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FreedomWorks’ email blitz for Penn. school voucher bill infuriates House GOP leader’s office

Conservative political group FreedomWorks has launched a new round of e-mails and tweets encouraging school voucher supporters to call leading Pennsylvania House members as the June 30 deadline for expansive voucher legislation nears.

One e-mail sent today to The American Independent speculates a vote on a private voucher bill could come soon. There are five pending bills in the Legislature, four of which would use taxpayer funds to fund a portion of a student’s private school tuition.

The e-mail identified six members of the House that supporters of school choice legislation should call. Republican and House Majority Floor Leader Mike Turzai is mentioned, even though he has sponsored at least two voucher proposals that have come out of the lower chamber in the last two weeks.

Steve Miskin, a spokesperson for Turzai sounded furious at times during a phone interview over FreedomWorks’ pressure campaign. “FreedomWorks is just looking to target someone for some reason. They might be better off educating the population on the benefits of school choice, instead of bullying someone,” he said.

Miskin continued: “Getting emails from people in Oklahoma or in Indiana, you’re ending things as we know it. They don’t seem to have a clue on what the specifics are. It doesn’t appear that they’re reading what they’re sending.”

He then added that, “they’re tweeting his personal cell phone number. They’re harassing [him].” A screen grab of those FreedomWorks tweets can be found here.

Asked whether other legislators are uncomfortable with the group’s blunt force, Miskin said, “I don’t think anyone gives them much thought.”

Brendan Steinhauser, director of federal and state campaigns for FreedomWorks, chastised the representative’s office in a follow up conversation with TAI. “Heaven forbid an elected official gets a phone call from a constituent or resident of the state,” he said. “We also have a million members across the country; they care about school choice.”

Steinhauser accused Turzai of moving slowly on school choice legislation, alluding to the original senate voucher bill, SB1, that was introduced in January by Republican Senate Education Chairman Jeffrey Piccola and Democrat Sen. Anthony Williams. It has yet to come to a full vote in the Senate.

“He’s got my number and can explain why he’s been stalling on this issue,” says Steinhauser.

Turzai helped successfully pass an expansion of the state’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit, a program that rewards 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.

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 one 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.

One tweet from FreedomWorks implores Turzai to vote for SB1 specifically. In a previous interview with Steinhauser, he said any school choice bill that includes a voucher provision would be seen as a victory and a defeat for the teachers unions.

Miskin, Turzai’s spokesperson, said the state’s main teachers union, Pennsylvania State Education Association, has not resorted to FreedomWorks’ tactics.

If lawmakers cannot come to a vote on any of the five school choice bills before June 30, the matter would have to be picked up again in the fall. Earlier, Steinhauser expressed concern the delay might compromise the momentum behind the pieces of voucher legislation. Miskin says that is not his concern, though he admits other legislators share that worry.

Lawmakers have set deadlines for education legislation before June 30 to have laws on the books before the end of the fiscal year. General Assembly leaders have scrambled to piece together a budget that would honor Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s request of $2.6billion in spending cuts, including $1billion in public education. Turzai’s office explained passing the budget has been the representative’s priority.

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