TUPELO • A handful of educators came to Steele’s Dive on Monday to hear the views of Republican candidate for governor Bill Waller Jr. on the state of education in Mississippi.
Waller opened the floor to a handful of teachers from around Lee County who expressed dissatisfaction with state administrative salaries, teacher pay and teacher shortages, as well as state assessments.
Tupelo was one of several stops Waller has made to Mississippi cities including Ocean Springs, Hattiesburg, Jackson, Clinton and Vicksburg where teachers were put on the podium to talk about issues in education.
When it came to teacher pay, Waller was particularly adamant that change was needed.
According to U.S. Department of Education data from the 2016-17 school year, Mississippi was one of the five states with the lowest-paid teachers.
A Guntown teacher said she came to the meeting with questions given to her by multiple teachers. She asked Waller why the state superintendent of education is the most highly paid superintendent in the nation and yet Mississippi has some of the lowest-paid teachers in the nation.
Independent news organization Education Week released a report in 2017 referring to a former law that required the superintendent’s salary to be 90 percent of what the commissioner of higher education makes. The state superintendent of education makes roughly three times the maximum salary for a Mississippi governor.
“Really, we need to revamp the entire state structure, the governor should be the highest paid and it should go down from there,” Waller said.
The teacher said there are not enough teachers in the classroom and therefore, teacher to student ratio is not always sufficient for providing one-on-one attention to students who either need extra help, or need coaching because they are ahead of their peers.
Waller said as of last year, there were 1,000 open teacher positions, so teacher retention and recruitment was going to be needed to address teacher shortages.
When it came to state-mandated assessments, Waller mentioned ideas such as using the ACT test instead.
“You obviously need some sort of testing mechanism; there seems to be some interest in perhaps using the ACT as a grade-specific test and supplementing it with maybe history and civics. And another thing state testing doesn’t do is measure Mississippi against other states,” Waller said.
Waller emphasized support for what he called a “vocational track” encouraging students as early as junior high to choose a career track and have their education structured around learning skills that would ensure they would graduate high school with skills to get a good job.
He said the state legislature supported three tracks for education last year – honors, vocation and academics – which has led to support for apprenticeship programs, dual credit and middle college programs.
“The easy one to look at first would be the community colleges being involved with the high schools,” Waller said.
“We should focus on career tracks in high schools, so when they finish high school they are qualified for something.”
He expressed strong support for industrial partnerships, such as Itawamba Community College’s relationship with the Toyota manufacturing plant and other partner industries.
He said Hinds Community College’s barge deck hands training program which connects students with jobs with Vicksburg-based barge companies was another example of a successful partnership.