The rapidly approaching 2014 legislative session – not 2015 – will be the time to take up any controversial proposals.
The 2015 session will be in an election year. In election years, legislators and the governor only want to deal with feel-good issues – the type of proposals that guarantee votes.
For instance, if state revenue collections continue to improve, legislators should be able to provide pay raises to school teachers and state employees in 2015.
Legislators have traditionally gone through all sorts of contortions to ensure election-year pay raises. After all, kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers, state employees and university faculty make up a sizable voting block – about 90,000 people.
In 2007, there were pay raises.
It appears, unless something unforeseen happens, money again will be available in 2015. Heck, it is almost as if they planned it to work out for 2015 pay raises.
The problem is that Gov. Phil Bryant has stated that he opposes across-the-board pay raises for teachers. That position could cause a big rift in what is supposed to be a 2015 feel-good session.
Bryant got funds in the 2012 session for his pilot merit teacher pay plan that is being tested in four districts. The governor is proposing continuation funding of $1.5 million in the 2013 session for the performance-based pilot program.
A 1 percent across the board raise for teachers costs more than $30 million. It’s expensive.
Mississippi teachers earn the second lowest nationally – an average salary of a little more than $41,600, according to a 2011-12 study by the National Education Association.
For the past fiscal year, the average salary of Mississippi state workers was $34,506, compared to $43,614 for the average of the four adjoining states.
If Bryant wants to base all future pay raises on some type of performance measures, then there could be a lot of unhappy teachers.
Of course, the devil is in the details. If his proposal fashions some type of broad-based plan that awards a lot of teachers for good performance while also providing a boost to all teachers, that might alleviate some of the opposition.
But if he proposes a program that is directed solely at teachers who are deemed as the top performers, he is going to have a lot of rank-and-file teachers upset, especially since many educators question the whole concept of merit pay. They question whether there is an adequate way to measure classroom performance since a lot of factors in and out of any one classroom factor into a child’s academic performance.
Also, will the governor propose some type of performance measures for state employees? Is what is good for teachers also good for state employees?
Legislative Republicans who represent rural districts might be hard-pressed to go along with a teacher pay plan based solely on performance. The schools and the teachers who work in those schools are important parts of the community.
Also, some suburban legislators might have problems supporting a pay raise based solely on merit. After all, in the 2011 election, many cite opposition in the education community as part of the reason for the surprising defeat of then-Senate Appropriations Chair Doug Davis.
It could be argued that Mississippi already has a basic merit pay plan in place. Teacher salaries are based on seniority and education level.
A teacher with a master’s degree earns more than an instructor with a bachelor’s teacher, while a teacher with a doctorate garners more than that teacher with the master’s degree. Teachers earn about $500 more for each additional year of service. Plus, Mississippi provides an additional $6,000 annually for nationally board certified teachers.
Changing that step pay scale could be one of the most controversial proposals to be considered by the Legislature. It would be especially difficult and controversial to do so during an election year.
Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau chief. Contact him at (601) 353-3119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.