The four Democratic candidates for Pennsylvania governor aimed to win over young voters Friday night during a televised debate at Temple University, promising to restore state spending cuts in higher education that has helped drive up tuition and fees at public universities.
They agreed that public K-12 education needs more state support and that cyber charter schools are rip-offs, but also clashed on leadership styles and whether college athletes should be paid.
Perhaps the liveliest exchange occurred when the candidates were asked how they would deal with a legislature controlled by Republicans.
"I'm not anxious to go to Harrisburg to have a beer or a whiskey with any of those guys if they aren't willing to get things done," U.S. Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz said. She said she would take on the old boys' club "to fight for you."
That drew a rebuke from state Treasurer Rob McCord, who stressed the need to "invest time and respect" working with political adversaries.
"You want somebody with people skills," he said. "It's misguided to go in and act like an 'I'm-better-than-you' Democrat."
The two-hour debate of the remaining candidates in the May primary was held at the annual convention of the Pennsylvania College Democrats, and moderated by pollster G. Terry Madonna of Franklin and Marshall College. Pennsylvania Cable Network televised the discussion live.
McCord and York businessman Tom Wolf said they were in favor of paying college athletes and allowing them to unionize, while Schwartz and Katie McGinty, former head of the state Department of Environmental Protection, said the emphasis in college should be on academics.
"The ideal is to have athletics support the academic enterprise, but that's not how it works," said Wolf, who threw the javelin for Dartmouth College's track and field team.
"There are too many cases where too many universities shamelessly exploit the athletic prowess for as long as it lasts," he said. "They want the reflected glory of the athletes, but not pay them."
Said McCord, "We're abusing the labor of young people who aren't well represented."
He noted that quarterback Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M University received a scholarship worth about $120,000, but his success helped the school raise hundreds of millions of dollars.
This week, a regional office of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that football players at Northwestern University could form a union. The school plans to appeal.
The candidates were harsh on cyber charter schools. All said that they had not shown good academic results, and that there needs to be more accountability for brick-and-mortar charter schools as well.
"I don't think we should be putting public dollars into cyber charters," Schwartz said. She estimated those schools take about $360 million, "money that could be going into public schools that are being starved by this governor."
McGinty said she would not send taxpayer money to any charter school operated by a for-profit company, and that she was "close" to saying no taxpayer dollars should go toward cyber charters.
McCord, who is endorsed by the state's largest school employees' union, said he would have to have a lot of evidence proving the worth of cyber charters before he would favor funding them.
Wolf said he was worried that the proliferation of charters was part of a trend toward privatization.
"Education is a public good. . . . If a kid in Pittsburgh gets a lousy education, my life is diminished," he said.
Before the debate began in the university student center, Schwartz announced an ethics policy, saying she would appoint a cabinet-level chief integrity officer, order a gift ban for executive branch officials, and push for legislation to ban gifts to all state employees and elected officials.
She did not refer to the issue during the debate except to note the number of legislative leaders sent to jail on corruption charges in recent years. Government ethics has received new attention with the recent news that Attorney General Kathleen Kane had ended an undercover operation that taped at least five Philadelphia Democratic elected officials taking cash or gifts.