As Pa. teacher shortage looms, legislators consider bill to smooth out-of-state certification

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As local school districts scramble to find teachers and substitute teachers, a bill that would make it easier for out-of-state educators to work in Pennsylvania has received unanimous support from lawmakers thus far.

State Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington, is co-sponsoring the bill, which now awaits House and gubernatorial approval.

“This is not a partisan issue,” Bartolotta said. “This is not an Eastern Pennsylvania vs. Western Pennsylvania issue. This is statewide. Every single legislator has been hearing from their school districts the same sad song.”

The legislation would:

  • Give in-state certification eligibility to out-of-state candidates who have completed a Pennsylvania-approved educator preparation program

  • Grant certification to those who hold a certificate issued by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards

  • Require the Pennsylvania Department of Education to recognize and accept out-of-state candidates’ qualifying scores on equivalent content tests toward PDE’s testing and certification requirements.

It comes as an influx of K-12 teachers resign or retire while fewer teachers receive certification. Since 2010, the number of new teaching certificates has declined 66% in Pennsylvania.

During the 2010-2011 academic year, Pennsylvania issued 15,000 certificates for in-state educators and 2,000 certificates for out-of-staters.

Meanwhile, in 2019-20, only 5,000 in-state and 800 out-of-state certificates were issued, according to Fritz Fekete, regional advocacy coordinator for the Pennsylvania State Education Association’s Southwestern office.

The state is also facing a “pretty much unbearable” substitute teacher shortage, Fekete said. When districts lack substitutes, teachers often sacrifice their planning time to cover classrooms.

This could contribute to teacher burnout while also hurting students’ education.

“There’s no district that doesn’t experience what I’m talking about,” Fekete said.

Administrators react

These issues have directly impacted the Highlands School District in Harrison Township, Allegheny County, said Superintendent Monique Mawhinney. Like many districts, Highlands has attempted to entice new substitute hires with pay raises. The district also contracted two outside companies to find substitute teachers.

Still, the shortage persists.

“The substitute shortage was an issue before COVID,” Mawhinney said. “Covid just made it impossible to get subs.”

As more teachers leave the profession, many districts have more job openings than usual, Mawhinney said. This means it is easier for education majors to get a teaching job right out of college. In years past, recent graduates would often sub before landing a teaching job.

Mawhinney envisions the proposed legislation will help the situation.

“I’m not sure it will solve the problem, but at least (lawmakers) are willing to consider other options,” she said. “It really is a crisis right now.”

The Franklin Regional School District in Murrysville, Westmoreland County, has also felt the pains of the teacher and substitute shortage. Superintendent Gennaro Piraino thinks the legislation could benefit districts, but expressed concerns that more relaxed certification requirements could decrease the quality of teaching.

However, as Piraino pointed out, it’s hard to compare an underqualified teacher with no teacher at all.

A ‘patchwork’ for the problem?

Fekete said the bill “might help” the Keystone State draw teachers from Ohio and West Virginia, where teachers’ average salaries are considerably lower.

However, New Jersey and New York already offer higher salaries than Pennsylvania, and Maryland will soon join those states with better pay than Pennsylvania.

“What we stand to gain from Ohio and West Virginia is going to get bled off from Maryland,” Fekete said.

The coordinator worries the legislation is just a “patchwork” for a larger problem.

Because of this, Fekete is pushing for a $45,000 minimum teacher salary in Pennsylvania. The minimum salary currently stands at $18,500 — and has since 1989.

An increased minimum salary could even make districts within Western Pennsylvania more competitive with each other. Fekete said it’s “untenable” that Allegheny County districts pay their teachers thousands more than districts in Westmoreland, Washington or Fayette counties.

He also advocates for bills that expose students to K-12 career paths early.

“We’ve got to get more teachers in the pipeline to get more teachers in the classroom,” he said, “but until we create a climate that makes teaching more attractive, it’s going to be impossible.”

Maddie Aiken is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Contact her at maiken@triblive.com.

This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: PA teacher shortage: Legislation might make certification easier