What’s behind Scott Wagner’s public school pivot? (Pennsylvania)

So here’s one you probably didn’t see coming: Republican governor candidate Scott Wagner, who once said Pennsylvania could lay off 10 percent of its public school teachers and they wouldn’t be missed, is trying to set up himself up this summer as a champion of public education.

Yep, you read that right.

That’s the same Scott Wagner who thinks Pennsylvania already spends “enough” money on public schools and who once apologized for comparing the tactics of public employee unions – including those representing teachers – to those of Adolf Hitler and Vladimir Putin.

The York County pol has spent the last week or so hammering  Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf for his embrace of a school funding formula, signed into law to bipartisan acclaim in 2016, that Wagner says would lead to deep funding cuts for some school districts.

“Tom Wolf, the guy who ran in 2014 as the education governor, to put more money into education, is now saying ‘yes’ to a plan to decimate rural school districts,” Wagner said during a campaign event in Pittsburgh last week. “That’s unacceptable.”

There’s just one problem: Wagner isn’t telling the whole story. And, in at least one critical instance, he and Wolf actually agreed that growing districts should receive funding preference over shrinking ones.

And make no mistake: Wagner is no friend of public education. He’s a vocal supporter of school choice, which would funnel millions of dollars out of districts. But what he is, however, is a canny politician who’s seized on an opportunity to hit Wolf where he lives.

First up, a bit of context.

Wolf surprised adversaries and supporters alike last month when he said it’s time to funnel state aid to all 500 Pennsylvania school districts through the so-called ‘fair funding formula’ adopted by the Republican-controlled General Assembly three years ago.

That formula is designed to favor poorer and growing districts by taking into account such variables as a district’s poverty level; its student enrollment, and the local tax effort, WHYY-FM in Philadelphia reported.

Previous formulas did not take those factors into account and protected shrinking districts by making sure they never received less money than they did in the prior year.

Wagner has accused Wolf of wanting to immediately redirect $5.5 billion in aid through the formula. Such a move would end up shifting nearly $1.2 billion from 357 school districts to the other 143 districts, an Associated Press analysis concluded.

But Wagner could not point to any instance where Wolf said he wanted to do that.

And, in fact, Wolf said the exact opposite, telling the AP he opposes an immediate shift because it would inflict exactly the kind of mayhem that Wagner says it would.

“Any suggestion that I want to take any money out of public education is absurd, it’s just complete nonsense,” Wolf said.

The Reaction

In an email, Wolf’s campaign spokeswoman, Beth Melena, said Wolf believes the funding formula “should be gradually implemented until we have full, adequate and fair funding.”

Wagner’s spokesman, Andrew Romeo, contested that version of events, pointing to a June 21 interview in the Philadelphia Tribune newspaper in which senior Wolf administration aides appear to express support for legislation that would push 100 percent of education money through the fair funding formula.

“If Tom Wolf wants to talk about telling education lies that are dangerous for Pennsylvania he should look in the mirror,” Romeo said. “He stood in front of a TV camera last week and tried to deny the fact that he wants to cut $1.2 billion from 362 school districts despite supporting a bill that would do just that. He should be ashamed of himself, not only for his education plan, but also for the lies he’s trying to tell about it.”

‘Hold Harmless?’

And even as Wagner has lambasted Wolf for wanting to shift money away from districts, the Republican has repeatedly called for the elimination of the so-called “hold harmless” language that guarantees the steady flow of money to school districts – regardless of any change in their circumstances.

Wagner has referred to the clause as “madness” and a “total mess.” He had also complained in a Pottstown Mercury op-Ed in 2015 that the state’s old funding formula “puts growing school districts at a financial disadvantage.”

Those are the very factors the new funding formula seeks to redress.

Romeo said Wagner made those remarks prior to the fair funding formula being approved and no longer holds that position. Wagner also appears to have abandoned his position that state schools have more than enough money.

“Scott has said that we don’t have a revenue problem we have a spending problem – meaning that we appropriate a lot of money for education and it needs to be spent smarter,” Romeo said. “However, he has been clear he supports more money for public education, having voted for hundreds of millions of it in the 2014-2015 budget and the GOP budget of 2015-2016.  His administration would use the new funding formula to drive out new dollars as well as  a new line item for evidence based reforms.”

The Corbett Myth

Wolf’s camp is guilty of taking one major liberty with the truth in its own pushback. The Democrat’s campaign is continuing to peddle the same, long-debunked myth that his Republican predecessor, Tom Corbett, gutted public education to the tune of $1 billion.

The truth is bad enough.

Corbett slashed the state’s basic education subsidy by $335 million during his first weeks in office, according to a FactCheck.org analysis, leading to program cuts and teacher layoffs across the state.

State education spending had previously propped by vanished federal stimulus money. Corbett later added money back, with the tally eventually $300 million higher than under former Gov. Ed Rendell.

The Bottom Line

Wagner’s claims about Wolf’s position on the funding formula are flimsy enough. Wolf’s team doesn’t need to include fictions of his own.

If nothing else, however, the sniping between the two camps provides vivid reminder that public education remains one of the core public policy issues in Pennsylvania politics.

And if you think things are testy now, wait until the campaign really revs up in the fall.