By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, has put the issue of a teacher pay raise on the table for consideration.
“I would like to look at a teacher pay raise this year,” Gunn told reporters Thursday, referring to issues to be taken up during the 2014 legislative session, which begins Jan. 7.
He said the goal of the House leadership is to ensure that state funds – whether for supplies or teacher salaries – are directed to the classroom.
Before Thursday’s comments by the House speaker, there has been little talk about addressing the expensive issue of teacher pay during 2014. And it still is not clear how much consideration it will get. Even Gunn conceded as much.
“A lot will hinge on how much money is available,” he said. “We are hoping revenue continues to exceed estimates.”
Through the first five months of the fiscal year that began in July, revenue collections have been strong – $74.4 million above the estimate.
Mississippi already lags the nation, the region and its surrounding states in pay for teachers.
Mississippi teachers earn the second lowest nationally – an average salary of a little more than $41,600 per year, according to a 2011-12 study by the National Education Association.
Mississippi teachers have not had an across-the-board pay raise since 2007, though more experienced teachers did receive a phased-in raise in 2008-2009.
Gov. Phil Bryant has said he wants to replace the customary across-the-board pay raises with merit-based increases. In the 2013 session, $1.5 million was appropriated for a pilot merit pay plan in four districts. Bryant is asking those funds be continued by the 2014 Legislature.
When asked about Gunn’s comments, Nicole Webb, a spokeswoman for Bryant, said the governor “looks forward to working with Speaker Gunn and Lt. Gov. Reeves to further improve public education for Mississippi students.”
Gunn at first indicated that he would prefer an across-the-board raise and then said he had no preference and would be willing to work with the governor on the issue.
A 1 percent across-the-board raise, including benefits, would cost the state about $16 million annually.
Talk of a pay raise comes as legislators are faced with many other education funding requests, including full funding for the existing Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which would cost about $280 million more than was appropriated in 2013, and funds to boost the state’s early childhood education effort.
State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright was asked about Gunn’s comments and said, “I certainly support making sure teachers are well compensated for the work they do every day.”
Wright, who moved from Maryland in November to assume her post, said local superintendents she has met with have expressed concerns about being able to recruit enough quality teachers to enact the new, tougher Common Core academic standards.
“Better educator salaries will allow us to recruit and retain the best, brightest and most committed educators to ensure positive student outcomes,” said Joyce Helmick, president of Mississippi Association of Educators. “Educators are deeply committed to the success of every child. Our neighboring states pay educators an average of $4,500 to $8,500 more a year.”
Senate Education Chair Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said a teacher pay raise “is something that we will discuss this session.”