Fourth grade math teacher Deundre Williams gets to know his students on the first day of class in Cleveland, Miss. on Monday, Aug. 9, 2021. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Certified teacher vacancies in Mississippi have decreased since last year, with 2,593 reported for the 2022-23 school year according to the Mississippi Department of Education. 

The state did not start tracking its critical teacher shortage until 2021, when the department found just over 3,000 public school teaching positions were either completely vacant or held by teachers who were not properly certified. 

Courtney Van Cleve, MDE director of educator talent acquisition and effectiveness, said the survey data provided “one of the clearest pictures of Mississippi’s educator workforce that we have had to date.” 

Elementary school teachers make up a third of all vacancies, at 32%, but high school teachers were close behind with 31%. In high school, the greatest vacancies are in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) classes.

“It’s encouraging that we have fewer vacancies, but we still have too many vacancies in districts throughout our state,” said Kelly Riley, director of Mississippi Professional Educators.

Riley specifically called the 335 special education teacher vacancies “alarming” because it is a subject area she said has been on the critical shortage list for too long, since at least the 2019-20 school year.

Administrator vacancies have also decreased from last year, but vacancies for support staff, such as custodians or administrative assistants, have not. Particularly, there have been increases in vacancies for teacher assistants and bus drivers. 

Van Cleve said districts linked this increase to an uptick in responsibilities to address pandemic-related learning loss without an increase in wages. 

“Things like one-on-one tutorials with a teacher assistant or extended day bus routes or Saturday bus routes are leaving them in a place feeling … fairly overwhelmed,” she said.

Van Cleve said that while there are still vacancies to be addressed, the department has seen success by creating some flexibility in teacher licensure. This has allowed a greater number of teachers to enter the field with similar outcomes to other teachers.  

Toren Ballard, K-12 policy director for Mississippi First, lauded the department for tracking this information but said he would have liked to see it presented at the district level. 

“Overall it’s about 500 less vacancies than last year, which looks like a good statistic, but I think it doesn’t cover the whole story,” said Ballard. 

In the 2021-22 school year, Mississippi had 32,199 teachers working in classrooms and the average salary was $47.902, according to MDE.

Even after the pay raise offered by the Legislature last year, Mississippi First found in a new report the number of teachers who left their district at the end of the 2021-22 school year still increased, with 23.7% of all teachers not returning. Teachers in poorly rated districts were also more likely to leave, with 32% of teachers in F-rated districts leaving at the end of last year compared to 16% in A-rated districts. 

READ MORE: ‘It was an easy choice for me’: 17% of teachers left their district in the 2020-21 school year

The report also found that half of Mississippi teachers cannot afford at least one of the following: adequate food, transportation, housing, or medical care. Financial insecurity, and student debt specifically, was most closely linked with a risk of leaving the classroom. Teachers who work in low-rated school districts and teachers of color both reported significantly higher student debt burdens. 

To address these impacts, Mississippi First recommends an annual stipend for teaching in critical shortage areas and an expansion of eligibility for the existing Winter-Reed Teacher Loan Repayment Program. Currently, the program is only available to traditional route teachers in their first year of teaching and has a cap on the number of applicants that can be assisted each year, which does not allow the financial aid office to use the total appropriation for the program each year. The organization recommends expanding eligibility regardless of years of experience or path to the classroom, as well as removing the cap. 

“Our work in improving the educator pipeline is not finished,” Ballard said. “Some of the disparities and financial issues that are underpinning the teacher shortage in Mississippi have been around for so long that it’s going to take more than one year of a pay raise to really start making some progress in addressing this issue.” 

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Julia, a Louisiana native, covers K-12 education. She previously served as an investigative intern with Mississippi Today helping cover the welfare scandal. She is a 2021 graduate of the University of Mississippi, where she studied journalism and public policy and was a member of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. She has also been published in The New York Times and the Clarion-Ledger.