By Rich Askey
Do you like living in a world with doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs, and artists?
We wouldn’t have any of these professionals — or countless others — without educators. Education is the career that makes every other career possible.
So, it should trouble all of us that Pennsylvania, like much of the nation, is experiencing a shortage of educators, teaching assistants, school nurses, and counselors.
How bad is it?
Between the 2012-13 and 2018-19 school years, the Pennsylvania Department of Education saw a 74 percent drop in the number of Level 1 teaching certificates it issued. And between 2013-14 and 2017-18, the number of students graduating from Pennsylvania’s teacher prep programs declined by 32 percent.
This is a real problem. That’s why the Pennsylvania State Education Association wants to tackle the educator shortage head-on. We started by asking our members how best to do that. Here are some of their ideas.
One of the biggest challenges that educators identified is crushing student debt.
College graduates in Pennsylvania have the second highest average student loan debt in the nation, averaging $37,061 per borrower for the graduating class of 2018, according to the Project on Student Debt.
So, PSEA members suggested that Pennsylvania create a loan forgiveness program, which would allow educators with high college loan debts to worry less about monthly payments and focus more on making a difference in the lives of their students.
Our members also flagged a need to foster greater diversity among our educator workforce. Only 4 percent of Pennsylvania’s educators are people of color, while 29 percent of students are, according to Research for Action.
A good starting point for addressing this clear need to bring talented and diverse people into the education professions is a grant program launched by Gov. Tom Wolf two years ago. It supports innovative university programs designed to expand and diversify the state’s educator workforce.
PSEA members also reminded us that teachers are not the only people in our schools who have a tremendous impact on students. Teaching assistants are integral members of classroom teams. Studies have found that employing additional teaching assistants is associated with higher student achievement in math and reading.
School nurses and counselors also play a major role in the lives of students. School nurses improve student attendance by promoting good health, preventing disease, and managing student illnesses. School counselors help students navigate challenges at school and at home — and keep students safe.
The sad truth is that too many school districts are not able to employ enough teaching assistants, school nurses, and counselors to meet the growing needs of students. So, it is imperative that we find ways to get more of these professionals into our schools and figure out how to pay them.
Just as important, we need to make sure that every educator gets paid a competitive salary. That’s why PSEA is again making it a priority to raise Pennsylvania’s minimum educator salary from $18,500 to $45,000 per year and to increase the state’s minimum wage.
The minimum educator salary hasn’t been increased since 1988. At $7.25 an hour, the minimum wage hasn’t increased since 2009, with Pennsylvania lagging behind all of our neighboring states.
Addressing these challenges will not be easy, but as educators we’re used to it. Teaching is not for the faint of heart.
Our plan is simple, though.
We’re going to share our stories. We’re going to talk about these challenges. And we’re going to invite legislators and the governor to work with us to find ways to solve them.
And we know that our students will thank us for the effort.
We need the doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs, and artists of tomorrow. Right now, they are in classrooms all across Pennsylvania. Let’s make sure they have great teachers and support staff guiding them on their journeys.
Rich Askey is a music teacher in the Harrisburg public schools and the president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. He writes from Harrisburg.