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With New Census Data, Pennsylvania’s Congressional Redistricting Can Really Get Moving

Keith Srakocic

On today’s program: The chair of Fair Districts PA explains how state leaders are taking different approaches to the process of drawing new maps for Congressional seats, now that census data has been released; kindergarten enrollment dropped 10% last year in the region, and some are concerned this year’s class of kindergarteners will have vastly different social and academic skills; and a look at how the state Game Commission takes census of the black bear population, a process that starts with doughnuts.

Lawmakers are in the process of redistricting, but there are concerns about transparency
(0:00 - 8:32)

The U.S. Census Bureau on Thursday released population numbers for municipalities and counties. Now the mapmakers can get to the specifics of drawing Congressional and legislative district lines in Pennsylvania.

“In the past it’s been done very much behind closed doors, it’s been very secretive,” says Carol Kuniholm, chair of Fair Districts PA. The organization is a nonpartisan statewide coalition working to create a transparent and impartial redistricting process. “Even legislators themselves have not had a chance to really be heard about problem areas in the map.”

Kuniholm says they’re calling on mapmakers to prioritize transparency in their process, and to accept public comment from residents and lawmakers that is incorporated into the maps.

The Census Bureau reports Allegheny County’s population rose by 2.2% since 2010; Pittsburgh’s dropped nearly 1%. Pennsylvania’s population edged over the 13 million mark, but because other states grew faster, the Commonwealth will lose one of its 18 U.S. House seats.

“The Congressional [district map drawing], that is being overseen by the two state government committees and they’re tackling it in slightly different ways,” says Kuniholm.

The Senate State Government Committee led by Senator David Argall (R-Schuylkill) has held some hearings, but Kuniholm says there have been few public comment opportunities. In the House, Representative Seth Grove (R-York) has created a web page for public comment and residents to submit maps, along with holding other community meetings.

“The odd thing for both is anything about this process is on partisan caucus websites,” says Kuniholm. “There’s no attempt to look like this is a nonpartisan effort and there’s apparently no conversation between House and Senate.”

Kuniholm says there is a higher motivation to create a “genuinely fair” map during this process, since it has to be approved by Governor Tom Wolf, a Democrat, who has hired a redistricting expert in the past to help review maps.

Kindergarten enrollment was down last year, which means this year’s classes may look a little different
(8:36 - 15:31) 

Last year, kindergarten enrollment was down 10% in the Southwestern Pennsylvania region, compared to the previous year. That translates to about 1,500 children, or 75 full classrooms of children not attending kindergarten. Some worry the incoming class of kindergarteners will be extremely diverse in their academic and social skills.

“You’re looking at a child, could be six years old, and could then be in a class with a child that just turned five years old the day before school started,” says Jesse Sprajcar, director of regional impact initiatives at United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania. “The developmental process in young learners is vastly different for a six year old as it would be for a newly turned five year old.”

Sprajcar says the only age requirement for students in kindergarten is that they turn five years old by the first day or school.

“Especially in our rural communities, we do every year, regardless of the pandemic, have children that come in that are over 8 [years old],” says Sprajcar.

Sprajcar says these differences in age, education thus far, and social experiences can create challenges for teachers and for students. For example, an older student will likely have more developed hand muscles and motor skills, and more easily hold a pencil or other tools, while a younger student might struggle and need more assistance.

Sprajcar there is less concern about low enrollment for the incoming school year.

“We’re anticipating a kindergarten bubble where we’re actually going to have a lot of those kids from last year that did miss kindergarten enrolling this year,” says Sprajcar.

The state Game Commission is counting the Commonwealth’s black bears with the help of baked goods
(15:36 - 22:30) 

Every year, the Pennsylvania Game Commission traps and tags hundreds of black bears. It’s part of the state’s ongoing census of its black bear population. This summer, as part of The Allegheny Front's series, Wild Pennsylvania, Reid Frazier headed out with a team to learn more.

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. 

Kevin Gavin is the host of WESA's news interview program "The Confluence." He is a native Pittsburgher and served as news director for 90.5 WDUQ for 34 years. Since the sale of the radio station by Duquesne University to Pittsburgh EPM, Inc. (now Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting Corp.), he served as Executive Producer of Special News Projects prior to being named as host of "The Confluence" five years ago. kgavin@wesa.fm
Marylee is the editor/producer of The Confluence, the daily public affairs show on WESA. She got her start in journalism at The Daily Reveille and KLSU while attending Louisiana State University. She took her passion for audio journalism to UC Berkeley's graduate program and worked in public radio at WPR in Madison, WI, and WOSU in Columbus, Ohio.
Laura Tsutsui is a producer for The Confluence, WESA's morning news show. Previously, she reported on the San Joaquin Valley with the NPR affiliate station in her hometown of Fresno, California. She can be reached at ltsutsui@wesa.fm.
Rebecca Reese is a production assistant for The Confluence.
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