These Pa. schoolkids wanted people to skip using plastic straws for a day. They got a crash course in politics instead

By: - May 16, 2019 6:30 am

Fourth graders Caroline Vail and Ryan Schofield (center) stand with (from left) Wallingford-Swarthmore School Superintendent Lisa A. Palmer; Susan Knight, a classroom teacher at Wallingford Elementary School; state Rep. Leanne Krueger, D-Delaware, and Wallingford Elementary Principal Gabriel Savage, outside the state House chamber on Wednesday (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

If you ever think that what happens under that big, gold dome in Harrisburg doesn’t have real world implications, consider the case of Caroline Vail, Ryan Schofield, and their classmates at Wallingford Elementary School in Delaware County.

They’re fourth graders in teacher Susan Knight’s class. And not too long ago, as an exercise in persuasive writing, Knight’s students trained their sights on the environmental threat posed by single-use plastic straws.

A few, well-crafted sentences later, their argument on behalf of a statewide “Skip a Straw Day” was born.

“We weren’t recycling well,” Ryan said. “Mrs. Knight realized that. This was something that bothers us. There’s 500 million straws used every day. We needed to get the numbers down.”

They pitched their case to Principal Gabriel Savage, who came away convinced. The school got in touch with state Rep. Leanne Krueger, D-Delaware, who represents Wallingford in the Pennsylvania House. Krueger met with the students, and was regaled with a 30-minute presentation, complete with songs, making the students’ case.

In return, Krueger drafted a non-binding resolution recognizing June 1 as “Skip the Straw Day” in Pennsylvania. And she started making plans to have the Caroline, Ryan, their classmates, Knight, and others travel to Harrisburg on Wednesday to see a bit of democracy in action as their proposal won legislative authorization

“These kids did their homework,” Krueger told the Capital-Star.

That’s about when things went straight to (Eastern) hellbender, as youthful idealism collided with the reality of life under the Capitol dome.

Krueger figured she’d have no problem offering the seemingly non-controversial resolution under what’s known as “unanimous consent,” or without objection from her House colleagues. She was wrong.

“On Monday we found out the resolution was marked controversial and had been referred to the House Commerce Committee, instead of being sent to the House floor,” Krueger said in a phone interview. She said she huddled with House Speaker Mike Turzai’s senior aide, Neal Lesher, to get rid of the controversial language.

It didn’t help. Another House member objected to the revised version of the resolution that Krueger began circulating on Tuesday. That one, she believes, is parked on Turzai’s desk and hasn’t even been referred to committee yet.

“These fourth graders have been through the very same ups and downs that the rest of us go through in the Capitol,” Krueger quipped.

Turzai’s spokeswoman, Christine Goldbeck, said the Speaker’s Office, which presides over the House’s operations, was following standard procedure when it came to dealing with Krueger’s resolution.

“Noncontroversial resolutions congratulate, honor, and recognize,” she said in an email. “Because it was brought to light that there is controversy about this resolution, it was referred to a committee. That’s how we do things here.” Goldbeck declined to identify the lawmaker who raised the objection to Krueger’s revised resolution.

Six Pa. House members voted against naming the Eastern hellbender the state amphibian. Why?

Now before you dismiss the flap over this resolution as little more than the wide-eyed idealism of youth, environmentalists view single-use plastic straws as a serious threat to the Earth’s oceans. By 2050, while there still may be a whole lot of fish in the sea, they could well be outnumbered by plastic straws.

That’s because, as young Ryan sagely noted, Americans use an estimated 500 million, mostly unrecyclable, plastic straws every day, according to the activist group For a Strawless Ocean.

But as well-intentioned as keeping plastic straws out of the oceans sounds, like most things in life, it’s not that simple.

Last year, for instance, disability rights advocates pushed back against a plastic straw ban announced by coffee chain giant Starbucks, arguing that it would be discriminatory since many disabled people can’t drink without them, PBS NewsHour reported. If you’ve been to your local Starbucks lately, you might have noticed that straws are still readily available.

Now if all this sounds familiar, it’s because there are echoes of the multi-year fight to get the Eastern hellbender named Pennsylvania’s official state amphibian.

Like the straw project, the hellbender bill was the brainchild of some schoolkids who were just trying to help the environment. Gov. Tom Wolf signed the hellbender bill into law on April 23, with both school students and someone in a hellbender costume at his side.

Because, y’know, Harrisburg.

Fortunately for them, Caroline, Ryan, and their classmates didn’t have to wait nearly as long as the pro-hellbender forces to get some satisfaction.

They rolled into town on Wednesday, meeting both with Commerce Committee members and with Wolf, who exercised his executive power to do an end-around on the tyrannical House. Krueger said he promised to sign a proclamation making June 1 “Skip the Straw” day in Pennsylvania.

Through a spokesman, Wolf (metaphorically) high-fived the students for their efforts.

“Litter and waste is a real issue facing communities, and we should be encouraging all Pennsylvanians to reduce it,” administration spokesman J.J. Abbott said.

Meanwhile, you’ll be glad to know that Caroline and Ryan’s run-in with Harrisburg politics apparently left them as optimistic as ever.

“It’s really important to my class,” Caroline said Wednesday in an interview outside the House chamber, where she and her classmates got a shout-out from the Speaker’s rostrum. “Straws are damaging the world. We knew it could be something important. And getting it this far is amazing.”

We’ll drink to that — without a straw, of course.

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John L. Micek
John L. Micek

A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press.