States across the country are struggling financially, but if you look south of the Mason-Dixon Line you will find many facing budget deficits similar to Pennsylvania’s that are making do and maintaining educational funding. States like Florida, which also was facing billions of dollars in deficits this year, managed a slight spending increase on its K-12 systems. Although the amount was expanded by only $1.22 per student, it shows a commitment to seeing that families are getting what they need from their schools.
This is also in part because of an amendment that requires the Florida Legislature to provide necessary funding for districts to comply with class-size requirements. For K-3, the maximum number of students permitted in a Florida classroom is 18. With extensive research from the U.S. Department of Education equating higher levels of achievement with smaller teacher-student ratios, one must question where the focus lies in Pennsylvania.
In light of the state’s most recent budget, elementary classrooms across Pennsylvania are now jammed with as many as 30 students. This move balanced many districts’ budgets, but also negatively affected their quality of education and sent nearly 4,000 teachers to the unemployment line. Also lost in the shuffle are a brand new generation of would-be teachers who must now play the waiting game, migrate to other parts of the country as if the steel mills had shut down all over again, or go into another field.
In an informal online poll of 75 Pennsylvania residents having graduated with a degree in education within the past three years, the outlook is bleak on the financial and professional fronts. All participants in the poll graduated from a Pennsylvania institution of higher learning, with 18 counties and universities represented in the data. Of the 75 participants surveyed, more than 90 percent had not found a teaching position.
Amanda Trainor of Beechview is just one of hundreds of newly certified teachers from across the state, and a 2011 graduate of Point Park University. She spoke of the frustrations that many in her situation are facing and said that four years earlier no one could have predicted the massive unemployment that would ensue in the teaching profession in Pennsylvania.
Ms. Trainor said this year “was supposed to be a big retirement year in Allegheny County, so we all worked very hard to put ourselves in the best position possible to earn teaching contracts and begin our professional careers.” What Point Park and many other education departments in the region told their new crop of teachers in training was, in fact, true at the time, as the elimination of hundreds of teaching positions in one year hardly seemed likely.
In response to the massive funding cuts, suburban districts offered early retirement incentives or eliminated positions entirely to downsize their staff and payrolls. Keystone Oaks, North Hills, Shaler Area and West Mifflin are just a handful of districts that each cut 20 or more teaching positions from this year’s budget.
Why are Pennsylvania schools — and teachers — in such a dire situation?
Priorities are shifting from what is the best way to provide a quality education to what is the most cost-effective way. The survey found 30 percent of newly certified teachers felt the recent crisis was a result of a state budget that has de-emphasized the value and importance of education, while 63 percent felt that it was also a mismanagement of funds by school districts. Sixty-six percent of participants had at least considered relocating outside of Pennsylvania to find a teaching position. More than half of new teachers surveyed were actively searching for positions in other states.
Among the many things that the uproar over Pennsylvania’s 2011 budget has created is a generation of young professionals wishing they could undo history. Participants were asked that if they could redo college, would they still pursue a degree in education? Nearly half said they would not.