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Santorum's Family Affair

The senator puts his children in a TV ad saying opponents "criticized us," but the criticism really was levied at their father.

September 12, 2006

Modified: September 12, 2006

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Summary

Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Rick Santorum shows his children claiming that political opponents have criticized him "for moving us to Washington," and that "they criticized us for attending a Pennsylvania public school over the Internet." In fact, the critique was of Santorum, not his children. And the controversy was over money, not Santorum's family values.

The ad is Santorum's response to accusations by local officials that he exploited a Pennsylvania program that paid tens of thousands of dollars in tuition for his children to be educated via a publicly supported Internet charter school while the family was living in Virginia.

Analysis

If all politics are indeed local, then where Santorum lives and who pays for his children's education may be at least as serious a re-election issue for him as Iraq or immigration. And indeed, Santorum's ad "Important Job" began running in Pennsylvania on Sept. 6, featuring his six children addressing just that issue.

Rick Santorum Ad "Important Job"

Johnny Santorum: My dad's opponents have criticized him for moving us to Washington so we could be with him more.
Daniel Santorum: And they criticized us for attending a Pennsylvania public school over the Internet.
Elizabeth Santorum: And he votes in Washington almost 40 weeks some years. And when he's not voting...
Peter Santorum: Dad's traveling all across Pennsylvania. 67 counties.
Patrick Santorum: That's a lot.
Johnny Santorum: Our dad works hard for the people of Pennsylvania, but one thing he's made very clear to us...
Sarah Maria Santorum: Being our dad is his most important job he'll ever have.
Rick Santorum: I'm Rick Santorum, your Senator, and I approve this message.

"They criticized us"

In the ad 13-year-old Johnny Santorum says "My dad's opponents have criticized him for moving us to Washington so we could be with him more." And 11-year-old Daniel Santorum adds that "they criticized us for attending a Pennsylvania public school over the Internet."

That misstates matters. The criticism wasn't of Santorum's children, but of the senator himself. And it was not over moving the children to be near him, nor was it about choosing "public school" or "the Internet." Rather, it concerned whether Pennsylvania taxpayers should foot a very substantial bill for the Santorum brood's education-via-Internet from a Virginia suburb of Washington, DC.

From 2001 to 2004, five of Santorum's six children participated in classes at the Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School , an online charter school that serves children from kindergarten through 12th grade.  The school is open to the children of Pennsylvania residents.  Under state law, the local school districts of the residents pay 80 per cent of their per pupil costs toward the school's tuition.  For the 2004-2005 academic year the tuition for Santorum's five children would have been $38,000.  The controversy centers on whether or not the Santorums are "residents" of the Penn Hills School District which paid for part of the tuition.

The Santorums do own a home in Penn Hills, a suburb of Pittsburgh, but spend most of their time in the family's other home in Leesburg, VA, a suburb of Washington, D.C.  Santorum's ad says that he moved his wife and kids to Virginia so his family "can be with him more" as he fulfills his responsibilities in the Senate.  School district officials argued that despite the fact that the Santorums own a home in Penn Hills, they are not "residents." The School Board officially petitioned the state for the $73,000 that it says was wrongly paid to the cyber school over the four-year period. State officials sided with Santorum. During the summer of 2005 the Pennsylvania Department of Education denied the school district the requested funds, saying officials delayed too long in challenging the residency of the Santorums and that they were therefore still considered residents of Penn Hills.

The controversy was ultimately resolved in Sept. 2006 when the State agreed to pay $55,000 to the Penn Hills School District.  The settlement was not characterized as a reimbursement for the Santorum's tuition, but instead as an admission that the Pennsylvania Department of Education issued conflicting deadlines for filing challenges. The Santorums were not a party to the agreement. They
withdrew their children from the cyber school after the issue became public.  The children are now homeschooled in Virginia.

Partisan Criticism?

Santorum has complained that the criticism is partisan. It first surfaced in local newspapers and then was championed by school-board member Erin Vecchio, who is also the chairwoman of the local Democratic committee.  Vecchio says that the Santorums never lived fulltime in the Penn Hills home they bought in 1997.  She told the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, "You have to be able to prove you're a (Penn Hills) resident. He doesn't sleep there." Other Board members disagreed.  Board member Heather Hoolahan said, "The problem is not with Senator Santorum. The problem is that the law is inherently flawed.  He believed he was entitled to it, and that's a common misconception -- that taxpayer equals resident."

The battle over residency may be a bit of a flashback for the Senator, who in 1990 while seeking a seat in the House of Representatives criticized incumbent Doug Walgren for not living in the congressional district, but instead, in a wealthy Virginia suburb.  When asked about this contrast during the televised debate with Democratic challenger Bob Casey on Meet the Press, Santorum had this to say :

Santorum: First off, he [Walgren] never owned a home in the district, ever, in 14 years. Let me finish.  He never owned a home for 14 years, never had a residence there...I mean, the, the, the bottom line is that I, own a home there, I pay all—I pay my local taxes, I pay my state taxes, income taxes, I pay real estate taxes, and I have, and I can—and my driver’s license there, I vote there, my dentist is there. I mean, the bottom line is, yes, I have a job here in Washington, that’s what the people of Pennsylvania elected me to do. And I pay all my taxes there, and, and I want to be a father who’s with his children. And I own a home, I pay my taxes. My opponent didn’t own a home, and he didn’t pay his taxes.

 

- by James Ficaro

Sources

Daniel Reynolds, " Santorum school flap continues ," Pittsburgh Tribune Review, 19 Nov. 2004.

Marc Levy, " Pa. offers deal over Santorum tuition ," Associated Press, 2 Sept. 2006.

Reid Frazier, "Board Revises Cyber Policy ," Pittsburgh Tribune Review, 11 Aug. 2005.

"State Pays to settle Santorum tuition spat," Pittsburgh Tribune Review, 2 Sept. 2006.

Amy McConnell Schaarsmith, "Penn Hills loses Santorum cyber school tuition fight," Pittsburgh Post Gazette, 11 July 2005.