PSEA's 2020 education policy priorities aimed at reducing educator shortage, encouraging teacher diversity, improving student health and learning

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PSEA's 2020 education policy priorities aimed at reducing educator shortage, encouraging teacher diversity, improving student health and learning

HARRISBURG, PA (January 29, 2020) – The Pennsylvania State Education Association is focusing its work in 2020 on policy priorities intended to tackle Pennsylvania’s educator shortage, attract more people of color to teaching, and ensure that all students have access to caring educators, teaching assistants, nurses, counselors, school psychologists, and social workers.

“Students benefit from having talented professionals at school who know them and their communities well,” PSEA President Rich Askey said. “We want to work collaboratively with policymakers from both parties to ensure the next generation of Pennsylvanians are successful. That means tackling the educator shortage head-on so that more school districts are able to attract and retain high-quality professionals to work with students at all levels.”

PSEA’s 2020 policy priorities reflect the feedback of members who work directly with students in our public schools every day. Among the biggest challenges they reported is a growing shortage of educators and support professionals in Pennsylvania, as fewer young graduates choose careers in education.

For instance, the number of college students completing Pennsylvania teacher prep programs has dropped by 32 percent between 2013-14 and 2017-18, while the number of Level 1 Instructional Certificates issued in Pennsylvania has dropped by 74 percent between 2012-13 and 2018-19.

PSEA also heard from members that more needs to be done to attract people of color to teaching, and that districts need to employ more teaching assistants, school nurses, and school counselors to work with students. And for many educators and support professionals of all backgrounds, entry-level salaries are not enough to make ends meet and pay down staggering student loan debt.

“No one knows the challenges in public education better than the educators and support professionals who work with students every day,” Askey said. “We listened to what they had to say, and now we want to engage with lawmakers to find solutions to these challenges.”

Reduce student loan debt
College graduates in Pennsylvania have the second highest average student loan debt in the nation, averaging $37,061 for members of the graduating class of 2018, according to the Project on Student Debt. Staggering levels of debt present a real barrier to attracting talented young graduates to the education profession.

PSEA is making it a priority to provide loan forgiveness for educators with student debt. 

“Thousands of hardworking Pennsylvania educators are struggling to pay their student loans, support their families, and care for loved ones,” Askey said. “A loan forgiveness program would help educators with high college loan debts stick with this profession and make a difference in the lives of hundreds of children.”

Hire more educators who are people of color
Only 4 percent of Pennsylvania’s educators are people of color, even though 29 percent of students are, according to Research for Action. It is one of the lowest rates in the country. PSEA is making it a priority to find creative ways to attract people of color to the education
profession. That includes building on initiatives like the grant program launched by Gov. Tom Wolf in 2018 to support innovative teacher and school leader preparation programs that expand, diversify, and strengthen the commonwealth’s educator workforce. In 2019, $2.1
million in grants were awarded to 11 universities through this initiative.

“Many school districts would like to hire more people of color, but struggle to find candidates who reflect the diversity of their communities,” Askey said. “We need to build on successful efforts to put more educators who are people of color in Pennsylvania’s classrooms.”

Fund more teaching assistants
Teaching assistants are incredibly important members of the classroom team. Studies have found that employing additional teaching assistants is associated with higher student achievement in math and reading. PSEA is making it a priority to put more state funding into employing more teaching assistants in our schools and classrooms.

“Teaching assistants make a tremendous difference in our schools, helping students achieve and reach their full potential,” Askey said. “We need to invest more state resources into hiring teaching assistants to work with our students.”

Invest in more school nurses, counselors, school psychologists, and social workers
At a time when school safety and student wellness are major priorities, Pennsylvania schools need more school nurses, counselors, school psychologists, and social workers. 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.
Increasing the number of school counselors, including school psychologists and social workers, was a key recommendation offered by PSEA members in 2018 after the tragedy in Parkland, Florida, as well as in Gov. Wolf’s 2018 task force on school safety. PSEA is making it a priority to increase the ratios of school nurses and counselors to students.

“Students cannot learn if they are struggling with social, emotional, or other health needs,” Askey said. “They need support and encouragement, and we need to make sure that highly trained professionals are on hand to provide it.”

Raise the minimum educator salary
Educators play a crucial role in their students’ lives and shouldn’t have to scrape by to make ends meet.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 provide state funding to struggling school districts to do so. The state’s minimum educator salary hasn’t been increased since 1988.

“Funding an increase in the minimum educator salary will help struggling rural and urban school districts across Pennsylvania attract and retain high-quality educators,” Askey said. “It will also encourage more talented young people to enter this profession and stick with it.

“Tackling the educator shortage in this way will increase student achievement, as well,” he added. “When high-quality professionals become educators and make a career of it, students excel.”

Raise the minimum wage
Pennsylvania’s minimum wage is $7.25 an hour and hasn’t increased since 2009. It’s lower than all of our neighboring states. PSEA is making it a priority to increase Pennsylvania’s minimum wage.

“A long overdue raise in Pennsylvania’s minimum wage will benefit many working Pennsylvanians, including some who work hard behind the scenes in our schools but struggle to make ends meet,” Askey said. “These support professionals drive school buses, prepare meals
in school cafeterias, and help students succeed. They deserve better.”

Askey said that PSEA’s priorities will guide the work of the Association in 2020, and that he looks forward to engaging with policymakers to hear their ideas, too. 

“We hope policymakers will listen to our stories and share their ideas so that together we can take action to solve the challenges we face in public education today,” Askey said.

Askey is a Harrisburg music teacher and the president of PSEA. An affiliate of the National Education Association, PSEA represents about 181,000 active and retired educators and school employees, student teachers, higher education staff, and health care workers in Pennsylvania.