During his run for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, State Senator Scott Wagner did a telephone town hall on education. Midway through, a caller named Ann from Pittsburgh asked him why more Pennsylvania students aren’t going to trade schools.
That may be a throw-away question for most politicians — ideologically distant from the larger education debates over funding and school choice — but Wagner got excited.
“Ann, you are now in my wheelhouse,” he said.
For the next five minutes, Wagner spoke about his own experience as a college dropout who went on to run a series of lucrative businesses. He talked about the need for schooling options that better prepare kids for the job markets. He wants teachers talking to kids as young as fourth grade about their career goals. And he thinks Pennsylvania schools should focus more on “industrial arts” and other career and technical training.
“There’s nothing wrong with being a truck driver or mechanic or welder,” he told the caller.
During the hour-long town hall, Wagner spent much of his time talking about education and its relationship to the economy. That includes what schools teach, but also the way school spending shapes the state’s financial picture.
Wagner called the teacher pension system an “albatross,” told listeners he was “on a mission” to eliminate school property taxes, and said Pennsylvania has a “skilled-labor crisis.”
When another caller asked about charter schools and vouchers, Wagner was less verbose.
“I support all school choice,” he said.
If the last gubernatorial election is any indication, education will be a major topic in the upcoming race between two wealthy York County businessmen.
Incumbent Tom Wolf has spent a lot of his political capital to boost education funding, an issue he highlighted prominently during his 2014 run and will likely highlight again in this campaign. Wagner, meanwhile, has called education “the cornerstone of my administration.”
But Wagner’s emphases in this arena “aren’t necessarily what those of us in education policy think of as education policy on a day-to-day basis,” said Stephen DeMaura, executive director of Excellent Schools PA, which supports school choice and hosted the telephone town hall with Wagner.
As a state senator, Wagner introduced a bill that would exempt school districts from paying laborers the “prevailing wage” on construction projects. He’s also been among the strongest voices for legislation that would eliminate school property taxes and replace them with increased states sales and income taxes. Supporters of the shift say it will unburden seniors on fixed incomes who own homes, but the current bill that Wagner supports would use state funding to lock funding inequities among Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts into place.
Then there’s the issue of teacher compensation, an area Wagner has focused on since his early days as a state senator.
“We have created a special class in this state and the special class is the public sector union employee,” Wagner told Keystone Crossroads in a 2015 interview.
Wagner scoffs at the idea that teachers in the state are underpaid, and laments the fact that rising pension costs have pushed some districts to cut programs and/or raise local taxes.
“Teachers are doing very well in this state,” he said.
Wagner wants the state to adopt a teacher retirement system where new hires get a plan similar to the 401k programs found in the private sector. He does not support changing the benefit packages promised to any current teachers.
“I am in no way going to take any teacher’s pension away,” Wagner said during the education town hall.
In 2017, Wolf signed a pension-reform bill that gives future teachers three retirement plan options, all of which have some elements of a 401k-style program. Along with increased education funding and a de-emphasis on standardized testing, Wolf will likely point to this among his main accomplishments.
Wagner’s campaign, however, is already trying to poke holes in that narrative, saying the recent bipartisan pension bill doesn’t go far enough to ensure “more dollars go to the classroom and not the unions,” said Wagner spokesperson Andrew Romeo in an email.
Wagner’s opponents, meanwhile, are painting him as an anti-education budget hawk. In 2014, that kind of messaging helped boost Wolf over former Governor Tom Corbett, who cut state education spending in the wake of the recession.
“I think Scott Wagner’s priorities are to gut public education,” said Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, and policy chief under former Governor Ed Rendell, a Democrat.
Cooper sees Wagner as an ideological mercenary who uses anti-union and anti-spending rhetoric to energize voters. If Wagner takes office, she said Corbett’s cuts would “look like a sliver compared to the chopping that Scott Wagner’s gonna take to state funding for education.”
Wagner has, in the past, scrutinized state spending on education. In 2015, he took a television reporter on a helicopter tour of schools in his district to highlight the fact that “we spend a lot of money on schools.”
That same year, in an interview with Keystone Crossroads, Wagner pilloried Democrats who wanted to boost education funding.
“They think the solution is more money,” he said of Wolf and his allies. “Every time you do that the money disappears and the problem is still there.”
Wagner seems to have moderated his tone during the campaign, and says he’s at least committed to maintaining current funding levels.
“Scott will not slash school funding,” said the spokesperson. “He believes that too much of our state funding never gets to the classroom, and as governor he will fix that.”
At least on one side of the education funding debate, Wagner could find some unlikely allies.
He has critiqued inequities among Pennsylvania school districts, and called the state’s “hold harmless” system — which has benefited shrinking, mostly rural districts by holding their state education dollars steady over time — “a total mess.”
That’s an issue that divides advocates more based on geography than political party, and Wagner’s stance here is akin to many progressive voters in urban centers such as Philadelphia and Reading.
“The problem is nobody up here wants to do any heavy lifting because they all want to get re-elected,” Wagner said.
In his 2018 town hall, he highlighted the wretched state of many Philadelphia school buildings and compared them to the “$150 million complexes” being built in wealthier suburbs.
“I’m very troubled by Philadelphia,” he said.
Wagner is hardly the first Harrisburg Republican to say that about education in Pennsylvania’s largest city. In the past, though, GOP lawmakers have used that sentiment as an on-ramp to expand school choice or strip Philadelphia of its authority over schools.
Wagner, however, seems more interested in the dollars and cents of education finance than the nuts and bolts of education policy. Asked by a caller how he’d fix the Philadelphia school system, for instance, Wagner offered a rhetorical shrug.
“I don’t have all the answers,” he said. “I can’t go into Philadelphia and say, ‘You should do this, this, and this.'”