No easy fixes for Pennsylvania’s teacher shortage

(The Center Square) – While the symptoms fueling the state’s teacher shortage are many, apparent easy fixes are few, according to state officials and educators.

College debt, stagnant wages and stressful working conditions drive qualified teachers away in droves, testifiers recently told the Senate Education Committee, as the number of educators qualified by the state has dropped more than two-thirds since 2010.

Department of Education Deputy Secretary Tanya Garcia cited recent high school graduates’ declining interest as a contributing factor. In the 2020-21 school year, she said colleges across the state accepted more than 650,000 students, but only 20,000 enrolled in educator preparation programs.

Zakiya Stewart, state policy manager for Teach Plus, said new teachers also struggle with lingering student loan debt, low salaries, and fewer classroom resources.

Wages have not outpaced inflation or the tripling cost of college over the last 30 years, meaning the financial incentive to join the profession has suffered, she added.

Elizabeth Stelle, the director of policy analysis at the Commonwealth Foundation, said the state’s broken funding system is the problem. As student enrollment declines, districts retain teachers at unsustainable rates and stockpile revenues in reserve accounts.

She said the average teacher in Pennsylvania earns a $71,000 annual salary and the district contributes roughly $20,000 per educator to cover pension obligations. Had district switched to defined contribution plans, schools could offer teachers $90,000 salaries.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the exodus of students from traditional public schools into charters, private schools and home-based programs – but state and local funding doesn’t “follow” those children, she added.

Rich Askey, president of Pennsylvania State Education Association, said the average teacher student loan debt tops $55,000 – and that doesn’t even include the cost of certification. He also admonished the “continued demonization of educators by some parents” as a deterrent for new recruits.

“Pennsylvania’s educators and support staff have risen to meet every challenge and every hurdle placed in their path – all with the singular focus to do what they love – care for and teach students,” he said. “Policymakers can demonstrate their respect for and the value they place on the work our educators have done and continue to do by tackling the educator shortage in a way that doesn’t blame them for the problem or diminish their calling.”

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