The audience at Wednesday's Pennsylvania gubernatorial forum sat attentively in their seats, awed by the politicians in front of them — and the urgently whispered directions of their teachers, who sat nearby.
Gov. Wolf and Scott Wagner, the former state senator, fielded questions from fourth, fifth and sixth graders from local schools, vowing to keep schoolchildren safe and fund their schools robustly, though their visions for what that meant and how it should happen differed sharply.
Sixth graders from E.M. Stanton Elementary in South Philadelphia and fifth graders from Anne Frank Elementary in the Northeast asked the candidates what they would do about bullying and ensuring safety in a world where school shootings were increasingly common. (The children asked the same questions twice, once to each candidate; Wolf and Wagner, brought to Philadelphia School District headquarters by the Rendell Center for Civics and Civic Engagement, never appeared on stage together.)
Wolf said he would continue to listen to teachers, to implement the suggestions he heard from them in forums around the state held on school safety, and to offer grants for schools to improve safety.
Wagner, who said his character was shaped in part by being beaten up by five bullies when he was in school, said the solution was to eliminate cell-phone use in classrooms, teach "mutual respect," implement uniform policies, place metal detectors and security guards in every school, and reinstate the kind of tougher discipline that has fallen out of fashion in many districts.
"If somebody bullies you, they get one warning and then they get asked to leave," Wagner said. "That's called zero tolerance. I'm for zero tolerance in our schools."
Both Wagner and the governor also said they are largely against standardized testing. Wolf has scaled back Pennsylvania's state exams, and Wagner said he would like to "look at the testing, and eliminate as much as possible, as fast as possible."
Each candidate voiced support for more funding for schools, Wolf leaning heavily on his record as Pennsylvania's chief executive.
"I know you can't throw money at a problem and expect to get to a good place, but you can't keep taking money out of something like education and get to a good place," the governor said. "I think we need to invest in education."
Wagner said he didn't think Philadelphia schools were getting enough money, but he also suggested that the "level of corruption down here is unbelievable" in the city as a whole, and that dollars were not going to the right places.
Responding to a question from Omari Thomas, a fifth grader at Pollack Elementary in the Northeast, asked about homelessness, Wagner said he was "somewhat shocked by the level of poverty" in Philadelphia. As governor, Wagner said, he would examine the issue but also press local leaders, whom he suggested were not doing enough.
"The governor doesn't just come down here and solve problems," Wagner said. "I'm going to sit on City Hall and find out why things are happening and what people are doing to improve them."
After posing for photos with the students, Wagner fielded questions from reporters, taking hard jabs at Wolf. He said that on his dozens of visits to Philadelphia, he's seen and spoken to enough people to know that they're dissatisfied with Harrisburg, and that things must improve.
"What I see is disgusting," Wagner said of blight and poverty in many neighborhoods.
He asserted that he would not release his tax returns, which he said were "complex."
The moderator of the forum, sports personality Michael Barkann, proved much more adept at moving a political event forward than Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek, widely panned as moderator of the only gubernatorial debate. Barkann asked student questioners if they were satisfied with the answers the politicians gave them (they were) and posed a single query himself: If the Eagles met the Steelers in the Super Bowl, whom would you root for?
Wolf pretended, twice, that he couldn't hear the question.
Wagner did not hesitate. Eagles all the way, he said.
Former Gov. Ed Rendell, who introduced both candidates, urged the students in the audience to pay close attention and not to listen to the people who said paying attention to politics wasn't worth their time.