Mississippi proposes forgiving student loan debt to fix state’s teacher shortage

Published 7:57 am Tuesday, February 2, 2021

By Bobby Harrison


In the 1990s, legislators passed innovative proposals to forgive student loan debt for college graduates who agreed to teach in Mississippi schools.

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The proposals, shepherded through the Legislature by then-education committee chairs Billy McCoy in the House and Grey Ferris in the Senate, were the first of many similar proposals passed by legislators over the decades to deal with the shortage of educators.

Today, those proposals have a couple of things in common: None of them are currently funded, and they put the state in the position of having to be a collection agency when the teachers – often for legitimate reasons – don’t complete their commitment to teach in Mississippi.

And, oh yeah, the teacher shortage still exists.

Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, the vice chair of the Senate Education Committee, believes there is a better way to help pay for a new teacher’s college education. Blount has proposed the William F. Winter and Jack Reed Sr. Teacher Loan Repayment Program.

Blount’s proposal is different. The other programs help fund students’ college education as they progress toward their degree in exchange for a commitment they will teach so many years in the state’s public schools after graduation.

Blount’s proposal would pay off a portion of the loan over a three-year period as the new graduate teaches in Mississippi schools.

“Things change,” Blount said. “People’s life plans change. Instead of teaching in Mississippi, a person for whatever reason might move (out of state) or never teach. That puts the state in the position of having to collect that debt.”

The numbers are still being worked out, but Blount envisions, if the program is approved and funded by the Legislature, that a person would receive a payment of $2,000 toward the loan debt for the first year he or she teaches, $3,000 for the second year and $4,000 for the third year. Such payments would go a long way toward paying off the loan.

Some of the programs passed by the Legislature have focused on providing financial aid for people to teach in geographic areas or in subject areas where the shortage is more prevalent. The current proposal would provide financial assistance for teaching anywhere in the state, though the final bill could provide additional help for teaching in certain geographic areas or subject areas.

The bill also would repeal the about a dozen similar programs on the books.

“We are not taking anything away because those programs are not being funded,” Blount said.

Many long-term observers of public education would say it is appropriate Blount chose to name the legislation after former Gov. Winter and Tupelo businessman Reed. The pair, both deceased, are inextricably linked when it comes to public education.

“They were good friends and both were great Mississippians,” said Blount who grew up in Jackson but whose mother – the former Martha Lynn Means – is from Tupelo where he said he got to know Reed.

It was Reed who served as the chair of the blue ribbon education commission Winter formed, leading to the historic passage of the Education Reform Act of 1982 that created public kindergarten, school accountability and other items. And it was Reed whom Winter appointed to the newly formed state Board of Education in the 1980s. Reed was the panel’s first chair.

Reed’s willingness to speak up for public education as a leader in the Mississippi Economic Council in the 1960s, when many politicians were talking about closing schools to avoid integration, will go down as a profile in courage.

In 2006, Winter and Reed led a rally of more than a 1,000 at the state Capitol in favor of fully funding education. Reed, with his dry sense of humor, proclaimed to the crowd he and Winter were octogenarians for public education. As Reed spoke, Winter displayed a grin as if showing appreciation for his longtime friend.

And of course, prior to that episode, Winter and Reed were tapped by then-Gov. Ronnie Musgrove to serve on a commission that worked to replace the state flag, which prominently displayed the Confederate battle emblem. Even their genuine good-natured disposition could not diffuse the hostility that manifested itself at the commission’s public hearings.

Former Rep. Steve Holland of Plantersville, who served on the flag commission, described it “as the most never-wrecking experience any of us had ever had, but Gov. Winter and Jack both were calming influences.”

He added, “I would ride to Jackson with Jack. We literally had our lives threatened. We would be riding back and he would just about laugh and say the world is full of fools.”

The Mississippi Association of Partners in Education annually honors someone involved in education with the Winter-Reed Partnership Award.

Blount’s legislation being considered this year could further Winter’s and Reed’s long legacy in public education.

The story reprinted with permission by Mississippi Today.