2013-05-16 / State

Superintendent tapped as state education chief Health reform could affect Native Americans

Associated Press

HARRISBURG (AP) — The superintendent of a large suburban Harrisburg school district will be Gov. Tom Corbett’s nominee for education secretary and replace Ron Tomalis, who after a busy and rocky two-year tenure will move into an advisory role in the administration, Corbett said Wednesday.

William Harner of the Cumberland Valley School District in Cumberland County will become the acting secretary June 1, Corbett said. He will require Senate confirmation to take the job of secretary.

Harner, a retired Army officer, will bring public school experience to an administration stacked with advocates for private, parochial, charter and cybercharter schools. In an interview Wednesday, he said the public school teachers in Cheltenham Township outside Philadelphia, where he grew up, “changed my world and my opportunities.”

“I was lucky to be in a great district, and in this role I’m going to do my best to make sure every district is a great district,” Harner said.

Corbett did not explain the reason for the change and an administration spokesman did not return messages Wednesday. Tomalis was not quoted in the statement, and he was replaced at two public speaking events Tuesday by one of his top deputies.

Corbett, a Republican, called Harner “an effective problem solver able to unite all sides in a common goal of educational excellence.” Tomalis, he said, worked hard to make Pennsylvania’s public education system benefit all students.

The Department of Education oversees more than $14 billion in state and federal money for Pennsylvania’s public schools, charter schools, libraries, universities and colleges, making it one of the state’s most important agencies.

The Philadelphia Inquirer first reported last week that Tomalis would be leaving the post. Tomalis declined interview requests Wednesday through an Education Department spokesman.

Tomalis had some successes and some failures as Corbett aggressively tried to empower private and charter schools while challenging school boards to stop raising taxes and universities to stop raising tuition.

A top Corbett priority of creating the state’s first school voucher program to help low-income students in struggling public schools died in the Legislature, although it resulted in an expanded tax credit designed to achieve the same goal.

Tomalis served at a time when Corbett imposed deep cuts in aid to schools and universities to balance the disappearance of federal aid to bail out recession-wracked state budgets. The cuts in public school aid, which fell most heavily on the state’s poorest school districts, sped the near-collapse of the Chester-Upland district in southeastern Pennsylvania before state lawmakers and federal courts intervened.

STATE COLLEGE (AP) — A provision in President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul that uses a new definition of “American Indian” could affect the health insurance coverage for thousands of Pennsylvanians who identify as Native American.

The new law mandates that every American must carry insurance or pay a tax penalty that will reach a minimum of $695 when fully phased in.

One of the few exceptions to that mandate is for those who document their membership in one of about 560 tribes recognized by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. The care and medical services of Native Americans are paid for as part of the government’s treaty obligations to tribes dating back nearly a century.

Yet more than 100 tribes nationwide are recognized only by states and not the federal government.

The 2010 census found 6.2 million people nationwide who self-identify as American Indian or Alaska Native. But federal health officials do not yet know how many people the new definition might affect. Indian health advocacy groups estimate it could be up to 480,000.

Pennsylvania had an American Indian population of about 81,000 in 2010, less than 1 percent of the state’s total population of 12.7 million.

By county, the Native American population in Pennsylvania is concentrated in the Philadelphia area. About 20 percent live in Philadelphia, with 13 percent combined in Montgomery, Delaware and Bucks counties.

About 8 percent of the state’s Native American population lives in Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh.

Neither the National Conference of State Legislatures, nor the National Congress of American Indians, listed any tribes — whether federally recognized or not — with headquarters or other contact information in Pennsylvania.

The Associated Press left messages seeking comment with tribes headquartered and recognized in neighboring states: the Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware, based in Dover; and the Nanticoke Lenni Lenape Tribal Nation, based in Bridgeton, N.J.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Erin Shields said the agency is powerless to change the new guideline without an act of Congress.

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