U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona was welcomed to campus by members of the Sonic Boom during a visit to Jackson State University, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona was in Jackson Wednesday to visit a local elementary school and Jackson State University to view the impact federal pandemic relief dollars are having in public schools and discuss the nation’s teacher shortage.

Cardona said he came to Jackson specifically because of the strong pipeline of Jackson State University graduates teaching in the Jackson Public School District. 

“Jackson State University produces 67% of the Black teachers in Jackson Public Schools,” he said. “That’s unheard of. I’m here because I want all colleges and universities to have that impact on their local community.” 

Speaking with education students at JSU, he said coming out of the pandemic, “the crisis is (no longer) safely reopening schools, it’s preparing tomorrow’s teachers.” 

Statewide, there are nearly 2,600 certified teacher vacancies in Mississippi, a figure that the state has only recently started tracking. While some more specific data is available for the number of vacancies per subject or school level, the state does not publish district-specific vacancy data. The state does publish a list of geographic shortage areas, and the number of school districts on it has doubled since the 2019-20 school year. 

READ MORE: Dept. of Ed reports nearly 2,600 teacher vacancies, a slight decrease from last year

Cardona touted the newly funded Augustus Hawkins grant program, which provides $18 million to historically Black colleges and universities to create high-quality teacher preparation programs for teachers of color. While Jackson State is not a recipient of the grant this year, he said he is aware that they are working to apply in the future. 

When asking current education students how other universities can replicate Jackson State’s success in a “grow your own” program, a model that seeks to recruit and train community members to become teachers, students pointed to the high standards their professors have for them and the experiences collaborating in real-world settings. 

Toy McLaurin, a speech-language pathology graduate student, called on current teaching students not to shy away from the areas that need them most. 

“A lot of people veer away from going into schools that may have a high need for teachers or they may be considered low performing because people want to go where there’s more resources,” she said. “But sometimes you have to go there and start that culture. You have to go there and be the beginning of something great.” 

Cardona repeatedly talked about collaborating with state and local leaders to raise teacher salaries “to make sure that, when you walk into this profession, it’s one where you can hold your head up high and there’s a level of respect.” 

Last year, the Legislature passed the largest teacher pay raise in Mississippi history, raising the average salary by about $5,000 and increasing the base starting salary to $41,638. Even after that pay raise, 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. The report highlighted student debt specifically as increasing the risk of leaving the classroom, something Cardona said the Biden Administration is continuing to work on addressing. 

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona paints his name in cursive with fifth-graders at Casey Elementary in Jackson on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023. Credit: Julia James/Mississippi Today

Earlier in the day, Cardona visited Casey Elementary and spoke with community partners for the Jackson Public School District’s after-school programs, including the Greater Jackson Arts Council, the Mississippi Children’s Museum, and the Bean Path. 

The representatives discussed the programming they have been able to create through the federal pandemic relief dollars, and State Superintendent of Education Robert Taylor emphasized the coming expiration of those funds in 2024 as a major concern for school districts across the state. 

READ MORE: How three Mississippi school districts are spending $207 million in federal relief funds

In response, Cardona called on governors and legislatures to see the benefits of that federal investment and provide funding for these resources to continue. 

“The American Rescue Plan was a down payment on transformational change,” Cardona said. “It is not intended to make up for decades of underinvestment in education.”

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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.