One candidate for Pennsylvania governor has essentially vowed to dismantle the state’s system for funding public schools. The other says he wants to bolster it and make it more equitable, although he’s also endorsed a school choice initiative that could have a profound impact on Philadelphia.
State Sen. Doug Mastriano, the Republican nominee, has advocated for the elimination of property taxes — a major source of revenue for nearly all of Pennsylvania’s school districts — and supported sending tax revenue directly to parents so they can choose schools for their children.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the Democratic nominee, has called for increased spending on public schools and has written a brief backing plaintiffs in an ongoing lawsuit that seeks to close funding gaps between wealthy and poor districts.
Education is not the issue drawing the spotlight to Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial election. National stories about the race have focused on how Mastriano, who was seen near the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection, would influence Pennsylvania’s voting apparatus. An ally of former President Donald Trump, Mastriano has said he could make “corrections” to elections and “decertify every [voting] machine” through his secretary of state. He’s also drawn scrutiny for his desire to severely limit if not ban all abortions.
But in several ways, the plans from Mastriano and Shapiro demonstrate the deep divide between the two candidates and the two political parties when it comes to the role public schools should and shouldn’t play in education.
Education issues involving curriculum and parental rights that have made waves nationally have also gotten attention in the race. Mastriano has promised “on day one” to restrict what teachers can teach, especially when it comes to race and gender. Shapiro has derided such bans, but does want to put two parents on the state Board of Education to help set policy.
“The stakes couldn’t be higher” for students in Philadelphia and elsewhere, said Isaiah Thomas, the new chair of the City Council’s Education Committee. “Everybody doesn’t believe in a free public education. We couldn’t have two more different candidates in terms of philosophy. They are complete opposites on the direction we should go in and what the future of public education should consist of.”
Mastriano focuses on school choice
Mastriano’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment. But in a March radio interview, Mastriano said instead of the $19,000 that Pennsylvania spends annually per student, the state should eliminate property taxes, cut back that spending to somewhere between $9,000 and $10,000, and give parents vouchers to decide whether to send their children to public or private schools, or to home-school their children.
He’s also put the issue in blunter terms, pledging to “fight like hell” for school choice.
Mastriano’s property tax proposal could have less of an impact on Philadelphia than elsewhere, since city schools are less dependent on local property taxes than many other districts. But the plan, and what it says in general about the GOP candidate, has still provoked alarm in the city.
Donna Cooper, the executive director of the Philadelphia-based advocacy group Children First, said Mastriano “has a track record and a clear policy goal of taking public funds and creating a purely voucher based system that would decimate what we all understand to be public schools.”
She predicted that Mastriano’s proposal would cause class sizes in Philadelphia to balloon, force cuts to teacher salaries, and lead teachers to “leave in droves.”
Those predictions essentially match an analysis of Mastriano’s education plan by the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. Its analysis said his proposals would cost public schools across the state nearly $13 billion annually, double the ratio of students to teachers, and force nearly 119,000 jobs in public schools (49% of all such jobs) to be cut.
Philadelphia is still recovering from a 10% cut in state aid made during the tenure of former GOP Gov. Tom Corbett, Thomas noted.
Shapiro, meanwhile, isn’t escaping scrutiny from everyone who prefers him to Mastriano. Shapiro has backed “the concept” of state legislation that would provide “Lifeline Scholarships” to students attending schools ranked in the bottom 15% based on state math and reading scores.
About 150 of those low-ranking schools are in Philadelphia, and could be significantly disrupted by such scholarships; the district would lose millions of dollars in state aid.
Under the legislation, any school ranked in the bottom 15% would lose one-third of its per-pupil state subsidy, and that money would be given to parents who live in the attendance zones of those low-ranked schools. Parents could use the money for private school tuition or other education-related expenses.
Pennsylvania runs two programs that give tax breaks to corporations that donate money to organizations that provide scholarships to students to attend private schools. One of them is already reserved for students in low-performing schools, while the other is available to all students.
Shapiro has indicated he doesn’t think it’s contradictory to support both the scholarship proposal and broad efforts to bolster school spending; at a September campaign event, he said he supported “fully funding public education.” He said there are “flaws” in the scholarship bill without specifying what they are.
His campaign spokesman, Will Simon, said as governor, Shapiro “would not sign a bill that takes funding away from public schools.”
Shapiro’s scholarship views draw scrutiny
The scholarships have been backed by the conservative Commonwealth Foundation and similar groups in the state. Yet forms of school choice have also found support in Philadelphia among Black Democrats who’ve grown disenchanted with the district, such as former state Rep. Dwight Evans, who is now a member of Congress, and Democratic state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams.
Shapiro’s support for the Lifeline Scholarships might be raising some eyebrows. But it’s not causing key backers like the state teachers union to waver in their support for him.
“We look at the entire candidate,” said Chris Lilienthal, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania State Education Association. “We disagree with him on the Lifeline Scholarships, and we’ve made that clear to him. The bottom line for us is that the attorney general would make an excellent governor for education.”
Cooper, of Children First, said it is “disappointing” that Shapiro supports the lifeline scholarships, which she said are vouchers by another name, and said Shapiro would have to explain his position in more detail if he wins.
Yet she also said the differences between the two candidates are vast, and that Philadelphia schools would fare much better under Shapiro.
Not all of Shapiro’s policies generate that kind of political tension. His campaign website, for example, says he plans to “end our reliance on standardized testing so we can create more time for kids to learn and more flexibility for teachers to teach,” This position largely mirrors that of the state teachers union.
Asked to clarify his position on the tests, which are required under federal law, Shapiro said he would broaden legislation that lets parents opt their students out of standardized tests.
Since he won the Republican primary in May, Mastriano has moderated his public position on school funding at least somewhat. On his campaign website, he says he will “make sure public schools are well funded,” even as he maintains that the property tax itself is “an unfair burden” on homeowners.
And he’s pointed out that he voted for Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget this year, which increased public school funding by $850 million.
‘This plan is so historically extreme’
None of that has tempered the vehement opposition to his campaign from groups like the PSEA, and his plan has also attracted criticism from less likely quarters.
In early September, 70 school board members from across the state signed an open letter opposing Mastriano’s education plans, which they called “dangerously out of touch with the vast majority of Pennsylvania parents.”
The board members who signed the letter, which now number 89, stressed that they were Democrats and Republicans and came from all walks of life.
“I believe as much as possible school board directors should stay out of politics,” said Scott Overland, a board member for the 4,000-student Phoenixville Area school district outside of Philadelphia who worked on the letter. “But this plan is so historically extreme, it’s not just our school districts and schools and teachers and students that will feel the impact. It will have a ripple effect in all communities.”
Eliminating the state property tax will require the approval of the state legislature, and would have profound consequences for Pennsylvania beyond school funding.
But if Mastriano wins the governorship, there are decent odds that his fellow Republicans will simultaneously strengthen their control over the state legislature, where they now control both chambers.
The two candidates are also far apart when it comes to disputes over cultural issues and safety that have wracked school systems and statehouses nationwide.
Mastriano has promised to ban the study of critical race theory and gender theory in Pennsylvania schools, and prevent “biological males” from competing in girls’ sports or using girls’ locker rooms and restrooms.
“I believe schools should teach students how to think, not what to think,” Mastriano’s website says. He has introduced a bill this legislative session that would allow school personnel, including teachers, to be armed.
Shapiro, for his part, said he will work with the legislature to pass a “parental rights” bill guaranteeing complete curriculum transparency, mirroring a trend in several states this year.
In an op-ed published in March, he wrote that two state board of education seats should be reserved for parents because they “deserve to have a real voice in their children’s education.” He also stressed the role parents should play on the board because it adopts education standards “that impact every K-12 student.”
In a TV interview, meanwhile, Shapiro said that Mastriano’s position on restricting classroom content contradicts his stated commitment to freedom, centerpiece of his pitch to voters.
Stating that Mastriano’s anti-abortion stance deprives women of freedom, Shapiro added: “It’s not freedom when they tell our children what books they can read.”
Dale Mezzacappa is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. Contact Dale at email@example.com.