Pennsylvania is experiencing a teacher shortage. According to the state legislature and the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE), the shortage is dire, requiring both legislation and policy changes to address the problem.
Representative Mark Rozzi (D-Berks) introduced House Bill 688, the Teacher Pipeline Scholarship Program, which passed the House on May 2, 2023. The program would grant up to $8,000 per year (for up to four years) to students enrolled in a teacher education program, including student teacher assignments. A press release from Rozzi’s office stated, “The commonwealth currently has more teachers on emergency permits than newly certified teachers.”
Rozzi further elaborated on the Pennsylvania teacher shortage. “Pennsylvania’s persistent teacher shortage threatens the stability of our education system and deprives children of receiving a quality education — a right guaranteed in our state constitution. We must prioritize recruiting and retaining talented teachers to ensure that children throughout Pennsylvania can thrive and reach their full potential.”
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The PDE acknowledged the Pennsylvania teacher shortage with a policy change to shorten the certification processing time. Previously, the state took between ten and twelve weeks to process certification applications. Under the new system, certifications are processed as quickly as one to six weeks. Carissa Pokorny-Golden, Director of the Bureau of School Leadership and Teacher Quality at the PDE, announced that the changes would go into effect last week. “We know that the shortage is going on, and in the state, we’re doing all we can to try and alleviate any kind of hold-up that could occur at any point,” she said. “That’s where we come in, at least in terms of certification.”
Despite this drastic problem impacting students across the commonwealth, Governor Shapiro and House Democrats continue to oppose the Lifeline Scholarship program. Despite the fact that Shapiro campaigned to support this initiative and despite the fact that he appeared on national TV pledging his support for this program, last week, over a month past the deadline, he signed the budget with a line-item veto of the program.
Shapiro’s job is to lead, and that includes negotiating in good faith to finalize and sign the state budget on time. The Lifeline Scholarship program is literally just dipping its toes in the water of school choice. Opponents of the program expressed concern about taking money away from public schools, yet this program does not take a single penny from state education funding. With the Pennsylvania teacher shortage, school districts cannot fill all their vacancies, potentially leaving underqualified staff to cover classes. Last year, PDE relaxed requirements for districts to hire teachers, acknowledging the difficulty of recruiting qualified teachers.
This comes at a time when at least half of the students across the state are not proficient in reading and math. The proposed legislation from Rozzi may attract students to the teaching profession; however, results will not be seen for at least four years. The new policy changes to decrease processing time beg the question as to why it ever took up to twelve weeks for PDE to issue certifications in the first place.
Neither of these measures will quickly address the Pennsylvania teacher shortage. However, the Lifeline Scholarship program could have an immediate effect on low-performing schools if enacted now. Teacher shortages are typically worse in low-income and low-performing schools. If parents in these schools are given the opportunity to move their child to a better school, the district will likely need to hire fewer teachers and therefore focus on recruiting high-quality, appropriately certified teachers.
The scholarship program for families in failing schools could be analogous to the scholarship program to attract students to the teaching profession. The state is providing an incentive to address problems. The Teacher Pipeline Scholarship program is aimed at addressing the teacher shortage, while the Lifeline Scholarship program is designed to address students stuck in underperforming schools. Taken one step further, the Lifeline Scholarship program can be seen as a viable solution to the teacher shortage problem.
The Lifeline Scholarship program could have an immediate effect on low-performing schools if enacted now.
If failing schools have fewer students, they need fewer teachers. Not only does this help the underperforming schools with recruitment, but it also means that other schools will have access to more applicants. The Lifeline Scholarship program appears to be an easy solution to help address the bigger problem. Why, then, are House Democrats and Shapiro not viewing it that way?
The answer is simple: the teachers’ unions. The Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), an affiliate of the National Education Association (NEA), issued a strong statement decrying the Lifeline Scholarship program. PSEA President Rich Askey said, “PSEA is absolutely opposed to ‘lifeline scholarships’ or any other tuition voucher scheme.”
Despite the fact that the Lifeline Scholarship program would not only help our most vulnerable and struggling students and potentially help the Pennsylvania teacher shortage, the PSEA is vehemently opposed. This is not surprising, since the PSEA supports its infrastructure with member dues from public school teachers. If there are fewer public school teachers, then PSEA loses revenue, and its ability to influence elections and advance political causes is diminished.
The PSEA endorsed Governor Shapiro, and the NEA and their political action committee both gave him sizable donations. Shapiro’s about-face on the scholarships is most likely because he has the support of not only the state’s teachers unions, but also other unions.
While it is not surprising that Shapiro failed to keep his promises, it is disappointing, especially when the Lifeline Scholarship program could assist in addressing the teacher shortage situation that will impact students and school districts across the state. Shapiro and the holdout Democrats should reconsider their myopic position on the Lifeline Scholarships if they are serious about addressing the teacher shortage problem.
Beth Ann Rosica resides in West Chester, has a Ph.D. in Education, and has dedicated her career to advocating on behalf of at-risk children and families. She covers education issues for Broad + Liberty. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.