The last mass protest by Mississippi teachers was in 1985. This year, with summer approaching and the Legislature adjourned, there’s no sense that state teachers will ramp up to march on the Capitol for more pay as their counterparts have been doing in other rural states — West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma.
Thirty-three years ago, the state’s 26,000 teachers were averaging $16,000 year. Their demand was for across-the-board $3,500 raises, which would have left Mississippi teachers $200 short of the 11-state Southeastern average, then $19,700.
Today, Mississippi teachers, by some reckonings, remain 50th in compensation at an annual average of almost $43,000 per year. Other tallies say 47th, 48th or 49th.
Back in 1985, Gov. Bill Allain said the state could afford no more than $1,500 per year and the Legislature took action to provide increases. The brief strike ended. But there was a little surprise. Along with the raises, lawmakers decreed that any future teacher strikes would be criminal.
The law in this area was murky and remains murky. It’s not likely, for instance, that sheriffs would go around arresting teachers who walked out. One thing is clear: Teachers were more together back in the day.
There were active two teacher “unions.” The quote marks are necessary because Mississippi was and is a right-to-work state, meaning no employee union can be recognized for contract negotiations and no person may be denied employment based on refusal to join a union.
The right-to-work provision doesn’t make unions illegal. It just says employers may — in some cases must — ignore them.
The larger teacher group in 1985 was the Mississippi Association of Educators, an affiliate of the National Education Association. About 13,000 teachers — half the total — were members. A second, smaller group was the American Federation of Teachers.
Both groups were handed court orders not to strike and both, to avoid contempt of court, openly advised members not to strike. But members and others did, as often happens.
Today, there are 33,400 teachers and reports are that only 8,000 are MAE members. Another reality is that there are fewer career educators. Half of all new teachers leave the profession in less than five years.
In several aspects, conditions have improved for teachers. During former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove’s term, a three-year series of significant raises was initiated. Too, with the advent of casino revenue, school personnel were added to the state’s group health insurance plan.
But 1985 was a more hopeful time. Under former Gov. William Winter’s leadership, a major education reform act passed in 1982. Mississippi was actually ahead of the national curve for a while in measures to assure access to quality schools. There was a more positive attitude about public education. Even though the 1982 legislation did not include raises, there was public energy toward public schools, a belief better schools could be achieved.
That just hasn’t been the case for the past 20 or so years. After enacting binding legislation to structure school funding in 1997, the Legislature failed year after year to provide promised funds. Energy was sapped. This year was no different. Although the formula will remain on the books, the funds will not be forthcoming. Lawmakers have also become infatuated with charter schools for several reasons, including shifting the responsibility for quality away from themselves.
There has been good news on the education front. Teachers did receive raises two years ago. Scores have been edging upward and dropout rates have been declining. The average score on the American College Test remains, at 18.6, next-to-last among states, but that number must be viewed in context. In many states, only students who are college-bound take the ACT. In Mississippi, it is required for all students.
Speaking of “norming,” EdBuild, the group hired to consult here in 2017, recently ranked teacher pay in light of state-to-state differences in the cost of living. On that scale, Mississippi teachers rose to 37th. Hawaii, without adjustment for its higher real estate, food and other basics, ranked 18th-highest in teacher pay. With the adjustment, teachers in Hawaii are ranked as the lowest paid in America.
It’s fair to say that most Mississippi teachers believe they should be paid more, but that’s likely true for every person on every payroll. At the same time, there seems to be an acceptance that in a state that already spends almost all of its revenue on schools, health care for the indigent and prisons — leaving crumbs for everything else — the prospect of pay equity is a bridge too far.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist.