsylvania.
Consistently ranked as one of the most “endangered” governors when it comes to reelection prospects, Keystone State Gov. Tom Corbett has consistently trailed Democrat Tom Wolf this year, and he is the only Republican governor whose race is now considered safely in the Democratic column, according to Real Clear Politics. (I wrote about Wolf’s position on education funding earlier this year.) However, Corbett has closed the gap in recent months, and what was once a deficit of approximately 20 percentage points is now getting closer to single digits, as the Real Clear Politics polling average below shows:
One of the biggest issues Corbett is wrestling with is the charge that he cut $1 billion from Pennsylvania public schools when he took office in 2011. It’s a claim that hinges on how you connect the role of state dollars in replacing (or not replacing) federal stimulus dollars that began to dry up right as Corbett took over, according to factcheck.org. Here’s how the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center visualized actual education funding under Corbett:
So according to that chart, Corbett is correct that basic K-12 aid has gone up in his administration, but much of the overall increase is attributable to teacher pension costs, and the governor failed to supplant stimulus spending with state money when federal dollars disappeared. And the state relies heavily on local property taxes compared to state funds.
Oddly, on his campaign website, the governor cites the adoption of the Common Core State Standards (modified in minor fashion to become the Pennsylvania Core Standards) as an accomplishment, yet earlier this year Corbett called for a further review of those same standards as a way to roll back the common core in the state.
Corbett also highlights increased early education funding and increased funding for school choice on his website, and says in summation, “Pennsylvania’s public schools are now in a much stronger financial position to continue preparing our children for the future in the best way possible.”
On the issue of K-12 funding, Wolf, a business executive, isn’t shy about attacking Corbett’s record: In fact, in the “Issues” part of his campaign website, the Democratic candidate has a separate “Corbett’s cuts to education” section in addition to the generic “Education” section.
Wolf uses the much-disputed figure of $1 billion in cuts to public schools on Corbett’s watch, and adds: “Meanwhile, Governor Corbett refuses to implement a reasonable 5 percent severance tax that will help fund all of Pennsylvania’s schools.” (A severance tax is a natural resource-extraction tax.)
He’s also capitalized on another political scrum by stating that if elected, he will deep-six Philadelphia’s state-run School Reform Commission and return control of city schools to a traditional, locally elected board. Long a center of debate, the commission recently ignited a major controversy by unilaterally altering Philadelphia teachers’ contract with regard to health benefits.
The governor of the state appoints three of the five members to the commission, but Wolf wouldn’t be able to simply abolish it at the snap of his fingers—right now, the commission would have to vote itself out of existence with the permission of the state schools chief. There was a failed push earlier this year that would give the governor the power to end the commission.
Other Delights in the Caravan
Regardless of who’s elected, major changes to the way the state funds K-12 are likely in store. This year, a Basic Education Funding Commission was established by the legislature to try to come up with a new formula for funding public schools in the state. The new formula is supposed to take into account things like local property taxes and geographical wealth differences. The commission has been holding hearings in recent weeks.
A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.