Student Mental Health, Staffing Shortages Are the Biggest Challenges Facing Pa. Schools, According to New Report

Desks are arranged in a classroom at Panther Valley Elementary School, Thursday, March 11, 2021, in Nesquehoning, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

By Ashley Adams

March 10, 2023

The annual State of Education report found that the biggest challenges facing school districts in the commonwealth are student mental health concerns, staffing shortages, and school finances.

For the third straight year, a statewide report on public education in the commonwealth showed  student mental health concerns soaring above all other classroom needs.

According to the Pennsylvania School Board Association’s (PSBA) State of Education report, student mental health concerns are a top priority for school districts and there’s no indication from the data that the problem is receding. 

The report, which is based on survey responses from 281 of the state’s 500 school districts, shows that schools are still dealing with many of the challenges presented by the pandemic.

Right behind mental health, the report highlights increased staffing shortages as another major strain on school districts along with finances.

David Schaap, PSBA president, said that a recent release of grant funding from the federal government is helping bridge some short-term gaps in staffing and mental health provisions, but notes these temporary lifelines will dry up over the coming years.

“There are no short-term solutions that can last,” Schaap said.

Here are some other key takeaways from the PSBA’s report:

Public Education Landscape

Pennsylvania ranks 7th nationally in public school enrollments, with more than 1.7 million students.

Of the nearly 1.9 million school-age children in Pennsylvania, 87% were enrolled in public schools during the 2020-21 school year. The six other states with higher public school enrollments are California, Texas, Florida, New York, Illinois, and Georgia.

The breakdown of enrollment across all public local education agencies in the state is as follows:

  • 500 school districts – 1.5 million students
  • 165 charter schools – 105,700 students
  • 71 career and technology centers – 49,400 students
  • 14 cyber charter schools – 56,800

Of the students enrolled in public schools in the state, over 60% are white, 14% are Black, 13% are Hispanic, and 4% are Asian, according to the report.

Addressing Student Mental Health and Staffing Shortages

Approximately 71% of school districts surveyed say student mental health needs and staffing shortages are their biggest challenges.

With student mental health such a pressing issue, many school districts have worked to expand their programs and services to address the growing need. Around 97% provide mental health education and/or schoolwide programming. 

The staffing shortages extend not just to teachers, but to the instructional aides, nurses, psychologists, social workers, and special education professionals who support teachers. According to the report, 92% of school districts reported various staffing shortages.

Almost every school district reported experiencing a shortage of substitute teachers last year. An overall teacher shortage began years ago in the state and was accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Substitute teachers are often new teachers who haven’t landed a permanent job, others who don’t have the needed Pennsylvania certification, or retirees who are usually older.

Daily substitute teachers in the commonwealth were paid an average of $105 a day in 2020-21. 

Some districts are raising their pay, but it still might not be enough. The state has also taken steps to ease the shortage. Teachers with inactive certificates can sub for longer than before and the state is letting people with some college credits and experience, but no degree, fill in.

School Finances

Pennsylvania ranks 10th nationally for expenditures per student, spending more than $17,000 per pupil, almost $4,000 more than the national average. The highest state is New York at more than $25,000 per student.

Expenditures include salaries, employee benefits, purchased services, tuition, supplies, and other instructional items. 

However, of the $17,142 expenditures spent per student by the commonwealth, $5,656, or 33%, of that is dedicated to employee benefits, including pension costs. Only one other state, Illinois, has a greater portion of spending per student dedicated to employee benefits at 33.2%. 

In the 2020-21 school year, 60.3% of every dollar (60 cents) school districts spent went toward instruction. Instruction costs include salaries, employee benefits, purchased services, tuition, supplies, and other expenditures.

The breakdown of the rest of expenses per student is as follows:

  • Debt service and other financing – 8.6%
  • Administrative services – 8.1%
  • Operation and maintenance of facilities – 7.5%
  • Instructional support services – 6.1%
  • Student transportation – 4%
  • Fund transfers – 3%
  • Student activities – 1.3%
  • Student health services – 1.1%
  • All other uses – 0.1%

Another burden to  school finances in the state are mandatory charter school tuition payments. In 2020-21, school districts’ mandatory charter school tuition payments surpassed $2.6 billion, which represented 8% of all expenditures, according to the PSBA report. Since 2010, the percentage of school district spending on charter school tuition has more than doubled.

Under current state law, a school district’s charter tuition rates are based on the district’s expenses. While mandated expenses have continued to increase, so have tuition rates. As a result, school districts’ charter tuition payments have kept increasing even while charter school enrollment growth has slowed.

School Infrastructure

Almost three-quarters (71.4%) of Pennsylvania school districts have one or more school buildings in need of major repair or replacement, according to the report.

Districts reported a wide variety of needed improvements. Over 65% cited heating, venting, and air conditioning as the top concern. Other areas of concern included windows and doors, roofing, energy efficiency upgrades, boilers, health and safety upgrades, plumbing, technology upgrades, and asbestos remediation.

Despite creating a new school construction and renovation reimbursement program in 2019, no state funding has been appropriated to finance new projects. The lack of state reimbursement has been a barrier to school construction and renovation for most school districts, according to PSBA.

Since March 2020, the federal government has provided $190 billion in pandemic aid to schools, including nearly $7 billion for Pennsylvania. While 20% must be used to address learning setbacks, the rest can be used on nearly any cost school districts deem “reasonable and necessary.”

School districts have until September 30, 2024 to spend all of the funds. According to the report, a majority of districts have already spent the funds or have obligated them for future expenses.


  • Ashley Adams

    In her 16 years in the communications industry, Ashley Adams has worn many hats, including news reporter, public relations writer, marketing specialist, copy editor and technical writer. Ashley grew up in Berks County and has since returned to her roots to raise her three children.

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