By Michael Yoder
More than 100 turned out last week for the inaugural meeting of a new community group seeking transgender student rights in school, increased access to early childhood education and funding equity among school districts in the county.
The Public Education Advocates of Lancaster County (PEAL), made up of several community groups like the United Way of Lancaster County, Community Action Partnership and Common Sense 2.0, YWCA Lancaster and Power Interfaith, met for more than two hours Thursday night at St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Neffsville. The group discussed everything from racial issues and the political makeup of school boards in Lancaster County to the banning of transgender athletes and certain books in schools.
Representatives from PEAL said the group was started with four guiding principles: supporting public schools and public education; increasing “adequacy and equity” of resources in education; highlighting the importance of early childhood care, and “removing barriers and ensuring affirming spaces” for “marginalized or disadvantaged” students in the county.
Kevin Ressler, president and CEO of the United Way of Lancaster County, said PEAL grew out of a need to bring together different parent and community groups working on school issues while having similar goals to accomplish.
“The purpose of this event is to make a better community, for the education of our community,” Ressler said. “Whether you agree or disagree with things you’ve read or things you hear, it is your responsibility as a community member to be willing to listen, and to grow, and to contribute in positive and helpful ways for us all to be able to have a safer, more effective educational environment for the children in this community.”
The event featured four different breakout sessions on different topics in education. Representatives from Community Action Partnership and the United Way spoke about emphasizing under-five year old education and why it’s “vital for future success.”
Susan Spicka, executive director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania, an advocacy group pushing elected officials to “adopt and implement a pro-public education agenda,” presented on how taxpayer money can fund private education. Spicka spoke about how groups can “fight back” against legislators looking to create laws on tax credits and education savings accounts for private schools.
Community members from the Hempfield School District presented on recent actions by the school board, including the passage last month of Policy 123.1, which education law experts said may be the first of its kind to be approved by a Pennsylvania school board restricting student athletes in the district to participate with sports teams that are the same as their birth sex. The policy effectively keeps male students identifying as transgender from playing on female teams.
Hempfield School Board President Grant Keener and School Board member Jim Maurer were in attendance at the breakout session as audience members asked them about some of the actions of the board. Also in attendance was Parker Webb, president of Lititz Chooses Love, who was thanked for being “instrumental” in supporting Hempfield residents in opposition to Policy 123.1. Webb was present at several of the protests outside the Hempfield School Board meetings leading up to the July 12 vote.
Kelly Fuddy, a parent in the Elizabethtown Area School District and the secretary to Common Sense 2.0, a local group formed in 2021 with a mission statement of ensuring “school policies come from a place of inclusiveness and understanding,” spoke about the group’s actions in Elizabethtown in another breakout session. Fuddy said the group initially started to coalesce around discussions about the protests and riots after the death of George Floyd.
Fuddy, one of the organizers of PEAL, said Common Sense 2.0 has focused on three Elizabethtown School Board members who all attend the same “Christian nationalist church” and were elected last year to the board. They have also turned their attention to attempts to “ban” books in the school district, including the novel “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” by Jesse Andrews, which some parents have objected to because of obscenities and sexual content in the book.
“It’s so important that we all come from the perspective of knowing that you can change your mind about something, and you should change your mind about something,” Fuddy said. “That’s what learning is – know better, and you do better. So, we want to try to create an environment where it’s okay to come where you are, to learn from where you are and go from there.”
Members of PEAL said the group plans on having discussions on “hot-button issues” like critical race theory, the “importance of historically equitable, diverse and inclusive curriculums in our schools” and transgender policies.
The group said it intends to remain nonpartisan to lower political tensions, meeting two to four times a year.
“We’re in a very unhealthy partisan environment,” Ressler said. “I don’t care what side of the aisle you are on. Partisan segregation and isolation from one another is never healthy. So, recognize that many of us may not have relationships that cross these various boundaries. But you do have relationships with people who are different than you, think differently, from you, believe differently from you. And they need to be in the same conversations that you’re in, whether it’s here, or whether it’s somewhere else.”
Staff writer Michael Yoder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @YoderReports on Twitter.