"If we put less weight on state tests, how should we assess student progress?" she asked. "What would you recommend?"
McGinty, 50, is known as an environmentalist. A former adviser to President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, she served as head of the state Department of Environmental Protection from 2003 through 2008. But since deciding to seek the state's highest office, the first-time candidate has sought to show she is equally comfortable discussing education, health care, and jobs.
Campaigning has given McGinty chances to tout her 25 years of experience in government and to display the charm that makes even critics speak well of her.
But as the May 20 primary nears, McGinty must separate herself from a pack of Democrats that includes businessman Tom Wolf, who, polls suggest, leads the field; state Treasurer Rob McCord; and U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz.
A Franklin and Marshall College poll this month placed McGinty last, with just 4 percent of registered Democrats. And though she said she had raised more than $3 million, she has been far outspent.
In an interview, McGinty said her passion for her home state motivated her to run. "I saw the gains accomplished under Rendell slipping away, and it made me energized and determined," she said.
She acknowledged she brings less name recognition and political experience to the table than her competitors but argued that some voters see that as an asset.
"People are tired of political gridlock," she said. "So when I step forward with a long track record of reaching across the aisle, people appreciate that."
Charlie Gerow, a Harrisburg GOP consultant, said he rarely agreed with McGinty but respected her intelligence and drive.
"I would probably never vote for her, but I think very highly of her," he said. "It's a steep hill that she's climbing, and I believe she has impressed people."
But, Gerow added, "in politics, timing is everything. And this probably wasn't the best year for her to run."
Tall and high-energy, McGinty wears brightly colored suits and shiny jewelry. A native of Northeast Philadelphia, she lives in Wayne, Chester County, with her husband, Karl Hausker, a former deputy assistant administrator for policy at the EPA, and their three daughters.
Her upbringing was quintessentially Philadelphian: the daughter of a city policeman and a mother who worked nights as a restaurant hostess, McGinty is one of 10 children. Valedictorian at St. Hubert's High School, she earned scholarships to study chemistry at St. Joseph's University and law at Columbia University.
A fellowship landed her in the office of then-senator Gore, where she worked on the reauthorization of the Clean Air Act. She became his adviser, and then Clinton's director of environmental policy.
McGinty was the first woman to serve as chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and she worked on legislation for safe drinking water and food safety. Clinton and Gore remain strong mentors.
"Al Gore taught me that if you care enough about the details and the substance of something, you can eventually find common ground," she said. "It's when you approach something from a superficial angle that the differences between people emerge."
In 2003, then-Gov. Ed Rendell tapped her to lead the state DEP, where she worked to cut emissions and pushed to create incentives for clean-energy companies.
Her career has not been without bumps. In 2007, she was the subject of a state Ethics Commission review over whether she steered state grants to a firm where her husband worked as a consultant. The commission concluded McGinty could be subject to violations if she continued overseeing the grant process. She said she would abide by the ruling.
She also butted heads with conservatives, most notably former State Sen. Mary Jo White (R., Venango), who chaired the Senate Environment Committee and tried to block her nomination.
Patrick Henderson, White's former chief of staff who now serves as Corbett's top energy adviser, said McGinty worked with White on some issues but was inflexible on others. One of those was in 2006, when McGinty proposed the state adopt regulations that would have held mercury emissions from Pennsylvania's coal-fired power plants to a stricter standard than those set by the federal government.
McGinty said the federal law was inadequate. Opponents feared the compliance costs would force small companies out of business and drive up energy prices.
Henderson said McGinty and her supporters struck a contentious tone as they sought support for the plan, and that opponents suspected the proposal would not withstand a legal challenge.
"Every opportunity we had to find common ground, she resisted," Henderson said. "It reinforced the notion to us that this was always about trying to advance a political agenda rather than an environmental one."
At the time, McGinty declined to comment on the dispute, saying only that she tried to balance environmental and business interests. And she won the fight over mercury emissions.
But it was no surprise to Henderson that after a power company challenged the regulations, the state Supreme Court invalidated them in late 2009.
Others said McGinty was willing to make concessions for results. She supports taxing natural gas drilling, with the proceeds going to education, although she won't say how much the companies should pay.
"Some politicians strive for perfection, and that marginalizes them," said State Rep. Greg Vitali (Delaware County), ranking Democrat on the Environmental Resources and Energy Committee. "Politicians like her have a sense of what they can get, and how to sell it."
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., nephew of the late president, has known McGinty for more than two decades. "She understands that sound environmental policy is sound economic policy," Kennedy, an environmental lawyer, said as he accompanied her in Scranton. "And she understands that to cause injury to the environment for profit is deficit spending."
To the teachers who approached McGinty that day, her strengths were her sympathetic ear and her willingness to speak against Corbett's education cuts.
"I think she's here to stand up for education," said special-education teacher Angela Brigido, "and that is meaningful."
Family: Husband, Karl Hausker. Daughters Alana, 14; Tara, 14; Allie, 12.
Education: B.S., chemistry, St. Joseph's University (1985); J.D., Columbia University Law School (1988).
Occupation: Operating partner for Element Partners, a clean-technology investment firm.
Background: chairwoman, White House Council on Environmental Quality (1993-98); secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection (2003-08); senior vice president, Weston Solutions environmental engineering firm (2010-13).
Schedule of Profiles
Rob McCord, Pennsylvania state treasurer.
Tom Wolf, former secretary of the Pennsylvania