Suddenly in the winter of 2017, politician town halls are a thing. The simmering anger from the divisive 2016 election now has hundreds of people crowding meeting rooms for the handful of Congress members and other elected officials brave enough to face the public -- and raging against those like Pa. Sen. Pat Toomey who prefer to conduct that kind of business by phone. And here's the thing: When elected officials do interact with the actual public, they tend to say the darnedest things.
Take Pennsylvania state Sen. John Eichelberger, from Blair County in the mostly rural central part of the Keystone State.
It's a pretty safe bet that most people in Philadelphia have never heard of Sen. Eichelberger. But he's a pretty powerful guy these days. As Senate Republicans have established a super-majority that now gives conservative lawmakers remarkable sway over what comes out of Harrisburg, the three-term senator rose this year to the influential position of chairman of the Senate Education Committee.
That means Eichelberger instantly becomes a player in the long-running battle to fix Philadelphia's cash-strapped public schools, which have struggled to balance its budget and to offer its kids essentials like textbooks, school nurses, or guidance counselors. This comes during a decade when education aid from Harrisburg has plunged and lawmakers have also promoted a charter-school funding formula that puts public districts like Philadelphia at a financial disadvantage.
You'd have to be a hopeless optimist to expect someone like Eichelberger -- one of Pennsylvania's most conservative lawmakers, who made headlines in 2009 with some shocking views on same-sex marriage and the LGBTQ community, stating at one point that "we're allowing them (gay people) to exist" -- to become a source of enlightened solutions to the school problems in Philadelphia or other places with high rates of poverty.
Indeed, Eichelberger has been known -- in the spirit of President Trump's new Education Secretary Betsy DeVos -- to refer to our public schools as "government schools," the lingua franca of right-wingers seeking to undermine if not destroy the once-foundational faith in public schools that in the 20th Century created America's middle class.
But in a town hall meeting last week, Eichelberger reportedly made a comment about urban public education with particularly alarming overtones. According to a report in a local newspaper, the senator thinks too many dollars are wasted trying to get minority kids into college -- when what a lot of them need is vocational training.
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.”
Eichelberg is actually dancing around some reality-based issues here. Most experts agree that vocational education has been overlooked as an asset for several decades and that more should be done to upgrade these programs and match them to today's job market. And many colleges have developed programs to acknowledge that the adjustment from struggling schools in poor neighborhoods can be difficult for some freshmen.
But he's dancing around these issues in big clumsy clown shoes. His comments, at least as reported here, smack of paternalism laced with backwards racial attitudes from the 1950s, the idea that pushing "minorities" -- really? -- to succeed is a waste of time and money.
It's telling that Eichelberger also thinks that Pennsylvania has too many public universities -- without acknowledging that maybe enrollment has dropped because the state has the highest public college tuitions in the nation -- and that he's helpfully suggested two schools that could be axed. One of them is Cheyney University, the historically black university west of Philadelphia.
What is the deal with this guy?
Dig deeper and you'll see that Eichelberger's entire agenda as chairman of the Senate Education Committee is centered around one thing which doesn't have a lot to do with the quality of classroom education: Crushing teacher unions. His signature bills aim to weaken the union by eliminating paycheck deduction of dues and he is also pushing to end state requirements on sick and bereavement days that teachers can receive.
Even in his conservative district, some citizens at the town hall were flabbergasted.
“I’m hearing a lot of conversation about sick days and union dues, but these aren’t the things that actually make a difference for the kids or for the outcome in the workforce,” said constituent Adam Oldham, a guidance counselor from East Pennsboro School District.“These things sound like taxes on the employees rather than ways to actually improve the schools..."
I called Sen. Eichelberger's office this afternoon, hoping he could expand on his views on "inner city" minorities, college, and vocational education -- but on the Presidents' Day holiday we weren't able to connect. If I hear from the senator, I'll update this post or write a new one. You know, it's a cliche to say that I'd like to invite Sen. Eichelberger to see Philadelphia's schools first-hand, not just the problems but the thousands of kids who do well -- in the classroom, in college, and out in the world -- despite the obstacles.
UPDATE: You can can read a response from Eichelberger and more reaction in this story.
But frankly he seems like a lost cause. There's a lot of political energy in the streets these days, and locally a lot of it originates in suburbs with Republican state legislators who helped put Eichelberger in this position of influence. If you can't change minds, maybe it's time to change the legislature over the next couple of elections.