Ways to Ease Substitute Teacher Shortages?

  • School leaders need flexible policies to ensure they can hire the substitute teachers they need. 
  • We trust school leaders to keep kids safe and manage large budgets. Shouldn’t we trust them to choose which teachers they hire? 


The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the problems of inflexible, bureaucratic systems. From liquor sales to education to health care, top-heavy systems have failed to meet the ever-changing challenges facing Pennsylvanians. 


As schools struggle to re-open, this inflexibility is going to cause a crisis if school leaders aren’t given more autonomy when it comes to hiring substitute teachers.  


We haven’t even made it to Labor Day, and there are already multiple stories about shortages of substitute teachers. Some districts, such as East Pennsboro in Cumberland County, had to switch to fully remote instruction at the last minute due to a lack of teachers and substitutes. Central Bucks, Mt. Lebanon, and Beaver school districts all made similar decisions recently as it became apparent not enough teachers were willing to return to the classroom—and not enough substitutes were available to fill the gaps. 

Even before the coronavirus, many schools faced shortages of substitute teachers. A survey conducted last year by EdWeek Research Center found only around 54 percent of the 250,000 daily teacher absences were typically filled. While low pay and irregular schedules are frequently cited reasons for the shortage of subs, Pennsylvania also has the some of the nation’s most burdensome certification requirements and opportunities are limited for uncertified substitutes. 

But now is not the time to get hung up on bureaucratic rules that make it harder for kids to get an education— especially since there’s no clear evidence that certification results in better teachers. Every district in Pennsylvania requires teachers to be certified, but fewer than 30% of students read proficiently in some districts. Clearly it wouldn’t hurt to try something different. Moreover, the success of private schools and homeschoolers is pretty good evidence that you don’t need a state certificate to be an effective teacher. 

Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill and Rep. Barb Gleim are planning to introduce legislation that would give school leaders additional hiring flexibility. The proposed bill will allow an individual who has completed 60 semester-hour credits or two years in an accredited college to become a substitute teacher. It would also allow certified subs from other states to substitute teach in Pennsylvania. 

According to Sen. Phillips-Hill, “It might be a good way to incentive people into the classroom. Give them that exposure to see what it’s like and encourage people who have an interest and passion for educating our youth. With Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate sitting close to 14%, this could have the added benefit of providing jobs to people currently out of work. 

In addition to changing eligibility, lawmakers should consider letting districts handle their own emergency certifications. Currently, districts must apply to the Department of Education for emergency certificates for substitutes who aren’t already certified. With every district likely to need increased substitutes due to COVID-19, this has the potential to be a massive bottleneck. Pennsylvania has strict qualifications for school superintendents. Surely superintendents who are actually in the districts can make emergency substitute decisions better than bureaucrats in Harrisburg. 

Giving school leaders additional hiring flexibility will help with the current school year, but it will also produce a system that is more nimble down the road. Pennsylvania was caught flat-footed when the pandemic struck. Changes we make now can ensure we’re ready for the next crisis.