There seems to be an attitude in the Pennsylvania legislature that education is a luxury not a necessity.
Education budgets have been cut, pushing funding requirements onto local school districts. Politicians then blamed teachers for tax increases and promised to cut salaries and benefits. The public attitude toward teachers deteriorated. But words and actions have consequences, and the state is suffering a significant teacher shortfall that will affect finances and educational quality for years.
Students are no longer flocking to the teaching profession. Over the last five years, the number of students graduating from Pennsylvania teacher training programs has fallen by over 60 percent, while the number of teacher certifications granted dropped by over 70 percent.
Almost every school district is challenged to find teachers in certain disciplines and substitutes to cover classrooms.
The cratering of the supply of new teachers has enormous implications.
School districts save costs by replacing teachers who leave or retire with new, lower-paid teachers. Experienced teachers cannot compete for openings in other districts since schools will not pay their higher salaries.
The teacher shortfall means that districts either have to reduce the number of teachers, which normally implies increasing student-teacher ratios, employ more temporary teachers or substitutes, or raise compensation to retain teachers.
Increasing the student-teacher ratio or the number of temporary teachers is generally associated with lower educational outcomes. Paying more to retain experienced teachers is hardly an option in the "no new taxes" political world.
The teacher supply deficit has to be dealt with in other ways. Here are two suggestions: Stop the negative press about teachers and have the state pay its fair share.
When a governor in a neighboring state says that teacher union leaders are greedy, those words are heard because the union is the teachers. Its responsibility is to maximize teacher compensation and improve working conditions in the same way business organizations mirror their business membership's desire to reduce business taxes and regulations.
When the son of a presidential candidate says that schools are "like Soviet-era department stores that are run for the benefit of the clerks and not the customers," people react to those words.
And when a state senator, who is now a candidate for governor, says that "If we laid off 10 percent of the teachers in the state of Pennsylvania, we'd never miss them," students who may be considering going into education take notice. Though he now says he wants to spend more on education, if you were a prospective teacher, would you trust him?
Another way of looking at it is this: If the head of a company said that he/she wanted to cut salaries, benefits, and jobs, would you go to work for that company?
How often in the past 10 years have you heard a politician running for state office or local school board say we need to spend more on education? Not very.
OK, there is one candidate for governor who has steadfastly supported education, but the other major candidate, until recently, bragged that he would cut funding.
And you wonder why people are abandoning the education profession?
But it is not just words; actions tell the same story. Until recently, education has been a major target of budget cuts in Pennsylvania.
Indeed, Pennsylvania is one of the worst states in the nation at funding local education.
Yes, total education spending is high and the state ranks 12th in average spending per pupil.
Unfortunately, the share coming from Harrisburg is abysmal. State aid as a percent of total school revenue is about 35.2 percent. That ranked Pennsylvania 46th in the nation.
As a consequence, the weight of education funding has landed on the backs of school boards. Local funding makes up nearly 62 percent of the revenue supplied by either the state or local governments. The burden on local governments is the sixth highest in the nation.
And that burden is a major reason that school boards are squeezed and local taxpayers have rebelled, making teachers the object of their anger.
You have to hand it to the state legislators. They figured out how to make a state funding responsibility the problem of teachers and local school boards.
The political battles over school taxes and funding have reached a point where they are affecting the attraction of new teachers and the retention of experienced teachers, putting the quality of education at risk.