Editorials from around Pennsylvania
THE TRUE COST OF CHARTER SCHOOLS, Sept. 19
Two studies were released last week that at first glance have nothing to do with each other. The first was a report by Research for Action, a Philadelphia educational research firm, that measured the fiscal impact of charter schools on six school districts around the state, including Philadelphia’s.
RFA’s model accounts for variables like rates of charter growth, size of districts, and short- and long-term impact. The bottom line: the burgeoning charter system, which now numbers more than 130,000 students (70,000 in Philadelphia) has hit districts around the state hard. In Philadelphia, the report found, charters cost the district $8,000 per student initially and $4,000 each subsequent year, even after five years.
This is the first time fiscal impact has been measured so rigorously, though the news that charters have been costly is not altogether surprising.
Districts pay tuition for every student enrolling in a charter school - about equal to the per-pupil allotment the state issues for education. The more students who go to charters, the more money flows from district schools.
State legislators have insisted on funding charter education expansion without acknowledging the impact on the system as a whole, expecting that school districts will eventually right-size to accommodate the smaller number of students. But that hardly happens overnight, and cost-cutting measures like increasing class size harm the students left behind in traditional schools. Besides, as the RFA report makes clear, the economic impact is long-term: districts can never recoup the money they lose each year, especially as charters continue to expand. This especially harms smaller districts, which don’t have the same flexibility to close schools as larger districts.
For a while, the state reimbursed a percentage of that money to districts but no longer.
Though charters are popular with parents, overall charter achievement is a black box. Some schools perform well. Many don’t. But there is no definitive study or agreement on how charters hold up against traditional public schools. It’s as though the state has been spending hundreds of millions of dollars with its eyes closed, saying: “Don’t tell us how our investment is doing.”
For 20 years.
That’s why the second study bears mentioning. Last week, a U.S. Census report found that Philadelphia retains its ranking as the poorest city among the country’s 10 biggest cities.
More people live below the poverty line than did 20 years ago, when charters were authorized.
If charters were an effective alternative to public schools - the belief that led to their authorization and continued expansion - wouldn’t we have seen a change in the poverty number?
Obviously, many factors impact the poverty rate, and education is only one of them. But it’s one we have some control over, if we fund it smartly.
The state’s funding priorities - or lack of them - have served as a poison pill for public education; lacking more scrutiny and accountability, charter school spending ensures it’s a very slow-acting one.
OMBUDSMAN FINE, FUNDING CHILD WELFARE BETTER, Sept. 17
Pennsylvania’s child welfare system is broken.
That was the finding of Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, whose “State of the Child” report was released last week.
And it confirms what we in York County already knew.
The yearlong audit described a system overwhelmed by new state laws - prompted by the Jerry Sandusky and clergy sex abuse scandals - that led to a spike in child abuse reports.
But remember: The spike wasn’t unexpected.
It was intended, and rightly so.
Sandusky was convicted of abusing 10 boys for more than 15 years, sometimes under the nose of Penn State officials. A jury later found three university leaders could have done more to stop him.
Never again, we all said as the horrible details were revealed.
Unfortunately, the Legislature’s well-intentioned attempt to prevent a similar tragedy didn’t include more funding for the expanded effort.
The state’s rewritten laws, which took effect at the beginning of 2015, redefined child abuse, expanded the list of mandatory reporters and streamlined the reporting process, among other changes, which led to the dramatic bump in referrals.
In the first year of the new laws, the York County Office of Children, Youth and Families saw a nearly 86 percent increase in referrals, or 2,237 new cases.
The agency didn’t handle the increase well. In 2014 York County’s CYF received the first of what would be four consecutive provisional licenses.
Only last year did it regain a full license, heading off a potential state takeover.
A big part of the problem in York County has been a high turnover rate among child welfare workers, an issue noted in the auditor general’s report, along with low pay, inadequate training and dangerous work conditions.
Among DePasquale’s not-unexpected recommendations - such as better training and less paperwork for child welfare workers - is the creation of an independent ombudsman position to advocate for at-risk children.
That’s worth a try, but a new public watchdog - who probably will make the same findings and recommendations we’re already hearing - isn’t likely to fix the problem alone.
We need the Legislature to finally put its money where its mouth is and properly fund child welfare in Pennsylvania.
EX OFFENDERS NEED HELP COMING HOME, Sept. 18
The debt many prison inmates pay to society isn’t the end of the price tab for their crimes.
They return to the community bearing the stigma of conviction, which makes it difficult to secure gainful employment and even housing. And a good many have deficits in job and life skills that make those challenges more imposing.
Some are saddled with other baggage, as evident in the work of the Erie County Re-Entry Services and Support Alliance. ECRSSA is an arm of the Unified Erie anti-violence initiative that focuses on connecting ex-offenders with services and support that can help them navigate the transition.
About a third of the alliance’s clients have been connected with mental health services, and just over 40 percent with drug and alcohol services. About half of ECRSSA clients have received help in finding jobs.
The support needed depends on the individual, but just gaining access to such services can be prohibitive for ex-offenders. Left on their own, many ex-offenders have difficulty finding their way, even if they’re determined to change, which can push them back down a bad path.
“When the individual is looking to make changes, it’s very helpful to have someone there who knows the system,” Sheila Silman, ECRSSA’s program manager, said in July. “When people struggle, they get overwhelmed and they quit or they go back to what they know.”
As reporter Madeleine O’Neill detailed last week, ECRSSA doesn’t just offer the guidance of case managers and the support of service providers. It helps also to connect clients with the counsel and experience of someone who’s been where they’ve been and faced what they face.
Since earlier this year, that someone has been Tyshun Taylor. Taylor works as a client advocate, a job that calls on years of his own experiences.
Taylor, 43, was released from state prison in 2012 after serving 11 years on drug-related charges. He tries to guide ex-offenders through the same struggles he went through, including wary employers and landlords.
Taylor describes his position as somewhere between a job and a calling. He offers clients encouragement, gives them a lift to work or appointments, meets with potential employers to try to smooth the way.
One of those clients, Josh McCloud, 29, who did more than 10 years for assault, said Taylor’s firsthand perspective has helped shape his as he works to reorient to society.
“Some people have only been on one side of the fence,” McCloud said of Taylor. “He and I have been on both sides of the fence.”
It’s been a year since ECRSSA started helping clients stay on this side of that fence. Its services will be vital for many years to come.
__Erie Times News
THERE IS ROOM IN SCHOOL TO TALK ABOUT RACE, Sept. 17
He would be disappointed to see some local high school cafeterias over the lunch hour 57 years later.
Race remains a thorny subject in the United States, and in schools, too. Ignoring the subject is not going to make it go away.
Failing to equip our young people to talk about it openly isn’t going to help, either.
As Nakeiha Primus Smith, assistant professor of educational foundations at Millersville University, told LNP’s Hawkes, the reason we wrestle with race is because we’re not facing it squarely. “You have students who are not being confronted with values or perspectives that are not similar to their own,” she noted.
And here’s the thing: We need future generations to handle the issue better than we have. Because right now, conversations about race are often at best awkward and at worst hostile. Daunted by the prospect of stammering our way through them, or saying the wrong thing, we often just change the subject - if that is, we’re part of the majority.
People who belong to minorities don’t have the luxury of pretending race isn’t an issue in American life. They’re reminded of this reality every day.
Black people in the United States have a “double consciousness,” ”this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others,” African-American intellectual and civil rights pioneer W.E.B. Du Bois noted.
As Hawkes reported, Mealy urged his Advanced Placement history students to consider Du Bois’ quote. Mealy’s lesson moved sophomore Tim Hermansen to acknowledge that he hadn’t thought about race, and the otherness of being a minority surrounded by the majority, before.
Hermansen, who is white, said he doesn’t want to just learn about racism. He wants to learn how to do something about it.
“Maybe we can be the solution,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be somebody older than us that has to fix everything. It can be us.”
That is the central aim of education: to teach students to think in different ways, and inspire them to venture beyond their comfort zones to seek solutions.
We’d be naive to suggest that opening the eyes of a few high school kids is going to solve our issues around race in the United States. In just the past month or so alone, our country has been roiled by the horrific events in Charlottesville, Virginia; the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for so-called “Dreamers”; the NFL’s rejection of quarterback Colin Kaepernick; and the controversy over ESPN “SportsCenter” host Jemele Hill.
“I just think race is an uncomfortable topic,” Sameeha Hossain, a Penn Manor junior whose parents are from Bangladesh, told Hawkes. “But we’re in a small group, so I think it’s easier to talk about. I think that’s the first step.”
She is right. Small group discussions, led by a teacher willing to talk about difficult topics like privilege and white supremacy, are a good first step.
We laud Mealy for taking the initiative to create his seminar class on race, ethnicity and gender, and Penn Manor High School Principal Philip Gale for green-lighting it.
As Hawkes reported, Hempfield and the School District of Lancaster didn’t respond to his requests for interviews. And Karen Nell, Manheim Township School District’s curriculum and instruction director, issued a statement emphasizing how the district tries to create “a safe, inclusive environment in our classrooms for all students at all times.”
Which was nice, but a bit beside the point.
We obviously want schools to teach kids the fundamentals, but we believe Mealy has the right idea: There is room in social studies, sociology, even English classes for exploring the issue of race.
In fact, a discussion about “Hidden Figures,” the book and movie that detailed the contributions of black women mathematicians at NASA, wouldn’t be out of place in a science or math class. Mathematician Katherine Johnson went on to win the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. But when she began working for NASA, she technically wasn’t allowed to use the restroom for white women (though she told a Vice News reporter she did).
Erica Long, an English and journalism teacher at Solanco High School, told Hawkes that she graduated from Penn Manor High School with little understanding of diversity. She plans now to take a five-session workshop for educators on teaching anti-racism. It starts Monday and will be delivered by anti-racism educator Nick Miron at The Stone Independent School.
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” Nelson Mandela said.
We ought to employ it.
SYSTEM RIGGED FOR GAS DRILLERS. Sept. 15
The most visible sign of the gas-drilling industry’s profound influence over state policy is the Legislature’s refusal to impose a fair extraction tax on the industry even as the state government faces a $2.2 billion deficit.
But a piece of the revenue bill passed July 27 by the Senate demonstrates that the industry’s influence in Harrisburg runs even deeper than the deep wells across the Marcellus Shale.
The provision, which was added to the unrelated revenue bill the day before it passed, without debate, would benefit the industry at the expense of thousands of Pennsylvanians. As reported by Laura Legere of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the bill was written with an assist from EQT Corp., which is poised to become the nation’s largest natural gas producer.
Long before the development of the Marcellus Shale deep-well fields, Western Pennsylvania had thousands of shallow conventional wells. Leases for drilling those wells had been considered to be expired once the gas stopped flowing.
But vast amounts of Marcellus gas lurk far below those shallow conventional wells. The new provision holds that unless one of the old leases has a provision specifically defining the termination of an unproductive lease, the lease is considered active and the end of production only temporary, regardless of how long ago the gas stopped flowing from the shallow well.
In some cases, companies that acquire old leases attempt to drill into the Marcellus Shale under the terms of the old lease, vastly diminishing royalty payments. The new provision holds that the old lease is deemed to be controlling if a leaseholder accepts a single royalty payment or fails to object within three months of ground being broken for a new well.
There have been conflicting court rulings, over decades, on the termination of old leases. Proponents of the new provision say it is meant to settle the conflict. Naturally, instead of requiring drillers to negotiate new leases where old wells have run dry, the Senate settled it in behalf of the industry at the expense of Pennsylvania residents who are lessors.
The same Legislature has stood by as the industry has diminished the value of leases by assessing lessors for post-production costs.
When the House takes up the revenue bill it should strike the lease provision. The question of new drilling based on old leases should be handled as separate legislation.
__Wilkes-Barre Citizens Voice
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