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Ruling pending in how Pennsylvania funds public schools, but an appeal is likely

Jessica Kourkounis
Keystone Crossroads

On today’s episode of The Confluence: WHYY education reporter Mallory Falk discusses the closing arguments in the trial over the constitutionality of Pennsylvania’s system for funding K-12 schools; Jada Shirriel, chief executive officer of Healthy Start, details the organization's plans for applying federal grants to address the region’s high Black infant mortality rate; and WITF reporter Rachel McDevitt gives a personal account of spending a week with an electric vehicle.

Arguments concluded in a trial debating the constitutionality of how the state funds public education
(0:00 - 7:00)

Whether Pennsylvania must change the way it funds public schools across the state is now in the hands of a Commonwealth Court judge.

Six school districts and several parents, and two statewide organizations are petitioners in this case, arguing the state isn’t meeting its constitutional requirement to provide a “thorough and efficient” education.

“They say … these spending gaps between poor and wealthy school districts in Pennsylvania are so wide that the state is effectively discriminating against students in poor districts and violating its own equal protection clause,” says Mallory Falk, WHYY’s education reporter.

One expert called by petitioners said, based on a study commissioned by state lawmakers in 2007, that the state’s poorest school districts have almost $5,000 less per student than wealthier districts.

Defendants have argued families have choices beyond traditional public schools, and that there is “a difference between must haves and nice to haves,” says Falk.

“Everyone's kind of expecting that whoever loses this trial in Commonwealth Court is going to appeal to the state Supreme Court,” says Falk. “So, there is an expectation that there's likely going to be another round of court proceedings after this one.”

Pittsburgh’s Healthy Start has a federal grant to address Black infant mortality
(7:04 - 15:16)

The mortality rate among infants in Allegheny County is, on average from 2017-2019, is 6 deaths per 1,000 births. For Black infants, the mortality rate is worse: nearly 15 deaths per 1,000 births, according to the Allegheny County Health Department.

The US Department of Health and Human Services awarded more than $1.6 million in supplemental funding to 21 “Healthy Start grantees” nationwide to help reduce disparities in infant mortality. Healthy Start, Inc., a local nonprofit that addresses birth and maternal health disparities, received $80,000 through this grant.

“We've been doing this for, going on 31 years. The Pittsburgh Healthy Start program was one of the original 15 that were funded back in 1991,” says Jada Shirriel, CEO of Healthy Start. “While we do have some, some really stark disparities in Pittsburgh for black women, our community also has a lot of resources and a lot of readiness to collectively continue to address this issue.”

Shirriel says a lot of progress has been made to address some infant mortality issues, like Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), and other sleep-related deaths. But other issues, like premature birth, require more resources.

“We still see a lot of adverse experiences in health care, disproportionately for black women and babies, and we see a lot of community factors that contribute to poor health outcomes as a whole,” says Shirriel.

Healthy Start will release its action plan to address infant health equity in Allegheny County. April 11, during Black Maternal Health week.

Navigating the world with an electric car is possible, but can take some getting used to
(15:21 - 22:30)

Gas prices are at record levels due, in part, to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Paying almost four to five dollars a gallon might have some people considering a switch to an electric vehicle.

Major automakers have already announced plans to go electric, not so much for fuel cost relief, but as a way to cut planet-warming emissions. But people have a lot of questions about EVs.

StateImpact Pennsylvania’s Rachel McDevitt rented an EV for one week to try and answer those questions. In this audio essay, she tells us about the pleasant surprises, and the setbacks, that come with going electric.

This story was produced as part of Climate Solutions, a collaboration focused on climate literacy in central Pennsylvania.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in Monday to Thursday at 9 a.m. and 7:30 p.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.
Boen Wang is a writer, audio producer, and MFA candidate in creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh. His written work appeared in The Sunday Long Read, The Fourth River, Inheritance, and elsewhere; his audio work won the “Best New Artist” award at the 2020 Third Coast International Audio Festival, was selected as one of The Bello Collective’s “100 Outstanding Podcasts of 2020,” and was shortlisted for the 2021 HearSay Audio Festival Prize. Visit his website at boen.cool.
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