Changes, some dramatic, could come to Commonwealth public education under its next governor.
GOP candidate Doug Mastriano’s proposals would represent a radical departure from Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s eight-year status quo. The Republican state senator has discussed a measure to eliminate property taxes overnight with significant cuts in public education — and then backtracked — and has pledged a ban on studies on race and gender theory.
Even Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, has promised significant changes: increasing spending, ending reliance on standardized testing, and hiring a mental health consultant for every school building. He also broke with Wolf by expressing support for a first-ever program to funnel taxpayers’ money to families in underperforming counties to use for private schooling.
Shapiro has polled by a solid margin ahead of Mastriano heading into the Nov. 8 election, and third-party candidates Matt Hackenburg (Libertan), Christina DiGuilio (Green) and Joe Soloski (Keystone) are each at 1% or less in the Polls gubernatorial contest.
Doug Mastriano educational plan
Since Mastriano backed down from his proposal to cut public funding for education, he has focused on a Parental Bill of Rights movement. He held a hearing on his Senate Bill 996 on Oct. 18.
The presentation included statements from Will Estrada, president of the National Parental Rights Foundation in Purcellville, Virginia, who said most parents in attendance wanted safeguards against future mask requirements and the inclusion of sexually explicit reading material in classrooms.
“The goal is to write in a code that the rights of parents are fundamental,” Estrada said. “We think that’s actually a stronger protection.”
More:COVID created Doug Mastriano’s gubernatorial candidacy in PA. Now we can’t take our eyes off it
Mastriano’s bill would give legal guardians “the right to review all educational materials used during the school year and the right to exclude their child from certain curriculums that parents find objectionable or harmful.”
According to Estrada, that debate has grown more in recent years than it did when his organization was founded in 2007. He said only 15 states recognize parental rights as “fundamental” and hopes Pennsylvania will be next.
“It gives families an extra step to protect their rights, either in litigation or when governors or state agencies act (inappropriately),” Estrada added.
But Sen. Lindsey Williams (D-Allegheny), minority chair of the Board of Education, believes these efforts soften tone for something like House Bill 2813, which has already been circulated by Pennsylvania Republicans and which they consider a version of Florida’s so-called “don’t say gay” law. She questioned whether a child would be stigmatized or punished if, for example, they drew a family picture with their same-sex parents.
“It’s this broad language that’s very disturbing,” she said. “Can’t you put the picture up? Can’t you talk about it?”
“It would cause tremendous harm to the children in this building (and) those who love them.”
Mastriano has claimed that his education policy is simply about giving parents more control over what local counties encourage.
“Unlike my opponent, I believe that schools should educate our children, not indoctrinate them,” he said in a recent statement. “I also believe that parents – not bureaucrats – should have the final say in how we raise our children.”
The GOP candidate has also introduced a bill that would allow school employees to carry firearms on district property if they hold a concealed carry permit and “complete a rigorous firearms course from a certified instructor” as a proposed deterrent to mass shooting.
On the property tax front, Mastriano has proposed taxing private university endowments and “removing the fat” from the Commonwealth’s 33 agencies to balance the budget. In September, he announced his intention to appoint State Assemblyman Frank Ryan (R-Lebanon), a retired US Marine Corps colonel who spearheaded a proposal to abolish property taxes, as his interim gubernatorial chairman if elected.
Josh Shapiro Education Policy
Williams, meanwhile, said she was overall encouraged by most of Shapiro’s proposals.
“I positively hope that each building has a mental health advisor. (Mental health) was a crisis before the pandemic, but it’s only gotten worse,” she said. “Both our students and the educators in the building are struggling.”
“It would require sustained investment at the state level.”
More:A third term for Wolf? How Josh Shapiro sets himself apart from his opponent and current Pa. Gov
She’s not so enthusiastic about Shapiro’s willingness to consider a variant of the Lifeline grant program introduced by Legislative Republicans. Both Shapiro and Mastriano have expressed at least some level of support for this type of initiative, which would offer scholarships to students in the bottom 15% of school districts to attend another institution.
“I don’t support lifeline scholarships, I don’t support vouchers, I don’t support sending public funds to private schools,” Williams said, adding that non-public institutions can discriminate against who they accept for enrollment.
But Williams said she’s more concerned that a GOP majority in the General Assembly could move toward broader privatization at the expense of public schools. The Pennsylvania State Education Association, which represents 177,000 active and retired teachers in the Commonwealth, has forecast teacher layoffs and larger class sizes if Mastriano is elected.
“We have a teacher shortage in Pennsylvania,” she said. “The agenda of Mastriano, the agenda of House Republicans, only makes it worse.”
Bruce Siwy is a reporter for USA TODAY Network’s Pennsylvania State Capital Bureau. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @BruceSiwy.