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Tom Wolf needs to hit the ground running

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

Tom Wolf won the governor’s race because he made this election about education and he aggressively challenged Tom Corbett’s budget austerity narrative. Wolf put forward bold proposals for funding schools, including taxing shale, closing corporate loopholes, and creating a progressive state income tax.

A landslide vote, running against a strong Republican tide nationally and in local legislative races, allows him to claim a mandate for moving ahead on this agenda.

But it won’t be easy. The legislature, both House and Senate, is dominated by conservative Republicans. And the state faces a massive deficit, thanks to the budget passed this year by the Corbett team, which plugged the fiscal holes with lots of one-time gimmicks.

A chorus of pundits are saying that this will require compromise on Wolf’s part. This is undoubtedly true, but what Wolf must do is strengthen his position at the bargaining table by reaching out and mobilizing the millions of Pennsylvanians across the state who want decent education and fear the impact of spiraling property taxes in their communities.

Wolf should use the first 100 days to establish himself as the education governor by going to the people with a message that, because of cuts to schools and warped priorities in Harrisburg, we face a grave crisis that threatens the future of the state. Funding is the first priority, but he also needs to promote an alternative to the market-based version of school reform that is undermining public education.

The 100-day agenda could be:

• Get the legislature to pass a 5 percent extraction tax on Marcellus Shale, close corporate loopholes, and scale back prison construction.

• Propose an equitable funding formula that ensures funding for quality schools in all communities in our state.

• Declare his support for a moratorium on charter school expansion until legislation to check waste, fraud, and abuse in this sector is adopted and implemented.

• Appoint a secretary of education who is committed to developing community schools that engage parents and neighborhoods as partners, creating engaging curricula, and using restorative justice over punitive, zero-tolerance policies.

To realize these goals will require mobilizing the education base to overcome the recalcitrance of many of the GOP legislators. However, because the alternative to new funding is either more cuts or higher property taxes, a coalition that includes a significant number of Republicans around funding is possible.

Sticking to business as usual would squander the opportunity that the first 100 days present. The governor-elect needs to go on a listening tour of the state to hear from people about their schools and let them know his plan for fixing them. He could call a summit of state leaders to dramatize that we face a serious crisis and help forge consensus around his school funding initiatives.

Critical to success is that education advocates continue to mobilize and play an active role in the shaping of the Wolf administration and its policies. We must push Wolf to follow through on his campaign promises while simultaneously supporting him by lobbying and staying in the streets. We know what happens when an aroused electorate thinks the job is done once the polls close.