Sen. Ryan Aument wins GOP primary

State Sen. Ryan Aument, a Republican from West Hempfield Township, thanks his supporters after securing the GOP nomination for the 36th State Senate District during a celebration at Rock Lititz on May 17, 2022. Aument proposed legislation that created the Pennsylvania Commission on Education & Economic Competitiveness.


State Sen. Ryan Aument, of West Hempfield Township, introduced the legislation that created the Pennsylvania Commission on Education & Economic Competitiveness. The commission’s aim, according to Aument’s website, is to “create a shared long-term vision to redesign Pennsylvania’s education system.” The commission will include a bipartisan mix of lawmakers, the state secretaries of Education and Labor & Industry and the chairs and minority chairs of the state Legislature’s Education and Labor & Industry committees. A subcommittee of 34 stakeholders will spearhead analysis and research. In a column published March 22 in LNP | LancasterOnline, Aument asserted that “Pennsylvania’s school system is no longer preparing students for the jobs of today, much less the jobs of tomorrow.”

We half-expect the Pennsylvania Legislature to someday create a Commission to Study the Effectiveness of Commissions.

In 2014, the Legislature voted to form the Basic Education Funding Commission in an attempt to remedy inequitable school funding in the commonwealth. The bipartisan commission collected the input of more than 110 school leaders, academics, business and nonprofit leaders and parents in 15 hearings across the state. And it created a basic education funding formula that was enacted in 2016 — a formula that, to this day, still hasn’t been fully implemented, meaning that some school districts continue to be so seriously underfunded that, as a recent landmark Commonwealth Court ruling held, some students’ constitutional rights are being violated.

We hope the Commission on Education & Economic Competitiveness delivers not only positive reforms, but an expeditious timeline for implementing them.

We have some concerns, because there seems to be a disconnect between Aument’s stated concern for public education and some of his policy priorities.

Aument has fueled some of the culture wars besetting education by indulging parental fears about sexually explicit content in school curriculum and materials — fears that have led to book bans, demoralized educators and heated arguments at school board meetings. He has championed state funding for private education. And his office disseminated his recent column with the headline “We Shouldn’t Fund a Broken Education System,” raising the specter that equitable school funding might never become a reality in Pennsylvania.

In a column in last Sunday’s Perspective section, former Hempfield School District Superintendent Brenda Smoker took issue with Aument’s characterization of Pennsylvania’s school system as “failing.”

“I would beg to differ, based on the thousands of students who graduate from Lancaster County high schools every year and go on to successful careers,” Smoker wrote.

We second her objection. Despite uneven funding, Lancaster County schools continue to be a draw for people moving into our region because of their excellence.

Smoker continued: “I also realize that Lancaster County is not emblematic of the entire state and there is great merit in taking a hard look at a system that has been in place for years.”

The retired superintendent noted that our “current school calendar is based on an agrarian economy that required students to be out of school over the summer months so they could work on family farms. The daily schedule of spending so many minutes on a particular subject before moving on to the next was based on the assembly line from the industrial age. Forcing children into a schedule where all are expected to learn at the same rate and time is flawed.”

Smoker expressed hope that the commission members will “keep their political biases and personal agendas in check as they approach this important work. Anything less will result in less than meaningful outcomes.”

We will be more direct: The recommendations produced by the commission must not be a partisan political wish list.

Importantly, Smoker also encouraged “the commission members to remember that students do not learn when they are hungry, are worried about their safety or have other unmet basic needs. No alteration in structure will change that.”

Regular readers of this Perspective section’s Generation Z(eal) page, which features the opinion writing of Lancaster County students, will have some sense of those unmet needs — among them the pressing need for safety from the looming threat of gun violence in their schools and the need for more resources to address students’ mental health.

We hope the commission engages with students, and with experienced educators like Smoker and Barbara S. Stengel, a Vanderbilt University professor emerita of the practice of education who resides in Lancaster.

In her column last Sunday, Stengel wrote that “Aument’s proposal is well-timed but focuses on precisely the wrong concern. Educating to meet current commercial needs won’t press us toward the kind of schooling that enables intelligent interaction with others and the environment, and the retooling we may need for jobs we don’t yet imagine.”

Stengel is right: Aument’s commission seems aimed at meeting the needs of current employers, rather than the needs of students. His emphasis seems to be on workforce readiness and competing in a global economy, and not on preparing young people to lead fulfilling lives.

As Stengel put it, “young folks have to be able to ‘read’ the world and each other, come to know themselves well and truly, and be able to figure out how their talents can make their world better.” And they need to be given the opportunity, as individuals and in groups, to practice responding to challenges.

“Our pandemic experience taught us that standardization is problematic and that socio-emotional and sociopsychological well-being are critically important if youngsters are to grow into healthy relationships, personal happiness, and civic and vocational competence,” Stengel wrote.

She noted that “we can change how we educate our kids so that they will grow up to think well, to feel richly, and to be responsible citizens ... and yes, to take on the jobs that we don’t know enough about now but will need to fill in the decades to come.”

She proposes breaking “the one-teacher, one-classroom” model and embedding specialists (in counseling, special needs and trauma, for example) in teams led by teachers. The members of these teacher-led teams could “plan together and then flexibly divide and differentiate students’ instruction,” Stengel wrote.

There would be fewer disruptions to learning because those teams “would have the personnel to shift staff (who already have relationships with students) and the autonomy to reshape the day’s learning agenda productively.”

These strategies, Stengel noted, “not only would help to address Pennsylvania’s worsening teacher shortage but would work to better meet students’ needs.”

The italics are ours. Public schools are our best hope for educating most Pennsylvania students. The Commission on Education & Economic Competitiveness should focus on ensuring that public schools are effectively meeting students’ needs, first and foremost.

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