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Watchdog stokes Pa.’s heated school funding fray

Plus, pandemic unemployment fraud has cost Pa. $570M.


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Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
February 14, 2022
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School debate, fraud tally, near-death experience, and an alt-weekly pivots back. It's Monday. Happy Valentine's Day to all who celebrate. 
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A single sentence in an otherwise dry budget report on the state Department of Education is the latest flashpoint in a deeply politicized debate about the links between school funding and student performance in Pennsylvania

Per Spotlight PA, the Independent Fiscal Office report suggests there was "little or no correlation" between Pennsylvania's spending on public schools and students' standardized test scores in the single year it analyzed.

And while the fiscal office's own director cautions against reading too much into the finding, its rhetorical value in the long-running debate over how Pennsylvania funds its public schools is crystal clear.

The report was ultimately tabled by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, leading a Republican lawmaker to accuse the Democrats involved of trying to bury unfavorable information. The report is still posted online.

THE CONTEXT: To Democrats, the fiscal office's language appears to echo arguments Republican legislative leaders have made in an ongoing, landmark trial over the way Pennsylvania pays for its public schools

The plaintiffs, including six school districts, argue that major funding gaps between wealthy and poor school districts discriminate against children in low-income areas and violate guarantees in the state constitution.

Republican leaders argue that giving struggling schools more funding wouldn’t necessarily improve outcomes.

Academic research has found a strong connection between government spending and student performance, and the fiscal office's own report notes that other factors — including student poverty levels — could play a key role.
For all of February, we at Spotlight PA are giving you the chance to put a message of love, gratitude, or appreciation in front of the entire state. 

Here's how it works: Make a donation of $25 or more to Spotlight PA using this special link, put your shoutout in the "I am contributing because..." box, and we’ll include it in a special section of our PA Post newsletter. 
Show some love to a Pennsylvania business, a person, an animal, an animal that reminds you of a person, or your favorite reporters (👋). Make someone feel good, brighten a day, and support Spotlight PA at the same time.

"For too long we've neglected the pressing needs of communities blighted by abandoned and polluted mines. This funding is just the start."

—U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) on $245 million for abandoned mine cleanup in Pennsylvania included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act
» REVIEW DELAYED: The FDA review of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine for children under five has been delayed. The FDA wants additional data to see if three doses are more effective for the age group. That could take until April.

» IMMUNITY LEVELS: Top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci says the "full-blown pandemic phase of COVID-19" could be winding down in the U.S. with the nation nearing immunity levels sufficient to limit the spread.

» COVID TRACKING: Sewage testing has been a reliable means of tracking COVID-19 in communities from Allegheny County to Indiana County and beyond. Here's what that looks like on a national level.

» NEW HIRES: Faced with pandemic-era staffing shortages, at least three Lancaster County school districts are hiring students as young as 14 to perform janitorial services, LNP reports. The pay rates vary.

To find a COVID-19 vaccine, use the federal government's online tool, call 1-800-232-0233, or text your zip code to 438829 (GETVAX).
» BALLOT BATTLE: Join us Thursday, Feb. 17 at 5 p.m. ET via Zoom for a free Q&A on Pennsylvania's mail voting law, the ruling striking it down, and what's next. Register here and submit questions to events@spotlightpa.org
Beauty in Braddock, courtesy of PA Poster @lora_exploresSend us your gems, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.
FRAUD FORTUNE: Officials say unemployment compensation fraud has cost Pennsylvania $570 million and counting since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, CNHI reports. Department of Labor & Industry officials insist added layers of identity verification have gone a long way toward addressing the problem, but there have been downsides — including extreme delays — for many with legitimate claims.

BAD STANDING: Philly Fighting COVID's CEO will be banned from working in Pennsylvania government or health care for a decade following his organization's calamitous vaccination contract with the City of Philadelphia. Under the terms of a pending settlement with the state AG's office, Andrei Doroshin must also destroy all personal health records gathered by the start-up, via NBC10.

BRIDGE COLLAPSE: A couple whose pickup truck plummeted 100 feet to the bottom of a ravine when Pittsburgh's Fern Hollow Bridge collapsed last month is suing the city and PennDOT, saying the collapse could and should have been prevented, per KDKA-TV. In the weeks since, bridges have been closed over structural concerns in nearby McKeesport and Mount Washington, and reviewed statewide.

BID SUSPENDED: State Sen. Scott Martin (R., Lancaster) has suspended his campaign for governor, saying a doctor warned him against continuing after Martin seriously injured his leg in a fall last month. LNP reports Martin was also passed over for the endorsement of a deep-pocketed, school-choice PAC in a separate setback. Here's Spotlight PA's look at the remaining gubernatorial field.

LEGAL DECISION: A Lehigh County family could see a $45,000 payday from a lawsuit over high school lessons on white privilege, systemic racism, and police brutality that they argued were anti-Christian, discriminatory, and violated their children’s religious rights, the Morning Call reports. The East Penn School District board is set to vote on whether to approve the settlement agreement today.
'GHOST ARMY': Lehigh Valley natives were among the WWII "Ghost Army" soldiers whose masterful deceptions baffled Hitler and the Nazis. But the Morning Call reports they were largely kept from the spotlight, until now.

LABOR PUSH: Workers at a Pittsburgh Starbucks will try to unionize, joining counterparts in Philadelphia and cities nationwide, per TribLIVE. Union membership declined nationally during the pandemic, but union activity is up.

ROLE REVERSAL: Philadelphia Weekly has a new owner, a new editor, and will be getting back to its liberal, alt-weekly roots while abandoning its controversial and year-old right-wing pivot, Philly Mag reports. 

RIDE REVIVAL: Jim Thorpe's Borough Council has backed a zoning amendment that clears the way for a Ferris wheel atop Flagstaff Mountain, where one stood in the early 1900s, the Times News reports. 

PIXEL PAD: Fayette County's Fallingwater has been immortalized in the video game megahit Minecraft. And while architect Frank Lloyd Wright would have no idea what that means, his great-great grandkids will. 
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.

*This week's theme: Performing arts

Friday's answer: Underglaze

Congrats to our weekly winner: Jude M.

Congrats to our daily winners: Craig W., Susan N.-Z., Vicki U., Bonnie R., Don H., Judith D., Doris T., Pat B., Susan D., Elaine C., William S., Kim C., Suzanne S., Kimberly S., Ronnee G., Dianne K., Ann E., Irene R., Cindy G., George S., Bill S., James B., Mary Jo J., and Elizabeth W. 
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