Thomas Fitzgerald: Corbett's people hit back on education spending

President Obama was smacked down by Republicans for comments on Pennsylvania education spending.
President Obama was smacked down by Republicans for comments on Pennsylvania education spending. (JESSICA KOURKOUNIS / Getty Images)
Posted: August 28, 2013

"Obama disgraces the office," said the subject line of an e-mail blast from the Pennsylvania Republican Party last Friday, sent soon after the president finished a speech in Scranton.

Sounded serious. Another Watergate? Oval Office sex with an intern, a la Bill Clinton? Benghazi, perhaps?

Nope. It seems that President Obama criticized Gov. Corbett, without even mentioning the man's name.

It was just a couple of beats in a torrent of presidential words about the need to make college more affordable, a passing thought, almost an aside.

"Let's face it, here in Pennsylvania there have been brutal cuts to not just higher education, but education, generally," Obama said. He had been discussing cuts in state financial support for public universities and colleges across the country as one of the drivers of increased costs for students.

Applause echoed off the bleachers and the ceiling of the Lackawanna College gymnasium.

Within minutes, Republicans and Corbett's reelection campaign pounced. The Pennsylvania GOP release, with its intimations of White House scandal, said that Obama had shown "some gall," since he created the problem with an infusion of federal stimulus money for schools and by "colluding" with former Gov. Ed Rendell to "artificially prop up" Pennsylvania's spending on education.

Said Mike Barley, Corbett's campaign manager, in a statement: "If the president is looking for someone to blame for education cuts he should grab a mirror." Despite the "legislative malpractice" of the stimulus program, Barley continued, "Gov. Corbett has devoted more state funding to education than any time in our commonwealth's history."

Those were two of the five e-mail attacks from state and national Republicans that bracketed the president's Scranton visit, hitting media in-boxes before and after. Earlier in the day, as Obama was appearing in Binghamton, N.Y., and riding a souped-up, armored bus down into Pennsylvania, one e-mail collated opinions from education experts panning the president's proposal to rate colleges on affordability and effectiveness, and another quoted GOP elected officials deriding him for constant campaigning.

The instant rebuttals on education funding are especially interesting and relevant to Pennsylvania's 2104 gubernatorial campaign.

Polls show that one reason for Corbett's low job-approval rating is the perception, stoked by Democratic attacks, that he has slashed spending on public education. Voters notice cuts in their local school districts and ever-increasing property taxes, and they're not happy about it. Education is a make-or-break issue among swing voters in crucial suburban areas, and Corbett's strategists also know that earlier state cutbacks probably have contributed to the gender gap he's facing in the polls.

So, who's right? It's complicated.

Pennsylvania's public institutions of higher education had their state funding cut 22 percent in the 2011-12 budget year; spending was frozen last year. In the current 2013-14 fiscal year, overall state spending on higher education is up 0.4 percent, or $5.2 million, according to analysis by the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center.

As far as K-12 public education goes, the state is providing $700 million less for basic aid to schools - the money that supports classroom programs - than it did when Corbett took office.

Rendell used $364 million in stimulus money to supplant state dollars in basic education aid in his last education budget, and the Corbett administration cut the state appropriation for basic education by $335 million in its first few weeks, using stimulus funds to make up the difference, according to the Education Policy and Leadership Center, a Harrisburg think tank.

Since then, the Corbett administration has been putting money back into the line item. In this budget, for instance, basic education was increased by $122.5 million.

But what of the Corbett claim that it is spending more state money on education than at any point in state history? "The only way that works is if you count additional state payments into the pension system" for school employees, said Ron Cowell, president of the EPLC. That was $160 million this year, mandated by law.


Contact Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-313-3099, or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com, or follow @tomfitzgerald on Twitter. Read his blog, "The Big Tent," at www.inquirer.com/bigtent.

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