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State association calls for higher teacher salaries

In the midst of a record-high teacher shortage across the state, the Pennsylvania State Education Association is calling on legislators to set a minimum $60,000 salary for educators, counselors and nurses.

During a Senate Education Committee hearing on Tuesday, PSEA President Rich Askey also lobbied for a $20 per hour minimum wage for education support professionals, such as bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians, and paraprofessionals.

“Fixing the longer-term educator pipeline is going to take a sustained, multiyear commitment to address barriers,” Askey said. “And the most significant of those are the cost of becoming a teacher and the salaries we pay. Educator compensation must reflect the value that these professionals provide to their students, their communities, and society as a whole.”

Over the last decade, the Pennsylvania Department of Education has seen a 71% decline in the amount of certificates issued to first-time teachers.

A report issued last month by Teach Plus and the National Center on Education and the Economy attributed the rapid decline to low pay, the high cost of education, stressful workplace conditions, declining interest, and a lack of preparation for new teachers.

State Sen. Dave Argall, who represents Carbon, Schuylkill and part of Luzerne County, said the shortage is of particular interest to him because of his previous desire to be a history teacher. His parents, who were educators themselves, discouraged the idea, telling Argall there were “already too many of those.”

“I have seen over the years where there were teacher surpluses and shortages,” Argall said. “I’m hearing that this shortage is different from some of those in the past and we’re very interested to learn the facts. What we don’t want to do is overemphasize quantity and underemphasize quality.”

Carbon County’s superintendents have met recently with Argall and the conversation, said Dr. Christina Fish of Lehighton Area School District, centered on the balance between keeping the high standards Pennsylvania has for its teachers with the need for more of them.

“One of the reasons I chose to come from California to Pennsylvania is because of the quality of training that Pennsylvania provides to their teachers,” Fish said. “To be certified in Pennsylvania has always carried a great deal of weight, so much so that we carry reciprocity with a lot of other states. If you come here from another state, there are a lot of things you have to do before you meet our criteria. We don’t want to lose that excellence of certification, but we do need to find different ways of getting teachers certified.”

Much of this week’s discussion centered on the cost of post-secondary education and how it compares to teacher salaries.

Over the past 30 years, the cost of public in-state college has more than tripled from $8,000 per year to over $26,000, Teach Plus Executive Director Laura Boyce said. Meanwhile, inflation-adjusted average weekly wages of teachers have been relatively flat since 1996, while weekly wages of other college graduates rose 28% over the same period, leading to a wage penalty of 15.2% for Pennsylvania teachers.

“The cost-benefit equation doesn’t make sense for many prospective teachers, particularly those from low-income backgrounds or those considering working in underfunded schools, where salaries are lower,” Boyce added.

Askey noted that 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.

Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education recently unveiled a plan that would use $56.5 million to provide direct financial relief to education students, saving each an average of $1,500. High-need students could receive an additional $5,000, for a total of $6,500 per year.

Askey also made the case Tuesday for hiring more school nurses, counselors, and other mental health providers as many students struggle with anxiety, depression, and bullying.

“Just as we need to restore our teacher pipeline, we need to make sure we are recruiting and retaining school health professionals to meet a growing set of needs,” he said.

Following Tuesday’s hearing, Argall said he and fellow legislators would review the testimony, which gave them “a lot to think about and work on.”

“There’s one thing we can all agree on,” Argall said. “Everyone in Pennsylvania loses if we fail to properly prepare the next generation of teachers. While today’s testimony showed how complex this issue can be, I look forward to working in a bipartisan manner to ensure we’re setting our students up for success in the 21st century workplace.”