Slashed funding, equity, parent choice: Pa. gov. candidates have hugely different education plans

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro (left) and state Sen. Doug Mastriano.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro (left) and state Sen. Doug Mastriano. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro wants to continue to increase public education funding in Pennsylvania, while his opponent, Republican Doug Mastriano, wants to dramatically cut it.

Mastriano, a state senator, would take the funds and move them to separate accounts parents can use to send their children to any school they want, including charter and religious schools.

Shapiro, who serves as attorney general, says along with overall increases, he wants to make funding more equitable across districts.

Here’s a comparison of what the two candidates say they plan to do.

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Shapiro on school funding

Shapiro has said he largely wants to maintain Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s education spending plan.

Wolf took over the commonwealth at a time when state education funding was at a historic low, following cuts in the wake of the 2008 housing market crash. Wolf has made school funding increases the centerpiece of his budgets since then, increasing the overall budget by about $3.7 billion, by the administration’s count.

Specifically, Shapiro has supported the Wolf administration in its bid to route more state education dollars through a funding formula the state legislature adopted in 2016. Intended to better reflect student needs and make funding more equitable across the commonwealth, the funding formula applies only to new funding, which means a small fraction of education funds run through it.

The GOP-controlled legislature has opposed full use of the formula, and parents, school districts and advocacy groups are suing the state over what they say is unconstitutionally unfair funding of public schools. As attorney general, Shapiro filed an amicus brief to the lawsuit, supporting the plaintiffs’ argument that the legislature’s funding arrangement violates the constitution.

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Mastriano on school funding

The part of Mastriano’s education plan that has gotten the most attention came to public view in a radio interview the candidate did during the primary election. He said Pennsylvania should reduce its per-student school funding from $19,000 to about $9,000 — an unprecedented cut — and that students and parents should then decide whether they want to attend public, private, charter or home schools.

On his campaign website, Mastriano lays out a few specific education funding proposals.

He wants to “shift funding to students instead of systems” by establishing “Education Opportunity Accounts” for parents.

These accounts are controversial, but have become a popular model among advocates who want to make private or charter education more common. They’re in use in a handful of states, and are typically restricted-use accounts, like health savings accounts, in which the average amount of per-pupil state funding that otherwise would have gone to a public school district is pulled from the district, and put in an account for individual use.

On top of that, Mastriano wants to expand existing programs that give tax breaks to companies that fund scholarships to private schools. These programs are often painted as a way for poor children to get out of, as Mastriano’s website says, “failing” public schools. But WHYY has also found that there’s little oversight of these programs, and that the scholarships can go to well-off families with more quality school options.

Mastriano also wants to eliminate property taxes, a key source of public school funding.

The candidates on parent input in schools

In his official campaign pitches, Mastriano is leaning into a current of parent sentiment that boiled over in last year’s school board races: Frustrated with lockdowns, some parents began calling for more say in their kids’ public school education.

Those concerns also trickled into unrelated political arenas, like concern over the books their kids are reading and what they are learning about race.

In apparent response to that wave of parent sentiment, Mastriano is proposing a slate of broad changes that would dramatically increase oversight of teachers. He wants “thorough review of district ‘Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion’ plans” and the implementation of a “universal ‘Parental Rights’ statute in law.”

He also called for an “immediate ban on Critical Race Theory and Gender Theory studies.”

Critical Race Theory is an academic framework mostly confined to higher education that examines the impact structural racism has had on American institutions. “Gender theory” references guidance that Pennsylvania’s Department of Education has given teachers on being inclusive of transgender and gender-nonconforming students and faculty, as well as resources and potential lesson plans on gender.

In his own plans, Shapiro has also acknowledged the wave of parents who want more say in their kids’ schools.

In an op-ed, he pledged to appoint at least two parents to the State Board of Education, which reviews and adopts educational regulations and standards, arguing that at the moment, “there are more seats reserved on the board for politicians than parents. That needs to change.”

In general, Shapiro said, the last two years of COVID-19 disruptions “have reminded us of the integral role parents play in our education system. It was true before the pandemic, and it remains true now: parents deserve to have a real voice in their children’s education.”

Education groups react to the candidates’ plans

The Pennsylvania State Education Association, the commonwealth’s biggest teachers’ union, has said Mastriano’s plan would be devastating for teachers, students and school districts. The union has endorsed Shapiro.

It did a rough analysis of Mastriano’s sketched-out plan, and concluded it would “amount to a school funding cut of $12.75 billion and could likely lead to the loss of more than 118,000 jobs in public schools in Pennsylvania,” according to spokesperson David Broderic.

Broderic compared the cuts to the roughly billion dollar education funding decrease that Pennsylvania’s public schools saw under its last GOP governor, Tom Corbett.

Those cuts came as federal stimulus money, which the previous governor had used to patch and increase education spending, ran out. Though Corbett always argued he had actually increased underlying state funding after stimulus money dried up, the overall funding loss contributed to his unpopularity and general election defeat.

“Those cuts were incredibly dramatic at the time,” Broderic said. “They pale in comparison to what Doug Mastriano is proposing.”

The cuts would affect districts across the state, and criticism didn’t just come from the PSEA. Ed Albert, who heads the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, told the Pennsylvania Capital-Star that the group “would have to be insane to support what [Mastriano is] offering.”

The Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, which often clashes with public school interests over education funding and regulation, didn’t immediately return a request for comment on the race. It hasn’t made an endorsement.

The Commonwealth Partners Chamber of Entrepreneurs, one of Pennsylvania’s most active advocates for using public money to fund private and charter school tuition, also has not made an explicit endorsement in the race. It has called Shapiro “dangerous” and is funding billboards and other messaging criticizing him for his ties to teachers’ unions, among other things. But the group has not weighed in on Mastriano’s candidacy. It strenuously opposed Mastriano in the primary election.

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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