Bucks County parents who made efficient use of Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know law during the Covid-19 pandemic have helped to make the case for school choice. They have also focused attention on the actions of Pennsylvania’s 29 intermediate units, which the General Assembly created in 1971 for the purpose of operating as “regional educational services agencies.”
The documents parents obtained through open records requests highlight education and health care policies organized through public agencies that they view as an assault on self-government.
Proposed legislation like the Lifeline Scholarship bill that just passed in the Pennsylvania House this week have gained momentum in recent weeks in part because they are built around the idea of empowering parents. The appeal of scholarship accounts enabling parents to break orbit from conventional public schools by exercising more control over their own tax dollars is not difficult to understand.
A key player in the drive toward education reform and greater accountability on the part of public schools is the grassroots group known as ReOpen Bucks, which is composed of parents and other community activists who are united in the belief that government agencies reacted to the pandemic in a manner that was “unwarranted and harmful.”
Megan Brock is one of those parents. The documents she obtained in collaborative efforts with other ReOpen Bucks activists suggest the Bucks County Intermediate Unit and the Bucks County Commissioners essentially took direction from the Wolf administration during the pandemic while also formulating a partnership with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) that may deserve more scrutiny.
Gov. Tom Wolf’s Department of Education wanted more information about mask policies that were being implemented across the state, she explained in an interview. But instead of directly soliciting this information from school districts, the Right-to-Know documents make it evident the state education department called on the Pennsylvania Association of Intermediate Units (PAIU) to collect this information.
“This pattern of the Pennsylvania Department of Education using the Pennsylvania Association of Intermediate Units to covertly collect information about school districts was regularly repeated,” Brock said.
A key turning point in formulation of Covid-19 policy came in the form of an Aug. 23, 2021, letter from Alison Beam, an attorney who was serving as Wolf’s acting health care director at the time. In the letter, Beam expressed opposition to the 2021-2022 School Reopening Guidance that Dr. David Damsker, the county health director, had circulated days earlier on Aug. 15. Damsker had embraced more of a flu mitigation model that eliminated the need for mask mandates, contract tracing, and extended quarantines. Damsker’s guidance also would have negated the need for Pennsylvania to embrace expensive testing initiatives. But Team Wolf opposed the plan.
Faith Haeussler, director of intergovernmental affairs for the state health department, sent an August 23 email addressed to Diane M. Ellis-Marseglia, Bucks commissioners’ vice chair, alerting Ellis-Marseglia to Beam’s pending letter: “I would like to speak with you at your earliest convenience to discuss a letter that the Department of Health will be issuing in the future.” Ultimately, parents and elected officials prevailed over the Wolf administration in a decisive ruling from the Commonwealth Court striking down the health secretary’s mask mandates. But many questions have been left unanswered that demand further open records requests.
Bucks County parents and taxpayers deserve to be fully informed about the mission of the intermediate units, the role they play in formulating education policy, and their relationships with other government agencies. Here, the Right-to-Know process can open up new avenues leading to greater openness and transparency.
The PAIU describes the units as “entrepreneurial, highly skilled, technology-rich, and agile providers of cost-effective, instructional, and operational services to school districts, charter schools, and over 2,400 non-public and private schools.” The units essentially serve as liaisons between local schools and the state’s Department of Education. In Bucks County, for instance, the unit offers training exercises and workshops for teachers and other public school staff members and connects those same individuals with resources available through the department.
But are they really operating in the public interest in line with what the General Assembly had in mind when they were created? On July 22, 2020, Rebecca Roberts-Malamis, the Bucks County Intermediate Unit’s deputy executive director and in-house legal counsel, sent emails to her colleagues in Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties detailing some of the topics that would be discussed the following day as part of a “Four County Regional Superintendents Forum.” The Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), the state’s largest public employee union, figured prominently in the discussion. The form schedule listed in the emails makes it clear that the PSEA’s policy on school re-openings and staff attendance was a top concern for intermediate unit executive directors and superintendents.
This is not to say staff members with the intermediate units did not place any emphasis on the concerns of parents who wanted their children back in 2020 and 2021. But up until now, the Bucks County Intermediate Unit has resisted Right-to-Know requests that could more fully flesh out how it balanced parental rights with union demands.
The unit rejected a Right-to-Know request the Commonwealth Foundation, a free market think tank, filed in Sept. 2021 asking for “copies of all electronic records” between the unit, various education unions, and the state’s Department of Health, from June 1, 2020, to Sept. 10, 2021. The unit claimed the request was not specific enough. During the appeal process, the unit also made the argument that the term “electronic records” is “extremely broad” because it covers more than just emails. So, getting this information requires a bit of gymnastics.
The Commonwealth Foundation filed a new Right-to-Know request last week that went into additional detail asking for copies of all “inbound and outbound emails (including all attachments) and regular mail delivered or sent by the United States postal system” for staff members from the unit ranging from roughly six to eight-week increments beginning in June 2021 and ending in Nov. 2021. A subsequent request for the same information beginning in the 2022 calendar year is in the hopper.
Next on the agenda will be a Right-to-Know request that probes into the relationship between the Bucks County Intermediate Unit and CHOP.
Mark Hoffman, executive director for the unit, sent a Nov. 15, 2020, email to Dr. David Rubin, a pediatrician who serves as the director for PolicyLab at CHOP. Hoffman discussed a partnership between the unit and CHOP in his message with regard to the use of rapid antigen tests in schools. “Thank you for extending this partnership to the Bucks IU,” Hoffman wrote in his message. “We are happy to support you and CHOP now as this materializes…” In a separate message addressed to superintendents, and other colleagues, including Damsker, that same day, Hoffman goes into additional detail about the plans for testing.
Rubin also had a robust exchange with Damsker a few weeks later where Rubin mentions an upcoming meeting with PSEA where Rubin planned to provide the union with assurances that the testing would be safe. This exchange was prompted by a Dec. 16, 2020, message from Damsker to Rubin.
“Will PSEA guarantee they will push for all in-person teaching in exchange for testing?” Damsker asked the CHOP pediatrician.
“Because otherwise, I don’t see much of an advantage to doing this…
Prior exchanges that same day involve a “CHOP letter of agreement” about testing. Elected officials in Bucks County serving in the General Assembly now have an added impetus to vote for the Lifeline Scholarships in light of what parents have unraveled with their Right-to-Know requests. It’s evident that Covid-19 school policies were formulated with an eye toward special interests rather than the taxpaying public. By expanding school choice, lawmakers can help to restore parental input and authority where it has gone missing.
Kevin Mooney (@KevinMooneyDC) is an investigative reporter for the Commonwealth Foundation. He writes for several national publications.