Before he became the great liberator, Sen. Thaddeus Stevens was, as state representative, the author of the first Pennsylvania legislation to provide public funds to ensure that all children, no matter how rich or poor, could secure a good education.
Stevens’s support for universal education grew out of the same fundamental commitment to equality that animated his opposition to slavery. Stevens, like Abraham Lincoln, believed that America must give everyone the opportunity to use their talents to the best of their ability.
Slavery blocked this opportunity, and so he opposed it. Lack of access to education blocked opportunity for every child of the working class, and so he supported universal education.
Sadly, Republicans no longer seem to support that ideal.
Four years ago, the Republican chair of the Senate Education Committee, John Eichelberger, said that “inner city” education programs were “pushing” students toward college and they’re dropping out. They fall back and don’t succeed, whereas if there was a less-intensive track, they would.”
Then in December, John Krill, lawyer for Republican Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, asked, “What use would a carpenter have for biology? … What use would someone on the McDonald’s career track have for Algebra 1?” He continued, “Lest we forget the Commonwealth has many needs. There’s a need for retail workers, for people who know how to flip a pizza crust.”
And in an op-ed just two weeks ago, Republican senator and candidate for governor Doug Mastriano wrote, “With the rise in broken homes in certain communities, more students are coming to school unprepared to learn. No amount of money is going to allow these schools to do what they cannot: fill in for disengaged or absent parents.”
These three statements — and more like them over the years — show how far Republicans in Harrisburg have come from their commitment to providing opportunity for all: rich and poor, Black, brown and white, everywhere in the state. And these statements are reflected in Republican resistance to equitable state education funding in the General Assembly.
A recent Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center study shows that, when evaluated by official state standards, only 16% of Pennsylvania school districts are funded adequately. The average gap between the funding needed to provide an adequate education and what is actually provided is 10 times greater for the quarter of school districts with the highest poverty rates than for the quarter of school districts with the lowest poverty rates. And it is more than 3 times greater for the quarter of school districts with the highest share of Black or Hispanic students compared to the quarter of school districts with the lowest share.
Instead of supporting equality of opportunity, Republicans believe that some of us are destined to work at McDonald’s, while others are destined to become doctors. Some of us are destined to be a Walmart clerk or a pizza maker, while others are destined to be lawyers. Where we start, they think, determines where we end up.
It’s true that kids who grow up in poor communities or disordered homes have more trouble taking advantage of educational opportunities. But in America, we don’t give up on whole communities because some people in them have problems.
Talented young people with a single parent rise up out of poverty every day. A society that really believes in equality of opportunity would not abandon children who grow up in difficult circumstances but instead offer a more intensive education to make up for that handicap.
Republicans, however, seem to doubt that kids who grow up poor — and kids who are Black or brown — have the same natural abilities as white kids from the suburbs. This idea is wrong and offensive; it makes our state and country weaker.
Look at the Nobel Prize winners and heads of corporations in the twentieth century who grew up in poor, often immigrant, families. A far-sighted America gave them a good education. We don’t do that anymore, and we all lose as a result.
Some of our kids will become carpenters and make pizzas and become shop clerks. There is no shame in that — though as technology improves, our need for those jobs will decline. But how many great scientists; brilliant technical innovators; businesspeople; and skilled, compassionate doctors will we lose each year if kids who grow up poor, Black or Hispanic don’t get an equal education?
It’s time for members of both parties in the General Assembly to reaffirm the idea that is central to the American tradition, and that actually did make America great: every child in every community deserves a good education.
Marc Stier is the director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Public Policy Center.