By Andrew Staub | PA Independent
HARRISBURG, Pa. — Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley must have broken out his thesaurus Monday morning, considering he found several ways to denounce a recent political ad that accuses Republican Gov. Tom Corbett of slashing almost $1 billion in education funding.
“Here we are one, hopefully, last time to dispel an inaccuracy, a factual untruth, what we called growing up in Levittown — forgive me, guys — a damned lie,” Cawley said, joining state Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York, and David Taylor, executive director of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association, to blast the ad.
PA Families First, a Super PAC backed by the Democratic Governors Association and public-sector unions, began airing the commercial last week. It features a woman, identified as a parent, decrying cuts in schools.
“Tom Corbett does not understand the effect it has on children,” said the woman in the ad.
A spokesman for PA Families First couldn’t be reached for comment, but the commercial further fueled a long-running debate over whether Corbett cut $1 billion in education funding. The issue has dogged him most of his first term, but it’s been amplified this year as the governor fights an uphill battle for re-election against Democratic nominee Tom Wolf.
Sorting out the truth over education funding isn’t exactly a cut-and-dried process. That’s because each side has measured it in different ways. The inclusion of pension costs in some funding figures and the federal stimulus funding that pumped up education spending for two years before expiring has also distorted the picture.
That year, the state spent $5.4 billion on its basic education subsidy, a $421.5 million decrease from the previous year, when the state contributed only $4.7 billion but plowed more than $1 billion of stimulus funds into the subsidy, according to budget documents.
Cuts followed the loss of the federal funding. All told, major education programs saw a cut of about $863 million in the 2011-12 budget, according to an analysis from the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center. Whether it was federal or state dollars, schools lost funding as a result of the cuts, said Michael Wood, the center’s research director.
“It’s really hard to deny that schools received less money one way or the other,” he said.
While trying to dispel the issue of cuts, Cawley came armed with his own chart that outlined state education spending since 2008-09.
REFER TO THE CHART: Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley points to a chart detailing education spending under Gov. Tom Corbett. The incumbent has been trying to dispel the narrative that he cut $1 billion from schools.
Under Corbett’s first budget, total state funding for education reached almost $9.1 billion, an increase from the $8.6 billion — stimulus money not included — that the state contributed in Rendell’s final budget, according to the chart.
The chart also indicated the state’s overall contribution to public education surpassed $10 billion in the current budget, which Taylor called “the most money in the history of ever.”
Those figures also included pension obligations, a cost Democratic lawmakers usually don’t include when evaluating the state’s education spending. Instead, they look at spending that directly impacts the classroom, meaning they cite a lower number than Republicans.
During the final year in which stimulus funds were in play, Pennsylvania spent $6.3 billion on total classroom funding, according to figures cited by Democrats. That figure dropped to $5.5 billion in Corbett’s first year and reached $5.6 billion in the just-completed 2013-14 fiscal year.
The variety of calculations has muddled the story about education funding under Corbett. But no matter how it’s sliced, school funding has solidified itself as the central issue in the upcoming election. The most recent Franklin & Marshall College Poll found that 23 percent of voters consider education and schools the most important issue facing the state.
G. Terry Madonna, a pollster at Franklin & Marshall, said while Corbett’s education spending numbers might be accurate, his administration has spent more than three years trying to combat criticism over education cuts to no avail. Most voters — who have seen their property taxes increase, their children’s teachers laid off and school programs axed — believe Corbett cut education funding, Madonna said.
“I’m not saying the governor’s people are right or wrong. I’m merely saying, politically, they’ve lost the narrative with the voters,” he said.
Corbett, who trailed Wolf by 22 points in the poll, has about three-and-a-half months to reverse the storyline. His Democratic opponent probably won’t make that easy.
Jeff Sheridan, a Wolf campaign spokesman, took aim at Corbett on education funding after Cawley’s press conference.
“Governor Corbett has decimated our schools. He cut $1 billion dollars from education, which has led to rising property taxes, 20,000 layoffs, increased class sizes and the elimination of valuable programs,” Sheridan said in a statement. “His record is indefensible, and today was nothing more than a political stunt designed to distract from Governor Corbett’s failed leadership.”
Corbett’s camp might get louder, too, after Cawley said he thought the administration was “so busy doing our job that we haven’t always taken time to effectively explain what it is that we were doing.”
Monday’s comments meant to correct the record after PA Families First began airing its ad, Cawley said. He criticized the public-sector unions that back the Super PAC, both financially when it comes to political contributions and rhetorically when it comes to the issue of education funding.
“For three-and-a-half years, they have lied through their teeth,” Cawley said. “And shame on us for not being louder calling it exactly what it is: a damned lie.”
Staub can be reached at Andrew@PAIndependent.com. Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.