By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – The Republican-led House passed its $188 million teacher pay package Wednesday 86-26 after beating back efforts of the Democrats to increase the amount.
Debate in the House lasted more than three hours as Democrats unsuccessfully tried to increase the $4,250 pay raise spread out over four years in the bill to an immediate $5,000 pay raise that would take effect in July. That amendment was defeated by 53 yes votes to 67 no votes along primarily party lines.
Rep. Preston Sullivan, D-Okolona, was the only Northeast Mississippi Democrat to join Republicans in opposing the higher, accelerated raise. All House members from the region voted for final passage of the bill.
The Republican majority argued that the state could not afford the Democratic proposal. Plus, Republicans also blocked efforts of Democrats to take out language requiring teachers with more than five years of experience to meet certain benchmarks to get the raise.
“I believe the measure we passed is a workable one for the Senate and the governor,” said House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton. “We are on the right path to investing in good teachers. You deserve a raise, and this is a big step in the right direction.”
But Democrats said the money is available to do more and disputed the claim of Gunn and Appropriations Chair Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, that they just were trying to score political points with their amendments to increase the amount.
Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, said Mississippi teachers are going to surrounding states to work where the pay is better so a larger raise is needed to combat the “brain drain.”
The proposal now goes to the Senate.
Republicans and Democrats fought not only over the size of the raise, but also the benchmarks that teachers with more than five years of experience must meet to get the raise. Veteran teachers must meet three of 22 benchmarks spelled out in the legislation. They are as varied as having advanced degrees, to having a good recommendation from the principal to joining a civic club.
House Education Chair John Moore, R-Brandon, said “the professional achievement benchmarks” were crafted to be attainable by all teachers. He said the House appropriators assumed all teachers would achieve the benchmarks in budgeting for the bill.
“Teachers deserve not to have to jump through hoops, especially those who have been in the system for some time,” countered Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto.
Frierson said the benchmarks were included to secure the support of Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who presides over the Senate. Both have said they support requiring teacher pay raises to be based on merit – something Moore said the state educational apparatus is not set up to do yet.
“We are putting the benchmarks in there as a way for him (Bryant) to save face,” in signing the bill into law, Frierson said.
Under the bill, the raise would begin in January with a $500 bump. In July, they would receive an additional $1,000.
Then the following two years they would receive increases of $1,350 and $1,400 if the revenue grew by more than 3 percent.
Teachers with less than five years of experience would not have to attain the benchmarks. The reasoning, Moore said, is that new teachers in Mississippi are further behind their counterparts in surrounding states in pay and the money was needed to attract top students to the teaching profession. The average starting salary for a teacher is $30,900, compared to the Southeastern average of $32,500.
Mississippi teachers earn the second lowest salary nationally – an average of just under $42,000 per year, according to a 2013 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics. The national average is $56,383 and $48,563 in Mississippi’s neighboring states.