Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley wants to correct the record on “a damned lie” about his boss’ record on education spending, acknowledging such a frank pushback should have occurred three years ago.
But the administration was “so busy doing our job” it didn’t, he said. The failure to make a full-throated rebuttal to claims that Corbett initiated massive cuts to public education has been a source of frustration among the governor’s allies and continues to act as a millstone with fewer than 100 days to the general election. Polls show voters consider education a top priority and give Corbett poor marks on the issue.
“For three and a half years they have lied through their teeth and shame on us for not being louder in calling it exactly what it is – a damned lie,” Cawley said during a press conference at the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association headquarters near the Capitol.
“I think I like to believe we were as clear about the truth as we needed to be,” Cawley said later. “But I think so often in our administration, we’ve been so busy doing our job that we haven’t always taken time to effectively explain what it is we are doing.”
The warring parties fundamentally disagree over what constitutes spending for public education: Democrats and teachers unions don’t believe public school employee pensions payments should be counted as public education spending; the Corbett administration and allies do.
“To say it can’t be counted or shouldn’t be counted is just factually inaccurate,” Cawley said.
Gov. Ed Rendell’s final budget in fiscal year 2010-11 contained $8.6 billion in state spending for public education, although nearly $655 million in federal stimulus funds were also used for basic education funding. An additional $388 million in federal stimulus Education Jobs Bill funding was later added by the Corbett administration to replace general funds spent on K-12 basic education state subsidies in 2011, pushing the federal support used for basic education above $1 billion in 2010-11.
However, there was an another more than $600 million in spending used by schools in the 2010-11 budget for items like full-day kindergarten, charter school tuition reimbursement and tutoring funding – items the Corbett administration has said was temporary funding – which Corbett cut in his first budget. But Corbett also notes that in his first budget, he had to add more than $300 million in new education spending to cover the pensions for public school employees (a year earlier, in 2010-11, the state contributed a total of $287.6 million to school employee pensions).
Corbett’s 2014-15 state budget contains more than $10 billion – including pension funding – for the support of the state’s public schools, an increase of approximately $1.5 billion (much of which is due to the state’s increased school employee pension contributions) since Corbett took office.
“The Corbett administration is insisting on an apples to oranges comparison. No previous administration cited pension funding in order to boost their claims about K-12 funding,” said Wythe Keever, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), the state’s largest teachers union. “Instead of name-calling, Lt. Gov. Cawley should simply acknowledge what Pennsylvanians already know: Gov. Corbett has not made education funding his top priority. The governor chose corporate tax breaks ahead of students.”
While the National Education Association – the PSEA’s parent organization – uses a different way of calculating public school spending (which includes pension payments) than PSEA, it’s latest calculation for Pennsylvania spending (in 2012-13) shows the state’s per pupil spending ($7,253.53), well ahead of the national average ($5,650.72) and more than the state spent during the last few years of the Rendell administration, even the stimulus-enhanced spending of 2010-11 ($6,673.04). And the Corbett administration has added to that state spending since then.
Cawley said he believes voters are “always interested in the truth.” But by not aggressively pushing back, their explanation appears not to have made an impact on the views of many voters. A Franklin & Marshall College poll from late June shows voters pick education and schools as the top issue of the election and it’s also the top issue for voters who disapprove of Corbett’s job performance.
“What I think a lot of citizens of the commonwealth believe out there is this lie, that this $1 billion was eliminated and that we’ve never addressed it and never addressed it since and it was all an autonomous decision by Gov. Tom Corbett. Nothing can be further from the truth on a whole host of levels in that accusation,” he said.
Cawley said some school districts have experienced layoffs and adjustments, while some haven’t seen anything at all. It has also been reported that 97 percent of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts have “reserve-fund” balances currently totaling $4.27 billion, which is $690 million more than they had last year.
“So the truth of the matter is, when it comes to public education, we rely a great deal on local leadership of the 500 school districts to make decisions that are in the best interest of the people within their communities,” he said. “As far as any specific, regarding any specific school district, I think the question would be best left to them to answer.”
–Kevin Zwick, Staff Reporter for Capitolwire.