Posted tagged ‘pennsylvania’

Pennsylvania’s Conundum

July 28, 2015

Pennsylvania has a Democrat Governor and a Republican controlled legislature. The State is largely conservative with two progressive islands centered in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Elections are usually close indicating a voter balance, not a geographical balance. A political conundrum is playing out now but it is uncertain whether Pennsylvania will take a step forward or slip further to the rear.

At issue is the pledge Governor Tom Wolf made during his 2014 campaign. Wolf said he would tax the shale gas producers and use the proceeds for education. Pennsylvania has a broken formula for funding public schools. In general, the GOP is against any further State aid because the aid would mean an increase in taxes.

The larger cities (Pittsburgh and Philadelphia) desperately need more funding and respond well to politicians who promise it. Wolf promised aid and now he’s trying to deliver.

The GOP legislature leader has offered a compromise. He would consider new taxes if Wolf would support privatization of the State Liquor store system. The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board is the largest purchaser of wine, beer, and liquor in the entire United States. The system offers Pennsylvanians rude and disinterested service with shoddy stock levels and high prices. Just what one would expect from a government controlled bureaucracy.

So what could be the resistance to such a trade, school support for private liquor stores?

The Pennsylvania liquor stores employ a lot of people and those people vote. There is also the issue of who would get the privatized stores once they were offered to the public (the underlying issue being which party would benefit). A second issue is who would inherent the pension and severance responsibility if the stores were privatized. Both of these problems are solvable.

The high price of Pennsylvania purchased booz is a matter of taxes primarily. In any move to privatize, the State will have to think this one through. New Jersey and New York have comparable tax levels but Delaware and Maryland are lower. A private system should bring better service to Pennsylvanians and competition should improve price and selections, Sounds like a winner to me.

My guess is that this offer of “school aid” for “liquor privatization” will slowly die and in the end the State will look the other way with respect to public school funding.

For those who don’t drink or live near the State boarders, who cares? For those who live in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, there are always private or charter schools, so who cares here too. Hmmm.

Tell me again what a “bi-partisan” solution looks like?

Free Speech

August 1, 2014

Pennsylvania residents are getting a media preview of this fall’s election season and most likely the upcoming 2016 Presidential election. Incumbent candidates will have to run on their record and political advertisement distortions will go down as free speech.

Case in point, the race between Republican Governor Tom Corbett and challenger Tom Wolf. Remember 2010? A nation wide sweep of GOP gubernatorial victories herald in a new age of fiscal responsibility.

In Pennsylvania, Corbett’s first budget reduced funding to Philadelphia schools and triggered a series of school district staff and funding cuts. While the Philadelphia school funding crisis is more than just Governor Corbett, his Harrisburg swagger left a poor taste in many peoples’ mouth.

Adding to this Corbett’s anti-gay stances and his photo ID law aimed at eliminating a problem that did not exist (but would discriminate against some voters), Corbett has built a negative image in a State which is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.

So what does a candidate, with this type of public approval numbers, do against his opponent?

Amazingly, the Corbett camp has been running ads which recall Wolf’s recommendation for certain tax increases which Wolf made over six years ago.  The recommendations were made as an aid to former Governor Rendell.   This is old news.  Even more to the point, a Governor cannot impose taxes in the first place. Taxes must be passed by the legislature. Innuendo seems ok.

A more recent negative toned Corbett ad claims Tom Wolf moved his company headquarters to Delaware in order to avoid Pennsylvania taxes. Many corporations across the country are incorporated in Delaware for a variety of reasons, but these corporations must still pay taxes where they operate.

The Wolf campaign is fighting back with slick ads which call Governor Corbett on this point. The Wolf ads go on, however, to say that “if elected”, a Governor Wolf would tax the shale oil/gas producers in order to fund education. Again this is something a governor can recommend but cannot implement on his own.

Both campaigns are engaging in misleading (at best) and possibly dishonest (at worst) advertising. Corbett has four years in the books so despite what he says, voters have already an opinion. Wolf, on the other hand, can promise the moon.

The Supreme Court has reminded us that campaign spending is free speech. Hmmm.

“Free speech” appears to be more like a “free lunch”. It sounds great and is very inviting. A wise voter, however, will pause to think about what each party is promising before deciding for whom to vote.

Looking at the incumbent’s record is a must and should not be overlooked… unless the incumbent is a better promiser.

Bartram High

April 2, 2014

John Bartram was born in 1699 and died in 1777. He was a Quaker who lived in Philadelphia and became famous as a botanist. He studied through out his life time but only possessed a high school formal education. Fast forward to the 20th century and the Philadelphia School District felt moved to name a high school after Bartram, probably as a symbol of what a common man could accomplish.

John Bartram High School is making news for other reasons today.

The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a front page story this week (March 31, 2014) on John Bartram High School. The story offered big clues why “fixing education” is so divisive and to date, so illusive.

We hear it is the teachers’ fault, or the Union is the cause, or the cure all, schools need more money. We also hear it is the parents’ fault, or that sports have become too important, or that the school year is not long enough. While no one seems to have a fix that works for all students, we do not lack for claims of how to improve education.

Since many of those who claim they know how to fix education are serious and sincere individuals, one is prompted to think that maybe what needs to be fixed is not the same in all schools. Maybe there isn’t one comprehensive fix that if applied to all schools would improve education. John Bartram High School represents one extreme that presents conditions and outcomes not found in Private, Charter, and suburban schools. Adoption of “common core curriculum” will not make a mark on Bartram.

Bartram High has 1000+ students in grades 9-12. At any time, there are 17% of these students absent. Students are suspended at a rate of over 1 per day. Test scores show that 10% can pass math and 23% can pass reading. The demographics show 100% of Bartram’s students come from economically disadvantaged families, 23% have physical disabilities, and 98% are considered minorities.

Private schools do not accept this enrollment cross section. Charter schools (those that are serious about education) would require increased funding if it were to try and educated the 23% with physical disabilities. It is not wild speculation that if absenteeism were to be improved, suspensions would need to increase. And teaching to the test is a losing strategy with Bartram High.

The enrollment in Bartram High reflects its local community. This suggests the dismal education results reflect a greater community problem. Simply throwing money at this situation seems as ineffective as the opposite strategy of cutting education funding.

I would think that that city officials need to throw out the politically correct book and declare an emergency. Somehow school teachers and administrators have to make Bartram’s environment safe and feel different from the local community. They must send the message to the students that the teachers and administrators care about the students. (Full year school operation might actually be a plus by minimizing the time the local community has to influence the students.)

One might think that City and State authorities would recognize the root problem is economically devastated communities. And they very well may. The greater problem is how to fix the devastation.

There is no shortage of local groups who would gladly accept City and State money in the name of economic revival only to pocket as much as possible. The trick is to find organization who will spend funds wisely and with complete transparency.

I would look to Universities and major employers who would volunteer to take on this additional (but fully funded) task… somewhat akin to major companies and universities who worked for the Government during WWII.

I wonder whether John Bartram namesake will stimulate a fresh approach to this American tragedy.

Coming Of Age

March 25, 2014

Pennsylvania is wrestling with a no-brainer ethical dilemma. Should the State amend its ethics rules to make it clear that cash contributions given directly to an elected official are unacceptable? It is hard to believe this should not already be the case. But it is not.

About three years ago, the State Attorney General’s office opened a “sting” investigation probing the ethics of elected and appointed officials. The sting allegedly nabbed at least 4 State Representatives who accepted cash in return for a promise to vote a certain way. Slam dunk you would think. Not quite.

The current Attorney General shut down the sting operation and refused to charge anyone. Attorney General Kane said the investigation was flawed and sloppily undertaken. The consequences are that four Representatives have been found guilty in the press but will face no further criminal charges. Most are running unopposed so they will continue their political careers.

The State legislature is now considering a complete ban on cash gifts. Hmmm. No one is asking why this was not already the case, or how will politicians go about collecting this type of tribute in the future? But closing this ethical loophole is a necessary first step.

State Representatives “getting around” and talking to constituents has been a necessary part of politics since cows roamed our streets. How else can a Representative know what their district needs or what legislation would be good for the State? Getting around, however, does often involve a Representative being lobbied. Here someone with money gets a larger say in what should happen than the average citizen.

In the past, face to face was necessary because Harrisburg was too far from Philadelphia for information to travel quick enough. Letters, faxes, and even newspapers were too slow, and telephone calls consumed too much time. Today the internet has provided a game changer. It is possible through social media for a Representative to solicit in real time their constituent’s opinions as well as to post their own thinking as a means to gather feedback.

Getting around can be limited to office hours or “town meetings” where the sunshine flows. A Representative who wants to be ethical can easily obtain all the necessary information and feedback he/she needs without sitting in a dark restaurant booth and slipping a cash stuffed envelop into their purse or pocket.

The worrisome part of the investigation findings is that while these were ethical violations, they were not illegal unless it could be shown the cash was accepted in return for a vote. This is much easier to allege than to prove.

And, what’s more worrisome is most politicians conflate ethics and legality. If its not illegal, its not unethical. Hmmm.  Where have our schools failed us?

The Mess About Public Schools

March 15, 2014

The Philadelphia School District like many other school districts have lots of problems.  Test scores are poor, drop out rates are high, there is a $300 million funding shortage.  Almost as if they are forgetting about their main mission (educating Philadelphia’s youth), the District has had to furlough a lot of support staff (nurses, administrators, and counselors).  The School District seems more interested in vouchers for Charter and Private Schools.

The main reason the Philly Schools are short money is that the State cut over $300 million in State aide and the City has not found ways to replace it.  Both the State and the City have ignored the funding issue and instead have become proponents of Vouchers for Private and Charter Schools claiming them to be superior to Public Schools.  Hmmm.

Yesterday there was a wake up call.  The call came from a news report which boggles the mind when you think about it.  There was a rape involving 4 boys and one girl.  While heinous, the depravity of this crime jumps out when one learns that the boy charged with rape was 10 years old.  One has to wonder what social conditions would lead to this type of 10 year old behavior?

The rape took place in a stair well between classes.  One must also wonder why no one interceded.

The reluctance of any student to intercede might have to do with the code of the street.  One is also left to wonder why no adult, especially a teacher or administrator was not watching the stairs.  According to school officials there is a policy which calls for a school official to be in the halls and stair wells.  So, why wasn’t one there?

Now the ball of yarn begins to unwind.

Charter and Private Schools are schools who select their students.  If the prospective student poses any risk to good order they are refused entry.   If an accepted students later acts up, he/she are liable for expulsion.  So where do those students denied Charter or Private School participation go?  That’s correct, they concentrate in public schools making the publics a more difficult learning environment.

Philadelphia is a large city and has its share of large city problems.  Poverty and single parent families are associated with children whose behavior suggests they do not want to learn.  In the extreme, sexual crimes, fights, and even shootings occur.

Our society is faced with a huge dilemma.  We seem on the path of segregating the socially unfit (and physically/mentally challenged) and keeping them in public schools until they quit, are graduated, or are sent to prison.  Public opinion seem comfortable thinking that Charter Schools or Private (mainly parochial schools) provide better education even when test scores say otherwise.

I do not know the answer.  What I do know is that cutting public school funding is self defeating.  While a certain number of Charter Schools may be a wise investment to see if innovative teaching methods could emerge, unless Charters were forced to accept all students regardless, they leave too much collateral damage for those remaining in Public Schools.  Private Schools are are attractive (if you can afford tuition), but the mere thought of vouchers is repugnant.

Somehow it seems Philadelphia has gotten its priorities wrong.  Public schools must be made safe and all students must be protected from disorderly other students.  With a safe environment, education has a chance to take place.  Alternative venues such as Charters and Private schools must be judged on the same basis as public ones.  They must be open to all students.

If we allow Charters and Private Schools to cherry pick only those students they wish to educate, we will see Public Schools become dysfunctional.  It is time to recognize what the mess about public schools is all about.

Enough Already

January 4, 2014

Monseigneur William Lynn was freed on bail a few days ago and placed on electronic monitored house arrest.  Lynn had been convicted of “child endangerment” for his role in reassigning pedophile priests frequently without informing the new parish of the child molestation complaints which were raised in the priest’s last parish.  The trial evidence made it clear that Reverend Lynn was simply following the instructions of the Philadelphia Archbishop, Cardinal Rigali.  For anyone used to how bureaucracies work, Lynn was simply a cog in the wheel carrying out the Cardinals orders.  No questions asked.

From newspaper reports it seemed that indicting Cardinal Rigali was just a step politically too far for the local DA to undertake.  In addition, Rigali was in poor health and not far from death.  Lynn was the next obvious target.

The Philadelphia DA’s office prosecuted Monseigneur Lynn citing a Pennsylvania law which addressed the behavior of supervisors in properly dealing with suspected child molesters.  Lynn clearly fit the category by failing to apply any “zero tolerance” standard.  Lynn was convicted and sentenced to 5+ years in prison.

Six months have passed and lawyers representing Reverend Lynn have appealed his conviction.  Their appeal did not challenge the facts.  Rather they claimed the law used to convict did not exist at the time of Lynn’s actions.  An Appeals Court agreed and ordered Lynn released pending a new trial.  Hmmm.

One more point of interest.  The Philadelphia Archdiocese helped bail out Reverend Lynn.  This completes the circle.  The Church, in effect, was acknowledging Lynn’s role had been supported by the church authority.

Monseigneur Lynn is of retirement age.  The State has proven its point and exposed the  disgraceful and official Catholic Church cover up.  Lynn, however, was a foot soldier, neither a pedophile or a general ordering the cover up.  Reverend Lynn has served six months and suffered the disgrace of going to prison.   Returning him to jail will serve no apparent purpose.

Justice will be served by not appealing Lynn’s release.

Pat Toomey – A Brave Man

November 6, 2013

In a procedural vote this week, the Senate advanced the ENDA bill which would ban workplace gender orientation discrimination.  The vote stalled at 59 for until one Republican broke ranks and voted yes.  At that point Toomey step up and added his vote (the 61st) and the filibuster was averted.  Was Toomey brave to run the risk of Tea Party and Evangelical wrath?

It did not take long to find out.  Hours later, Toomey announced that he would offer an amendment when ENDA was debated.  His amendment showed his real colors.

Toomey wants the legislation to include a religious exemption.  Hmmm.

What Toomey specifically means is that the Notre Dame football program which earns over $70 million per year competing in the rough and tumble college football league qualifies as a “religious organization”.  As such under Toomey’s amendment, Notre Dame, including its football program (which has not a trace of religion in it unless you hope Notre Dame beats the hell out of its opponent), could discriminate in hiring, promoting, and firing just because someone was homosexual or had chosen a different gender identity.

One simply has to wonder how politicians can parse this issue.  Why should it be ok to discriminate against anyone for any reason in today’s world?  (One certainly can argue about what constitutes discrimination and oppose legislation which is not clear.)

Toomey appears to be a competent person.  He carries, however, a lot of ideological baggage.  And these bags appear to be on the wrong side of history and out of step with the times.  Toomey voted to continue the government shut down, he voted against the Affordable Care Act, and now he is on record of being “for” and “against” ENDA.  It is this baggage that makes his voting record so confused.

Conservatives argue against ENDA along fairly predictable lines.  The notion that discrimination is in the eyes of the beholder and the only winners will be lawyers should not be dismissed as frivolous.  But the idea of a religious exclusion is laughable.  One could not pander any better.

I’m Feeling Depressed

October 25, 2013

In fact I’m feeling quite well.  But when I consider the automatic response I make when I meet someone on the street… “hello, how are you?”  and I say, “great, I doing just great.”  Hmmm.  Feeling depressed somehow seems more appropriate.

But why?

It is a lovely October day.  Sun’s out, crisp temperature and looking around, everyday things look full of like and quite good.  Rowers are practicing for tomorrow’s “Head of the Schuylkill Regatta”.  Full of life and grace, what could be more optimistic?

Well let’s contrast this optimism for a dose of alternate reality.

The trails of our National Parks have been hardly disturb with new visitors since their closure due to the senseless and idiotic Government shut down.  How can one logically deal with politics where one party (maybe both) thinks that negotiating is better done by holding a gun to the other side’s head?

Now its time for “immigration reform” to fill prime time.  This issue is destine to go no where, too, due to the same type of “government shutdown” thinking.  The hoot is that House Republicans will show a deaf ear mainly because there can be no reform without a pathway to citizenship.  Citizenship is seen as more votes for Democrats.  Ain’t going to happen.  (And the real hoot is that with no movement on immigration, GOP Presidential chances in 2016 go with it.

Depression also has room for non-partisan issues too.  The Eric Snowdon-NSA scandal is a gift that keeps on giving.  The latest round of revelations involves the NSA listening in on private cell phone conversations of European Government leaders.  Big brother is out of control it appears.

Back in Philadelphia, public schools remain underfunded (like about $300 million).  In addition, those who graduate (only 50-60%) in far too many cases are unemployable due to inadequate verbal and math skills.  State Government has cut support for the Philadelphia School System and called for major changes to the Teacher’s contract as the price for more help.  What about the students?

The government shutdown, immigration reform, the NSA intelligence gathering, and even the Pennsylvania State’s lack of response to the Philadelphia School District pleas have the same themes in common.  Those opposed to the current situation feel licensed to wreak disproportionate damage on innocent standby-ers.  A second common theme is that the damage is done to others and those inflicting the damage suffer nothing.

Isn’t this depressing?

But wait, there’s more.

The Pennsylvania House Education Committee has just reported out a bill which would require all public schools to post a “motto” prominently within each and every school.  The motto is “in God we trust”.  This, of course, makes a mockery of the term “Education Committee” since apparently none have read the Constitution recently.  On a higher plain, forgetting the separation of church and state, doesn’t a “motto” seem irrelevant compared to schools graduating unprepared students?

And lets not forget the Republican controlled House will likely pass this measure as will the Republican controlled Senate.  Then instead of sending more financial assistance to Philadelphia Schools, the State can spend lots of money in a losing court fight defending their ridiculous action.

Hmmm, being depressed might be the appropriate response to “hello, how are you”.

 

End Of Life – End Of Commonsense

October 11, 2013

In a Philadelphia suburb, a life ending drama is playing out before astonished eyes.  This does not involve guns, knives, or any other blunt instrument.  Rather it involves taking too much of a prescribed medicine.  Death was peaceful and the immediate family was relieved.  Initially.

The Assistant Attorney General is now pressing a case of “assisted suicide” against the daughter of the deceased.  The Attorney General asserts the daughter, a nurse, with knowingly helping her father take a lethal amount of morphine.

There are no charges of force.  There are no charges of trickery.  There are no charges of coercion.  By all accounts the daughter acted to end her father’s suffering and most likely at her father’s request.  Hmmm.

Oh yes, her father was 93 with several end stage diseases.  He was also a hospice client (you know less than 6 months to live).  Hmmm.

The DA is surely working on enforcing existing laws.  While the possibility exists, the DA is motivated by publicity and the potential for higher office too, he is none the less doing what our laws request.

The court may dismiss thees charges, or subsequently a jury may still acquit the daughter.  If it does not dismiss these charges, the daughter may lose her job and most likely her nursing license.  Legal fees and court costs will add insult to injury on top.  Hmmm.

At a time when marijuana is becoming available for recreational use (not just medical applications) and mentally unstable citizens can freely acquire guns, an act of love is being treated as a pre-meditated murder.  Hmmm.

I hope the memory of Jack Kevorkian is given a chance to see light again and does not fade away.

When Leaders Fail

August 16, 2013

Playing out in Philadelphia, is a sad saga of political will more akin to “jello”.  The combination of State and City Government combined with Union leadership are making the words “small ball” come alive.  Are there no adults in the room?

In general terms, Philadelphia is a city on the rebound.  The center city area is a pleasant place to visit.  The local Universities are growing and bringing new life to the city.  Philadelphia offers great food and top quality arts and museums.  And comparatively, it is a safe city.  Small by New York or Chicago standards, compact by Los Angeles measures.  Still a very pleasant city.

So why the worry about leaders?

Philadelphia also has some problems.  Its tax base has shrunk (surprise, surprise) and yearly budgets exceed the projected revenues.  Firemen and Police won small increases (in exchange for some give backs) and municipal workers are still trying to get similar or better treatment (don’t hold your breaths).  But the center stage spot is now reserved for Philadelphia public school teachers.  There is not enough funding to operate the schools.

Philadelphia, like other shrinking cities, is caught in a lose-lose tax trap.  Lower taxes and attract more businesses and economic growth.  Raise taxes and risk setting in motion an exodus for the suburbs.  Both seem destine to produce lower tax revenues.   So what’s a Mayor suppose to do?

Funding for Philadelphia schools has become a game of what new gimmick will be used this year?  Borrowing has been the game of choice.  The funding method, however, changes each year.

Casinos were the first great hope.  Then came special funding from the 2009 stimulus (Federal to State to City).  Last year the City promised to get tough on deadbeat property owners and collect back taxes, and borrowed awaiting until it collected enough of the back taxes (and is still waiting).  To close the gap this time, the Mayor and City Counsel cannot agree on a path forward.  The Mayor wants to collect a special tax and Counsel wants to sell unused school district assets.  Both plans call for borrowing until the moneys come rolling in.  Hmmm.

The State could facilitate a funding solution but has demanded concessions from the Union as its price of admission.  Everybody could help, but nobody seems ready to really lead.

This is a sad picture even before recognizing that the Philadelphia School District’s education outcomes are not red hot.  Last year the city hired a new Superintendent expressly to improve educational outputs.  The Superintendent has, however, been mired in a funding debacle since he arrived.  What a waste of a valuable resource.

School finances are important.  In previous administrations budget control was unheard of.  Generous contracts were awarded teachers with no consideration given to educational output.  Charter Schools were the preferred path forward since Charter principals had much broader hiring/firing authority.  Interestingly, Philadelphia Charter Schools have on average produced no better outcomes than public schools.

As September 9th approaches and schools open, it looks like Philadelphia will borrow again.  It looks also like the loan payback will be forgotten but debt service will increase and crowd out other needs.

Who said Detroit was an abnormally?