Senator Scott Wagner (R-York) is sick of what he calls the myth of underfunded schools in Pennsylvania.
He so wanted to make his point that he chartered a helicopter and flew us over a few of the Midstate’s larger school districts.
We began at 1,600 feet over the sprawling academic and athletic complex that is Cumberland Valley.
“This is not a decimated school district,” Wagner said forcefully over the radio headphones. “It was a line used in a campaign to get Governor Wolf elected. It’s totally untrue.”
The helicopter turned south and next hovered over York’s Northeastern School District, Wolf’s home district.
“This is not representative of a decimated school district,” Wagner said again.
The final stop was nearby Central York, in Wagner’s senatorial district.
“This looks like a college or university campus if you look at the sports fields. And they have tennis courts down there.”
Wagner’s bottom line to the hour and a half flight?
“We spend a lot of money on schools.”
Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan dismissed the helicopter trip as a political stunt.
“Senator Wagner should get out of the helicopter and go visit a school,” Sheridan said.
For the record, Wagner says he’s been to every single school in his district. Sheridan said every one of them has had funding cut over the past four years.
Sheridan further insists that schools across Pennsylvania increased class sizes, laid off teachers, raised property taxes or a combination of all three because of cuts under former Governor Tom Corbett.
“Nobody has said that every school district across the state was devastated,” Sheridan said. “But we’ve said, and maintain, and stand by that school districts across the state are struggling.”
The numbers show that Sheridan is right and Wagner is right.
Pennsylvania does spend a lot of money on public schools, $26.5 billion in all.
Pennsylvania is 11th in the nation in terms of spending per pupil, at $15,061. The national average is a little more than $10,000 per student.
“In total dollars we’re spending per student, I think we’re good. So, this isn’t a matter of needing more money for our schools,” said Senator Lloyd Smucker (R-Lancaster) who chairs the Senate Education Committee.
But Smucker says the state’s funding formula is deeply flawed and needs to be fixed. Pennsylvania is one of the worst states in the nation in terms of the discrepancy in spending between rich and poor districts.
It’s also well below the national average when it comes to state dollars funding public education. The state portion of the overall education pie is only 36 percent. Local property taxpayers shoulder more than half the burden at 55 percent.
“If we would increase the state’s share there would be less reliance on property tax,” Smucker said.
That’s part of Wolf’s plan. Smucker says he’ll listen. It will be a tougher sell for a certain senator who is fond of helicopters.
“Governor Wolf wants to dump another billion dollars into the school districts,” Wagner said. “Honestly, if I had to vote on that today I believe my vote would be no. I don’t believe the schools need a billion dollars.”
School funding will be a hot topic as budget negotiations heat up. Smucker is on a commission that’s investigating the state’s school funding formula. It’s recommendations are expected June 10 and Smucker hopes they will be implemented with this year’s budget.
Wagner paid for the helicopter flight. No taxpayer money was used.