HARRISBURG, Pa. – There’s no doubt the teachers unions are winning the education public relations war in Pennsylvania.

Operating in a traditional pro-union state, with the cooperation of much of the mainstream media, the unions have managed to convince a lot of voters that Republican Gov. Tom Corbett is responsible for the financial problems of the state’s public schools.

But last week the unions crossed the line. Smelling opportunity with a gubernatorial election in November, the American Federation of Teachers recently took out a series of ads in several large circulation Pennsylvania newspapers, accusing Corbett of cutting $1 billion in K-12 education funding, causing the closure of many neighborhood schools and the layoffs of thousands of teachers.

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The folks at the Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives couldn’t take that sitting down.

They answered the unions by taking out a series of ads in several of the same newspapers last week, pointing out the obvious lies that the unions are spreading in a massive effort to defeat the governor.

The Commonwealth ads noted an obvious truth that most Pennsylvania education reporters have all but ignored: Between 2009 and 2011, many public school districts in the state were using millions of dollars of stimulus money from Washington, D.C. to fill in their sagging budgets.

The schools could have faced the obvious fact that the stimulus money was temporary and made plans to adjust their budgets for future challenges. But most school officials simply counted on Corbett and the state legislature to magically produce money to replace the federal dollars when they ran out.

But the state was in no financial position to replace that money, and the schools that were counting on Corbett were sadly disappointed.

The public school establishment took its revenge by convincing the public that the sudden lack of school funding was the result of Corbett’s budget ax.

“Over a year ago the unions declared war on Corbett,” Matthew Brouillette, president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation, told EAGnews. “They saw his low poll numbers and saw an opportunity to hurt him on this issue. But this narrative has been going on for three years now, certainly led by the AFT and the NEA (National Education Association) affiliates as well.”

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The dollar figures don’t lie

As school reform and choice advocates, and critics of their state’s teachers unions, the staff at the Commonwealth Foundation is accustomed to hearing labor leaders lob constant bombs at Corbett and the GOP.

But the union newspaper blitz, painting Corbett as the enemy of public education and the children of Pennsylvania, demanded an immediate and direct response. Brouillette and his staff decided it was worth the cost to answer the union with an ad blitz of their own, so the public could be exposed to the truth.

The Commonwealth ads ran in the Harrisburg Patriot-News, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Lancaster New Era and York Daily News.

“Union leaders should know it is wrong to lie about education spending as they did in their ad,” one Commonwealth ad said in bold print. “Fact: Gov. Corbett and state lawmakers have increased state funding for public schools to an all-time high.”

That’s the absolute truth, according to Brouillette.

Overall state K-12 spending under Corbett, who became governor in 2011, has increased from about $9 billion in 2011 to about $9.7 billion this year, and is tentatively set to increase to $10.1 billion in 2014-15.

It was actually Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, a Big Labor favorite, who cut state education funding from $9.1 billion to $8.7 billion in 2008-09, and covered the cuts with federal stimulus dollars.

That might have been an understandable move at the time, since the nation was mired in the grips of the recession and state tax revenues were bottoming out.

The public misconception took root in 2010-11, when state funding under Rendell (about $8.5 billion), along with stimulus dollars (about $1.5 billion), increased total K-12 funding to about $10 billion. The 2011-12 budget, Corbett’s first, increased the contribution from the state from $8.5 billion to $9 billion, but there was no more stimulus money to push the total to the previous year’s $10 billion.

Thus rose the idea that Corbett cut education funding.

“Corbett and the legislature were telling the school districts that these were one-time revenues from Washington and to not put that money in their ongoing budgets, but most of them didn’t make any adjustments to their spending habits in general,” Brouillette said.

“There were a few prudent districts, but the overwhelming majority assumed the state would make up for that lost revenue, that it would raise taxes or cancel funding for something else.”

The political money bag man

The Commonwealth Foundation staff also saw another opportunity in the newspaper ads – to remind citizens that the union’s attack ads against Corbett were funded with member dues money that the schools collect on their behalf.

“Your tax dollars were used to collect the union dues that paid for the union’s attack ad – and many more like it,” one of the Commonwealth ads said. “Taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to subsidize union political ads … especially when they’re not true.”

“The most important thing for us is that it was an opportunity to demonstrate how unions are able to collect dues money using taxpayer resources then use it against taxpayer interests,” Brouillette said.

The Commonwealth Foundation is hoping the state will do something about this obvious misuse of public resources and funds. Commonwealth Foundation staff is tracking a bill  in the state legislature that would ban public entities from collecting dues on behalf of labor unions.

Obviously the unions are fighting the legislation tooth and nail. As they have seen in the few states that have banned automatic dues collection, many members fail to send in their payments voluntarily.

That could be because they never asked to join the union in the first place, and appreciate the chance to keep a bigger chuck of their paychecks.

“(Union leaders) understand that when union members are given the choice, they tend to not want to keep funding the union’s politics,” Brouillette said. “What we’re proposing is to end the taxpayer role as the union political money bag man.”

On the surface the legislation would seem to have a good chance of passing. The Republicans currently hold a 111-92 majority in the state House and a 27-23 edge in the Senate. Republicans are typically the target of union political attacks, so GOP lawmakers might be expected to take away one of the union’s primary fundraising tools while they have the chance.

But there are no guarantees the Republicans will unite behind the legislation, Brouillette said.

“It does have a chance,” he said. “It will all depend on whether the majority is willing to end this exclusive legal privilege. The Democrats are owned by the labor unions, and sometimes (the unions) are able to rent enough Republicans to stymie critical reforms.

“The question that remains is whether that small handful of Republicans continue to believe that they can keep feeding the cannibal and not get eaten last.”v