By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – The 2013 session was labeled as the education session by Gov. Phil Bryant and legislative leaders, but the 2014 session also is shaping up as a key one for education as well.
House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, surprised everyone recently by saying he would like to try to provide a teacher pay raise in the upcoming session, which begins Jan. 7.
New state Superintendent of Education Carey Wright has said that the state needs to strive to provide additional funds to kindergarten through 12th grade education, plus increase the money going for pre-kindergarten programs, if Mississippi schools are going to improve.
Wright said convincing legislators of the importance of providing additional funds for pre-K and fully funding the existing K-12 program “is part of my task. I am trying to reach out and communicate with folks in the Legislature.”
Both the governor and legislative leaders propose to keep K-12 education funding essentially the same as this year in their budget proposals, though the governor does have modest increases in some areas.
But Gunn said recently, “I want to make sure we put more money into the classroom. I would like to look at a teacher pay raise. That is a House position. We see the need and importance of that.”
The first-term speaker also said he would like to see teacher supply funds that have been cut in recent years restored.
State revenue is growing, with increases of more than 5 percent the past two years, and revenue also is up for the current fiscal year as it reaches the midpoint. The state fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30, and the budget passed in the 2014 session will take effect in July.
But to fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which provides the state’s share of most of the basics to operate local school districts, would take an estimated $285 million in additional funds. A 1 percent pay raise for the state’s 30,000 teachers would cost about $16 million.
Universities and community colleges also maintain they have serious funding needs.
Bryant’s budget proposal provides a 5.5 percent increase for the eight public universities and a 6.9 percent increase for community colleges. He is proposing a 1 percent increase for K-12 education.
Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said, funds are being reserved that could be used to fund many education programs.
“I think clearly we should comply with the law and fund the education programs and not stash money away in all these funds. It just is not right to disobey the law and hold on to these funds,” Bryan said.
The budget proposed by the legislative leadership for the full Legislature to consider in 2014 maintains about $580 million in reserves. Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, said some of those funds should be spent on key programs.
“We don’t want to deplete the rainy day fund,” he said. “But I think this is the first time in several years we can deal with some of the quality of life issues that we have faced for so many years.”
Gunn, Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, have spoken of the importance of building the state’s reserves since November when Fitch rating agency downgraded the state’s bond rating to a negative outlook.