Dave Rowan

School Choice Week underscores need for multiple educational pathways

By Dave Rowan

School choice can be a polarizing – and often politicized – issue. Each new charter school that pops up provokes debate, funding toward private or Catholic institutions is challenged for not going toward public schools, and with each decision a parent makes, the potential criticisms seem endless. But truthfully, without this myriad of options, the education system can’t properly serve students in the way they need to be served. Why should a child’s future be determined by their ZIP code or their family’s financial standing?

Last week was National School Choice Week – a week designed to empower parents to uncover the best education option for their children, whether that be traditional public schools, public charter schools, magnet schools, private schools, online learning or homeschooling. It is also a moment to pause and reflect on the bigger issue at hand – how can we provide the highest-quality education to Pennsylvania’s children? School choice is fundamental in creating opportunities for students to thrive, and in my unique position as CEO of Business Leadership Organized for Catholic Schools – the largest scholarship organization in the state of Pennsylvania – I witness firsthand the transformative power that this critical choice can have on a student’s future.

Without school choice programs like the Educational Improvement Tax Credit and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit in Pennsylvania, many students would not be achieving at the levels they are today. These programs create the opportunity for families to determine what educational path is best for their child and to pursue that path with fewer financial limitations. Currently, more than 25,000 under-resourced Philadelphia students — many of whom live in the lowest-performing school neighborhoods — are able to attend tuition-based schools because of these programs. And thanks to the recent $150 million increase in the EITC/OSTC programs, our organization alone will be able to provide need-based scholarships to 10,000 additional students in the next school year.

School choice also plays a critical role in education equity and leveling the playing field for students regardless of background, address or other factors beyond their control. In a day and age when all-too-many issues surrounding our children and families are so polarizing, putting the needs of students first is more than just refreshing — it’s the catalyst for a resurgence not just in education equity, but economic equity. There is a direct correlation between the success of our students and the reduction of intergenerational poverty. Years of research has confirmed what we see every day in Philadelphia — when families from a lower economic status have the opportunity to invest in their children, all futures get better.

BLOCS provides need-based scholarships for students enrolled in private and Catholic schools, institutions that have seen marked growth in enrollment in the past few years, and saw tremendous academic success throughout the pandemic. Since 2019-2020, there has been a 44% increase in the number of students at Archdiocese schools receiving need-based scholarships; opportunities for a high-quality, values-based education that would not have been possible if not for school choice and programs like EITC that allow taxpayers to receive state tax credits when they contribute to scholarship organizations.

The future success of our city and region is dependent upon providing students with the best educational experience possible at parent-selected schools that best suit their needs. While there is no one-size-fits-all in education, the choice is for families to make. I am proud to stand on the front lines with those making these opportunities possible for all. ••

Dave Rowan is the CEO of Business Leadership Organized for Catholic Schools. He joined the organization in September 2019 and, under his leadership, BLOCS has helped provide 17,000 scholarships to students in need across the state. More at www.blocs.org.

Jason Altmire

A menthol ban will weaken PA’s criminal justice system

By Jason Altmire

The Biden administration will soon decide whether to ban menthol cigarettes. While there is no question that some who are advocating for the ban have the best of intentions, the special interests that are pushing the ban do not. Their lobbying threatens to exacerbate problems in Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system.

Menthol cigarettes are not like the illegal, disposable flavored vapes being marketed to Pennsylvania’s children, plaguing commonwealth schools. Adults are capable of making their own decisions and should be permitted to do so.

Advocates of the ban, such as former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, do not appear to be aware (or willing to accept) that many of this nation’s leading criminal justice experts believe a menthol ban would be detrimental to race relations while lacking any semblance of a public health benefit. Instead of discussing the unintended consequences of a federal menthol ban, these advocates have resorted to portraying anyone who disagrees with their position as a stooge for Big Tobacco.

Even Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, who infamously died in a police chokehold for selling loose menthol cigarettes, opposes the ban because she believes it will exacerbate this country’s already alarming racial policing disparities, leading to more tragic deaths like her son’s. Prominent civil rights and policing advocates and groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, and George Floyd’s legal team have expressed the same concerns. Unlike the industry interests pushing this ban, these civil rights organizations are willing to admit that a menthol ban would worsen the existing problems with the nation’s criminal justice system.

Eighty-five percent of African American smokers use menthol cigarettes compared to just 34 percent of white smokers. With the Pennsylvania District Attorney’s Racial Injustice Report finding that black defendants get charged far more than whites in many of the most common criminal charges (they also comprise nearly 70 percent of Philadelphia’s police stops despite covering less than 40 percent of its population), it is easy to see why banning a product used disproportionately by the black community could worsen their disproportionate run-ins with police.

When signing legislation to decriminalize marijuana in Philadelphia, Nutter stated, “this type of action will keep kids out of the criminal-justice system, will keep people’s records clean so they can get a job.” Why is Nutter extolling the positive criminal justice virtues of decriminalizing one smoking product while dismissing the negative implications of criminalizing another that is overwhelmingly used by black Philadelphians?

Pennsylvania’s police departments are already struggling with staffing shortages and budgetary shortfalls. In April, for example, the Philadelphia Police Department requested $855 million — $55.7 million increase from the previous year — due to these very concerns. The commonwealth’s officers already find themselves stretched too thin. They need to focus on addressing violent crime, not addressing a public health matter.  

As Lt. Dianne Goldstein, the executive director of the Law Enforcement Partnership, put it, “This ruling will continue to perpetuate health and policing disparities in communities of color instead of alleviating either issue or problem.” Why? Because “it’s going to affect black people and black communities, while leaving others untouched — because for some reason the FDA thinks it’s acceptable to criminalize the choices of black smokers in the name of their own health, while not extending the same ‘protection’ to other smokers.”

Goldstein is right — law enforcement is not the proper forum to address this issue.

Over the last three years, the Biden administration’s advisers and appointees have prioritized expanding healthcare access and fixing the broken criminal justice system. They should do so again by discarding this wolf in sheep’s clothing public health initiative. The nation’s criminal justice system can’t afford yet another hit to its credibility. ••

Jason Altmire, a Democrat, served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2007 to 2013. He has been an executive in both the hospital and health insurance industries and is currently an adjunct professor of health care management at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.

Great job by GENA

It was heartwarming to read Mark Zimmaro’s report on the 10th anniversary of the Girard Estate Neighbors Association Winter Coat Drive (“Girard Estate brings ‘A’ game in coat drive,” Jan. 24). Amazingly they just set a record by collecting over 125 coats for those in need.

The article especially describes the partnership between GENA and a local bar, Taproom on 19th (2400 S. 19th St.), which hosted a special coat collection kickoff party that continued from Jan. 8-12. Patrons were able to deposit slightly used coats and other winter wear in bins scattered throughout the bar. Impressive.

As someone who once volunteered at Women of Hope, a residence for homeless, mentally ill women, under the auspices of Project Home, I was especially encouraged to read of this wonderful community effort to aid the most needy. And how timely during this especially cold winter.

So, a standing ovation to GENA for all the generosity that created this record coat drive. And of course many thanks to Mark Zimmaro for reporting this special event. Maybe next winter we will experience another clothing drive record from this or another South Philly neighborhood. 

Gloria C. Endres

Put an end to Groundhog Day

When Groundhog Day began in 1887, women couldn’t vote. People could be jailed for insolvency. The Prohibition movement was active and strong. Times change, as they should.

It is long overdue for the good folks of Punxsutawney to recognize the evolving public sentiment about exploiting animals in gratuitous spectacles. Using Phil as a marketing tool and denying him his freedom or any semblance of a real life should be relegated to the dustbin of history.

Groundhogs are shy, solitary animals. Their burrows are engineering marvels, going many meters deep with multiple rooms for specific purposes, like nesting and for waste. Although they like to wander, they can climb trees and are good swimmers. 

By taking up PETA’s offer to replace Phil with a fun, huge coin toss to “determine” the weather, Punxsutawney will attract new and curious tourists, and the public goodwill such a decision will generate will far exceed the fleeting attention the town receives one day every February.

Jennifer O’Connor

United for change

Because so many Americans are united for change, it has helped the Buy American Made Campaign message make a strong impact on the way America’s businesses are looking to manufacture more in the United States. What does that mean for us?

It means our fellow Americans are hearing how new jobs and job skills would add to the well-being of American workers and America’s economy.

It means that with more jobs and job skills and employment opportunities, we would see more products with the American-made labels and see more Americans able to earn a living based on their skills.

It means that Americans see the benefit of more industrial arts training, also known as trades programs, growing in America’s schools to meet the needs of America’s businesses for skilled workers.

It means that in addition to service-oriented jobs, a growing number of jobs in manufacturing, industrial arts, the trades, management, shipping and receiving, as well as research and development and sales, would expand employment opportunities here in the United States of America.

The most important thing is that Americans want to see at least a 50-50 balance of products sold in stores and on the internet available with “Made in America” labels.

Now that we are more united for change and see changes happening, let’s keep the movement going strong by getting more people involved so business owners and investors see that America’s consumers will reward American-based businesses by supporting their products and services.

Thanks for promoting our efforts to your family and friends. Email your suggestions to Michael@AmericanWorkersRadio.com.

Michael Blichasz