By Dick Miller
WE.CONNECT.DOTS: Political pundits like Jim Hightower claim President Trump is “all-out to destroy” America’s public schools.
The Donald fired his opening salvo when he appointed right-wing ideologue and billionaire Amway heiress Betsy DeVos as his Secretary of Education.
Republicans say education is a state’s rights concern. Normally, this means the Feds should keep hands off. That only applies, however, if Republicans control that state’s government.
The Federal Government is not as powerful in education. Thus, DeVos will need troops on the ground.
In Pennsylvania, her “go-to” obstructionist to public education appears to be Republican State Senator John Eichelberger, outspoken chair of the Senate Education Committee.
Eichelberger holds influence on state funding that Gov. Wolf will be authorized to spend on public education. He injects his creed in regulations and against teachers’ unions.
Eichelberger and DeVos never met a charter school they didn’t like.
They contend public education is expensive and unproductive.
DeVos was confirmed as President Trump’s education chief in the closest vote in the history of cabinet appointees.
Born to a moneyed family, she married into the Amway fortune. A top GOP political operative based in Michigan, she plunked $60,000 in Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey’s re-election effort.
Eichelberger is under fire for his opinion on inner-city (mostly Black) Philadelphia high school students struggling to succeed. His advice: these students should be channeled into vocational education because they do not do well at college.
Public education is a victim of its own shortcomings. Teachers’ unions are among the most powerful political entities. Overly protective of bad teachers, they resist compromise.
State laws now require charter schools to be non-profits. Private interests, however, extract healthy incomes through management contracts. Charters pay less to their non-union teachers.
Thanks to out-of-touch guidance counselors at high schools and former Gov. Tom Corbett’s choke hold on education funding, there is a large surplus of wanna-be teachers.
Charter schools rarely have bricks-and-mortar or pension debts that rival public schools face. Charter school reimbursements remain healthy despite this lower cost. The difference on charter school balance sheets is profit, going into the pockets of its managers. Naturally, these operatives write campaign checks to those who vote their way.
This Republican-directed privatization of education remains lucrative even though PA charter schools get less money per pupil than some states. Of the 1.7 million kids classified as PA state education students, about ten percent are enrolled in charter schools.
Increasingly, Democrats are beginning to see value in charter schools. Specifically, the feature of choice seems to be the only way public education systems are forced to be more responsive.
A few states, under Republican control, have adopted a more direct voucher plan. In 2011, such a program passed the state Senate but died in the House. Both Chambers have much larger GOP margins now. The House would need just a few Democrats beholden to parochial school interests to overcome an expected gubernatorial veto.
Eichelberger is no lightweight and will be an effective operative for DeVos in Pennsylvania. He is one of the most powerful members of a Senate caucus that casts a veto-smashing 34-16 margin in the upper chamber.
Owner of an insurance agency in Altoona, Eichelberger was twice elected Blair County Commissioner. The infamous public official pay grab in 2005 sparked his 2006 Senate campaign.
Senate President Pro Tem Robert Jubelirer was a rival in Blair County politics. Jubelirer was not only a leader in the pay grab, but the moderate Republican also was pro-choice.
Eichelberger got help from Toomey (then a Congressman) and former Lt. Gov. Bill Scranton. Strong efforts by Arnold McClure as a third candidate in the GOP primary also hurt Jubelirer. Eichelberger won 44% to 36% to 20%.
Now in his third term as 30th District state senator, Eichelberger helped oust fellow Senator Dominic Pileggi, of Chester County, from the majority leader post in early 2015. Both current Senate Pro Tem Joseph Scarnati and majority leader Jacob Corman support Eichelberger.
Bottom Line: Eichelberger’s mission is simple. Continue to starve public education and, in particular, Philadelphia and Erie school districts which have been underfunded for years.
Channel as much education funding into charter schools as possible at the direction of Secretary DeVos.
Republicans want you to believe they are for states’ rights and less Federal interference. In education, this will not be the mantra until private interests have taken over public education and the teachers’ unions have been crushed.
DeVos will not be the only Trump power digging into Pennsylvania public education. In Wisconsin, under Obama, the Justice Department has already become a schoolyard bully. Philadelphia is ripe for a similar Federal assault.
Elections have consequences.