Guv’s race: Fighting like Tom cats over school funding

     Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, left, and Democrat Tom Wolf shake hands at the end of a gubernatorial debate hosted by the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry Sept. 22 in Hershey. The tow will meet again Wednesday for the second of three planned debates.(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

    Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, left, and Democrat Tom Wolf shake hands at the end of a gubernatorial debate hosted by the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry Sept. 22 in Hershey. The tow will meet again Wednesday for the second of three planned debates.(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

    As a new Quinnipiac poll shows Pa. Gov. Tom Corbett trailing Democrat Tom Wolf by 24 points, the candidates this week are back to the business of hammering home their completely contradictory, seemingly mutually exclusive, claims about state education funding.

    Which makes sense. While insiders have enjoyed the little flap over the guy in a Wolf having made a sleazy horror movie, plenty of polling data show Corbett is in trouble because voters are watching another slasher film: the one that has him cutting education funding, degrading schools and forcing property taxes up.

    So Corbett began airing a commercial (above) this week in which he appears in a plaid shirt and speaks directly into the camera to say Wolf and his “special interest groups” are wrong when they accuse him of cutting education funding. The ad says Corbett cleaned up the education spending mess Gov. Ed Rendell left and now has state schools spending at its highest level ever.

    Republicans have dubbed Wolf’s story of massive education cuts under Corbett “the billion-dollar lie.”

    Tom Wolf has come back with a commercial (below) which shows a screen shot of Corbett’s ad, then says flat-out that Corbett cut a billion dollars from school funding, increasing class sizes and driving up property taxes.

    Who’s right?

    You can read the Corbett campaign’s footnotes for its ad here, and the Wolf campaign’s here, but they aren’t likely to straighten this out for you.

    I promise a fuller treatment of this debate before the campaign is through, but I’ll offer a couple of thoughts here.

    First, the structure of state education funding is so complicated that you can cherry-pick numbers and prove just about anything you want to. You can probably prove I cut school funding by a billion bucks.

    It’s true that during his last two years as governor, Rendell put hundreds of millions of dollars of non-recurring federal stimulus money into education spending to maintain the momentum of previous years to strengthen schools.

    Rendell hoped that economic recovery would generate enough revenue to maintain that spending and/or that the next governor would share his priorities.

    The next governor didn’t. Corbett’s team was committed to avoiding tax hikes and skeptical that all the education dollars were well spent. Their approach was to exercise restraint and seek changes in school administration and teacher work rules.

    Corbett can accurately claim that the basic education subsidy line in the state budget grew in his administration, but it’s also true that other categories of spending, including charter reimbursement, were eliminated or drastically reduced.

    Corbett’s claim of overall higher funding includes some categories of spending, like teacher pension costs, that weren’t included in the past. They are real costs, but aren’t apples-to-apples comparisons.

    The fact is that the previous governor and the current one have different priorities, and Wolf’s are closer to Rendell’s.

    Franklin & Marshall poll director Terry Madonna told me a key reason his latest poll showed Corbett 25 points back was that Corbett “has not been able to change the narrative that he’s cut education spending.”

    The Corbett ad is an effort to change that narrative. Wolf aims to keep it right where it is.

    Our education reporter, Kevin McCorry, will provide a close and honest look at the education issue in this campaign, and when he does, I’ll makes sure it gets some attention here.

     

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