Politics & Government

Will a teacher pay raise really happen this year in the state Legislature?

With state elections looming, Mississippi’s top political leaders are avoiding controversial education policy battles and backing a more palatable proposal — a teacher pay raise.

Republicans Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn have signaled their support for increasing teacher pay.

Both have also held off on unveiling specifics.

Still at play, Gunn cautioned, is how much revenue the state will collect before budget work begins in March.

“Three years ago, the House led on a teacher pay raise. So, we clearly support our teachers,” he said, speaking to a group of reporters in December. “Anything we do in that arena is going to be a function of dollars and whether or not revenues exist.”

Back in 2014, lawmakers pushed through a $2,500 pay raise for teachers that was phased in over two years. The average Mississippi teacher now makes $44,659, according to the state Department of Education.

Gov. Phil Bryant wants to see lawmakers dedicate an additional $50 million to salary increases over the next two years.

Calculations by the Associated Press show that boost, if distributed evenly, would come out to an estimated $1,579 or 3 percent raise before taxes by 2020.

The lift would still leave Mississippi at the low end of average teacher salaries compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics.

Accounting for differences in cost of living across the country, some variation is to be expected. Still, pay in Mississippi trails other Southern states where the spending power is comparable.

And teacher groups are questioning whether Bryant’s proposal is enough to keep Mississippi competitive with neighboring states.

“We have a teacher drain that is acute,” Joyce Helmick, president of the Mississippi Association of Educators, said. “They’re spending the money to go to our four-year schools, and then they’re packing their bags and going somewhere else.”

She also questioned the timing of the proposal, noting that 2019 is an election year. It’s a sentiment that has been echoed in social media comments from teachers.

Reeves, the expected Republican front-runner for governor, first hinted at a teacher pay raise during the Neshoba County Fair this summer, telling fairgoers: “Teachers have received $350 million more in the last four years. I look forward to getting teachers even more in the future.”

Mike Griffith with the Education Commission of the States says taking action on mandated teacher pay only intermittently can lead to problems.

“You should revisit salary minimums annually if you’re trying to create competitive salaries,” he advises.

Delays, Griffith said, can result in a state’s teacher salary scale falling behind inflation.

A salary reset years down the road, he explained, could then cause a shock to the system.

Districts, Griffith added, are also wary of receiving mandates to pay teachers more without adequate state support.

“Per pupil funding and teacher pay go hand-in-hand,” Griffith said, pointing out that figures for both in Mississippi rate as some of the lowest in the country.

Nancy Loome, executive director for the Parents Campaign, a public education advocacy group, believes implementing a teacher pay hike without fully funding the Mississippi Adequate Education Program could increase pressure on school districts lacking enough local support to close the gap. MAEP, she pointed out, is determined by a formula, in part, averaging the instructional costs of C-rated school systems. As is the trend nationally, teacher salaries comprise the bulk of those budgets.

“Salaries are in the MAEP,” Loome said. “It isn’t as if they can provide just a lump sum of funding in one year to cover a pay raise and then ignore it from there on out. The salaries are paid for every year through the MAEP. We absolutely support a salary increase for teachers. We have a terrible teacher shortage. Teachers need to be paid more and the Legislature needs to fund it.”