Corbett ads defend his education record

Gov. Corbett has faced protests over his record on public education. As he seeks reelection, his campaign has countered that he, in fact, increased state spending on basic education.
Gov. Corbett has faced protests over his record on public education. As he seeks reelection, his campaign has countered that he, in fact, increased state spending on basic education. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 18, 2013

HARRISBURG - The radio ad is called "Looking out." As inspirational music plays in the background, a female voice declares that Gov. Corbett believes deeply in public education and that his administration is funneling more state dollars into classroom instruction than ever before.

"Tom Corbett," the woman intones confidently. "Looking out for Pennsylvania's children."

Hitting the airwaves statewide earlier this month, the ad is one of the governor's first campaign messages to voters and is notable as much for its claims as for what it is trying to refute: the governor's image as the man with a slash-and-burn approach to public education funding.

The story of how public schools have fared since Corbett took office in January 2011 is widely expected to be front and center in next year's governor's race, and is perhaps the one issue that critics and supporters agree has dogged the governor.

That is where any agreement ends.

Corbett, a Republican, has come out forcefully in recent months to defend his education record, arguing that it has been misunderstood and misinterpreted, even as Democrats have jockeyed to tear it down every chance they get.

School advocates, too, have gone hoarse making the by-now familiar case that Corbett and Republicans in the legislature have cut education funding by $1 billion, leaving public schools with fewer teachers and educational programs.

"The proof is in what kind of services and education opportunities [children] had three years ago, versus what they have today," said Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators. "Regardless of the numbers, the reality is that those are greatly diminished in school districts from where they were three years ago."

Corbett has countered with a different story: He came into office when $1 billion in federal stimulus funds earmarked for education were expiring, and even in the face of such financial hardship, he increased state spending on basic education, the meatiest of payments the state makes to school districts to use on classroom instruction and related areas.

"It is incumbent upon us as a campaign to correct a misperception that is out there," said John Brabender, the campaign's media consultant. "Tom Corbett has a great education story to tell."

Who is right?

The answer is short but complicated: Both sides are.

Corbett's predecessor, Ed Rendell, is widely credited with investing substantial dollars every year in public schools. Even with the recession, Rendell was able to keep sending schools more money - and increase overall classroom education spending - because he had access to a large pot of federal stimulus funds.

In the 2008-09 fiscal year, for instance, Rendell spent $5.2 billion on basic education. When the recession hit in the next fiscal year, Rendell and the legislature cut state funding for basic education to just under $4.9 billion - but were able to bolster it with $650 million in federal stimulus funds. A similar scenario played out in the 2010-11 budget cycle.

Democrats say that in Rendell's last year in office, about $6.3 billion was going to public schools to spend directly in classrooms. That included state funding and federal stimulus dollars for basic education, plus money for charter-school reimbursements and accountability block grants (many schools use the latter to fund early-childhood education programs.)

When Corbett crafted his first budget in 2011, the stimulus funds were running out. He and the Republican-controlled legislature ended up allocating $5.3 billion for basic education, while slashing other line items, such as accountability block grants - on its face, a nearly $1 billion decrease in money flowing to public schools.

Corbett is technically correct when he asserts that he increased state funding for basic education: that $5.3 billion was slightly more than what Rendell had been giving schools before the stimulus money came into play. And that funding pot has increased slightly every year over the last two years.

Still, few will dispute the cuts were a blow to school districts across the state. Some slashed popular arts, music, and sports programs. Others did away with personnel, including teachers. Many raised taxes locally to make ends meet.

So, while Corbett may be technically correct about his education numbers, many Democrats, educators, and others bristle at the suggestion that he had no other choice. He could, for instance, have forgone business tax cuts in 2011 and instead used that money to soften the financial blow to school districts.

"He claimed his hands were tied, but he tied the knots himself," said Bill Patton, a spokesman for House Democrats, adding that Corbett ran for office on what he believes was an "ill-advised" no-tax pledge.

Added Patton: "He starved Pennsylvania schools and then blamed them for being hungry."


acouloumbis@phillynews.com

717-787-5934

@AngelasInk

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