OUR OPINION: Teacher pay conference has money for increases

More choice in raising Mississippi teachers’ salaries than most imagined possible at the beginning of the 2014 session confronts legislators in coming days as a House-Senate conference committee seeks to craft an agreeable compromise.

The House voted Wednesday not to accept the Senate’s version of a pay-raise bill and invited conference, the final step in the legislative process when members can’t agree on passage. Conferees, named by Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, will have significant leeway and power in shaping a conference report.

Several things could happen in conference:

• The committee could do nothing, killing the bill – obviously an unacceptable alternative, given the stakes attached to making Mississippi teacher pay more competitive.

• Conferees could agree on a compromise using new figures or use parts of the two bills passed in the House and Senate, the most likely outcome.

• Conferees could adopt one of the bills as written and send it to both chambers for action, which is unlikely.

Both chambers must agree to pass a conference report, or the report could be recommitted for more work.

However, some kind of agreement substantially raising teachers’ pay seems probable. The only thing that could get in the way is political obstinacy between chambers, which can’t be allowed to unravel the progress already made.

Both chambers passed versions of pay raises with major increases, and in the Senate version adding a merit pay component based on all-school performance rather than assessment of a single teacher.

The Senate version would provide a $2,500 raise over two years, with a merit pay provision following.

The House bill would provide $4,250, with the final two years of a four-year plan contingent on state revenue growth of at least 3 percent, which is forecast by the state’s experts.

The pay-raise issue is politically charged outside the Legislature, too.

Teachers, individually and as members of professional organizations or a teachers union, have kept up pressure on their local delegations to improve Mississippi’s standing among the other Deep South states, especially in raising the starting salary to or above the region’s average and to make experienced teachers’ pay competitive enough to retain them in Mississippi.

Teachers’ salaries are based on experience, degrees obtained and local supplements, some of which are relatively generous and make hiring teachers easier for those districts.

Leaders in both chambers have said repeatedly they support a pay raise; rank-and-file votes show solid support.

The conference committee should be able to agree on a generous raise without superfluous benchmarks but possibly with a school-based merit pay component.