The future of widespread and comprehensive instruction of the Holocaust in Pennsylvania’s public schools hinges on two words: “may” and “shall.”
Last year, the state House passed H.B. 1424, which said school districts “may” offer instruction in “Holocaust, genocide and other human rights violations” to its students, but required their curricula to comply with State Board of Education regulations if they do. The bill required the Department of Education (DOE) to establish curriculum guidelines and make available free in-service training to all school districts, based upon those guidelines, starting with the 2015-2016 school year.
The DOE would be permitted to work with professional Holocaust educators to develop the curriculum, according to the bill as originally proposed.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Paul Clymer (R-Bucks County), was a compromise between those who want Pennsylvania to become the seventh state in the union to require Holocaust instruction in its schools and those who oppose any further mandates upon the school districts.
But since the bill moved to the Senate, its wording has been amended from “may” offer Holocaust instruction to “shall,” effectively turning the legislation into a mandate.
And that means the bill may be in trouble if the Senate version passes and is sent back to the House.
“It does appear at this point the House Republican leadership will not run the bill if it’s going to be a mandate,” said Rep. Dan Frankel, (D-Squirrel Hill). “They will only support a bill that has the language ‘may’ as opposed to ‘shall.’ That’s where it stands at this point.
“The question is, can we accept a bill that falls short of a mandate, but still establishes a curriculum and trains teachers to teach the curriculum,” he continued. “It certainly seems like a step in the right direction.”
The legislature will be back in session on March 10, but no date for a Senate vote has been set.
If the mandate comes back to the House, then both chambers could work out a compromise, but that would be easier said than done, according to Frankel.
“There is a great deal of friction between Senate Republicans and House Republicans,” he said. “There is institutional pride of authorship. Sometimes, it may be a take it or leave it proposition.”
Hank Butler, director of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, the lobbying arm of the state’s federations, also warned that a mandate cannot pass this legislature.
“After five years of trying to advance this bill and working on it with statewide education stakeholders and legislators, it is the PJC’s position that mandate language will not pass through both chambers,” Butler said in a prepared statement. “The hybrid language negotiated [‘may’] is the only way this bill can pass into law.”
Frankel, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and one of the highest-ranking Jewish lawmakers in the legislature, said he personally could vote for the hybrid language.
“It’s disappointing to me and others that it is not mandated, but it does not appear at this point there is support in the House leadership,” he said.
However, “I think you would see many school districts utilize the curriculum and use the training to incorporate this into their curricula [under the ‘may’ language]. Is that ideal? Maybe not, but it’s better than where we’re at.”
Interest in Holocaust education in Pennsylvania gained momentum late last year when a Philadelphia area author, and daughter of a Holocaust survivor, Rhonda Fink-Whitman, produced a YouTube video that went viral. It showed her interviewing college students from Pennsylvania asking them basic questions, not just about the Holocaust, but about World War II, and they either couldn’t answer or gave embarrassing responses.
By comparison, she also talked to students from New York and New Jersey — two states that do have mandated Holocaust education — and they were able to answer virtually all her questions.
The mandate has strong backers. The “Jewish Exponent” recently reported that the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia has announced its support for the mandate.
“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,” the
“Exponent” reported Philadelphia Federation President–elect Bud Newman as saying.
A group of survivors, Jewish war veterans, teachers and other advocates also rallied in Harrisburg on Jan. 27, pushing the Senate to pass the mandate, the “Exponent” reported.
Locally, though, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh favors the original House bill with some changes.
Among those changes are requiring the DOE to:
• Consult professional Holocaust educators when developing the curriculum;
• Submit curriculum options to the school systems;
• Compile a report after two years on which school systems are or are not teaching the Holocaust, curriculum; and
• Give teachers of the Holocaust continuing education credits for their training in the subject.
That last point would be precedent setting for Pennsylvania, said Gregg Roman, director of the Community Relations Council of the Federation.
In a strongly worded statement, Roman took aim at those who are pushing for a mandate, despite warnings that it cannot pass the House.
“Irresponsible actors masquerading as representatives of Pennsylvania’s Jewish community, which they are not, in certain parts of the state will torpedo the chance to have Holocaust education curricula brought back to Pennsylvania schools if they continue with this charade that could make Holocaust education a partisan issue,” he said.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)