WE'D LIKE TO GIVE State Sen. John Eichelberger the benefit of the doubt for a flap he created while addressing a town-hall meeting with constituents in Carlisle. During a wide-ranging discussion about education issues, Eichelberger turned his attention to Philadelphia and complained that money was being misspent pushing minority students 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."
Some city and state leaders were outraged at the suggestion that minority students should be put on a less ambitious track.
We agree that vocational programs can be a great alternative for some students, and that expanding options for all students is key. In the days that followed Eichelberger's town hall, he attempted to explain that that was what he meant all along. But we're still troubled by his comments, for many reasons.
First, Eichelberger chairs the Senate Education Committee, which is influential in determining education policy and funding. His comments showed a less than sophisticated grasp of the many challenges in education across the state. He said he was not faulting minority students for their abilities but said they are products of failing urban school systems, of "12 years of a very poor school."
The General Assembly, to which Eichelberger was elected in 2006, has been an architect of that failing system with years of inequitable and inadequate funding, including higher education.
We found his original comments unclear and confusing: Was he saying minorities drop out of high school because of too rigorous academics? That contradicts his subsequent explanation that schools are poor. Or did he mean they are dropping out of college because they arrive unprepared? As far as we know, he hasn't done extensive research on why students drop out of college. But he should know that in this state, the cost is likely a big factor. A recent study by Research for Action shows that Pennsylvania has one of the highest costs of higher education in the country. That's a big barrier to entering college and causes higher reliance on debt, which can lead to early dropouts. The state has made this worse by cutting appropriations to higher education by 36 percent since 2008. That means students and their families shoulder a higher tuition burden. Ironically, during the town-hall meeting, Eichelberger argued for closing some state higher-ed schools, which will make it all that more difficult and expensive.
Eichelberger clearly should do more homework on education issues facing this state. (We'll also point out that in Blair County, which he represents, only 18.4 percent have a bachelor's degree. In Philadelphia, it's 24 percent.) We also take issue with a blog post he authored on his website that claimed he was a victim of "fake news" because of how people interpreted his remarks in a straightforward account of the town-hall meeting in the Carlisle Sentinel.
Senator, if people react to your words in a way you don't like, that's not because of "fake news." That's because you weren't articulate enough to say what you mean.
Maybe Eichelberger needs to step down from the education committee and tackle a less challenging role.