Gov. John Bel Edwards has vowed to bring Louisiana public school teachers’ salaries up to the Southern regional average before he leaves office at the end of this year. His 2023-24 executive budget calls for a $2,000 pay raise for teachers that could increase to $3,000 if the state’s revenue projections continue to improve. But even the larger increase would still put Louisiana teacher salaries just shy of the regional average, and could widen further, as other states enact raises of their own. The Advocate’s Will Sentell explains how the administration is encountering pushback from state lawmakers as it tries to hit a moving target with its teacher pay raises. 

Last year Edwards proposed pay hikes of $2,000 annually but the Legislature, led by the Senate, trimmed the boost to $1,500 amid concerns that local governments are not doing enough to support teachers. The same concern is floating ahead of the 2023 regular legislative session, which starts April 10. “It is going to be a question that is asked again,” said Senate President Page Cortez, a reference to the level of local support for teacher pay. … This year’s debate will again take place against the backdrop of a teacher shortage in Louisiana and nationally. Even after a 52% drop in job openings, the state had 1,203 vacancies last year.

Hunger increases as food benefits are cut
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is one of the most effective anti-poverty programs. But the monthly food benefits that people receive through the program, which increased during the Covid-19 pandemic in response to rising rates of hunger, returned to pre-pandemic levels on March 1. The Advocate’s Faimon A. Roberts III reports on the 400,000 Louisianans who will see a reduction in federal food assistance as the cost of basic necessities continues to climb.

While the reduction officially started at the start of the month, some recipients won’t notice the reduction until they get their cards, [Department of Children and Family Services Secretary Terri] Ricks told a legislative committee earlier this week. The agency is expecting “an uptick in calls” about the reduction, Ricks told the committee. State officials have scrambled to educate residents on other benefits and programs, but know that those cannot make up what is being lost. “There’s going to be many, many families suffering and looking for ways to pay for food,” Ricks said in an interview. “Hopelessness is a concern of mine.”

Monthly food benefits for Louisianans decreased by an average of $164 starting this month. More than 4 in 5 Louisianans who lose access to federal food benefits are kicked out of the program for “procedural” reasons – not because they make too much money – according to a new report from Louisiana’s Legislative Auditor

Rise in infant deaths hit Black families hardest 
Black babies in America experienced the highest rates of sudden infant deaths in 2020, more than three times the rate of white babies, according to new research released Monday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There was a 15% increase in SIDs, which refers to the sudden, often sleep-related deaths of an infant under the age of 1, among all babies from 2019 to 2020. The Washington Post’s Frances Stead Sellers reports: 

The study found that rising SIDS rates in 2020 was likely attributable to diagnostic shifting — or reclassifying the cause of death. The causes of the rise in sleep-related deaths of Black infants remain unclear but it coincided with the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, which disproportionately affected the health and wealth of Black communities. “Evidence does not support direct or indirect effects of the … pandemic on increased rates of sudden unexpected infant death, except for non-Hispanic Black infants,” said the study, to be published in the April issue of the journal Pediatrics. The study’s authors, who call for further research into their findings, point out that the pandemic exacerbated overcrowded housing, food insecurity and other stressors, particularly among Black families — potentially leading to less safe sleeping practices, such as bed sharing.

The battle over phonics 
Louisiana’s reading scores have flatlined over the past decade, with only 55% of fourth graders reading at or above the “basic” level. Meanwhile, other states, including Mississippi, have jumped us in the rankings in part by focusing on the science of reading, more commonly known as phonics. But there appears to be yet another education culture war brewing in America, this time in the battle over phonics. The Washington Post editorial board explains how science makes clear that phonics is the best way to teach reading. 

Parents and advocates are understandably squeamish about government dictates involving so intimate and traditionally local a matter as education — particularly when ideology enters the equation. School boards and other bodies closer to the ground are the ideal places for these decisions to happen. But they should happen. The techniques that will help students master “Bob Books” so someday they might make it to Robert Wright books aren’t a question of ideology. They’re a question of science. Kids should absolutely learn to love to read. First, though, they need to learn to read.

Number of the Day
18% – Percentage of American workers that are bound by noncompete agreements, which forbid workers from taking jobs with their employers’ competitors for a specific period of time. Research has shown that these types of clauses reduce wages and mobility for workers across various industries because employers do not have to compete for employees by raising wages or improving working conditions. (Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics via The Washington Post