This op-ed originally ran in the Clarion-Ledger on February 5, 2021. It was written by Toren Ballard, our director of K-12 policy at Mississippi First.

Both current and aspiring public school teachers in Mississippi are increasingly faced with a dilemma: pursue a meaningful career educating the next generation of Mississippians–or earn a paycheck capable of ensuring a comfortable standard of living. Nowadays, it is nearly impossible for teachers to achieve both, and Mississippi students suffer as a result.

In Nothing in the Pipes: Educator Crisis in Mississippi, co-author Rachel Canter and I demonstrate how, after reaching an inflation-adjusted high of almost $55,000 in 2009 at the height of the Great Recession, the value of a Mississippi teacher salary has plummeted in the last decade. At $45,105 a year in 2018, Mississippi teachers earned an average salary over $20,000 less than the average Mississippian with a bachelor’s degree, and around $8,000 less than the regional average for teachers.

In the same time period, the cost of attending college has ballooned 26% from 2008-2009 to 2016-2017, to the point where attending a single year of school–even after grants and scholarships–at a Mississippi college or university now costs an average of $14,662. Students who rely on typical amounts of federal loans to pay tuition and related expenses can now expect to graduate with over $25,000 in student loan debt and ultimately spend about $32,000–with a monthly payment of $265–paying these loans back. Becoming a teacher is now more expensive than ever, while compensation in Mississippi is now at its lowest level in the 21st century

Taking these circumstances together, it is no wonder that educator preparation graduates in Mississippi fell by 32% from 2013-2014 to 2017-2018 and that out-of-state graduates coming to Mississippi have almost vanished, with a 96% decline. In a state where over one-third of school districts are classified as critical shortage areas, further damage to the educator pipeline will only exacerbate the teacher crisis. 

Fortunately, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle recognize the plight of Mississippi’s educator pipeline. This year, the legislature is considering two ways to improve the attractiveness of the profession. Two teacher salary bills–Senate Bill 2001 and House Bill 852–would increase the pay for new teachers by $1,110 and pay for all other teachers by $1,000. The two bills only differ in that the raise offered to assistant teachers in House Bill 852 is $1,100 rather than the $1,000 in the senate version. In addition to the pay raise, the legislature is considering Senate Bill 2305, which would offer up to three years of loan repayment assistance to new teachers who choose to teach in-state. If funded, the program could provide a maximum over three years of $10,500 to a new teacher in a non-critical shortage area and $16,500 to a new teacher in a critical shortage area.

The pay raise and loan repayment proposals both contribute to improving the dwindling standard of living endured by Mississippi teachers, but we believe the legislature needs to make a strong, multi-year commitment to further increasing compensation and financial aid for teachers. A $1,000 raise, for example, is only a start to reversing the decade-long decline of the value of teacher salaries caused by inflation. Raising starting salaries to the regional average, for example, will require a $3,000 raise, which could be achieved with smaller raises over 2-3 years. $3,000 would also push average salaries closer to the regional average.

Loan repayment, too, will be more powerful if paired with an undergraduate grant designed to attract students into educator preparation. Loan repayment assistance is, by definition, an in-service incentive–meaning it is only available to licensed, practicing teachers. What the state really needs is a drastic change in behavior at the undergraduate level, where students are increasingly avoiding educator preparation for a more lucrative career track. We therefore urge lawmakers to consider the creation of a teacher-specific undergraduate grant program for enrolled educator preparation students. With the 2021 session underway, the legislature should be prepared to study this issue over the summer and come back in 2022 with a companion to this year’s loan repayment program focused on undergraduate grants.

Lawmakers have an opportunity to address the fiscal constraints on Mississippi public school teachers that have contributed to the state’s critical teacher shortage. By focusing on compensation and financial aid, the legislature can boost the supply of teachers and incentivize them to stay where they are most needed–in Mississippi classrooms. Students and teachers throughout the state are counting on the legislature.

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