Rep. John McGinnis Matthew Nicol

State Rep. John McGinnis, R-Altoona, talks with St. Francis University senior Matthew Nichol, of Pittsburgh, after a forum on rural schools on Friday, October 19, 2018, at St. Francis University.

LORETTO – Many barriers to education in rural areas could be reduced through reorganizing school districts and using technology to bring specialized classes, state legislators said Friday at St. Francis University. 

“We need to find a way to consolidate,” said Rep. Tommy Sankey, R-Osceola Mills. “We need to regionalize, but we can’t be putting 5-year-olds on a bus for two hours.”

State Sen. John Eichelberger, R-Duncansville, said he visited a school with 28 students in the graduating class.

“What kind of opportunities can we have in a school where you have 28 kids in the senior class?” Eichelberger rhetorically asked the audience in DiSepio Institute for Rural Health and Wellness at St. Francis. 

“Every child in Pennsylvania should have access to every language that’s out there,” Eichelberger said. “They should have access to every specialized course. We shouldn’t have to have teachers on staff teaching that. It can be regional; it can be online.”

Eichelberger blamed “teachers’ unions” for standing in the way of such initiatives.

“These unions would like to have their teachers in the classrooms to teach these classes,” he said, noting he has discussed the problem with school districts and intermediate units. 

In a phone interview later Friday, Pennsylvania State Education Association Chris Lilienthal said the union has members who are teaching online classes through cyber charter schools. 

“The PSEA certainly isn’t opposed to distance learning,” Lilienthal said, adding that the union is not aware of any legislation proposed by Eichelberger that would expand online classes.

“It is hard to comment on a proposal when it is not an actual proposal,” he said. 

Rep. Judith Ward, R-Hollidaysburg, said the Legislature is working to remove barriers faced by rural schools to assure that all children have access to a quality education. 

“Education is the great equalizer,” Ward said at the St Francis forum. “We need to make it more of an equalized playing field in rural Pennsylvania.”

Recruiting quality teachers to rural schools remains a challenge, said Rep. John McGinnis, R-Altoona. But it’s also difficult for urban school districts. 

All school boards should be looking for teachers dedicated to their profession, he said. 

“Make sure when we hire someone, they are committed to the school for the long term,” McGinnis said, noting a school district where there have been five superintendents in recent years. 

“That’s not a commitment. That is career development,” he said. 

The four Republican legislators differed on the subject of employment-directed education. McGinnis, a former Penn State professor, said education should be its own reward. 

“Education is the ultimate individual experience,” McGinnis said. “Education that is important is not technology. It is not job training.”

Introducing students to the great philosophers and greats of history provide the basis of education, he said. 

“They speak to everybody,” McGinnis said. “Education is having people learn to think for themselves.”

Job skills can be taught by employers, he added. 

Sankey stressed the importance of options in education. 

“The generic answer is: One size doesn’t fit all,” Sankey said, adding that traditional colleges and graduate schools are not always the ultimate goals.

“If a young man wants to work on cars, let’s teach him to work on cars,” Sankey said. “And let’s teach him to do his own books and run his business.”

Friday’s forum was organized through Rural Education Alliance for Leadership, a partnership of St. Francis, Appalachia Intermediate Unit 8, Pennsylvania Leadership Development Center, Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic High School and Penn Cambria School District.

Randy Griffith is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 532-5057. Follow him on Twitter @PhotoGriffer57.