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Just What is Pa. Gov. Corbett's Relationship with Philly Schools?

The relationships between several governors and teachers' unions in recent years have taken a sour turn—the rhetorical slugfest between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, and the New Jersey Education Association is just one prominent example. But Christie's neighbor, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, is in a different kind of hot water when it comes to union politics. A new poll, the subject of a June 19 article by Philadelphia City Paper, encourages the GOP governor to "campaign against an 'enemy'" as part of an effort to boost his wilting approval ratings ahead of his 2014 reelection campaign. That "enemy" turns out to be the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

Let's put Corbett's situation in some political context. In early April, Nate Silver at The New York Times ran the numbers on which governors were most vulnerable next year, and it turned out that Corbett had a net job approval rating of -12 percentage points, the fifth-worst among the governors examined, and the third-worst among GOP state executives. One piece of number-crunching isn't proof-positive, but it still would indicate that he's not in the tall cotton that his GOP peers like Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez have been enjoying. And Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, has ranked Corbett the most vulnerable incumbent governor.

Corbett has also come under criticism for the over $1 billion in budget cuts he enacted at the start of his tenure, and general budget woes continue to bird-dog the Keystone State. And within the state's K-12 milieu, the Philadelphia School District is suffering greatly—nearly 3,800 school staff are set to be laid off after pink slips were sent out earlier this month, and have shut down dozens of schools recently as well as arts and athletics programs.

Now to that poll the City Paper obtained. You can read the results yourself, and they go into some very interesting details about the best approach Corbett should take on education and with Philadelphia schools in particular. The poll, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, suggests that Mayor Michael Nutter, for example, could be a useful ally in the struggle because of his popularity in the Philly suburbs, and that at least on some issues related to teachers, for example, voters actually side with Corbett over the Philadelphia teachers' union. But an important conclusion from the poll is that the governor would benefit from grabbing the bull by the horns and grappling with the challenges in the City of Brotherly Love and directly battling with the city union.

Here is the decidedly non-fraternal view of the pollsters: "While the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers may be a potent enemy for the governor to take on, he would have the support of those outside of Philadelphia who are upset with the financial sinkhole the city has become, and he could use the proposed reforms as a platform to talk about needed changes to improve schools statewide. While Corbett needs to fight the Teachers' Union, he needs to have visible teachers on his side. That's key. His battle needs to be a focused one — for students, for schools, and for teachers, while taking on the union."

The City Paper has also reported that the poll was commissioned by PennCAN, the state affiliate of 50CAN, a K-12 advocacy group that pushes for teacher evaluations to be grounded "in student results," as well as alternative pathways to teaching careers. It's not entirely surprising, therefore, that the group would commission such a poll, although the group also doesn't explicitly say that it a priori opposes unions on policy issues. Of course, none of this means the poll is automatically inaccurate, at least from purely political and statistical perspectives.

However, this news about the anti-PFT poll broke just as Corbett publicly discussed getting more involved in the Philadelphia schools crisis. State lawmakers are considering the best way to get their hands around the problem, and financial concessions from unions are part of a package of reforms under discussion. Perhaps significantly, Corbett signaled support for the union concessions, but not others.

"Such changes will help stem the financial drain on the school district's budget so that resources may be redirected back into the classroom for high-quality teaching and improved learning," he said in a statement.

The poll was conducted from April 30 to May 2, so it's conceivable that Corbett's team got to see the numbers, mull them over, and then act. The PFT itself, in fact, plans to be proactive. It had scheduled a June 25 rally for its members in Harrisburg, the state capital, over what they argue is weak school funding. It's a decent bet that this poll, in combination with Corbett's recent comments, will get some megaphone love at the rally and provide additional political energy for PFT members.

With Christie sporting favorable poll numbers en route to New Jersey's gubernatorial election this year, Corbett may be thinking that engaging in rhetorical wrestling with unions may actually give him a boost, or at the very least that such actions won't significantly damage him. But it could turn out that the results from such a strategy swing drastically if you hop from one side of the Delaware River to the other.

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