The question of whether legislation to spur Holocaust education in Pennsylvania should include a mandate requiring schools to teach the subject has sparked a debate among those advocating for such a curriculum.
The debate intensified last week with legislative action in Harrisburg that some proponents of a mandate hailed but others worried would doom a new bid for Holocaust education altogether.
State Rep. Brendan Boyle, a Democrat from Northeast Philadelphia, proposed an amendment to a bill in June to require Holocaust and genocide education as part of the public schools’ curriculum for grades six through 12. That measure was defeated in the House.
State Rep. Paul Clymer, a Republican from Bucks County, introduced another measure, which passed the House in May, calling for the state Department of Education to provide teachers with the training and educational materials needed for Holocaust education. That bill did not include a mandate but did call for funding for the teacher training.
When that legislation went to the Senate for consideration, Jewish communal professionals pushed for it to pass as is. But other activists lobbied to include an amendment that would mandate the education. State Sen. John Rafferty Jr., a Republican from Montgomery County, introduced such an amendment last week, and the bill unanimously passed the Senate appropriations committee. The Senate is expected to vote on the measure when it returns from recess in January.
While stakeholders on all sides predict that the bill could pass the Senate, some worry that the legislation would collapse if returned to the House, in part because the state, according to the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition’s research, has never passed such a course curriculum mandate. They argue that it would be better to pass legislation that would enable schools to receive Holocaust education funding beginning in 2015, even if it does not include a mandate, rather than see the legislation stall. The state had provided funding for Holocaust education until 2008.
“I can’t think of anyone who objects to the Holocaust being taught,” said Robin Schatz, director of government affairs for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, of the legislators. “But I’m not too sure that including a mandate is going to get that accomplished.”
Advocates could instead lobby the state Board of Education to increase the number of schools that educate about the Holocaust, Schatz said.
But Rhonda Fink-Whitman, the producer of a video that went viral on YouTube showing a lack of Holocaust knowledge among college students at campuses around Philadelphia, said that without the mandate, the legislation would be a “nothing bill.”
Chuck Feldman, president of the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center at the Klein JCC, said he doesn’t “share the pessimism” about the bill with the mandate passing the House, in part, because Boyle’s earlier legislation only failed by a 99 to 99 vote, missing by one.
“I think it’s obvious that Rhonda’s video was instrumental in exposing the level of ignorance that our bright young people have, and now we have an opportunity to rectify that situation,” he said.
Clymer, who introduced the bill, said he did not include the mandate because schools “feel that their teachers are under enough mandates already.
“My position was that if after several years we went with my bill and were not seeing the Holocaust put in the proper perspective within the education process, then we mandate it.”