- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Recent editorials from Kentucky newspapers:

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June 3

The Courier-Journal on free school meal programs:

As the Courier-Journal and the Hechinger Report recently detailed, the gap in student achievement between different groups persists and is even widening in Kentucky. That’s why a bill working its way through Congress is troubling.

The CJ/Hechinger project looked mostly at the impact of Kentucky’s adoption of Common Core standards, but experts say many factors come to bear on why some students perform better than others. Solutions must extend beyond the school day to the home and community. For instance, if students are not healthy and well-nourished when they arrive at school, they struggle in the classroom.

One tool that has been helpful in this regard is the free and reduced-cost breakfast and lunch program offered to students from low-income families through federal funding. That program became even more effective in 2010 when Congress extended the benefit to cover all students in schools where at least 40 percent of the students qualify.

The logic: the stigma of going to receive a free breakfast or lunch often keeps hungry students from seeking the very meal they so desperately need. If all students are getting fed, the stigma goes away.

Extending eligibility to all students also means that some children who don’t meet the eligibility requirements or can’t document it but who really don’t get good meals at home are also covered. And that’s often the case in schools with large low-income populations that do meet current overall eligibility standards.

In addition, schools save money by reducing administrative costs because they no longer must deal with the red tape of tracking which students are eligible and making sure only eligible students get the benefit.

The nutrition program’s authorization expired in September, so Congress is grappling with how to renew it. Unfortunately U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita thinks the current approach is “perverse” and a “bad social message.” The Indiana Republican is pushing legislation to raise the threshold to 60 percent of students qualifying before a school could extend free breakfast and lunch to all students.

By kicking out of the program an estimated 3.4 million students nationally who attend schools no longer eligible under his higher standard, Rokita figures the federal government will save $1 billion over a decade. To his credit, Rokita does say he wants the savings to be spent on a much-needed increase in the reimbursement for breakfasts served, which hasn’t been raised since the 1980s, and for improving summer meal programs for hungry children.

Rokita’s bill cleared the House Committee on Education and the Workforce last month. A separate bill with different provisions is working its way through the Senate. Now is the time to find a bipartisan solution that renews the program with similar guidelines on eligibility as in the past.

Some of our most challenged schools need to stay focused on getting children the education they deserve and not on administering a program that is but one crucial element of keeping those children ready to learn.

Online:

http://www.courier-journal.com/

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June 6

The Lexington Herald-Leader on coal miners’ benefits:

When President Harry S. Truman was personally negotiating with labor leader John L. Lewis to avert an economically crippling coal strike in 1946, the miners’ top priority was not higher wages or more vacation but to improve the deplorable state of health care in the coalfields.

They succeeded when Truman signed an agreement promising lifelong health and retirement benefits, paid for by a royalty on coal production. The health benefit created modern hospitals, rehabbed injured miners and attracted medical professionals to places that desperately needed them.

Seventy years later, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky holds the power to break or honor the promise that Truman made and subsequent presidents and congresses have renewed.

Unless Congress acts, more than 3,000 Kentuckians can expect to lose their health benefits by the end of the year, as United Mine Workers of America health and pension funds falter.

The pension and health funds pump more than $100 million a year into Kentucky - in communities that are suffering the most from the industry’s decline.

Their failure and the resulting loss of income to local businesses and medical providers would inflict more suffering on the people and places that McConnell holds up as victims of President Barack Obama’s climate policies, the places that supported McConnell’s re-election in 2014, even though the UMWA endorsed his Democratic opponent. Obama supports the plan to save miners’ benefits and has included it in his budgets.

McConnell blocked a bipartisan rescue plan last December when it was on track to be part of a year-end spending bill. Now his office is saying only that the Senate leader supports “regular order consideration of this important issue” and that it’s in the hands of the Finance Committee.

Some coal state senators are urging McConnell to act on the crisis before Congress breaks for its long summer recess. A May 27 letter to McConnell from three senators, including Joe Manchin warns that in addition to the impending loss of medical benefits to 21,000 people across the country, the UMWA pension plan will hit a “point of no return” next year.

The pension plan was well funded in 2007 before the Great Recession drained its assets; more recently bankruptcies are freeing coal companies from their pension obligations. The longer the delay in replenishing the plan, the costlier it becomes to avoid its insolvency.

The proposed fix, which has supporters in both parties, is to tap fees the coal industry pays for leasing rights and cleaning up abandoned mine sites and the interest, some of which already go to the miners’ health fund. If those sources fall short, the Treasury (taxpayers) would make up the difference - an option reviled by conservatives as a “bailout” for organized labor and a dangerous precedent.

Other pension plans involving more than one employer are also in trouble because of the 2008 crash’s lasting effects and declining numbers paying in. Also at risk is the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, the federal agency that insures pensions; the failure of the mine workers’ fund could sink it.

The average pension received by 89,000 retired coal miners and widows is $560 a month. Losing pension and health benefits would force them to pay for Medicare supplemental insurance from their Social Security; many miners have costly job-related medical problems, another reason health benefits are treasured.

The 1946 promise from the federal government puts the UMWA pensioners in a category by themselves, in recognition of the unique sacrifices coal miners made to build U.S. prosperity in the 20th century.

McConnell excels at pro-miner rhetoric. But what the pensioners, widows and coalfield communities need from him now is a clear answer.

They need to know what, if anything, he intends to do to preserve the pension and health benefits they were promised. And they need to know without delay.

Online:

http://www.kentucky.com/

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June 3

The Kentucky New Era on the declining population:

We commended U.S. Sen. Rand Paul last week for sponsoring legislation that would more accurately count military people in Hopkinsville and Christian County’s population. Paul is advocating for a U.S. Census Bureau change long overdue to include deployed service members as residents of their assigned U.S. installations rather than the residence listed at their time of enlistment.

This is one response that makes sense in light of new census estimates showing the population of Hopkinsville and Christian County declined by nearly 1 percent from 2014 to 2015. However, Fort Campbell’s impact on the census is not the only factor that local officials have to consider.

The economy is always a key influence in population. Prior to retirement age, people are most likely to move into a community for a job. And residents tend to stay in a community if opportunities for work and advancement are strong.

We have to look to people who are investing in new business - along with public officials - to have the most influence on population growth. Local leaders must make growth a priority, and they ought to cooperate with entrepreneurs who are willing to take risks that result in new businesses that create jobs.

Other factors also influence economic development and must be part of an overall plan for growth. The quality of public and private schools, in addition to the community college and the Murray State University regional campus, all help determine the ability of the local workforce to meet the needs of the job market.

It is significant that a large percentage of Hopkinsville and Christian County residents live in poverty - 21.6 percent countywide and 23.6 percent in the city, according to the Census Bureau. Poverty has to be addressed first through education. Providing the best schools possible is a logical, long-term solution to our community’s economic challenges, and that in turn will create opportunities that spur economic and population growth.

We shouldn’t avoid looking at these issues and others, such as housing options and public amenities.

A community that wants to grow has to sell itself through a comprehensive approach that looks at quality of life, education, the economy, public safety and perception. What we say and think about ourselves as a community also determines whether others want to move here.

We have some work ahead of us. Hopkinsville’s population dipped from 32,499 in 2014 to 32,205 in 2015, according to the census estimate. The county population declined from 74,250 to 73,309.

Although the city’s population decreased by just 294 residents, the estimate affected Hopkinsville’s standing in the state. We dropped from seventh to ninth largest city, sliding below Georgetown and Florence.

Hopkinsville and Christian County can grow with strategic blueprint and the cooperation of business leaders, officeholders, local planners and economic development officials.

Online:

http://www.kentuckynewera.com/

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