Better starting salaries, more supports for aspiring educators key to tackling school staff shortages, PSEA president testifies

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Better starting salaries, more supports for aspiring educators key to tackling school staff shortages, PSEA president testifies

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HARRISBURG, PA (April 12, 2023) – Higher starting salaries, new scholarships and supports for aspiring educators, and an expansion of school mental health staffs are key solutions to reversing school staffing shortages in Pennsylvania’s public schools, PSEA President Rich Askey testified before the House Education Committee today.

During the legislative hearing, Askey called on lawmakers to adopt a state-funded plan that sets minimum salaries at $60,000 a year for education professionals, including educators, school counselors, and nurses. He also called for a $20 per hour minimum wage for education support professionals, such as bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians, and paraprofessionals.

“Educator compensation must reflect the value that these professionals provide to their students, their communities, and society as a whole,” Askey said.

He noted that a growing number of states, including Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Maryland, New Mexico, and Texas, have proposed or passed significant increases in their starting teacher salaries. Other states, including Arizona, Idaho, Illinois, and Maine, are proposing raising minimum wages for support professionals. Delaware has funded a $21 per hour minimum wage for bus drivers.

“Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders proposed spending nearly 10% of Arkansas’ yearly budget on raising teacher salaries this year,” Askey said.

In addition to pay, the rising cost of attaining a bachelor’s degree, along with other financial pressures, are among the greatest barriers to more college students entering and remaining in education professions, Askey noted.

“This barrier has had a disproportionate impact on students of color,” Askey said. “Forty-five percent of today’s educators took out student loans to finance their education with a total average loan amount of $55,580. One in five Black educators who used student loans borrowed $105,000 or more.”

Askey said that Pennsylvania should invest in new scholarship programs for aspiring educators and a stipend program for students completing their 12 weeks of required student teaching.

“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.”

Last year, Pennsylvania enacted a new grant program to help college students completing school-based mental health internships. Askey urged lawmakers to continue investing in that program in the state budget.

Additionally, Askey made the case for hiring more school nurses, counselors, and other mental health providers as many students struggle with anxiety, depression, and bullying.

“Just as we need to restore our teacher pipeline, we need to make sure we are recruiting and retaining school health professionals to meet a growing set of needs,” Askey said.

Finally, Askey encouraged lawmakers to invest in “grow your own” programs that help paraprofessionals and other school support staff go back to college to earn their teaching credentials. Creating new pathways to the profession will open the door to great teachers who might otherwise never make their way to a classroom.

At the heart of the school staffing crisis is a decline in the number of college graduates entering education professions, Askey said. Between the 2010-11 and 2020-21 school years, the number of Instructional I certificates issued to in-state graduates declined by 64%, while the number of emergency permits rose by more than 200%.

“The commonwealth is not producing enough teachers to meet demand, and, as a result, we do not have enough caring, qualified adults in our school buildings to address the many challenges our students face,” Askey said.

One thing everyone can do to reverse this trend is to change the narrative around public education, Askey added.

“Educators deserve respect and appreciation,” he said, adding that frequent attacks on teachers and public schools by some politicians and special interest groups “have not encouraged the next generation to commit their talents to public schools.”

Read Rich Askey’s full testimony.

An affiliate of the National Education Association, PSEA represents about 177,000 active and retired educators and school employees, student teachers, higher education staff, and health care workers in Pennsylvania.