State Sen. John Eichelberger, chair of the Senate education committee, has been on the defensive over comments he made last week suggesting that inner city students were being pushed too hard toward college, suggesting that they would be better served by being encouraged to enroll in technical education programs instead.
His remarks earned a rebuke from Democratic state Sen. Vince Hughes and education advocates, among others. Undaunted, Eichelberger went online this week to fire back at his critics and the news media, calling the furor over his words “fake news.”
“I have finally been the victim of a fake news story,” he wrote. “The (Carlisle) Sentinel did a dishonest story about my town hall meeting last week, the Democrats decided to spin it even further, and other liberal media outlets followed along.”
But the senator has dodged press calls since issuing the statement, which appeared on his personal website Tuesday.
In his blog post, he criticizes Hughes and others for misconstruing a statement he made at a town hall meeting about minority students being pressured to take college prep classes over vocational tracks.
“They’re pushing them toward college and they’re dropping out,” Eichelberger said at the event. “They fall back and don’t succeed, whereas if there was a less intensive track, they would.”
Hughes and others credited higher college dropout rates to minority students struggling to raise funds to attend college. He said Eichelberger’s comments raised the “soft bigotry of low expectations” specter of educational systems “tracking” minority students into less rigorous academic programs, and assailed Eichelberger’s record on voting for educational funding.
The Republican specifically took aim at Hughes in his online rebuttal.
“Vince Hughes is calling me a racist because I spoke about the failing schools in Philadelphia, located in minority neighborhoods, not preparing their students for college,” Eichelberger’s post continues. “Their race doesn’t matter to me; what matters is that every child has opportunities to succeed.”
He said his real issue is with urban school districts that prioritize teachers’ unions over students. Eichelberger’s staff and the Republican caucus did not make the senator available for further questioning about these statements or what, exactly, was “fake” about the Sentinel’s initial reporting. That report only briefly alludes to his comment about minority students.
Instead, spokesman Patrick Schurr released a prepared statement and did not respond to further questions.
“While I may not have said it very artfully, I believe every student deserves to be provided with options for their education so they can all succeed, whether that is college or a vocational/trade education program,” according to the statement. “So instead of talking about change and how to help all kids, we have outrage. As an alternative to the bending and twisting of words, I want to have an open and honest discussion about giving our students the best chance to thrive.”
Hughes, for his part, said he stood by his criticism, calling Eichelberger’s “fake news” comment “a deflection.”
“This statement is awfully Trumpian,” Hughes said, in an interview Wednesday. “He attacks the media, which I think is really an attempt to undercut another key principle of democracy.”
He said Eichelberger was simply trying to backpedal from his initial remarks.
“Resources have been eliminated for most of these schools to help get students into higher education, like the counselors that help kids fill out (financial aid) forms. The vo-tech stuff has been wiped out, too, and is only starting to get replenished now,” he said. “But in his mind, he made a decision to say, ‘We need to do the less intensive stuff.’ He didn't say we need to do the higher-ed stuff.”
Hughes said Eichelberger’s actions would speak louder than his words.
“Eichelberger has been a champion of defunding our entire public education system,” Hughes added. “He’ll be given the opportunity to vote for funding for higher-ed programs, STEM programs, STEAM programs, and (vo-tech) programs in public schools. Let’s see what he chooses to do.”