5 ways educators think lawmakers could help fix Pa.’s K-12 staffing crisis

A new analysis shows that Pennsylvania issued a record-low number of teacher certificates — 4,220 for in-state graduates of teacher preparation programs — during the 2021-22 school year

By: - April 17, 2023 11:15 am

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As the educator staffing crisis worsens, Pennsylvania lawmakers have introduced a series of proposals to make long-term investments in the teaching profession, hoping to attract and retain new talent in K-12 classrooms.

A new analysis shows that Pennsylvania issued a record-low number of teacher certificates — 4,220 for in-state graduates of teacher preparation programs — during the 2021-22 school year, according to Penn State associate professor Ed Fuller, who released research on the subject this month. That’s a steep decrease from the more than 16,000 certificates issued in 2012-13.

Pennsylvania has seen a more than 60% decline in teaching certificates since 2010, and lawmakers have taken steps to address the staffing crisis — such as temporarily expanding eligibility requirements to fill some job openings through the end of the 2022-23 academic year. 

But now, officials are considering more concrete ways to address the state’s declining rate of teachers, which has left educators who are still in the classroom and support staff with increased workloads, by making long-term investments in the teaching profession.

Earlier this month, the House Education Committee, now ruled by a narrow Democratic majority in the lower chamber, hosted a hearing on the staffing crisis and heard testimony from the Shapiro-Davis administration, educators, administrators, and advocates on possible solutions, including a bipartisan bill package to improve working conditions. 

Here’s a look at some existing proposals that educators and advocates think could help address the shortage and make teaching a more attractive field.

Paying student-teachers

Lawmakers in the House and Senate have proposed removing some financial burden for aspiring teachers with a student-teacher stipend program.

Sens. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster, and Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, are pushing for the Educator Pipeline Program to give a stipend to student-teachers enrolled in a preparation program at a Pennsylvania college or university. 

The payment would help aspiring educators during their unpaid, but required, work in the classroom and help connect school districts with potential talent, the lawmakers wrote in a memo seeking legislative support.

State Rep. Danielle Friel Otten, D-Chester, introduced companion legislation in the House.

Pennsylvania requires 12 weeks of student-teaching to graduate. While it provides hands-on experience in the classroom, Pennsylvania State Education Association President Rich Askey said the current model isn’t feasible for individuals living independently or without family support.

“Some higher education institutions require students to sign contracts saying they won’t work full or part-time during the student-teacher experience,” Askey said. “Consider that 65% of Black college students are independent, meaning they work a full-time job, pay their way through school, or take care of their families. A three-month unpaid internship is simply not possible.”

He added that time and transportation also pose challenges depending on how far a student-teacher has to commute to their district while juggling other coursework and responsibilities.

“In addition, we should note that aspiring educators do not solely pay tuition to earn their teacher certification,” Askey said. “There are fees associated with assessments to achieve certification, certification fees to PDE, costs for the 24 post-baccalaureate credits required to get an Instructional II certificate, and finally, the ongoing costs associated with professional development for the rest of an educator’s career.”

Askey told lawmakers that a PSEA student member reported that they spent $1,128 to earn certification in Pennsylvania with four state certificates — including the Instructional I — two years ago. And that’s before they started earning a paycheck, he said.

Raising the minimum teacher’s salary

In February, PSEA called on lawmakers to raise the minimum salary for certified teachers to $60,000 — the current minimum is $18,500 — and establish a $20 per hour minimum wage for support professionals, such as custodians, paraprofessionals, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers.

A PSEA analysis reports that there are seven school districts in Pennsylvania with minimum salaries of less than $30,000.

State Rep. Patty Kim, D-Dauphin, previously announced plans for legislation implementing the increase over five years, citing a report from the National Center on Education and the Economy and Teach Plus outlining educator recruitment and retention challenges.

Amy Morton, executive director of the Pennsylvania branch of the National Center on Education and the Economy, said Pennsylvania is losing teachers to states with more competitive salaries when the commonwealth “used to be the biggest exporter of teachers.”

The current pay structure in K-12 schools decides salary based on years of service and credits. Morton told lawmakers that Pennsylvania should consider ways to reward educators based on competence — not age or experience.

“If that became the basis for advancement, then we might be able to attract those same people who weren’t concerned as much about the salaries, but they are about a career progression that actually treats them like professionals,” she said.

Earlier this year, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., introduced the Pay Teachers Act, which would raise the annual teacher salary to at least $60,000. A series of education organizations, including the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, support the proposal.

A handful of other states have either passed similar legislation or are considering raising the starting salary for teachers.

American Federation of Teachers of Pennsylvania President Arthur Steinberg said lawmakers should focus on improving conditions, compensation, climate, and culture to address the staffing shortage.

Better pay, he said, would incentivize teachers to remain working in the classroom, adding that educators are more likely to stay in the field if they have “a very competitive and livable wage.”

“The lower salary makes you more likely to look for something else,” Steinberg said.

Reducing debt

Education advocates have supported efforts to remove financial barriers to entering and staying in the education profession through incentives , such as scholarship programs and student loan forgiveness.

Pennsylvania Teach Plus Executive Director Laura Boyce said eliminating debt is a “strong model” to encourage people to enter and stay in the profession.

State Rep. Regina Young, D-Philadelphia, drafted legislation to give teachers up to $40,000 in loan forgiveness in exchange for working in a Pennsylvania school for at least four years.

“As a former educator, I know firsthand how important it is that we hire teachers who are dedicated and passionate about educating our students,” she wrote in a memo seeking legislative support. “To achieve this, however, we need our educators to know that they are appreciated for their hard work.”

Offering scholarships

Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, introduced legislation to create the Pennsylvania Teach Scholarship Program, which would offer a scholarship of up to $7,000 a year — $28,000 total — to eligible students studying at a Pennsylvania school.

To qualify, a student must be working toward becoming a primary or secondary school teacher or in a student-teaching role.

Cedar Crest College President Elizabeth Meade said Rozzi’s bill would do “an enormous amount” to address the costs of attendance in conjunction with financial aid, especially for adult learners who often have families to support while attending school.

Based in Allentown, Cedar Crest College tries to give student-teachers additional grants during their final year — when they complete the student-teaching requirement — “because nobody wants to see a student dropped out one semester from graduating because of the financial burden,” Meade said.

She added that any additional support would help drive down costs and eliminate financial barriers.

Another option, Thomas Butler, executive director of Intermediate Unit 8 in Altoona, said is partnering with colleges — such as Mount Aloysius College — to kick-start the teaching certification process by offering high school students credit.

Creating models to improve recruitment, retention, diversity

Finally, educators and advocates think lawmakers should focus on building a pipeline for students to become teachers in their communities as a long-term solution to the staffing shortage.

Grow Your Own programs — partnerships between schools, community groups, and institutions of higher education — can help recruit and retain individuals from within the school district or local community.

PSEA thinks the programs are also effective at creating a more diverse field because “recruiting from local communities means that school staff [is] more likely to reflect student demographics,” Askey said.

State Rep. Mike Schlossberg, D-Lehigh, plans to introduce legislation to offer financial assistance to help high-needs schools in areas struggling to fill teaching positions.

“The program would equip aspiring educators with the supports necessary to ultimately become a certified teacher,” he wrote in a memo seeking legislative support. “Recognizing the decline in the number of people seeking teaching certification in this commonwealth and that this commonwealth has one of the least diverse educator workforces in the country, we need to increase the pipeline of high-quality and diverse future educators.”

Askey said the proposal also could help cover tuition costs, paid internships, and mentoring programs.

“The most important thing policymakers should remember as you consider ways to address the educator workforce crisis is that increasing compensation, easing the student debt burden, paid internships, and GYO programs are proven solutions,” Askey said. “If we want to see progress in reversing the shortage, we need to work together to implement these solutions now, and we must commit to meaningful investments now and in the future to support them.”

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