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HARRISBURG, PA (November 15, 2021) – At the start of American Education Week, PSEA President Rich Askey joined lawmakers, union leaders, and other advocates to call for action on research-driven policy ideas to improve public education in the aftermath of the pandemic.
Askey declined to take part in a hearing before the Pennsylvania House Labor and Industry Committee on a litany of bills designed to hurt working people, weaken unions, and undermine the state’s economy.
“I’d much rather be standing here talking about real problems and letting everyone know that we are ready to get to work and solve them,” Askey said at a Capitol press conference.
He said Pennsylvania lawmakers should be focused on solutions to the shortage of educators and substitutes, the need for mental health supports for students, accelerated learning strategies to help close student learning gaps, and ways to encourage greater diversity among the teacher workforce.
“We need to prioritize issues that matter for Pennsylvania’s students and their families,” Askey said. “We need to get to work and work together. We cannot get distracted by issues that just don’t matter. We have real problems to solve in Pennsylvania schools, and we have real work to do. We’re ready. Now, we need more lawmakers to stand with us to get things done.”
A shortage of teachers and substitutes
One of the biggest challenges facing schools right now is a growing shortage of teachers and substitutes.
Between 2013-14 and 2018-19, there has been a 33% drop in the number of students completing teacher preparation programs in Pennsylvania colleges and universities. And that has translated into a 78% drop in Instructional I certificates issued by the state Department of Education.
On top of that, districts are finding it incredibly difficult to fill substitute teacher positions.
“As we work to put student learning back on track, we cannot be packing students into crowded classrooms or cafeterias because there aren’t enough substitutes to teach them,” Askey said. “We need to find ways to make it easier for qualified people to become substitute teachers and use some of the billions of dollars in federal American Rescue Plan funds to pay our substitute teachers better.”
Long-term strategies are also necessary to reverse the overall teacher shortage, he said.
“Teaching is the profession that makes every other profession possible,” Askey said. “And we need more — many more — of Pennsylvania’s best and brightest to educate the doctors, engineers, nurses, and leaders of tomorrow.”
Accelerated learning and mental health
Askey said multiyear strategies are necessary to provide students with mental health support and to get their learning fully back on track.
“We don’t have nearly enough certified social workers, counselors, and psychologists in our public schools,” Askey said. “We need our legislators to make this a priority as students navigate a variety of mental and emotional health needs, made worse by the pandemic.
“We also need to find ways to help students make up for any learning delayed by the pandemic. We can’t do this overnight, but we have the resources to make this a real priority. We just need more lawmakers who are willing to do the right thing.”
Promoting educator diversity
Askey said it is time for a comprehensive set of policies to remove barriers to teacher preparation programs so that we can recruit more diverse candidates and encourage them to stick with the profession.
Teachers of color currently make up only 6.3% of Pennsylvania’s educator workforce, while students of color make up 33.5% of the student body. Only five other states have worse student-to-teacher ratios.
Askey is the president of PSEA. An affiliate of the National Education Association, PSEA represents about 178,000 active and retired educators and school employees, student teachers, higher education staff, and health care workers in Pennsylvania.