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Hot topic in governor’s race: State funds for private tuition

Candidates have less to say about looming budget gaps than about taxpayer-funded vouchers.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

School choice, including taxpayer-funded vouchers for students to attend non-public schools, has dominated the education discussion in the Pennsylvania campaign for governor.

Republican Tom Corbett, the state attorney general, goes further than Democrat Dan Onorato in pushing a choice agenda. He says one of his first priorities as governor would be to direct state funds to alternatives to public school systems – both for charters and for vouchers. He said he would move to structure all state education aid around the idea that “the money follows the child,” including to private and parochial schools.

Onorato, the Allegheny County executive, backs a more limited program of “opportunity grants” for low-income families in underperforming schools.

Both candidates support expansion of a $60 million state program that subsidizes private schools, the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program. EITC gives huge tax breaks to businesses for donating to scholarship organizations.

In general, however, education has hardly been front and center in the campaign, generally receiving scant attention. Neither candidate has a specific response on what might be the biggest education issue confronting the next governor – what he would do next year when most federal stimulus dollars disappear, leaving the state with a $654 million hole in the basic education subsidy.

That gap is piece of a much bigger predicted $5 billion deficit in the 2011-12 state budget.

Yet Corbett has vowed not to raise a single tax if he becomes governor. Onorato has called Corbett’s pledge irresponsible, but he has also limited his revenue-raising options. The Democrat has vowed not to increase the rate for either the personal income tax or the sales tax, which together provide most of the state’s revenue.

Gov. Rendell has criticized the positions of both candidates, saying the media “has done a miserable job” of pushing them to clarify how they plan to deal with the looming budget crisis. He said bluntly that Corbett “needs to have his head examined.”

In an interview with the Notebook, Rendell said that without new revenue, cuts in education and elsewhere would be massive.

“Either we have to raise the [personal income tax] – and remember we have the second lowest PIT in the nation, at 3.07 percent – or we have to get rid of a substantial number of the sales tax exemptions,” he said.

Even Senate President Dominic Pileggi, a Delaware County Republican, has questioned Corbett’s pledge. “It will be an extremely challenging year next year, and … I don’t see how he can do it, frankly,” he said early in the summer.

Corbett declined numerous requests for an interview with the Notebook to discuss education issues, and he also declined to make a spokesperson available.

Onorato did grant an interview.

On raising revenue, unlike Corbett, he said he is a proponent of a severance tax on natural gas extracted from Marcellus Shale.

But, he added, “There are certain taxes that you just can’t raise, like the income tax or the sales tax. The political reality is that the public does not believe Harrisburg is properly using money …. You have to spend what you currently have wisely before you look at additional revenues.” He said he was open to scaling back pensions to bring them in line with “fiscal realities.”

Onorato has come out firmly behind the new education funding formula based on the 2007 “costing-out” study that determined what it would take to adequately educate all the state’s students. It drives dollars to districts based on student needs such as poverty and English-language status.

But he doubts it can be fully funded.

While agreeing with Rendell’s attempts to increase the state share of education spending and reduce the burden on the property tax, he said that “the financial realities prevent that from happening.” He agrees with the adequacy targets for each district identified by the costing-out study and wants to use the formula to drive dollars to school districts “even if we can’t meet the timeline.”

In his position paper on education on his website, Corbett calls the formula “a step in the right direction” because it is based on “individual student needs.”

Still, the Republican’s primary emphasis is on finding ways to send more state dollars directly to parents. According to his position paper, “funding dollars should be unbundled so that decisions can be put in the hands of students and their families. This is especially critical for students in failing schools.”

He also wants to more closely track how districts spend state education dollars and drive more money “directly to the classroom.”

Both men talk about increasing accountability for charter schools. Corbett says he would establish an independent state charter school board to provide greater oversight for charters.

In their emphases and priorities for education, the two candidates do differ in other important ways. Onorato, for instance, would put significant resources into early childhood education, while Corbett hardly mentions it. Corbett wants merit pay for teachers and favors an A-F grading system for schools. Onorato, who has been endorsed by the Pennsylvania State Education Association, does not mention merit pay.

More broadly, Onorato talks about public schools, as well as teachers and their unions, as part of the solution to increasing educational quality. Corbett, on the other hand, constantly emphasizes getting around public school bureaucracies, finding better ways to track how school districts spend money, and putting power and choice in the hands of parents.

School choice became the hot issue during the primary, when several wealthy hedge fund operators gave Democratic State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams $5 million because he enthusiastically promotes private school choice.

Williams has introduced legislation to provide what he calls opportunity scholarships to all students in districts that have at least one failing school. Both candidates say they support the bill, although with some changes neither has specified.

In the Notebook interview, Onorato sought to clarify his position on school choice and stake out how he differs considerably from Corbett on the issue.

“I never said I supported vouchers,” he said. “This is a limited grant program that kids could use if they meet the requirements of being in a low-income family and if they are in a school that is academically challenged. … A limited grant program is not at all like statewide vouchers.”

He conceded that the grants “would definitely be supported by public money,” but that he will do his all to “make sure that these grants don’t hurt public schools.”

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