Mississippi’s teacher shortage has deep historically racist roots

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There is quite a bit of coverage in mainstream media today about the national shortage of teachers. As it makes its rounds, reporters and commentators are scrambling to document the source(s) of the problem.

Mississippi is obviously affected by the teacher shortage phenomenon, as is the rest of the country. Mississippi’s teacher shortage problem, however, may be older than that of much of the rest of the country. It also has much more recognizable racial roots. One can begin with the fact that public education in the state was initiated by Black legislators during Reconstruction and had to be strenuously defended before it became a part of the 1890 MS Constitution.

Once a provision for public schools was institutionalized, three factors emerged that have been perpetually advanced to racialize the struggle and to eventually result in the shortage developing today. Those factors are the salaries of the teachers, the qualifications required for entering the teaching profession, and the curricula to which teachers are obligated.

As in the case with other states, Mississippi’s teachers are paid far less than people in other professions that require similar training – lawyers, doctors, engineers, and the like. As a result, many intellectually-gifted students choose those professions rather than teaching. The writer has heard some education administrators oppose raising teachers’ salaries on the grounds that then many would be attracted to the field for the money instead of having a devotion to teaching. Despite such asinine thinking, teachers are paid pitiful salaries across the country, which is not reflective of the importance of the work that they do. The writer has known many teachers who have had to work second jobs in order to make ends meet, going back to the days when some Black teachers had to work in the cotton fields to keep their families afloat. In many states, teachers’ unions have frequently resorted to striking or the threat of such in order to gain better salaries for teachers. Mississippi did it in 1985 before the legislature outlawed teachers’ strikes. Under these conditions, it is no wonder that many gifted individuals avoid the profession and others leave the profession to take advantage of other opportunities.

Mississippi has an even bigger problem. Being constantly at or near the bottom of the teacher salary heap, many teachers in Mississippi seek teaching jobs in Texas, Georgia, Tennessee, and other states near and far. This clearly worsens the state’s teacher shortage.

When Mrs. Gladys Noel Bates in 1948 filed suit to gain equal salaries for Black teachers in the state and as the federal government ordered the end of the state’s racially segregated public schools in 1970, state officials turned to a second mechanism to deprive Black teachers. In this case, they changed the qualifications for entering the teaching profession. The state had decreed that by 1964, all regular teachers had to have earned a bachelor’s degree and satisfied the college requirements for an endorsement in their field of teaching. Before the end of the decade, teachers also had to pass the National Teachers Examination (NTE). Both requirements were designed to make it difficult for Blacks to become teachers. Still later, teachers had to pass the PRAXIS examination in order to even begin taking professional education classes in the colleges of education.

These measures became so effective at eliminating Black prospects from the field of teaching that Dr. John Peoples undertook and published a study documenting the gradual elimination of Blacks from the teaching profession. Similar to those attacks, teacher education programs at historically Black colleges came under increased threats of losing their accreditation. This, too, would eliminate a number of Black teachers. As it did so, a teacher shortage was thereby being created.

It was the writer’s opinion that as the majority of Black teachers were eliminated through stricter professional requirements, the salaries would then become respectable for the remaining majority white teaching force. Mississippi has apparently not reached that point yet, as salaries remain stagnant and the shortage grows. It is a situation that bears watching.

Thirdly, the matter of the public school curriculum is rearing its head again to dissuade many from entering or remaining in the field of teaching. As a freshman, Fred McDowell had told his roommates that if they taught in the public school, they had to steer away from the controversial topic of racism. Keeping that in mind, the writer had decided that he would never teach in the public schools. Other young would-be educators had made the same kind of decisions, helping to create the shortage. (The writer instead went on to teach in a Catholic school where he was not so restricted and ended up creating and teaching a course in Black History.) Now, 40 years later, the state of Mississippi, through its anti-Critical Race Theory legislation, is driving teachers and would-be educators from the field of teaching, deepening the racial divide and the teacher shortage.

Teachers all over this country need to be respected and paid as the professionals and essential workers that they are, which is not the case. In addition to that, in Mississippi, the historical racial challenge must be overcome. Its shortage may look like that of the rest of the country, but it requires the attention of those who are truly serious about full racial freedom and educational development.

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Mississippi’s teacher shortage has deep historically racist roots

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
August 31, 2022