Back to School PA — a political action committee borne out of a mother’s frustrations with school boards refusing to allow for in-classroom learning in fall 2020 — says 113 out of 182 candidates that the PAC supported won their races Tuesday.
The PAC is still waiting for the results of 33 school board elections in six Montgomery County districts, which are not expected until Saturday.
Setting aside the outstanding Montgomery races, the PAC had a 62 percent win rate for the candidates it supported in 55 school districts across Pennsylvania, according to a spreadsheet it shared with Broad + Liberty. The PAC only supported candidates who prioritize ensuring schools do not halt in-person instruction.
“I think putting in 113 candidates is an incredible win,” said Clarice Schillinger, the driving force behind the PAC. “I honestly couldn’t be more proud of our advocates across the state, working with these candidates, and how much time they sacrificed for the greater good and our children’s education.”
In six districts, Back to School PA-supported candidates won enough seats to flip majority control of the school board. Those districts are Harrisburg City in Dauphin County, Hempfield in Lancaster County, Palmyra in Lebanon County, Southeastern in York County, and Pennridge and Quakertown in Bucks County.
In six districts, Back to School PA-supported candidates won enough seats to flip majority control of the school board.
Schillinger first formed a grassroots organization called Keeping Kids in School in the fall of 2020 but reorganized it into Back to School PA after teaming up with Paul Martino, a venture capitalist and parent who lives in Bucks County.
“I call Keeping Kids in School my ‘Plan A’ and Back to School PA is my ‘Plan B,” Schillinger said.’
“Because what ended up happening is we saw Keeping Kids in School was so successful that we decided to franchise this and give people, advocates across the state, the tools that I had created with Keeping Kids in School. Let’s share this across the state and franchise this idea. Our goal was to find 50 people and we had 200 people reach out.”
Martino donated $500,000 of his own money to the PAC, which then doled out $10,000 to 55 smaller PACS across the state, each of those “franchise” PACs focused on a single school district. In some cases, Back to School PA or Martino supplied extra money if the need arose, Schillinger said.
For example, Martino wrote additional five-figure checks to some of the “franchise” PACs in Bucks County, according to campaign finance records.
Martino’s funding has drawn criticism.
“This is a direct result of national politics infecting our purest form of local democracy,” Jonathan Kassa said to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Kassa is a Democrat seeking reelection in the North Penn School District in Montgomery County where the results are still pending.
Education appeared to be one of the largest issues — if not the major issue — that drove Republicans to victory across the country, including Virginia, where Republican Glenn Younkin defeated the incumbent, Democrat Terry McCauliffe.
Younkin’s victory was boosted in large part by a McCauliffe statement on education.
“I’m not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decision,” McAuliffe said in a debate.
“I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
McAuliffe defended the statement days later on “Meet the Press,” saying “Everybody clapped when I said it.”
Younkin won Virginia by “effectively [flipping] the suburbs en route to victory, carrying that subset of voters by a margin of 53-47, according to exit polls. Biden carried those same suburbs 53-45 a year ago,” a report from ABC News noted.
A Morning Consult poll released Monday showed a similar trend of voters souring on Biden in suburban areas of Pennsylvania.
In New Jersey, Republican gubernatorial challenger Jack Ciattarelli came closer to beating incumbent Democrat Phil Murphy than most pundits and pollsters expected. Ciattarelli made education issues like mask mandates and teaching about race among his top campaign talking points, according to NPR.
While Schillinger said she was happy to be boosted by the national mood on education, she also feels like she had a part in helping bring it to the forefront.
“I do think that Pennsylvania and our efforts on school boards had a lot to do with some of this national attention, right? Like Fox news, they came [to the area to report], we’ve been in the New York Times.”
Both of those national reports happened in February of this year, only about five months after Schillinger started the first PAC.
The effort was not without some bruises. Candidates supported by Back to School PA were shut out in 13 districts.
Back to School PA has insisted that it is a bipartisan operation, and Schillinger said she did have Democrat candidates win on Tuesday, most of whom were in Dauphin County.
And she said she is encouraged even by efforts in districts where the PAC lost, stressing that the PAC was not evaluating a candidate’s chances of success when deciding whether to fund a franchise PAC in that district.
“We were looking at who needs help, who needs these resources, these fundings for training, to really just bring these issues to light. So, there were some that we knew we would probably not win, but what was successful is we did bring these pressing issues forward to the communities.”
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter.