11 May 2010

Child abuse town hall set for June 10

After presenting three town halls to highlight the reserach and recommendations in the United Way's Stay in School Report, YorkCounts moves to a new subject for a community conversation.

Child abuse.

On the evening of June 10, we'll bring together a wide swath of local professionals, advocates and government officials to start the work of developing a coordinated plan for reducing child abuse in York County. We're doing this now because of two things that happened around the same time in April.

First, the York Daily Record/Sunday News produced a documentary to mark the first anniversary of the death of Darisabel Baez, a 2-year-old girl who was killed in a horrific case of child abuse. That documentary, "Carrying Darisabel," by YDR photographer Jason Plotkin, presents the stories of the first responders who were involved in Darisabel's case - the police officers, EMTs and hospital workers. It's a powerful film.

Shortly after that, the state released its latest child abuse numbers. And once again, the number of cases in York County is tragically high. The number of confirmed cases has remained around 150 for the past four years, and the rate of cases per 100,000 has has hovered close to 35 for the past four years. That happened while the state numbers have come down.

The combination prompted us to move. Our approach is to use the data to spotlight an issue of community concern, bring people together to talk about the issue, then find a community partner willing to take the lead on working toward solutions. We hope to begin that process with this town hall meeting.

What programs do we have in York County right now that work? Which ones would be more efffective with more resources? Can we give more help to new parents? How do we catch the signs of abuse earlier? How do we let friends and neighbors know it's OK for them to report something that looks suspicious?

These are some of the questions we want people to talk about. And we hope that people can bring the highest levels of honesty and respect to the conversation. We don't want finger pointing or blaming.

This is truly about finding ways to protect those among us who are least able to protect themselves. So mark you calendar: 6 p.m. June 10, at the York Jewish Community Center. We hope you'll be there and be part of the conversation.

- Dan Fink

07 May 2010

More thoughts on municipal consolidation

Bruce Katz, writing on the Brookings Institution's Up Front blog, explores how state and local governments can better serve constituents. The whole post speaks to many of the issues YorkCounts raises for York County's system of government, but this part in particular makes the economic advantages clear:
"Metropolitan fragmentation exerts a negative impact on competitiveness and weakens long-term regional performance. Municipalities routinely expend scarce resources on tax incentives to lure firms from nearby jurisdictions, adding not one job or tax dollar to the overall economy in the process. Fragmented regions often fail to recognize their distinctive clusters of strength in the global marketplace and take the actions, large and small, to leverage their competitive advantages. They compete for growth and jobs at a deficit."
(Emphasis mine)

Katz says the responsibilities for correcting the fragmentation falls to the states, who allowed this to happen in the first place. He says states should do three things:
"First, they need to move to consolidate units of local governments, starting with school districts and economic development authorities.

Second, states should move to delegate traditional state functions to entities that govern at the metropolitan scale. California, for example, allocates 75 percent of its federal transportation funding directly to metropolitan planning organizations, enabling these organizations (usually governed by city and suburban elected leaders) to make transportation investments in the service of metro housing, land use and economic development priorities.

Finally, states should promote a new generation of inter-jurisdictional collaboration to gain efficiencies, such as tax base sharing and shared services arrangements like consolidation of 911 call centers."
Some folks in York County who would read the first suggestion here and probably stop reading. "Big government nonsense," they might think. "Socialism!" "I like my little (fill in name of local government entity here)." "Things work just fine the way they are."

So if you're an elected official in York County, how do you respond to the points Katz raises?

- Dan Fink

05 May 2010

The charter school debate

We here at YorkCounts think educational achievement and opportunity in York County should be a concern for every citizen  regardless of what school district they live in, and we've placed a pretty big bet that the York Academy Regional Charter School will be a step in the right direction.

We have to acknowledge, though, that the question of whether charter schools are some kind of magic cure for urban education is far from settled. Three recent news articles show how complicated the issues are.

The New York Times ran a 3,600-word story May 1 that examines the mixed performance of charter schools nationwide. Yes, there are some success stories, where charter schools have helped students in urban districts outperform their public school peers. We believe the YorkCounts professionals who are involved in the York Academy will make it one of the success stories. But, one recent comphrehensive study puts the number of successful schools at about a third of the nation's 5,000 charter schools. But about half do no better and about a third do significantly worse. From the story:
"... the challenge of reproducing high-flying schools is giving even some advocates pause. Academically ambitious leaders of the school choice movement have come to a hard recognition: raising student achievement for poor urban children - what the most fervent call a new civil rights campaign - is enormously difficult and often expensive."
And we also have to acknowledge that charter schools aren't the only potential answer. In Florida, a program to promote school choice for poor families has the potential, according to education policy analyst Adam Schaeffer of the libertarian Cato Institute, to "revolutionize K-12 education in the Sunshine State." Schaeffer made the argument in an op-ed that appeared in the Wall Street Journal April 30.

Here's how the program works: Businesses can to donate to a nonprofit scholarship organization that helps poor families pay private school tuition. Businesses can claim dollar-for-dollar tax credits. A change to the enabling law would expand the program so that more money could be donated and businesses could claim a broader array of tax credits, with the goal of making more scholarships available. Evidence to assess the program's impact is still being developed; the program was created in 2001. But Schaeffer is optimistic.
"Florida's scholarship program appears to be the first statewide private school choice program to reach a critical mass of funding, functionality and political support. As an ever increasing number of students in Florida take advantage of the scholarship program, other states will find it hard to resist enacting broad-based school choice."
Finally, from the Philadelphia Inquirer last month comes a story about the revival in a West Phildelphia neighborhood near the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. The Penn Alexander School, a charter school, opened in 2001 in University City. The school was in a blighted section of the city that was full of crime and rowdy and transient college students and mostly devoid of middle-class families. Penn initiated an overhaul of the neighborhood, and the charter school was part of the plan.

And now?

The school is attracting a diverse student body. Professionals are moving in. And when they have kids, they stay - for the school. Businesses are popping up (including a gourmet grocery store). Streets are cleaner and safer.
"'The (area around the school) has turned ... into a stable family neighborhood, with kids on almost every street,' said Andrew Meloney, the West Philadelphia planner for the City Planning Commission."
So yes, we bet on the York Academy, and we're confident that the folks running the school will do it right. It won't solve every problem. But wouldn't it be cool to see the Northwest Triangle turn around like the neighborhood in West Philly?

- Dan Fink