By NEMS Daily Journal
Equity has always been a pressing issue in public education. “Separate but equal” schools were decidedly unequal in the resources they received, which drove the abolition of racially segregated school systems in the South. Inequity in opportunities afforded students regardless of race in the tiny, impoverished rural schools of Mississippi had earlier brought consolidation.
Today equity remains at the forefront in education discussions. It was one of the main objectives of the Mississippi Adequate Education Act of 1997, which set up the funding mechanism to help close the gap between tax-poor and comparatively wealthy school districts. Although the MAEP funding formula has been fully implemented in only two state budget years, it has still saved Mississippi from costly equity lawsuits faced by other states.
Still, Mississippi – like most other states – can hardly say there is equity from district to district in the quality of the education children receive. Educational opportunity remains heavily dependent on where a student lives.
While there are certainly other factors, much of the inequity is a function of finances. Well-intentioned and even necessary systemic reforms must begin with that recognition.
Performance-based compensation – or merit pay – for teachers is on the table in Mississippi now, put there by Gov. Phil Bryant. A fair system that takes into account factors beyond a teacher’s control is worth considering as an incentive for teaching excellence.
However, as in most any legislative undertaking, the details are critical. And in Mississippi, those details inevitably must take into account the question of equity.
Bryant and the Mississippi State University study he commissioned propose funding the performance-based incentives in part through the funds local school districts use to supplement teachers’ state-funded salaries. But not surprisingly, there’s a wide disparity in local supplements across the state. As an article in Sunday’s Daily Journal noted, they range all the way from averages of $91 in Richton to $7,575 in Biloxi.
Even in Northeast Mississippi gaps are evident. In Tupelo, the local supplement is $4,594 while in Lee County it’s $1,457. Down the road in Nettleton it’s only $567.
While not all of the gaps are related to financial capacity, it’s a major factor. Any performance-based pay system mandated by the state should treat teachers equitably from district to district, and the challenges in doing that are obvious.
Local districts that have stepped up to do more for their teachers should be commended. At the same time, reforms of the system must take care to ensure that they don’t aggravate already existing disparities that affect the education children receive.