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Published in Print: December 1, 2004, as Pa. Senator’s Residency at Issue in Charter Row

Pa. Senator’s Residency at Issue in Charter Row

Santorums Withdraw Children Following Questions About District-Financed Tuition

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U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania has withdrawn five of his children from a cyber charter school, following a barrage of stories in home-state newspapers challenging the propriety of schooling them at state taxpayers’ expense when his family lives most of the year in a Washington suburb.

Pennsylvania’s 2002 charter school law allows students who reside anywhere in the state to attend one of about a dozen online charter schools. The law requires that the school district in which the students reside pay their tuition to the cyber charter.

Mr. Santorum’s children spend approximately 100 days every year in Pennsylvania, he said in a Nov. 19 radio interview on the issue. The senator, a Republican, claims residency in Penn Hills, a municipality of about 47,000 people outside Pittsburgh, where he and his wife have owned a house since 1997.

Two of his children take part in the charter school’s online classes, including real-time sessions interacting with teachers and other students from around the Keystone State. Three more of his six children use only the curriculum the charter school delivers by computer, but are technically home schoolers, he said in the interview.

The dust-up illustrates one of the inconsistencies between electronic learning and schools’ traditional ways of organizing themselves by geography.

The Penn Hills house, described in the media as having two or three bedrooms, is listed in municipal records as having a value of $106,000. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Mr. Santorum bought the house in 1997 for $87,800. He has a larger and more costly house in Virginia.

But owning and paying taxes on a house in Pennsylvania does not qualify as residency, charges Erin Vecchio, a member of the Penn Hills school board.

Ms. Vecchio cites estimates that the school district has paid the cyber charter some $100,000 for educating Mr. Santorum’s children over four years. Under state law, the district in which a student resides pays tuition to the cyber charter school, even if the child was never enrolled in the district. The state reimburses up to 30 percent of that cost.

In an interview last week, Ms. Vecchio said that she will ask the school board at its Dec. 7 meeting to demand that Mr. Santorum write the district a refund check.

“I think the board is behind me,” she said. “They [the Santorums] don’t live here.”

Stuart Knade, the chief counsel of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, based in Cumberland, would not comment on the situation, saying that residency questions are “very fact-driven.”

But he noted that a 2000 Pennsylvania Supreme Court case involving the Cumberland Valley school district found that residency implies a physical presence or domicile, not just ownership of a home. “Each school district will determine that [residency], some by having administrative hearings,” Mr. Knade said.

Partisan Politics?

Sen. Santorum, who is the chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, sees partisan politics behind the opposition by Ms. Vecchio, who is also the chairwoman of the Penn Hills Democratic Party and has tangled with Mr. Santorum over his eligibility to vote at the local polls.

“[School administrators] never said anything until the … Democratic chair of Penn Hills decided after this election, since they lost this election, and they decided to raise a little you-know-what; they decided to attack me,” Mr. Santorum said in the radio interview.

The senator announced in a press statement Nov. 17 that he was withdrawing his children from the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, which he said his children have attended for four years “with the approval of the Penn Hills school district.”

“The school district has just informed us that after reviewing our situation, only children who live in a community on a full-time basis are eligible to be educated in a public cyber charter school program,” the press release said.

“We will now resume the practice of home schooling our children so that we can travel across Pennsylvania and continue to fulfill my pledge—that I have met every year—to visit each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties.”

A note at the end of Mr. Santorum’s press release said, “By home schooling their children for five years prior to sending them to cyber charter school, the Santorums saved taxpayers in excess of $80,000 from 1996-2001.” It said he would continue to own a home and pay taxes to the district and Penn Hills.

Mr. Santorum’s statement also expressed support for the cyber charter concept. “Being able to experience public cyber education firsthand has been a tremendous experience for my family,” he said.

PHOTO: Erin Vecchio, a member of the Penn Hills, Pa., school board, wants Sen. Rick Santorum to repay the district for his children’s tuition.
—Matt Freed/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Vol. 24, Issue 14, Page 13

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