Say this about the GOP’s candidate for governor in Pennsylvania, the right-wing extremist State Sen. Doug Mastriano: His plans for what he and a presumably Republican-led state legislature will do if they win in November are pretty clear and easy to understand.
Abortion? Mastriano says, “I want to ban abortion, period” — even in cases of rape, incest or health risks to the mother. Guns? He says he’d make Pennsylvania “a Second Amendment sanctuary” for unrestricted firearms ownership. And he’s promised to name a secretary of state who shares his belief in Donald Trump’s Big Lie about 2020 election fraud.
So why aren’t more people talking about his simple, radical plan for the issue that voters tend to care the most about: the education of roughly 2 million children currently attending K-12 schools in the Keystone State? Because here, too, Mastriano has been crystal clear on what he would do. The only part left unsaid is what education experts say would be the ultimate impact of the Republican’s agenda: decimating Pennsylvania’s public schools as we know them.
Here’s how Mastriano himself explained the plan in March, during a radio interview with WRTA. At a moment of fraught debate and a high-profile lawsuit about how well, and equitably, Pennsylvania funds its public schools, Mastriano actually believes taxpayer spending on education can be slashed by more than half. He cited a ballpark estimate of what Pennsylvania currently spends, on average, on a pupil: $19,000 annually.
“I think instead of 19,000 [dollars], we fund each student around 9,000 or 10,000 and they can decide which school to go to, public school, private school, religious school, cyber school or home school,” Mastriano said. “And the money goes to the kids. And I believe that would incentivize and drive down the costs of public education.”
The driver of Mastriano’s scheme would be his push to eliminate, or at least radically reduce, the biggest source of school dollars in Pennsylvania: the property tax. He just wouldn’t replace this proposed massive loss of tax dollars. And the downsized government spending that still existed would be available to families in vouchers they could use to attend nonpublic schools, including religious schools or homeschooling — two pillars of Mastriano’s Christian nationalist movement.
“This is a policy that would break the schools that are working well, and make things even worse for kids in the schools that are struggling,” Susan Spicka, the executive director of the advocacy group Education Voters of PA, told me. “It’s incomprehensible.”
» READ MORE: America gave up on truly educating all its kids. Then Jan. 6 happened. Coincidence? | Will Bunch
It does seem incomprehensible from a political standpoint. After all, Pennsylvania’s last Republican governor, Tom Corbett, in 2014 also became the commonwealth’s first governor in modern times to be defeated for a second term, and one of the big reasons was the fallout from a $1 billion cut to state education spending, which caused teacher and staff layoffs and larger class sizes and angered many parents.
Now, Mastriano is suggesting much deeper and more radical cuts. According to a 2022 ranking by World Population Review, spending $9,000 per pupil would put Pennsylvania on a par with Mississippi ($8,935), a state that’s often criticized for the poor quality of its public education.
But while most pundits believe Mastriano faces an uphill fight in November — because of his extreme views and because his Democratic opponent, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, has a strong track record in statewide elections — he will also benefit from national Republican headwinds, with voters mad about inflation and President Biden’s popularity at record lows. A wild card will be the role in November of Pennsylvania’s richest man, the hedge fund trader Jeff Yass, who spent a whopping $18 million on primary candidates but opposed Mastriano. Will Mastriano’s fervent support for Yass’ No. 1 issue — school choice, including vouchers — convince this oligarch to hold his nose about the nominee’s extremism and climb on board?
Mastriano has, of course, spoken quite a bit about schools on the campaign trail, but largely in the prism of the “culture wars” that currently dominate conservative politics — harsh restrictions on trans kids, or bans on antiracism education. But his ideas about school choice and school funding — especially working with a GOP majority in Harrisburg that could be even more right wing than past iterations — could have a much greater impact on more kids, and their future.
“School choice is going to be a knock-down, drag-out fight. And my goal on taking on school choice, of course, we’ll have a fight with the unions, but that’s a fight we have to have because the lack of school choice and $30 billion a year going to public education is driving up property taxes,” Mastriano said last month on the Wendy Bell radio show.
“So,” he added, “if we instead of funding the schools, fund the students in the form of education scholarships, that will both save us on property taxes and as well as give us opportunity that you pick the type of school that you want to send your kids to if the money goes to the kids rather than being a corrupt system.”
As a current lawmaker, Mastriano has backed bills that would expand existing state programs that aid kids who attend nonpublic schools, like the Educational Improvement Tax Credit, or EITC. He’s also pushed to create a new program called Educational Opportunity Account Scholarships that target exceptional students or military families but which presumably could be expanded to accomplish Mastriano’s vision for universal school choice. In a February video with the Pennsylvania chapter of Gun Owners of America, he made it clear that religious schools and even homeschooling are part of his vast vision for radically shaking up education.
Here in Pennsylvania, we currently fund our schools more heavily from local property taxes than most other states. That is a prime reason why the state sees such vast disparities in both spending and outcomes from affluent suburban districts and its struggling former industrial towns and cities, which spend far less per pupil. Yet Mastriano pushed his plan for eliminating the property tax altogether in a February op-ed, insisting that by giving families money for school choice “Pennsylvania can actually save money on expenditures for education while improving its quality.”
There’s no evidence this has ever happened, anywhere. But not only does Mastriano insist that school dollars are wasted on bloated administration and unionized teacher salaries, he deals in frankly racist and classist tropes that some kids couldn’t cut it in school no matter what we did for them. “With the rise in broken homes in certain communities, more students are coming to school unprepared to learn,” he wrote in a January op-ed. “No amount of money is going to allow these schools to do what they cannot: fill in for disengaged or absent parents.’”
The irony is that Mastriano’s vision for education is the polar opposite of what advocates so persuasively argued over the last year in a Harrisburg courtroom in the high-profile state trial over school funding disparities. The plaintiffs in the funding case showed that kids in urban districts like Philadelphia or Chester-Upland are robbed by a system that gives them unequal levels of support. But the Republican candidate for governor is now proposing that all districts across Pennsylvania spend less per pupil than Philadelphia does now.
Donna Cooper, executive director of the Children First schools advocacy group, says Mastriano’s plans are wildly out of touch with the realities of K-12 education in the state, including that even religious schools in the state’s more prosperous regions cost more than the $9,000 a year he’d give families. Added Cooper: “One of the reasons he’s advancing these proposals is his concern that teachers are paid too much. But we have an average teacher salary that is $70,000 — and Pennsylvania is facing a massive teacher shortage.”
The advocate Spicka, who like Mastriano hails from Franklin County in south-central Pennsylvania, said it would be impossible to end property taxes and achieve Mastriano’s school spending goal without large-scale layoffs of teachers and staff, in districts where parents are already aggravated at how many costs are being met through things like PTO bake sales. “There would be no insulation,” she said.
Of course, the destruction of public schools — once the engine powering an expanded American middle class, yet derided by Christian nationalists like Mastriano or billionaire libertarians like Yass as “government schools” that indoctrinate kids — is a feature of these so-called education plans, not a bug. The ultimate success of right-wing authoritarian movements like that headed by Mastriano is their brand of indoctrination — heavy on religious instruction, and light on critical thinking. That’s why Pennsylvania voters need to think critically between now and November about what a Mastriano administration would really mean for our most valuable asset — our two million kids.
» READ MORE: SIGN UP: The Will Bunch Newsletter