Editorials from around Pennsylvania

Sometimes, it is the lack of action that speaks loudest.
That’s why Monday’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to let stand pro-gay marriage rulings in 11 states should be welcome news to both equality advocates (who will cheer this bold step toward fairness) and small government conservatives who have criticized the high court justices for undue meddling in states’ rights.
As The Washington Post reported, the high court “declined to second-guess” the appellate courts that employed the court’s ruling in last year’s ruling striking down the most odious parts of the federal Defense of Marriage law.
The ruling was part and parcel of the high court’s steady march on progress toward equal rights for all Americans.
And by declining to rule on those cases, same-sex couples in a total of 30 states, plus Washington D.C., now enjoy the same equal protection under the law as the rest of the nation.
Earlier this year, U.S. District Court Judge John E. Jones of Pennsylvania’s middle district struck down the Keystone State’s 1990s-vintage Defense of Marriage Law.
And to his credit, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, bowing to both legal and fiscal reality, declined to pursue an appeal of Jones’ ruling.
The march of progress is sometimes a slow one. But in the case of other civil rights causes, it is an inevitable and unstoppable one.
In the wake of Corbett’s decision, Schuylkill County Register of Wills Theresa Santai-Gaffney tried to get the high court to suspend Jones’ decision.
Jones denied Santai-Gaffney’s initial petition. And he was upheld by the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. Santai-Gaffney’s attempt to obtain an emergency stay from the Supreme Court was similarly denied by Justice Samuel Alito.
In the absence of any further action by the U.S. Supreme Court, Alito’s denial of Santai-Gaffney’s request appears to settle the matter of same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania.
That’s because it appears to signals that the high court did not see merit in her claim. The safety of same-sex unions also appears reinforced by Monday’s action as well, observers said.
But as equality advocates have noted, marriage laws without protection from discrimination or crimes based on sexual and gender identity are only a half-measure.
So it was encouraging to see a state House committee on Monday vote 19-4 to approve legislation expanding the state’s hate crimes statute to include sexual and gender identity. The vote comes in the wake of a particularly horrifying incident of alleged gay-bashing in Philadelphia.
But even if the bill makes it through the House in the few days remaining to lawmakers before they adjourn for the year, the legislation faces stiff opposition in the state Senate, as PennLive’s Jan Murphy reported.
And it appears lawmakers may also adjourn for the year without taking action on twin state House and Senate bills banning housing, employment and other discrimination based on sexual and gender identity.
Both bills are stuck in the State Government committees of the respective chambers.
Republican Gov. Tom Corbett has said he would support such a bill if it reached his desk. And at a debate in Philadelphia last week, both Corbett and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf said they would support an expanded hate crimes statute.
As one activist pointed out, being allowed the right to marry is undercut if someone can lose their job for displaying a picture of their same-sex spouse on their office desk.
Still, Monday’s twin actions, both on the federal level, and in the Pennsylvania House, are “positive for the future” because they “show momentum in the right way,” said Ted Martin, the executive director of the advocacy group Equality Pennsylvania.
The march of progress is sometimes a slow one. But in the case of other civil rights causes, it is an inevitable and unstoppable one.
The Supreme Court was wise enough to step out of the way. Pennsylvania lawmakers should follow the justices’ lead before they pack it in for the year.
– PennLive.com
Let’s be clear. Philadelphia’s public school teachers are not responsible for the financial mess the district has found itself in.
Teachers are the heart and soul of the schools, who soldier on despite the battlefield conditions of recent years, while lacking adequate support staff and reaching into their own pockets to buy classroom supplies.
If you want to know who is to blame, look to Harrisburg. Look to a governor who cut nearly $1 billion from basic education aid in his first year in office and now has the gall to call himself the “education governor.” Look to the Legislature, which has refused to face reality and admit that local schools – not just Philadelphia but the state’s 499 other districts – need more state aid.
In an ideal world, the state would own up to its obligations, come up with a new and fair funding formula, and ease the pain of districts across the state by increasing the state’s share from the historic low it is at now.
But, we do not live in an ideal world. We live in the real world, where solutions come hard and sacrifices are asked even of those not to blame for the schools’ plight.
The taxpayers of Philadelphia have done their share. Smokers are paying $2 more a pack and the rest of us are paying an extra 1 percent in sales tax to help the schools.
The Nutter administration has done its share, increasing direct city aid to the district and championing its cause in Harrisburg, even though it meant support of higher local taxes.
The district’s other unions have done their share, granting concessions – often under duress – in pay and benefits.
Now, Superintendent William Hite has turned to the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers to do its share.
The School Reform Commission yesterday voted to cancel the PFT contract with the district and impose a new provision dealing with health and welfare costs. Teachers, who currently do not pay for these benefits, will have to start chipping in. For the average teacher, who makes $72,000 a year, it will amount to paying $932 extra a year.
Those who make less will pay lower percentages.
The changes will bring in $44 million during the rest of this school year and up to $60 million in subsequent years. Hite is taking that money and putting it right back into the schools, restoring some of the vital programs and personnel cut in previous years.
Chair Bill Green argued that the SRC has the power to impose these terms under the provisions of the state takeover law. Obviously, the action will be challenged in the courts, and the PFT has already announced plans to do so.
Hite promised that no other provision of the PFT contract will be touched and will still be subject to continuing negotiations. We should all hold him to that promise.
But Hite is right about “shared sacrifices” – a phrase that has been his mantra for the last year. Just because we are not responsible doesn’t allow us to shrug our shoulders and say, “It is not our fault.” The lives and futures of children are at stake.
Sacrifices must be made, even by teachers. Is it fair? No. But it is the right thing to do.
– Philadelphia Daily News
Alex Hribal, 17, has been held in a juvenile detention facility in Westmoreland County since April 9, when he went to his Murrysville school with two kitchen knives, slashing 20 students and a security guard before he was subdued. Few doubt he was deranged at the time of his rampage, and there’s little question that his mental state is any better now. A court-appointed psychiatrist said Hribal suffers from a depressive disorder and is probably schizophrenic. He reportedly believed other students could read his thoughts and was channeling the Columbine High School killers.
A Westmoreland County judge ordered Hribal to be transferred to Southwood Psychiatric Hospital in Upper St. Clair, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported, but the hospital, which bills itself as the region’s only behavioral health hospital solely for children and adolescents, said Monday it will not treat the boy after all, citing security concerns.
It’s not the first private mental hospital to decline to treat Hribal, and his attorney, Patrick Thomassey, is exasperated. He said the teen needs daily contact with a mental health specialist and group therapy.
“I think they should be ashamed of themselves,” Thomassey told a KDKA television reporter. “I mean, this young man needs some help, some psychiatric therapy and I can’t find a place to take him and I think that’s pathetic. Alex is no more of a security threat than you are. I’d take him home with me if the judge would let him.”
Years ago, before the state shuttered most of its mental hospitals, Hribal could have received the treatment he needs while being held safely apart from society. He might have been confined at Mayview State Hospital, which occasionally treated violent adolescents. In closing the hospitals, the state figured it could rely on private facilities to treated the criminally insane, and group homes to treat other mentally disabled people. The result has been that our prisons now house mentally ill criminals, and many other former mental patients live not in group homes but on the street.
The United States has the world’s highest rate of incarceration. Just over 2.3 million Americans are now sitting in jail. And according to the National Institute of Mental Health, 56.2 percent of them in state prisons and 64.2 percent in local jails are mentally ill. Many of the remainder are in jail as a result of drug addiction. Nationally, we spend more than $60 billion a year to keep people behind bars, many of whom should instead be receiving treatment for mental problems and drug abuse.
The Treatment Advocacy Center, a nonprofit advocacy organization, reports that in 2012, there were roughly 356,268 inmates with severe mental illnesses in prisons and jails, while only 35,000 people with the same diseases were in state psychiatric hospitals.
Hribal’s crime was ghastly. He was charged as an adult and could receive a long sentence. If the court rules he must be tried as a juvenile, he will be freed when he reaches 21. In either case, it now looks as if he’ll be serving his time in a prison cell, alone with his own demons.
When he is eventually released what sort of a person will he have become? Or what sort of a person could he be if he receives the treatment he needs?
– (Washington) Observer-Reporter
Pennsylvania school districts may have miles to go before they can get credit for “cyber snow days” – a novel way of doing supervised classwork at home when bad weather closes schools — but the journey has begun.
Last week the Pennsylvania Department of Education took a first step toward allowing teachers and kids to work and study at home when a snowstorm or other event closes schools – and to have the home-study day count toward the state’s 180-day minimum requirement for classroom instruction.
Under a pilot program, districts will be able to use “non-traditional educational delivery methods” for up to five days this school year, if they can meet several conditions and get a plan approved by the state.
Will it work? Many superintendents like the concept, even if the practicality of getting students and teachers connected online is a big challenge. Districts that have equipped students with laptops or iPads might see this as a natural transition, interacting as cyber schools do every day. But the Education Department also will require districts to provide alternatives to students who don’t have internet access at home, or those who have to share a computer with siblings. Special education students must be included in remote learning programs as well. And what happens in the event of power outages?
It’s pretty clear the state can’t mandate a one-size-fits-all approach here. If school districts are going to tackle this challenge – and they should – they’re going to have to adapt and roll with the punches.
At least one New Jersey district — Pascack Valley, a regional high school district — attempted this feat Feb. 13, when most of the Northeast was socked in by a blizzard. As reported by the Record of North Jersey, more than 96 percent of students logged in on their school-supplied laptops that day, as did the entire faculty. They worked on assignments, did research, communicated with teachers by social media and email, and took part in physical education. (Just wondering: Is there extra credit for shoveling snow?)
Despite this response, the New Jersey Department of Education informed the district in June that it fell short of the requirements to count its snow day as an in-school day.
Still, that’s no reason to give up.
Large K-12 districts and those with large numbers of low-income kids aren’t going to be able to outfit everyone with computers in short order, but some districts are getting close to full digital access for students and teachers. Some of them may be able to fulfill the expectations of Pennsylvania’s pilot program; the challenge for other districts is to come up with a more diverse set of options if they want to attempt this.
It’s important to remember, too, that technology is a means to a better education, not an end. Teachers and parents should still find time on a cyber snow day to allow kids to go outside for sledding, help dig out the car or driveway, build a snowman. Some things just can’t be done online. And besides, kids will need some help with the initial shock that a snow day is still a school day.
– The (Easton) Express-Times
Public-private partnerships sometimes are overhyped by advocates, who often don’t recognize that some matters properly are the purview of government.
But a new program unfolding across Pennsylvania demonstrates that, when done thoughtfully, the partnerships can produce good results.
Under the plan being administered by the state Department of Transportation, private contractors will be selected to replace small bridges at a pace far faster than under conventional operations.
Contractors have submitted bids on “bundles” of bridges.
Those selected by PennDOT to handle regional bundles of small bridges will devise a common design that will be adapted at each location, thus significantly reducing engineering and design costs.
The firms will oversee construction and, when the work is completed, be responsible for maintenance of those structures for 25 years.
The system will reduce the bridge replacement timeline from up to 12 years to four years.
PennDOT has selected 558 of 997 eligible bridges for the project.
That includes 49 in Northeastern Pennsylvania, mostly in rural areas.
The NEPA bridges need replacement. Their average age is 70 and all of them are structurally deficient or barely sufficient, and all are in need of replacement rather than repair.
The expedited pace is possible not just because of the bundling, but because the Rapid Bridge Replacement Project incorporates funding by the contracting groups that will be repaid over the 25-year contracts.
No state program is perfect, and a lot can happen over 25 years.
But the fact is that Pennsylvania has more deficient bridges than any other state, and the program offers a way to deal with as many of them as possible in as short a time as possible.
On balance, it’s a reasonable and effective alternative to PennDOT’s conventional procedures, for a specific class of bridges
– The (Wilkes-Barre) Citizens’ Voice

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