Saying one thing, doing another
By Steven Hoffman
Gov. Wolf is only half right when he says his landslide win in last year’s election equates with a mandate for adequate, equitable public school funding.
Because while this issue was indeed the cornerstone of his campaign, it was also front-and-center in the re-election campaigns of Republican legislators.
We should know: In last year’s election, we were the Democratic nominees for State Representative in the 13th and 97th State House districts, respectively. While our campaigns played out in two very different parts of the county, there were common themes. We are both career public school teachers who were making our first runs for major elective office. We made these campaigns because we thought state government was failing our schools, students, and property taxpayers. And while we both came up short on Election Day, we were proud to run visible, competitive races.
In fact, our campaigns were so credible
that our opponents spent tens of thousands of dollars to hammer home
the messages that they, too, would “stand up for schools,” and
“allocate new natural gas severance tax revenues to education.”
So we were genuinely surprised that both Representative Lawrence and Representative Mentzer reversed course when given the chance to deliver on these and other campaign promises. Our opponents did all they could during the 2014 campaign to distance themselves from Tom Corbett’s record on education. Both made bold commitments with respect to responsible education funding and real property tax relief. And now both have voted for a budget proposal that:
Shortchanges schools by providing only three percent of the education investments requested by Governor Wolf. For context, over the past 20 years, no state spending plan has provided less than 90 percent of a governor’s proposed education budget.
Rejects the will of the voters by insulating out-of-state natural gas drillers from any increase in the nation’s lowest effective tax rate.
Shifts the responsibility for school funding onto local districts. While career politicians like our opponents will boast that they held the line on taxes, more than 70 percent of Pennsylvania school boards have raised taxes for the next fiscal year; the cause and effect could not be clearer.
Exploits one-time sources and off-budget transfers in continuation of the Corbett-era budgets that led to successive credit downgrades. The Lawrence/Mentzer budget also punts on required Social Security contributions, deferring an obligation in the same manner that caused the current underfunding of the state pension system.
We know that there is sometimes a gap
between campaign rhetoric and a public official’s voting record.
But the gap in this case is truly astounding: Both Representative
Lawrence and Representative Mentzer campaigned aggressively on the
issue of additional school funding. Not once did we hear them
say that delivering on these commitments was dependent on privatizing
state stores, a wholly unrelated policy goal. Nothing in their
campaign platform or public statements signaled a desire to continue
Tom Corbett’s austerity policies.
This is where the voters come in. Public education is a core government function and by every standard, Pennsylvania is failing to deliver. We have the nation’s most inequitable system of school funding and hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania students attend severely underfunded schools. These distinctions are not accidents: They reflect deliberate policy decisions, failure on the part of politicians to honor commitments, and a disengaged electorate.
With Governor Wolf’s veto, the state budget debate is effectively re-set, giving Pennsylvania the chance to do better. In the days and weeks ahead, the public should carefully monitor debates in Harrisburg and make their priorities clear to state policymakers. Voters should be especially attuned to earlier campaign promises with respect to fair and appropriate levels of education funding. Finally, we call on legislators—including the ones who beat us fair and square—to help restore faith in Harrisburg by governing in the same manner that they campaigned: With an unequivocal commitment to public schools.
Charlie Hample, of Warwick, is a teacher in the School District of Lancaster. Ann VonStetten Schott, of London Grove, recently retired from the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District.