Tuesday, July 23, 2024

‘Starvation diet’ creates low interest in Louisiana teaching profession

by BIZ Magazine

By Wes Muller, Louisiana Illuminator

Louisiana, like much of the country, is struggling through what is perhaps the worst teacher shortage in history. The situation is exacerbated by low wages, high inflation and school safety concerns, but also rooted in how society views public education and the teaching profession.

Numbers don’t lie. State Education Superintendent Cade Brumley sounded the alarm a year ago and in March saying there were 2,500 certified teacher vacancies across the state, affecting an estimated 50,000 K-12 students.

St. Tammany Parish, where public school teacher salaries rank among the top 10 in the state, filled about 300 openings earlier in the year but went into August with 96 open positions, according to a report from WDSU-TV. Shreveport’s KTBS-TV reported the Caddo Parish School District entered the school year with about 90 vacancies after hiring 200 new teachers over the summer.

Low pay is among the most commonly cited factors driving the shortage. Even after the legislature approved a $1,500 pay raise this year, Louisiana’s teachers are still some of the lowest paid in the country, ranking 43rd out of 50 states and Washington, D.C.

The average annual salary for a teacher in Louisiana is roughly $52,000 compared with the national average of $65,300, according to National Education Association statistics. Starting salaries for teachers, which researchers say are key to attracting new talent to the field, remain low across the country at an average of about $42,000, which roughly matches Louisiana’s figure.

Vicki Jarrell, a retired educator and school administrator who worked here and in Ohio, said Louisiana has neglected teacher pay and public education funding for far too long.

“We’re not paying teachers a living wage,” Jarrell said. “They’re defunding little by little, bit by bit. When you don’t feed something, it dies. I think public education has been on a starvation diet for a while.”

‘How do I barricade my room?’

In terms of a compensation gap, Louisiana teachers earn 28% less than their college educated peers, according to a 2022 study by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). Researchers refer to the gap as a wage penalty, meaning people who become teachers are penalized with wages below what they could earn in another profession with the same level of education.

Put another way, a Louisiana teacher making $52,000 per year could make approximately $72,000 in a different job sector.

“Prior to the pandemic, the long-trending erosion in the relative wages and total compensation of teachers was already a serious concern,” the EPI report said. “The financial penalty that teachers face discourages college students from entering the teaching profession and makes it difficult for school districts to keep current teachers in the classroom.”

Dr. Margaret-Mary Sulentic Dowell, an education professor and researcher at LSU, said other factors driving the shortage include workplace stress, safety issues stemming from school shootings and public health emergencies, and a lack of support from the community and politicians.

Jarrell pointed to recent school shootings as particularly stressful.

“Teachers are now expected to prevent people from coming in and massacring everyone,” Jarrell said. “It used to be I would worry about how to get my students interested in a certain lesson… Now we have to think about, ‘OK, how do I barricade my room?’”

‘Education is not valued’

Other studies EPI examined show more students come to school unprepared to learn and that parents struggle to be involved — byproducts of rising poverty, segregation and insufficient public investment. Compounding the stress, more than two-thirds of teachers report they have less influence over what they teach in the classroom and what materials they can use, “which suggests low recognition of their knowledge and judgment,” researchers said.

These factors, as well as the low wages, have created what EPI calls a “perfect storm in the teacher labor market” and what Dowell said are symptoms of the devaluing of public education within American culture and politics.

“I think the root cause is education is not particularly valued as it is in other countries,” Dowell said in a phone interview. “Now people in the U.S. will often tell you to get an education, but teachers are generally relegated to second(-tier) status.”

The coronavirus pandemic and high inflation have exacerbated the teacher shortage, but the situation began brewing years ago, said Larry Carter, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers.

“It’s the same things we’ve been talking about for the last 10 years,” Carter said. “It’s just that the shortage has really expanded in the last two or three years like never before.”

Dowell pointed out that Louisiana has for more than a decade neglected or chipped away at teacher compensation and benefits. She pointed to action by state lawmakers in 2010 that took away the $5,000 annual stipend given to teachers who obtained certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

The legislation was part of a trend in which the state shifted teacher evaluations toward test scores rather than credentials. Then in 2012, the state revised its teacher tenure standards, rescinding many of the provisions that protected the jobs and retirement benefits of veteran educators.

“That sent a clear message that education is not valued,” Dowell said. “We might get lip service, but it’s not valued…In Louisiana the two things that seem to be always on the chopping block are education and healthcare.”

A 2017 study by Tulane University found that the loss of tenure protections led to the exodus of 1,500 to 1,700 teachers across Louisiana within the first two years of the law taking effect, according to a report in The Advocate.

Public education has recently faced political and cultural attacks such as the recent conservative movement to prohibit history lessons on slavery or institutional racism. School board meetings across the country have become contentious with angry parents echoing unfounded conspiracies about COVID-19 and critical race theory. At any time, a teacher can be publicly blasted on social media by a parent who might have a problem with a particular lesson.

“There’s only so much time you can spend in any profession when you’re not treated with respect,” Jarrell said. “It gets old.”

Jarrell said she considered leaving retirement to help with the teacher shortage, but she doesn’t want to put up with that kind of stress.

Earlier this year, the Louisiana Department of Education reported 500 fewer college students graduating with education degrees.

“When you constantly pick up a news story and listen to a politician stumping and you hear this backlash and constant berating and belittling of teachers, who wants to go and do that?” Dowell said, adding that there are few incentives left for people to become teachers.

Gender gap exacerbates declining numbers

The public education system in Louisiana is also operating with a gender gap between its teaching workforce and its administration. The majority of teachers are women yet most of the district superintendents are men.

Women make up about 81% of public school teachers in Louisiana and roughly 68% of all public school principals and assistant principals, according to the most recent data available from the Louisiana Department of Education. Of the 69 members in the Louisiana School Superintendents Association, 20 or about 29% are female, according to a membership list on its website. All five board members of the association are male.

Both Dowell and Jarrell said teachers are often not treated as professionals, a phenomenon that could be related to gender stereotypes.

“We suffer from [notions like], ‘Oh, just be a teacher,’” Dowell said, referring to common advice given to people who cannot find work in other fields. “You go to Scandinavian countries and becoming a teacher is exquisite and exclusive.”

Education leaders in Louisiana have been aware of gender leadership gap discrepancies. Former superintendent John White mentioned them in his keynote speech at the 2018 annual Teacher Leader Summit in New Orleans.

“A profession that is 75% women cannot be run largely and exclusively by men,” White said, as quoted in The Advocate. “We must make that change.”

White was succeeded by another man, Cade Brumley, for the state’s top education position. No woman has ever been appointed to serve as Louisiana’s education superintendent.

Dowell said she has noticed recent efforts to close the gender gap and said she has faith in Brumley who began his career as a teacher and worked his way through the ranks.

“I don’t think our public schools are failing,” she said. “They’ve faced and overcome incredibly complex problems while our educators take on so many more things in trying to educate the child.”

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