Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Legislation Would Chip Away Local Control of Schools

Andrea Sears, Public News Service
Bills in the General Assembly would put some schools under state control. Credit: Ad Meskens/Wikimedia Commons
Bills in the General Assembly would put some schools under state control. Credit: Ad Meskens/Wikimedia Commons

HARRISBURG, Pa. - Education advocates say some legislators are trying to use the state budget impasse to push through bills that would diminish the control of local districts over their schools.

Senate Bill 6 even would put some schools under state control. Supporters of the bill say it would restore accountability to under-performing schools, but Susan Gobreski, director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania, said accountability isn't the problem.

"The districts that would meet the current definition have a very high poverty rate, higher than average tax rate and experienced extraordinary funding cuts over the past few years," she said, "very little of which has been restored."

SB 6 and a bill in the House, HB 530, also would change the state's system for creating and governing charter schools.

Some provisions under consideration would allow the conversion of schools to charters without local input or remove caps on the number of students that could be enrolled. According to Gobreski, other provisions would make charters much less accountable to local districts.

"The creation of charter networks that would go under state control instead of local control," she said, "and there's some language that would suggest that charters could actually make unilateral changes to their own charters."

After five months without a budget, school districts are borrowing money to keep their doors open. Gobreski said she believes voters need to know what is on the table.

"We're playing a strong role in keeping an eye on what's happening in Harrisburg," she said, "and letting people know that this is in play, and that some legislators are looking at this opportunity to slip in this legislation."

More information is online at educationvoterspa.org. The text of Senate Bill 6 is here and HB 530 is here.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Groups Tell Philly Mayor No Changes to ICE Hold Policy

Andrea Sears, Public News Service 

Groups opposed to changes in Philadelphia's anti-deportation policy rallied at City Hall on Friday. Courtesy New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia
Groups opposed to changes in Philadelphia's anti-deportation policy rallied at City Hall on Friday. Courtesy New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia
PHILADELPHIA - Community groups and immigration advocates are telling Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter to keep his hands off the city's anti-deportation ICE Hold policy.

The mayor says he wants to change the executive order that controls city cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. Nicole Kligerman of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia says more than 75 groups signed a letter telling the mayor to leave that policy intact.

"The changes in the policy would mean that police and cities and jails would notify federal immigration officials about who was coming out of our local jails so that immigration could be waiting to deport them," says Kligerman.

The mayor's office says the changes would only apply to immigrants wanted for specific, violent crimes, drug trafficking or terrorism, and would still require a warrant.

Mayor-elect Jim Kenney has said he will immediately reverse any changes to the ICE Hold policy when he takes office in a few weeks. Kligerman thinks that calls the whole reason for making changes at all into question.

"This is an eleventh-hour political move that will only be in play for a couple of weeks, and we really believe that this is much more about Mayor Nutter's next job than about sound policy," she says.

Advocates say the changes contradict positive efforts Nutter has made on behalf of the city's immigrant community, including signing the executive order that created the ICE Hold policy.

In light of recent events, Kligerman says citing fears of terrorism as justification for the changes sends a disturbing message.

"That is playing into the anti-Syrian refugee language that's extremely harmful not just for this issue but other immigrant and refugee issues," she says.

On Friday, groups critical of the changes hand delivered their letter of opposition to Philadelphia's City Hall.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Calls for Banning Syrian Refugees Seen as Misguided

Andrea Sears, Public News Service 

Syrian refugees now entering the United States began the process in 2012. Credit: Voice of America News/Wikimedia Commons
Syrian refugees now entering the United States began the process in 2012. Credit: Voice of America News/Wikimedia Commons
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. - Following last week's terrorist attacks in Paris, at least 26 governors have said they won't allow Syrian refugees to resettle in their states but advocates say those fears are unfounded.

With millions displaced by civil war in Syria, President Obama wants the U.S. to accept 10,000 refugees in the coming year. Janet Panning, program director at the Lutheran Children and Family Service in Philadelphia, says only three percent of refugees are even considered for resettlement in the U.S. and those are then subjected to multiple security checks.

"This clearance process takes at least 18 months to four years. So the people that we're seeing coming in now are people that had started the clearance process in 2012," says Panning.

Once here, refugees are required to apply for a green card within one year, which initiates another series of background checks.

According to Panning, more than eighty percent of the refugees resettled by Lutheran Children and Family Service find jobs within four months of arrival.

"We're bringing in people that have immediate work eligibility and have fled their country, not because they didn't like it but because their neighbors turned on them or their government turned on them," she says.

The refugees she works with tell her they have two goals - educating their children and supporting their families.

In the wake of terrorist violence in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, Panning says fear is understandable but it's important to remember refugees are also victims.

"All of us want to keep ourselves safe and at the same time our hearts go out to people that flee persecution and our hearts go out to people that are impacted by terrorism," she says.

Governor Tom Wolf has said Pennsylvania will continue to work with federal officials to resettle Syrian refugees.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

PA Tightens Controls on Smog-Causing Pollution

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

Two-thirds of Pennsylvanians live in areas that fail to meet federal safeguards for smog pollution. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Wikimedia Commons
Two-thirds of Pennsylvanians live in areas that fail to meet federal safeguards for smog pollution. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Wikimedia Commons
HARRISBURG, Pa. - The Pennsylvania Environmental Quality Board approved a new rule on Tuesday that will reduce smog-causing pollution from most coal-fired power plants, but gave one of the biggest sources a pass.

Nitrogen Oxide, or NOx, is particularly harmful to children, seniors and those with heart disease or respiratory problems. Tom Schuster, senior campaign director for the Sierra Club, explains the rule will require power plants that have pollution controls installed to actually use them.

"A lot of them had elected to meet regional pollution regulations by purchasing allowances rather than cutting their pollution at the source," says Schuster.

But the rule will not apply to the Brunner Island power plant, the largest source of NOx pollution in southeastern Pennsylvania, because it has not installed the equipment to reduce those emissions.

According to Schuster, that plant contributes to smog pollution in places as far away as Philadelphia.

"It has added pollution to already bad-air days," says Schuster. "And in some cases, even is the difference between an air quality action alert and a normal day."

Schuster says after the new rule goes into effect the Brunner Island plant will be the largest stationary source of NOx pollution in the state, by far. Besides allowing the plant to continue polluting the air, he believes the exemption sets a worrisome precedent.

"You're basically saying if you lag behind your peer sources in installing pollution controls, then you will be held to a weaker standard somewhere down the road," says Schuster.

The Sierra Club says about two-thirds of Pennsylvanians live in areas that currently fail to meet federal safeguards for smog pollution.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Pennsylvania Budget Impasse Hurting Seniors

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

Without a state budget, nutrition programs like Meals on Wheels for Pennsylvania seniors are running out of money. Credit: U.S. Aair Force.
Without a state budget, nutrition programs like Meals on Wheels for Pennsylvania seniors are running out of money. Credit: U.S. Aair Force.
HARRISBURG, Pa. – The four-month budget impasse in Harrisburg is hitting services for seniors particularly hard. In some counties, state funds account for 80 percent or more of the budget for human services.

Ray Landis, director of advocacy for AARP Pennsylvania, says vital care for seniors is already being, and may stop completely.

"We are facing reductions in Meals on Wheels, closing and reduced hours at adult day centers," he says. "Those providing home-care services are starting to cut back on hours."

Landis says the meals many seniors receive through state-funded programs are their primary source of nutrition.

According to Landis, county human service agencies are doing all they can to keep aid going to the most vulnerable, including reaching out to families to take care of needs that can no longer be addressed as funds dry up.

"But some of these folks don't have families," he says. "It's a very dire situation for many individuals, and we're just starting to see the edge of it right now. It could become much worse, very quickly."

Some counties have already used up their reserves and are borrowing money, laying off staff and may still have to close senior centers.

AARP is among the groups urging the governor and state lawmakers to resolve the impasse as quickly as possible. Landis says there is more at stake than disagreements over political philosophy.

"We've got to look beyond that, and look to see how individuals are being impacted," he says. "We are trying to ensure that both the administration and general assembly recognizes this."

For some older Pennsylvanians, Landis says, the services they are in danger of losing are becoming a matter of life or death.