Mississippi simmering – still no wage boost for teachers

Mississippi simmering – still no wage boost for teachers

(Miss.) The message from educators to lawmakers in Jackson is pretty clear – ‘we’re tired of you saying you don’t have money for our public schools.’

The Legislature has been unable – or unwilling – to meet a self-imposed adequate funding benchmark more than twice since it was established in 1997. And today, the average teacher salary in Mississippi stands just under $42,000, second lowest in the nation.

Advocates say enough is enough.

“There is a voice of desperation,” said Joyce Helmick, president of the Mississippi Association of Educators. “Our schools have been shortchanged $1.3 billion by the Legislature since 2009 and our teachers have gone seven years without a raise. This is getting ridiculous.”

School groups and supporters staged a rally last week outside the state Capitol, hoping to make education funding adequacy a priority for lawmakers this session.

Perennially cited in national surveys of states that consistently under-fund their public schools, Mississippi is also challenged with the distinction of being the nation’s poorest state, and the five-year recession didn’t help.

But 2013 ushered signs of hope. The Mississippi Development Authority reporting the creation of more than 6,200 jobs last year and more than $1 billion in new business investments – led by aviation, agriculture and the automotive sector.

Sales tax collections have steadily improved from $1.85 billion in 2012 to $1.91 billion last year with $1.95 billion expected during the 2014 fiscal year, according to analysis from the National Association of State Budget Officers.

Income taxes are also trending upward: almost $1.5 billion collected in 2012; slightly more than $1.6 billion last year; and close to $1.7 billion expected this year.

Thus the outlook for the state budget is also rosy. The proposed spending plan for next year – still pending before the Legislature – would appropriate $5.8 billion to state programs and services. If approved that would be $36.3 million more than spending in the current year.

That’s one reason the education community is making a big push this session to improve the K-12 budget and provide teachers with a salary increase. But so far, the plan before lawmakers falls short.

The budget proposal would set aside $2.3 billion for K-12, which represents a $14.6 million increase over last year – although members of a key budget committee are recommending no increase in the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.

But many believe the first step to improving education in Mississippi is to give teachers an across-the-board raise. The job primarily stands with the Legislature, which sets the base pay with supplements coming from the local districts.

“What Mississippi teachers are saying is that if we are heading into an economic upswing – something has to be done about this,” said Helmick.

Average salaries for teachers in Mississippi run nearly $14,000 less than the national average of $55,418 in 2011-12, according to a survey from the National Education Association. Teachers here with 35 years of experience who have earned a doctorate can expect to earn about $65,000 per year – less than the average salary in the nation’s top five employers including New York ($73,398), Massachusetts ($71,721) and Connecticut ($69,465), according to the NEA survey.

Helmick points out that the low salaries contribute to high turnover, especially among the state’s best qualified and talented instructors. Several of Mississippi’s neighboring states have significantly higher average salaries.

Louisiana, for instance, can offer $50,179; Alabama’s average salary is just over $48,000 and Tennessee comes in just above $47,000.

“Our state is long, but it’s narrow – so that a teacher could move to a neighboring state and still stay relatively close to family and friends and make anywhere from $4,500 to $8,000 more per year,” Helmick said. “It is a real problem.”

The plan proposed by the teachers association is for the state to provide a 5.5 percent increase each of the next five years – which they argue would bring them up to the average pay in the southeast U.S.

The teachers have a bill, and an author to carry it but its outcome is unclear. Gov. Phil Bryant has suggested a merit based system – something the teachers say isn’t workable at this time.

They point out that the state is like many others, undergoing a massive instructional upheaval through the adoption of the Common Core State Standards. There’s also a lot of concern about how the governor would implement teacher evaluations, what research it might be based on and how the system would work.

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