Gov. Wolf proposes Pennsylvania charter school reforms

HARRISBURG, Pa. (Public News Service) – Education advocates are praising the new regulations and legislation proposed by Gov. Tom Wolf to reform Pennsylvania charter schools.

On Tuesday, the governor announced his plans to improve the financial accountability and academic performance of charters. According to Reynelle Brown Staley, policy director at the Education Law Center, many charter schools have failed to live up to their promise of improved services for students who may need more help to succeed.

“Students with disabilities, students who are English learners, students who are in poverty are not being equitably served by charters,” says Staley.

The governor is directing the Department of Education to develop regulations targeting academic accountability and enrollment, and says he’ll propose funding-reform legislation in the fall.

Staley points out that the per-student costs of charters exceed the reduction of costs from lower enrollment in regular public schools, and says funding for online or “cyber charters” doesn’t reflect their lower operating expenses.

“Cyber charters, which operate without physical facilities, are still receiving the same amount of payment as a school that has to maintain a physical facility and provide all of the services associated with that,” says Staley.

Gov. Wolf says over the past ten years, the student population of charter schools has increased by 95%, but the tax dollars spent on them have increased 135%.

Past legislative attempts to fix the charter-school funding system haven’t passed, and the governor’s proposals are likely to face stiff opposition from the charter lobby. Staley says that makes regulatory reform by executive order especially important.

“There is a fair amount that the governor can do, and we’re happy to see that he is intending to use that rule-making and regulatory authority in ways that past administrations have not,” says Staley.

A recent study by the Education Law Center documented inequities between charter and traditional public schools in Philadelphia, problems Staley says have arisen in districts across the state.

Reporting by Andrea Sears

Green card applicants face hurdles under Federal rule change

LANSING, Mich. – Local experts say the latest changes to federal immigration laws would have damaging ripple effects on Michigan’s immigrant families.

Under the new rule, legal immigrants who are applying for green card status would be denied if they’ve used federal assistance programs, like Medicaid or SNAP. At the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, staff attorney Tania Morris Diaz says it’s important for families to understand what the changes could mean, and seek counseling or legal help if needed.

“It’s important for people to know that this rule hasn’t taken effect yet,” says Diaz. “It won’t until October 15. That if they fear how accessing public benefits will affect them, they should reach out make sure that they are affected by this rule.”

Diaz says she expects that lawsuits filed against the measure could potentially delay its implementation.

Last year, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services granted green cards to more than 600,000 residents.

Madiha Tariq is deputy director of the ACCESS Community Health & Research Center. She says – because there are many mixed-status families living in Michigan – the rules could deter people, regardless of immigration status, from receiving healthcare or other benefits.

“So, if the U.S. citizen was utilizing, let’s say Medicaid, they will hesitate because they don’t want their loved one or their family member who’s applying for a green card to be impacted negatively,” says Tariq.

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Tariq stresses this is not the case, and that only benefits received by the green-card applicant will be considered.

Along with income level, education and the ability to speak English would weigh more heavily on a green card applicant’s approval. Experts say the new rule would fundamentally alter the U.S. immigration system, and likely lead to the denial of green cards and visas to hundreds of thousands of otherwise eligible people.

Reporting by Nadia Ramlagan

Legal challengers call Trump clean power rule a “failure”

CHICAGO – Illinois is among nearly two dozen states fighting a new Trump administration rule, saying it won’t be effective at cleaning up pollution from power plants.

The Obama-era Clean Power Plan set nationwide targets to reduce carbon emissions from power plants. But the new Affordable Clean Energy Rule or ‘ACE’ instead allows states to choose whether to reduce emissions and by how much.

Ann Mesnikoff is federal legislative director with the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center, which is among 10 organizations that filed a petition claiming the Clean Power Plan was unlawfully repealed.

“The rule from Trump administration doesn’t actually require any reductions from these power plants and in fact, really gives them an out,” says Mesnikoff. “So, it’s really problematic in terms of what the Clean Air Act should require from coal-fired power plants. This rule is a real fail.”

The 22 states filed a lawsuit against the EPA this week, arguing the replacement plan doesn’t use the “best system of emissions reduction” as required by the Clean Air Act. Chicago and six other cities also are included in the lawsuit.

Mesnikoff contends the rule discourages a clean-energy economy and reverses course on progress to reduce carbon emissions and fight climate change. She adds the Great Lakes region is already suffering extreme weather events spurred by climate change, such as drought, flooding and heatwaves, as well as toxic algal blooms in bodies of water.

“So, climate change is an enormous problem that we need to tackle and we have the solutions at hand,” says Mesnikoff. “Wind and solar power are tremendous opportunities to generate clean electricity. The Clean Power Plan helped drive those kinds of solutions, and the rule from the Trump Administration is moving us in the wrong direction.”

Supporters argue states need more flexibility in regulating energy matters, but opponents say the new rule discourages the pursuit of clean-energy policies. An EPA spokesperson said the agency stands behind the rule and believes it will be upheld in court.

Reporting by Mary Schuermann Kuhlman

Back to school approaches, but not for some young North Dakotans

BISMARCK, N.D. – It’s almost time for North Dakota kids to go back to school – but some of the state’s youngest won’t be getting an education just yet.

The approach of the first day of the school year spotlights how few young North Dakotans are enrolled in early education programs – only 31%. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the state ranks last in the nation for participation.

Karen Olson, program director for North Dakota KIDS COUNT, says access and affordability are two of the biggest barriers for families. She notes about three-quarters of children live in households where both parents are working – one of the highest rates in the nation.

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“When we look at county-level data in terms of availability of licensed child care, there are some counties in our state where we’re meeting less than 10% of the potential need – need being those young children with working parents,” says Olson.

Olson adds that the average cost for a four-year-old at a child-care center is $8,200 a year, which is about 10% of the average family income in North Dakota.

Olson says the state has started to address this issue. In 2015, the Legislature passed a bill that provides scholarships to preschool programs that serve low-income families. She says conservative estimates find a $7 return to society for every one dollar spent on early education.

“Investment in high-quality preschool programs is a critical long-term economic investment in school readiness, student achievement and the future workforce,” says Olson. “Those early experiences create a foundation for children to be not only successful students but eventually, productive adults.”

Olson also notes dependable childcare helps working parents, who sometimes have to miss work to find consistent care.

She says families can check out Child Care Aware of North Dakota to find local resources.

Reporting by Eric Tegethoff

Film finds momentum for removing dams to save orcas

SEATTLE – A new documentary film argues that removing dams in eastern Washington would help the Northwest’s dwindling population of orcas.

Dammed to Extinction” explores the impact of four lower Snake River dams on Chinook salmon populations – the iconic Southern Resident orcas’ main source of food. Whale experts in the film say removing the dams would create a lifeline for the whales.

Film director Michael Peterson grew up fishing and skiing behind the dams, and says momentum is growing to remove them.

“I never thought that I would see, in my lifetime, people actually talking about taking them out,” says Peterson. “I knew they were fish-killers, but I didn’t understand until I started making this movie how really destructive they are. What’s amazing is how large this ecosystem is. We do something up in northern Idaho and it affects a whale all the way down in Seattle.”

Peterson says the plight of the Puget Sound whales, now totaling 73, gained worldwide attention last year when one of the orcas carried her dead calf for 17 days.

Proponents of keeping the dams say they’re integral for local barging and irrigation. Others say their removal would put the Bonneville Power Administration in a tough financial position.

The next screening of the film is on Tuesday in Issaquah.

Peterson notes the dams put a lot of pressure on young salmon migrating back to the ocean, where they experience hot reservoirs behind the dams. According to the group Save Our Wild Salmon, water temperatures behind all four lower Snake River dams were above 68 degrees last week, a marker that’s harmful or even deadly for salmon.

And while the dams were once productive, Peterson claims they produce mostly surplus energy now.

“If we took those dams out, we would not need to replace the electricity and we would all save money, and we’d have more fish in the river,” says Peterson. “So, it really doesn’t make sense to keep ’em. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Peterson partnered with Steven Hawley on Dammed to Extinction, which was inspired by his book “Recovering a Lost River.” More screenings are scheduled throughout Washington in September.

Reporting by Eric Tegethoff

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