Moment of Clarity: Teacher Pay, Healthcare

Clues to why Speaker Philip Gunn backs raises for teachers might lie in Clinton Public Schools, located in Gunn’s district.

Clues to why Speaker Philip Gunn backs raises for teachers might lie in Clinton Public Schools, located in Gunn’s district. Photo by Trip Burns.

Speaker Philip Gunn's vocal campaign for a teacher pay raise this year met widely with raised eyebrows, both among his fellow Republicans and his Democratic foes with whom he often spars. Yet, Gunn was the chief architect of pay-raise legislation in the form of House Bill 504, which passed overwhelmingly after exhaustive debate on the House floor last week. The bill would provide a $4,250 raise over four years and passed 85 to 26. Within seconds of the final vote, a press release arrived from Gunn's office stating: "I believe the measure we passed is a workable one for the Senate and the governor. You deserve a raise, and this is a big step in the right direction."

Public-education advocates argue that Mississippi's teachers are notoriously underpaid, making an average of $41,646 that lags every other state except for South Dakota. The politics under the Capitol dome remain murky. Twenty-two merit-payesque benchmarks that veteran teachers have to meet to get the raise may make it easier for Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who presides in the Senate, to swallow. Gov. Phil Bryant remains a wild card in the debate.

But why did Gunn do it? To get a better sense of Gunn's motivations, it takes looking outside of the statehouse and in his native Clinton. Gunn is not known as a friend to public schools, in large part because, during his two-year speakership, he has not seemed interested in budging on full funding of the state's funding formula known as the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.

Districts statewide have reported that The Great Recession, combined with MAEP underfunding, has wreaked havoc on their budgets, including staffing. The Clinton School District, one of the highest-performing in the state, has not been immune.

Sandi Beason, a spokeswoman for the district, said Clinton schools lost about 50 staff positions at the height of the recession in 2010. Some of those jobs came from attrition, not filling vacant slots, and about 25 were layoffs, Beason said.

"It was a rough time," Beason told the Jackson Free Press.

By all accounts, other districts have had a rougher time. A report from the Center for Education Innovation released in January showed Jackson Public Schools having a similar experience, shedding 90 jobs—50 of them teachers—in the past three years.

Democrats, who helped secure a $5,000 across-the-board raise last year unsuccessfully offered a similar bill to HB 504; Republicans argued that the Senate would not approve such a hefty sum.

Rep. Linda Whittington, D-Schlater, the amendment's sponsor, begged to differ. "Ladies and gentlemen, we do have the money. We do not have the political will," Whittington said.

FAQs on FQHCs

Republicans hate federal takeovers of health, but members of the Mississippi GOP love federally qualified health-care centers, or FQHCs. This week, the House voted 106 to 7 to pass House Bill 413, which would award $4.8 million in competitive grants so that FQHCs and rural health clinics around the state could improve access to primary care.

Democrats could not help but pounce on hypocrisy of taking $5 million out of the state treasury to improve health care when expanding Medicaid would cost state taxpayers nothing for two years and cover about 300,000 people.

"We're not discussing Medicaid," Rep. Sam Mims, R-McComb, snapped during a line of questioning from Jackson Democrat Rep. Cecil Brown.

By Brown's calculation, the grants would provide about $85,000 per year to each of the state's 21 FQHCs. Family Health Care Clinic Inc., headquartered in Pearl, own two of those clinics.

Back in 2011, two Mississippi congressmen—Sen. Thad Cochran and Rep. Gregg Harper—asked the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to provide Capital Development Building Capacity Grants to Family Health Care Clinic Inc. Gov. Phil Bryant has also said he would like to provide more grants to federally qualified health centers as an alternative to Medicaid expansion, which he opposes.

Mims said the grants could enable clinics to expand their staffs or operating hours; Brown is doubtful the money will go very far: "If you vote for this (bill), don't tell people you've taken care of poor folks and their health-care needs."

Comments

RonniM 8 months, 1 week ago

The Republican's teacher pay raise is a complete sham meant to give the lawmakers an excuse to add "I support education" to their talking points. Don't believe a word of it.

This is merit pay, not "merit-payesque." After receiving no raises for seven years, the bill restricts teachers with the most experience to a paltry $125 a month raise over the next two years, which can be rescinded if they don't meet several "benchmarks," including civic club memberships and increased test scores. The most teachers can expect in their paychecks is an additional $354 a month (gross) by 2018, but it can be taken away if they don't hit those benchmarks, or if Mississippi doesn't increase its general fund by 3 percent. It also specifically excludes membership in any organization that advocates for teachers (or any politically active group), further weakening an already weak teacher advocacy system in the state.

Mississippi teachers are already working under extreme budgetary pressures, as this story pointed out, due to the Legislature underfunding MAEP year after year. Classrooms keep getting larger because districts can't afford to keep enough teachers. Some spend their meager salaries to ensure students have the supplies the district can't afford to buy, and work overtime without additional pay to ensure that at least some students make it. Some have buckets in their classrooms because districts can't afford to patch holes in the roofs. Some don't have textbooks for all their students. Every public-school district in the state is strapped for cash, and the Republican's only solution is to put more pressure on teachers.

I'd be willing to bet that Republicans will use this "raise" as an excuse to continue underfunding MAEP in the future in their long-running quest to destroy the public-school system altogether. I can hear it now. "We gave teachers more money, and they're still failing!" But you can bet your bottom dollar that they'll find the funds for prisons and give away millions more in incentives to private, for-profit corporations.

These lawmakers have no intention to adequately support public schools or the children who attend them. Period. This is more proof of that.

As Rep. Bobby Moak said in a press release: "I doubt this is what teachers have been working for during the last seven years since they have seen a raise. Finding more ways to play hide- and-seek with pay increases is the wrong way to treat teachers our children are entrusted to each school day.” (h/t Cottonmouth)

Wake up, Mississippi. The future of your children is at stake.

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redcreek2 8 months, 1 week ago

Cecil Brown is great. He was on "@issue" last week and was a most erudite spokesman for all the advantages of expanding Medicaid. The right wing controls this state and it will continue to be worse than any 3rd world country as long as that is true.

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