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Teacher shortage must be addressed

Teacher shortages remain a problem in the state. Mississippi Today, a non-profit news organization, this week has been highlighting the enormity of the problem. The stories are sobering.

“In over 20 years, the problem has escalated, according to data from the Mississippi Department of Education. The teacher shortage is actually six times worse than it was in 1997, shortly before the Legislature addressed the issue with the passage of the Critical Teacher Shortage Act,” Mississippi Today wrote.

Districts with the worst shortages are often those in poor areas, with a high percentage of black students. Many of them are in the Delta. Closer to home, in Pike County, the North Pike district has little trouble finding teachers but South Pike, where the black student population is higher, does, according to the data.

Low teacher pay is one of the issues, but it doesn’t tell the entire story of why some districts struggle to recruit teachers. Mississippi Today’s report cited few housing options and a lack of job opportunities for teachers’ spouses as problems, too.

But low pay is the biggest obstacle. “A report from the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, showed Mississippi teachers earned less in 2016-17 than teachers in any other state — an average of $42,925 compared to a national average of just under $60,000. Starting teachers in Mississippi make between $34,000 and $39,000, depending on their education level,” Mississippi Today wrote.

Sure, cost of living is less in Mississippi. But that lower cost of living can only offset lower pay so much.

It is not uncommon for teachers to have second jobs to help pay the bills.

With fewer qualified teachers, students suffer. In some districts, computer-based learning has replaced teacher instruction. And while online education programs can be beneficial, they are not effective when used in place of a teacher. They are designed to be used as a supplemental teaching tool.

If students have questions or need extra help, who can they ask? The computer can’t help them. They need qualified teachers to step in, but in some districts there are simply not enough qualified teachers.

So what’s the solution? Increasing teacher pay is the first step. The measly pay increase being passed through the Legislature this session is not enough. Substantial pay increases will have to be implemented in order to change the perception of the teaching profession.

Too many college graduates fall back on teaching only if their first, second or third career choice doesn’t work out. And while those individuals might make good teachers, they won’t be there for the long haul if the pay remains so low.

We encourage lawmakers to make teacher pay a priority, not simply an issue to throw a few pennies at during an election year.