Republicans' debate exposes big differences in school policy

PHILADELPHIA (AP) - Debate questions Tuesday about public school funding in Pennsylvania exposed big differences in how the three candidates for the Republican nomination for governor to challenge Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf would approach or fund public schools.

To a great extent, it appeared that two candidates - Paul Mango and Scott Wagner - would be unwilling to devote more money to public schools, in stark contrast with the third candidate, Laura Ellsworth. Steering children toward alternatives, such as charters, played heavily into their responses, and they clashed in a similar fashion over eliminating school property taxes.

The debate came as a lawsuit working its way through the courts contends that Pennsylvania state government has failed in its school-funding obligation to students, a case that could eventually have a dramatic effect on the shape of public education in the state.

The questions - including one about whether the candidates think Pennsylvania's schools are funded fairly and adequately and how they would improve student success - came at a debate sponsored by the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce.

Mango, a former health care systems consultant from suburban Pittsburgh, said spending more on schools has nothing to do with improving test scores or producing excellent graduates.

"I don't know whether they're fair and adequate, but I know that we're not going to throw any more good money after bad money," Mango told more than 150 people at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

The state, Mango said, must expand alternatives to public schools and make it easier for parents to choose an alternative.

Scott Wagner, a state senator from suburban York who owns the $65 billion waste hauler Penn Waste Inc., said he believes the state spends "enough money" on public schools, while stressing the need for frugality, fewer regulations and more accountability.

"In the last four years, we've put almost $1 billion more into the school system," Wagner said. "Not a nickel has hit the classrooms. It has gone to cover the pension, health care and salary increases that we have seen over the last four years."

Figures from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association show that salary and benefits historically absorb the vast majority of money for classroom instruction.

Wagner also said he would push for students to hear about career opportunities as early as the 4th grade and, later, suggested that he would seek deep concessions in school employees' benefits.

Laura Ellsworth, a commercial litigation attorney from suburban Pittsburgh who once headed the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, said flatly that Pennsylvania's school funding is not fair or adequate.

While she warned against throwing money at problems to solve them, she suggested that making public schools compete for money with public school alternatives, as they've done for seven years, is holding back achievement.

"Right now, we have a system where we are asking school districts to basically slit their wrists and bleed themselves to pay for these alternatives for other children," Ellsworth said. "That makes no sense. We're not incentivizing them to be creative and to deliver learning environments where our children learn. We need to fund alternative education in a more fair and rational way. We cannot starve public school districts either."

A top first-term priority of Wolf's has been pumping money into public schools to reverse budget-balancing cuts under his predecessor, Republican Tom Corbett, that helped lead to teacher layoffs, bigger class sizes and program cuts.

Meanwhile, Wagner and Mango said they support legislation to eventually eliminate school property taxes by raising other state taxes, such as on sales and income.

For Mango, that is an about-face on an issue important to many conservatives. He originally had said he favored letting local tax increases make up for evaporating property tax dollars, instead of state tax increases. He also had criticized the bill for failing to immediately eliminate school property taxes, and warned that raising the state income tax would drive higher earners from the state.

Ellsworth said property taxes need to come down and that they should be frozen for seniors, but not eliminated.

"If we remove all property taxes, we will not adequately fund education, and we will remove local control of education and it needs to stay local," Ellsworth said.

The primary election is May 15. Wolf, who is seeking a second term, is unlikely to have a primary opponent.