The Pennsylvania Supreme Court sat in session in Philadelphia last week to hear a case that provides the opportunity for the court to act affirmatively on behalf of the several hundred thousand school children in Pennsylvania who have been denied an equitable education for their entire time in school. I became angry listening to the arguments offered by those who think that the court has no place in this battle for the appropriate and equitable funding of our children’s education. I was more infuriated when one lawyer said the only thing the state was responsible for was to make sure that there was a school and that its doors were open (Yes, you read that correctly). However, I felt a sense of hope when I reminded myself that favorable rulings have occurred in similar cases in 26 states, including most recently in Connecticut where the State Superior Court ruled that poor students were being left behind by the state’s current funding system.
Many of Pennsylvania’s students attend schools that have no textbooks, teachers, substitute teachers, counselors, teacher’s aides, nurses, or support staff. The Philadelphia School District identified 2,500 students who did not have a permanent, certified teacher for two-thirds of the past school year. Too many Pennsylvania students attend schools where important programming has been stripped away; where some classrooms have as many as 40 students, and others have more than that. They come to schools that are crumbling and filled with lead in their water or on their walls. They try to learn in a state that has been rated by the U.S. Department of Education as the worst in the nation in terms of the inequity of school funding between wealthy and poor school districts. In spite of all these problems, children in low-income schools still show up with the hope they will make their way through the hell that is supposed to be called public education in Pennsylvania.
It is clear that for decades governors and legislatures from both parties have failed to make the appropriate, moral, consistent, and strategic investments to secure our children’s future. It is also clear from this same sad, long history that these investments will not be made. Consequently, the courts must take this issue away from the legislature and move toward equity and fully resourced schools for every student so that every child can receive a 21st century education.
The most damning statistic is from a recently released study that indicates at the current pace, it would take 20 years for poor school districts to reach equity and appropriate funding. A child starting in Pre-K and moving through the system to a 12th grade graduation would spend their entire school career in a drastically underfunded school. This cannot be the new normal.
I sit as the Democratic Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee and am responsible for negotiating the state budget with my leadership colleagues, and with whoever is the governor. Although there has been minimal progress over the years on this issue, and although I believe in protecting the power of the legislature from being curtailed by either the executive or judicial branches, I also believe that there are times when the courts must weigh in on important and fundamental societal issues. This is clearly one of those times.
Our children did not cause this problem in their schools. In fact, it must be acknowledged that these problems are rooted in the days of slavery when a teacher would be locked up if they were found teaching a slave to read. If you were a slave, you would be beaten if you even picked up a book. This inequity is also rooted in privilege and education funding based on property and wealth. This organized oppression has transcended race and moved into class where low-income school children across Pennsylvania are struggling in schools that are funded insufficiently. The failure to fully right the wrongs that were born in those days must be corrected so that every child, no matter their color, class, or zip code can access a high-quality education.
The 7th Senatorial district, which I represent, illustrates this inequality very clearly. My constituents live in both challenged communities in Philadelphia and very economically wealthy communities in the suburbs. The schools in Philadelphia spend about $13,000 per child while schools in the suburban part of my district spend as much as $21,000. To get a better picture, multiply that $8,000/per child difference times 30 children in a classroom and you will see that the wealthy classroom has $240,000 more spending going on than that low income classroom.
Despite the gap in resources, students in urban, rural and suburban areas are expected to achieve at the same level. The legislature recently established rigorous promotion and graduation requirements. However, school funding was dramatically cut at the same time as these standards were put in place. Low-income school districts with no local income base to make up for the cuts were hit the hardest and students fell further behind.
Some will say that money doesn’t matter. However, when we had consistent targeted increases in education funding over a 5-year period, we saw some amazing successes. For a brief period, Pennsylvania was the only state in the nation where test scores went up in every grade level and in every subject matter, even for those cohorts of children where progress had historically been a problem. But an election occurred and the will of the new governor and the new legislature made public education a lesser priority. Consequently, that success was followed by a massive cut in education funding and the progress was wiped out.
The legal action happening in Pennsylvania is part of a national trend. School children, parents, advocates, activists, education rights attorneys and elected officials throughout the nation are turning towards the courts to address the issue of equitable and appropriate funding of public education because their respective state governments have failed. As Pennsylvania has demonstrated since the Civil War, states throughout the nation have shown that equity and appropriate funding is illusory. As is the case in most major moral and legal matters in this nation’s history, the courts must intercede. It is their job and duty, and there is precedent. Our children and the future of our nation depend on it.
Harrisburg, July 10, 2016 – Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) and Senate Democratic Appropriations Chair Vincent J. Hughes (D-Philadelphia/Montgomery) released the following comments in support of Gov. Tom Wolf’s announcement that he was allowing the state budget bill (Senate Bill 1073) to become law without his signature.
The governor said that he will continue working on a bipartisan revenue package to fund the $31.53 billion state spending plan for Fiscal 2016-17. The spending measure that cleared the Senate with a bipartisan 47 to 3 vote includes $200 million in new dollars for basic education, $20 million more for special education and additional fund for early childhood education.
Sen. Jay Costa:
“In letting the budget become law and keeping the dollars flowing for key programs, the governor is appropriately moving the state forward. The state spending plan is solid budget that includes new funds for basic education, special education, early childhood education and dollars for opioid treatment. Work must continue on a bipartisan basis to find the resources and revenues that are needed to fund these key initiatives.”
Sen. Vincent J. Hughes:
“The state budget was developed in a bipartisan way and it passed both chambers with overwhelming bipartisan support. While we all have differing priorities, I am pleased that the measure will go into effect so important social service programs and funding initiatives are not interrupted. Revenues are tight and choices hard, but we must continue working in a bipartisan way to find sustainable revenues and balance the state spending plan.”
Harrisburg, June 29th, 2016 – State Senator Vincent Hughes today voted with the majority of the Pennsylvania Senate to pass a $31.53 billion General Fund budget. The bill offers an on-time budget that contains a modest increase funding for public education and makes other investments. The bill, which passed the Senate 47 to 3, will now be sent back to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives for concurrence.
The $31.53 billion budget contains a $250 million increase in funding for education. This includes $200 million for basic education, $30 million for Pre-K and Head Start, and $20 million increase for special education. This represents the beginning of restoring more than $1 billion cut from public education under the previous administration.
The budget passed by the Senate also includes new investments in social programs and human services. It contains $15 million to combat opiod abuse, $1.4 million for Zika Virus prevention, $506,000 increase for services for victims of domestic violence, and a $289,000 increase for rape crises centers. There is also a significant increase of $630,000 for the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.
“The spending plan passed by the Senate makes modest and sensible increases,” said Senator Hughes. “This stands in contrast to others who sought a more austere state budget.”
The budget agreement passed the Pennsylvania Senate one day before the deadline of June 30th, which is the end of the fiscal year. This is a major improvement over the previous year, which saw the longest budget standoff in the history of Pennsylvania. The on-time budget means that school districts, social service agencies, and non-profit organizations will be able to provide vital services without any disruption.
June 22, 2016 − State Senate Democratic Whip Anthony H. Williams (D-Philadelphia/Delaware) today said that the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) has been devastated by recurring state budget cuts and that the state spending plan now under consideration needs to address agency funding shortfalls.
“The PHRC has an incredibly important job to do and it cannot function properly if its funding is slashed year in and year out,” Williams said today.
Williams was joined at a news conference at the Capitol by his Democratic colleague from Philadelphia Sen. Christine Tartaglione (D-Philadelphia), Senate Democratic leader Sen. Jay Costa (D-Allegheny), Democratic Appropriations Chair Sen. Vincent J. Hughes (D-Philadelphia/Montgomery) other Democratic senators and advocates.
“The agency’s ability to ensure that civil rights protections are upheld has been compromised by chronic underfunding,” Tartaglione said. “We are here to request that additional funds be included in the appropriation for the commission so it has the resources to do its important work.”
The state appropriation for the PHRC has fallen from $10.6 million in 2008 to $8.7 million last year. The total agency budget was reduced from $14.1 million to $10 million over the same time span.
“Incredibly, at a time when we should be doing more to protect civil rights, the agency dedicated to this purpose has had to dramatically cut staff and is under pressure to close cases without proper investigation,” Williams said.
The lawmakers are seeking an additional $2 million in state funding in this budget to bolster operations at the PHRC.
“I am pleased that my Senate Democratic colleagues and those representatives that have been touched by the work of the PHRC have come out today to support the call for more funding,” Williams said. “It is important that those of us who are committed to preserving this agency as a protector of civil rights stay united and put pressure on budget negotiators.”
Williams said that staffing at the commission is at a crisis point. According to the senator, the historical complement of investigators and professional staff has been just under 200 employees. Today, there are only 76 investigators and professionals to handle the agency’s responsibilities.
“Values like equality, service, integrity, excellence and teamwork were once associated with the commission and its operations,” Williams said. “The PHRC was once recognized as a preeminent protector of civil rights.
“We can get the agency back to that position of being a nationally-recognized leader, but it has to be funded properly.”
The call for more funding and for making systemic repairs at the commission follows media reports about upheaval at the agency over the last several years. Allegations of long-time staff being forced out, hostile working conditions and discriminatory hiring practices have been cited in news reports.
The operations of the commission were recently examined at a Senate State Government Committee hearing requested by Williams earlier this month.
Philadelphia – May 19, 2016 – At the request of state Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia), the Senate Democratic Policy Committee held a roundtable discussion today on the health impact of lead exposure.
“The effects of lead exposure are indelible, dangerous and deadly,” Hughes said. “There is no cure. Whether it’s lead from old pipes or peeling paint that still clings to aging homes and school buildings, this problem will only get worse if we do nothing to help now.”
Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Northampton/Lehigh), who chairs the committee, added, “From my standpoint, we need to get a better understanding of lead exposure levels in Pennsylvania – and we then need to do what’s necessary to limit and prevent exposure.”
The lawmakers pointed to the water lead poisoning tragedy in Flint, Michigan, as a wake-up call for states and cities across the country. While state Department of Health officials claim Pennsylvania’s lead exposure threat is more due to pealing and cracking lead-based paint, a February report by the Department on childhood lead surveillance revealed that Pennsylvania has at least 18 cities with higher lead exposure rates than Flint.
Pointing to data issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a February 3 Vox.com article (www.vox.com/2016/2/3/10904120/lead-exposure-flint-pennsylvania) warned that the rate of lead exposure in Pennsylvania is “incredibly alarming.” The study revealed that nearly 10 percent of the more than 140,000 kids tested had levels of five or more micrograms per deciliter of lead in the blood. Five micrograms per deciliter is the threshold government uses to identify children with dangerously elevated blood lead levels.
Held at the Karabots Pediatric Care Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, today’s roundtable discussion also focused on a package of bills introduced by Hughes and fellow Democrats. The measures include:
- Senate Bill 14 (Hughes) would create a “SuperFund for Lead Abatement” that could be used by schools, day care centers, and other organizations to defray lead remediation costs.
- Senate Bill 16 (Yudichak) would create a task force to study the scope of the lead issue, including an accounting of the age of the state’s housing stock, pipelines, school buildings and day care centers. It would also study best practices and make recommendations.
- Senate Bill 17 (Haywood) would require every school building to be tested (water, paint, soil) for lead before a school year begins. Test results would be sent to parents of every enrolled child and posted on school district websites. If a school tests at lead levels higher than the Centers for Disease Control’s acceptable amount, it would be required to submit a remediation plan to the state Department of Education.
- Senate Bill 18 (Kitchen) seeks to require lead testing (water, paint, soil) in day care centers licensed by the PA Department of Human Services. DHS would be prohibited from issuing a license to a day care operator if lead levels are higher than CDC recommended readings.
- Senate Bills 19 and 20 (Fontana) would enable homebuyers to request that a home be tested to determine what level of lead is in the water; and require that known lead paint within a home build before 1978 as well as any contamination in drinking water be disclosed on a seller’s property disclosure statement.
Dr. Kevin Osterhoudt, medical director of the Poison Control Center at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia (CHOP), called lead exposure “brain poison” in describing the devastating consequences of elevated lead levels in the human body.
Dr. Marsha Gerdes, a senior psychologist in the Policy Lab, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, noted that additional funding will be necessary to clean up both water sources and homes. She also said that prevention needs to be the primary form of intervention.
“An important opportunity to clean up lead poisoning occurs at prenatal visits and at the time of birth,” Gerdes stated. “Asking mothers about where they are living and linking them with services that can reduce lead in their home is a way to reduce exposure from the beginning of life.”
Dr. Carolyn Johnson, who serves as Philadelphia’s interim deputy health commissioner, urged legislators and health agencies to place greater emphasis on preventing lead exposure.
“We need to do more to provide secondary prevention for the thousands of at-risk kids who don’t have elevated lead levels yet,” she said.
Boscola said, “This is a very critical and timely issue – and I commend Senator Hughes for insisting that we have this discussion right now — and right here in Philadelphia.”
Hughes and Boscola were joined at the hearing by Sen. Anthony Williams (D-Phila/Delaware) and Sharif Street, the unopposed candidate to fill retiring Sen. Shirley Kitchen’s (D-Phila.) senate seat, also attended the hearing.
The following also participated in the roundtable discussion:
- Dr. Kevin Osterhoudt, Medical Director, Poison Control Center, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia
- Marsha Gerdes, Senior Psychologist, Policy Lab, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia
- Dr. Caroline Johnson, Interim Deputy Health Commissioner, Philadelphia Department of Public Health
- Collen McCauley, Health Policy Director, Public Citizens Children & Youth
- Jerry Roseman, Director of Environmental Science & Occupational Safety & Health, PA Federation of Teachers – Health & Welfare Fund& Union
- Roy Christ, Director of Building and Housing, City of Harrisburg
- Senior Staff Attorney Maura McInerney, Education Law Center
- Daniel DeLellis, Office of Medical Asst. Programs, PA Department of Human Services
- Michelle Figlar, Deputy Secretary, Office of Child Development & Early Learning, PA Department of Human Services
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Harrisburg, May 18, 2016 – With drug overdose deaths reaching epidemic levels, Senate Democrats unveiled legislation today to address the opioid addiction crisis from prevention through recovery.
“Addiction is a disease that does not discriminate and there is no easy solution to fix the problem,” Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) said. “When addiction finds its way into a family, it can nearly paralyze them for fear of what the future may hold.”
Recognizing the need to provide support at all levels, the Senate Democrats’ legislation focuses on providing new opportunities for education and treatment as well as expanded support options in the community for addicts, professionals and families.
“We cannot address this problem in a vacuum and must work to provide the necessary services and support to everyone involved,” Costa said. “Families are being affected and communities torn apart as a result of opioid abuses and heroin addiction.”
Opioids are a class of drug that include heroin as well as the prescription pain relievers oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, fentanyl and others. According to a University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health study, fatal drug overdoses in Pennsylvania increased 14 fold between 1979 and 2014.
“We are in the midst of the worst ever overdose death epidemic and the worst public health crisis of the last 100 years, Secretary of Drug and Alcohol Programs Gary Tennis said. “It will continue to take a collaborative effort among many partners to effectively address this crisis.”
The package of legislation includes:
Emergency Addiction Treatment Program – Charging the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs with establishing a comprehensive program that includes new addiction treatment facilities for those drug users that are currently going without care; new intake methods to provide information to those with addiction problems or their family and friends; advice and assistance in accessing treatment; and data collection to help identify patterns of addiction.
School Aged Children Opioid Awareness Education Program – Requiring the Departments of Drug and Alcohol Programs, Health, and Education to work cooperatively to design an opioid awareness education programs to be delivered in schools.
Addiction Treatment Professional Loan Forgiveness Program – Require the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA) to develop an addiction treatment professional loan forgiveness program.
Opioid Addiction Prevention and Treatment Assessment – Impose a 10 percent assessment on the first sale of an opioid into the state. Revenues from the assessment will be used to support the purchase of naloxone for local law enforcement and emergency management personnel in addition to supporting addiction prevention and treatment programs.
Responding to the Senate Democratic proposals to the drug and alcohol problem, Deb Beck from the Drug and Alcohol Service Providers Organization of Pennsylvania said that the drug and alcohol problem “has reached epidemic levels in the state and these proposals will be life saving in impact.”