CHARLIE MITCHELL: Lawmakers found the money for teacher pay in 2001

CHARLIE MITCHELL

CHARLIE MITCHELL

“Mississippi has developed the kind of attractive employment package that still eludes New York.”

So said The New York Times in an editorial on July 24, 2001. Of course, praise for this state’s lawmakers came with a twist. The newspaper (rarely mentioned in Mississippi without “that x&?@C!! liberal” as a prefix to its actual name) also was trying to shame New York for not being as bold.

The topic was Mississippi’s largest (and perhaps only) multiyear package of increases in compensation for the state’s public school teachers.

Ronnie Musgrove, a Democrat whose one term as governor was sandwiched between eight years of Kirk Fordice and eight years of Haley Barbour, had served as a state senator and lieutenant governor and still had friends in the halls of the Legislature.

He led to passage a five-year plan of tiered increases that would end with teachers receiving overall 30 percent – 30 percent – raises to near the projected Southeast average for 2005.

When first passed, the annual raises were tied to triggers. That is, if the state’s overall income didn’t grow by 5 percent in any year, there would be no raises the next year.

Some saw that as making the package meaningless, illusory because it was based on “ifs.” So Musgrove called lawmakers back into session. When he did, they agreed to lift all triggers, making a firm commitment to the raises, which added $337.9 million to the base cost of K-12 education.

The Times was impressed, suggesting not only New York but also other states could follow Mississippi’s lead.

Back then, the grievance local superintendents had brought to Jackson was inability to find teachers, period. The previous year was begun with about 500 unfilled teacher jobs. The state’s economic picture was also rosy. Through much of the 1990s, there was a booming national economy and Mississippi’s treasury, which also had a new income stream from casinos, was experiencing big increases every year, including some double-digit years.

In 2014, the situation is a bit different. For one thing, public education at all levels no longer enjoys the level of support it had in the past. Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves do not favor across-the-board raises, choosing to endorse merit pay in the belief that rewarding effective teachers and encouraging others to find something else to do is the better option.

The state’s income is no longer surging, either. In fact, there were a couple of years when the treasury actually received fewer real dollars than the year before. That picture has turned around, but ever-so-slowly.

It is House Speaker Phillip Gunn, R-Clinton, who has raised the notion of increasing the base pay of all K-12 teachers, perhaps as an outflow of his experience as a board member of the top-rated Clinton Public Schools. He’s realistic, though. With 30,000 teachers, each $1,000 increase in teacher pay claims another $30 million in state funds. Both the governor’s proposed budget and the draft of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee show only modest overall increases for education and Gunn has said a one-year or two-year deal would be the maximum push.

Too, there’s the lingering notion that teacher pay may have little to do with student outcomes. Teachers in Washington, D.C., are the nation’s third highest in average pay ($70,906) and Mississippi’s teachers are next to last ($41,994), but both districts scored an “F” in Education Week’s annual tally of edcuation quality – and were the only schools to flat flunk.

Clearly, a commitment to better schools only starts with improved compensation for classroom teachers. Lawmakers are only fooling themselves if they think a fatter paycheck will, of itself, guarantee anything. The recipe for an effective school contains many, many more ingredients.

Pay is, however, the one component over which Mississippi lawmakers have the most control. It’s up to principals and superintendents to hire (and fire) well. It’s up to parents to support and respect the roles teachers play in the quality of their children’s lives and their prospects for the future. It’s up to students to understand that learning is a challenge and it’s up to them to accept or reject opportunities they are given.

Given the totality of the situation, it’s highly unlikely that editorial writers of The New York times will have the opportunity this summer to invoke education progress in Mississippi to spur others to follow this state’s lead.

But once upon a time it did happen.

Back when we were bold.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email cmitchell43@yahoo.com. He is assistant dean and assistant professor in the Meek School of Journalismm and New Media at the University of Mississippi. His opinions, unless otherwise noted, are his own.