Republicans refuse to take action on bills that would make Pennsylvania schools healthier, safer, and more inclusive.
Like most issues, lawmakers from different sides of the aisle trying to build consensus on education initiatives can be a slow-moving process.
That’s true even in the case of seemingly commonsense legislation regarding school safety and student health. A number of such bills have been sitting dormant in the state House and Senate Education Committees for more than a year in some cases.
As state Rep. Mark Longietti (D-Mercer) suggested recently, a big part of the problem is that common sense is hardly a one-size-fits-all concept in Pennsylvania, even when it comes to an issue that impacts so many like education.
“I walk around my district and people say, ‘Why can’t they do that; that’s just common sense?,’” said Longietti, the Democratic chairperson of the Republican-majority House Education Committee.’ “And I’ll say to people, ‘Understand that people on the other side of the state, what we think is common sense, they think doesn’t make sense. And what they think is common sense, you would object to.’ Common sense isn’t always as common as we think that it is. We’ve got a very diverse state.”
That might explain why many Republicans refuse to take action on various bills that would make Pennsylvania schools healthier, safer, and more inclusive. Some examples include a bill requiring mandatory testing for lead contamination in school buildings, legislation that would require schools to add mental health education, and several bills that would require Pennsylvania schools to offer instruction in African American and Latino, LGBTQ+, and Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) history to students.
Meanwhile, Republicans have proposed anti-critical race theory bills rooted in “all lives matter” rhetoric, bills that aim to double-down on the state’s inequitable school funding formulas, and bills that seek to prohibit vaccine mandates in schools. Bills that, at their core, seem to serve the best interests of caucuses and constituents, and not Pennsylvania’s K-12 students.
One Pennsylvania education advocate thinks lawmakers need to remind themselves of who stands to be impacted the most — both positively and negatively — by the education policies they vote to enact.
“The one thing I think would be important if you are a lawmaker hearing from constituents about a proposal is to take a step back and ask yourself what this means for students,” said Chris Lilienthal, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania State Education Association. “Is there an opportunity to improve their educational experience, to give them information that they’re not getting right now, and to position them to be stronger leaders for the future? You need to ask yourself ‘What does the child need to be successful? What can we do from a curriculum perspective? What can we do from a health perspective? What can we do from a commonsense perspective to make sure kids can be the best they can be in class?’”
With that in mind, here’s a list of 20 commonsense bills that have been sitting in the House and Senate Education Committees for months without action. Bills that, if passed, could make for a better all-around educational experience for Pennsylvania students.
House Bill 102: School Nurse Ratios
House Bill 102 would require all public schools in the commonwealth to have school counselors, psychologists, social workers, and nurses available to help students.
Approximately 40% of American school children and adolescents have at least one chronic medical condition, such as asthma, diabetes, seizure disorders, food allergies, or poor oral health, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nurses play a significant role in managing those conditions.
House Bill 102 would require each school or intermediate unit to have:
- one counselor and one school social worker for every 250 students
- one school psychologist for every 500 students
- and one school nurse for every 750 students in a regular education population, one school nurse for every 225 students in a mixed regular and special education population, and one school nurse for every 125 students with severe physical disabilities.
Pennsylvania law currently requires a ratio of one school nurse for every 1,500 students. That is double what the CDC and the National Association of School Nurses recommend.
As of 2018, the most recent data available, Pennsylvania schools had an average of one school nurse for every 801 students.
Pennsylvania law sets no requirements for the number of school counselors, social workers, or psychologists a school “entity” should have.
State Rep. Dan Miller (D-Allegheny) proposed the bill in December 2020, and it has been sitting in the education committee without action since January, 2021.
House Bill 239: Adrenal Insufficiency Medication
House Bill 239 would require schools to develop policies for storing, possessing, administering, and overseeing self-administration of adrenal insufficiency medications in case of adrenal crisis.
Adrenal insufficiency affects 150 to 280 of every one million people.
State Rep. Perry Warren (D-Bucks) introduced the bill in December 2020, and it has been sitting in the education committee without action since January 2021.
Former Democratic state Sen. John P. Blake introduced similar legislation in 2019.
House Bill 265: CPR Training for Students
House Bill 265 would require schools to offer hands-only CPR training to all students in grades nine through 12.
Schools already are required to offer the training to employees every three years; state Rep. R. Lee James (R-Venango) proposed that they extend the existing training to students.
James introduced the bill in December 2021, and it has been sitting in the education committee without action since January, 2021.
House Bill 365: Removing Derogatory Terms from School Code
House Bill 365 would edit the language of the school code, which was written in 1949, to:
- Replace the phrase “physically and mentally handicapped” with “children with physical and mental disabilities”
- Replace “defects” with “impairments”
- Replace “defective” or “crippled” with “impaired”
- Replace “disturbed” with “disabled”
- Replace “mentally retarded” with “intellectually disabled.”
State Rep. Patrick Harkins (D-Erie), who introduced the bill to amend the code, said in a memo that the state Legislature should “lead by example and destigmatize derogatory words and language by eliminating them from our laws.”
The bill passed the state House in a 200-1 vote just a few months after Harkins introduced it. The bill then went to the state Senate education committee, which referred it to the appropriations committee, where it has been sitting without action since May 2021.
House Bill 463: Bullying Awareness and Prevention Training for Teachers
House Bill 463 would require any teacher preparation programs approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) to include training in bullying awareness, prevention, and intervention. Under current law, teachers are not required to receive such training.
In her memo introducing the legislation, state Rep. Karen Boback (R-Luzerne) pointed to the harmful effects of bullying on students’ schoolwork and health.
According to a 2019 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, 1 out of every 5 students between the ages of 12 and 18 said they had been bullied either verbally or physically in school.
Boback introduced House Bill 463 in February 2021, and it has been sitting in the education committee without action since then.
House Bill 465: Testing for Lead Contamination in School Buildings
House Bill 465 would require public schools and non-public schools to test all water outlets used for cooking and drinking annually for lead, and to ensure that said water is safe for consumption. The state currently encourages, but does not require, schools to test for lead contamination.
Pittsburgh-based nonprofit Women for a Healthy Environment sampled 65 school districts across Pennsylvania and found that 89% of them tested for lead in drinking water in the last 10 years. Of those, 91% found lead and only 9% took action to remove it.
Boback introduced House Bill 465 in January 2021, and it has been sitting in the education committee without action since then.
House Bill 784: Adding Mental Health Education to Curriculum
House Bill 784 would require Pennsylvania schools to incorporate mental health education into their existing health and wellness curricula.
“By ensuring that young people learn about mental health, we increase the likelihood that they will be able to recognize signs in themselves and others and seek help,” state Rep. Tim Briggs (D-Montgomery) wrote in his memo introducing the legislation. “ As we begin to teach the facts about mental health and discuss issues openly, we will help remove the stigma surrounding mental illness that causes ostracism and isolation, leads to bullying, and keeps many students from getting the help they need.”
Briggs introduced the bill in January 2021, and it has been sitting in the education committee without action since March 2021.
House Bill 1209: Carbon Monoxide Detectors in Schools
House Bill 1209 would require any school building that has fossil-fuel burning heating systems or appliances to be equipped with carbon monoxide detectors.
State Rep. Nancy Guenst (D-Montgomery) introduced the bill in January 2021, and it has been sitting in the education committee without action since April 2021.
House Bill 1335: Science-Based Sexual Education
House Bill 1335 would require schools to offer comprehensive sex education that is based in science and age-appropriate for the grade level.
The bill dictates that the curriculum include information about setting personal boundaries and consent; the risks associated with sexting, taking nude photographs, and having sex; how sexually-transmitted infections are transmitted and medications for treating them; different kinds of contraception; recognizing predatory behaviors in others and sexual assault; and human trafficking; among other topics.
State Reps. Jessica Benham (D-Allegheny) and Brian Sims (D-Philadelphia) introduced the legislation in May 2021, and it has been sitting in the education committee without action since then.
House Bill 1343: Eye Exams in Schools
House Bill 1343 would require schools to perform annual eye exams on students.
In his memo introducing the legislation, state Rep. David Zimmerman (R-Lancaster) cited the correlation between proper vision and academic success in school-age children.
The ability to see clearly is crucial for recognition, comprehension, and retention in children, according to the American Optometric Association. AOA statistics show that up to 75% percent of school vision screenings miss vision problems, and more than 60% of children found to have eye problems through screenings never visit a doctor.
Zimmerman introduced the bill in February 2021, and it has been sitting in the education committee without action since May 2021.
House Bill 1415: Teaching LGBTQ+ History
House Bill 1415 would require that LGBTQ+ history is taught in schools.
State Rep. Brian Sims said in his memo introducing the legislation that “it is crucial that students learn about the true history and culture of LGBTQ+ people, the progress that has been achieved and the struggles that remain.”
Sims introduced the bill in May of 2021 and it has been sitting in the education committee without action since then.
House Bill 1490: Dating Violence Education for Middle and High School Students
House Bill 1490 would require the stateDepartment of Education to assist schools with educating students in grades 7-12 on how to identify and prevent dating violence, sexual assault, sexual harassment, and stalking.
In their memo introducing the legislation, state Reps. Jessica Benham and Brian Sims cite statistics from the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey to underscore the importance of HB 1490:
- In Pennsylvania, 418,000 victims of sexual violence were under the age of 18
- 1 in 3 female victims reported experiencing rape between the ages of 11 and 17
- 1 in 4 male victims reported experiencing rape before the age of 10
Benham and Sims introduced the bill in June 2021 and it has been sitting in the education committee without action since then.
House Bill 1807: Protection for Pregnant, Lactating, and Parenting Pupils
House Bill 1807 would require reasonable accommodations for pregnant and lactating students to express breast milk or breastfeed their children without a penalty for missing class. The legislation also includes a list of protections for married, pregnant, lactating, and parenting students in order to encourage them to continue their studies.
According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, Pennsylvania’s teen birth rate (births per 1,000 females ages 15-19) was 13.3 in 2020.
State Rep. MaryLouise Isaacson (D-Philadelphia) introduced the bill in August 2021 and it has been sitting in the education committee without action since then.
House Bill 1809: Disability Inclusive Curriculum Legislation
House Bill 1809 would require the inclusion of the political, economic, and social contributions of disabled individuals in Pennsylvania’s K-12 curriculum.
“By teaching our children about influential disabled individuals, such as Harriet Tubman, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Stephen Hawking, and Michael J. Fox, we can demonstrate the profound, positive impact that disabled individuals have had on our society and work to create a more tolerant and inclusive world,” said state Reps. Jason Ortitay (R-Allegheny) and Joseph C. Hoehenstein (D-Philadelphia) in a memo announcing the legislation.
Ortitay and Hoehenstein introduced the bill in August of 2021 and it has been sitting in the education committee without action since then.
House Bill 1820: Protecting Children from Disease Outbreaks
House Bill 1820 would require parents seeking a religious or philosophical exemption from vaccinating their children to get an annual medical consultation to understand the existing threats to children’s health from communicable diseases, and to get briefed on potentials for school exclusion and quarantine, in the case of outbreaks.
Under current Pennsylvania law, children must get a medical form showing that they’ve received their vaccines or that they can’t get them for medical reasons in order to enter school each year. Parents have the right to seek an exemption for their child based on religious or philosophical reasons.
In the memo introducing their legislation, state Reps. Dan Frankel (D-Allegheny) and Bridget M. Kosierowski (D-Lackawanna) highlight the importance of understanding the consequences of forgoing immunization.
“The choice to forego immunity protections is a serious one. As children grow, new options for disease resistance become available, and more outbreaks occur, parents should continuously educate themselves about the implications of refusing immunizations.”
Frankel and Kosierowski introduced the bill in August 2021 and it has been sitting in the education committee without action since then.
House Bill 1917: Asian American and Pacific Islander Inclusive Curriculum
HB 1917 would require the Department of Education to create an integrated curriculum that includes Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) persons, history, and contributions to American society and to provide AAPI-related materials to schools. The bill would also commission a study by the State Board of Education to see how school districts are implementing AAPI curriculum.
In her memo introducing the legislation, state Rep. Patty Kim (D-Dauphin) said her conversations with members of Pennsylvania’s AAPI community in the wake of the March 2021 shooting in Atlanta in which six women of AAPI descent were killed inspired the bill.
Kim introduced the bill in September 2021 and it has been sitting in the education committee without action since then.
House Bill 1931: Diverse History Instruction in Pennsylvania Schools
House Bill 1931 would require Pennsylvania schools to offer instruction in African American and Latino history to students.
In a memo introducing the legislation, prime sponsor state Rep. Danilo Burgos (D-Philadelphia) alludes to bills that attempt to whitewash US history (like the Safety and Violence Education Students Act) to underscore the necessity of HB 1931.
“The story of these underrepresented groups must go beyond Black History Month and Latino History Month,” Burgos said. “In the wake of recent legislation that would aim to erase our history from being taught, all of our students deserve to receive instruction that includes all of our stories that ultimately make up the rich story of America, regardless of culture or race.”
Burgos introduced the bill in September 2021 and it has been sitting in the education committee without action since then.
State Sen. Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia) introduced a similar bill in the Senate that looks to expand access to Black history in Pennsylvania schools.
House Bill 2197: High-Impact Tutoring to Address COVID-19 Learning Loss
House Bill 2197 seeks to establish a grant program to help schools implement small group tutoring to assist students in recovering academically from classroom time lost during the pandemic.
A handful of states have already passed similar legislation.
State Rep. Nick Pisciottano (D-Allegheny) introduced the bill in December 2021 and it has been sitting in the education committee without action since then.
House Bill 2204: Educating Pennsylvania Students on the Civil Rights Era
House Bill 2204 would require school curriculum to include the events of the Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to 1968, along with further examples of injustice, genocide, and discrimination.
State Reps. Greg Rothman (R-Cumberland) and Stephen Kinsey (D-Philadelphia) introduced the bill in December of 2021 and it has been sitting in the education committee without action since then.
Senate Bill 506: Mental Health Days for Students
Senate Bill 506 would allow students to take off two mental health days per semester as an excused absence.
In her memo introducing the legislation, state Sen. Judy Schwank (D-Berks) points to the isolation and disruption of routines the pandemic has caused as the driving factor behind increased student anxiety and stress.
Several states have enacted similar lawas, with other states currently attempting to get legislation regarding student mental health days enacted.
Schwank introduced the bill in April 2021 and it has been sitting in the education committee without action since then.