Op-Ed: Solving Pa.'s school staffing crisis

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Op-Ed: Solving Pa.'s school staffing crisis

By Rich Askey

What do Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the Republican governor of Arkansas, and Michelle Lujan Grisham, the Democratic governor of New Mexico, have in common?

Not a whole lot, but they do agree that increasing pay for educators is key to tackling crisis-level staffing shortages in their public schools.

In fact, a growing number of states, including Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, and New Mexico, have enacted increases in educator salaries. Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia are considering doing the same.

In Pennsylvania, public school educators and support professionals face unprecedented challenges because of historic staffing shortages and a dramatic rise in students’ needs.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association represents 177,000 of these dedicated professionals. We want to solve this crisis and see more caring, qualified adults in our schools and classrooms.

To achieve that goal, we are calling for a state-funded plan that sets minimum salaries at $60,000 a year for education professionals, including educators, school counselors, and nurses, and establishes a $20 per hour minimum wage for bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians, paraprofessionals, and other support staff.

In Pennsylvania, there has been a dramatic decline in the number of college graduates entering the teaching profession. Pennsylvania issued more than 12,000 fewer first-year teaching certificates in the 2020-21 school year than it did in 2012-13. That is a staggering 66% drop.

This crisis has been a decade in the making, and we know that we won’t fix it overnight. But paying educators and support staff more competitively is a good way to start.

Starting salaries in our schools have not kept up with the cost of living. Talented young people who would make great teachers are choosing other careers because they don’t think a teacher’s salary will pay the bills.

On top of that, the cost of a college education has increased far faster than teacher salaries, which have remained relatively flat compared to other professions.

And, while many college students have paid internships, students in college teacher preparation programs are completing 12 weeks of student teaching and aren’t getting paid a dime for it.

So what can we do about it? First, setting annual minimum salaries for educators at $60,000 will make the profession more attractive and help Pennsylvania get the best and the brightest into our classrooms.

Just as important, we need to invest in a statewide scholarship program for aspiring educators to help them pay for college and remove key financial barriers to getting an education degree and entering the teaching profession.

What’s more, we should pay our student teachers a stipend for their work, removing a heavy financial burden from a key component of their degree programs.

We should also seek out a new generation of teachers by funding “grow your own” initiatives, which help pay for paraprofessionals and other support staff to earn their teaching credentials. Creating an affordable pathway for these experienced professionals to become teachers is a win for them, their schools, and their students.

We also can’t forget how important it is to have enough mental health providers, school counselors, and nurses in our public schools. Gov. Josh Shapiro has made it a priority to get more mental health professionals in our schools, and we are eager to work with him and lawmakers to make it a reality.

Finally, we need to remember that educator shortages are only half the problem. School districts are finding it just as hard to hire bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians, and paraprofessionals.

These support professionals are essential to our students’ success. That’s why we should set a minimum wage of $20 per hour for them. We should not be losing talented paraprofessionals or caring bus drivers because they can make more money, with better schedules, working at Amazon, Target, or Costco.

Again, other states are working on this. 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.

These solutions all require investments. And, if states like Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Mississippi, New Mexico, and Texas can prioritize investments to address their school staffing shortages, so can Pennsylvania. We must do it to ensure that our public schools have enough talented, caring professionals to help our students succeed.

Rich Askey is president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, a union representing about 177,000 active and retired educators and school employees, student teachers, higher education staff, and health care workers in Pennsylvania.