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Pa. Democratic lawmakers renew push to expand teacher certification and in-state tuition for DACA recipients

Selenia Tello, a teacher at Norristown Area School District, is advocating for a bill that would allow immigrants to apply for teacher certifications.
Gabriela Martinez/WITF
Selenia Tello, a teacher at Norristown Area School District, is advocating for a bill that would allow immigrants to apply for teacher certifications.

(WITF)-Two bills in the Pennsylvania state legislature are seeking to expand access to education for immigrants.

One of them would remove barriers that prevent Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) recipients from applying for teacher certifications. The other seeks to expand eligibility for in-state tuition to include immigrant students who graduate from Pennsylvania high schools.

Currently, immigrants can apply for a teaching certification through PDE only if they plan to teach a foreign language, or have a green card and commit to becoming a U.S citizen. Schwank’s proposal would amend the rules so that people who have green card, work visa or a work permit can be employed at public schools as teachers.

Non-U.S. citizens in Pennsylvania are also not eligible for in-state tuition, and often have to find alternative sources of funding for college. Sixteen states, including Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Virginia, offer comprehensive in-state tuition, scholarships and financial aid to DACA students.

Democratic lawmakers, teachers, students, parents and education advocates gathered at the Wednesday to show support. Many held signs that read “Let Dreamers Teach.”

“We should be doing everything we can to help talented and dedicated young people that want to serve in our public schools and complete their post-secondary education in Pennsylvania,” said Sen. Judy Schwank (D-Berks), who has introduced these bills in past sessions and is the prime sponsor of the current set.

“Given the teacher shortage and declining enrollments at our state system schools, it just doesn’t make sense to tell these folks, eager to give back to their communities, to go somewhere else. That should never happen.”

Selenia Tello, a teacher at Norristown Area School District, said the staff there is grappling with a teacher shortage. She supports allowing DACA recipients to earn teaching certificates because it would allow non-US citizens qualified to be hired at her district.

“Most of our students are Hispanic, a lot of them are first generation students. A lot of them are immigrants. They know that all of these teachers will know how to empathize with them. They also know the language of a lot of our students,” Tello said.

As of 2020, 17 states allow DACA recipients to be certified as public school teachers. This includes neighboring states such as New Jersey, New York and West Virginia, where DACA professionals often have to move in order to find employment.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania schools are struggling to hire and retain teachers. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the amount of teacher certification issued has dropped from 21,000 in 2010-11 to about 7,000 about 7,000 in 2019-20.

“One of those subjects that we have the greatest shortages in is English as a Second Language,” said Laura Boyce, executive director, Teach Plus PA.

Reading School District in Berks County, where more than 80% of students are Hispanic, is an example of a district that has a sizable population of English language learners. RSD reported to the Pennsylvania Department of Education that in the 2020-2021 school year, 25% percent of their students–4,567 – were English language learners, and the majority of them were Spanish speakers.

Jesse Leisawitz, chief legal officer at the district, says Schwank’s proposal would help increase the number of teachers who could serve that student population. It would also be encouraging for undocumented high-schoolers who want to pursue a career in education.

“We’ve had firsthand situations with young men and young women who graduated K-12 who went on to institutes of higher education wanting to become teachers only to find out that because of their status,” Leisawitz said.

According to Research for Action, between 2019 and 2020, 6 percent of teachers in Pennsylvania were people of color. One percent of teachers in the state are Hispanic, even though that is the fastest growing demographic.

Schwank hopes the proposals will move in the House, which has a slim Democratic majority.

Rep. Peter Schweyer (D-Lehigh), Majority Chair of the House Education Committee, said he plans to consider the bills.

“It’s a question of fairness and a moral question. The good news, now we are not only in a position where we can have these conversations and raise awareness, but we can actually start moving this legislation,” Schweyer said.

The bill in the Republican-led Senate was assigned to the education committee. A spokesperson for Sen. David G. Argall (R-Schuykill), chair of the education committee, says the bills are under review.

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