Far too many Mississippi students are in classes that are not being taught by licensed teachers.

Each year, school districts across the state are unable to fill all of their teacher vacancies. Some compensate with larger class sizes, while others turn to emergency hires of those without a teaching license. In 2018, there were more than 2,100 teaching vacancies and 2,256 uncertified teachers across the state.

The problem is most acute in certain subject areas – especially sciences, math, foreign languages and special education – and specific geographic areas. According to a recent article by Mississippi Today, in some districts in the Delta, as many as a third of the teachers are not certified. A 2016 report by the Mississippi Department of Education found that 10 percent of the 490,225 students in the state were taught by an inappropriately licensed teacher in 2014-15. That percentage rose to 17 percent of students in the highest minority districts and 15 percent of those in the highest poverty districts.

If the most important ingredient to a child’s educational success is the quality of the teacher in the classroom, these statistics are particularly troublesome. Nonetheless, Mississippi lawmakers took no action to solve the critical teacher shortage this year, despite at least 19 related bills being filed.

House Education Committee Chairman Richard Bennett of Long Beach told Mississippi Today he was unsure why none of the teacher shortage bills were successful.

“I don’t know, honestly,” Bennett said. “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.”

We agree with Bennett that the path forward is going to require creative ideas.

That starts with a deliberate focus on recruiting new teachers – who aren’t yet rooted to a particular locale – using attractive tuition stipends, loan forgiveness packages and state income tax credits. Funding should also be increased for programs like Teach for America and the Mississippi Teacher Corps that place successful college students in critical needs classrooms.

Steps must also be made to keep good teachers in high poverty school districts. One bill considered by lawmakers would have provided a stipend to those in teacher leadership roles.

Another idea would be to attract experienced retired teachers and principals, maybe adjusting pension rules to allow them to “double dip” (earn both a salary and retirement income) if they agree to teach in a critical needs district.

Efforts must also go beyond state intervention – philanthropic giving and better marketing to attract people looking to switch careers, for example.

We are encouraged by Bennett’s dedication to this problem and call for more state leaders to seek creative solutions to eliminating the state’s teacher shortage.

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