York Daily Record. April 25, 2021.
Editorial: Victims have waited long enough, open Pennsylvania’s courtroom doors
Successive grand jury investigations dating back to the early 2000s exposed the scale of child sexual abuse and cover-up in Pennsylvania’s Roman Catholic Church. The most recent panel of jurors pored over the evidence, then outlined searing findings in a 2018 report: More than 300 priests and had abused more than 1,000 children over a 70-year period in six Roman Catholic dioceses.
It’s advice to right these wrongs? Change laws to protect children and give victims long timed-out of the justice system a temporary window to seek civil damages.
The grand jury, overseen by Attorney General Josh Shapiro, said victims who reported abuse were often blamed, cowed and sometimes silenced with settlements that prohibited them from reporting abusers to law enforcement. And too often, church leaders handled wrongdoing not with a call to police, but in-house with ineffective treatment, then redeployed the predators to offend again.
The victims, “marked for life,” many “addicted, or impaired, or dead before their time ... ran out of time to sue before they even had a case, the church was still successfully hiding its complicity,” the grand jury wrote.
The Pennsylvania Legislature to its credit enacted all of the recommended forward-looking remedies in bipartisan fashion. And the Catholic Church has for decades instituted sweeping reforms to safeguard against future abuse.
But on the most consequential reform recommended by the grand jury — temporarily lifting the statute of limitations to allow victims to seek justice in a courtroom, the independent forum where we as Americans resolve our differences under the law — lawmakers, mainly Senate Republicans, failed miserably. Worse, their obstruction only served to reiterate the original harm — protecting the interests of the institution over vulnerable children.
Senators have the chance to right that wrong. They must seize it.
Dozens of states have enacted statute of limitations reform in the wake of abuse scandals. Opponents in Pennsylvania have long argued that doing so would violate the state Constitution. But recall even one of the fiercest opponents of reform, former Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati, in 2018 agreed to set constitutional concerns aside and lift the statute of limitations, but only to allow victims to sue perpetrators — not the deep-pocketed institutions that enabled them.
When the last push for reform collapsed in the face of that hollow compromise, advocates, including abuse survivors Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, and Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair, pivoted to pursue a constitutional amendment.
Victims, who had bravely shared their trauma and helped advance reform, confronted a crushing choice: Wait two years on the amendment or turn to the opaque system of parallel justice erected by the church — independent panels to vet claims and pay damages.
The affront to them was capped by Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration’s inexplicable failure earlier this year to advertise as required the proposed amendment prior to the May 18 primary. That forced a restart of the two-year amendment process, just as victims’ long wait was coming to an end.
But now the reform efforts have come full circle again. Rozzi and Gregory are backing both a constitutional amendment and a bill to temporarily lift the statute of limitations.
This time, it appears Republicans will join them in the numbers needed to pass statutory reform. The legislation was advanced by the Senate Judiciary Committee via a convincing 11-3 vote on Wednesday.
The House has already passed a similar measure. We urge Republicans who control the Senate to speed its bill to the floor. Wolf stands ready to sign it.
Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman is among powerful Republicans who have voiced support for the measure. “Enough is enough,” he said, according to PennLive.
Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, however, as of late last week, had declined to comment, according to SpotlightPA.
It is possible, as Corman has observed, that the statute will fail on appeal. But clearly that is a chance many victims want to take. They rallied again in Harrisburg on April 19.
“Please hear us,” said Patty Fortney, one of five sisters abused by a priest.
It is the children — violated and broken and now adults — on whom this debate should be riveted with urgency and good faith. The Catholic Church was never the only institution to harbor predators. Similar abuse and cover-ups have been found in schools and civic organizations. Many of those victims await justice, too.
It should never have taken this long to get to this point. Some victims have died waiting for the legislature to open a path to justice.
Don’t let this apparent groundswell of support for change be just another moment of political theater destined to end in obstruction and delay for wounded Pennsylvanians who have suffered long enough.
Rozzi in an op-ed published through the USA Today Pennsylvania network wrote that “victims can go to deep, dark places following yet another failure by the General Assembly to help right past wrongs.”
Stand with them.
Altoona Mirror. April 24, 2021.
Editorial: Wolf wrong to go it alone on reforms
Gov. Tom Wolf, apparently unsatisfied with controlling merely everything in Pennsylvania related to the COVID-19 pandemic, has decided he now needs to decree what is best regarding the state’s charter schools, despite the fact that up until recently, it appeared he and the state Legislature were working amicably toward a solution.
Wolf on Monday announced his intention to go it alone by using the regulatory process instead of seeking a more-permanent — and bipartisan — legislative solution. And while we don’t know why the governor opted to go that route, we feel as though we can venture a pretty good guess.
The Legislature is full of Republicans. To broker something both parties can get behind, Wolf would have to compromise in his effort to pander to teachers’ unions by limiting school choice. If the past 14 months has shown us anything, it’s that the governor has no appetite for compromise with Republicans.
That has state Senate President Pro Tem Jake Corman rightfully miffed.
“The governor’s go-it-alone strategy has been wrong during the past year during the COVID-19 pandemic; wrong during the small business shutdowns; and it is wrong now,” Corman and Senate Education Committee Chairman Scott Martin said in a joint statement. “Charter schools are public schools. Any action that impacts these institutions also hurts the students and families that charter schools are designed to help.
“The timing of this announcement is equally frustrating because the governor knows that lawmakers are hard at work on this issue. The Senate Education Committee has held two of three scheduled regional public hearings to explore the necessary reforms that will lead to a stronger education system for all students, and the Department of Education has been invited to participate in all the hearings on this issue.
“After working cooperatively and involving the Wolf administration every step of the way in this process, we cannot understand why Governor Wolf would take these unilateral actions now to undercut the important work of the General Assembly, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and his own Department of Education. We implore the governor to abandon this path and work cooperatively with the General Assembly to reform the charter school system and protect the education of all Pennsylvania students.”
To be clear, we are not anti-public schools. We believe public school districts do not deserve to be bled dry by charter school tuition and that something must be done to fix a broken system.
But students and their parents also don’t deserve to be limited to only one educational option because of their address and income.
It’s a difficult problem that will likely require a lot of work and negotiation to find a solution that works for everyone because both sides have very reasonable and valid points.
So for the governor to demonstrate he has learned nothing from the pandemic and to once again trudge forward on his own shows he is only concerned with satisfying his political allies at the expense of everyone else, including Pennsylvania students.
We hope the governor will reconsider and work with the General Assembly rather than against it.
But we’re also smart enough to not hold our breath waiting for that to happen.
Scranton Times-Tribune. April 25, 2021.
Editorial: UMW gets it exactly right
Northeast Pennsylvania has vast experience with the gut-wrenching struggle to overcome the demise of a dominant industry. It is an ongoing process more than 70 years after the large-scale anthracite coal industry took its last gasps in the region.
Mining’s collapse rendered tens of thousands of miners unemployed, adversely affected just about every other business and created a vast out-migration of people seeking places in stronger local economies, including the family of President Joe Biden.
Now the entire coal industry rapidly is in decline. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the 706 million tons of coal mined in the United States in 2019 was the lowest amount since 1978, when a nationwide strike closed the mines from January through March. And the decline has been rapid, according to the agency — coal production peaked at 1.2 billion tons in 2008. Today, fewer than 50,000 coal miners remain nationwide, whereas there used to be more than 100,000 in Northeast Pennsylvania alone.
Now, natural gas has replaced coal as the primary fuel for power generation, and that share will continue to climb. And the Biden administration vowed last week to reduce fossil fuel emissions by half by 2030.
Recently, the United Mine Workers of America recognized that coal has lost in the marketplace. It formally endorsed Biden’s move away from fossil fuels — with the caveat that the administration develop a plan to find jobs in renewable energy for displaced miners. That is exactly the right strategy. Biden has emphasized the job-creating potential of renewable energy, and many coal-rich areas also have significant renewable resources including wind, abundant sunshine and water.
Biden and Congress should accept the UMW challenge to include miners in the reconstruction of the nation’s energy foundation.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. April 25, 2021.
Editorial: Schools and bus contractors must boost wages to attract new drivers
School bus drivers have been in short supply for years nationwide, a scarcity exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic as many bus drivers departed the profession to find more regular employment. Pittsburgh Public Schools is reporting that the district lacks seats for 2,600 students who will go without transportation until school officials can solve the issue. Other districts also are facing shortages.
The pandemic alone is not to blame. Years of poor wages, irregular hours, and the challenge of handling rambunctious children have largely turned school bus driving into a labor of love.
The solution to the shortage boils down to simple economics: the supply of drivers simply doesn’t match the demand for drivers. It’s time to boost school bus driver wages to more attractive levels.
Driving a school bus requires a Class C Commercial Driver’s License with a “school bus” endorsement. This requires an official background check as well as specialized training. The license requirements demonstrate that the state takes the charge of transporting students seriously. As it should — these drivers are commissioned with the care of America’s most valuable cargo each and every school day. It can be a high-stakes, pressure-charged environment with distractions like unruly behavior and inclement weather that require patience and nerves of steel.
Undergoing training for a license takes time and often isn’t compensated. It’s not surprising that many potential school bus drivers pivot to other commercial driving opportunities. Salary.com puts the median school bus driver’s salary in Pennsylvania at $35,103, although it notes the range is from $28,336 to $42,780. Additionally, many drivers are contractors, which means they do not qualify for benefits like health insurance.
More than 80% of Pennsylvania’s school districts contract out busing services to third-party companies. Driver wages are not always under the direct purview of school administrators, but administrators can choose which companies to hire and can exert influence by calling for higher wages for drivers. Likewise, some contractors choose to provide benefits to their employees. And school administrators should emphasize hiring those companies. Finally, schools and contracting companies could begin compensating driver training as incentive for new drivers to sign on.
This will be more expensive of course, but it is an investment in students.
In the short term, Pittsburgh area school districts that are facing shortages must work with parents to free up as many seats as possible, as some kids may be able to walk to school or take public transportation, or some parents may have the time to drive their children to and from school. In the long run, however, schools must work to raise the salary of their bus drivers to rates that attract the number of prospective drivers needed to keep districts’ transportation systems rolling.
Reading Eagle. April 23, 2021.
Editorial: Fair schools funding fight to get its day in court
Advocates for fair school funding in Pennsylvania are watching the calendar, but the anticipated date isn’t on the docket of the state legislature. A lawsuit filed seven years ago by parents and school districts against state government has been given a tentative trial date in September and has the potential to change the way schools are funded throughout the state.
The lawsuit alleging the Pennsylvania General Assembly has violated the state’s constitution by failing to provide fair and adequate funding for public education was given a tentative trial date of Sept. 9 in Commonwealth Court in an April 1 order from Commonwealth Court Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer.
A pretrial conference date of June 21 is when the true date of trial is expected to be set, according to a report by Delaware County Daily Times staff writer Alex Rose.
The lawsuit names the Pennsylvania Department of Education, Gov. Tom Wolf and government officials including state Senate President Pro-Tempore Jake Corman and Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives Bryan Cutler as defendants, among others.
The case was brought in 2014 by six school districts, including William Penn in Delaware County, as well as the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, the NAACP-PA, and five public school parents to challenge what they view as a skewed funding structure that has harmed the state’s poorest children.
According to the suit, Pennsylvania lawmakers have been on notice since at least 2006 that public education required approximately $4.4 billion in additional funding in order for all schools to meet the state’s academic standards and assessments.
The petitioners pointed to U.S. Census data that ranks Pennsylvania 44th in the nation in terms of state funding with just 38 percent. They say this leaves districts heavily reliant on generating funds from local wealth and sets up a system where rich communities thrive and poor communities are left behind.
This funding gap disproportionally impacts students of color, the petitioners say, with 50 percent of Black students and 40 percent of Latino students attending schools in the lowest 20 percent of local districts, according to the Daily Times report.
“Pennsylvania schools have been described as among the most racially segregated and highly inequitable in the nation,” said petitioner Rev. Kenneth Huston, president of the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference. “Generations of Black and brown students have attended underfunded schools and been deprived of educational opportunities, which has narrowed and limited their futures. The NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference joined this lawsuit in 2014 because we will not allow lawmakers to perpetuate this harmful school funding system that upends the lives and futures of Black children.”
The spotlight on a trial date comes at a time of increasing push for fair school funding in Pennsylvania. But even as more citizens, school officials and lawmakers join the movement, there is widespread recognition that it won’t move forward in the current political environment in Harrisburg.
Montgomery County Republican state Sen. Bob Mensch spoke on the political reality that drives the disparity during a recent fair funding forum by the Lansdale branch of the American Association of University Women.
Mensch elaborated on the “hold harmless” clause, which allows that no school district receive less in state funding than it did the year before. He said that nine of the 11 school districts in the region he represents suffer in funding dollars because of the clause, which he has proposed amending.
“They probably receive, on average, 18 percent of their total school funding from the state, through the basic education formula -- which translates to 82 percent they need from property taxes,” Mensch said. “The school districts that are west of the Susquehanna (River), and north of I-80, are benefitting from hold harmless — they’re probably 82 percent funded through the state, and relatively small impacts from property taxes.”
Mensch said his proposal is “a hard sell, because I have 25 percent of the legislature that would want to support it, and 75 percent of the legislature that probably does not want to see hold harmless changed.”
That reality brings fair funding advocates back to seeing the lawsuit’s day in court as their best hope for reform. Proponents won an important victory in 2017 when state Supreme Court Justice David Wecht remanded the case to allow arguments on the state Constitution’s guarantee of a “fundamental right to an education.”
In that context, the lawsuit if successful could result in a massive overhaul of how public schools are funded by shifting the burden from local taxes to statewide funding distributed by need.
Solution by court order is not ideal, but Pennsylvanians have waited decades for the legislature to fix this longstanding issue. Now, the wait is until September; many are watching.