Make education a priority in Pennsylvania’s budget | Opinion

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By Rich Askey

I have a duty for you. Put 100 people in a room and get 80 of them to agree on something.

You shake your head. You say it’s impossible.

Yet in a recent survey of public school parents from Hart Research and Lake Research Partners, a remarkable 78% said the quality and performance of their children’s teachers was excellent or good. 80% said their children’s teachers had gone the extra mile to help students during the pandemic.

Step into any classroom in Pennsylvania and you’ll see educators and support professionals go above and beyond to keep their students’ learning on track despite a daunting array of challenges.

The parents recognize and appreciate all that they have done.

But unfortunately, many educators tell me that this school year has been the most difficult of their careers. Too many people think about career changes. It couldn’t come at a worse time as many students continue to struggle with the effects of the pandemic.

In the coming months, state lawmakers will negotiate a new state budget with Governor Tom Wolf, who will outline Pennsylvania’s priorities over the next year.

In education, we need to identify ways to address the many challenges facing our schools, including addressing learning delays due to the pandemic and keeping great teachers on the job.

With a big increase in state funding, we can empower public schools to assess gaps in student learning and ensure educators have the time and support to fill the gaps. This can include investing in programs to reduce class sizes and provide more individualized attention to students.

We must provide the mental and emotional health services students need to recover from the stress and trauma they have experienced during the pandemic. This means employing more professional school nurses, counsellors, psychologists and social workers. Too many school districts have only a handful of these specialists to serve hundreds or even thousands of students.

In addition to these challenges, we are seeing shortages of crisis-level educators, support staff, and substitute teachers in Pennsylvania. This has shifted pressure on existing staff who are losing prep time and lunches to replace sick colleagues. Some go from the main class to the dismissal bell without a restroom break.

Providing the resources our schools need to deal with this crisis must be a top priority for lawmakers in this budget.

If lawmakers approve significant increases in state funding, school districts will be able to increase teachers’ starting salaries to at least $50,000 so that teacher salaries are competitive with other states and other professions.

We also need to invest in higher education and student loan forgiveness to attract more people of color into the teaching profession. Currently, students of color make up 36 percent of all public school students, while teachers of color make up just 6 percent of the educator workforce, according to Research for Action.

Public schools are receiving federal relief funds to address education issues fueled by the pandemic, but they are reluctant to use that short-term funding for long-term investments. This is one of the reasons why state funding increases are so significant. Public funds, which account for nearly half of total Pennsylvania public school spending, are more reliable, consistent, and predictable.

And that brings us back to priorities.

Our students and educators need state policymakers to make public school funding a top priority and pass a bipartisan budget that gives schools the resources they need.

Every student deserves the power of a great public education, and every public school needs the resources to make sure their students get it.

We also need our educators. They have stepped up during the pandemic and made a huge difference in the lives of their students. We don’t want to lose great teachers to other industries.

In recent years, elected officials have made funding public education a top priority. This bipartisan commitment has resulted in a record increase in school funding in the current year’s budget.

Now we need lawmakers to come together again and invest in education. The future of our community is at stake.

Rich Askey is president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, which represents approximately 178,000 active and retired educators and school employees, student teachers, higher education personnel and healthcare workers. Learn more about www.psea.org.

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