FreedomWorks directs thousands of callers to Pa. House GOP leader over school voucher bill, despite his support

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Friday, June 24, 2011 at 3:35 pm

FreedomWorks’ campaign to pass school voucher legislation in Pennsylvania has now launched a robocall that allows supporters to connect directly with House Majority Floor Leader Mike Turzai.

The full message [click on red font in the next page to listen to the entire recording] was obtained by The American Independent, in which the voice of FreedomWorks’ director of state and federal campaigns Brendan Steinhauser urges listeners to call Turzai. He says, in part:

“We’re very close to getting the school choice bill passed in the general assembly, but we need your help to get this done. Please take action now and tell House Majority Leader Mike Turzai to pass a school choice bill now.”

A second voice tells callers to contact the representative to ask him to support SB1 by pressing 1. Republican Senate Education Chairman Jeffrey Piccola and Democrat Sen. Anthony Williams introduced that piece of legislation in January. It has yet to come to a full vote in the Senate. An email from Steinhauser to TAI said the calls were going out to thousands of FreedomWorks members, connecting them to Turzai’s district and Harrisburg offices.

The robocalls target Turzai despite the representative supporting at least two school voucher bills that were proposed by colleagues in the House. Those pieces of legislation vary in their proximity to SB1, with one seen as a more watered-down version while the other places no eligibility requirements on the thousands of dollars of public dollars students can use towards private school tuition.

Turzai also helped successfully pass an expansion of the state’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit–HB1330–a program that awards tax credits to families and third party groups that make funds available for low- and middle-income students to attend private schools. That bill passed the lower chamber 190-7 but awaits approval in the Senate.

To Steinhauser, that effort is not enough. In a separate e-mail he wrote: “The House could pass years 1 and 2 of SB1, which would add a voucher component to HB1330. That’s something we’d like to see the House do. I don’t think Turzai has agreed to do that yet, which is why the senate hasn’t passed its version out yet. Turzai is the key to passing the voucher component we want.”

Turzai’s spokesperson, Steve Miskin, told TAI yesterday during an interview putting pressure on a House member to back a bill in another chamber that has not been passed is absurd. “It appears they only want to be attack dogs,” he said. Miskin was at times furious during the conversation over FreedomWorks’ blunt tactics, accusing the organization of harassing Turzai.

A total of five school choice bills including SB1 are on the table in legislature, with four creating an expansive voucher program that would use public tax dollars to fund child education at a private school.

The three voucher bills in the House vary in their proximity to the terms in SB 1. One would place no income eligibility or geographic restrictions on who could qualify for the tuition vouchers, set at $5,000. Another proposed law, written by Republican Rep. Jim Christiana, is more restrictive than the Senate version, capping the income eligibility to 250 percent of the federal poverty line versus the upper chamber’s 350 percent. A third bill would grant $5,000 to students enrolled in a persistently struggling public school. TAI has written extensively on what each bill entails and their associated costs.

Yesterday the Pittsburgh Tribune Review wrote that Gov. Tom Corbett, whose budget proposal for the coming year would cut $1 billion from public education, supports Christiana’s bill. From the article:

Kevin Harley, Corbett’s spokesman, said a plan by Beaver County Republican Rep. Jim Christiana “seems to be a viable compromise that would be good for children” and a “likely vehicle in working a compromise that everybody could live with.”

Christiana’s bill would make school vouchers available to low-income children who attend the lowest-performing 5 percent of Pennsylvania schools.

The vouchers would be available starting in the 2012-2013 school year. The bill also would open up Educational Improvement Tax Credit scholarships to families earning up to $60,000. Last year, only families earning $50,000 or less qualified for the scholarships.

Rep. Tom Quigley, R-Montgomery, said school voucher legislation could be bundled with charter school reform and a teacher furlough bill to gain support.

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