OUR OPINION: Teacher pay, funding critical school issues

A top-tier issue in this year’s session of the Mississippi Legislature – the first pay raise for the state’s teachers in seven years – will be front and center this week.

A House bill with the first installment of a $4,250 raise over four years must make it out of two Senate committees in some form by Tuesday to survive. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, the Senate’s presiding officer, is expected to reveal his own teacher pay plan today, which likely will be proposed as a substitute for the House bill.

The important thing at this point is to keep a legislative vehicle alive. The Senate and House versions surely will be different, but a compromise can be worked out later in the session. It’s past time to get Mississippi’s perennially low-paid teachers closer to neighboring states and the Southeastern average, which for decades has been an elusive goal for the state.

Two other innovative legislative proposals face the same Tuesday deadline – extending statewide the community college tuition assistance plan prevalent in Northeast Mississippi and allowing school districts to apply for release from some state regulations in order to experiment with ways to improve academic performance and close racial and economic achievement gaps. Both of these bills merit approval.

But the overarching K-12 education issue of this session is funding. The House has passed a bill that keeps funding basically the same for next school year as this year for general school operations, and that’s $265 million short of what the formula in state law requires. It also will add to the more than $1.2 billion the state’s schools have been shorted since the Mississippi Adequate Education Program was last fully funded in fiscal year 2008.

Lawmakers simply can’t continue to ignore the real ramifications of underfunding on local school districts and taxpayers. Elsewhere on this page, a letter from Oxford School Board members notes that their district as been shorted $8.4 million since 2008. Tupelo Superintendent Gearl Loden has said that this year alone the impact of underfunding on his district is $4 million. That’s a lot of teachers and academic resources lost.

The bad economy of recent years was a legitimate excuse for a while, but with Mississippi’s economy on the upswing and revenues rising it’s past time to make more progress toward full funding of MAEP – while at the same time getting teachers off their perennial status of next-to-last or last in the nation in pay. Both actions are necessary for Mississippi to overcome its historic legacy of undervaluing education.