Make education a priority in Pa. budget

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Make education a priority in Pa. budget

By Rich Askey

I have a homework assignment for you. Put 100 people in a room and get 80 of them to agree on something.

You’re shaking your head. You’re saying it can’t be done.

Yet in a recent poll of public school parents from Hart Research and Lake Research Partners, a remarkable 78% said the quality and performance of their children’s teachers is excellent or good. A full 80% said their children’s teachers have made an extra effort to help students during the pandemic.

Walk into any classroom in Pennsylvania, and you will see educators and support professionals going above and beyond to keep their students’ learning on track despite a staggering array of challenges.

Parents recognize and appreciate all that they’ve done.

But sadly many educators are telling me that this has been the toughest school year of their careers. Too many are thinking about career changes. This couldn’t come at a worse time as many students continue to struggle from the effects of the pandemic.

In the coming months, state lawmakers will negotiate a new state budget with Gov. Tom Wolf, one that will set Pennsylvania’s priorities over the next year.

When it comes to education, we must identify ways to address the many challenges our schools face, including tackling learning delays from the pandemic and keeping great teachers on the job.

With a robust increase in state funding, we can empower public schools to assess delays in student learning and make sure that educators have the time and supports to close the gaps. This may include investing in programs to reduce class sizes and providing more individualized attention to students.

We need to provide the mental and emotional health services students need to bounce back from the stress and trauma they’ve experienced during the pandemic. That means employing more professional school nurses, counselors, psychologists, and social workers. Too many school districts have only a handful of these specialists to serve hundreds or even thousands of students.

On top of these challenges, we are seeing crisis-level shortages of educators, support staff, and substitute teachers in Pennsylvania. This has shifted the pressure onto existing staff who are losing prep periods and lunches to fill in for sick colleagues. Some go from homeroom to the dismissal bell without a bathroom break.

Providing the resources our schools need to tackle this crisis must be a top priority for lawmakers in this budget.

If lawmakers approve significant state funding increases, school districts will be able to increase starting teacher salaries to at least $50,000 so teachers’ pay is competitive with other states and other professions.

We also must make investments in higher education and student loan forgiveness to attract more people of color to the teaching profession. Right now, students of color account for 36% of all public school students, while teachers of color are only 6% of the educator workforce, according to Research for Action.

Public schools are receiving federal relief funding to address pandemic-fueled education issues, but they are reluctant to use this short-term funding for long-term investments. That’s one of the reasons why state funding increases are so important. State funds, which make up nearly half of total spending on Pennsylvania’s public schools, are more reliable, consistent, and predictable.

And that brings us back to priorities.

Our students and educators need state policymakers to make public school funding a top priority and pass a bipartisan budget that gets schools the resources they need.

Every student deserves to have the power of a great public education, and every public school needs the resources to make sure their students get it.

We need our educators, too. They’ve stepped up during the pandemic and made a tremendous difference in the lives of their students. We don’t want to lose great teachers to other industries.

For the past several years, elected officials have made funding for public education a top priority. This bipartisan commitment has resulted in a record school funding increase in the current year’s budget.

Now, we need lawmakers to come together again and invest in education. The future of our commonwealth is at stake.

Rich Askey is president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, which represents about 178,000 active and retired educators and school employees, student teachers, higher education staff, and health care workers.