Local residents issued a number of critiques to state Sen. John Eichelberger (R-30th District) during a town hall meeting last week, with the state GOP’s approach to education taking the bulk of the fire.
Eichelberger, who represents the western portion of Cumberland County as well as Blair, Huntingdon, Franklin and Fulton counties, is one of the Senate’s most prolific conservative legislators, and was recently named chair of the Education Committee.
Residents issued Eichelberger with sharp rebukes Monday in West Pennsboro Township for having prioritized anti-union legislation and an inquiry into downsizing the state’s higher education system instead of seeking to restore funding or reform the standardized testing system, as many teachers would prefer.
“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,” Oldham said.
Eichelberger defended his approach as “putting the kids first.” In many cases, however, this translated into policies that would penalize teachers, particularly union members, whom Eichelberger felt were taking advantage of the system.
“We have people in the system who are putting their needs before the students,” Eichelberger said, regarding teacher compensation and union contracts.
Eichelberger is the primary sponsor of Senate Bill 166, which passed the Senate last week. The bill bars public-sector unions from collecting dues via paycheck deductions to fund anything deemed a “political activity.” Unions would be barred from using any payroll contributions to lobby the Legislature on behalf of their members.
In response to a question, Eichelberger described SB 166 as “a lead-in to Right to Work,” meaning legislation mandating that employees be allowed to opt out of union membership while still receiving union benefits, obviating the existence of unions themselves.
Eichelberger is also the primary sponsor of Senate Bill 229, which would remove from the state’s public school code the provision that teachers must be provided with a minimum amount of sick and bereavement leave, as well as qualifying for a continuing-education sabbatical after 10 years’ service.
These conditions should be negotiated in teachers’ collective bargaining agreements with their school boards, not enshrined in state law, Eichelberger said.
“I’m not saying you shouldn’t get sick time or bereavement, but it’s something that can be put on the table to give you more flexibility in negotiating contracts,” Eichelberger said. “It’s something the school boards have asked us for.”
But later in Monday’s meeting, Eichelberger indicated that his interest was not in easier bargaining, but in taking away benefits he didn’t feel teachers deserved.
“We’re talking about sick days for people who only work 8½ months. It’s ridiculous,” Eichelberger said, a comment that received an audible, collective groan from audience members.
“I’d like to see sick days provided to all our workers. Taking them away from teachers doesn’t make anything better,” constituent Charlene D’Amore said.
Eichelberger also touched on the ongoing effort by legislators to pare down the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, which consists of 14 colleges established by fiat from the state, and which receive state funding.
“We’re going to do our own study and make some decisions,” Eichelberger said, adding he believed that the closing of two or three PASSHE schools was needed. Clarion and Cheney universities are likely on the chopping block, he said.
“In the not too distant past, we didn’t’ have the community college presence that we do,” Eichelberger said. “We don’t’ need these universities all over the state. … There are a lot less kids than there used to be.”
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Over the past 10 years, PASSHE enrollment has dropped 5.1 percent, from 110,428 students enrolled in fall 2007 to 104,779 students in fall 2016, according to PASSHE records.
But over this same time, PASSHE funding has dropped dramatically. Support from the state for the 2007-2008 school year was $4,776 per student. Last school year, it had dropped to $4,052 per student — a decline of 26 percent, factoring in inflation.
This has forced PASSHE schools to raise tuition, from $5,177 in 2007-2008 to $7,238 for the current school year, an increase of 21 percent in the cost of attendance, adjusting for inflation.
When pressed by constituents if he saw the correlation between state cuts, rising tuition and declining attendance, Eichelberger said he “didn’t think that was the case.”
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.”
Eichelberger also said there is the need to come up with more effective teacher evaluation rubrics that would allow schools to get rid of poor teachers, not just the least-senior teachers. Senate Bill 228 would further amend the state’s school code to allow schools to furlough teachers for “economic reasons” and bypass the last-in-first-out system in doing so.
Currently, schools can cut back staff only in accordance with declines in student enrollment, or if a certain subject area is formally removed from the curriculum.
“A lot of schools don’t have the revenue anymore,” Eichelberger said. “We have to close these schools down. It’s a sound business decision.”
The notion that schooling should be dependent on the district’s revenue capacity, and not pupil demand, ruffled feathers.
“The mentality is that we need to save money regardless of student demand,” Oldham said. “It seems like you’re just coming up with new reasons for districts to eliminate positions without taking students into account.”
The topic of school taxes also received considerable attention, particularly the push by GOP legislators to eliminate individual school district property taxes and replace the funding with increased state-collected sales and income tax.
The proposal would help insulate homeowners from tax hikes caused by growing property values. But it would shift the tax burden onto workers and consumers, spiking income tax from the current 3.09 to 4.95 percent, and raising sales tax from 6 to 7 percent as well as adding goods and services – including all food and hygiene products, and medical care – to the list of taxed items.
Eichelberger defended the proposal by citing its popularity in polls.
“This is a very popular idea. It polls around 80 percent in favor,” he said.
But constituents questioned whether the polls accurately portrayed the proposal. The only guaranteed tax relief under the GOP plan is to property owners who do not report any income or make any purchases inside Pennsylvania – namely, commercial owners.
“Doesn’t this just let all the warehouses around here off the hook?” asked resident Barbara Plocki. “Cumberland Valley School District gets most of its funding from commercial property values. Isn’t this just a big corporate tax break?”