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News Briefs

Fracking: Looming Threat, or Much Ado About Nothing? ; Vocal and Growing: Revolt Against Standardized Tests; Survey Shows Abuse, Exploitation Connected to Homelessness Among Teen Moms; and more


Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Coakley Tries Her Luck Again, This Time for Governor’s Office

 

Last week, on the day Attorney General Martha Coakley announced her candidacy for governor, a report by the Associated Press noted the “curse” that plagued five previous AGs who tried to make the leap to the corner office in Boston.

From Scott Harshbarger (done in by resistance from fellow Democrats like House Speaker-turned-convicted-felon Tom Finneran, who dismissed the good-government Harshbarger as a member of the “loony left)” to George Fingold (who died in the middle of his 1958 campaign), over the past 55 years, five AGs have tried and failed to win the governor’s seat.

Perhaps Coakley feels she can’t be more cursed than she was in 2010, when she managed to lose the special election for Ted Kennedy’s vacated Senate seat to Republican Scott Brown.

Certainly, early coverage of Coakley’s gubernatorial campaign has focused heavily on what she learned from that race, which saw her fast descent from can’t-lose candidate to the butt of endless political jokes and the cause of much teeth-gnashing among Democrats.

Accused of running a lackluster Senate race, Coakley has kicked off her gubernatorial campaign with a barnstorming tour that saw her hitting diners and commuter spots around the state. She is also, presumably, brushing up on the Red Sox roster (having taken a bruising the last time around after a TV interview in which she described legendary Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling as “a Yankees fan”).

The mess that was the 2010 campaign notwithstanding, Coakley’s overall strong record as attorney general and connections in key Democratic circles position her well in the gubernatorial race.

Still, she’ll face a crowded field of contenders for her party’s nomination, with at least four other Democrats in the race so far, including state treasurer Steve Grossman, who boasts strong pockets of support in Western Mass.

U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano, who lost to Coakley for the 2010 Senate nomination, and who can count on the backing of many party progressives, is expected to announce soon if he’ll join the race.

Fortunately for Democrats, the Republicans have yet to find a candidate with the populist, pop-star appeal of Brown. So far, the sole GOP contender is Charlie Baker, the former Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare CEO who lost the 2010 governor’s race.

Next up: the scramble to replace Coakley as attorney general. Republican state Rep. Dan Winslow—an unsuccessful candidate in this year’s race for John Kerry’s Senate seat—had been considered a potential AG frontrunner until last week, when he announced that he’s leaving the Legislature to work for a software company.•


Survey Shows Abuse, Exploitation Connected to Homelessness Among Teen Moms

A new report looks at the “cascade of trauma” that lands many teens who are pregnant or have children on the streets—and at the additional traumas they encounter once they’re homeless.

The report, Living on the Edge: The Family Conflict and Trauma that Lead to Teen Parent Homelessness, was released last week by the Mass. Alliance on Teen Pregnancy and was based on survey data collected from programs for teen parents. It found that in fiscal 2011, 30 percent of pregnant or parenting teens in Massachusetts were homeless (a conservative figure, the researchers note, since it doesn’t include “higher-risk youth” who are not in contact with the service providers surveyed).

The report includes other statistics that underscore the daunting odds faced by those teens: 46 percent of all pregnant and parenting teens had been abused or neglected at home; the figure rose to 59 percent among those who ended up homeless.

Eighteen percent of all pregnant or parenting teens—and 27 percent of those who have been homeless—had been sexually abused.

And nine percent of homeless pregnant teens and teen parents had experienced commercial sexual exploitation.

“The leading cause of homelessness for teen parents and their children is family conflict and dysfunction,” Elizabeth Peck, interim executive director of the MATP, said in an announcement of the report. “We’re talking about teens who feel unloved, unsupported and who are abused and neglected at startling rates.”

The findings, she added, make it clear that the reasons kids end up pregnant are a lot more complex than irresponsibility and poor decisionmaking.

“We tend to ignore the childhood traumas endured by young people and instead place blame solely on individual choice, but these findings challenge us to recognize the cascade of trauma faced by teen parents experiencing homelessness,” Peck said. “We must come together to better serve these extremely vulnerable youth and their children.”

That support, according to the report, should begin with safe and affordable housing. While there are emergency shelters available for pregnant and parenting teens, there aren’t enough spots to go around, according to MATP.

Last week, the group, along with state Sen. Barry Finegold (D-Andover), held a press conference to release its report and to call on the state government to increase the number of beds in the Teen Living Shelter Program, which is open to low-income pregnant and parenting girls aged 19 or younger within four months of their due date.

The waitlist for the program ranges from 25 to 60 girls, depending on the season, MATP found. The group also advocates for an expansion of eligibility requirements to include girls whose pregnancies are less advanced.

MATP also called for better training for shelter staff who work with teens who’ve experienced trauma, more extensive emergency shelter and housing programs, better pregnancy prevention programs and programs to keep pregnant kids in school, and more protections for teens who’ve been exploited in the sex trade. Finally, it called for more research on teen fathers, including looking at ways to keep young families connected.

Massachusetts’ teen birth rate was 17.1 per 1,000 girls in 2010 (the most recent year for which data is available), according to the Mass. Department of Public Health—a drop from 19.5 the previous year, and the lowest teen-birth rate ever recorded in the commonwealth.

The rate was markedly higher, however, in communities with large poor and minority populations. Holyoke, for instance, had the highest teen birth rate in the state, with 83.6 out of 1,000 teen girls in the city giving birth that year. Springfield had the third highest rate, at 54.3 births per 1,000. Still, the rates in both those cities were significantly lower than they had been in previous years.• —MT

How worried should Western Massachusetts residents be about fracking?

Fracking is the injection of layers of rock with liquids under high pressure in order to free the natural gas that’s trapped inside them. It’s alleged that fracking weakens geological structures, pollutes water and releases chemicals that sicken people.

A storm of confusion has swirled around the issue since it became widely known that the U.S Geological Survey has identified a vein of what may possibly be gas-bearing shale that runs straight up the Valley from Connecticut to the Vermont border.

In the opinion of some geologists, the amount of gas in the so-called Hartford Basin would not be enough to make serious exploration and extraction worth a gas company’s money and effort. But at a conference on fracking at UMass last December, Andrew Stone, executive director of an industry association called the American Groundwater Trust, was apparently speaking of people in this area when he said, “We want landowners, individuals and the community to understand there could be drilling, and they need to be ready for it.”

Another source of confusion: should Massachusetts develop regulations anticipating fracking that may never happen—or wait until it’s clear that fracking will be going on here, at which point officials of a gas company that’s exploring in the Bay State could claim that the regulations were unfairly targeting them?

Determined to help get this all sorted out are people with the Sunderland Public Library and the Sunderland Energy Committee. They’ve organized a free public meeting for Oct.9 with presentations by a UMass geologist, Stephen Petsch, and an environmentalist and attorney, Peter Vickery of Amherst, who has studied state law relating to the extraction of substances from the ground.

Is there enough gas in this region to extract, and are we prepared legally to deal with gas companies should they arrive on the scene? As Sunderland Public Library circulation assistant Aaron Falbel told the Advocate, “It’s important to get the facts straight, because if we don’t have the facts straight we look foolish. We don’t want to look foolish because then we would be dismissed.”

The meeting, Fracking in Western Mass.? What Are the Facts?, will be held Wednesday, Oct. 9 at 6:30 at the Sunderland Public Library, 20 School Street in Sunderland (near the intersection of Rtes. 47 and 116).•

 

Student Debt Stories: The Legislature Wants to Hear Them

Go to websites like Student Loan Justice or Occupy Student Debt and you read story after story like this one, or worse:

“I have student loans with Wells Fargo, Citibank, Sallie Mae, and Great Lakes Loans. Wells Fargo/Citibank are private student loans and Sallie Mae/Great Lakes are federal. All added up, it’s about $90,000 and my interest rates are variable at 6.3 percent at the moment. I’ve researched into consolidating my loans, but the lowest interest rate I could get is 8 percent fixed. I have never deferred and have made every payment on time .... I went to an overpriced art school with hardly any financial aid; even the school financial counselors were cold. I signed the student loans papers blindly and am now trying to figure out the balance of working a job I love and not eating or working a job just to pay off student loans. What is the true American dream? I don’t know anymore.”

If you’re drowning in student loan debt, Massachusetts legislators want to hear about it. The Legislature has formed a new subcommittee, the Joint Subcommittee on Student Loans and Debt, with Rep. Paul Mark of Peru, in Berkshire County, as chairman. Mark told the Berkshire Eagle that he and his wife, who are UMass graduates, pay over $750 a month on their own student loans. The subcommittee’s mission, Mark told the Eagle, “is to look at why costs are so high, what is being done differently in Massachusetts as compared with other states, and what is being done differently in the U.S. compared to different countries when it comes to covering the cost of college.”

The committee will also look for “alternatives or solutions to help alleviate the effect of loans and debt on students and their families,” according to PHENOM, an organization that supports public higher education in Massachusetts.

In Western Massachusetts, hearings will be held on September 30 at Holyoke Community College in Kittredge Rooms 301-303 at 10 a.m., and at Greenfield Community College in the Cohn Dining Commons at 2 p.m; on November 8 at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester in Hogan 519 (1 College Street) at 10 a.m.; and on November 18 at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield at 11 a.m. Anyone may speak for three minutes. For more information about the hearings, and about how to get transportation if you need it, call Alex Kulenovic at 617-291-5362.• —SK


Vocal and Growing: Revolt Against Standardized Tests

Schools in the Valley and across the state are preparing to say goodbye to the MCAS standardized tests and ring in the “next generation” PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) exams—computer-based tests that will replace the MCAS by academic year 2014-15.

Meanwhile, a small but growing number of people throughout the country are rebelling against large-scale standardized testing.

Some have organized to form United Opt Out National: The Movement to End Corporate Education Reform, a group that describes its membership as “parents, educators, students and social activists who are dedicated to the elimination of high-stakes testing in public education.”

Opt Out supplies model letters that parents who want to remove their students from the testing process can take to their schools.

Others have banded together by word of mouth, or—like 9,200 on Long Island alone—through social media like Facebook. Their battle cry is not new, but it’s increasingly vocal: Standardized tests don’t evaluate the whole child and all the aspects of his or her achievement in school. Standardized tests are too heavily relied on as mechanisms to evaluate teachers. Standardized tests have had a reductive effect on curricula, putting pressure on teachers and students to concentrate on what will raise test scores and undervalue other kinds of learning.

In Massachusetts, Citizens for Public Schools, a group that advocates for resources for public schools and monitors the effects of education reform programs, this year produced a report called Twenty Years After Education Reform. It carries this unqualified recommendation: “Stop high-stakes testing and impose a moratorium on the high-stakes uses of the new generation of tests, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests, which state authorities are proposing to replace MCAS over the next two years.”

CPS finds that even in Massachusetts, where generally high scores have tended to tamp down worries about the tests, MCAS results are weighted heavily by income level and race.

Citing the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the report notes that “Massachusetts ranks in the bottom tier of states in progress toward closing the achievement gap for Black, Hispanic, and low-income students.... Massachusetts has some of the widest gaps in the nation between white and Hispanic students.”

When it comes to the gap between black and white student graduation rates, Massachusetts ranks 31st of 49 states, with the ranking of 1 meaning that the gap is narrowest. It ranks even lower, 39th, for the gap between Hispanic and white graduation rates.

The report quotes Professor Trudy Knowles of Westfield State University, who served on the state’s Readiness Project Subcommittee on Assessments. Knowles pointed out that one-third of students who passed MCAS tests that measured readiness for graduation nevertheless were found unprepared for college and in need of remedial courses by the State Board of Higher Education.

And, Knowles added, the tests seem to have shut down students’ impulses to think on their own. “I now have what I call the MCAS generation in my classes. I see great potential in all my students,” she told the researchers. “What I also see compared to even five years ago are students who think less, take less risks, don’t engage in class conversations, and seem to have a dull glaze in their eyes when I ask a question. When I asked my students what was happening, one said to me, ‘In high school we didn’t have to think. All we had to do was give the right answer. And if we didn’t know the answer, we kept quiet for fear they would send us into test prep classes.’”

So far, most parents who refuse to allow their children to be tested do so years before graduation-level testing sets in. In most cases there has been little in the way of consequences. But it’s clear that the new PARCC tests will have to be instituted in the face of skepticism about high-stakes testing on the parts of increasing numbers of parents and educators.• —SK


Climate Change: Getting Local

On-the-ground solutions to climate change will be the focus of the Western Massachusetts Climate Justice Conference in Springfield on Saturday, Sept. 28. Food, transportation, garbage, recyling and compost, local alternative energy use and the effect of industry and the military on the environment will be discussed; Jacqui Patterson, director of the national NAACP’s Climate Justice Project, will be the keynote speaker.

“This [conference] will be the first time I’ve seen middle-class environmentalists take the economic realities of urban poverty into account when considering solutions,” said climate justice activist and conference co-organizer Tom Taffe. Spanish translation and child care will be provided. The conference takes place at Trinity United Methodist Church, 261 Sumner Avenue, Springfield, Sept. 28, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.• —SK


Preliminary Results Show Incumbents Have Their Work Cut Out for Them

Two years ago, political newcomer Alex Morse took Holyoke by surprise when he bested incumbent Elaine Pluta in that city’s mayoral preliminary by a single, but crucial, vote.

Last week, it was the now-incumbent Mayor Morse who found himself with a newcomer breathing down his neck: Jeff Stanek, who trailed Morse in this year’s mayoral preliminary by a mere three percentage points, or 170 votes. The tight Morse/Stanek race—they finished with 45 and 42 percent of the total vote, respectively—left in the dust their three challengers, Jim Santiago, Dan Boyle and Danny Szostkiewicz, a former mayor who this year managed to win just 305 votes.

Morse wasn’t the only incumbent to find himself with stiff competition after the preliminary. In Springfield, Ward 1 City Councilor Zaida Luna came in second place after challenger Jose Claudio, a long-time political player in the North End; he won 42.5 percent of the vote to Luna’s 37.7 percent. And in Northampton, veteran Ward 6 City Councilor Marianne LaBarge won her preliminary, but with challenger Yvonne Keefe close at her heels. LaBarge received a total of 440 votes in that low-turnout race—fewer than the 443 combined votes won by Keefe and fellow challenger Michael Janik.• —MT


Walmart Claims Soil Test, Not Opposition, Killed Holyoke Plans

The fierce battle over the proposed Holyoke Walmart came to an abrupt halt last week when the company announced that it was dropping its planned supercenter on Whiting Farms Road. The company cited contaminated soil found at the site as the reason behind its decision.

In an interview with the Springfield Republican, a Walmart spokesman insisted the move had nothing to do with the strong local resistance to the store, saying, “If you know anything about Walmart, you know that we’re not a company that backs away from opposition.”

Indeed, the opposition group, Stop Walmart in Holyoke, doesn’t seem quite ready to take its eye off the mega-retailer; at deadline, the group was planning to go ahead with a meeting this week that had been scheduled before Walmart’s surprising announcement.• —MT

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