Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Hanger rode into Indiana Tuesday in a converted school bus. His choice of transportation, he said, helps make the point that education is the No. 1 issue in his campaign.
“We have a crisis in public education in Pennsylvania,” Hanger told an audience of fewer than a dozen people in front of the Indiana County Court House. Incumbent Gov. Tom Corbett, Hanger said, has placed public education at the bottom of the budget priority list and there have been “massive cuts” to higher education and to public education from kindergarten through 12th grade.
He also accused Corbett of giving a “blank check” to charter schools whether or not they are doing a good job.
“We now are funding charter schools to the tune of over a billion dollars,” and the state now has data on how those schools are performing, he said.
“I’m a data guy, I’m driven by facts. … I’m interested in what makes our schools work,” Hanger said. “The data shows that 70 percent of the charter schools that received this massive amount of funding … are not meeting reading and math requirements as measured by testing. … On average, charter schools are doing a worse job than public schools.
“The single biggest waste of government money today in Pennsylvania is the $700 million going to the failed charter schools,” Hanger said.
He said he wants to make sure the state is once again a partner in education with local districts and meets its responsibility of providing half the cost of public education. “Right now we’re at about 35 percent,” and as a result, 70 percent of the state’s school districts have raised taxes in the past 2ﾽ years and they’ve laid off 19,000 educators.
“We’ve seen school taxes go up and educational services go down. That’s the worst of all worlds,” he said.
Hanger said he wants to redirect the $700 million now “wasted on failed charter schools” and use it for a couple of clear focuses.
“I believe in a longer school day and a longer school year. I want to add an hour to the school day and I want to add 20 days to the school year. … The reason is simple: If you work a little harder, a little longer at something, you’ll do a little better,” he said.
Kids in Pennsylvania and around America are not going to school as long as our “international competitors,” Hanger said.
He also wants some of the redirected money to be used for more preschool education.
“Unfortunately, in Pennsylvania, we’re going the wrong direction. We’re getting less preschool and not more preschool.”
He said better education is linked to another important issue in his campaign: More jobs.
“It’s schools and educated, trained people who create jobs,” he said.
He said his jobs plan (outlined at hangerforgovernor.com) would create 382,000 jobs, and he contended he’s the only candidate who has a jobs plan.
“This campaign for me is about policy first, politics second,” he said. “Ideas matter. I think voters should really push candidates to be specific. I don’t need pushing. I’ve been charged with being a policy wonk. I plead guilty. I’m not an entertainer.”
He commented briefly on Democratic candidates’ chances of unseating Corbett.
“The general election today looks very good,” he said. “I’m seven points ahead of Gov. Corbett. But, frankly, all of you (in the small audience in front of the courthouse) are ahead of Gov. Corbett … if you put your name on the ballot.”
Hanger has never held an elected office, but he’s been a state public utility commissioner and a former secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection.
“I know how to govern,” Hanger said. “I’ve got 29 years of policy experience in state government alone.”
Speaking in a county that is home to many businesses serving the natural gas drilling industry, he was asked for his views on the benefits and possible dangers, of gas well hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
“I’m an energy expert,” Hanger said. “That uniquely qualifies me, at this point in time, to be our next governor.”
Western Pennsylvanians, he said, recognize there is a risk with the production of all forms of energy.
“I believe this (natural gas) industry must be strongly regulated, it should be reasonably taxed and local governments should have real authority to do zoning,” he said. “In Pennsylvania we’re not doing any of that right now. … We’ve gone a good long way to take local officials completely out of the decision-making process about where gas drilling happens. That actually scares me.”
Hanger said when he was secretary of DEP, he increased the number of inspectors overseeing the industry from 88 to 210, and when a gas company caused methane to get into someone’s water well, DEP insisted the gas company pay two times the property value to the homeowner, even after the methane was removed.
More than half the state’s residents heat their homes with natural gas and the industry is providing valuable jobs, he said.
“But we’ve got to make sure this is done as safely as humanly possible. The state has a critical role in providing that oversight. I would hire another 105 inspectors. I would open an office for citizens to make complaints about gas drilling” where their complaints could be professionally and independently investigated, he said.
“We need to do a better job getting the benefits of natural gas to all Pennsylvanians,” he said, adding he has a plan for creating more natural gas fueling stations over a 10-year period so more state residents could opt to purchase vehicles that run on compressed natural gas.
Hanger criticized Corbett for spending so much time on the debate over possibly ending the state’s monopoly of the liquor sales system.
“That’s just not the most important issue in Pennsylvania,” he said. “We have roads and bridges falling down, and this governor has spent the last 2ﾽ years, kind of like chasing Moby Dick, obsessively trying to privatize the liquor stores. Give me a break! That’s a ridiculous statement about his mistaken priorities, and is part of the reason Pennsylvania is going backwards, not forwards, right now,” he said. “I’m in the camp that would like to see it modernized and strengthened, but I don’t want to privatize all the liquor stores.”
During his short stop in Indiana Hanger touched briefly on a few other topics.
• Jobs: “I care about good-paying jobs with benefits,” he said. “Pennsylvania’s problem is we don’t have enough good-paying jobs with benefits. … This governor seems to be intent on attacking good-paying jobs with benefits. Public school teachers are being laid off and we’ve got other efforts by this governor to destroy good-paying jobs with benefits.”
• Aid to IUP and the other state-owned universities: There have been “enormous cuts to public universities,” with funding down more than $210 million from 2010 levels, he said. “To me, higher ed is part of a jobs plan, so I do propose raising funding 5 percent per year as long as tuition is kept to the rate of inflation, and do that on a sustained basis.”
• Infrastructure repair: Hanger likened the state’s management to a car owner who is not making needed repairs to his vehicle and who doesn’t have the option of using public transit. “We’re not fixing car problems, that’s the equivalent of what we’re not doing with our system, our education system and our roads and bridges. We’re not making necessary investments in order to be successful in the name of a no-tax pledge that this governor signed,” he said.