Wagner, Wolf tangle over politics of funding public schools

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By Marc Levy

Scott Wagner, the Republican candidate for governor, on July 12 accused Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf of proposing a policy that would result in deep funding cuts to certain school districts, a claim that Wolf called absurd while pointing to his record of winning more education funding across Pennsylvania.

In a news conference in Pittsburgh, Wagner stepped up his campaign's claim about what Wolf said last week at a public event in Philadelphia.

A report last week by WHYY-FM cited Wolf as saying the state needs “a fair funding formula for all dollars going into public education."

Wagner was unable to point to an instance where Wolf said he thought the switch from the existing distribution scheme should be immediate or resulting in cuts to certain school districts.

Wolf said he did not support an immediate shift that would result in cuts to school districts, and maintained that he supports fair funding, adequate funding and increased funding.

“I am a strong education governor, I will continue to be a strong education governor, and any suggestion that I want to take any money out of public education is absurd, it's just complete nonsense," Wolf said.

Nevertheless, Wagner insisted Wolf wants to immediately redirect $5.5 billion for public school instruction and operations through a formula approved in 2015 by the Republican-controlled Legislature.

The 2015 formula was designed to favor poorer districts and districts with growing student populations, after a quarter-century of school-funding formulas that did not entirely account for shifts in wealth or population while protecting shrinking districts.

The new formula has thus far applied to increases in school aid approved since then, or about $539 million. But redirecting the $5.5 billion in pre-existing annual school aid into the new formula would mean shifting nearly $1.2 billion from 357 school districts to the other 143 districts, according to an Associated Press analysis.

“Gov. Wolf believes it's OK to take education dollars meant for students in three-quarters of our school districts in Pennsylvania and use them to reward the people who voted for him," Wagner said at the news conference, flanked by Republican Party chairman Val DiGiorgio and other state party officials.

Wagner also appeared to change his stance about whether he would be willing to increase funding for public schools. In the primary campaign, Wagner said he believes the state spends “enough money" on schools.

Wagner said he would create a program that rewards schools that make “evidence-based reforms" that improve student achievement and devote new money to it.

Wolf secured lawmakers' approval of roughly half of the $2 billion over four years in new education money he had initially set out as a first-term goal after campaigning in 2014 against school-funding cuts under his predecessor, former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.

When Wolf and lawmakers approved the new formula, they decided against changing how existing school aid was distributed under what is called a “hold harmless" provision. Wagner, in a 2015 editorial, said the provision should be eliminated and has in recent months criticized it for protecting shrinking districts.

Redistributing the $5.5 billion would give Philadelphia the biggest boost in pure dollars at $344 million, or 31 percent. Cities and growing suburban districts also would see big percentage increases.

The biggest loser, in pure dollars, would be Pittsburgh, at $75 million, or 47 percent. Big percentage losers would include various western Pennsylvania districts.

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