As long as we have had a public-education system, we have debated how much public-school teachers deserve to paid. The answer is simple: a whole lot more than they're earning now.
Nowhere is this truer—or more urgent—than in Mississippi, which pays its teachers the least among all southeastern states and second least in the nation. Taken together with our numerous other education challenges, which include trailing much of the nation in terms of student test scores, high school graduation rates, college readiness and other measures, any soul brave enough to sign up to be a teacher in Mississippi probably deserves a medal.
But for now, across-the-board pay increases will suffice.
Historically, legislative Democrats, liberals and passionate public-school advocates have beaten the drum for teacher pay increases with little success. Now, an unlikely champion has emerged in Speaker Philip Gunn, a Republican from Clinton.
Since assuming the speaker's role two years ago, Gunn has not exactly earned a reputation as a friend of the public school. Like his Republican colleagues, he supported charter schools, which are technically public, but critics say they drain resources from traditional schools.
Gunn also has declined to wield his influence to fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, a formula that determines how much money schools receive from the state.
Compounded over time, MAEP is $1.25 billion in the red. That chronic underfunding has caused school districts around the state to cut back drastically on personnel, including teachers.
In advocating for pay raises, Gunn is bucking the other top Republicans in state government, Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves. Bryant and Reeves support so-called merit pay in which teachers' salaries would increase only if they meet certain benchmarks. What Gunn is saying is that although "bad teachers" should probably get out of the business of educating kids, we should not wait on merit pay before we bump teachers' pay grades.
Today, only teachers in South Dakota earn less than those in Mississippi, where the average is $41,646. The Associated Press reported this week that Mississippi teachers last received an across-the-board raise in 2007, which, not surprisingly, coincided with a statewide election. As a result, educators say Mississippi cannot compete with surrounding states to attract teaching talent. If we don't hire the best teachers, our students don't receive the best education they can, and the cycle repeats.
Gunn's motives in calling for teacher raises now are not entirely clear, although politics is assuredly part of his calculus (just look at his manhandling of the short-lived attempt to move the Department of Revenue from Clinton to downtown Jackson).
As far as we're concerned, Gunn's motive on this issue is unimportant. Our teachers deserve raises now, plain and simple. Urge your lawmakers to do the right thing and support the speaker's plan.