There is no way one can put a price on the value of a child’s education. Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.” Dr. King’s words remind us that we must fix the root causes behind broken systems that continue to allow children to fall through the cracks. It starts by understanding how and why the systems are broken.
Experts trace the current teacher shortage to the 2008 Great Recession when the nation’s public education system lost more than 120,000 teachers. When the economy rebounded, and schools started hiring again, many of those who had left were reluctant to return.
Teacher shortages are not uncommon around the nation, but it tends to hit high-poverty schools in rural areas the hardest. Researchers have found that schools that serve a high percentage of minority students and students in poverty have more difficulty finding and retaining qualified teachers than white and more affluent schools. In many southern states, the long-standing problem continues to increase. The nature and severity of the teacher crisis will differ drastically from state to state, district to district, and even from school to school. In an attempt to understand the teacher shortage issue, data found that the problem is worst in Mississippi.
Communities throughout the Mississippi Delta are rich in community pride and history but are economically poor. As manufacturing jobs left the region and agriculture became more automated, it resulted in a decrease in population. Families who remain will send their children to deteriorating schools, which are difficult for officials to manage due to the dwindling tax base and a Mississippi state legislature that is reluctant to adequately fund schools at the per-student rate as required by law.
The message being sent by lawmakers is clear: Investing in the future of children living in poverty doesn’t merit meeting the state funding requirement.
At the request of state lawmakers, three small-town school districts merged to become one — West Bolivar Consolidated School District. West Bolivar Consolidated is 98% Black, while 100% of the students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. West Bolivar High School in Rosedale, Mississippi, and McEvans School in Shaw, Mississippi, are 18 miles apart, but teachers for math, Spanish, and science are forced to split their class instruction time between the two campuses via Zoom. The geometry class at West Bolivar High has no teacher. Therefore students have to listen to a software program while in class. Chemistry students are often left to teach themselves. Those not reading at grade level will struggle to understand science lessons. The lack of funding results in neither school having a science lab, so students with plans to study science in college will be dreadfully underprepared.
The decision to shortchange funding to high-poverty schools can impact a generation of students. Consider the long-term consequences to Black students who are unprepared to acquire the job skills needed for future careers. The economic future of Black children should be an incentive to vote for state lawmakers who are willing to fight for adequate funding for high-poverty schools. As it is difficult to attract new teachers from outside West Bolivar Consolidated, many people who currently work there grew up in the region. Will today’s students meet the minimum qualifications needed to return to West Bolivar Consolidated to serve as future teachers, counselors, principals, or administrators?
Teachers also need to be paid. Low teacher salaries reduce the attractiveness of the teaching profession and serve as another reason for teacher shortages. Teachers have always been underpaid compared to similarly educated workers in other occupations. The disparity is compounded when teachers in high-poverty schools are underpaid compared to their counterparts who teach in low-poverty schools.
It would seem that the challenging school environment would justify the higher compensation rather than lower pay. The climate in high-poverty schools is much more demoralizing for teachers. As teachers face more student absenteeism, class-cutting, student apathy, lack of parental involvement, poor student health, and issues regarding poverty in the lives of their students, it shows a lack of appreciation and respect in situations where they receive less pay. The tougher school environment results in more teachers suffering from high levels of stress and fears for their safety.
In many cases, teachers in high-poverty schools are not receiving the training, early career support, and professional development opportunities they need to succeed. This also makes it more difficult for them to remain in the profession. West Bolivar Consolidated has been plagued by high turnover, and many of the teachers it hires are new and lack the necessary training for the classes they are hired to teach. When measured on state assessments against other school districts throughout the state with more resources and fewer teacher vacancies, West Bolivar Consolidated finished near the bottom, receiving a D for its test scores.
The dismal test scores are just numbers. They don’t tell the story behind the lives of the brightest students who are consistently failed by a broken system. Those students possess so much potential but are not sufficiently challenged due to the lack of school resources and personnel — those students who may never reach their full potential. The importance of qualified teachers cannot be taken for granted. Researchers have found that good teachers can influence the likelihood that children will graduate and how much they will learn throughout their lives. The stakes are high for students caught in the trap of underfunded schools with no teachers.
Marshall is the founder of the faith-based organization TRB: The Reconciled Body and author of the book “God Bless Our Divided America.”