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Focusing on a variety of education, health and youth development issues of importance to children and families in Pennsylvania.

Is There Room At Your Table?

In observance of National Adoption Month, Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children Development Director Audrey Eisenberg shares her perspective on making the needs of children in foster care a priority …

The other night, my caseworker called to cancel our final pre-adoption home visit because she was trying to find an emergency placement for four siblings – a process she anticipated could take the remainder of her evening.

My heart dropped. I wanted to help them ... ALL of them, whatever their situation was, however old, whatever color they are. I wanted to give them warm jammies and a hug and a safe bed. And I wanted to find a way to keep them together, these four kids who I can only assume have helped each other through some pretty tough situations in their short lives so far.

No sooner had I uttered the question, “Can we take them?” to my husband, than I knew the answer; it was preposterous to even ask. We have five beautiful children, four of whom have joined our family through foster care and adoption. They are ages 10, 6, 4, 4, and 2 ½. We love them completely (and yes, they are “normal children” who occasionally drive us completely crazy). Our commitment to raising them well – meeting their needs, encouraging their interests, teaching them to love and respect others – means that now is not the right time for our family to help these four siblings who need to find a home.

But what about you? Is there room at your table? As you gather with family and friends for Thanksgiving, can you acknowledge the heart-tug you feel when you’re reminded that there are some children who don’t have a mom and dad they can rely on to provide the care and support they deserve? And can you take a moment to consider – really consider – whether that tug may mean it’s your family’s turn to help?

Foster care is not for everyone: The process of becoming a licensed foster family requires time and patience; relationships with biological families can be challenging; decisions about a child’s permanency can take years to establish; foster children’s life experiences and needs may test your limits and understanding. And not every foster child will call your family her “forever home.”

Still, last year more than 20,000 U.S. children “aged out” of the foster care system without being adopted, without the promise of a family who would love and support them into adulthood. There are currently more than 102,000 waiting to be adopted nationwide, including more than 1,900 children awaiting adoption in Pennsylvania.

Each one of these children deserves a place at a family Thanksgiving table.

This year, as you pass the mashed potatoes and look forward to the pumpkin pie, take count of your blessings. Can you add another plate or two (or four!?) at the table by this time next year?

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High-quality pre-k “has just done amazing things”

As a founding partner of the statewide Pre-K for PA campaign, we wanted to share a quick story with you from a parent who has seen the benefits of high-quality pre-k.

Earlier this week, representatives from the Pre-K for PA campaign (including PPC President and CEO Joan Benso) were featured guests on a central Pennsylvania talk show, making the case for why Pennsylvania needs to drastically expand access to high-quality pre-k for the commonwealth’s 3- and 4-year-olds. A mom named Julie from York County called in to share how she found an affordable Pre-K Counts program for her son, who she feared might not be prepared to succeed in kindergarten. In Julie’s own words …

“It has just done amazing things. I was against (enrolling him in) kindergarten because I just knew that he wouldn’t be able to handle being in a classroom that long. And now, no worries whatsoever after him being able to be in this program. He didn’t need it for the academics. He needed it for the social, he needed it for the emotional stuff. … He has just succeeded so well in this program that I wish it was available more.”

We wish it were more available too, Julie. That’s why we’re working hard to make the case for increasing state investments in high-quality pre-k programs like Pre-K Counts and Head Start.

And that’s why the Pre-K for PA campaign needs voices like Julie’s – and yours – to tell Gov.-elect Tom Wolf and the General Assembly that investments in high-quality pre-k need to be a priority for 2015.

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Stalled Progress in Covering Uninsured Kids

Pennsylvania’s slow progress in covering more uninsured children is hardly unique, according to a new report from Georgetown University’s Center for Children and Families that found a similar trend nationwide.

The report, Children’s Coverage at A Crossroads: Progress Slows, states the uninsured rate for children in the U.S. did not significantly decline in 2013 from the previous year, remaining just above 7 percent. Pennsylvania fares a bit better, with a children’s uninsured rate of a little more than 5 percent – but that rate also has changed little in recent years.

The CCF report also found:

  • Children in families living on the brink of poverty (100 to 199 percent of federal poverty level) are disproportionately uninsured and saw no significant improvement in their health care coverage rates.
  • School-aged children (ages 6-17) are more likely than younger children (under 6) to be uninsured.
  • Children living in rural areas are disproportionately uninsured. Nationally, 18.1 percent of children live in rural areas, but uninsured children in rural areas make up more than 20 percent of all uninsured children.

The report notes Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) can play a critical role in reducing the number of uninsured children. These two programs collectively cover more than 1.2 million Pennsylvania children, with CHIP serving more than 160,000 kids. But CHIP’s success in covering kids could be jeopardized if federal CHIP funding is not renewed by Congress before it expires in 2015.

That’s why PPC has been making the case to Pennsylvania’s Congressional delegation to support an extension of CHIP funding through 2019. A program with proven success in covering kids and a history of strong, bipartisan support certainly deserves continued funding.

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Lifting Children Out of Poverty Requires Multi-faceted Approach

More than 11.6 million of America’s children under age 5 - including 374,000 in Pennsylvania alone - are growing up in low-income families, according to a report released this week by the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s KIDS COUNT project.

The report, “Creating Opportunities for Families: A Two-Generation Approach,” suggests that if we want these children to have a fair chance for success, we need a public policy vision that recognizes kids succeed when we help their families succeed. And we need to break down the barriers that can result in programs for families being seen as working separately from programs for kids.

In short, we need a coordinated approach that gives kids a solid start with quality early education and provides parents with the skills and tools to help them support their families.

In Pennsylvania, evidence-based home visiting programs - such as those funded under the federal Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) Program – offer a solid example of how critical family support and early childhood education strategies can work together. These services use nurses and other trained professionals to visit families with infants and toddlers to provide parent education and support, with the goal of promoting children’s health, well-being, learning and development, all while recognizing parents are children’s first teachers. Home visiting services also seek to support parents by getting them connected to community-based services, such as high-quality child care and job training.

Congress has supported federal home visiting funding in the past, and the program – set to expire in March 2015 - will soon be up for reauthorization. PPC is hopeful Congress will continue supporting MIECHV so it can continue offering families the critical services that can help end multi-generational poverty and help more children and families succeed.

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Pennsylvania Legislature Elects New Leaders

Members of the Pennsylvania Senate and House this week elected new caucus leaders for the two-year legislative session that begins in January. While this might seem like “inside baseball” to some, the reality is these leaders help define the political landscape that children’s advocates navigate to enact measures that improve the well-being of Pennsylvania’s more than 2.7 million children.

In that context, PPC looks forward to working with the newly elected legislative leaders listed below to make Pennsylvania a great place to be a child and to raise our children.

Senate Republican Leadership:
Interim President Pro Tempore: Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson)*
Leader: Jake Corman (R-Centre)
Appropriations Chairman: Patrick Browne (R-Lehigh)
Whip: John Gordner (R-Columbia)
Caucus Chair: Bob Mensch (R-Montgomery)
Caucus Secretary: Richard Alloway (R-Franklin)
Caucus Administrator: Chuck McIlhinney (R-Bucks)
Policy Chair: David Argall (R-Schuylkill)

Senate Democratic Leadership:
Leader: Jay Costa (D-Allegheny)
Appropriations Chair: Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia)
Whip: Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia)
Caucus Chair: Wayne Fontana (D-Allegheny)
Caucus Secretary: Larry Farnese (D-Philadelphia)
Caucus Administrator: John Yudichak (D-Luzerne)
Policy Chair: Lisa Boscola (D-Northampton)

House Republican Leadership:
Speaker-Designee: Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny)*
Leader: David Reed (R-Indiana)
Appropriations Chairman: William Adolph (R-Delaware)
Whip: Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster)
Caucus Chair: Sandra Major (R-Susquehanna)
Caucus Secretary: Donna Oberlander (R-Clarion)
Caucus Administrator: Brian Ellis (R-Butler)
Policy Chair: Kerry Benninghoff (R-Centre)

House Democratic Leadership:
Leader: Frank Dermody (D-Allegheny)
Appropriations Chairman: Joseph Markosek (D-Allegheny)
Whip: Mike Hanna (D-Clinton)
Caucus Chair: Dan Frankel (D-Allegheny)
Caucus Secretary: Rosita Youngblood (D-Philadelphia)
Caucus Administrator: Neal Goodman (D-Schuylkill)
Policy Chair: Mike Sturla (D-Lancaster)

*Pending vote by full chamber on Jan. 6, 2015

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Ready to Learn, Ready to Serve

Today, Americans will observe Veterans Day to symbolically thank those who have bravely and selflessly served our country. You might not realize it, but Veterans Day also is a timely opportunity to touch on one of the many benefits of high-quality pre-kindergarten.

The fact is, pre-k and other quality early learning opportunities are among the most cost-effective ways our nation can build a better prepared military that contributes to a stronger national defense.

That’s why the nonpartisan Pre-K for PA campaign has the support of Mission: Readiness, a national organization of retired senior military officials that works to reverse the high percentage of American youth who are ineligible for military service. These leaders know high-quality pre-k is a proven way to help kids learn and succeed should they someday choose to serve their country.

Retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General Dennis Benchoff, a prominent Pennsylvania voice for Mission: Readiness, puts it this way:

“Just as in the civilian workforce today, the military increasingly needs better-educated young men and women. Quality pre-k is a proven investment that will help achieve this goal. … The research is clear that providing high-quality pre-kindergarten to more children, we can better ensure that they are more likely to finish high school, stay away from crime, and enter the workforce with many options - including a career in the military if they choose to pursue one."

Yet a recent report commissioned by Mission: Readiness found that 72 percent of young Pennsylvanians are unable to serve in the military due to factors including a poor education, and 1 in 5 students nationwide - including16 percent in Pennsylvania - do not graduate from high school on time. Even among those who do graduate and try to join the military, more than 1 in 5 nationwide and 22 percent in Pennsylvania fail to score high enough on the military’s entrance exam to be admitted to serve.

We can fix this, and high-quality pre-k is one of the smartest, most cost-effective ways to get it done.

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More Child Protection Bills Become Law

Great news to share! The General Assembly and Gov. Tom Corbett this month completed a two-year effort to improve Pennsylvania’s child protection laws.

Last week, the governor signed two more bills that were officially part of the House and Senate child protection packages and based on recommendations of the Task Force on Child Protection. He also signed a third piece of legislation into law that contained a proposal endorsed by the task force. Here’s a recap of the recent activity:

House Bill 435 (now Act 153 of 2014) was signed on Oct. 22. The measure, sponsored by Rep. Dan Moul (R-Adams), establishes new background check requirements for individuals who volunteer with children. Volunteers will be required to submit a state background check and a child abuse clearance statement. If volunteers haven’t lived in Pennsylvania for 10 consecutive years, they will also have to submit a federal background check. Additionally, volunteers and people who work with children in a professional capacity will have to submit updated clearances every three years.

The original bill was amended to eliminate provisions that would have updated associated employment bans for people who work with or volunteer with children. In the alternative, the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare and the Pennsylvania Department of Education will have to collaborate over the next year to issue recommendations on how employment ban laws should be improved and ensure parity among child-serving institutions.

Although PPC was disappointed that appropriate limitations on those who work or volunteer with children based on certain criminal offenses and a person’s history of child abuse was not resolved this session, we are happy that the General Assembly did not completely ignore the issue. PPC looks forward to working with policymakers next session to achieve parity in employment bans for those who work or volunteer with child-serving institutions.

Senate Bill 27 (now Act 176 of 2014) was signed on Oct. 22. Sponsored by Sen. Bob Mensch (R-Montgomery), the measure authorizes the exchange of information in suspected child abuse cases between licensed medical practitioners and county agencies. This will enable child welfare agencies to better respond to the health needs of children who are involved in a child abuse investigation or receiving child welfare services.

In addition to these two bills, the Senate earlier this month amended a proposal to address educator sexual misconduct into House Bill 1816, sponsored by Rep. Mike Tobash (R-Schuylkill). The bill, now Act 168 of 2014, prohibits a practice known as “passing the trash.”

This practice occurs when school districts ask employees accused of inappropriate contact with students to resign in exchange for a confidentiality agreement and, sometimes, help finding a new job in a different school district. Pennsylvania is now one of only three states that ban this practice. The original bills to ban “passing the trash” in Pennsylvania were championed by Sen. Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia) and Rep. David Maloney (R-Berks).

PPC commends the work of our state leaders in prioritizing and advancing more than 20 pieces of child protection legislation in the 2013-14 legislative session.

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An Update on the Basic Education Funding Commission

Pennsylvania’s Basic Education Funding Commission held two more hearings this month to gather feedback on how the commonwealth funds its public schools.

An Oct. 16 hearing in Montgomery County featured testimony from several southeastern Pennsylvania superintendents who called for a new Basic Education Funding formula that, among other things:

  • Addresses both equity and adequacy - and adjusts for student population changes;
  • Eliminates a “hold harmless” funding provision over time to give districts time to adjust to any negative impact;
  • Acknowledges the numbers of tax-exempt properties in a school district and the difference between local property taxes paid by residential properties owners (which bring additional students to the district) and commercial/industrial properties;
  • Includes a factor to account for the cost of living in the district; and
  • Automatically adjusts annually to cover increasing costs, such as health care.

An Oct. 21 hearing included a panel of Pittsburgh-area education leaders who told the commission:

  • When using student enrollment in a funding formula, it cannot be done in isolation.  School districts often continue to have costs associated with students who leave the district to attend private, parochial or charter schools, such as transportation costs.
  • Any efforts to eliminate hold harmless must be carefully evaluated and would be devastating to many districts.
  • A new formula should include costs associated with arts education and athletics.
  • A new funding formula should include a factor on the percentage of commercial properties in the district, which provide local revenues without adding additional students to the district.
  • A new formula should also incentivize our most effective teachers to teach our highest need students.

Upcoming commission hearings are planned for: Nov. 6 in Harrisburg; Nov. 18 and 19 in Philadelphia; Nov. 24 in Lancaster; Dec. 4 in East Stroudsburg; and Dec. 10 in Lancaster. Testimony and videos of previous hearings, as well as details on upcoming hearings, can be found on the Basic Education Funding Commission’s website.

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Voters Strongly Support Pre-K

With Election Day less than two weeks away, a pair of recent statewide polls shows strong voter support for pre-k in Pennsylvania …

  • 63 percent of Pennsylvania voters cite pre-k as either a “top priority” or “high priority” on their list of issues, according to a survey of 800 registered voters conducted last month by Terry Madonna Opinion Research.
  • 58 percent of voters said “improving access to high-quality pre-k programs” should be a priority for the governor in 2015, according to a survey of 700 registered voters conducted this month by Susquehanna Polling and Research.

These latest polls are consistent with a previously released Lake/Bellwether survey, which found 58 percent of likely voters consider pre-k to be a top priority. That poll found particularly solid support for pre-k investments among two important groups of voters: senior citizens and those who were undecided in the race for governor.

One thing is clear as Nov. 4 draws near: Pennsylvania voters want their elected state leaders to prioritize expanding access to high-quality pre-k for every 3- and 4-year-old in the commonwealth.

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Ensuring Educational Stability for Foster Youth

More than 21,000 children and youth lived in foster care during 2013. When these young people were removed from their families and entered foster care, they became our collective responsibility.

Part of that responsibility includes ensuring their educational success, which requires cooperation between child welfare agencies, courts and schools. Unfortunately, this cooperation doesn’t currently exist for all children in foster care, and the Pennsylvania General Assembly has rightfully decided to examine how such cooperation could be improved.

Earlier this month, the House Children and Youth Committee heard testimony from Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children and others on the importance of promoting education stability for children in foster care (the focus of the hearing was on two bills, House Bill 569 and House Bill 973). Promoting education stability means, among other things, making sure children who enter foster care continue attending the same school whenever possible or are immediately enrolled in a different school. School districts are a critical partner in ensuring education stability for children living in foster care, but current federal and state requirements to make sure schools do their part fall short.

To learn more about this issue, you can read recent coverage of the House hearing from the Scranton Times-Tribune and Wilkes-Barre Times Leader.

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