Education forces rally at Capitol

Joyce Helmick, president of the Mississippi Association of Educators, speaks during a teachers rally for a pay increases Monday in the rotunda of the Mississippi State Capitol in Jackson. (AP Photo/The Clarion-Ledger, Rick Guy)

Joyce Helmick, president of the Mississippi Association of Educators, speaks during a teachers rally for a pay increases Monday in the rotunda of the Mississippi State Capitol in Jackson. (AP Photo/The Clarion-Ledger, Rick Guy)

By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – Public school teachers and public education advocates used the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday as an opportunity to gather at the state Capitol to rally for a teacher pay raise and full funding of existing education programs.

Full funding and a teacher pay raise were advocated in two separate rallies Monday, though the issue of more funding for education morphed into one sentiment at the two events.

Joyce Helmick, president of the Mississippi Association of Educators and a former DeSoto County teacher, said the purpose of the rally her group sponsored was “to overcome low salaries and the underfunding of public schools.”

The MAE rally drew about 400 people on the second floor of the Capitol. Many teachers and others lined the railing on the third and fourth floors, carrying signs supporting a teacher pay raise and full funding.

One sign just outside of the governor’s office on the third floor read “Merit pay for Bryant,” referring to Gov. Phil Bryant’s support for performance-based pay for teachers instead of an across-the-board raise. Others advocated for “fully funding MAEP,” referring to the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, the funding mechanism used to provide state money for the basics of operating local school districts.

Groups led by the Rural Black Women’s Initiative, drew a crowd of about 200 during an outside rally for full funding of MAEP on the Capitol steps. Then the group joined the teachers for the rally for funding and a teacher pay raise in the Capitol.

At the rally for full funding, Destiny Keys of Indianola, now a student at the University of Mississippi, said in her advanced placement English class in her junior and senior years of high school she never had a live teacher, but instead relied on Internet classes. But she said the district could not afford to provide enough working computers for all the students participating in the English class.

“When I got to college, I was far from prepared,” said the Ole Miss student.

The Mississippi Adequate Education Program is more than $290 million short of full funding under the law for the current year and more than $1.2 billion short since 2008.

House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, did not attend Monday’s rally, but has advocated an across-the-board raise for teachers, though he has yet to identify the size increase he would support.

It is not clear how a pay raise would impact public education without addressing the current shortfall in state funding. The bulk of MAEP funding already goes to teacher salaries.

Rep. Bobby Moak of Bogue Chitto, chair of the minority House Democratic Caucus, spoke at the rally and said Democrats support full funding and a pay raise. Moak said the key issue is how big will the raise be?

“It has to be significant,” he said, pointing out teachers have not had a raise in seven years. “…This is the year to do it.”

The Mississippi Association of Educators is proposing a CARE Act – Confirm A Raise for Educators.

The plan would call for a five-year plan, increasing teacher pay 5.5 percent per year, reaching the salary of $40,386 for a starting teacher.

Gunn reiterated Monday the size of the pay raise would depend on the available revenue at the end of the session.

“I want to do it if we can do it,” he said, referring to available revenue, but added “it could jeopardize a pay raise if you come up with some outlandish amount.”

bobby.harrison@journalinc.com