A senator’s remarks on ‘inner city’ students sparks debate over equity and ‘fake news’

     Pa. Capitol Building, Harrisburg. (Kevin McCorry/WHYY)

    Pa. Capitol Building, Harrisburg. (Kevin McCorry/WHYY)

    A prominent Pennsylvania state senator is under fire for some of his remarks at a town hall meeting last week in Cumberland County. 

    Pennsylvania’s Senate Education Committee chairman John Eichelberger suggested that “inner city” students would be better served by being held to a lower academic standard, and that money spent preparing them for traditional four-year college was being misspent.

    His comments were reported by the The (Carlisle) Sentinel.

    State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D, Philadelphia) said Eichelberger should be removed from the committee chairmanship. Hughes said many minority students are victims of Pennsylvania’s unfair school-funding system and some drop out of college because they can’t afford it.

    After receiving criticism, Eichelberger, who’s white, offered a statement through a spokesman in which he said he’s committed to ensuring that every student has a chance to succeed regardless of skin color or economic status.

    He’s since wrote about the situation on his website, saying The Sentinel story was “dishonest” and the story has been spun into “fake news” by democrats and liberal media outlets.

    Eichelberger declined an interview request by Keystone Crossroads.

    The Sentinel has stood by the accuracy of its reporting. Adam Oldham, a high school guidance counselor and registered Republican, attended the town hall.

    “He seemed to be expressing frustration that too many kids are going to college unprepared and aren’t getting anything to show for it except college debt. And that’s a very real frustration. He did take it one step farther — and I’m not sure why he chose to talk about inner-city kids versus just kids in general — but he chose to talk about inner-city kids and inner-city schools and how they specifically seem to push their kids into college where they go and they fail. And we need to push them more into vocational training and trade schools, where it’s more on their level.’ Which comes across in a very particular way, and I think the reaction we’re seeing to some of that thinking is warranted,” said Oldham.

    Newsworks Tonight host Dave Heller discussed the issue with me on Wednesday night’s show. Listen to the conversation below.

    Through a spokeswoman, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R-Centre) defended Eichelberger.

    “Senator Corman has talked with Senator Eichelberger and is confident in his continued desire to ensure all students have access to the opportunities they need to succeed at whatever path best suits their needs,” said Jennifer Kocher, spokeswoman for Senate Republicans.

    Eichelberger’s comments specifically rankled those with intricate knowledge of Pennsylvania’s education budget. Funded by statewide taxes, Harrisburg sends less money per student to large urban districts such as Philadelphia, Lancaster, Erie, Scranton and Wilkes-Barre than it does to many other districts, including much wealthier ones — including many of those represented by Eichelberger.

    Of the 22 school districts in his legislative zone, Altoona is Eichelberger’s poorest, most urban district, and it gets less state funding per child than most of his others.

    This data reflects the fact that the state’s method for distributing funding largely isn’t based on student need.

    “When people say, ‘Oh, I’m all about school choice and charters and things like that,’ and yet the funding that’s being distributed does not speak that language of equity, you have to ponder their real rationale and real purpose, and if they’re really committed to equity and justice in our educational systems in Pennsylvania,” said Sharif El-Mekki, principal of Mastery’s Shoemaker charter school.

    Erie superintendent Jay Badams, who sits on the State Board of Education with Eichelberger, said he’s grown all-too-used to comments such as these from lawmakers over the years.

    “I’ll hear politicians with limited or no experience with urban public education making reference to failing, inner-city schools,” said Badams, “when in many cases they’ve not spent significant time in them.”

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