WILKES-BARRE — Gov. Tom Wolf visited Public Square on Saturday morning to talk about the importance of public education and show his support for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, which represents teachers statewide.
“Investing in education is what we need to do to have a prosperous economy, a really good society, a healthy community and a healthy commonwealth,” said Wolf, a Democrat who’s up for re-election in November. “In doing this, the commonwealth has a sound financial foundation thanks to all the people that are making Pennsylvania a better place.”
Wolf’s appearance coincided with an event for the PSEA Northeast chapter.
During his tenure in office, he said he has restored the $1 billion in cuts made under the previous administration that led to teacher layoffs, large class sizes and cuts to important programs.
“Our future depends on what you do in the classroom,” Wolf told the crowd. “Everything you do is central to what we want to become.”
Pennsylvania’s high school graduation rate has jumped to 86 percent under the Wolf administration, making the state a national leader in that category.
“I invested historic amounts of money into education,” Wolf noted. “I made education a better proposition for all the citizens and because of that we have a balanced budget.
“My predecessors in Harrisburg along with other politicians around the country are still trying to balance a budget on the backs of our kids,” the governor continued. “I’m really proud that I’ve done all these things to restore education. We still have work to do, but we are moving in the right direction.”
Wolf also stressed the importance of labor unions, something state Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, D-Wilkes-Barre, spoke about earlier in the morning.
“Education is strong because you have someone fighting for you at the bargaining table to make sure you receive the compensation you deserve, great working conditions and what makes you want to come into this profession for your lifetime,” Wolf told PSEA members. “If we lose that, then we lose a key quality in public education. That’s why in this election organized labor is important.”
The governor also reaffirmed his commitment to the PSEA.
“I will continue to work with the PSEA to make sure teachers have the rights to bargain,” he said. “We need to you to have those rights in this profession so we can attract the right people to this profession to help our kids.”
Wolf also said he will veto any bill that comes to his desk in regards to making Pennsylvania a right-to-work state. Bills proposed by Republican lawmakers aim to eliminate mandatory union dues for state employees.
“This election is important. Democracy is on the line, the future of education, our children and the commonwealth is on the line here,” Wolf said. “We need to do one thing and one thing only and that is vote. Get out and vote. Let’s make sure education stays strong.”
Wolf is being challenged by Republican Scott Wagner.
PSEA President Dolores McCracken praised the governor and said it’s time the union gets more involved at the state level.
“We’ve been playing defense. We’ve had to fight against a lot of bad legislation dealing with public schools,” she said. “The governor has brought that funding back to Pennsylvania and now it’s time for us to be more proactive. We look forward to working with the Legislature and elected officials that have public education first and foremost.”
The PSEA represents public school employees, teachers, bus drivers, school nurses, many para-professionals, and cafeteria workers in most school districts in Pennsylvania.
Some residents have blamed unions for the increase in property taxes to fund schools and cover employee salaries. But the governor dismissed that argument.
“I don’t know why you would blame unions for increased property taxes,” Wolf stated. “Unions are trying to create opportunities for teachers to have a living wage.”
All that being said, he would be open to property-tax reform.
“There have been some ideas floating around,” said Wolf. “Some I like, some I don’t.
“I’ll keep trying to work and talk to folks. I have not been able to do that yet but it’s something I hope to do in my second term. I realize the need for real property tax reform.”
McCracken also would like to see something done, but isn’t very optimistic it will happen.
“One of the things property taxes do, is pit school district against school district,” she said. “Your property values tend to mirror what people think of your school district.”
She continued: “Under the current system, unless the state fully funds public education, I don’t see a change in property taxes because I don’t think a lot of people would be in favor of that.”
Reach Dan Stokes at 570-991-6389 or on Twitter @ByDanStokes