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Politics & Government

Education the Focus of PA Governor Debate

Mark Nootbaar
90.5 WESA

Being “pro-recess” earned businessman and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf the biggest laugh of the night, but it was PA Treasurer Rob McCord, who is also running in the May 20 primary, who picked up the widest applause when he stepped to the microphone in Tuesday’s debate and simply said, “I’d kill ‘em” to the question of what each candidate would do with the high-stakes Keystone Exams.

Joining McCord and Wolf on the stage at the Obama Academy in East Liberty for a debate focused solely on education were former PA Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Katie McGinty and Philadelphia Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz. 

Each of the candidates answered the same questions, which ranged from their stance on free lunches and recess, to funding formulas and standardized testing. 

Each of the candidates was quick to throw stones and Gov. Tom Corbett for what they felt was inadequate funding of public education at all levels. They were asked specifically how they would pay for that higher funding.

“Are we going to elect a governor who will force the drilling, fracking, industry to pay its full fair share so that we can fund public education?” asked McCord. “I am the only one running for governor who has proposed a 10 percent drillers tax.”

McGinty is also hoping to tax gas production, and she tried to differentiate herself from the other candidates saying that she would send all of the shale gas tax revenues to education.

“Not for infrastructure, not for the million other priorities,” she said. “We are going to need to build a political consensus to get it done. Unless you dedicate penny for penny and say it’s for education, you can’t build those troops.”

Schwartz told the crowd she was moved to get into the race because she saw a need for more education funding in Pennsylvania, and she is making that her campaign’s top priority, like she did when she was a state representative.

“I was Democratic Chair of the Education committee and I fought for full-day kindergarten, I fought to make sure all of our schools, all of our children, had a fair, quality education,” Schwartz said. “That’s what I’m going to do as governor, and you can count on it.”

Wolf was the last to field the question. He said he would increase funding through three means: a shift of funding away from failing charter schools, the creation of a 5 percent severance tax on shale gas production and a move away from such a heavy reliance on property taxes for school funding.

Charter schools suffered some slings and arrows throughout the night. Wolf gave praise for the charter schools in the state that were working. However, he said the state does not adequately holding charter schools accountable, and he feared that cyber charter schools were not being held accountable at all. 

McCord said he wants to “mend don’t end” the charters. 

“We need to make sure that when we are funding innovation we have real transparency and accountability and make sure we are not balancing the books on the backs of the poor children who are left behind in public schools,” McCord said.

“I’ll stand for those charters that are delivering for our kids,” McGinty said. “If and only if we are talking about a fair and transparent, accurate funding formula. I will not send a single taxpayer dollar to a for-profit operated charter.”

Schwartz called charter schools a “financial burden” on the public school system and then went on to single out cyber charter schools. 

“I would not let any taxpayer dollars go to cyber charters and use that $336 million for our public schools,” said Schwartz, who also wants to have more accountability for charter schools and the closure of those that “are not working.”

Teacher evaluations, school safety and vouchers were also up for debate. An hour-long version of the debate will be aired at 10 p.m. Thursday on 90.5 FM WESA.

High stakes testing was a thread that ran through several of the questions, which were posed by a panel of education experts including a high school student. McCord worried that high school students are already “being tested almost to death.” 

“So whatever the core curriculum is we need to involve the education support professionals, the educators and the parents to have a reasonable approach instead of constantly forcing people to march to the drummer of the testing industry,” said McCord.

McGinty is calling for a time out when it comes to implementing Common Core. 

“There are so many things that had good ideas and intentions behind them but we have piled on and piled on and piled on … and so the solution now is another test and another rigid set of expectations,” McGinty said.

Schwartz said she would keep the Common Core effort moving forward. She opined that it is dangerous to constantly change what is expected of teachers and students, and while it is always “nerve-wracking” to start something new, “a lot of thought has gone into this.”

For his part, Wolf took a broader approach. He said it is time to stop teaching to the test and confusing accountability and test scores. 

“We need to get away from the top down model of Common Core,” said Wolf, who would rather find out from teachers what they think the system needs to succeed.