Our response to Senator Eichelberger’s recent town hall comments

We were deeply disappointed to read recent comments that newly-appointed Senate Education Committee Chair, Senator John Eichelberger, made at a town hall meeting in central Pennsylvania.

The Carlisle Sentinel reported that Sen. Eichelberger had this to say about funding for public education:

 He then moved into 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.

“They’re pushing them toward college and they’re dropping out,” Eichelberger said. “They fall back and don’t succeed, whereas if there was a less intensive track, they would.”

We most certainly hope that Senator Eichelberger did not intend to suggest that students be tracked into education programs according their race. This is not only morally wrong; it is illegal.  In fact, the Upper Dublin School District is currently under federal investigation for this exact type of racial discrimination.

In addition, we hope Senator Eichelberger clearly understands that Career and Technical Education programs provide students with a different path to success, not a less intensive path.  CTE students are some of the most accomplished students in Pennsylvania. In addition to completing all of the graduation requirements their non-CTE peers complete, many CTE students earn industry-related credentials, participate in internships, and work while they are still in high school. CTE students graduate prepared to enter good jobs and meet the workforce needs of their communities or go on to higher education, if that is the path they choose.

Senator Jake Corman has said that it is time for the legislature to have, “an open and honest conversation about the needs of all students and the value of vocational education.”

We agree with Senator Corman and most strongly urge the legislature to hold public hearings on the impact that inadequate and inequitable state education funding has on educational opportunities available to poor minority children and on schools’ ability to offer all students quality CTE opportunities.

 A recent report on civil rights data found that Pennsylvania provides lower per-student funding to school districts with greater racial diversity compared to economically similar districts with predominantly white student bodies. Decreased state funding for these schools means that minority students in Pennsylvania are less likely than white students to have access to essential resources and learning opportunities, rigorous coursework, school counselors, and experienced educators.

The funding and opportunity gaps created by Pennsylvania’s state funding system have created racial and economic achievement gaps in our public schools that are among the largest in the country.

Pennsylvania’s public education and policies are creating inequality, not just perpetuating it, at great economic cost.

In a 2015 study, the RAND Corporation found that achievement gaps among white and black and white and Hispanic students equate to roughly three years of additional learning for white students. Eliminating these gaps ten years ago could have increased PA’s GDP by as much as $44 billion. And, our students could be near the top of U.S. and world rankings.

In addition, a 2016 Education Policy and Leadership Center report found that inadequate and inequitable state funding has significantly limited the quality and availability of CTE programs throughout the Commonwealth. This leaves thousands of students without the opportunity to participate in a CTE program and follow a path that will lead to their success after graduation.

Governor Wolf’s proposed increase of $100 million in Basic Education Funding in the 2017-2018 budget is a step in the right direction. However, a much greater investment of state dollars through the new funding formula is necessary in order to ensure that minority children in low-income schools in PA to receive the opportunities they need for success and that all children in the Commonwealth to have access to high-quality CTE programs.

It is critical that PA lawmakers who are committed to improving educational opportunities for minority students in low-income districts SUPPORT increased state funding for our public school and OPPOSE school privatization schemes that would drain resources away from the students who need them the most.

 We most strongly urge lawmakers to oppose any increase in funding for private school scholarships through PA’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) programs. These programs already divert $125 million business tax dollars out of the general fund and into private and religious schools, leaving less money to fund investments in public schools that educate 90% of Pennsylvania’s children.

We also most strongly urge lawmakers to oppose changes in the PA charter law that would allow charter schools to expand without the approval of local school boards.  School districts already pay more than $1.4 billion in charter school tuition bills each year. This massive expense is a key reason that schools have been forced to make cuts in to critical programs and service for students. Communities must be able to negotiate the role of charters locally, including the ability to stop approving new charters or expansions based on academic or financial considerations.

There is no more important investment we can make than in our children’s futures.  If lawmakers hope to leave the Commonwealth better than they found it, they must gain a better understanding of the very real impact their decisions about school funding have on children. They must make informed decisions and prioritize ensuring that all children in Pennsylvania are offered the opportunities they need to succeed. We look forward to Senator Corman initiating conversations about these critical issues.