Editorial, Thursday, Feb. 19, 1998

CATEGORY: EDT Editorials

AUTHOR: JOER

Editorial, Thursday, Feb. 19, 1998

Thorough advance work, analysis and planning paid off Tuesday for legislators determined to gain ground on teacher shortages in almost a score of Mississippi’s counties.

The House, by a vote of 103-18, passed legislation that would provide unprecedented but reasonable and badly needed incentives to attract teachers into the profession and into counties where schools cry out for qualified instructors.

The bill reflects months of conversations, consultation within the State Board of Education, input from three teachers’ unions/professional organizations, civic leaders in the areas of shortage, and, of course, dialogue within the Legislature.

House Education Chairman Billy McCoy of Rienzi has been at the head of the table in most of those meetings; he has been the pivotal leader in moving the process toward Tuesday’s vote.

The problem of teacher shortages is most acute in the Mississippi Delta and some areas of eastern Mississippi. The districts most adversely affected are among the poorest in the state. They also are in areas lacking many of the activities and urban amenities young professionals often seek when entering the job market.

The linch pin of the package approved in the House is its focus on long-term commitments to teaching. Part of the teacher shortage has been caused (and will accelerate) as career teachers who entered the profession 25 years to 30 years ago leave under the state’s retirement plans. It’s obviously desirable to draw new teachers into the professional ranks for similarly long terms.

The House’s package offers scholarships for undergraduate studies as an initial inducement, with a required four-year commitment in shortage areas after graduation and certification. The package also includes provisions for teachers to return for graduate study at state expense if the teacher remains in the shortage area. Past that, the program would pay for graduate study leading to certification for school administration, the career goal of some who make education their career choice.

The legislation also would provide for moving expenses and down payment assistance for teacher-owned housing.

The package isn’t out of line with the benefits offered employees in many private-sector jobs, especially to accept relocations or to live in areas without the most sought quality-of-life measures. The $3,.8 million cost for budget year 1999 and $4.1 million for 2000 clearly are within the state’s financial capabilities and budget estimates. A failure to start solving the problem in the next budget cycle not only will drive up the costs but will cause further erosion in the full-time, certified teacher ranks of the most hard-pressed counties.

The bill isn’t taking money from wealthier districts and putting into poor ones. The issue is equity, which sometimes requires special, extra state effort for particular districts and counties.

The senate may not agree with the House in every detail, but the legislation passed Tuesday by the representatives moves in the right direction.