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GOP wants race data blocked at school funding trial

Plus, a closer look at PSERS’ real estate empire, focus of FBI probe.


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Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
July 9, 2021
Fair funding, PSERS picks, merger plan, opioid settlement, anger translator, Capitol suspects, and a real movie marathon. It's Friday. Wait ... really?!
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State Republicans are trying to block evidence of widespread racial disparities in Pennsylvania academic achievement ahead of a landmark trial focused on a school funding formula critics say fails to provide equal opportunities for all students as constitutionally required.

Chalkbeat reports attorneys for House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) and Senate President Jake Corman (R., Centre) told a Commonwealth Court judge this week the evidence is irrelevant because the plaintiffs in the case are not alleging intentional racial discrimination.

Cutler's attorney accused the plaintiffs of using the evidence in an effort to "appeal to the sympathies of the court and the court of public opinion." 

Lawyers for the plaintiffs — comprised of six school districts, several parents, and civil rights groups — say this is a delay tactic, with a Sept. 9 trial date rapidly approaching.

THE CONTEXT: The historic lawsuit meant to address funding disparities in Pennsylvania public schools is slated to begin more than seven years after it was first filed.

It alleges the state's funding formula shortchanges students from low-income communities and is a violation of the Pennsylvania Constitution's requirement that "a thorough and efficient system of public education" be provided to all.

An analysis commissioned by the litigants found $4.6 billion more is needed for all students to be educated to the state's own standards. The study's conclusions, based on state data over the past decade, depicted widening gaps in education spending between affluent and poor communities — and parallel divides in academic performance.

Gov. Tom Wolf, one of the defendants in the funding lawsuit, had proposed a $1 billion plan bankrolled by a personal income tax hike on high earners to close the gap and grow educational investment in a state currently ranked 47th in the nation for K-12 spending, as Spotlight PA reported. 

But the plan saw little early support from the state's Republican majority and the final version of the state budget adopted last month fell short of his initial stated goal, while securing $300 million more in basic education funding, $100 million going to the 100 poorest districts in the state.
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"Jewish community leaders across the commonwealth are disappointed with the Pennsylvania General Assembly's decision to defund security support for at-risk groups last week." 

—The Orthodox Union criticizing Pa.'s failure to continue a fund, established just after the Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh, to protect synagogues, churches, and mosques designated as likely targets for hate crimes
VACCINE UPDATE: Just over 60% of Pennsylvania's adult population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and one Pittsburgh councilor wants the city's pandemic sick leave policy to remain in place until that number hits 90%, a goal some doubt is attainable. For vaccine providers, use the federal government's online tool, call 1-800-232-0233, or text your ZIP code to 438829 (GETVAX).
A very gem-worthy shot of Hershey Gardens. Thanks, Dan S.! Send us your hidden gems, use the hashtag #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.
LAND DEALS: The $1.6 million purchase of a long-vacant Harrisburg newspaper building put Pennsylvania's embattled Public School Employees' Retirement System fund firmly in the FBI's sights. As a sprawling federal probe continues, PennLive unpacks the fund's decades-long and increasingly diversified history of taxpayer-funded real estate buys. Reporter Wallace McKelvey provides the highlights here.

CLASS RULES: A new version of a contested plan to merge six of Pennsylvania's 14 state-owned universities includes a pledge not to close any of the institutions and protections for schools concerned the move will further weaken their finances, the Post-Gazette reports. Missing from the update: what this means for the sports teams involved and accreditation. The plan is up for a final vote next week.

OPIOID CASE: Pennsylvania will get $225 million under a bankruptcy settlement with the maker of the powerful opioid OxyContin, the Capital-Star reports. The share is part of a larger, $4.5 billion settlement between Purdue Pharma and 15 states. In return, Purdue's owners get broad immunity against future opioid-related lawsuits. Pennsylvania's General Assembly will decide how the settlement money is spent.

AUDIT ANGER: Gov. Tom Wolf is calling an Arizona-style election audit being launched in three Pennsylvania counties a "disgrace," a "sham," and a "profound waste" of time and money. The audit is led by Trump ally and Republican state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin). Wolf's administration is urging the counties not to comply, saying they risk decertifying voting machines and costing taxpayers millions, per the AP.

NEW CASE: The FBI has charged a Berks County man they say used a stun gun on police and attacked a photojournalist during the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol siege, the Morning Call reports. Also this week, authorities released new details in their insurrection case against a Glenshaw teacher they say had a LEGO model of the U.S. Capitol and notes on forming a hometown militia inside his house, per TribLIVE.
POWER FARMS: Amazon is building a 600-acre solar-power farm in McKean County and a smaller one in Potter County, the Bradford Era reports. The e-commerce giant hopes to shrink a massive carbon footprint with a broad network of renewable energy sources powering its offices, fulfillment centers, and more. StateImpact found similar solar projects are increasingly common across Pennsylvania, if not always popular.

SEARCHING: Philadelphia firefighter Ken Pagurek has spent days searching the rubble at a condo collapse in Surfside, Florida, with other members of Pennsylvania's Task Force One. Theirs is now a recovery mission. After a recent 12-hour shift, CNN asked Pagurek what the hardest part has been. His voice cracking, Pagurek said "the lack of survivors."

JOB LOSS: A Cameron County factory is set to close months after getting new owners, putting hundreds of jobs at risk, per WTAJ. Detroit-based American Axle and Manufacturing says the shop will close in 12 to 18 months with hundreds of jobs in the balance in a county with just 5,000 residents. The move is the latest in a long line of economic setbacks there

TRASH TALK: Philadelphia's sanitation workers have had it. WHYY reports grueling pandemic schedules, steep staffing shortages, equipment outages, and curbside pileups have pushed morale to the brink. City officials blame bad weather and summer holidays. But workers are unappeased and considering a strike as contract negotiations wind on.

CHAOS REIGN: The clock starts ticking at six tonight for teams of Pittsburgh-area filmmakers who've got a total of 48 hours to write, shoot, and edit a short film. The Post-Gazette reports the annual endurance feat will culminate with screenings of the films later this month at Sewickley's Tull Family Theater and a best-of screening and awards ceremony there in August.
Unscramble and send your answer to scrambler@spotlightpa.org. We'll shout out winners here, and one each week will get some Spotlight PA swag.

Yesterday's answer: Rambunctious

Congrats to our daily winners: Neal W., Becky C., Craig W., Jessica K., Michelle T., David W., Kevin H., Heidi B., Elaine C., Susan D., Don H., Doris T., Dennis M., Diane P., George S., James B., Barbara A., Lil N., Beth T., and Myles M.
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