As the number of coronavirus cases fell in the spring, the founders of Keeping Kids in School PAC, a political action committee that aims to elect school board candidates committed to keeping school buildings open, faced an existential question: Was their effort still relevant?
In the May primary, Keeping Kids in School endorsed 91 candidates, 86 of whom went on to win, a 94 percent success rate. But concern over those 86 candidates’ primary campaign issue increased as the state continued its hands-off approach through summer.
For the PAC and its supporters, that existential question was answered by Gov. Wolf’s recent statewide mask mandate, says the PAC’s founder, Clarice Schillinger.
“[Last week], he looked at the whole state and said, ‘The schools did not do what I wanted. The counties did not do what I wanted. Only 60 schools adopted mask mandates out of the 500. Therefore, I’m going to make a mask mandate through the department of health.’ So, in fact, none of us — no one had the choice of how to operate,” Schillinger said.
READ MORE — Pennsylvania mandates masks in public schools
That resurgence of state-level control over district operations serves as justification, according to Schillinger, for a new offshoot organization Keeping Kids in School PAC created, called Back to School PA. Rather than directly endorsing individual candidates, as Keeping Kids in School PAC does, Back to School PA’s mission is to fund local PACs that exist to provide consistent funding and support to nearby school board candidates who adhere to and promote a single issue of concern: advocating for as much safe, in-classroom instruction over tele-learning as possible.
BTSPA says it has so far cut checks of $10,000 to 30 newly created PACS that will do this grassroots work, and hopes to do the same for another 20 PACS in the next few weeks.
“My fear is even though Back to School PA does not take a position on [mask-mandates], I pose the question, what do the next three weeks look like?” in terms of state mandates versus local control for school district operations, Schillinger said.
Although BTSPA and its sister PAC were created in the heart of the Delaware Valley because of Schillinger’s advocacy for her own children in the Hatboro-Horsham school district, the grants have been spread out across the state.
“We’ve had candidates reach out to us and say, ‘How do I get money?'” said Beth Ann Rosica, chief strategy officer for BTSPA. “And we say, ‘Well, we’re not endorsing individual candidates. We’re not giving money to single candidate PACs. We are looking to support grassroots advocacy advocates in the community who are willing to start PACs to support school board slates that focus on keeping kids in school.'”
The majority of BTSPA funding has come from Doylestown resident Paul Martino, a co-founder of Bullpen Capital, known for reaping a giant return on investment with its early bet on FanDuel.
‘We are looking to support grassroots advocacy advocates in the community who are willing to start PACs to support school board slates that focus on keeping kids in school.’
Martino has a history of donating to right-of-center causes and candidates, and Schillinger previously was a staffer for a Republican member in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. But Rosica insists that their efforts are not partisan.
“We have candidates in Norristown running as Democrats, we’ve been on the phone with Harrisburg city that is looking at a PAC. They have Democrats, African-American candidates. Upper Dublin,” is another example, Rosica said.
“We really, we do not care. I mean, I was a Democrat for 34 years. We do not care what their political affiliation is. As long as they commit to keeping schools open and are upset by what’s happened, we are 100 percent behind them.”
That resolve to defend against schools closing again stems from a belief that those involved in managing public education, especially teachers’ unions, are not concerned with the consequences of shutdowns, and would be willing to send kids home again this fall.
Rosica pointed to a representative for the Los Angeles Unified School District teacher’s union who said, “There’s no such thing as learning loss.”
“Our kids didn’t lose anything,” she said. “It’s OK that our babies may not have learned all their times tables. They learned resilience. They learned survival. They learned critical-thinking skills. They know the difference between a riot and a protest. They know the words insurrection and coup.”
That comment came just weeks after McKinsey, one of the largest and most respected consulting firms in the nation, published a report showing catastrophic learning loss.
“Our analysis shows that the impact of the pandemic on K–12 student learning was significant, leaving students on average five months behind in mathematics and four months behind in reading by the end of the school year,” the McKinsey report said. “The pandemic widened preexisting opportunity and achievement gaps, hitting historically disadvantaged students hardest.”
Keeping Kids in School PAC has not shied away from picking fights with teachers’ unions here in Pennsylvania, including the Pennsylvania State Education Association–one of the biggest political forces in the state. Rosica sees them a one of the impediments to maintaining in-class instruction.
“We want to be the antithesis to the teacher’s union endorsements,” Rosica said. “The teacher’s union has endorsed candidates either publicly or behind closed doors or with support or with help—we know that that’s been happening for a long time. And many of our school boards are filled with these PSEA-supported candidates who are representing the teacher’s union’s interests and not the students or the taxpayer’s interests.”
‘We want to be the antithesis to the teacher’s union endorsements.’
The PSEA did not return a request for comment for this story, but told Broad + Liberty previously: “It is unfortunate that the Keeping Kids in School PAC has mischaracterized the important role of our educators and support professionals in order to advance a political agenda.”
“PSEA members proudly advocated for school districts to follow the state’s health and safety guidelines in order to keep students and staff safe at school. These guidelines were crafted with the input of public health experts, the very people we should be listening to during a pandemic,” PSEA assistant director of communications Chris Lilienthal said in May.
Disclosure: Beth Ann Rosica has previously authored opinion pieces at Broad + Liberty in the capacity of a Chester County Parent.
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at firstname.lastname@example.org, or use his encrypted email at email@example.com.