kate mcginty
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Katie McGinty: Tom Wolf’s Chief of Staff on Philly schools and surviving the boy’s club of Harrisburg (Q&A)

At this time two years ago, Kate McGinty was considering running for governor of Pennsylvania. The former Secretary of Environmental Protection would eventually lose to Tom Wolf in the Democratic primary.

Since then, she’s been named Wolf’s chief of staff and has become arguably the most powerful woman in Harrisburg. McGinty has Philly roots, and has spent the last several weeks traveling around the state touting Wolf’s ambitious budget proposal.

Billy Penn sat down with McGinty while she was in Philadelphia last week to talk about the city’s relationship with Harrisburg, education and what it’s like in the boys’ club that is the state capital. Here’s what we talked about:

(The interview was lightly edited for clarity and brevity.)

Billy Penn: I want to start off by talking about your Philly roots. So you’re from the Northeast, right?

McGinty: A northeast Philly girl through-and-through, Solly Playground playing basketball for like ten hours a day. I grew up in Rhawnhurst, but we always said it by parishes, so Resurrection Parish. I went to St. Huberts and then St. Joe’s and then Columbia.

Billy Penn: So when you’re living in Harrisburg, what about Philly do you miss the most?

McGinty: Well Philadelphia is definitely home, and I miss the just incredible array of very cool restaurants to choose from. I abslutely love all of the pop-up pubs and completely enjoy them. I love the whole Parkway from the Art Museum on down, it is extraordinary. The city of Philadelphia is just, to me, is alive, it’s buzzing, and it has a lot to offer.

Billy Penn: It’s changed a lot in last five to ten years. Do you feel in any way like you’re watching your city change or grow up before your eyes?

McGinty: I am, and for the most part I just really celebrate it, because I see creativity coming alive in public art. I see innovation in public spaces. I see green and sustainability in walkways, bikeways. The whole waterfront area is very welcoming, and all of that adds up to a place where people really want to be, and hopefully businesses invest and grow in keeping and sustaining a real dynamism.

What is the worry is that Harrisburg won’t rise to the challenge, and the real obligation to give back to doing right by our schools and really round out the picture for Philadelphia as a preeminent city. The missing piece is the schools getting back up and running and healthy again, and that’s what Governor Wolf is trying to do.

Billy Penn: You and Governor Wolf have both been very present here since he took office not long ago — that’s a big change from the last administration. Why is it so important for this administration to not only talk about Philadelphia, but to physically be here?

McGinty: The city is so much of the nerve center of not only the Southeast, but the entire Commonwealth, whether it’s just the volume of commerce, whether it is the concentration of industry, financial and other economic activity, or a cultural richness of the area. It’s just critically important to keep a spotlight here so that we appreciate the gem that we have. But one thing very important is to continue to nurture connectivity between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, for example, and then our great spots we have all around the Commonwealth.

But here’s what has happened for way too long: There has been a sense in Harrisburg of us against Philadelphia, or Philadelphia against us, as compared to seeing the incredible richness that we have when Philadelphia is working on common. If we put those assets together instead of pulling them apart, Pennsylvania should be able to compete and start kicking you-know-what and taking names.

Billy Penn: Looking at your role now, you were once Governor Wolf’s opponent, and now you’re on his staff. That must have been very humbling.

McGinty: I feel very fortunate. Different times in our history call forward certain voices. Across our country, people are so concerned about stagnant wages for so many people, while just a very slim part of our society is doing very well. That chasm in wages represents the bottom falling out.

Where Governor Wolf comes in, is he can be a voice for the fact that it is both the morally right thing to do to pay people a living wage, and it’s the smart thing to do because he has experience in running a successful business.

Billy Penn: In this role, you are one of the most powerful women in Harrisburg. Its got to be a tough time to be a woman in Harrisburg with the porn scandal and all that entailed. Have you encountered hurdles being a woman in the so-called boys club in Harrisburg?

McGinty: There was a time when I would shy away from this kind of question. I don’t shy away from it as much for two reasons now: One is, as a person who has also spent time in business, I see the incredible value that business places on characteristics that — this is a stereotype — but that generally we ascribe to women.

In the business world, headhunters look for women leaders, because what’s cutting edge in business are those leaders who know how to pull out the best of a broad variety of people in an organization who can see where interconnections are, and know how to make the end result reflect that dynamic input in a lot of people, so I own that more.

The other reason why I think this is important is that while of course we’ve made a lot of progress, I do think that we are far from figuring out how to have people feel good about their professional life as well as their personal life, and I certainly struggle every day to feel that I’m being the mom that I want to be, even while I feel like I’m answering the professional calling I think I have.   

Billy Penn: With regard to Governor Wolf’s budget proposal, you know as well as I do that it’s not going to pass as is. How do you negotiate the budget while still keeping education-related promises?

McGinty: Well the wonderful thing about legislators is that they have a very strong sense of self-survival. And the way that’s related to the education issue is this last gubernatorial campaign was extraordinary, but it was almost universal voice of voters in this commonwealth that we absolutely have to do better by way of education. We have to reinvest in education. We have to give our kids a better chance at a bright future than we have been doing over the past five years. It’s our hope and our bet that the leadership in Harrisburg can’t ignore the strength of that voice, and even if it’s only for their own self-preservation, that they will rise to that calling and respond positively. It just makes sense.

I think people got it in this election that you can’t starve your way to success. They got it that we don’t have to put that burden on the backs of Pennsylvania homeowners whose property taxes are already too high. Instead, we should do what every other state in the country does and impose a reasonable severance tax on the shale gas industry, and so that’s the recipe for success: care about our schools and make it so that everybody pays their fair share. 

Billy Penn: With regard to the School District of Philadelphia, I was talking to Jake Corman last week who said that Philadelphia receives $12,000 per student, and that’s right in the middle of the pack in PA. So if that’s the case, what’s going on in Philly and, from your perspective, what can the state really do about it?

McGinty: The cuts to the Philadelphia school district have been among the most severe in the entire commonwealth because cuts in most impoverished school districts were three times as tough. Second, it’s important to know that these average numbers confuse more than they clarify. What’s important and what’s been challenging is that we’ve had a pattern of concentrating poverty, and challenges like English language learning, special needs in the very same school districts that we have most stripped of resources. And so you have schools getting the least amount of funding that have the highest concentration of kids that have severe challenges.

Theres just been a massive outpouring of dollars in Philadelphia from the conventional school district to charter schools, and it was only a couple years ago that we had next to no charter activity. We are now at $1.3 billion going in the direction of charters, $400 million going to cyber charters, zero of which have any transparency or accountability to the taxpayer. That’s the real picture of the city of Philadelphia, and nobody could succeed under those kinds of pressures, and it’s not helpful to suggest that you can. What we need to do is step up with restored funding, but equally important is with a fair funding formula so the dollars are invested according to need in a fair way.

It is a disgrace that we are now one of only three states that doesn’t have a fair funding formula because of what it means, and that is only the kids who are lucky enough to be born into a wealthy zip code and/ or who have political pull will have the funding needed for a decent future.

An example of that: Under no funding formula, if you happen to be a kid who is an English language learner, and you happen to live in the district in Reading, the state provides an extra $385. If you are that same child and you live in Allentown, the state provides about $4,000. There is nothing substantive about that. That’s politics, pure and simple. And Philadelphia experiences that on steroids because there’s such a concentration of lower income, higher challenges schools in the city. 

Billy Penn: What are your thoughts on the SRC and how it’s managed the district?

McGinty: I think there’s just been a lot of tension and dissension, and that has not been productive. I think the governor feels strongly that having local voice, local control, real parent involvement, real neighborhood schools is vitally important.

Billy Penn: Philly is a big college city. Governor Wolf wants to increase funding to public institutions but freeze tuition. What feedback have you heard from schools about that? Are they on board?

McGinty: Some of them were more excited about it than others, but for the governor, this is a deal. And he is going to insist on it, because we can’t just keep cutting the schools, but nor can we just turn to taxpayers to foot an ever-increasing bill. Those funds should be sufficient to pay the bill, so this is a hard-and-fast deal, and he hopes, but expects that the colleges and universities will step up to the plate.

Billy Penn: With your past work in environmental protection, there’s been a lot of talk about Philadelphia becoming an energy hub. What are your thoughts on Philly’s potential there, and how do we balance creating jobs while still fulfilling a green mission?

McGinty: Well I think there is a very exciting potential for us to become cutting-edge in advance industries that are supported by energy resources, but it’s got to be clean. It’s got to be high-tech, it’s got to be state of the art. But that’s a vast universe out there. People think of gas as an energy resource that you would burn to keep the lights on, but actually natural gas is much more interesting when you’re not doing something polluting, but pulling pieces of gas apart, you can put it back together in all kinds of interesting combinations.

The sky is the limit if we insist on bringing together our know-how and capability in research and technology. We need to think of energy resources as a driver of those clean advanced industries. That, to me, is a place where Philadelphia could compete and win. Not your old dirty smokestack stuff.

Billy Penn: Last question: We want millennials to stay in the city and create jobs and economic vitality. What do you say to the millennial who wants to leave for a different city?

McGinty: The quality of life and affordibily of life is much better in Philadelphia. What you get a chance to do is grab a piece of this town, a neighborhood where you as an individual can make a big difference in engaging your neighbors and making your community a really alive and vital one.

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