October 29, 2020

Lawmakers must make a priority to get teacher pay at or above Southeastern average

Mississippi educators will see higher paychecks next school year.

State lawmakers settled one of the biggest questions of the 2019 legislative session on Thursday when they finalized raises for the state’s teachers and assistant teachers. The agreement now awaits the expected signature of Gov. Phil Bryant.

The plan will bump Mississippi teacher salaries by $1,500 beginning July 1, with the entry salary for a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree rising from $34,390 to $35,890, although many districts add to that amount with local supplements. Other teachers will earn more based on their number of years of experience and the degrees they hold. For instance, a 12th-year teacher with a master’s degree will earn at least $44,880.

Most political watchers believed lawmakers would agree to a teacher pay raise this year, given that it is an election year, but the big question was what that amount would be. The final agreement, estimated to cost $58 million, came after much debate and numerous proposals.

In his budget request released in November, Bryant called for the state to spend $25 million on a teacher pay increase. The Senate originally passed a plan that would raise salaries by $1,000, phased-in over two years, while the House approved a $4,000 raise, also phased-in over two years.

The final agreement has come under criticism from some teachers and advocates who have said it is not large enough to make a significant impact. Some Democratic lawmakers tried to send it back for more debate in the hopes of increasing it, while Republican leaders said the state couldn’t afford a larger proposal, citing other needs.

“It’s not where we want to be,” said Republican House Education Committee Chairman Richard Bennett of Long Beach. “It’s what we can do.”

Meanwhile, the minimum salary for assistant teachers will go from $12,500 to $14,000, although many districts also add to that total with local supplements. It is the first raise for assistant teachers since 2007, and the final proposal was actually larger than the $1,000 raise originally proposed by both the Senate and the House in their initial bills.

We welcome the pay raise and appreciate the efforts of lawmakers to elevate the teaching profession. We also agree that more work is needed if Mississippi is going to attract more of its best and brightest citizens to the teaching profession and keep its best teachers from leaving for higher paying jobs in other states.

Now that the latest pay raise has been finalized, we call on lawmakers to continue that work. The issue of teacher pay should not merely be placed on a shelf until the next election approaches. This is far too important to our state.

We understand lawmakers will have to get creative to find a way to get Mississippi’s teacher salaries equal to and above the Southeastern average. But budgets are about setting priorities, and having the highest quality teachers will make a tremendous impact on Mississippi’s future in so many ways. It must remain at the top of the list in 2020 and beyond.

This opinion piece was originally published in Tupelo’s Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal.