Wednesday, September 3, 2014

PSEA Report: Low-Income Students Hit Hardest by Education Cut

September 3, 2014 - Tom Joseph, Public News Service (PA)

PHOTO: A new report from the state's largest public employees' union says Pennsylvania schools with the fewest resources have taken the biggest hits in terms of state education cuts. Photo credit: George Hodan/Publicdomainpictures.net.
PHOTO: A new report from the state's largest public employees' union says Pennsylvania schools with the fewest resources have taken the biggest hits in terms of state education cuts. Photo credit: George Hodan/Publicdomainpictures.net.
HARRISBURG, Pa. - The impact of budget cuts on education in Pennsylvania is being felt in schools across the state - but most notably in districts with the highest needs and lowest incomes, according to a new report from the Pennsylvania State Education Association.

PSEA president Michael Crossey said the findings reinforce evidence that the fallout from trimming $1 billion from education during the Corbett administration includes drops in reading and math scores on state tests across all schools in grades 3 through 6.

"In the years right before Gov. Corbett took office, funding for education was up 39 percent and test scores went up 54 percent," Crossey said. "Now, we're looking at school funding is down significantly, and we're starting to see drops in test scores. There is a correlation."

Corbett has defended education cuts, blaming a multi-billion-dollar budget shortfall that existed when he took office.

Crossey said a major stumbling block for education in Pennsylvania is the lack of a formal blueprint on how education dollars are divided among districts.

"We need to create a funding formula for our schools that, one, drives more adequacy to funding; and also, we need to talk about more equitable funding," he said.

Crossey said the report concluded that the Corbett approach to funding has undermined progress made in education in Pennsylvania. He said he believes future strategies should work to reverse that trend.

"We need to, as a state, decide that we're going to educate every child," Crossey said. "No matter how poor they are, they deserve an education and they deserve a chance at a good life, no matter where they live."

The report also found cuts to the most impoverished school districts averaged three times the size of cuts to higher-income districts, and that the student-to-teacher ratios are higher in the poorest districts as well.

The full report is online at psea.org.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Report Indicates State of Working PA Isn’t Working So Well

 
Tom Joseph, Public News Service

Job growth and economic growth remain major challenges for Pennsylvania, according the 2014 State of Working Pennsylvania report from the Keystone Research Center. Photo courtesy of publicdomainpictures.net.
Job growth and economic growth remain major challenges for Pennsylvania, according the 2014 State of Working Pennsylvania report from the Keystone Research Center. Photo courtesy ofpublicdomainpictures.net.
HARRISBURG, Pa. - Pennsylvania isn't making the grade in terms of job growth and economic growth in a just-
released study from the Keystone Research Center.

The 2014 State of Working Pennsylvania report gives the state a D-minus for job growth. Dr. Mark Price, labor economist with the KRC, says cuts to education in recent years have played a major role in Pennsylvania's struggles.

"You're trying to recover from a deep recession, like the Great Recession," Price says. "And then right in the middle of that recovery you get these waves of layoffs that end up being a drag on job growth; it was a drag on consumer spending and ultimately on economic growth."

The report also gave the state a B-minus for the drop in its unemployment rate since 2011, and a D-plus for its dip in underemployment. Pennsylvania received a grade of C-minus for its change in  median-hourly earnings from 2010 to 2013.

Price says passage of the $2.3 billion transportation bill helped spur job growth in the first six months of the year, but he says the move could have, and should have come earlier as timing has been an issue in the state's efforts to gain economic traction.

"There have been a lot of policy missteps, from just deliberately bad things that were done," Price says. "Laying off public sector workers, but also delays that really hurt us because we could have had faster growth earlier."

Moving forward, Price says state lawmakers need to bear in mind policies, such as Medicaid expansion, that hold huge upsides for the economy.

"That is going to be a windfall for the state, and that's certainly going to boost job growth," says Price. "We certainly would like to see more investment in infrastructure and focus on things like shale extraction and raising the tax so it's equal to what is charged in other states."

That, he says, is a good way to raise revenue.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Under Attack? Climate Change Raises PA's Pesky Insect Population

Tom Joseph, Public News Service (PA)

PHOTO: A new National Wildlife Federation report says climate change is prompting bigger populations of familiar pests and insects, as well as some not seen before in Pennsylvania. Photo credit: Charles Rondeau/publicdomainpictures.net
PHOTO: A new National Wildlife Federation report says climate change is prompting bigger populations of familiar pests and insects, as well as some not seen before in Pennsylvania. Photo credit: Charles Rondeau/publicdomainpictures.net
HARRISBURG, Pa. - Many forms of wildlife in Pennsylvania, from trees and plants to fish, have suffered the dangerous effects of climate change, but insects are thriving in the state's warmer climate, according to a new report from the National Wildlife Federation.

The evidence is clear, said Ed Perry, Pennsylvania outreach coordinator for the federation's Global Warming Campaign. He pointed to the Asian tiger mosquito, which first surfaced in Texas in the mid 1980s and now calls parts of south-central Pennsylvania home - bringing with it an arsenal of harmful diseases.

"Eastern equine encephalitis, West Nile, yellow fever. This thing, unlike other mosquitoes, it's out in the middle of the day," Perry said, "so when you're out mowing your yard, you're liable to be attacked by this mosquito."

Perry said tick populations are higher and more varied as well. He said they have infested the moose population so badly that some animals are scraping off their fur against trees in an attempt to rid themselves of ticks. That behavior leaves the moose susceptible to hypothermia and death in the colder months.

Despite almost unanimous consensus among scientists that climate change exists and is worsening, Perry said the concept still has its naysayers.

"It's beyond question that things are happening. Every species of plant, animal and insect that can move north or up in elevation is trying to do so," Perry said. "So, there's no 'deniers' in the natural world."

The report said solutions to global warming are within reach, although some are controversial. Perry said the Obama administration has taken a promising lead in cleaning up the air with the Environmental Protection Agency's plan to curb carbon emissions from power plants by 30 percent in the next 15 years.

"Reduce carbon pollution from future and existing coal-fired power plants; by increasing the gas mileage requirements for cars and light trucks," he said. "We need our elected representatives to speak out loudly in support of the president's plan."

Opponents of the EPA plan say it will cost jobs, especially in coal-producing states, and pinch the budgets of all Americans through higher utility costs.

The full report is online at nwf.org.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

NEW SPAMALOT DOCUMENTS REVEAL DISCREPANCIES IN OFFICIALS’ STATEMENTS

Right To Know Law Request Reveals Discrepancies and Inconsistencies by South Williamsport Area School District Officials

WILLIAMSPORT, PA – On July 10th and July 28th, 2014, Keystone Progress submitted Right to Know requests for all public records concerning the “Spamalot” controversy at South Williamsport High School. A controversy erupted in north-central Pennsylvania in late June, when a local television station aired a story about the South Williamsport Area School District’s cancellation of the spring 2015 musical planned by the drama department, Monty Python’s “Spamalot.” WNEP-TV later retracted part of its story, based on statements by school district officials, but left many questions unanswered.

In response to Keystone Progress’s RTK request, the organization received 63 pages of documents from South Williamsport Area School District Superintendent Mark Stamm.  (ALL VIEWABLE HERE)

These documents reveal clear discrepancies between statements made by school district officials to the media and the public in July.

1.  The school district asserted that the play was not canceled because of its homosexual content but because of inappropriate language and adult themes.  In his emails to Drama Director Dawn Burch, Principal Jesse Smith clearly says he is opposed to the production of “Spamalot” because it portrays a “gay wedding” and has “homosexual themes.”

2.  School district officials asserted that "Spamalot" was only one of several plays under consideration and had not actually been put on the schedule, so therefore it had not really been canceled.  But the documents show that Smith signed a check from the High School to Theatrical Rights Worldwide on May 12, 2014, to pay for the license agreement to produce "Spamalot" at the High School March 12-14, 2015.

Keystone Progress research shows yet another clear inconsistency between school district officials’ statements and the public record.  At a July 27 press conference at New Covenant United Church of Christ organized by Keystone Progress in partnership with Equality Central PA, Superintendent Mark Stamm and School Board President John Engel, Jr. both made statements to the effect that bullying is a natural part of growing up, that bullying occurs all the time in their schools, that every child is subject to bullying, and that school officials and teachers can’t do anything to stop bullying (video from the event of Stamm is herevideo of Engel is here). That responsibility, Engel said, lies with parents at home.

A search of the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Safe Schools site shows that over the past five years, SWASD has reported zero instances of bullying at schools in the district. (SCREENSHOTS OF REPORTS FOR THE LAST FIVE YEARS AVAILABLE HERE) If bullying happens there every day, why were none of these instances reported, as required by law?

“Keystone Progress believes that schools should be safe havens for all young people, including those who are questioning their sexuality.  The South Williamsport Area School District owes parents, students, and taxpayers an explanation of their actions and words. Why did district officials feel it necessary to cover up the principal’s remarks about ‘homosexual themes’?  Why did they assert that 'Spamalot' had not been agreed upon when nearly two thousand taxpayer dollars had gone to purchase the license for performances of the play? And why do they allow bullying to continue in the schools and yet fail to report it as required by state law?” said Keystone Progress Executive Director Michael Morrill. 


“The more information we get, the more questions that are raised.  It’s clear that the administration would like this to be brushed under the rug, but they owe it to their students, the parents and the taxpayers in South Williamsport to be fully transparent.  This is about making sure all children feel that they can trust school administrators and feel safe in their schools. This is about a school administration’s responsibility to the community to be honest and upfront about how they run their schools.”

Keystone Progress PAC announces more endorsements

(HARRISBURG, PA)—The Keystone Progress Political Action Committee (KPPAC) announced its next round of endorsements today.  This included three candidates running for seats in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.
  • Frederick Sheeler, (D, H5, Berks County)
  • Rep. Stephen McCarter, (D, H154, Montgomery County)
  • Susan Rzucidlo, D, (H158, Chester County)
Here is the list of current prior 2014 endorsements:
State Senate
Christine Tartaglione (D, SD 2, Philadelphia)
Linda Small (D, SD 28, York County) 
State House
Rep. Ed Gainey (D, HD 24, Allegheny County)
Rep. Mike Schlossberg (D, HD 132, Lehigh County)
Vince Rongione (D, HD 163, Delaware County)
Rep. Mike O’Brien (D, HD 175, Philadelphia)
Rep. Brian Sims (D, HD 182, Philadelphia)
Liz Forrest (D, HD 189, Monroe, Pike Counties)
Rep. Mark Cohen (D, HD 202, Philadelphia)
Each of the endorsed candidates is a strong supporter of quality public education for children; supports a raise in the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour; will fight to close corporate tax loopholes; supports a woman’s right to control her reproductive choices; supports marriage equality; and will work to protect our environment, our economy and our democracy.
“Keystone Progress has grown to be one of the most powerful progressive organizations in Pennsylvania.  Our board of directors has recognized that we can have an impact beyond our usual issue-based work by getting actively involved in electing progressive candidates,” said Michael Morrill, speaking for the PAC. “We can’t win on our most important issues if we keep electing people who don’t share our values.”

Keystone Progress has hundreds of thousands of members who frequently take action on a variety of progressive issues.  Keystone Progress members will be encouraged to support endorsed candidates through their votes, volunteering for campaign work and by making contributions.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Pennsylvania Health Access Network’s Statement on Halbig v. Burwell


Harrisburg, PA -- Antoinette Kraus, Director of the Pennsylvania Health Access Network issued the following statement on today's ruling in Halbig v. Burwell:

“Today’s decision in Halbig v. Burwell has no immediate impact on the ability of Pennsylvanians to use premium tax credits to lower the cost of their health insurance plans purchased through the Marketplace.

We are confident that when the D.C. Court of Appeals reviews this case en banc they will recognize, as multiple other courts have ruled, inlcuding the 4th Circuit Court in Virgnia today that the intent of  the law was that all Marketplace enrollees receive income-based financial assistance. We are optimistic that on appeal the rulling will uphold the right of all Americans to access tax credits no matter where they live.

The Affordable Care Act's premium tax credits have helped hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians afford quality, comprehensive health care -- many for the first time in years. In fact, 81% of the 318,077 Pennsylvanians who purchased coverage through the Health Insurance Marketplace during the first open enrollment period used the law's tax credits to lower their monthly premiums.

Opponents of the law refuse to accept the reality that the Affordable Care Act is working for millions of Americans -- thanks in part to the tax credits that will still be available to them despite this one ruling. The Pennsylvania Health Access Network will continue to educate Pennsylvanians about the new choices, protections and financial assistance the law brings as we approach the second open enrollment period.”

Vertical Farming Taking Root in Pennsylvania

Tom Joseph, Public News Service-PA
DALTON, Pa. - In a sprawling, formerly abandoned warehouse near Scranton, the proof is in the produce as a
vertical farming operation has reaped its first harvest.

Minnesota-based Green Spirit Farms is using the Scranton-area site to grow high-quality, pesticide-free, non-GMO fruits and vegetables. Green Spirit president Milan Kluko says vertical farming uses huge shelves, or palate racks, and can grow produce on multiple levels.

"It's nine feet across by four feet deep, so that's 36 square feet, and then at 36 square feet we can grow 1,016 heads of lettuce, or we can plant 1,016 basil plants," says Kluko. "We can plant up to 10,000 arugula plants, and we do it all in 21 to 30 days."

Kluko says the goal of Green Spirit Farms is to develop vertical farming using carbon neutral or renewable energy when practical, and also to use compostable and recycled packaging for their produce sold to retail customers.

For Kluko, the most compelling aspect of vertical farming involves water conservation. He cites overall water use in growing romaine lettuce in California and Arizona using traditional methods, as opposed to growing it vertically.

"In California, they use about seven-and-a-half gallons per one head," says Kluko. "In Arizona, they use about 25 gallons per head. We use 0.33 gallons per head because we recycle about 40 to 50 percent of the nutrient-rich water we use right back into the system."

Kluko says municipalities can look to vertical farming as a way to "reoccupy" land previously used for industrial purposes or some commercial uses, also known as brownfields.

"That particular building outside of Scranton was vacant for 12 years," says Kluko. "We came in about this time last summer to start the demonstration farm, so we've been growing there since June 9th and were up and running, and our first harvest before the fourth of July."

Thursday, July 3, 2014

A Broader Scope: Hobby Lobby's Potential Impact in PA

Tom Joseph, Public News Service-PA

HARRISBURG, Pa. - As the dust clears from this week's Supreme Court decision letting companies use religious objections to avoid paying for contraceptive coverage, what remains unclear is how that ruling will play out in Pennsylvania.

Concerns are being raised over the impact Tuesday's ruling could have on issues ranging from gay rights to vaccinations in the workplace. John Neurohr, communications director with the group Keystone Progress, says it puts Pennsylvania workers in an especially fragile position.

"They will now all be subject to the personal religious beliefs of their employers when it comes to health insurance and other benefits," says Neurohr, "and that's just not the kind of country we want to live in."

Neurohr adds the decision is an example of putting politics where it doesn't belong.

"Because of how weak the logic is of this particular opinion, I think there's no doubt now that even the Supreme Court has been hyper-politicized," says Neurohr. "I think that's really unfortunate."

Supporters of the decision call it a victory for the religious freedom of people of all faiths. Neurohr disagrees, noting religious freedom also includes a person's right not to have religion imposed on them by others.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Pennsylvania Can’t Afford To Miss The Opportunity To Expand Health Care Access


New Council of Economic Advisers Report Shows Cost To Pennsylvania Over Failure To Expand Medicaid

HARRISBURG, PA – Today, the Council of Economic Advisers released a new report - “Missed Opportunities: The Consequences of State Decisions Not to Expand Medicaid.” The report shows the economic and health care costs to Pennsylvania over the decision by Governor Corbett and the GOP state legislature to put politics over people and failure to expand health care access to 305,000 people who fall into the coverage gap.

“States that are expanding Medicaid are seeing economic and health benefits in billions of dollars coming into their economy, reduced out of pocket health care expenses for their citizens and a healthier population,” said Michael Morrill of Keystone Progress. “Pennsylvania, due to the political priorities of Governor Corbett and the GOP state legislature, is seeing just the opposite. Women are getting fewer mammograms, our citizens fewer cancer screenings and doctor visits, while they are paying more for the care they do receive. Our state is throwing away new jobs and sending our tax dollars to states who are expanding instead of investing them back here at home. The CEA report provides even more evidence that expanding Medicaid comes with significant benefits we can’t afford to turn down.”

Key findings from the report include that if Pennsylvania expanded Medicaid — 

Health Benefits Include:
  • 11,100 more women between the ages of 50-64 would receive mammograms.
  • 17,600 more women would receive pap smears.
  • 25,000 fewer people will go untreated for depression.

Personal Economic Benefits Include:
  • 13,700 fewer people will face catastrophic out-of-pocket Medicaid expenses per year.

State Economic Benefits Include:
  • Pennsylvania will receive $8.2 billion in federal support through 2016.
  • 35,200 more jobs in Pennsylvania through 2017.
  • $6.18 billion in total economic activity through 2017 (GDP).