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Vote To Merge Six Pennsylvania Universities In State System Expected Today
Courtesy of Clarion University
The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education runs 14 universities, including Clarion University in Clarion County, Pa.

On today’s program: Post-Gazette reporter Bill Schackner previews what’s at stake if a plan to merge six state-owned universities is approved; legal analyst David Harris explains the effects of the decisions made during the latest U.S. Supreme Court session; and a Pittsburgh parent and disability advocate talk about the benefits of a bill that will allow students to repeat an academic, and what more they wish schools and the state Department of Education could offer.

PASSHE expected to vote on university consolidation today
(0:00 - 6:14)

The final vote for the merger of six of Pennsylvania's 14 state-owned universities could take place today.

The merger was given preliminary approval in April when the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) approved it in a 17-2 vote.

The plan, which was introduced to cut costs and address declining enrollment, would merge California, Clarion and Edinboro universities into one school in the west and Bloomsburg, Lock Haven and Mansfield universities into one school in the east.

"Each of the three would be brought under a single board of trustees, a single organization. that would share faculty," says Bill Schackner, a higher education reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "The course array of the separate universities would actually now be shared among the three."

The final consolidation plan, which was published last week following a 60-day public comment period, pledges not to close any of the six campuses.

To save money, Schackner says that the schools will instead lose some of their academic departments to other campuses.

"What they're saying is that by leveraging the combined resources of these institutions — combining certain departments, certain administrative and academic areas, there will be a cost savings there," he says. "The expectation is that leveraging these individual campuses and their offerings will create new opportunities for students, and the expectation is that will help enrollment levels grow."

As a result, students may have to take up to 25% of their courses online.

PASSHE's plan would also introduce staff and faculty cuts to save money. Schackner says that up to 1,500 jobs could be lost.

"The system insists that the vast majority of those will be through early retirements and attrition as opposed to outright layoffs."

U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on free speech, voting rights and more this session
(6:16 - 11:33)

The U.S. Supreme Court issued many rulings this term on fundamental issues, from the rights of voters, to LGBTQ individuals, to first amendment rights of students to athletes.

One ruling this session upheld Arizona laws prohibiting third parties from collecting mail-in ballots and disallowing votes cast in the wrong precinct.

“[Justice Alito’s] reasoning was that in order to find a constitutional violation in state laws that make it harder for certain people to vote, … they have to show when they’re in court that there is a substantial and disproportionate burden on those minority voters,” explains David Harris, Pitt law professor and legal analyst.

Harris says this ruling is a “direct strike” at the heart of the Voting Rights Act, which ended discriminatory voting laws.

Two major cases heard by the court originated in Pennsylvania: One involved Philadelphia’s anti-discrimination law, and its refusal to award contracts to Catholic Charities, which handles foster care placement, because the organization would not serve same-sex couples. The high court ruled the city can’t exclude Catholic Charities from the contracting process.

“What the court did was issue a very, very narrow decision based on the contract language with the City of Philadelphia for foster care,” says Harris. “What happaned here was a choice of religious liberty over gay rights … and very clearly here the court upholds religious liberty, even if it was on a narrow, narrow basis. [It’s] very unusual anymore for anybody to win a case against a claim of religious liberty, the court upholds those.”

The other Pennsylvania based case involved the free speech rights of a cheerleader who was suspended after a profanity-laced post on Snapchat directed at her Mahanoy Area School.

It was an 8-1 ruling in her favor.

“The basis for the ruling was that school officials, while they have plenty of authority to regulate speech on campus when it disrupts the campus environment, when speech takes place off campus, that's a whole different thing and their authority is much more limited over their students.”

Harris says the court, however, left open the opportunities for further argument regarding the ability of schools to regulate disruptive or harmful speech on social media that may affect students or teachers, even if it’s made off campus.

In the Supreme Court’s upcoming October session, Harris says he’s looking forward to what the court rules regarding an abortion case from Mississippi, and a case about the Boston Marathon Bomber’s death penalty.

New bill allows students to repeat a grade to make up for learning loss
(11:33 - 21:30)

Pennsylvania lawmakers recently passed Act 66, which allows students to repeat their last grade and make up for learning loss during the pandemic. Parents have until this Thursday to opt in.

“I actually had no idea this was in the works, and that's one of the biggest concerns I have with this bill,” says Bre Evans, the parent of a seven-year-old student with special needs. “I am thrilled that this has been signed, and I've submitted my form, but almost no parents even know that they have this option now.”

Evans says her son received very little education since his school was shut down in the middle of his kindergarten year.

“I think we will see hundreds, if not thousands of families take advantage of this,” says Karen Oosterhous, who’s with Achieva, a non-profit disability advocacy organization. “We hear numerous stories like Bre’s, where their child is not able to access their education for well over a calendar year now.”

She says students with disabilities are by law entitled to a free and appropriate public education, and for many students, virtual learning does not fall into the realm of “appropriate.”

The Department of Education is also developing what they call COVID-19 Compensatory Services, which Oosterhous says, combined with Act 66 and accelerated learning programs, creates a three-pronged approach to making up for lost learning time.

“Every student, every family is going to have different needs,” says Oosterhous. “It really is going to be incumbent upon the schools to look at each student individually and help them make up for these losses.”

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in weekdays at 9 a.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.

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