Jim Beam column:Teachers are focus of audit

Published 6:37 am Thursday, June 2, 2022

Every state legislator should read the audit done by their own auditor that evaluated how differences in qualifications, pay and other factors affect teacher retention and student performance in Louisiana. It is common knowledge that the state has been among the bottom rankings in educational performance for much too long.

Michael J. Waguespack, the legislative auditor, in a letter to Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, and Speaker of the House Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, explained what the audit found.

“We found that teachers with more years of experience tended to be more effective, and that improvements in their effectiveness generally occurred during the first five years of teaching,” Waguespack said.

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Auditors found that certified teachers were more effective on average than uncertified teachers. And, unfortunately, teachers in schools with more economically-disadvantaged students were less likely to be certified and had fewer years of experience. The letter said the percentage of uncertified teachers was 54 percent in Orleans Parish schools, for example, versus 12.4 percent statewide.

A-rated schools had 5.7 percent of their teachers uncertified, while 23.8 percent of teachers at F-rated schools were uncertified.

The audit also found that teachers in charter schools were less likely to be certified and had fewer years of experience on average than teachers in traditional public schools. Public schools had 92.1 percent of their teachers certified, compared to 50.3 percent of teachers in charter schools.

No one should be surprised that the education audit found that teacher retention could be improved by increasing salaries, particularly in areas with high housing costs. Legislators have approved a $1,500 annual increase for public school teachers, but Republican leaders refused to increase that to $2,000 when better revenues were predicted.

The average annual pay in Louisiana is $51,566, which puts it in 12th place among the 16 Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) states. The regional average is $55,200. Louisiana, with this latest increase, will still be behind the regional average by $2,134 annually.

The late Govs. Kathleen Blanco and Mike Foster and their legislatures got the state to that regional average, but it has fallen behind again.

Cortez, in particular, said local school systems needed to do more to increase salaries at the local level. The audit provided insight by analyzing school districts from 2018-19 — 2020-21.

The lowest average annual salary during that time was $39,572 in Tensas Parish. The next four lowest salaries are: Catahoula Parish, $42,799; East Feliciana, $42,866; Grant Parish, $43,690; and Franklin Parish, $43,764.

Most of those are rural parishes that don’t have the property tax base to pay better wages, and can’t levy sales taxes to supplement property taxes.

Red River Parish with a population of 8,190 is an exception. It has the highest average annual salary at $64,750. The next four highest salaries are: DeSoto Parish, $59,806; St. James Parish, $59,604; Plaquemines, $58,084; and Iberville, $57,821.

Calcasieu Parish had the highest average annual salary in this corner of the state at $53,525. Others are Beauregard Parish, $52,351; Vernon Parish, $51.363; Jeff Davis Parish, $51,143; Cameron Parish, $49,968; and Allen Parish, $47,777.

The average salary at Lake Charles Charter Academy was $50,368. It was $46,038 at Lake Charles College Prep and $48,727 at Southwest Louisiana Charter Academy.

The audit found that salaries play a key role in recruiting and retaining teachers “because it impacts teachers’ decisions about where to work by increasing or decreasing the desirability of a particular position.”

Belonging to a state retirement system is also considered important in retaining teachers. The audit found that teachers who want to pursue long-term careers as teachers in Louisiana may intentionally avoid charter schools that don’t participate in public retirement systems.

Dr. Cade Brumley, state superintendent of education, responded to the audit. He said teachers do hero work, “often without the recognition of respect, support, or financial reward. What do they make? They make a difference.”

Brumley said local school settings play a major role in keeping teachers in the classrooms. He said those teachers deserve school leaders that are supportive, that help them develop professionally, that listen to their voices and establish classroom conditions suited for success. Louisiana needs 2,000 teachers at the present time to staff all classrooms, he said.

By reading this latest and extremely thorough education audit, legislators and state and local school officials would be better equipped to do what it takes to improve educational achievement in Louisiana. Respecting teachers by not telling them how and what to teach and by paying them better would be a great place for legislators to start.