Meridian Star

January 19, 2014

Mississippi teachers deserve better pay

The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN — The last time Mississippi teachers were given an across-the-board pay raise was in 2007. That's too long.

    According to the National Education Association, Mississippi ranked second from the last in the nation in average teacher pay during the 2011-12 school year, with only South Dakota's teachers earning less.

    The average salary of instructional staff in Mississippi during 2011-12 was $44,651, according to an NEA study. In comparison, the average salary of teachers in Alabama was $50,039. Teachers in Arkansas earned on average $49,927, while teachers in Louisiana were paid an average of $52,611. The national average was $57,218.

    Although teachers in Mississippi do get an annual $495 a year "step increase," it is not enough to keep pace with teacher salaries in surrounding states, many of which actively recruit here to lure our teachers away with promises of higher pay.

    According to the Mississippi Department of Education, there are 48 school districts in 29 counties in the state facing a critical shortage of teachers, including that of Kemper County, which is in our back yard. Better pay would attract more people to the teaching profession.

    Gov. Phil Bryant has opposed an across-the-board increase in teacher pay and has said he favors teacher pay increases based on test scores and job evaluations.

    Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn said he likes the idea of merit pay but there is no effective way now to evaluate which teachers are good or bad.

    We agree with Gunn. Merit pay is subjective and some state models that base pay increases on student performance punish teachers at inner-city schools where children are disadvantaged from the start and have to work much harder to catch up.

    But our biggest problem isn't with merit pay itself. Good teachers should be rewarded and bad teachers should be encouraged to find another profession. If an equitable system of merit pay is implemented, we are all for it.

    Our issue is that Mississippi teachers are paid well below the national average and deserve better wages now. We owe it to our children to provide our best and brightest teachers incentive to stay here and teach, rather than seek employment in another state or another field with better wages.

    We would like to see the state implement an across-the-board pay increase for Mississippi teachers this year and then begin the process of considering a system of merit pay increases.

    We are well aware that money is tight and finding the money for a pay raise for the state's 30,000-plus teachers will not be easy.

    According to an Associated Press article, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, said last year it would cost at least $35 million to give a $1,000 pay raise to all certified school employees. That figure, however, not only includes teachers but administrators, counselors and others as well.

    The state's legislators have until early April to adopt a budget for fiscal year 2015, which begins July 1.

    Gunn has said he supports an across-the-board teacher pay raise this year.

    "I think it will enhance the quality of education in Mississippi," Gunn told the Associated Press.

    We agree. And we believe it can be done. Last month, the Mississippi Joint Legislative committee recommended a $5.8 billion budget for the next fiscal year, while Gov. Bryant's proposed budget is $6.1 billion.

    There is enough wiggle room in the budget for legislators to increase teacher pay in the state if they choose to make that a priority.