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Pa. could finally start to fund public defense

Plus, as school board races heat up, spending may be tough to track.

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A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom producing investigative journalism for Pennsylvania.

April 27, 2023 |
Public defense funding, consolidation headache, independent homicide investigations, House priorities, health merger, and missing millions.
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Pennsylvania is the only state in the nation that doesn’t fund public defense, but that could change if the legislature approves a proposal in Gov. Josh Shapiro’s budget.

Shapiro has proposed $10 million for no-cost legal representation for Pennsylvanians accused of crimes who can’t afford an attorney.

Individual counties currently foot the bill for “indigent” Pennsylvanians’ public defenders, an unequal system that legislators and legal experts have criticized for decades, Danielle Ohl reports.

Also this week, Wyatt Massey reports that Pennsylvania's state-related universities might still raise what is already some of the most expensive tuition in the country, despite a proposed funding boost.

Finally, Stephen Caruso and Kate Huangpu report that Pa. House Democrats are advancing bills addressing worker safety, gun access, and discrimination.

“All bills, whether introduced by a Democrat or Republican, will be considered if they have a positive impact on Pennsylvania.”

—Beth Rementer, spokesperson for House Majority Leader Matt Bradford (D., Montgomery), as House committees considered dozens of bills in the first full week this session of an unquestioned Democratic state House majority


LEGISLATIVE AGENDA: Join us TODAY from 6-7 p.m. on Zoom for a free panel on what issues and priorities are on the state legislature’s docket in 2023. Register for the event here and submit your questions to

Support Spotlight PA's independent, nonpartisan journalism and all monthly gifts will be matched 12 times!
» Bill allowing counties to process mail ballots early clears first hurdle in Pa. House
» DuBois official’s corruption arrest puts consolidation with Sandy Township at risk

As school board races heat up, spending may be tough to track

A quirk in U.S. campaign finance law means it could be hard to track spending from a conservative, Pennsylvania-based political action committee in contentious school board races this year. 

That’s because these seldom-updated disclosure laws weren’t designed to monitor well-heeled super PACs pumping cash into historically-sleepy school board races, experts say. 

“In the ’70s, nobody would have thought that this would be happening,” said Ian Vandewalker, who serves as senior counsel for the Brennan Center’s Elections and Government Program, of the big money that has begun flowing into local school board races in recent years. 

The PAC in question is Back to School USA, and it typifies that school board spending trend.

It formed in Pennsylvania two years ago and poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the commonwealth’s school board races during that cycle. 

The group’s original mission was to keep schools open in-person throughout the pandemic. It then expanded to encompass a much broader array of grievances against public schools, funding candidates who believed schools needed to combat “critical race theory” and who accused Democratic opponents of having “Marxist agendas.” 

It has since filed with the Federal Election Commission to spend nationally. A mission statement on its current website says it seeks to counter advertising from “deep-pocketed liberal teachers unions” and oppose “special interest groups that are responsible for indoctrinating our children.”

But complete FEC filings from Back to School USA and other groups like it won’t be available ahead of this year’s school board elections because super PACs only have to file quarterly reports during midterm and general election years. 

So-called “odd years,” like those in which school board elections take place in Pennsylvania, only require twice-annual filings to the FEC. That means the commission won’t publicize this year’s spending until the end of July (months after Pennsylvania’s school board primary) and then again in January 2024 (months after the general election). 

Shanna Ports, counsel for the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, said in a statement that only requiring twice-annual filing in odd years allows PACs “to avoid [a] basic level of transparency.”

"Voters have a right to know which wealthy special interests are spending to influence our vote and our government,” Ports said. 

The little information currently available about Back to School USA’s finances shows that it has allies with the ability to make a financial splash.

The group has long been associated with wealthy Bucks County venture capitalist Paul Martino, who personally put more than $500,000 into the PAC’s 2021 spending effort. Martino was helped that year by Pennsylvania’s richest person, Jeff Yass, a prodigious donor focused on “school choice,” or efforts to use taxpayer dollars to send kids to private, parochial, and charter schools instead of public ones. 

Back to School USA’s most recent campaign finance report — from the end of 2022 — shows that Yass is its single biggest donor, having given $25,000 of his own money. 

Martino told Spotlight PA that the PAC doesn’t plan to spend in this year’s school board primaries, but that it’s currently planning out a potential strategy for the general election. 

However, in an interview with Fox News last year, PAC director Clarice Schillinger gave a more ambitious assessment of the group’s aims. 

“Our money in Back to School USA right now is going into California, Texas, Virginia, Georgia — we are looking across the nation,” she said. “The money comes in, the money goes out.” Katie Meyer, Spotlight PA

» How Spotlight PA will cover Pa.'s 2023 primary election

» How to request, fill out, and return your mail ballot

» How to vote, find your polling place, understand mail ballots

» A guide to vetting candidates for school board, judge, and more

» A guide to the Commonwealth, Superior Court candidates

» A guide to the Pa. Supreme Court candidates

» High court candidates with party backing show fundraising edge

» Register to vote in the May 16 primary here; deadline May 1

» Request your mail ballot for the May 16 primary; deadline May 9

Support Spotlight PA's public-service election and voting coverage now.
» Los candidatos a la Corte de la Commonwealth y Cortes Superiores

» Guía completa de los candidatos a la Corte Suprema del Estado

» Una guía completa para el día de las elecciones primarias de Pa.

Apoye ahora la cobertura electoral de servicio público de Spotlight PA.
This week's top news story in PennsylvaniaSITE BANS: Pennsylvania lawmakers are moving toward banning supervised injection sites across the commonwealth, WHYY reports. These sites allow for the supervised use of illegal drugs to prevent overdose deaths. The state Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday passed a bill that would criminalize the operation of these kinds of sites.

This week's second top news story in PennsylvaniaIN LIMBO: Families of homicide victims in Philadelphia are investigating cases themselves when they can't reach police detectives, The Inquirer reports. The paper interviewed almost a dozen families of victims who say they rarely hear back from homicide police.

This week's third top news story in PennsylvaniaUNDER THE GUN: The U.S. Army is scaling up production of artillery shells in aid of Ukraine, and also to prepare for potential conflict with China. The Scranton Army Ammunition Plant is "the vanguard of a multibillion-dollar Pentagon plan to modernize and accelerate its production of ammunition and equipment," the AP reports.

COMMUNITY HEALTH: Kaiser Permanente is set to acquire Pennsylvania's Geisinger Health and launch a new nonprofit entity called Risant Health. Kaiser Permanente says other community hospital systems are set to enter the fold and that they, like Geisinger, would continue to operate as regional or community-based providers with the benefit of additional "expertise, resources, and support."

NONSTARTER: Philly's $22 million anti-violence grant program sent money to nonprofits without budgets or employees, The Inquirer reports. And some recipients couldn't deliver on their promises.

» AP: Norfolk Southern estimates Ohio derailment will cost $387M

» BOLTS: Fatal police shooting looms over Monroe Co. DA race

» LNP: Steinman family gifts LNP to WITF

» MORNING CALL: Gymnastics coach retires as investigation unfolds

» WESA: Pa. seeks to recover some CARES Act funds

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