“Today I am talking to you directly,” Governor Tom Wolf said on his pre-recorded, professionally edited video budget address last week. Wolf’s flashy marketing video was about as direct as his proposals for helping Pennsylvania students recover from last year’s crisis. He’s making a show of helping kids while funneling education money to special interests, as he has for the last six years.
Wolf made many statements in his budget address that seemed true on their face. For example: “Far too many parents feel their kids are limited by schools, or their zip code.” As a career education policy analyst, I’ve been saying this for years. How can children find the right educational fit if they are constrained to their zip-code assigned schools?
He even pointed to wasted tax dollars: “Those taxes you pay aren’t getting you nearly enough in return.” After a year of kids being kept home to learn online, I was tempted to raise my hands and exclaim, “Preach!”
But Wolf’s prescriptions to fix these problems were as dubious as his decision to “glamour shot” the budget address. He seeks to balloon funding for school districts whether they remain open or closed, gut Pennsylvania’s charter schools, and clamp down on students’ tax credit scholarships. Essentially, his plan is to follow the marching orders of teachers’ unions.
Wolf is proposing a $1.8 billion increase to public education—a colossal sum that is not tied to any projected learning improvement. It’s just pork for special interests like teachers’ unions, not funding that helps kids.
Is educational opportunity curtailed because of “chronic underfunding” in district schools? Wolf thinks so—and his solution is “fully and fairly funding every public school.” But if more spending is all that’s missing from equitable access to education, why hasn’t that already worked? Nationally, per-pupil K-12 spending has nearly tripled since 1960—after adjusting for inflation. Have we seen commensurate improvements in learning?
And in Pennsylvania, where the school system costs over $18,000 per student, our spending is consistently one of the highest in the country. Utah spends less than half per pupil compared with Pennsylvania, yet Utah students perform similarly or better than Pennsylvania kids at math and reading.
But Wolf is proposing a $1.8 billion increase to public education—a colossal sum that is not tied to any projected learning improvement. It’s just pork for special interests like teachers’ unions, not funding that helps kids—especially in districts where schools are closed.
After all, if money is the barrier to student success, why is Wolf calling to cut $229 million from kids who attend public charter schools—which already receive 27 percent less in funding? Does the governor not care about those kids, many of whom are minorities and low-income students? He seems to have no problem robbing the poor to feed the rich.
Wolf also seeks more “accountability” for Pennsylvania’s tax credit scholarship programs, which help low-income students in failing public schools better afford the transfer to a private school. The governor wants to make it more difficult for private businesses and individuals to donate scholarship money by restricting the nonprofit guidelines.
Not everyone is aware that Pennsylvania’s school choice scholarship programs operate as charities. Wolf seeks to restrict their ability to use these overhead funds, while claiming this will “free up more money” for scholarships. It won’t—it will only stifle the proliferation of student scholarships and reduce their overall success at bringing in charitable dollars to help kids.
This isn’t some well-intentioned, accidental policy blunder. Knowing Wolf’s history of opposing tax credit scholarships—including his controversial veto in 2019—it’s clear he’s purposefully trying to choke off the supply of scholarship money.
Wolf’s crusade against school choice and charter schools is based on a big lie: that if only “the system” had more money, then the neediest kids would get the education of their dreams. But parents deserve the truth: the system is fundamentally broken. Consider, for example, that 43 percent of Pennsylvania school districts are not offering any in-person instruction at all. These decisions are being dictated by teachers’ unions in defiance of all the science from scores of researchers, the CDC, and President Biden’s own Secretary of Health. Kids get locked out of good schools, and trapped in bad ones.
Wolf’s crusade against school choice and charter schools is based on a big lie: that if only ‘the system’ had more money, then the neediest kids would get the education of their dreams.
Parents also deserve true solutions—like expanded tax credit scholarships and charter schools, as well as new proposals like Education Opportunity Accounts and open enrollment for all children. If school districts were forced to compete with other options, “the system” would quickly get its act together.
The fairest way to fund education is to fund kids directly. We’re in the midst of a national emergency, with children bearing the brunt. Pennsylvania lawmakers have a profound opportunity and a moral obligation to help. Bold leadership from the General Assembly has worked—with over 11,000 additional scholarships for kids over the last two years. But 42,000 are still denied access to exceptional schools each year because of government limits.
Students need even more bold leadership—not a fake show of support from the governor. All children deserve an exceptional education. It’s time to unleash the power of parent choice and give them the opportunity to succeed.
Marc LeBlond is Senior Education Policy Analyst at the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank.