Pennsylvania public schools are weathering a perfect storm that’s left many school districts scrambling to fill positions and keep buildings open.
At a state House Education Committee hearing Tuesday, school administrators and other professionals stressed the importance of legislative reforms to address staffing shortages. Citing catalysts like the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, early retirements, low pay and more, administrators called on the General Assembly to help stem the exodus of staffers and boost the educator employment pipeline in the commonwealth.
“Over the last two years, we have struggled, as many of my counterparts have, to secure and retain quality teachers, substitute teachers and staff willing to meet the needs of the students in our building,” Mary Jo Walsh, principal at Fell Charter School in Simpson, testified at the hearing. “Double duty does not even cover what we are asking people to do. The principals are teachers, the teachers are lunch staff, the janitors are hall monitors. Unless every single person is giving 110%, our school day does not work.”
The issue began to rear its head even before the COVID-19 pandemic, and the last two years have only exacerbated the problem. Many teachers are retiring or leaving the profession earlier than they had planned, and the inflow of new educators hasn’t been keeping up.
“Teaching amidst a global pandemic has been profoundly challenging, and it's no surprise that so many of our talented educators are reaching their breaking point,” Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said in a statement. “With underfunding as well as district mandates contributing to exorbitant workloads for our members, it is a profession that has, for too many, become untenable. Our educators are hardworking, resilient, and dedicated individuals--and they need support and resources.”
Since 2010, the number of both undergraduate education majors in the state and newly issued in-state teaching certifications has dropped by a staggering 66%, according to Tanya Garcia, deputy secretary and commissioner of the Office of Postsecondary and Higher Education at the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
“These factors, coupled with the physical and emotional toll of the pandemic, have stretched the educator pipeline to its breaking point, and as a result, schools are facing a harder time filling critical staff positions than ever before,” Garcia said.
The commonwealth loosened certification requirements last year by temporarily allowing college students and those with inactive or insufficient certifications to step in. As legislators weighed both short- and long-term options to best address the staffing needs of public schools, school administrators discussed legislative reforms, including a reciprocity bill that would allow teachers from other states to start working in Pennsylvania, and a loan forgiveness program that would provide debt relief for teachers working in the state.
State Rep. Mark Gillen, a Republican from Berks County, wondered if teacher wages were high enough to attract more potential educators. Gillen, citing an opening at the Bucks County Technical High School, noted that an instructor position paid $15.50 an hour.
“If you look at what retailers are paying, like Dunkin’ Donuts, etc., are you able to recruit the talent you’re looking for at that salary?” Gillen asked Leon Poeske, administrative director of the Bucks County Technical High School and president of the Pennsylvania Association of Career and Technical Administrators. Poeske responded, “No,” adding that attracting people back to the profession is not just about raising salaries but providing loan forgiveness as well.
Desha Williams, dean of the College of Education and Social Work at West Chester University, highlighted a few legislative proposals that seek to provide that financial support. In her testimony, Williams noted three bills in particular: House Bill 2389, which would provide financial assistance to education majors who agree to teach in the state; House Bill 2247, which would look to retain teachers by providing loan forgiveness; and House Bill 2206, which would provide support for high-need schools with hard-to-staff teaching positions.
Another popular suggestion among school administrators is to get rid of the Basic Skills testing requirement for formal admission to the teaching profession. A moratorium on testing was enacted in November 2020 to help with shortages, but it expired on June 30, 2021. Even without the Basic Skills test, teachers would still be required to meet other requirements, such as maintaining a 3.0 overall grade point average. Williams said that West Chester was able to provide 75 more students an opportunity to teach when the moratorium was in place.
Increasing accessibility to higher education and the teaching profession can also help with the lack of diversity among teachers. Williams said the state needs to do more to support minority students and ensure they have mentors to look up to. If not, she said, they’ll want nothing to do with the school system once they’re out of it.
Williams crystallized the dilemma facing minority students and teachers by postulating what a candidate of color might asking hypothetically: “‘Why would I want to go back and teach in a district that has disenfranchised me for the past 12 years?’” Williams then asked a question of her own: “How do we get to the needs of the students in the way we teach the content, dispositions and skills so that they can move into positions as teachers and leaders inside our communities?”
Despite the calls for action from testifiers, the committee didn’t guarantee that a sense of urgency will be reflected in the legislative process. House Education Committee chair Curt Sonney, a Republican from Erie County, recognized the major issues surrounding attracting and retaining teachers but failed to give any timeline for remediation.
“One of the overarching themes today has been centered around pathways and retention,” Sonney said. “I'm sure that we will see a number of bills coming forward from the members of this committee.”