Editorials from around Pennsylvania:
CLEAN HOUSE AT THE VA, March 1
The Department of Veterans Affairs' suicide hotline scandal should be the final straw in a rotting haystack. Changing this "culture," as Secretary Robert McDonald describes it, begins by firing its foot-dragging enablers.
"Use the authority you have to demonstrate that repeated failure at the VA is unacceptable by firing Dr. (Mary) Schohn (the VA's director of mental health operations)," writes Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., in a letter to McDonald.
Despite a 40 percent increase in calls to the VA crisis hotline in 2014, the agency did little, if anything, to meet the demand. Reportedly one in six calls during an "overload" were directed to backup centers, where some calls went to voicemail or were put on hold.
Kirk says the VA's health services office had known about "unacceptable examples of disregard" since April 2014, The Hill newspaper reports.
It's estimated that 22 veterans commit suicide daily. In response to one veteran's death, a Special Forces veteran with a friend launched an Instagram suicide-prevention page that today is saving lives and has more than 17,000 followers, CBS News reports. Meanwhile the VA is plodding along and will meet recommended changes — by Sept. 30.
This culture of delay, with deadly consequences, changes only when those who cling to it are removed.
— The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
DON'T TIE MORE STATE REVENUE TO LANDFILLS, March 1
Low oil and gas prices are good for consumers. But low prices also result in sharply reduced royalties paid to the state government by the industry to drill on state land. And that, in turn, is bad news for environmental protection projects that are funded with those royalties.
Gov. Tom Wolf and some of his environmentally conscious allies in the Legislature want to replace the revenue with an increase in the waste disposal fee, or "tipping fee," that landfills pay for each ton of dumped garbage.
The governor has proposed a 29 percent increase in the fee, from $6.25 to $8 per ton for garbage classified as municipal waste. It also would apply to demolition and residual waste, which are exempt from the current fee. He would use $35 million in new revenue to cover the 40 percent reduction in royalties from oil and gas drilling on state land. Money would go to the Environmental Stewardship Fund and Hazardous Cleanup Fund, both of which do important work.
State Sen. John Blake, a Lackawanna County Democrat, also wants to use some of the funds to expand recycling.
These all are worthy initiatives but they also pose a long-term danger for northeastern Pennsylvania. It is a fundamentally dubious policy to make even more state revenue dependent upon one of the state's most problematic industries.
Landfills must be taxed to compensate for their massive environmental and economic impacts. But that also makes the government dependent upon them for revenue. For an indication of what that means, consider the symbiotic relationship between the state government and the casino industry. Harrisburg continually smiles on gambling expansion without regard for its vast negative social impact because the state government itself is a croupier.
Blake says he wants to use some of the fund for more recycling to help mitigate the impact of the proposed massive expansion of the Keystone Landfill in Dunmore and Throop. But he shouldn't be focusing on mitigation. His objection should be to stop the expansion, which is contrary to the public interest in many ways.
Dunmore Borough's government already has demonstrated that it can't cut its umbilical cord to landfill cash.
State officials should not create any new incentive to make the landfill expansion look attractive. It would be a blow to Northeastern Pennsylvania whether the fee is $6.25 or $8 a ton.
— The (Wilkes-Barre) Citizens' Voice
PENNSYLVANIA'S LOOMING TEACHER SHORTAGE AND CURRENT SUBSTITUTE TEACHER SHORTAGE MUST BE ADDRESSED, Feb. 28
The number of Pennsylvanians who want to become teachers has fallen to alarmingly low levels, an LNP analysis shows, and a teacher shortage now looms. Lancaster County school districts already have experienced a lack of substitute teachers. But educators say they expect to feel the full impact of a teacher shortage in about a year and a half. The number of in-state residents seeking teacher certifications has plummeted 62 percent since 2012, Pennsylvania Department of Education data show. In 2015, only 6,215 sought certification, down from 16,361 three years earlier.
The comments on LNP's Facebook page and LancasterOnline.com about last Sunday's LNP story on the looming teacher shortage conveyed all the usual sentiments about the teaching profession.
Teachers have summers and weekends off; teachers spend countless hours doing paperwork and spend their summers planning. Teachers are overpaid and have lavish pensions; teachers are underpaid and spend a lot of their own money on their students and classrooms.
And that's just a sampling.
Few professions inspire the kind of public debate that teaching does, but there's a reason for this: Teacher salaries and benefits are paid for with taxpayer dollars, so taxpayers have a stake in that debate.
It's not just the constant judgment that has made teaching a less desirable profession.
"Teaching used to be an art that allowed every teacher to perform her job in different ways," said Anne Carmitchell, a retired eighth-grade communications teacher who was employed by Cocalico School District. But the artistry of teaching has been squelched by standardized testing and test prep, and the government's insistence that "all students show their proficiency in the same way."
Students have come to be regarded more as data than as individuals.
"Proving student success to the state would be an easy task," that teacher said, "if all students learned the same way. Or if they all came to school after a good night's rest in their own beds and with full stomachs," or if they came from stable, drug-free homes.
But that's not the reality. And teachers are expected to work against the reality. Some no longer want to try.
And the complicated and ever-changing testing requirements that students now face may be discouraging them from considering a career in education.
Millersville University has seen a 52 percent decline in the number of students going into teaching since 2010, when there were 500 grads.
This year, 238 students will graduate from Millersville with bachelor's degrees in education.
Who will stand before our children and grandchildren in the classroom in the years to come?
Even substitute teachers are hard to find these days — at a time when school districts increasingly rely on them so teachers can complete state-mandated professional development requirements on subjects such as youth suicide awareness during the academic year.
When substitute teachers can't be found, other teachers, administrators and certified aides must cover classrooms, leading to unevenness in instruction. And the students who are hurt the most are those who need consistency.
So fixing the substitute shortage is imperative. It's a complicated problem, but there seem to be some obvious fixes:
Raise the going rate here (it's now $100-$110 a day), as Conestoga Valley School District and other districts plan to do next year.
Work with the teachers unions to revise contracts that prohibit or limit professional development during the summer.
Schedule professional development workshops in the afternoons of early dismissal days, as some districts already do.
Make it easier for retired teachers to return to the classroom as substitutes. A retired teacher who wants to work as a substitute in a public school only can do so in an emergency situation or risk losing her monthly pension benefits.
Karen Tillett, a teacher with 35 years of experience (30 of them in the School District of Lancaster), retired last June, thinking she could return to her former school — Carter and MacRae Elementary — as a substitute.
She knew from experience the toll the substitute shortage took on her former school. So she went to register as a substitute on the Substitute Teacher Service website.
She was asked to undergo a Pennsylvania criminal records check, FBI criminal history and Pennsylvania child abuse clearances. She had to submit an online application, "a current resume, three professional letters of recommendation, a TB test, proof of Act 126 training ( ... on child abuse recognition and mandated reporting), and a list of all current and past employers, including contact information, for all jobs I held where I have or had direct contact with children."
"All I wanted to do was make myself available as a substitute teacher for my former colleagues and the students at Carter and MacRae by offering my services as a qualified and experienced teacher," she said.
She decided there were just too many hoops through which to jump.
What a loss for her former school. What a loss for her former colleagues.
And what an entirely fixable one. Requiring up-to-date child abuse clearances, we understand. But requiring a current resume and letters of recommendation of a teacher who taught for three decades in the same district?
Such inflexibility only will serve to make teacher shortages, the current one and the one coming, worse.
We encourage state and local officials to evaluate and eliminate disincentives to teaching. Teaching is a noble profession, but a profession nonetheless. Our standards for teachers ought to be high, but so should the value we place on them. They do hold, after all, our future in their hands.
BIRTH CONTROL DEVICE NEEDS FURTHER REVIEW, March 2
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration carries the enormous responsibility of protecting and promoting public health through the supervision and regulation of food safety, prescription drugs, medications, vaccines and a host of medical and other types of devices. The agency is generally very deliberate in its work — sometimes too deliberate for its critics — and its actions allowing this or not allowing that can generate controversy.
The FDA is criticized for being too protective, such as when it refuses or is slow to allow a promising new product to be made available to U.S. consumers. Or it's criticized for not being protective enough — not taking sufficient steps to address reported problems with a drug or device already in use.
The latter is the case with the Essure, Bayer's permanent birth control implant. In September, the FDA reported that it had received more than 5,000 complaints about the device over a 10-year span. Claims from women using the device — a small metal coil implanted in the fallopian tubes to prevent pregnancy — included abdominal pain, menstrual difficulties and headaches. Five fetal deaths were also reported by the FDA in women who had had the device implanted but who got pregnant after the device had become displaced.
Bucks County Congressman Michael Fitzpatrick has been pushing for Essure to be removed from the market because of the dangers it poses to women. On Monday following a five-month investigation, the FDA recommended that Bayer add a warning label to the product and create a checklist doctors can review with patients before the device is implanted. Bayer was also ordered to develop and conduct a post-market study to help the FDA better understand Essure's risks.
Not good enough, protested Fitzpatrick. "It's unbelievable that it took the FDA since September to make just two recommendations with no enforcement measures and ask the manufacturer to perform another study while leaving Essure on the market," Fitzpatrick said. In Fitzpatrick's mind, the FDA has done little more than nothing.
The congressman previously called for an investigation into 303 fetal deaths allegedly caused by Essure that a former Bayer employee says were never reported by the company. Bayer has denied those allegations. Nevertheless, Fitzpatrick wants the FDA to look at the discrepancies between Bayer's report and the employee's claim before ruling on the product's safety. He renewed his call that Essure be yanked from the market and that Congress act on his bill that would revoke the FDA's approval of the device.
Bayer, a large and politically influential company, has a lot invested in Essure and no doubt will fight any effort to halt its use. But in light of all the complaints, it seems more than reasonable that the FDA, as deliberate as the agency is, should check the veracity of every bit of available information to determine Essure's safety. Until that determination can be made, women should not be put at risk.
— (Levittown) Bucks County Courier Times
TAKE BACK THE POWER OF YOUR VOTE, Feb. 25
Every decade, using updated U.S. Census information, states redraw their legislative and congressional districts. In nearly 45 of the 50 states, including Pennsylvania, state lawmakers get to decide how this process will evolve.
Those in power draw the lines, creating wacky-shaped districts that can give them a lock on winning future elections.
That means that in 2020, control of the state Legislature will be crucial to political parties.
Not surprisingly, reform bills in the House and Senate are introduced by those who belong to a party (in Pennsylvania, it's the Democrats) that won't benefit from political gerrymandering.
Some of the districts across the northeast are so oddly shaped, they have been bestowed with names such as "bug on a windshield" and "oops, I spilled the coffee."
Pennsylvania's 2010 map is a consequence of the 2010 elections when the Republicans took control of both chambers of the state Legislature. Approval of the map, of course, easily passed the House and Senate.
Pittsburgh-area state Rep. Ted Harhai, a socially conservative Democrat who is widely seen as adept at the art of compromise, is retiring at the end of this year. But first, he told The Associated Press, he hopes to tackle issues involving campaign finance — he was overspent 5 to 1 during his last election — lobbyist reform and redistricting.
"The art of compromise is dead," Harhai, 61, of Monessen, who has served 10 terms, told the AP. "It's a one-sided political environment and no matter who has that one side, it is not healthy. It's just come down to money and redistricting."
"We're the worst gerrymandered state in the nation," Harhai added.
Harhai co-sponsored House Bill 1344. The first part of the bill looks at forming a Citizen's Reappointment Commission modeled after California's redistricting commission. Senate Bill 484 also calls for the formation of a commission.
The bill would also address how districts are formed, using Iowa as a model. It calls for compact, square districts that don't allow for the division of municipalities.
State Rep. Brian Sims, of Philadelphia is also working with Maryland and Virginia representatives on similar initiatives. In a news release on PAHouse.com Democrat Sims noted Democrats are fighting in Pennsylvania and Virginia and Republicans want reform in Maryland. ". . . but voters in these states, regardless of party, lose under the current system. By working together, both parties and residents of all three states gain from fairer districts and a restoration of competition and accountability."
We wholeheartedly agree. If we take the power of drawing voting districts out of the hands of the politicians and put it into the hands of a commission that represents the people, it will quell the rampant ideological extremism and force lawmakers — no longer protected from electoral challenges by the opposing party — to be more responsive to all of their constituents.
To help support gerrymandering reform in Pennsylvania, join Pennsylvania Common Cause and send a message to your senator regarding this vital issue.
The time for voters from both parties to act is now, not 2020. By then it will, sadly, be politics as usual — or worse.
Take back the power of your vote from the politicians now — before it's too late and another decade of political gridlock is upon us.
—The York Dispatch