HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — Since 2011, Pennsylvania Democrats have pointed to the budget-balancing cuts in education aid that GOP Gov. Tom Corbett signed six months into office. And there's evidence voters are listening: A recent independent voter poll found that the single biggest factor behind voter disapproval of Corbett's job performance is his record on education.
Corbett may finally have found an effective strategy to counter that attack.
He is pounding the Republican-controlled Legislature for not acting on legislation to rein in a $50 billion pension debt that, he argues, is driving up property taxes, hurting families and squeezing out money for classrooms. He is also doing something he arguably has not done before on any issue: making the case in near-daily public events across the state, with plans to continue doing so for the rest of the summer.
It is not foolproof. He lacks a surefire way to deliver relief to school district budgets in a form that lawmakers will embrace. And he is doing it with less than four months until the Nov. 4 election, a limited time frame in which to turn around awful polling numbers in his race against Democrat Tom Wolf.
But at this point, he has no other choice, said G. Terry Madonna, a pollster and a professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College. Education is the single-most important issue to Pennsylvania voters for the first time in modern history, and Corbett spent much of his time in office arguing ineffectively that he didn't cut education funding, Madonna said.
"It's a big moment for him in a world of diminishing options," Madonna said.
For now, the argument has the advantage of seizing on the general unpopularity of nearly $12 billion in school property taxes, the biggest single source of funding for public schools. For Pennsylvania's policymakers, property tax relief remains an elusive goal, much discussed in the Capitol for more than a decade but so far only delivered in doses that are quickly swallowed by the schools' growing costs.
The Wolf campaign, Democratic Party allies and labor unions vigorously sought last week to counter the Corbett argument and wrest back control of the narrative.
"There would be no pension 'crisis' if Mr. Corbett had not cut education funding by $1 billion in 2011," House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, wrote in an opinion piece distributed to newspapers. "Those sustained cuts, over his tenure, have grown into a $3 billion loss for schools."
That, wrote Dermody, is driving property taxes up.
The truth behind the state's property tax increases is a little more complicated.
Statistics for the 2013-14 school year are not yet available from the Department of Education. But for the five years before that, property tax increases were relatively modest, averaging 2 percent a year. That compares with the 6 percent average annual increase in the five years prior, according to an Associated Press analysis of Department of Education data, as school boards tried to sock away reserve cash for a pension wave that was evident even then.
Over that same 10 years, school spending rose by $9.6 billion, or 53 percent, to $27.6 billion — driven by former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell's effort to take state aid to 50 percent of school spending.
Pensions were about one-fifth of that increase. Taxpayer contributions to the Public School Employees' Retirement System were on course to top $2 billion in the just-ended fiscal year, up from just $539,000 in 2002, according to the retirement system's records. Contributions are set to double to above $4 billion within three years, under a schedule dictated by a 2010 state law.
In the meantime, the proportion of school spending shouldered by the state is at the same level — about one-third — as when Rendell took office in 2003. That is below the national average, which was 44 percent in 2010-11, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Property taxes continue to account for about the same proportion, 42 percent, after the passage of two laws in the past decade designed to make it harder for school boards to raise property taxes. That is well above the national average of 35 percent.
Looking ahead, bigger property tax increases are quite likely in the offing, as schools districts run out of options, such as layoffs and tapping reserves built up over the past decade, said Jim Buckheit of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.
For Corbett, changing the public perception of his education record is probably his last chance to close the polling gap, Madonna said.
"He's got to figure out a way to go into the campaign being aggressive, being the activist, but more importantly, being the leader," Madonna said. "He can't go and say, 'Oh, by the way, I spent four years trying to get liquor (privatization) and (more) charter schools, so give me another four years to do what I couldn't do with my party in control of the Legislature.' That's not a narrative."
Marc Levy covers politics and government for The Associated Press in Pennsylvania. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/timelywriter.