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election 2014 sig_small lighterIt was raining to beat the devil outside the Central Branch of the Free Library as I scampered up the steps Wednesday evening to attend the debate among the four Democratic candidates for governor.

It was raining heavily in the auditorium, too. Raining promises.

The topic was education, and, as it turned out, each of the candidates brought their magic wands. Each promised an end to the cuts of the Corbett years and each promised to pour more money into public education.

Pre-K for all? Of course.

Increase basic education funding? Certainly.

On one hand, there was a lot of  “me-tooism” among the four.  They varied little in their stands.  On the other hand, there was a “can you top this” aspect to it, with each trying to outdo the other, either in presenting themselves as The Person Who Can Get It Done or in promising the moon.

Tom Wolf, the York County businessman who is the front-runner, won the promise game by blithely saying the state should pay 50 percent of the cost of public education, a laudable goal that, alas, would cost in the range of $3.5 billion in new spending a year.

But, what’s mere money when we have the Marcellus Shale?  There were clusters of audience members wearing “Stop the Fracking” stickers and one even weakly shouted out “moratorium” at one point.

But, none of the candidates wanted to stop drilling for natural gas.  They want to cash in on it, taxing the gas extracted to pay for the goodies they were sprinkling out among the crowd, which was—not surprisingly—very pro-public education.

There was an element of pandering here, but also political positioning.

The polls show that education is the No. 1 issue among Pennsylvania voters, who have soured on Corbett’s cuts in state support.

You can’t blame Wolf, Allyson Schwartz, Katie McGinty and Rob McCord for embracing the issue at Corbett’s expense. Though over-promise filled the air, the crowd ate it up.

Do away with the School Reform Commission (SRC)?  Absolutely.  It’s time to return the schools to local control.

Rein in charters? Sure.  Get rid of the bad charters and make the rest, um, accountable.

Cybercharters?  Bad.  Off with their head! No more state funding for them.

There were hints of differences in their responses—if I had to guess McCord is more pro-charter than others and drew a stony response from the crowd by praising the Mastery Carter organization.

Wolf was the biggest spender, mostly because of that promise to get to 50 percent.

There were surely teachers in the audience, but none of them approached the stage.  Had they done so, they would have been smothered with hugs by the candidates.

“Hometown heroes,” McCord called them, a phrase quickly picked up by the other candidates.

Excuse the cliché, but the phrase “tax-and-spend Democrats” kept creeping into my mind as I listened.  There wasn’t a problem with the schools that couldn’t be solved with more money—even violence, which got linked back to lack of resources, at least as a contributing cause.

While the candidates were offering two hours worth of joy, the SRC was going through the ordeal of holding a public hearing on its proposed budget for 2014-15 and getting an earful from the assembled parents and activists.  Talk about beating the devil.

The district is at least $216 million short of what it needs to fund the schools so they can run at the same level next year—which is to say, bare bones in the extreme.

The SRC members weren’t happy at all with their predicament. Bill Green, newly installed chair of the SRC, called the budget they were considering “immoral.”

But, do they have any choice but to spell out the cuts that would have to be made? No. Unlike the candidates for governor, magic wands were in short supply at district headquarters.  The SRC cannot make $216 million materialize out of thin air.  The politicians—in City Council and in Harrisburg—must supply it.

Contrary to popular opinion, the SRC is not the problem here.  Replacing it with a locally elected or independent board wouldn’t do a thing to change the district’s main problem: a lack of funds.

That is a political problem beyond Superintendent William Hite’s and the SRC’s control—a problem exacerbated by the recession, by Gov. Corbett, by the ineffectiveness of our delegation to the legislature, by a myriad of factors, including the current anti-tax mania in Harrisburg.

The Democratic candidates at the Free Library promised to cut through that thicket of political problems and deliver more money for the schools.

Easier said than done.

Assuming the next governor is one of the four who were on the Free Library stage, he or she is going to face huge obstacles in trying to move the needle and get the funding issue resolved.

And it involves more than just sprinkling more money on the schools.  There are fundamental questions about the formula by which the money is handed out, about the needs of poor and rural districts, as well as the usual array of political obstacles, including a formidable phalanx of no-tax-increases-no-way conservatives.

As Peter Durantine makes clear in his story today, getting to “yes” on issues such as taxes, school funding and a host of other issues is going to take a lot of political and negotiating skills on the part of the next governor—skills, by the way, that Corbett lacks.

As Corbett discovered, promising is easy. Delivering is hard.