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PA Senate Dem: School Choice Backers Support White, Christian Nationalist Goals

A Pennsylvania Senate Democrat launched a tirade against school choice supporters at an education rally this week, accusing them of wanting to “drive straight, White, able-bodied kids into private religious schools.”

Sen. Lindsey Williams (D-Allegheny), minority chair of the Senate Education Committee, accused voucher supporters of sharing the goals of the so-called Christian Nationalism movement: having “a country that favors evangelical Christian beliefs over all other beliefs.”

She also claimed public school spending was falling due to choice initiatives.

In fact, per pupil spending in Pennsylvania public schools has risen, even as choice opportunities have expanded. But Williams told a Harrisburg crowd that parental education choice was the enemy of public schools.

Williams told a group of teachers union members and Democratic activists in Harrisburg that while the voucher bills have various names, “they all do the same thing: They all take public money and put it in unaccountable private schools.”

“That’s not a secret. That’s the plan. It’s a plan to dismantle public education.”

School choice advocates dismissed what they called Williams’ outrageous attacks as par for the course.

“It’s pretty common to see these myths trotted out because that’s all they have,” said Marc LeBlond, director of state advocacy with the American Federation for Children. “It is impossible to defend trapping kids in schools that are failing them or making success in life dependent on ZIP code or income.”

Williams called out two groups by name: the Commonwealth Foundation and the Pennsylvania Family Institute.

“They have been defunding public schools by slashing education budgets. They have been in court fighting to prevent constitutionally required funding for our public schools,” Williams said. “All so that they can have a country that favors evangelical Christian beliefs over all other beliefs.”

Commonwealth Foundation Senior Vice President Nathan Benefield told DVJournal Williams has got the facts backward.

“Many private schools across Pennsylvania provide better options for low-income students, minority students, LGBTQ students, and special needs students,” Benenfield said.

Pennsylvania Family Institute Vice President for Policy Tom Shaheen said the institute works with thousands of families “from a variety of backgrounds.”

And the data show education choice benefits the very students Williams says she represents.

For example, a 2021 study published by GLSEN, a nonprofit that seeks to end bullying of LGBTQ+ students, said that public school students experience higher levels of bullying than private school students. Despite public schools having a more inclusive curriculum.

“Students thrive when their families are empowered to find the educational environment that best fits each of their children,” said Shaheen.

As for the claim choice is costing local public schools, per-pupil spending hit a record $22,000 this year, according to Benefield. He added districts squirreled away another $6.8 billion in taxpayer money in reserves.

While Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro proposed $1.1 billion in new school funding in his budget, the Democratic-controlled House wants far more. On Monday, it passed a public school reform plan that would cost an additional $6 billion.

Supporters said the bill fixed funding disparity problems that a state judge called unconstitutional last year. State Rep. Mary Isaacson (D-Philadelphia) vowed HB 2370 would “reshape and transform the future” for all students and school districts in the state.

“We are sitting on a budget surplus of $15 billion.” said state Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia). “We have the money! Now give it to the children! Put it in the schools!”

Shapiro called the bill a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to help kids and give them the chance to “chart their own course.”

The governor had previously supported school vouchers, including a choice program on his “unfinished business” list last November.

Republicans rejected the premise that surplus taxes collected by the state belong to politicians, arguing the money should go back to taxpayers.

The extra money isn’t enough for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, however. Union president Aaron Chapin said the funding was a “tremendous first step” to help student learning, but still just a step. He also pushed for increasing teacher and staff wages.

“We can’t offer students equitable education opportunities if we don’t have the staff available to provide instruction on programs,” he said.

School choice advocates said throwing money at a problem won’t work. They pointed to last year’s Pennsylvania System of School Assessment results showing just 53.7 percent of students were proficient or above in English. That was a drop from the 61.4 percent proficiency in 2018. Math scores were 39.4 percent proficiency or above in 2023 compared to 42 percent in 2018 — all falling as school funding increased.

“It is disappointing but not surprising that the defenders of the status quo can only fall back on thoroughly debunked claims of ‘defunding’ and endless calls for more money,” said LeBlond.

He says school voucher opponents are too laser-focused on funding.

“As Commonwealth Court Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer noted in Pennsylvania’s School Funding ruling, ‘options for reform are virtually limitless,’ and reform is not required to be entirely financial.”

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Central Bucks Teachers’ Union President ‘Disheartened and Disappointed’ by Dem Candidates’ New Signs

(This article first appeared in Broad + Liberty.)

Update: After publishing this story late Sunday evening, Broad + Liberty was made aware on Monday morning of a social media post appearing to show an internal email indicating Central Bucks Education Association President Joe Kirsche resigned on Sunday. Broad + Liberty offers this as context with the understanding that it has not been able to authenticate the email.

Five candidates for board seats in the Central Bucks School District are crying foul over new campaign signs saying their opposition was endorsed by “teachers and staff” of two unions in the district, especially given that the leader of one of those unions said in an email he didn’t approve the signs and was disappointed in them.

The sign says “teachers and staff” of the Central Bucks Education Association and the Central Bucks Education Support Professionals Association “endorse” candidates Karen Smith, Heather Reynolds, Dana Foley, Rick Haring, and Susan Gibson.

Although school board elections in Pennsylvania are ostensibly bipartisan, that group of five Democrats is hoping to overturn the Republican majority of the current board, which was elected in 2021 in the wake of frustrations about how the district was managed during the pandemic.

The five Republicans say that, while it’s true the CBEA union has voted to support the five Democratic candidates, the sign is a historic breach of norms, and they’ve published an email from CBEA President Joe Kirsche which they say proves it.

“In response to the recent signage posted amongst our voting community, I want to be perfectly clear with both of you. CBEA did not know the signs were being printed and posted. I did not endorse the signs beforehand,” Kirsche wrote to CBSD Board president Dana Hunter, who is up for re-election, and CBSD Superintendent Abraham “Abe” Lucabaugh.

“In fact, had I been approached to support the signs posted, I would not have approved them with the current verbiage as the signs are not inclusive of the opinions of all my CBEA members,” Kirsche continued. “I am disheartened and disappointed that it appears as though the teacher’s union has become an additional pawn.”

Hunter provided a forwarded copy of that email to Broad + Liberty for authenticity, and the political action committee supporting the five Republicans says in a Facebook post that it was authorized by Kirsche to release his email.

Kirsche did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Emailed requests for comment to all five Democrat candidates were not returned. Broad + Liberty also reached out to those campaigns through their Facebook pages. Broad + Liberty further attempted to reach out to the Haring and Gibson campaigns through the phone numbers listed on their Facebook pages, but those calls went to voicemail.

“I deeply value and appreciate all our teachers and support staff and all they do every day to support our students. I believe the unions play an important role in representing their members in the district and value the working partnership between the board, unions, and administration,” Hunter said in a statement.

“While I respect the endorsement process, Republican candidates did not seek union endorsements because we believe that our district functions best when our school board represents the entire community and not the interests of one specific group,” Hunter continued. “The unsanctioned verbiage on the signs paid for and created by the Democrat School Board candidates is yet another example of actions that divide our community and take focus away from educating our children. I have a wonderful working relationship with CBEA President Joe Kirsche. I think he is a great leader and admire the position he has taken on this matter.”

Current board member Leigh Vlasblom, a member of the conservative contingent who is not up for re-election this year, shared on social media an email from the CBEA from 2019 in which the CBEA official was asking candidates if they wanted to be considered for “recommendation.”

The email notes that the CBEA would not be considering making endorsements in two regions, and both of those regions had incumbent board members that year.

To Vlasblom and Hunter, the email shows that the CBEA in years past aimed to stay out of races with incumbent members — regardless of party or ideology — because the CBEA wanted to build a working relationship with all sitting board members.



Another problem is that the sign puts the union names in small, faint print, such that the distinction that the endorsement came from the unions is meaningless. Given that the CBEA does not represent all teachers in the district, the sign will nevertheless appear to some as though each and every teacher and staffer in the district is in support of those candidates, something Kirsche positively refuted in his email.

Candidate Aarti Martino echoed the same ideas as Hunter.

“From that email, you can see that the president of the CBEA (Central Bucks Education Association, the local public school union) was working well with Mrs. Hunter and Dr. Lucabaugh and making good progress. He did not want the signs,” Martino said.

“I wish more people understood that we are not the ones causing division in our district. It is a select few activists who are turning neighbor against neighbor. And they are taking advantage of this chaos to settle a $119M lawsuit that hasn’t even gone through discovery yet and that will bankrupt our schools and our taxpayers.”

Martino is referring to an ongoing suit in which hundreds of female teachers, current and former, allege the district has paid its female teachers less than its male counterparts. A settlement of $119 million was recently floated.

Martino is the wife of Paul Martino, a venture capitalist who previously supported the conservatives, who won the majority in the 2021 elections. Martino has made significant investments in the current election as well. Their children are students in the district.

The board elections in the Central Bucks School District will be closely watched not just in the county but across the commonwealth and even in the D.C. beltway.

The district has been the center of a political maelstrom ever since a conservative majority took the reins in early 2022.

In particular, the political left in the county has waged an unceasing attack on the board, alleging it is hostile to LGBT issues. Those arguments were fueled in large part by the controversy surrounding a single teacher in the district, Andrew Burgess.

In May of 2022, the district suspended Burgess. Critics of the board said his suspension was retaliation for his support for LGBT students.

In response, the board hired the law firm Duane Morris to investigate the allegations that it was biased against LGBT students. In the final report, investigators for Duane Morris alleged Burgess had withheld information about the bullying one transgender student faced to manufacture controversy against the board.

In a more recent twist on the Burgess controversy, the conservative majority on the board has alleged that the U.S. Department of Education failed to report the abuse of a student when it was contacted by those who wanted the department to investigate the district for discrimination based on sex. Essentially, the current conservative board majority is saying Burgess’s allies told the DOE about the student abuse, which then turned a blind eye, even as Burgess was allegedly keeping the district in the dark.

Bucks County is in many ways the center of political gravity in Pennsylvania this cycle. Political insiders from both sides of the aisle are looking to this year’s election results, both in Central Bucks School District and the hotly contested county commissioner races, as harbingers of what might come in the nation’s largest swing state in 2024.

The five Republican candidates for office are incumbent Board President Dana Hunter, Dr. Stephen Mass, Tony Arjona, Glenn Schloeffel, and Aartai Martino.

WALKER: Emails Show Central Bucks COVID Closures Work of Teachers’ Union

During the summer of 2020, I was told by numerous people that the PSEA had absolutely no influence over the decision on whether to open schools in Bucks County for the start of the 2020/2021 school year. Two years later and several thousand emails obtained via the Right-to-Know requests, I have learned that was a lie. I have also realized that the people who kept schools closed were either scared of COVID or scared of the PSEA.

That is just the beginning of the story I will tell about why it was so hard to get children back into school in our area. Keep in mind Bucks County had more kids attend in-person education than surrounding counties, thanks to our health director and the parents and board directors who fought to make it happen.

Central Bucks School District is the largest suburban school district in Pennsylvania. Up until July 17, 2020, former Supt. Dr. John Kopicki had been telling parents that school would open for a full five days per week. On July 17 he tried to change the law regarding how children are educated in Pennsylvania. Without board approval, he made the unilateral decision to switch the entire district of 18,000 students to “hybrid” education.

In announcing his decision, Kopicki lied to parents about what the state guidelines actually were.  Then he had district employees incorrectly measure desks from edge to edge rather than from center to center, which is what county health director Dr. David Damsker advocated that would have allowed schools to open normally.

Because of Kopicki, kids could only attend school two days per week. Secondary students weren’t even allowed to eat lunch in school.

Now we know that he kept kids out of school because of pressure from PSEA Mideastern Regional President Bill Senavaitis. Instead of preparing his classrooms for the upcoming school year, Senavaitis went on an unprecedented assault against Damsker, who was giving parents hope that children could have a relatively normal school year.

Senavaitis spent his time writing op-eds bashing our health department and asking Bucks County citizens to tell a board-certified public health doctor to change his health guidance in order to align with what the PSEA wanted–not what was best for children.

From emails, we learned he attacked Bucks County Health Director Damsker with a flurry of personal attacks so repulsive that Bucks County Commissioner Bob Harvie chided him for it. Later, he went as far as calling parents “jerks” in his PSEA newsletter. On August 6, 2020, he got the PSEA state president to send a letter to Bucks County commissioners pressuring them to force Damsker to change his guidance so that kids could be kept out of school. But Damsker never changed his guidance.

Bill Senavaitis left his position as president of the PSEA Mideastern Region when the truth came out. But now that time has passed the PSEA feels it’s safe to promote him again so that he can be in the same position when the next crisis occurs. Is this the type of leadership the PSEA wants to represent its organization? Is this the type of organization politicians want endorsing them?

Now, two years later, we know Damsker was correct about learning loss, distancing, and treating COVID like the flu. Senavaitis was wrong about everything concerning COVID. His op-ed titled “David Damsker’s remarks about 3-foot social distancing in schools are harmful,” is a personal and professional humiliation for him. We need to ask why he is back in the leadership role in the PSEA.

The PSEA under Senavaitis’ leadership advocated for thousands of children to be kept from school—catering to the unions’ agenda, not the children’s. That speaks volumes about the PSEA and should make every citizen and especially parents wonder what type of organization is influencing our district administrators, our school board, and our kids. All the emails and documents backing up my opinions can be found  here.

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Backed By Teachers’ Unions, Fetterman, Shapiro Send Their Kids to Private Schools

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, and Attorney General Josh Shapiro, Democratic candidate for governor, enjoy the endorsement and support of the powerful state teachers’ union.

But when it comes to their own children, they rely on private schools.

The Washington Free Beacon revealed Fetterman, a passionate opponent of school choice for low-income families, sends his kids to an expensive prep school.

“In 2018,  Fetterman told an organization founded by Bernie Sanders supporters he opposed vouchers for families in Philadelphia on the grounds that they ‘[take] money away from public schools and give it to private and charter schools. Roughly one-third of Philadelphia school kids go to charter schools because of the city’s dismal public school system,” the Free Beacon reported.

Charter schools are publicly funded alternatives to the various school district systems. Fetterman was called out for repeatedly conflating them with private school charters by David P. Hardy, co-founder and retired CEO of Boys’ Latin of Philadelphia charter school.

“Mr. Fetterman needs a primer in how charter schools work,” Hardy told Fox News on Wednesday. And he called out Fetterman’s hypocrisy on the issue.

“This guy was the mayor of his town, and he sent his kids out of that town to a private school, and left all the other kids there. That’s not a good look for him,” Hardy said.

And it is not just Fetterman. Hardy noted Pennsylvania’s liberal Gov. Tom Wolf (D) comes from a long line of private-school families. “Our current governor hasn’t had a family member in a public school since before Pearl Harbor.”

While Fetterman has publicly blasted the voucher system, Shapiro has said he supports more funding for public schools. As attorney general, he filed an amicus brief in a school funding case that remains pending.

“Every child in our commonwealth should have access to a high-quality education and safe learning environment regardless of their zip code. Many Pennsylvania schools are not able to provide the level of education required by the Constitution—not for lack of trying, but for lack of funding. I commend the tireless efforts of dedicated teachers and administrators who have struggled for years to do the most for our children with the least amount of resources,” Shapiro said.

Six school districts had filed a suit saying that the state does not fairly fund all districts and argued that 84 percent of students attend public schools that are not adequately funded. The trial phase of this case is over but a judge has not yet ruled.

Meanwhile, Shapiro’s four children attend his alma mater, a Jewish day school in the Delaware Valley where the tuition ranges from $30,500 to $37,600 a year. The private school Fetterman’s children attend also charges a hefty $34,250 a year.

Not many working families, who the Democrats claim to champion, can afford those hefty tuitions.

“Unfortunately, there are many politicians who practice the hypocrisy of supporting school choice for their own kids but opposing it for others,” Hardy said. “While folks like John Fetterman and Josh Shapiro send their children to the best private schools money can afford, they’re backed by school union executives who oppose giving poor parents access to those same educational institutions. Wealthy politicians already have educational opportunity, but they’re blocking school choice for the poor.

“Allowing taxpayer funding to follow the child to the school that best meets their needs is the only way to guarantee that all students have fair, equal access to a great education,” said Hardy.

And the state teachers union opposed Republican efforts to provide vouchers to families in districts in the bottom 15 percent of the state, where public schools are failing to teach needy children.

Neither the Fetterman nor Shapiro campaigns responded to requests for comment.

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“Back to School PA” Funder Says Union-Backed School Board Members Should Recuse From Contract Approvals

The man who fueled a political action committee boosting school board candidates committed to in-person instruction took his fight directly into the heart of the arena [March 8], arguing that board members who accepted election funding from teachers’ unions should recuse themselves from upcoming contract negotiations.

Paul Martino, the multimillionaire funder behind “Back to School PA,” made his remarks in person at a Central Bucks School District board meeting, the district where two of his children are enrolled.

He set the table for allegations of hypocrisy by saying his own activism in school board races in 2021 had frequently been referred to as “unheard of” or unprecedented.

“Also of note: $40,000 was contributed in cash and in kind to the Democratic candidates by the PSEA [Pennsylvania State Education Association teachers’ union], the school board, the school teachers. This is a truly unheard-of amount of $8,000 per candidate,” he said.


“In my day job, I sit on a lot of boards of directors and that’s called conflicted interest,” he concluded while saying board members Dr. Mariam Mahmud and Dr. Tabitha Dell’Angelo should recuse themselves from the upcoming collective bargaining for a new multi-year contract.

Martino is a co-founder and managing general partner at Bullpen Capital, a venture capital firm.

After being frustrated with the at-home telelearning his children endured at the start of the pandemic, he began to pour some of his political discontent into the PAC, Back to School PA. BTSPA then took Martino’s contributions and doled them out in smaller increments to even smaller PACS across the commonwealth dedicated to races within a single school board.

BTSPA executive director Beth Ann Rosica told Broad + Liberty that 113 candidates supported by the PAC won their races in November.

In his runup to asking for the recusal, Martino tried to draw a contrast between how his own political activism had been treated in the press and elsewhere compared to monies raised and distributed by unions and their allies.

“I’m here to tell you that Democrat candidates raised $122,000 compared to our $95,000 — outspending us by $30,000 or by 30%. It was the Democrats who spent an unprecedented amount of money on this race, not the Republicans. And they did so in a convoluted way, through ten different PACS, hiding the ball.”

Martino put his claims in a white paper produced and published on the BTSPA website. Although Broad + Liberty has not had the opportunity to factcheck all of Martino’s assertions, campaign finance reports obtained and shared by BTSPA show that the PSEA did provide at least $38,000 to the PAC that supported the Democratic slate of candidates, CBSD Neighbors United. The PSEA also made smaller donations in the race to complete the $41,000 referenced by Martino in his remarks at the board meeting.

Neither the PSEA nor the Central Bucks School District returned requests for comment.

The current contract for teachers in Central Bucks expires on June 30, according to this copy of the contract posted online.

Meanwhile, the district has been without a contract for support professionals since June, according to a January report from the Bucks County Courier Times.

“While specifics have not been discussed publicly, the stalemate appears to be at least in part due to pay increases that employees have said need to reflect the added work brought by the pandemic since 2020,” the paper said.

Martino’s activism last year drew even national coverage from outlets like Vice, amidst a year in which education was a pivot point for many voters nationally. Pundits pointed to the surprise victory of Republican Glenn Youngkin in the Virginia governor’s race as proof. That race seemed to hinge on a gaffe in which former Governor Terry McCauliffe said “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

Prior to last year’s fall elections, the Inquirer reported on Martino and his PAC, quoting critics who said his efforts were bringing “toxic politics to the local level.” A story in Philadelphia was headlined, “Inside the Ridiculously Vicious and Increasingly Nasty Local Elections in Bucks County.”

A podcast from the New York Times highlighted Martino’s influence.

“It’s a lot of money, but what may be most new and noteworthy is that so much of the money sloshing around in these races is coming from one guy,” Times national correspondent Campbell Robertson said. “Typically, a lot of the money in school board races comes from small donors, though the local party will give some money to the teachers’ union sometimes. Well, this year, in Bucks County, just one local PAC had put $50,000 into the races in the county by mid-October. And almost all of that came from Martino.”

But at the Tuesday board meeting, Martino seemed clearly irked by how he thought campaign finances had been portrayed.

“I was not the source of dark money. My contributions were clearly marked,” he said. “It was the other team that was hiding the ball.”

This article first appeared in Broad and Liberty.