Wolf visits Chester's STEM High School, promises better state funding for education

By John Kopp, Delaware County Daily Times

Thursday, September 18, 2014

CHESTER — Tom Wolf sat amid a group of 15 Chester Upland students Thursday morning, inquiring about their experience at the school district’s STEM High School.

One student told Wolf she has received a good education, but that Chester Upland could do more with greater financial resources.

“Did the administrators put you up to saying that?” joked Wolf, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate.

Wolf spoke with the students after visiting several classrooms at the school, a magnet school focusing on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. As he walked the hallways, Superintendent Gregory Shannon told Wolf about the financial burden charter schools place on the district. Wolf later met with members of the school board.

Wolf stressed a need for greater investment in public education during an interview with reporters, criticizing the policies of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett. He said the STEM High School was working well despite being within one of the state’s most financially challenged districts.

“What has happened here is much in spite of what is coming out of Harrisburg,” Wolf said. “Chester Upland and this school has apparently done a very good job of working through those challenges and coming up with a solution that actually seems to work.”

Wolf pledged to seek new revenue sources to fund education, including a 5 percent severance tax on Marcellus Shale drillers. He said both a fair funding formula and charter school reform are necessary to improving public education.

“We rely too much on local taxes,” Wolf told the students. “If the local tax base is not strong, that district gets penalized. We can’t do that.”

Chester Upland, which has a weak local tax base, receives the bulk of its funding from the state. The district has increased property taxes in each of the last three years.

Wolf said he would have pursued the same education agenda in 2011, when the state education budget was slashed by about $1 billion. Corbett has repeatedly blamed the cuts on the loss of federal funding, adding that state tax dollars used for education funding have reached record levels under his watch.

Corbett campaign spokesman Billy Pittman said former Gov. Ed Rendell cut state funding for education, instead choosing to infuse one-time federal stimulus funding into the state education budget. He added that Corbett is awaiting the recommendations from a commission examining a new funding formula.

“The governor came in and started to restore that funding,” Pittman said. “He increased it every year. We’re now investing in it more than ever.”

Asked about Corbett’s position on the 2011 education cuts, Wolf said the matter could have been avoided if Corbett held different priorities.

“I’m not arguing where the funds came from,” Wolf said. “I’m not arguing that we went through an economic downturn. ... But you can’t say it’s not my responsibility (or) I didn’t cut funding. He did cut funding.”

Pittman argued Wolf’s sole solution involves increasing taxes.

“All that Tom Wolf seems to want to point to is increasing taxes, whether that’s a special energy tax or increasing the personal income tax of small businesses or middle-class families,” Pittman said. “He won’t address pension reform. He doesn’t want to acknowledge that we have a pension crisis that needs addressed.”

Wolf also said the charter school law needs revamped to provide better accountability and a fair funding formula, noting some charters inflate their funding by unnecessarily designating certain students as special education.

“I’m for good performing charter schools,” Wolf said. “I think everybody is, but we’ve got to fund them fairly.”

Chester Upland officials have listed charter schools as a major reason for the district’s financial struggles, noting the 2011 elimination of charter reimbursements particularly hurt.

The district announced Thursday that enrollment in its schools has increased by 20 percent since Shannon arrived in July 2013. For the first time in years, more Chester Upland students attend district schools than charters.

Wolf finished his day in Chester with an afternoon stop at Widener University and a meet-and-greet with Democratic supporters at the Chester Fine Arts Center.

The Nov. 4 general election is about seven weeks away. Wolf holds a double-digit polling lead, which has changed little since the initial polls following the primary election.