"We have talked about the bill, but we totally and passionately disagree with a $500-a-year raise for teachers because it's a slap in the face," Rep. Jay Hughes (pictured), D-Oxford, told the Jackson Free Press. "And (Republicans are) doing this just as a feel-good so they can vote for it and say 'Oh, we voted for a teacher raise." Photo courtesy Jay Hughes
JACKSON Mississippi teachers would get a $1,000 pay raise over the next two years if a bill the state Senate passed last week becomes law. The stated goal of the legislation is to address the teacher shortage Mississippi faces, but many educators and legislators say it falls short of that goal.
Senate Bill 2770, sponsored by Oxford Republican Sen. Gray Tollison, proposes exactly half the increase proposed by the now-dead House Bill 1349, which would have raised teacher salaries by $2,000 and teacher's assistant salaries by $1,000 over two years. The Senate bill would increase the frozen salaries of teacher assistants from $12,500 to $13,500 a year.
The Senate Democratic Caucus released a statement Thursday criticizing SB 2770 for offering an increase of just $9.62 per week or $1.37 per day. Democrats attempted to double that amount, but Republicans would not accept that amendment.
SB 2770 eventually passed with no nays and just one senator not voting. Not every legislator is on board with the current amount, though.
"We must provide an immediate pay bump and recalibrate the pay scale so we can begin paying our teachers the southeastern average," Democratic Caucus Chair Sen. Derrick Simmons, D-Greenville, said in statement last Thursday. "Otherwise, we will continue to see Mississippi-trained educators fleeing the state for higher pay and better resources."
"We have talked about the bill, but we totally and passionately disagree with a $500-a-year raise for teachers because it's a slap in the face," Rep. Jay Hughes, D-Oxford, told the Jackson Free Press. "And (Republicans are) doing this just as a feel-good so they can vote for it and say 'Oh, we voted for a teacher raise."
Backers, Hughes said, seemed to save the bill for late in the legislative calendar without much promotion or urgency.
Hughes is a candidate for lieutenant governor who is best known for his public education advocacy. He often signs off social media posts with, "It all begins with education."
"The bill has not received any attention or promotion on the floor. It was passed out of committee, and then nothing else was said," he told the Jackson Free Press.
He implied that the teacher shortage is a fault of what is happening with Mississippi's public-education system as a whole.
"We have the highest number of people leaving the teaching profession in the first five years as opposed to any other state in the country," he said. "If you look at our historical data, we still have roughly the same number of people graduating public education in our eight public universities each year. The problem is we have fewer people entering public education even with an education degree."
Hughes points to teacher's certificate licenses to back up his theory. "Last year I believe we had, approximately, a little over 900 graduates in education from our eight public universities, but a few over 600 who entered teaching were actually licensed to teach in Mississippi. That's down from over 7,000 licensed to teach 10 years ago," he said.
Republican lawmakers also expressed displeasure with the bill, such as Robert Foster, R-DeSoto County, who is running for the GOP nomination for governor. Foster tweeted on Feb. 14 that the $1,000 increase would not be enough to keep educators in the state.
"Teachers need more than a $1,000 pay raise," he tweeted. "If we plan on retaining the ones we have and recruiting the ones we don't, they need competitive salaries, opportunities for growth, and a reduced testing burden with less and more efficient tests."
The Mississippi Association of Educators released a written response to Busby and chairmen of the education committees, outlining such issues as the underfunding of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program and the possibility of losing their contracts as additional burdens that continue to drive this crisis.
"Our shamefully low teacher salaries, inadequate and under-resourced classrooms, minimal and underfunded teacher supply funds, and the consistent starvation of public education in Mississippi all play a significant role in our inability to retain and recruit current and future educators while limited opportunities for our students."
The National Education Association reports that Mississippi currently ranks among the lowest in average salary for teachers at $42,925 in the 2016-2017 school year. The Mississippi Department of Education, however, says the number is $45,000 for the 2017-2018 school year.
The bill now goes to the House. If the lower chamber passes it, Gov. Phil Bryant is likely to sign it, even though it is less than the pay raise he asked for in his State of the State Address last month.
James Bell is an intern reporter covering the Mississippi Legislature this session. He attends Millsaps College.