In a major change from its earlier stance, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia has voiced its support for legislation mandating Holocaust and genocide education in Pennsylvania public schools.
The organization had previously supported legislation that provides public schools with funding for such a curriculum, but did not get behind an amended bill that mandates it be taught to students in grades six through 12 because, officials said, the state has never passed such a course curriculum mandate and they did not think it had a chance of being signed into law.
Legislation without a mandate would still enable schools to receive funding, and advocates for Holocaust education could instead lobby the Pennsylvania Department of Education to increase the number of schools that educate about the Holocaust, said Robin Schatz, director of government affairs for the Federation, in December.
But Federation president-elect Bud Newman wrote in an email Jan. 29 that making such a curriculum voluntary rather than mandatory "is unacceptable to us."
"Teaching about the Holocaust and other genocides is already 'voluntary' and has landed us in the current sorry state of affairs: one where students are graduating without the faintest understanding of these subjects," stated Newman.
Officials have said the legislation, which was introduced in the House and was amended in the Senate, could pass in the Senate but would not be approved if returned to the House. In response to the push for a mandate, the House education committee has developed compromise legislation that would:
- Require the Department of Education to develop curricula in consultation with professional Holocaust educators.
- Mandate that in schools teaching about the Holocaust, teachers be trained on the state-developed curricula. This training would be paid for by the state and the teachers would receive continuing education credits for their training. According to officials, this would set a precedent because the Pennsylvania legislature and Department of Education have never mandated and funded training of teachers with credits for their training.
- Require the Department of Education to provide a study after two years on which schools are — and are not — teaching the program and report on what they are teaching.
The Republicans, who have a majority in the House, would not pass such a mandate because historically, such requirements have been left to the Department of Education and the legislators do not want to impose an unfunded mandate on "school districts that are struggling to recover" from recent budget crises, said party spokesman Steve Miskin. The Department of Education and the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, have also both said they do not support including a mandate in the legislation.
"Given the unprecedented financial challenges and academic requirements currently facing our public schools, we urge the Senate to remove the mandate language and move forward with a bill that provides support to public schools through a model curriculum and training for educators, rather than adding another mandate to the public education system in Pennsylvania," the PSEA said in a statement.
Newman wrote that no additional state spending would be used to implement the curriculum because "there are many organizations willing and able to provide teacher training and model curriculum as needed at no cost."
Rhonda Fink-Whitman, a vocal supporter of including the mandate, led a group of about 25 supporters from Philadelphia to Harrisburg on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Jan. 27, to lobby senators to support the legislation with a mandate.
Meeting with the legislators "really put a face on the issue for them and made a huge difference,” said Fink-Whitman. “When you take a day off work and you take a hit in your pocketbook, that showed them that this is important enough to us to do all that.”
Rep. Brendan Boyle, a Democract from Northeast Philadelphia, disagrees that such a curriculum mandate would not be approved in the House, in part because an amendment he introduced last summer to make the subject mandatory only failed by a single vote in a 99-99 result. He also doesn't accept the argument that approving such a mandate would set a dangerous precedent.
"There's already a mandate to teach Arbor Day, so we can certainly teach about the Holocaust," he said.
The Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, which represents Federations around the state, has not changed its position on the mandate; the organization would ultimately like to see Holocaust and genocide education required for every public student in Pennsylvania but, given the political climate in Harrisburg, it does not think a bill with a mandate would receive House approval, said Matt Handel, chairman of the PJC.
"We have been working on this for five years, and we've understood that while there is broad support for Holocaust education, there has been no precedent for a legislatively set mandate in education and there are many people who do not want to establish a precedent," said Handel.
The PJC and others in the Jewish community say that because they have not pushed for the mandate, they have received charges from some behind the mandate that they do not want to see the Holocaust taught in schools.
"I would say that there are a few voices, not in the professional Jewish world, that attempt to demonize anyone who is not 100 percent with them," said Handel. "We all agree on the ultimate goal, and we can get there civilly."