Fifth grade English Language Arts teacher Abby Posey works with students on Feb. 28, 2018.

Amid an all time high critical teacher shortage, Mississippi lawmakers failed to pass any concrete measures to address the issue.

At least 19 teacher shortage bills were introduced during the recently completed 2019 legislative session; all of them failed to pass.

“It’s very disappointing that the Legislature has not addressed the teacher shortage. We have thousands of children who are being taught by long-term substitute teachers – some of whom are not certified to teach any subject – because school districts are having such a hard time finding teachers,” said Nancy Loome, executive director of public school advocacy group The Parents’ Campaign.

The bills shared several common themes for solving the teacher shortage:

• Creating a third option for teacher candidates to obtain their license by having a 3.0 GPA (current options are scoring 21 on the ACT or passing Praxis Core)

Funding a teacher leadership pilot program that would give those in teacher leadership roles a stipend (this was aimed at increasing teacher retention)

• Providing tuition assistance to help non-teachers become teachers

•  Supplying incentives for people to teach in critical needs areas

• Developing a different license for those teaching in shortage areas

The Legislature did allocate $500,000 to forgivable loans for teachers willing to teach in shortage districts, but it’s unclear whether that money will go to one loan program or three different loan programs. It’s also unclear how many people will be able to receive the loan. In 2018, 54 teachers or teacher candidates received state assistance with forgivable loans; that same year there were more than 2,100 teaching vacancies and 2,256 uncertified teachers across the state.

Rep. Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach and chairman of the house education committee, said he was unsure of why none of the teacher shortage bills got through.

“I don’t know, honestly. I am looking at what we can do with those shortages. I think we’ve got to think outside of the box a little bit and I think it’s going to be a priority over the summer for me to find ways to get people to those areas, especially in the Delta,” he said.  

Bennett himself sponsored two bills that were specifically tailored to addressing the teacher shortage. Rep. Orlando Paden, D-Clarksdale also sponsored two teacher shortage bills. He also expressed confusion over why the bills didn’t pass, saying that he couldn’t, “fathom the answer of why anybody would not bring bills out that will help our districts.”

The teacher shortage is more pronounced in the Delta, where in some districts as much as a third of the teachers are not certified. Failure to pass these bills means that critical teacher shortage areas – which are hit hardest with barriers to recruiting teachers – will continue to not receive any innovative aid from the state.

Sen. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford and outgoing senate education chairman said some of these bills didn’t pass because the money wasn’t there to implement the initiatives within the would be legislation.

“It was a money component,” he said. “The money was really being taken up with teacher pay and some other teacher projects.”

Though the legislature did approve a $1,500 pay raise for teachers, Delta-based advocates said that wouldn’t be enough to make it easier for them to recruit teachers to the area.

“It’s already hard to attract teachers to the Delta … [The raise is] not sufficient in any shape, form or fashion,” said Evereth Stanton, board president of the West Bolivar Consolidated School District.

Stanton also said he felt the legislators aren’t putting enough thought into what the education system in the Delta needs.

“They actually need to visit these school districts, especially the Delta, and see what exactly is going on and how the teacher shortage is crippling these school districts,” he said.

With the teacher shortage disproportionately hurting the Delta, and the issue dragging on for two decades without any robust efforts to solve it, some people in the area see it as yet another example of people in power willfully turning a blind eye to those suffering the most.

“To a degree, there’s a certain level of classism. Desoto (County) doesn’t have a teacher shortage issue. Clinton doesn’t have teacher shortage issue. Attractive areas don’t have this issue,” said Marcus Johnson, educator in the Clarksdale Municipal School District. “It seems as though those schools in the Delta, the most impoverished areas, are being overlooked in terms of the need and how they are not allowed to be a part of the process of how their children’s educational future is shaped.”

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Kelsey Davis Betz is from Mobile, Ala., and currently lives in Cleveland, where she worked as a Mississippi Delta-based reporter covering education and intersecting issues. Kelsey has a dual degree in journalism and Spanish from Auburn University and worked as an editorial intern at Texas Monthly and a courts reporter at the Montgomery Advertiser. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report and is a co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.

Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.

Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.