This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Updated 12:15 p.m. with blog post from Sen. Eichelberger
Republican leaders in the Pennsylvania Senate are defending comments from State Sen. John Eichelberger at a town hall meeting where he suggested that "inner city" students would benefit from "less intensive" vocational programs because they do not succeed in college.
After seeing reports of the statements, State Sen. Vincent Hughes, a Philadelphia Democrat, called Eichelberger’s comments "racist" and said he "is not fit to serve" as chair of the Senate Education Committee.
That interpretation was rejected by a spokesman for Senate President Joseph Scarnati, who determines committee chairmanships.
The spokesman, Senate Republican counsel Drew Crompton, said that Eichelberger’s remarks were taken out of context and that Scarnati had no intention of removing Eichelberger, who represents a mostly rural central Pennsylvania district serving Blair, Fulton, Huntingdon, Franklin and part of Cumberland Counties.
"Education issues are always sensitive, we understand that," Crompton said. "Urban education issues are also sensitive." Although Eichelberger didn’t word his remarks "as precisely as he wanted to," Crompton said, "I think the message Sen. Eichelberger was carrying, that there are some high school students from all over the state [who] are better served through vocational training than college, is perfectly acceptable and accurate."
As reported in the Sentinel of Cumberland County, Eichelberger spoke on a number of education issues at the town hall meeting before launching "a critique of Pennsylvania’s ‘inner city’ education programs, positing that money was being misspent on pushing minority students from high school into college instead of into vocational programs."
According to the Sentinel, Eichelberger said: "They’re pushing them toward college and they’re dropping out. They fall back and don’t succeed, whereas if there was a less intensive track, they would."
Hughes said the comments reflect "a racist viewpoint [and] stereotype that we’ve been dealing with for generations" during which African American students were routinely shunted into vocational rather than academic tracks, often against their will and without regard to their interests or potential.
"Kids who have been locked out will continue to be locked out," Hughes said. He said the poor outcomes of many students in Philadelphia who fail to earn diplomas or graduate high school without the skills and knowledge to succeed in college are the result of a systematic denial of resources.
"Kids have not had the opportunity to succeed," he said. "We have to be mindful that the U.S. Department of Education has rated Pennsylvania as the worst state in the nation in terms of educational funding disparities."
Some of the state’s wealthiest districts spend three times as much per pupil as the poorest. Philadelphia, though it gets more state aid by far than any other district because of its size, is in the bottom half among the 500 districts in per-pupil spending. And about 150 districts get more state aid per pupil.
Eichelberger issued a statement Tuesday evening that clarified and defended his remarks, contending that he meant to say that all students should have more educational options, not fewer. It stated, in part: “While I may not have said it very artfully, I believe every student deserves to be provided with options for their education so they can all succeed, whether that is college or vocational/trade education program. Each child has different skills that may be best suited for college or vocational training. This has been recognized by educational experts in our state and around the nation. The best option for kids should be available for all students, whether in Carlisle or Philadelphia or anywhere else in the Commonwealth.”
He said "vocational training is not an offensive term" but rather "a path for training and education that leads to higher incomes and family-supporting jobs. For many, it is their stepping stone for success."
Eichelberger concluded: “We cannot continue to protect a system that is failing children. If our students are not being provided with that guidance and options in a significant way, then we need to take a closer look at that to ensure that every student deserves the chance to succeed no matter their skin color or economic situation.”
The bland statement contrasted with a post on his website titled "I’m fighting to give these kids a chance," in which he said he was a victim of "fake news," called the Sentinel story "dishonest," and blasted Hughes for his comments.
Hughes, the post states, "is calling me a racist because I spoke about the failing schools in Philadelphia, located in minority neighborhoods, not preparing their students for college. He’s trying to say that since the kids are black, that I think they’re not capable of learning. Wrong. I see the potential of these children and want to see them succeed. Their race doesn’t matter to me, what matters is that every child has opportunities to succeed. I’m fighting to give these kids a chance; he’s fighting to protect the status quo and collect another check from the teacher’s union."
Eichelberger is not a fan of teachers’ unions and is pushing a bill that would take away state guarantees of sick days, bereavement leave, and sabbaticals, requiring unions to bargain for them instead.
Hughes responded that if Eichelberger and other Republican legislators are serious about providing opportunities for all students, they will have a chance to co-sponsor legislation to deal with the funding disparities among Pennsylvania districts that the Democrats are preparing.
"In the end, it’s about the policy," he said. "And what we know is, Black and Brown children are in underfunded schools all across Pennsylvania. That all relates to the funding cuts Sen. Eichelberger has voted for and championed and voted for and advocated."
Historically, there has been suspicion in Harrisburg that Philadelphia doesn’t make good use of the money it has, so it shouldn’t be given any more. These critics cite poor test scores and data showing that most Philadelphia high school graduates do not persist in college.
Hughes said that student outcomes in Philadelphia were better before the budget cuts that Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration made, starting in 2011.
Jennifer Kocher, a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, said there was a feeling in Harrisburg – reflected in Eichelberger’s remarks about money being "misspent"– that Philadelphia isn’t investing enough in vocational education.
"There are many vo-tech schools in different areas of the state, and there is some concern about the ability to do that in Philadelphia," she said. "That’s where decisions need to be made, [whether to invest resources in] vocational education or college prep, whether you’re talking about rural school districts or urban school districts. The problem or the issue is that [Eichelberger’s] comments were seen as some sort of indictment or saying that vo-tech is a bad thing."
Instead, she said, there should be "an open dialogue about vo-tech education. Not every kid is destined for college. The world still needs plumbers and electricians, whether in rural or urban school districts."
Over the last few years, Philadelphia has been expanding its Career and Technical Education (CTE) options, collaborating with local industry, and seeking to put at least a few programs in all of the city’s neighborhood high schools. Several high schools, including Mastbaum, Randolph, and Dobbins, specialize in CTE.
A new advanced manufacturing center opened in 2015 at Ben Franklin High. The District has also been working on introducing younger students to CTE options.
Finding the right mix of programming, location, and student interest, however, can be daunting and requires significant investment. For instance, to acquire industry certifications, students must spend a certain number of hours in their specialty, as well as taking all the academic courses required by the state for graduation. In the past, students took vocational courses, but many never received certifications because they hadn’t accumulated enough hours due to scheduling constraints. Today, scheduling issues have been worked out and more students do take industry certification tests.
Hughes said that Philadelphia needs still more CTE programs, as well as art, music, counselors, and other amenities that he said have been "wiped out."
"Is there a need for more programming in these schools? Absolutely. Should there be more programming for kids going to higher ed? Without question. More programming for those wanting to get into vocational training? Yes. For the most part, there aren’t counselors in these schools to figure out the best college options and get financial aid. If there are, it’s a small number that’s just been put back into place for the last year or so. They have wiped out a bunch of programs in an overwhelming number of schools in Philadelphia. They’ve begun the process of trying to rebuild that stuff, but it’s not at the level it needs to be."
With an easing of the School District’s financial crisis, Superintendent William Hite was able last year to announce new investments for the first time in his tenure, rather than devastating cuts. Through a spokesman, Hite said he would have no comment on Eichelberger’s statement.