There is an old saying in politics that "perception is reality." That is how former Governor Tom Corbett got blamed for cuts in funding to public education that never happened. To this day many Pennsylvanians believe he took an axe to education funding when in fact he left office with more state dollars being spent on K-12 education than at any point in the commonwealth's history.
To drive the point home Governor Tom Wolf campaigned promising to be the education governor. He has done more to damage public education than any governor in recent history. This reality has been cloaked in the perception that he is pro-education. In fact Wolf is really just pro-union, propping up a system that fails both students and taxpayers.
It is true he has proposed historic increases in education spending — and the higher taxes to fund that spending. But, the proposed increases in both taxing and spending are so large they have proven politically impossible to implement. The untenable nature of these increases are such that even in the hyper-partisan atmosphere of the state capitol some Democrats have refused to go along.
The chances of Governor Wolf getting Republican support for more reasonable increases in k-12 public education spending are high if, as demanded by GOP leadership, reforms to cost drivers are included. But the governor has adopted a "my way or the highway" attitude which gridlocked the process and produced a historic budget stand-off.
In the process of fighting that battle, the so-called education governor pushed school districts across Penn's Woods to the cusp of closing due to the lack of state dollars flowing into their coffers. Worse, many had to borrow money to keep their doors open, incurring costs that took dollars away from students. His administration, willing to spend money to keep state bureaucracy operating, turned down appeals from school districts for relief.
Even if Governor Wolf were to push his education spending increases through the legislature precious few dollars would ever be spent benefitting students. That is because the state's pension system has become fiscally unsound. Its investments are under-performing projections and too generous benefits are draining the system faster than current employees add new dollars. At the school district level property taxes are rising to cover costs, and the preponderance of any new state dollars directed to education must go to prop up the system as well.
June a year ago the legislature passed significant pension reform. It was immediately vetoed by the governor who parroted the union line that the system is fine, just underfunded. Thus an opportunity to at least partially address a major cost driver was missed. The end result: fewer dollars available to directly benefit students.
Governor Wolf has also been waging a war on charter schools. Even more so than traditional public schools, charters operate with minimal cash flow. The epic budget battle resulted in teacher lay-offs, and even the closing of some charter schools. More will likely close as the governor implements administrative policies aimed at forcing charter schools out of existence. These policies are designed to deny parents and students valuable educational choices in an effort to preserve the union-dominated monopoly of public schools.
The latest example of Governor Wolf placing union interests over student interests involves legislation that would replace the seniority-based system for determining teacher lay-offs with a merit based system. In other words, instead of "last in, first out" the best teachers would be retained. At present, the legislation is on Governor Wolf's desk — and he has vowed a veto.
Unless you are doing Common Core math, when you add all these factors together what you get is a governor whose every action has harmed students and made the state's system of public education even more fiscally fragile that it was when he took office. All of this is being done to prop up the very labor unions that financed the governor's election. For taxpayers, and for students, it is a very large worm in the education apple.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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