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School voucher opponents protest at office of Lancaster County Sen. Scott Martin; decry campaign donations from billionaire Jeffrey Yass

  • By Jaxon White/LNP | LancasterOnline

 Jaxon White / LNP | LancasterOnline

The "All Eyes on Yass" coalition marched into state Sen. Scott Martin's Capitol office on June 10, 2024, and displayed a fake check listing pro-school choice megadonor Jeffrey Yass as its signatory.

Chants of “Vouchers are a scam by Pa.’s richest man,” and “Jeffrey Yass, we’re no fools. We won’t let you ruin our schools,” could be heard in the Senate side of Pennsylvania’s Capitol building Monday as dozens of protesters gathered to demand that lawmakers stop taking money from the leading financial backer of the school choice movement.

Activists with the “All Eyes on Yass” coalition entered the offices of Senate Appropriations Chairman Scott Martin, a Martic Township Republican; Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward, a Republican from Westmoreland County; Lehigh County Republican Jarrett Coleman; and Philadelphia Democrat Anthony Williams, who has largely sided with the GOP on supporting school choice initiatives.

Yass, a Montgomery County resident, is a former professional gambler turned stock trader who has contributed millions of his fortune to political action committees that support pro-school choice candidates.

Inside Martin’s office, the group displayed a large prop check for $911,565 and addressed to Martin from Yass. The memo line read it was for “Sending public $$$ to private schools.”

Two Capitol Police officers quickly arrived after the chanting began and notified the group they would need to leave if they continued yelling inside the office where staff members were working. Activists then shared their personal stories growing up in the state’s public education system with a staff member at the front desk.

One of those was Duncan Hopkins, a 2015 graduate of McCaskey High School. He said he rode a bus every day to school that picked up a student who used a wheelchair and had speech disabilities.

“The only reason why we were able to take him to school was because McCaskey had the resources for special needs education,” Hopkins said, adding that similar students could “have their lives worse off” if Martin continues supporting policies that take money away from public schools.

The activists didn’t provide a full accounting for the amounts on the fake checks. LNP | LancasterOnline was only able to verify most ($784,700) of the amount the group said Martin has received from Yass and Yass-linked PACs.

Martin, whose committee takes the lead in crafting budget-related legislation, said funding a private school voucher program is one of his top priorities for the ongoing negotiations over next year’s budget — due by the end of June. Last year, a proposed $100 million for the voucher program disrupted budget talks for more than five months after Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro vetoed it.

Democratic lawmakers and public education advocates have argued private school vouchers would take money away that could be used to improve low-performing public schools. But Shapiro has publicly supported vouchers and suggested in his February address to members of the General Assembly that he’d support legislation funding the program this year, though he did not include it in his budget pitch.

“Shouting and stomping outside a legislator’s office is the least effective form of advocacy imaginable,” said Martin’s spokesman, Jason Thompson. “In truth, the only thing this group accomplished today was disrupting Senator Martin’s efforts to honor Journie Rodriguez, a junior from McCaskey High School in Lancaster who was among the first young ladies to earn a state championship in girls’ wrestling.”

Outside of Ward’s office, another dozen protesters stood chanting while five were seen having a conversation with members of Ward’s staff, who refused to allow a reporter to listen in on the conversation.

“Sen. Ward makes every effort to meet with her constituents in a respectful and constructive manner and today was no exception. Among the protesters, a few of Sen. Ward’s constituents were recognized and met with our legislative team to share their perspectives on education,” said Erica Clayton Wright, Ward’s spokeswoman.

Ward and the other lawmakers were also presented with fake checks showing how much they estimated each received from Yass and the political committees he funds. Ward’s listed $1,012,000, Coleman’s $883,622 and Williams’ $321,500.

Williams said the protesters are trying to “exploit” the state’s “poor Black and Brown” students for political gain. “They are a distraction to the integrity of my community.”

Coleman did not respond to a voicemail left with his Harrisburg office.

Democracy Reporter Jordan Wilkie, of WITF, contributed to this report.

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