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Gov. Wolf’s willful blindness stifles education chances: Nathan Benefield

Posted 8/28/19

Gov. Tom Wolf has been touting his “Schools that Teach Tour” since he entered office, and nearly five years later, the tour has visited 167 schools across the state. While impressive at …

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Gov. Wolf’s willful blindness stifles education chances: Nathan Benefield

Gov. Tom Wolf
Gov. Tom Wolf

Gov. Tom Wolf has been touting his “Schools that Teach Tour” since he entered office, and nearly five years later, the tour has visited 167 schools across the state. While impressive at first glance, a closer look shows remarkable bias: Wolf hasn’t visited a single charter school or private school.

By ignoring the 140,000 students attending public charter schools and 240,000 enrolled in private schools, Wolf is treating nearly 25 percent of Pennsylvania students as second-class citizens.

For those familiar with Wolf’s rhetoric on education reform, this comes as no surprise.

In August, Wolf proposed cutting funding for charter schools, capping charter enrollment, and imposing a moratorium on new cyber charter schools, even as tens of thousands sit on charter school waiting lists across the state.

And earlier this summer, Wolf vetoed a bill to increase the Educational Improvement Tax Credit, which funds scholarships for low- and middle-income students to attend private school. The $100 million increase could have helped 50,000 students — the same number of scholarship applicants turned away last year because of program caps.

Wolf isn’t shy about prioritizing some schools over others, admitting his goal is “educating every child through our public school system.” The message for parents choosing charter, private or homeschooling options is loud and clear: You’re doing it wrong.

Yet, young Tom Wolf attended an exclusive private school, which now costs $60,000 per year.

This “do as I say, not as I do” attitude smacks of elitism — especially for students stuck in unsafe or academically struggling school districts.

Wolf’s justifications for his anti-choice stance don’t hold water. He laments the increase in charter school spending but willfully blinds himself to the reason: Parents are choosing charters now more than ever. Meanwhile, charter schools educate students for 20 percent less than school districts.

Wolf used the same dollars-and-cents excuse when vetoing an EITC increase, saying it would cost “a staggering sum.” But the average EITC scholarship is less than $2,000 — a fraction of the $17,500 school districts spend per student. As a result, tax credit scholarships have saved taxpayers $3 to $5 billion since 2002, according to an EdChoice study.

Contrast that with Wolf’s push for more state funding for school districts. Already at a record high $10 billion when he took office, state support for public schools has grown by $2.4 billion since 2015, including a $423 million increase in the latest state budget. All the while, school districts have been hoarding taxpayer money in reserve funds, to the tune of $4.6 billion.

Wolf only pinches pennies when it comes to helping families with school choice. His concerns for “accountability” also only apply to schools not fully under government control.

For example, the Harrisburg School District spends nearly $25,000 per student, but only 8 percent of high schoolers are proficient in math. In Wolf’s hometown of York, only one in three high school students is proficient in math. Philadelphia scores even lower.

Harrisburg schools have been mismanaged for years, but the state-appointed receiver is following Wolf’s lead, blocking any new charter schools while students languish. Penn Hills, Scranton and Pittsburgh also have a track record of mismanagement.

These schools are struggling badly. But instead of holding them accountable, the Wolf administration has strategically reduced the number of standardized tests to avoid the appearance of failure — and rewarded school districts with billions of unaccountable dollars.

In contrast, private and charter schools are accountable to parents, who will choose a different school if their needs are not being met.

So, what’s behind the governor’s opposition to schools of choice? He wants to appease teachers’ union leaders. Unlike most charters and private schools, district schools are unionized. School districts collect campaign contributions for teachers’ union PACs — and they’ve given Wolf $4 million since 2013.

It’s time to ditch the politics and the one-size-fits-all mentality. Ensuring all parents — not just the wealthy — have the option to choose a better school will improve accountability and outcomes across the board.

Families should be empowered to make their own education choices. Then the governor can fulfill his repeated promise that “all children get a quality education regardless of their zip code.”

Nathan Benefield is vice president & COO for the Commonwealth Foundation (, Pennsylvania’s free market think tank.