Mayor Kenney on Thursday slammed as "racism" a Pennsylvania state senator's suggestion that inner-city students should not be encouraged to attend college but instead steered toward vo-tech programs.
"It's racism, and it should be called out to be racism," he said in leveling the criticism against Sen. John Eichelberger of Blair County, which includes Altoona. "And you can see what we're up against."
Kenney said he was angered when he read that Eichelberger, a Republican and chairman of the Senate Education Committee, suggested to constituents at a town-hall meeting in his district last week that minority and inner-city public school students should pursue vocational careers rather than being steered to college.
"They're pushing them toward college and they're dropping out," Eichelberger said at the sparsely attended meeting. "They fall back and don't succeed, whereas if there was a less-intensive track, they would."
In an interview this week, the senator said his perspective stemmed in part from a visit to Philadelphia and conversations about the city's schools.
Speaking at a City Hall roundtable on early literacy, Kenney called Eichelberger's comments "ridiculous," and said they showcased the Philadelphia School District's long-standing struggle to get adequate funding from the state.
"That is the basic problem in school funding in Pennsylvania: We go to Harrisburg, hat in hand, to beg for money from those men —those white men — who think our kids can't succeed," said Kenney, who has made education the centerpiece of his administration.
Eichelberger could not be reached for comment Thursday.
He also has said his remarks, which have drawn the ire of some Democratic colleagues, had been taken out of context. Eichelberger said he blamed failing public schools for leaving students ill-prepared for the rigors of college.
"It doesn't matter what the color of their skin is," he said. "It matters that they had 12 years of very poor school."
A 2015 study by the Education Trust, a Washington education advocacy group, found that though more than two-thirds of all four-year public colleges and universities increased graduation rates between 2003 and 2013, there is still a sizable graduation gap between minority and white students, with the latter graduating in higher numbers.
According to statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Education, just under 60 percent of all students attending four-year colleges or universities graduate in six years. When broken down by race and ethnicity over those six years, that picture changes: 63 percent of all white students graduate, compared with 41 percent of black students and 53.5 percent of Hispanic students.
Shaun R. Harper, executive director for the Center for the Study of Race and Equality in Education at the University of Pennsylvania, said that though some minority students have comparatively lower graduation rates, challenging them less "is not the answer." Often, he noted, minority students are forced to leave college before graduating because they cannot afford it.
"Only a fool would think that is a solution," Harper said of Eichelberger's comments, adding: "It is actually a form of racism to argue that we should just expect less of people of color – that we shouldn't challenge them or have the same level of expectations that we have for suburban youth, which is code for 'white.'"
Farah Jimenez, a Republican School Reform Commission member nominated by former Gov. Tom Corbett, echoed the sentiment: "The answer is not to dumb it down," said Jimenez. "There are no jobs if we dumb things down. What's their future then?"
She said that while she wasn't happy with Eichelberger's comment, she wasn't surprised.
"It's not an uncommon narrative, because urban students' talents are often hidden and unseen," said Jimenez, who is CEO of the Philadelphia Education Fund. "It's not that they don't have the aptitude, but it's because they don't always have people in their corner pushing them forward."
Unlike some others in city education circles, Jimenez said she was not offended by the senator's comments. "It gives us an opportunity to have this conversation," she said.