Editorial Roundup: Louisiana

The Advocate. May 24, 2022.

Editorial: With teacher shortages a reality, a higher pay raise should come from State Capitol

Two good arguments collided in the discussion of a teacher pay raise in Louisiana.

We think the raises are needed, at the state level, at this time. And in the new state budget, upping the proposed $1,500 raise to $2,000 a year was justified and seemed financially doable.

That was the original goal of Gov. John Bel Edwards, who sketched out a path toward the smaller raise in his first budget proposal this spring. But, he added then, if the revenue increases expected to be calculated in May came in, the raise could be $2,000 a year instead. School support workers would also get a raise in the plan.

Is the need there? Certainly. Public school teachers in Louisiana are paid an average of $51,566 per year, which is 12th of 16 states tracked by the Southern Regional Education Board.

With teacher raises and other investments in education possible, including a raise for college faculty, all seemed on track. Ultimately, though, legislative leaders decided to keep the original Edwards plan in place but not approve the larger amount that he contemplated, and that teacher groups wanted.

What’s the other side of the argument? It is that raising teacher pay is not just state government’s responsibility. In most states, school boards and local leaders must take the political point and raise money for schools.

As Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, said this year, teacher pay at the local level should be a partnership between state government and local taxpayers. The Minimum Foundation Program (MFP) is the state and local formula for school funding. The formula is legendarily complex, but the bottom line is that teachers are paid in Louisiana well below the average in other southern states, and to raise pay other than state money is needed.

But Cortez is right that locals should contribute more. It’s human nature to look for somebody else to pay the tab, whether Uncle Sam in Washington or Uncle Huey in Baton Rouge.

This year, coming out of a pandemic and with teacher shortages a chronic issue, we think the balance of the discussion ought to have been with the $2,000 raise from the state sought by the governor and teacher unions.

While the post-pandemic revenue surge should be carefully managed, the facts on the ground are daunting in local schools. Retirements are on the rise, the number of new teachers is plunging and superintendents are finding it increasingly difficult to fill classroom jobs.

The ranks of students in the LSU School of Education fell 57% in the past decade and 39% in the past five years, according to figures provided by the school. Teacher and other school personnel retirements shot up 25% from 2020 to 2021, data compiled by the Teacher Retirement System of Louisiana shows.

Doris Voitier, superintendent of the St. Bernard Parish School District and a veteran of 50 years in the profession, said today’s education landscape is unlike anything she has seen. “I have never had as much of a struggle to adequately staff our programs as I have the past year,” said Voitier, who is also a member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Louisiana faces a crisis in its long struggle to compete in a worldwide knowledge economy. Money isn’t the only issue in education, by a long shot. But it matters, and we think that Louisiana can afford this as a priority.

Yet Cortez and others are correct that local voters ought to be backing their schools, too.