Students In Teacher-Prep Courses Could Be Fix For Statewide Substitute Shortage

Jul 11, 2016

State legislators are trying to pass a bill that would enable student teachers to work as substitutes to help quell a shortage in Pennsylvania schools.
Credit US Department of Education / Flickr

A shortage of certified substitute teachers is leading school districts across Pennsylvania to put students in gyms and cafeterias instead of classrooms.

“It’s a crisis,” said state Senator Andy Dinniman (D-Chester), the minority chairman of the Education Committee. 

According to Dinniman, school district officials told the committee that they’ve only been able to fill 70 percent of vacancies because of the lack of certified substitutes. He said the shortage is impacting urban, suburban and rural schools.

To ease the “crisis,” the Senate has passed legislation that would allow students with at least 60 credits in a teacher preparatory program at a Pennsylvania college to serve as substitute teachers. SB 1312 is now in the House Education Committee.

The prime sponsor Senator Lloyd Smucker (R-Lancaster) said it makes sense to use future teachers.

“Allowing these students to serve as substitute teachers will give them valuable experience and early exposure to the classroom environment, while also providing a readily available, cost-effective and high-quality pool of teachers for school districts,” Smucker said.

Under current law, substitutes must have a bachelor’s degree and a teaching certificate. School district officials can ask the Department of Education for an emergency permit for a college grad without certification to be a substitute.

According to Dinniman, even with the emergency permits, some districts don’t have enough substitutes.

“Even in some of our best schools they can’t find substitutes," Dinniman said. "So the students go into the gym or go into the cafeteria because there is no teacher for them."

Pittsburgh Public Schools has about 500 substitute teachers according to Brian Glickman, director of talent management, but he said it's not uncommon for the district to apply for up to 200 emergency permits annually. But that’s still not enough.

“More frequently there are instances where we’re unable to have a substitute report to a school on a day where the regular teacher is absent,” Glickman said. But he said that doesn’t result in students getting a “day-long study hall.”

“All our full-time teachers have at least one period of prep time, and in instances where we’re understaffed in a building, those students are being taught by teachers who are taking it on in addition to their scheduled teaching duties," he said. 

Democratic Senator Andy Dinniman of Chester County said the legislation is an immediate response while a long-term solution is developed.

“Is it ideal? No. Does the crisis exist?  Yes. Do we need to find some immediate solution? Absolutely. Are there other ideas we need to discuss on a more deliberative basis? Yes, but this will help," he said. 

Each school district will determine how much to pay these “student teachers,” but they will not be eligible to join the state’s pension plan for teachers.