Op-ed: Why I Support Options for Children in Pennsylvania’s Underperforming Schools

By: Senator Tracy Pennycuick (R-24)

Over the last couple of weeks, you may have heard news about the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success program, or PASS. You may have also heard that this program, aimed at giving children in Pennsylvania’s poorest performing schools a high-quality education, has been the center of the ongoing budget stalemate in Harrisburg.

I believe it is important to set the record straight on PASS and why I am a firm supporter of this program, which promises to help supplement and support Pennsylvania’s education system. 

No matter a student’s race, sex, religion, zip code, or economic status, every child deserves access to a high-quality education. We all know that, above all else, education is the great equalizer and is the surest way to set children on the path of realizing their potential. The solid foundation that a quality education builds creates a lifetime of opportunity.

But an unfortunate reality for many students is that they will never realize these opportunities because they are trapped in a school system that has failed them. Through no fault of their own, they routinely are denied the opportunities afforded to other students, with little or no hope of changing this reality. The bottom 15% of Pennsylvania schools are performing woefully below acceptable levels of educational attainment:

  • Only 7.6% of elementary students are proficient in math and 23.6% in English.
  • Only 19.5% of high school students are proficient in math and 28.3% in English.

This is a reality I am not willing to accept for our next generation.

Every day that passes is one less day a child in a failing district has to receive a high-quality education. It is time that we provide hope for these families.

That is why I support the inclusion of the PASS program in our state’s 2023-24 budget. The program is simple: a student attending a school performing in the lowest 15% of achievement and living in a household 250% or below the federal poverty level ($75,000 for a family of four) can qualify for a scholarship to go to another, better performing school.

For far too long, these families have had to resign themselves to a future of uncertainty, knowing that they are not receiving the tools to succeed by a system they cannot escape. Under the PASS program, families without financial resources will now have a fair shot at options that level the playing field and enable parents to decide what is best for their children.

Some have claimed that PASS is an attack on public education funding. I wholeheartedly support public education, as I support all avenues that provide the fertile ground for children to grow and blossom into future leaders.

This program does not take one dollar away from public education and represents less than 0.2% of our state’s budget. In fact, the Senate has committed a historic $1 billion of new funding towards public schools, including basic and special education. These appropriations build on the previous General Assembly investments for basic education, which increased by $1.05 billion reoccurring over the last two fiscal years alone. That means that over the last three fiscal years, our schools are slated to receive more than $2 billion dollars of new funding, which reoccurs every year.

PASS and the historic funding increases contained in our state budget can provide the first steps in building a stronger education system that begins to meet the standards of the recent Commonwealth Court decision on state funding for schools.

Most states already have similar initiatives as PASS, and two out of three Pennsylvanians support programs that give students enrolled in under-performing schools options.

Democrats, Republicans and Independents have all expressed their support, including Gov. Josh Shapiro.  He repeatedly expressed support of this concept when campaigning for governor, and I believe that the people elected him in large part because of his support of this commonsense proposal.

Unfortunately, Gov. Shapiro changed his course and announced that he will veto the PASS program from the budget he helped negotiate. It is my hope that he will reconsider his position and support thousands of students whose lives will be changed with the implementation of the PASS program.

It’s not too late for Gov. Shapiro to use his influence within his party to finalize a state budget that funds public schools at historic levels while providing hope to the thousands of families in need of the help that PASS offers.

Sen. Tracy Pennycuick represents the 24th Senate District, which covers portions of Berks and Montgomery counties.


CONTACT: Matt Szuchyt, 215-541-2388

OP-ED: Triple-Negative Breast Cancer

By: Senator Tracy Pennycuick (R-24)

Three of the scariest words in the English language are spoken thousands of times a day in a doctor’s office across the country, “you have cancer”. This year more than 12,000 Pennsylvanian women will hear these words as they are diagnosed with breast cancer. Some of whom are our friends, family members, neighbors, coworkers – perhaps even ourselves.

Breast cancer continues to be the second cause of death in women. Triple-negative breast cancer specifically, accounts for up to 20% of all diagnosed invasive breast cancer cases, affecting about 13 in 100,000 women each year. It is also one of the most challenging breast cancers for clinicians to effectively treat.

More than 53,700 new breast cancer cases nationwide in 2019 were triple-negative breast cancer, with higher prevalence among younger women, Black and Hispanic women, women with type 2 diabetes or carrying excess weight in the abdomen area and those with BRCA1 mutations.

Because of the cancer’s prevalence, I introduced a Senate Resolution to designate March 2023 as, “Triple-Negative Breast Cancer Awareness Month” in Pennsylvania, in efforts to promote awareness surrounding this aggressive form of breast cancer. So aggressive that it quickly grows and is likely to have spread by the time it is found. That’s why promoting triple-negative breast cancer awareness is so important.

There has been no greater ally in the fight against breast cancer than the President and Founder of the PA Breast Cancer Coalition, Pat Halpin-Murphy. I have worked with her, on various breast cancer measures, one being including the passage of Senator Kim Ward’s Senate Bill 8, an historic measure that breaks down financial barriers for early breast cancer detection.

Through the PA Breast Cancer Coalition’s leadership and support, Pennsylvania continues to lead the nation in triple negative breast cancer research through their Research Grants Initiative. Each year, the PBCC offers $100,000 research grants to scientists working to find the cause of and cure for breast cancer as well as improved treatments.

Triple-negative breast cancer cells are tough to treat since they do not contain the three key receptors that medicines and therapies typically target in other types of breast cancers. The limited therapies available specifically addressing the management of triple-negative breast cancer have made treating this disease a challenge for clinicians, making this research vitally important.

My advocacy journey began when my mother, grandmother, aunt, and cousins were delivered with this news. Getting involved and advocating for women like those in my family is personally rewarding.

There is no substitute for catching cancer early. Early detection of cancer can greatly increase the likelihood of positive treatment outcomes. When cancer care is delayed or inaccessible there is a lower chance of survival and greater probability of complications. Overall, 77% of women who have triple negative breast cancer are alive five years after diagnosis.

Not only do I encourage those reading to get tested but to also help advocate for all women. Whether you enroll as a volunteer, act as a support system for those going through treatment, you can make an impact in the fight against breast cancer.

So let’s find a cure now…so our daughters don’t have to.

CONTACT: Lidia Di Fiore ldifiore@pasen.gov  (215) 541-2388

OP-ED: It’s Time to Remove Cost Barriers to Early Breast Cancer Detection

By: Senators Tracy Pennycuick (R-24) & Maria Collett (D-12)

Three of the scariest words in the English language are spoken thousands of times a day in doctor’s offices across the country: “You have cancer.” This year, more than 12,000 Pennsylvania women will hear those words as they are diagnosed with breast cancer. These women are our friends, family members, neighbors and coworkers – perhaps even ourselves.

“You have cancer.” This diagnosis was delivered to both of Senator Pennycuick’s grandmothers, her mother, her aunt and cousins.

Sometimes, but not often enough, they are followed by four more words: “We caught it early.” When breast cancer and/or the gene mutations associated with it are detected early, patients have far more options and outcomes and odds of remission are drastically improved, nearly 90% for some cancers. There are no substitutes for regular screenings and genetic testing, especially for those with risk factors or a family history.

Pure and simple, early detection saves lives.

But for many women, these life-saving genetic tests and enhanced screenings are unavailable due to cost. This is unacceptable. Cost should never be a barrier to early cancer detection.

The Pennsylvania Senate has come together in a bipartisan effort to help strengthen the health and safety of our communities across the Commonwealth by breaking down these financial barriers to early detection. Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward, a breast cancer survivor thanks to early detection, sponsored Senate Bill 8, and we are proud to fully support our colleague and this legislation as cosponsors. This legislation is the first of its kind in the nation and will remove all out-of-pocket costs and mandate 100% coverage for preventative breast cancer screenings for high-risk patients. This includes coverage of all costs associated with supplemental screenings by MRI or Ultrasound, which are especially important for women with dense breast tissue.

No deductibles, no co-pays, no co-insurance.

The bill also covers genetic testing for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutation, an invaluable life-saving tool that often leads to earlier cancer detection or even prevention. Genetic testing not only informs the tested individual, but also enables their family members to understand their own risks and manage their own care.

We are proud to report that this bill was unanimously passed by the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee on February 28, and, with 47 cosponsors, we expect its passage by the full Senate shortly, sending a loud and clear message that it is time to remove the financial barriers associated with preventive breast cancer screenings and genetic testing that prevent women from obtaining affordable access to preventive screenings that detects breast cancer early and saves lives.

We encourage the House of Representatives to move swiftly as well so that Senate Bill 8 can be sent to the Governor for his signature.

CONTACT: Lidia Di Fiore ldifiore@pasen.gov  (215) 541-2388