70 Pennsylvania school board members have signed letter against Mastriano’s public education plan

Oona Goodin-Smith
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

PHILADELPHIA — Dozens of public school board members across the commonwealth have signed an open letter addressed to Pennsylvania voters and families cautioning against the threat they say Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano poses to public education funding.

The letter — which as of Friday morning had amassed 70 signatures from both Democrat and Republican elected public school board members in 26 districts — calls Mastriano’s financial plan “dangerously out of touch with the majority of Pennsylvania families” and asserts that the state senator, if elected, has pledged to cut more than 50% of state funding for schools.

That number comes from a March radio interview with WRTA in Blair County, where Mastriano proposed cutting per-pupil funding in the state from $19,000 to around $9,000 per student, telling the host the money would also be diverted: “Instead of funding a school system, the money should go to students.”

More:York County could lose nearly 4K teachers under Mastriano's plan: PSEA

More:Josh Shapiro, in $16.9M ad blitz, declares Doug Mastriano 'too risky for Pa.'

More:More Republicans back Josh Shapiro for Pennsylvania governor

Former president Donald Trump, on left, listening to Doug Mastriano, PA gubernatorial candidate, on right, speaking at the Save America rally at the Mohegan Sun Casey Arena in Wilkes-Barre, P.A. on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022.

Students and parents, Mastriano said in the interview, could then decide whether they attend public, private, charter or home school.

Mastriano, a staunch school-choice advocate, has since slammed critics of that suggestion, with his campaign saying “that’s not his plan.” He now vows to “fully fund schools and teachers, protect students and empower parents.”

His campaign site lays out a few specifics around his school funding proposals — including establishing controversial Education Opportunity Accounts for parents, and expanding Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) programs that give tax breaks to businesses that provide scholarships to private schools, but doesn’t include parameters on per-pupil dollar amounts or plans for public schools.

'Obligation to do something': Scott Overland, vice president of the Phoenixville Area School Board in Chester County, said he spearheaded the open letter effort last week, reaching out to local public school board members across the state, out of “an obligation to do something.”

Overland said he received an overwhelming response, with school board members still being asked to be added as signatories. The letter includes signatures from a handful of board members from the greater Philadelphia area, including Upper Darby, Pottstown, Norristown, Upper Dublin, West Chester, North Penn and Downingtown schools.

“This is something that will impact all of our communities across Pennsylvania in such a serious way that we need to do whatever we can, as the stewards of the public education system, as school board directors, to make sure people are aware that this is a real threat,” said Overland, whose daughter is in first grade in the district. He was elected to the Phoenixville Area board on both the Democrat and Republican tickets last year.

The letter endorses Democratic candidate Josh Shapiro, calling him “a candidate who believes education is central to a bright future.”

“It’s not political, it’s about real impact in our communities,” Overland said.

Worried about cuts: Damien Christopher Warsavage, a member of the Upper Darby School District school board since 2019, said that he signed the letter not only as a board member but as a former student in the district who saw the effects of funding cuts to public school art programs firsthand.

Warsavage, who was elected on a nonpartisan ticket, said he worries funding cuts to public schools will make “the educational experience a commodity that the private sector ... should be making money off of.”

“That’s not why any of us is in this business,” Warsavage said. “Our kids will remember this.”

Criticism from union: The school board members’ letter comes on the heels of additional criticism by the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the commonwealth’s largest teacher’s union, which in August called Mastriano’s plan “completely irresponsible.”

The PSEA released an analysis — filling in some details based on the limited information provided by Mastriano’s campaign about his education funding plans — predicting a $12.75 billion funding cut that would lead to the loss of tens of thousands of jobs across the state.

The analysis also noted that Mastriano has repeatedly called to eliminate schools’ ability to levy property tax, which raises a crucial amount of money for many public school districts.

Mastriano’s campaign later released a one-minute video calling the union’s analysis “a coordinated attack” and deceptive.

Campaign plan: Other objectives listed in his campaign plan for Pennsylvania include “an immediate ban” on so-called critical race theory and gender studies in schools, and a “thorough review” of districts’ diversity, equity and inclusion plans.

Mastriano’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment Friday, but the candidate did briefly address his stance on school funding at a campaign stop in Gatsby’s Bar & Grill in Delaware County last month, pointing out that he voted for the state budget in July, which saw a historic school funding increase.

“The fact is, you know, we just passed legislation out of the Senate and the House, and I voted ‘yes’ on increasing education funding by $850 million,” Mastriano told the crowd in Aston.

“Are you kidding me? And I’m going to cut education? I mean, facts are stubborn things. So really, just shut up.”

— Inquirer staff writer William Bender contributed to this article.