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With first debate looming, Wolf, Wagner trade barbs over education

Written by Avi Wolfman-Arent/Keystone Crossroads | Oct 1, 2018 6:24 PM
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Gov. Tom Wolf (left) and Scott Wagner (Emma Lee/WHYY)

As they prepare for their first and only scheduled debate, Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidates Tom Wolf and Scott Wagner continue to trade barbs over education policy.

Wolf has hit Wagner twice in recent weeks, first by connecting the former state senator to lightning-rod U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

The Wagner-DeVos connection comes through a $1 million donation to Wagner's campaign by Students First PAC.  Students First, Wagner's most generouscontributor over the summer, has a long history of supporting candidates who favor school-choice measures such as charter schools and vouchers. The PAC is a partner organization of the American Federation for Children, a school-choice organization once chaired by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

DeVos's cabinet nomination drew fierce opposition, particularly from teachers' unions, a key Democratic constituency. Soon after the most recent campaign filings, Wolf's camp seized on the DeVos connection in a press release about "DeVos's dark money group."

Wolf's team also blasted Wagner last week for comments suggesting some of Pennsylvania's 500 school districts should consolidate.

Wagner's team meanwhile continues to hammer Wolf over what they see as unclear statements on state funding for schools.

Wolf says he wants to route all state education money through the fair funding formula that became law in 2016. If the state were to do that today, many rural districts would be hurt. So Wolf says he'd only do it when there's enough overall money to make sure no districts get cut.

But that would require billions in new revenue, and Wolf hasn't given any specifics during this campaign about the increases he would seek.

And that lack of clarity has given Wagner's team an opening for attack.

"He knows he's going to need to raise billions in taxes," said Andrew Romeo, spokesperson for the Wagner campaign. "He just doesn't want to tell the people of Pennsylvania that."

There's truth and conjecture in each of these accusations. So let's thumb through each of them.

Students First

Students First is a familiar name in Pennsylvania politics.

The PAC's primary backers are the co-founders of Susquehanna International Group, a global trading firm. They've given money to state legislators, gubernatorial candidates, and members of Philadelphia's City Council. Recipients include Republicans and Democrats. The commonality is a commitment to school choice initiatives, which it spells out clearly on its website.

In the most recent reporting period, Students First's only contributions came from Susquehanna International co-founder Jeff Yass, who donated $3 million.

During that same period, which stretches back to June 5th, Students First gave two $1 million donations: one to Scott Wagner's campaign and another one to Commonwealth Leaders Fund, a conservative PAC based in Montgomery County.

It also gave money to a smattering of state legislators and candidates, including: Rep. Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia), Republican State Senate candidate Stewart Greenleaf Jr., Rep. Margo Davidson (D-Delaware), and Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams (D-Philadelphia).

On the topic of school choice, there's clear ideological alignment between Students First and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Joel Greenberg, a co-founder of Susquehanna International Group and Students First, served on the board of American Federation for Children while DeVos was its chair. Greenberg and fellow Susquehanna International co-founder Arthur Dantchik have given Students First $20,000 each this year.

In a press release, Beth Melena, communications director for Tom Wolf for Governor, said "Betsy DeVos is funding Wagner's campaign because they share the same anti-education policies that would take Pennsylvania backward."

The idea that DeVos is funding Wagner is not exactly true. Although DeVos has connections to Students First PAC, she's not personally given them any money, according to online campaign records dating back to 2010.

In 2011, American Federation for Children did donate $220,000 to Students First. The year prior, the group gave Students First another $1.2 million. DeVos served as board chair during those years.

Marc Stier, executive director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, a progressive think tank, says there's clear overlap between DeVos and Wagner.

"There's an ideological movement to replace public schools with private schools," said Stier. "It's a real movement to end what some of them call government schools."

Wagner has made no secret of his support for school choice. Although Romeo, his spokesperson, did not speak directly to the connection between DeVos and Students First, he also didn't downplay the donation.

"Scott is happy to take donations from anybody that supports his overall agenda," Romeo said.

Will the donations help Wagner, who trails Wolf significantly in fundraising?

State Senator Anthony Hardy Williams is uniquely qualified to answer that question.

Susquehanna International Group's co-founders donated millions to Williams when he ran unsuccessfully as a Democratic candidate for governor of Pennsylvania and mayor of Philadelphia. And various news reports highlightedthe connection between Williams' campaign and school reformers, not always in the most flattering light.

Williams considers the major backers of Students First his friends, and said he isn't a fan of the Wolf campaign drawing links between the PAC and DeVos.

"I don't think any of it has anything to do with Betsy DeVos and whatever her national agenda is," Williams said. "I think that would be an exaggeration, if not a misrepresentation."

He understands, though, there's a "political advantage to be played" by linking Wagner to the Trump administration. Trump's popularity appears to have dipped in Pennsylvania since his election, according to polls.

Although Williams may not like the campaign rhetoric around Students First, he reiterated that he's "fully supportive of Tom Wolf" and applauds the governor's work on education funding.

Wolf's education funding confusion

Education funding has been a pillar of Wolf's first term. The governor has stumped hard for extra school dollars and secured an extra $659 million in basic and special education funding since arriving in Harrisburg.

There's been a lack of concrete detail, though, about Wolf's plans for the next four years.

In late June, Wolf said at a press conference he favored sending all of the state's basic education dollars through a fair funding formula that he signed into law in 2016. The formula is supposed to iron out old inequities and generally favors urban, suburban, and growing school districts.

Right now, the state only puts new increases in education aid through the formula, which some argue is too conservative an approach. Sending all money through the formula, though, as Wolf seemingly proposed, could lead to cuts at shrinking, largely rural areas.

Wagner quickly recast Wolf's comments to suggest that he favors urban areas over rural ones, even launching an ad to that effect.

Wolf then clarified his initial statement to say he'd like to distribute all education money using the formula, but only if there's enough dollars to ensure no district gets cut. It's hard to know exactly what the proposal would look like, but any plan meeting both of those criteria would require a lot of new revenue.

Marc Stier, typically a Wolf ally, admits the governor's statements don't jibe well with one another.

"I think the governor basically misspoke," said Stier. "You can't run all the money through the formula and maintain hold harmless."

When Keystone Crossroads approached the Wolf campaign about the issue, spokespeople denied requests for comment and referred to prior statements on the matter.

When asked for specifics at a recent event how he planned to raise enough money to send all dollars through the formula while holding all districts harmless, the governor dodged.

"The idea is that we ought to be making sure schools get funds in proportion to their needs," Wolf said. "Since I've been governor, all the new money that has gone out has gone out according to the fair funding formula and I'd like to see that continue."

Wagner's campaign has also hammered Wolf for not releasing an education plan, as Wagner did this summer. The Wagner plan called for $1 billion in new education funding without raising taxes. Wolf called the idea "abracadabra math," and even those who said the idea was fiscally possible doubted if it could be done politically.

District mergers

Early in the Summer, Wagner tried to paint Wolf as a foe of rural school districts. Now, Wolf's campaign is attempting to turn the tables.

Pennsylvania has 500 school districts, and some advocates think these boundaries drive inequity and raise costs.

While visiting a rural Pennsylvania community this month, Wagner sounded warm to the idea of district mergers.

"There's been a lot of talk about school consolidation," Wagner said, according to transcript provided by his campaign. "And maybe there are some districts that want to do consolidation. I don't think Harrisburg needs to dictate that. But I think people are now starting to realize that we have way too many schools in an area. We have to start having some honest conversations, but we also have to move fast."

An article on Wagner's comments in the Bradford Era added that Wagner wanted a representative of his administration to visit schools in every county and conduct assessments.

After Wagner made those comments, Wolf's campaign issued a release saying Wagner "announced his new plan to close down schools."

No such plan exists, said Romeo. He drew attention to Wagner saying that Harrisburg shouldn't require consolidation. Only nine states have given themselves the power to force local school-district merges, according to a recent report. Pennsylvania isn't one them.

Will any of this matter?

That the candidates have sparred repeatedly over education issues should come as no surprise.

A recent Muhlenberg College/Morning Call poll showed that voters see education as the second-most important topic in the governor's race. But it was a distant second to the economy, and, despite its relative prominence, only 12 percent of those polled ranked education as the primary issue in determining how they'd vote.

That same poll also showed Wolf with a comfortable, 55-percent-to-36-percent lead over Wagner. Even with all the talk around education, those numbers haven't budged much over the summer.

Only one poll seemed to suggest a tightening race, and it was conducted by the conservative Commonwealth Leaders Fund.

Among the groups that have given money to Commonwealth Leaders Fund?

Students First PAC.

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