While all life is precious, it sometimes takes the killing of an innocent child, a prominent person or a police officer to shake the public’s consciousness.
When a police officer, whose sworn duty it is to serve and protect the community, is gunned down it sparks an outpouring of public anger and outrage.
Public anger grow deeper still when that same officer is a beloved member of the community and someone with a reputation of being devoted to his church and family.
This is why hundreds of people paid their respects for Officer Moses Walker Jr., a 19-year veteran, who was laid to rest Monday at Deliverance Evangelistic Church in North Philadelphia.
Officer Walker was shot and killed during an apparent robbery attempt as he walked to a bus stop after finishing his shift last week.
Mayor Michael Nutter was among those who attended the funeral service for Walker and
called for an end to violence and a rededication to peace.
“I am sick of the ignorance, sick of the violence, sick of death,” he said. “Let us all rededicate our lives to peace and let Moses Walker – Moses would lead the way – show us how to live our lives in peace, in truth, in love.”
Walker, 40, had changed into street clothes after an overnight shift and was walking to a bus stop about 6 a.m. on Aug 18 when two men approached him. Walker had time only to draw his gun before he was shot in the chest, stomach and arm, said police. According to police, the robbery attempt was similar to several other robberies in the area in the last few months.
Police have charged two men in the slaying. Rafael Jones, 23, believed to have been the shooter, was charged last week with murder, robbery, conspiracy and other counts. Chancier McFarland, 19, was charged with murder and other offences.
The slaying has sparked criticism of the Board of Probation and Parole, which allowed Jones to leave prison and go without an electronic bracelet for more than two weeks after being charged in connection with an earlier robbery.
State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams (D., Phila) has called on Gov. Tom Corbett’s office to lead an investigation into why Jones was on the street.
There should be an investigation outside of the Board of Probation and Parole into where the breakdown occurred in the handling of the Jones’s case.
If School Reform Commission officials were caught a little flat-footed during a recent community meeting at Enon Baptist Church in which more than 2,500 people attended, then they should be prepared for a Tuesday May 22 meeting at 6:30 at Bright Hope Baptist Church, 12th St. and Cecil B. Moore Avenue.
SRC officials can expect the same sort of probing questions they received from attendees during the Enon meeting; only this time several other organizations are taking part, including Occupy Philly, ACTION United and the Service Employees International Union, which represents the majority of school district employees not covered by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
The Bright Hope meeting represents the next in a series of community-orchestrated meetings, in which neighborhood leaders gather with other concerned stakeholders to discuss the School District of Philadelphia’s plan. Although not an officially sanctioned meeting of the SRC, district officials are often invited — and often do attend.
The meeting is bound to revolve around District Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen’s drastic reorganization blueprint, which calls for the closure of 64 schools, the privatization of crucial scholastic and academic services and a complete restructuring of the programs and offices at district headquarters downtown, among other measures meant to bring the district to a state of solvency.
“We are facing an education emergency in Philadelphia. Outside consultants are proposing to destroy the Philadelphia Public School System and cut thousands of living-wage jobs,” said activist Rita Addessa in an email to supporters, which cited other blueprint moves such as turning many of the remaining public schools into private charters. “The proposal does not talk about things that are known to work in improving education: lowering class sizes, [having] a highly qualified, experienced teacher in every classroom, and clean and safe schools.”
Also up for discussion will be District Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon’s own plan for academic restructuring, which will alter not only the way principals run and manage their schools, but the way teachers deliver instruction as well.
“Officials have laid out their plan, and folks are unhappy, but we really haven’t heard a lot about an alternate vision,” said Roland Ferguson, of the Southwest Chapter of ACTION United. “That’s what we are going to do on Tuesday. People not only want to hear about the proposed changes, they want to make sure the needs of their children and their neighborhoods are being considered in the process. We’re going to lay out an alternative to the plan that includes the priorities of the community, parents and students.”
Bright Hope Baptist Church pastor D. Kevin R. Johnson will lead the meeting, during which members of the community will present photos, drawings and essays from area public school students depicting what they believe a good school should look like and include.
School funding is bound to be a hotly-contested issue, especially given Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett’s recent remarks, where he essentially blamed school districts throughout the commonwealth for fiscal mismanagement; Corbett also claimed that many school districts are sitting on reserves that they could tap into in order to save crucial programs.
School district officials have denied the district has any surplus or reserves, and confirmed that it is still experiencing a budgetary shortfall for the current year — and is still predicting a major gap for the next academic year.
“We reject the notion that there is no money for schools when they are building new prisons,” Ferguson said. “We need our officials to be listening to the community and looking for creative solutions, rather than trying to solve the funding crisis on the backs of students, or by outsourcing jobs.
“The people that work in the schools are parents and neighbors too.”
A fear shared by thousands of needy Pennsylvanians will become a reality on July 1, the day that the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare — under Gov. Tom Corbett’s new budget — will eliminate the General Assistance Program.
According to an internal DPW operations memo obtained by several community groups, non-profits and politicians, the cash assistance program will end for individuals in the following categories: 18–21-years-old and are enrolled in a secondary school and expecting to graduate by the time he or she is 21; children under the age of 21 who are not eligible for Temporary Assistance For Needy Families (TANF); anyone who lives in a two-parent household with children under 13, or 13 and older with disabilities; those who are either temporarily or permanently disabled; non-parental caretakers of children under 13, or 13 and over and disabled; those undergoing drug/alcohol treatment that precludes employment; pregnant women who are ineligible for TANF, and victims of domestic violence.
“Individuals will not be able to apply for General Assistance cash after July 1, 2012. All applications received in the month of June 2012, even if processed in July, will be processed with a closing date of June 30, 2012,” read a portion of the DPW operations memo. “An essential person is a general assistance-cash eligible individual living in a TANF household and who is related to a TANF child. Effective July 1, 2012, the system will no longer allow these essential persons to be created.”
The new guidelines also make job searching a condition of eligibility for future TANF/General Assistance recipients, requiring them to apply for at least three jobs a week. Medical assistance for these individuals will remain unchanged.
“As a condition for eligibility for TANF and General Assistance-related Needy Nonmoney Payment [NNP] medical assistance, an applicant who is not employed at least 20 hours a week is required to apply for at least three jobs per week while the application is pending, unless the applicant is exempt from work requirements with good cause,” read the memo. “The applicant is required to provide verification of these job applications before any assistance may be authorized.
“If all other pending verification is received within the 30 day application period, TANF of GA-related NNP medical assistance cannot be opened without proof that the required job applications have been completed.”
The decision to cut this program will save the commonwealth roughly $150 million, according to Corbett’s budget.
This plan essentially rips a lifeline from the state’s most at-risk citizens, said State Rep. W. Curtis Thomas in a scathing letter Thomas sent to Corbett. There are eight housing developments in Thomas’ district, and the majority of those tenants will be hit the hardest.
“As you know, this decision will involve an overwhelming number of citizens, children, and victims of domestic violence who are considered disabled,” Thomas wrote in his letter, noting that those affected also didn’t receive advance notice of the change. “I am extremely troubled by this decision in the light of a myriad of economic, social and medical circumstances which face people today more than any other time in the Commonwealth or the United States.
“I am more troubled by the fact this decision is being made in absence of a lifeline for people who have no other resources.”
Thomas isn’t the only person outraged by the move, nor is he the only one doing something about it. PA Cares For All — a 100-plus member strong coalition to save general assistance, has started a petition drive and offers resources on its website for those affected by this change. And Community Legal Services has drafted both a letter outlining the changes, and a document to help in filing for benefits.
Thomas’ letter pleads with the governor to rethink the cuts.
“If you cannot in good conscience reconsider, please consider maintaining General Assistance for children and individuals who are disabled until they have been referred and approved by the SSD or SSI programs,” Thomas’ letter read. “The disabled population is not only without resources, but are also faced with physical, and or mental problems that aggravate their everyday challenges.”
Look in your wallet or peek in your fridge, and ask yourself, “Can I feed my family on $5 day, or just $35 per week?” It may seem absurd on its face, but according to area politicians taking part in the weeklong “Food Stamp Challenge,” that hypothetical is the reality for thousands of Philadelphians who may be impacted when the state implements the so-called asset test for individuals and families who receive food stamps — or SNAP — benefits.
Congressman Bob Brady and Mayor Michael Nutter joined state Representative Tony Payton Jr., Senator Vincent Hughes and other elected officials at the Parkside ShopRite on 52nd Street near Parkside Avenue in West Philadelphia to bring attention to the plight of SNAP recipients and to implore leaders in Harrisburg and Washington, D.C., to repeal the asset test.
“This is a bit redundant, because we only have to do this for a week,” Brady said, “but there are families who have to do this for much longer than a week. There is also the nutrition factor, with our kids getting sick,” by not eating properly due to SNAP cuts already in place. “I want to demonstrate just how hard it is for struggling families to feed their families day after day. I know that $5 a day isn’t enough for three square meals. I don’t think $35 will be enough for a week’s worth of meals that are healthy, nutritious and not just filling.
“I’d like to take this to Washington, to have some of my fellow colleagues take this test.”
The officials present were in unison, deriding Governor Tom Corbett’s measures as cruel.
“It’s just mean-spirited to attack children, to attack those with low income. Why would we cut the benefits to the most needy?” asked Nutter, who arrived at the ShopRite with an itemized list of groceries totaling a little over $34. “SNAP is real important to Philadelphians, and no one should ever be hungry or without food.”
Hughes was disgusted by the very notion of properly feeding a family on $35 in benefits.
“It’s an impossibility to put together a week of nutritious meals on $35; why would we even be considering this in Harrisburg?” Hughes said. “[Corbett] doesn’t have to do this. We can change the policy in May, because this is the wrong thing to do.”
Earlier in the year, Corbett announced the asset test for those receiving SNAP benefits statewide. The asset test is basically an audit of all the possessions of someone receiving SNAP, in order reevaluate his or her worth. The plan, if followed through, will cause a flag to be raised on the SNAP applications of persons with more than $2,500 in savings.
Former governor Ed Rendell stopped the state test in 2008, but Corbett has since decided to reinstate it. Critics have railed against that particular measure, believing that people will spend what little savings they have to get fit SNAP’s new guidelines, and that act alone will force people to be even more dependent on the state for assistance.
Buying groceries on $35 for one week alone won’t draw much interest, as the challenge participants fully understood that they aren’t really in the shoes of those needing benefits; but a few, like Payton, aren’t too far removed from a similar existence.
“This really illuminates the plight of poor people, and those who have their foot on the necks of poor people,” said Payton, who has dozens of folks stop by his office on a weekly basis, looking for foodstuffs and information on food pantries. “People are hurting. They need to stop these foolish policies.
“This is really a wakeup call to pay attention,” Payton continued, citing Corbett’s recent cuts to education and housing. “There are people making decisions that will impact your life and victimize the poor.”
With its budget counter-proposal, state senators throughout the commonwealth have sent a strong message to Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett about his controversial budget proposal: Not on our watch.
The GOP-led state senate earlier this month crafted Senate Bill 11466 — also known as the FY 2012–2013 General Appropriations Act — which restores many of the cuts proposed in Corbett’s plan, including budgetary slashes to the public schools, hospital/healthcare services and nursing home sectors, while also slashing upwards of $150 million from emergency temporary cash assistance programs.
The new budget year begins on July 1.
“Senate Bill 1466 will provide substantial restorations to certain areas of the governor’s proposed budget that reflects the fiscal realities that we have today,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Senator Jake Corman. “Increased revenues over the past few months allowed us to alter what the governor had initially proposed back in February, including significant restorations to higher education, basic education, early childhood funding and social service funding.”
This apparent about-face by the Republican-controlled body may be caused, in part, by blowback senators received from education-minded constituents back on their home turf. Corbett’s cuts wouldn’t only adversely affect the School District of Philadelphia, but also rural schools throughout the commonwealth that are experiencing fiscal turbulence as well. Their plan adds $517.2 million to Corbett’s proposed budget of $27.656 billion.
“This budget, which is sustainable and balanced, reflects less than a 2 percent increase over last year, and is still less than the budget passed in 2008,” Corman said. “The budget reaffirms our commitment to keeping spending in line with revenues, and continues to acknowledge that we cannot increase the burden on taxpayers.”
Corbett’s budget includes a handful of Block Grants, ranging from the Childcare and Development Fund Block Grant to the Student Achievement Block Grant. “The 2012–13 budget will begin to fundamentally transform the relationship between the state and local governments and the delivery of critical services in education and human services,” read a portion of Corbett’s budget proposal. “The budget will place several K–12 education funding streams into a block grant, providing greater flexibility for local school districts and positioning the commonwealth to incorporate a student-focused weighted funding formula based on environmental factors and student characteristics in the future.”
Corbett’s plan includes several appropriations in the Student Achievement Education Block Grant, including $5.35 billion for basic education funding, $542.3 million for pupil transportation, $77.7 million for non-public and charter school pupil transportation, $504.8 million directly to commonwealth school districts, $36.8 million to intermediate units, $13.5 million for career and technical centers and finally, $20.4 million to community colleges.
Many educators and elected officials assail Corbett’s plan, essentially calling the grants a smokescreen implemented by the governor to cover up the fact that his plan cuts education funding.
“The governor’s ‘block grant’ proposal would create a single line item in the FY 2012–2013 state budget by lumping together line items for employee Social Security payments, school busing, non-public school busing and classroom instruction. Social security payments are mandated, and busing is necessary to keep students safe and attending school regularly,” said Pennsylvania State Education Association President Mike Crossey, through a statement released by the PSEA. “The governor’s ‘block grant’ plan would erase decades of good policy and leave local taxpayers to cover the costs that this new system would ignore. We’re glad the senate rejected it, and we’re eager to work with House members to makes sure they reject it too.”
Veteran state Representative W. Curtis Thomas’ disdain for Corbett’s budget proposal has led him to craft an alternate budget as well. Thomas’ “Putting People First Now!” proposal calls for a reallocation of $1.7 billion in the general fund to the areas of education, jobs, healthcare and housing.
“It is my hope that this will mark the beginning of a discussion that will lead us to enact a state budget that truly puts the people of the commonwealth first,” said Thomas. “In these truly difficult economic times, many Pennsylvanians are struggling to provide the basic necessities for their families. However, Governor Corbett’s proposed 2012–2013 budget would do more harm than good for people who have already fallen on tough economic times … [I] am opposed to the governor’s plan to Block Grant basic education, student achievement, housing redevelopment assistance and human services development programs.
“Block Grants would allow the governor to pass the responsibility to local communities, which are already paying higher taxes and fees.”
Some argue agenda to revise state’s Electoral College will undermine Democrats
Many Democrats see the drive to change the way Pennsylvania’s Electoral College votes are counted — a movement that seems to be gathering momentum — as a blatant attempt to block President Barack Obama from winning Pennsylvania in 2012. Republicans tout the plan as a way to give individual voters more power in the voting booth.
“They are determined that he is going to be a one term president,” said state Rep. Ron Waters (D-Philadelphia/Delaware), head of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus. “Many of my colleagues believe that voters gave them a mandate to carry out their agenda — not the voters’ agenda, but their agenda.”
Since 1804, Pennsylvania’s electoral votes have all gone to the candidate who won a popular majority in the state. In 2008 that was Obama.
Now, state Sen. Dominic Pileggi (R-Chester/Delaware) wants to change that.
Pileggi suggested changes to Electoral College rules earlier this week and is expected to introduce legislation that would allocate electoral votes by congressional district rather than through the winner-take-all system.
“There is no question that our current winner-take-all system for choosing electors does not reflect the diversity of Pennsylvania,” said Pileggi when he announced his plan. “This proposal will more fairly align Pennsylvania’s electoral college votes with the results of the popular vote.”
Pennsylvania will have 20 electoral votes in the 2012 presidential election; one for each member of the U.S. House of Representatives and one for each senator. Pileggi’s plan would give voters statewide the chance to choose two presidential electors. The others would be chosen based on the vote for president in each congressional district.
“There is no mistaking that this is nothing other than a blatant attempt by Republicans to have a lopsided, unfair playing field for national elections,” said state Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia/Montgomery).
Hughes went on to add to his concerns that by breaking up the block of Pennsylvania electoral votes the move would sideline Pennsylvania in national elections.
“Doing so makes Pennsylvania, a state that is at the forefront during national elections, irrelevant,” he said.
With its 20 electoral votes, Pennsylvania is among the six most influential states in presidential elections ranking with: Illinois, which also has 20 votes; New York and Florida, which have 29 each; Texas, which has 38; and California, which tops the list with 55. Obama carried all but Texas in the 2008 election.
Only two states currently break up their electoral votes: Maine and New Hampshire with four votes each.
But at the moment, the idea seems likely to sail through the state House and Senate, both controlled by Republicans, and has the governor’s support.
Gov. Tom Corbett, also a Republican, said this week that he would support the measure.
“It will allow the people across the state to be better represented when it comes to the vote for president,” Corbett said during a radio interview Thursday on WPHT-AM (1210) in Philadelphia. He added that the issue was not driven by partisanship but intended to give a wider voice to Pennsylvania voters.
This is a talking point shared by Pileggi.
“It will also make individual votes across the state more important, giving voters a more significant say in presidential elections,” he said.
The timing has raised suspicion among Democrats.
“Why change it now, except for there is an agenda,” he said. “It’s been good enough thus far.”
If adopted, the new system would dilute influence of Philadelphia and the surrounding counties, all Democratic strongholds.
“If they vote strongly like they did for Obama, [Republicans] know that once we set our minds and vote for a candidate that for the most part we can drive what takes part in Pennsylvania,” Waters said. “They want to do everything they can to minimize that power.”
Waters also cautioned that Republicans have more voting changes in mind — including voter identification cards.
“Why are we doing this?” he asked. “It’s only a way, in my opinion, to disrupt voters and say they are not even going to get involved.”
The applications for Race To The Top — the Department of Education’s initiative that funds various school districts’ efforts to implement educational reforms that will lead to better teaching and learning — have been finalized, and school districts nationwide can now vie for the more than $400 million in funding for the participating schools.
The program sets a high bar to fund those districts that have a track record of success, clear vision for reform and innovative plans to transform learning environments and accelerate student achievement.
The program began in 2009, one of several enacted as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The 2012 final program invites applications from districts or groups of districts that serve at least 2,000 students with 40 percent or more qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch.
“Race to the Top helped bring about groundbreaking education reforms in states across the country. Building off that success, we’re now going to help support reform at the local level with the new district competition,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “We want to help schools become engines of innovation through personalized learning so that every child in America can receive the world-class public education they deserve. The Race to the Top-District competition will help us meet that goal.”
More than 45 states have either participated in the past, or are currently enrolled in the program, and the Department of Education received early feedback from roughly 475 interested districts. Once awarded the funds, each district can choose which areas to focus on, as long as it relates to the four core reform areas and the plan is approved by the district superintendent, the school board president and the president of the main teacher’s union.
These four-year awards will range from $5 million to $40 million, depending on the population of students served through the plan. The Department is expecting to make 15–25 awards.
Pennsylvania has long been an active participant, with Governor Tom Corbett late last year announcing that the commonwealth received $41.3 million for its portion of the Race To The Top funding.
“I know, from my time spent as a teacher and with my own two children, that a one-size-fits-all approach to education does not create a successful learning environment,” Corbett said when the funding was announced. “Our students need quality options that fit their academic abilities and their aspirations for the future. We must have educators who are prepared and capable of meeting the needs of our diverse student population.
That grant was used for the statewide implementation of a new teacher evaluation method and will also provide the necessary means to develop a new principal evaluation, which is planned to be piloted during the 2012–13 school year.
Pennsylvania Department of Education Secretary Ron Tomalis further defined how those monies would be used.
“The focus of our grant application is to improve public education for every student,” Tomalis said. “The funds awarded to Pennsylvania will support the work already being done by Governor Corbett and the Department to ensure that, regardless of ZIP code or socioeconomic status, every child receives an education that provides them with the opportunity to be successful.
“As a result of the Race to the Top Grant award, funds will be allocated to increase transparency at Pennsylvania’s public schools,” Tomalis continued. “Ultimately, the goal is to provide parents with the information necessary to make informed decisions regarding their child’s educational future.”
Paul Wilkins takes Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed cuts to social service programs personally — a former drug addict who now works to help others defeat addiction, he knows first hand the importance of social services programs.
They saved him.
“If supports are taken away for someone who’s been using drugs for 15 years, it’s hard for them to make a conscious decision not to use,” said Wilkins, recovery specialist with the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disabilities Transformation Initiative.
“To be very honest, I was very ambivalent about coming out of my drug addiction. It was something that I loved. I just really didn’t like dealing with the consequences.”
Wilkins is a prime example of how social service programs can work.
For more than 20 years, in the grip of a relentless drug addiction, the 47-year-old bounced between jail, rehab and the streets.
“That life just crushed me,” he said.
By his own count, he was in and out of rehab 23 times between 2003 and 2008.
“Normally when I came out of a program, I went to a recovery house, and when that was over, I was back in the streets,” he said. “I stayed clean while I was in the program, because I didn’t want to go back to jail. As soon as they let me go, I started getting high.”
It got so bad that even his family was unable to help.
Wilkins grew up in Southwest Philadelphia and Germantown and came from a strict, religious family.
“I lived a pretty sheltered life. I didn’t begin using drugs until I was 23 years old,” he said. “Once I began the drug cycle, it hit really hard and took my attention away from any values that my family had instilled in me.”
At first he tried pills: Valium, “pancakes and syrup” (a combination of pain killers and cough syrup with codeine), and Quaaludes. But, as they got too expensive, Wilkins turned to crack, methamphetamine and heroin — sniffing it and then shooting it.
“From that point on, if I wasn’t in jail, I was in the streets shooting dope,” he said.
To fund his habit, he turned to crime: robbery, theft by deception, assault, promoting prostitution.
“The whole gamut,” he said. “The stuff that goes with using drugs. Anything you can do to make a dollar.”
It was a deadly cycle that dominated his life for 20 years.
“I was elated when I had drugs,” said Wilkins. “If I had drugs and somebody offered me help, I didn’t take it because I had drugs. When I ran out I was sick — defecating on myself, urinating on myself, sleeping in abandoned cars, abandoned buildings. That’s what drugs did to me.”
It was only after he managed to get long-term help, made possible through a combination of state and city funded programs, that he finally turned his life around.
“In traditional programs you would only receive 90 days of treatment,” he said. “You just had supports that would help you for a little while, but the end result would be you would be homeless again and right back in your neighborhood where you were using drugs in the first place.”
The city’s Chronically Homeless Alcohol Drug (CHAD) treatment program — a long-term residential program, a one-year clinical therapeutic intervention — that also provided housing and other supports after he finished treatment, helped Wilkins stand on his own.
After his year of treatment, he moved into his own apartment, was eligible for public assistance, food stamps and healthcare.
He received $200 a month in food stamps, $102 a month in public assistance and access to health care.
“It seemed like a $1 million,” he laughed. “I had a nice little penny to buy me some sneakers and a little outfit to get cute, a haircut, you know smelling a little good. That was very, very big support. The public assistance, the housing and the continued after-care were supports that helped me maintain my recovery process and propelled me to the point where I am today.”
The program also helps participants get GEDs, attend anger management classes, therapy, parenting and life skills courses. City officials said that because of the way the budget is structured, it’s too early to tell exactly which programs would face cuts.
Initial estimates suggest that as many as 21,000 Philadelphians would be immediately impacted if the proposed budget, which included $41 million in cuts in social services in Philadelphia, is enacted.
“This budget takes apart many of supports have been in place for a very long time for people who are most vulnerable,” said Deputy Mayor for Health and Opportunity, Donald Schwarz, recently. “The impacts of the governor’s budget … are going to be impossible to work with.”
Funding for the homeless outreach program that pulled Wilkins off the street is almost certainly on the list — as are welfare funding and food stamp programs.
Wilkins emerged from the CHAD program a success and now works for the department that administered the program that helped him pull his life together.
“We help people live on their own independently and be successful with it, people who struggle like myself,” he said. “People are finding value and worth in the recovery process.”
He’s also enrolled in college, where for the last three semesters he’s had a 4.0 grade point average, pursuing a doctorate in behavioral health and human services.
He now looks forward to a healthy productive life, but worries that others like him will be left behind if they don’t have access to the support he did.
“Without these supports you won’t have enough emergency rooms to help the people who will be harmed as a result of this,” he said. “You won’t have enough jails for people who will commit crimes as a result of this. You won’t have enough mental institutions to put people in … and you won’t have enough graveyards to bury people who will die as a result of those of budget cuts.”
The clock struck midnight on Tuesday, when the Department of Welfare, as directed by Governor Tom Corbett’s budget, terminated the General Assistance Fund, affecting more than 60,000 Pennsylvanians.
The GAF provided a lifeline — sometimes, the only one — for victims of domestic abuse, those in treatment and recovery, and children living in different households than that of their birth parents.
According to the non-partisan think tank Better Choices for Pennsylvania, the elimination of the General Assistance Fund’s $160 million earmark represents the biggest, single cut in Corbett’s budget, and will terminate the $205 monthly benefit for the now-former recipients. However, according to the Executive Budget, the commonwealth will actually cut $319 million from the combination of eliminating the General Assistance Fund and reforms made to the eligibility criteria for those seeking Medical Assistance.
While $205 may not sound like much, the termination of that benefit, along with that of the other provisions in the GAF, will surely hurt the very people who have been hurt the most.
“General Assistance funding was a last resort — a small but sturdy thread in Pennsylvania’s suddenly shabby safety net — for tens of thousands of our most vulnerable citizens. The program’s elimination is deeply troubling for 68,000 disabled individuals, domestic abuse survivors, drug/alcohol treatment center enrollees and children under the care of an unrelated adult,” said Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania Executive Director Liz Hersh, a longtime proponent of rights for the disenfranchised. “The overwhelming majority of these citizens will now be forced to go without their sole source of income as they struggle to keep a roof over their heads, secure a room in a boarding home, or pay for treatment program fees.
“By eliminating General Assistance, our elected officials run the risk of increasing homelessness, adding tens of millions in costs to other state programs, and exhausting already-overburdened private organizations,” Hersh continued. “All this, despite the fact that nearly four in five registered voters in Pennsylvania have said they oppose balancing the budget by cutting human services programs.”
There are elected officials who railed against the termination of the lifeline. State Representative W. Curtis Thomas blasted the decision in a letter he wrote to Corbett in June, while also voicing his displeasure that at that time lifeline recipients hadn’t been duly informed of looming cuts.
“As you know, this decision will involve an overwhelming number of individuals, children and victims of domestic violence who are considered disabled,” read Thomas’ letter, in part. “I am extremely troubled by this decision in light of a myriad of economic, social and medical circumstances which face people today more than any other time in the Commonwealth or the United States.
“I am more troubled by the fact this decision is being made in absence of a lifeline for people who have no other resources … the disabled population is not only without resources, but are also faced with physical and mental problems that aggravate their everyday challenges.”
Corbett’s budget includes $101.6 million for a children’s health program, representing an increase of 4.4 percent, along with $1.7 million for Adult Protective Services — but it remains to be seen if these and other programs will fill the gap left by the dissolution of the GAF. But for Hersh’s part, she hopes that elected officials and the public and private sectors continue to help those in need.
“Moving forward, it is imperative that our elected officials work with private organizations, faith-based efforts and citizens across the state,” Hersh said, “to use available resources to preserve a safety net for our most vulnerable citizens and alleviate the burden of homelessness throughout the Commonwealth.”
The School District of Philadelphia has officially entered the $400 million “Race to the Top” competition, meaning it joins 892 other school districts nationwide in attempting to reap the biggest reward for gains made in reforming the way the district delivers education.
The district, along with 33 other districts throughout the Commonwealth, has applied for several grants, with the district specifically applying for two grant blocks — one in the $10 million to $20 million range, and the other in the $30 million to $40 million range.
The $400 million is earmarked by the United States Department of Education to help with localized reformation projects, which include personalizing education to fit the more specific needs of students, closing the achievement gap and further preparing students — especially those in high school — for college or entry-level positions in the workforce.
That would certainly help in Philadelphia, as the district is in the midst of transferring power to incoming superintendent Dr. William Hite Sr. On many levels, the district is still struggling with transparency issues of its own, as it faces a budget deficit approaching $300 million and the austerity measures that the deficit has forced.
“I believe the best ideas come from leaders at the local level, and the enthusiastic response to the Race to the Top district competition highlights the excitement that districts have to engage in locally designed reforms that will directly improve student achievement and educator effectiveness,” said United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a statement released by his office. “We hope to build on this nationwide momentum by funding districts that have innovative plans to transform the learning environment, a clear vision for reform and a track record for success.”
According to the Department of Education, these four-year grants will range in worth from $5 million to $40 million, and competition will certainly be stiff, as the department will only grant up to 25 of these awards.
Pennsylvania has long participated in the Race to the Top competitions. As recently as last year, the commonwealth received nearly $42 million in Race to the Top funds.
“I know, from my time spent as a teacher and with my own two children, that a one-size-fits-all approach to education does not create a successful learning environment,” Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett said when he announced last year that Pennsylvania received $41,326,299. “Our students need quality options that fit their academic abilities and their aspirations for the future. We must have educators who are prepared and capable of meeting the needs of our diverse student population.”
Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis echoed much of Corbett’s sentiment when the award was announced.
“The focus of our grant application is to improve public education for every student,” Tomalis said. “The funds awarded to Pennsylvania will support the work already being done by Governor Corbett and the department to ensure that, regardless of ZIP code or socioeconomic status, every child receives an education that provides them with the opportunity to be successful.”
Perhaps portending what the commonwealth would do with the funds if it receives Race to the Top grants this year, Tomalis previously stated that the fund would mostly be used for pellucidity.
“As a result of the Race to the Top Grant award, funds will be allocated to increase transparency at Pennsylvania’s public schools,” Tomalis said when last year’s award was announced. “Ultimately, the goal is to provide parents with the information necessary to make informed decisions regarding their child’s educational future.”