OUR OPINION: Teacher pay raise due after seven years

For years – even decades – advocates of improved teacher pay in Mississippi have made the Southeastern average their salary goal.

It’s a constantly moving target, and Mississippi has never reached it.

Today, the average teacher salary of $41,600 is well below not only the Southeastern average, but $4,500 to $8,500 below states immediately surrounding Mississippi. Our state’s teachers, current and prospective, don’t have to go far to find better-paying employment in the profession. Their last across-the-board pay raise was in 2007.

It’s time to seriously consider another, and for the first time in years, state leaders in a position to do something about it are beginning a discussion.

House Speaker Philip Gunn broached the subject last week with reporters. He noted the steady rise in state revenue after a long recession-related slowdown and said he hoped an across-the-board raise might be feasible in the 2014 legislative session.

Other legislative leaders have echoed Gunn’s comments, saying that a teacher pay raise will at least be an item of discussion in the session that begins Jan. 7.

Gov. Phil Bryant got $1.5 million appropriated in 2013 for a merit pay pilot program in four districts and has said he thinks pay-for-performance is the way future teacher pay increases should be dispensed.

There’s room for some kind of merit pay that rewards exceptional performance by teachers. We don’t subscribe to the presumption by some in education that there’s no fair way to administer such a system.

But until Mississippi’s teacher pay is at a much higher level, merit pay can’t be the sole means of getting a raise.

The quality of classroom teachers is the single most important factor in a child’s education. Mississippi must make a concerted effort to attract and retain some of the best and brightest young Mississippians into the profession. Pay is hardly the sole criteria, but its importance can’t be dismissed.

Every 1 percent pay raise, including benefits, for teachers in Mississippi would cost the state treasury about $16 million, according to the state Department of Education.

Nearly seven years without a pay raise is a long time – too long to do anything but discourage hard-working teachers and people who might be considering the profession. It’s time to begin plotting a strategy for moving closer to that elusive, long-term target, or at a minimum to parity with surrounding states.