Senator looks to oust Eichelberger as chairman

Philadelphia’s Hughes outraged by Blair senator’s take on ‘inner city’ programs

An effort may be brewing in Harrisburg to remove Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., R-Blair, from his new position as education committee chairman because of comments he made during a town hall meeting

Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, said Eichel-berger displayed ignorance and bias with regard to inner-city education.

At the town hall meeting in Carlisle, the Carlisle Sentinel quoted Eichelberger for a Feb. 16 story.

“He (Eichelberger) 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,” the Sentinel reported.

The story included a direct quote from Eichelberger: “They’re pushing them toward college and they’re dropping out. They fall back and don’t succeed, whereas if there was a less intensive track, they would.”

Hughes was outraged by Eichelberger’s comments, and he told the Mirror on Wednesday that he believes there is enough support to successfully remove Eichelberger as education committee chairman.

“We are looking internally at what our actions are. What’s clear to me is there are several areas of education policy that he is deficient in — especially around equity of funding, which, all things considered, in education policy is the most important thing that the committee has to address,” Hughes said.

Eichelberger said the news story took his comments out of context.

“Vince is the most flamboyant member of the Senate. He misunderstood the poorly-written paragraph about setting a lower standard and overreacted. I’m not upset,” Eichelberger wrote in an email to the Mirror.

Hughes said the blame Eichelberger placed on the media for misquoting him was bizarre and “Trump-esque.”

Eichelberger blogged on Tuesday: “Well, I have finally been the victim of a fake news story. The (Carlisle) Sentinel did a convoluted and incomplete story about my town hall meeting last week, the Democrats decided to spin it even further, and other liberal media outlets followed along.”

Hughes doesn’t buy Eichelberger’s claim that he was misquoted.

“I think he (Eichelberger) represents a bias. He doesn’t understand the depth of the challenges black and brown students face financially in Pennsylvania,” Hughes said.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education doesn’t have statistics that support or refute Eichelberger’s comments in the Sentinel about the college drop-out rate of inner-city students.

“However there is research that indicates that dropping out is more often driven by financial challenges rather than academic performance,” according to Nicole Reigelman, department press secretary.

The notion that the problem is academic and solved by steering kids to vocational technical school in high school is ignorant of the issues facing inner-city families, Hughes said.

Hughes said black families often don’t have the financial means to send their children to college. They build up a fund through churches and extended family, but support dries up by sophomore year because of economic challenges.

He said in addition to families’ struggles to afford college after freshman year, inner-city school districts that are tasked to prepare children for college are woefully underfunded, Hughes said.

“There are fundamental issues that can’t be ignored. I think Eichelberger crossed the line,” he said.

In interviews with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and PennLive, Eichelberger claimed the Sentinel took his comments from the town hall meeting out of context.

“He said he does believe the same level of academic expectations can’t be applied to every student ‘but it isn’t because their skin is a different color. It’s because they didn’t have the proper academic credentials coming out of a bad school,'” The Patriot news reported.

The Post-Gazette quoted him as saying “It doesn’t matter what the color of their skin is. It matters that they had 12 years of very poor school.”

But in context with his original town hall comment, how was more vocational-technical education an answer to students short-changed by “bad” or “poor” schools?

“The (Sentinel) story was incorrect,” Eichelberger responded in an email. “They took quotes from different segments of the town hall and blended them into their story line. I spoke about getting the high school students better guidance counseling so that they could navigate a university track that meets their needs. If they enter an environment that is too difficult, they fail or drop out.”

In a statement, Eichelberger took pains to emphasize that vocational-technical school results in family sustaining wages and is unfairly stigmatized. At the same time, asked if he may have perpetuated that stigma by describing it as a “less intensive track,” Eichelberger changed his wording in an email response.

“These are challenging programs that often lead to good jobs and should be an integral part of the education system,” he wrote. “I am a proponent of vocational education opportunities for all students. This specialty area of education has not been given fair treatment in many instances. I have established a special subcommittee of the Education Committee to address the needs of these programs across the state.”

By many, Eichelberger’s comments from the town hall meeting about vocational-technical education weren’t seen as supporting student choice, but pigeonholing them.

Former U.S. Assistant Education Secretary Diane Ravitch wrote about Eichelberger in her blog.

“Eichelberger … took the occasion to complain about ‘inner city’ education programs that were trying to get minority students into colleges where they just failed anyway, so let’s just put them in a nice vocational program instead and be done with it. Yes, that’s right. In 2017, an elected state senator is suggesting that there’s no point in trying to get black and brown kids to succeed in college, because you know how Those People are,” she wrote. “Eichelberger must have majored in Neanderthal Studies.”

Eichelberger said Ravitch’s comments about him were unfortunate.

“It’s unfortunate that someone would consider anyone who has the best interests of children as an enemy of any part of our education system,” he wrote.

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.