As the 2021-2022 school year approaches, families, educators, and student advocates are growing concerned about the allocation of American Rescue Plan funding across Pennsylvania and its 500 school districts.

The ESSA Leadership Learning Community hosted a virtual news conference this week to discuss how the new federal funding from the American Rescue Plan should be prioritized for Pennsylvania school districts.

In addition to addressing the ongoing economic and health crises triggered by the pandemic, many said they hope that the American Rescue Plan funds will also be used to create education reforms.

“The American Rescue Plan for Education offers an incredible opportunity for schools and districts to invest in education diversity efforts as school leaders can use these funds to recruit and hire educators of color and mentor students of color as they consider becoming educators,” said Pennsylvania Deputy Secretary of Higher Education Tanya Garcia. “The Pennsylvania Department of Education is working with educators and partners across the commonwealth to support this work and the development of competencies needed to provide culturally relevant and sustaining instruction.”

The ESSA Leadership Learning Community represents educators, administrators and advocates across the state.

During the virtual news conference, a panel of leaders in education from across the Keystone State proposed a plan to use funds to increase racial diversity among teachers, addressing the critical need of Pennsylvanian students and the importance of sourcing and retaining appropriate educators. They are calling for American Rescue Plan dollars to be directed toward programs that have been shown to increase racial diversity.

Cheyney University, the nation’s first HBCU, has an “Aspire to Educate” program that began last summer. This is a five-week summer program for high school students to learn about careers in education.

Cheyney President Aaron Walton pushed for districts across the state to use their federal stimulus money because programs like the university’s require “additional resources and funding to enable institutions like Cheyney University to host and sustain them … the American Relief Plan dollars give us another opportunity to collaborate and invest in teacher diversity.”

The conversation also explored the culture of ecosystems in the educational setting and how the state plans to ensure that attaining a career in teaching becomes more sustainable for students, lessening debt burden. One idea was to provide financial aid opportunities to make college more affordable.

Overall, these speakers said they are hoping that the 2021 American Rescue Plan is a win for not only families and students, but also for educational systems across Pennsylvania.

Joining Garcia were: Aaron A. Walton, president of Cheyney University; Esther Bush, president and CEO, Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh; Sharif El-Mekki, CEO, Center for Black Educator Development and former teacher; Larisa Shambaugh, chief talent officer for School District of Philadelphia; Anthony Hamlet, superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools; Valerie Kinloch, the Renee and Richard Goldman Dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Education; Gwen Price, president of the Pennsylvania Association of Colleges and Teacher Educators.

All of the speakers are members of the Pennsylvania Educator Diversity Consortium.

According to the Learning Community, Pennsylvania has one of the highest disparities between students and teachers of color in the nation, and the percentage of teachers of color in the state has been below 6% for almost a decade while the percentage of students of color has increased from approximately 30% to 36%.

Even more striking, male teachers of color comprise slightly more than 1% of Pennsylvania teachers.

El-Mekki said research has shown diverse teachers are good for all students.

“All students benefit from increased teacher diversity. They are better prepared to participate as informed and engaged citizens in an inclusive national civic culture and increasingly complex world,” he said. “Pennsylvania’s teacher pipeline begins at the K-12 level and extends through college, certification and entrance into the teacher profession. The pipeline ends at teacher retention. We must examine all levels of Pennsylvania’s teacher pipeline as it loses teachers of color at each stage.”

Having culturally relevant educators has been shown to improve scholastic outcomes for all demographic groups, while also helping alleviate teacher shortages, but leaders who spoke at the news conference say targeted funding is key.

“This has to be a strategic priority,” Garcia said.

Originally published: The Philadelphia Tribune, 7/23/2021