For the past decade, some members of the Louisiana Legislature have overlooked their responsibility to the children of the state. The result of this decade of neglect? A public education system that now sits at a tipping point, precariously wobbling between a path to excellence or continued deterioration.

State leaders profess that education is the answer to our workforce problems, yet lawmakers continue to take steps to defund our schools, which has crippling impacts on students, teachers and others who work in the education profession.

The women and men we trust with our children’s education have not seen a sustained increase in their paychecks in more than a decade — a fact that is both troubling and extremely detrimental to the future of education in Louisiana. During this period, the state has fallen further behind in national and regional rankings for teacher pay. Our teachers make nearly $9,000 below the national average and $2,200 below the regional average for Southern states.

Many educators who work in Louisiana take on two — sometimes three — jobs to make ends meet. Most education support professionals — like teacher aides, school custodians, bus drivers, food service workers and other workers in our schools — across the state make less than $23,000 a year. It is imperative that the citizens of Louisiana recognize and honor the tremendous work these dedicated individuals do to provide critical services for students.

The people who work in our schools are public servants. They are called to a profession that molds the lives of children. However, for these women and men, the job is often harder than it should be. How are they supposed to provide their undivided attention to students if they have to hurry to a second job the minute the bell rings?

When new college graduates begin the search for their first job in the education profession, they look for work in schools that provide students with access to 21st-century learning tools. They look for classrooms that house low teacher-to-student ratios. They look for districts staffed with support professionals like teacher aides, nurses and mental health professionals. In short, they look for a thriving and welcoming school community to call home. In addition to these working conditions, they also look for work in a district that offers competitive wages.

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It should be no surprise that after a decade without meaningful funding increases for schools, new teachers aren’t choosing Louisiana as the place to begin their careers. On top of that, we’re losing veteran teachers to surrounding states that offer higher-paying jobs. Even more troubling is knowing that the profession, as a whole, is losing talented individuals entirely because these women and men can no longer afford — monetarily or emotionally — to work in underfunded schools. The result? A statewide shortage that has left many Louisiana classrooms without teachers and schools without the critical services provided by education support staff. What good is a classroom without a teacher? Or a school without the essential personnel who ensure warm and welcoming learning environments?

Funding our public school systems is the ultimate investment we can make in Louisiana’s future. Legislators have an opportunity to do this in the coming weeks as they consider proposals that stand to secure much-needed boosts in pay for educators and increases in dollars dedicated for public schools to support each student’s education. While these proposals offer modest increases, they mark Louisiana’s first steps toward a renewed future for public education in more than 10 years.

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We are at a crossroads. If given a choice between sending our schools past the tipping point or offering a helping hand to safe ground, I hope lawmakers do the right thing and choose the latter. I urge legislators to prioritize both the funding for educator pay raises and the $39 million for basic school district aid included in the state board of education’s original funding proposal for the 2019-2020 school year. This represents our best chance at paving a path to educational excellence for Louisiana’s public school students.

Debbie Meaux is president of the Louisiana Association of Educators.