Key Pa. senator under fire for suggesting inner-city students need 'less intensive' program to succeed

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John H. Eichelberger, Jr., Pa. State Senator, Republican-30th District in south-central Pennsylvania.

HARRISBURG – An influential Pennsylvania state senator was under fire Monday for comments suggesting that minority students in “inner city” public schools struggle to succeed in college and should instead be encouraged to pursue vocational careers. 

“They’re pushing them toward college and they’re dropping out,” Sen. John Eichelberger, a Blair County Republican, said during a town hall last week near Carlisle. “They fall back and don’t succeed, whereas if there was a less-intensive track, they would.”

Eichelberger, who chairs the Education Committee, said Monday that his comments, as reported in the Carlisle Sentinel, were taken out of context. He blamed failing urban school systems — not their students’ skin color — for why some graduates falter in college.

“They are because of their academic background,” he said in an interview. "They aren’t because they're black. It doesn’t matter what the color of their skin is. It matters that they had 12 years of very poor school.”

His publicized remarks drew fire from Democratic colleagues, who called them demeaning and alarming for someone with influence over educational policies for the state.

“What I hear is a person saying that students in inner-city communities, some of which I represent, are not deserving of the opportunity to go to college — and that they should be geared toward technical schools,” said Minority Leader Jay Costa of Allegheny County. “I find that offensive.”

Costa said members of his caucus were so concerned that he reached out over the weekend to Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre) to discuss the matter.

Eichelberger’s comments came during a sparsely attended town hall meeting in his district, in which he answered a range of questions about education and the legislature.

Barbara Plocki, a retired high school teacher who attended the meeting, said Eichelberger was “very negative" during the gathering, and that his comments about came up in the context of his having visited public schools in Philadelphia.

“His statistics were rather dire on the dropout rate,” Plocki said Monday. “And his statistics were rather dire on sending kids from inner-city schools to college and not having them succeed. I was disturbed and felt that some of the information he had was not correct.”

Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.) said he “went through the roof” when he read Eichelberger's statements “because this is the gentleman who as the chairman of the Senate Education Committee has the responsibility of guiding education policy in the state.” He said he believed Eichelberger did not deserve to chair the committee because he has exhibited “a complete lack of understanding of education policy.”

“His comments about a less-intensive track — that is extremely telling,” said Hughes, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. “He’s taking about creating a structured academic environment where these kids will never become the doctors or the lawyers, where these kids will never become the scientists ... when we know that these children can succeed and make contributions to society.”

In the interview, Eichelberger said his perspective stemmed from a visit to Philadelphia, conversations about the city’s schools, and a constituent’s description of a book by Thomas Sowell, a conservative economist at Stanford University.

He said he believes all students should be able to follow their ambitions. He noted that tradespeople have told him they perceive a stigma around vocational-technical education, and said vocational training can lead to high-paying jobs.

“Every child, regardless of their background, should be entitled to pursue the pathway that’s best for them,” he said. "That includes college, vocational training or any other career path.”

One of the Senate’s staunchest conservatives, Eichelberger is a school-choice advocate. He said that some people view the school-choice movement — encouraging options such as charter schools and school vouchers — as a civil rights issue.

"The fewest opportunities and the poorest academic experience are in minority neighborhoods,” he said. “Why we tolerate that today, I don't know. I'm not going to tolerate it, and as chairman of the Education Committee, I'm looking at that issue and trying to find ways to help these kids.”