There has rarely been a more popular bill to come out of the Mississippi legislature than House Bill 530, which provides Mississippi’s public school teachers with their first substantial raise in 25 years. After the bill emerged from conference, the Senate passed the bill unanimously (51-0) while only five of 173 representatives opposed the measure.
To give a further idea of the bill’s popularity, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were scrambling to be identified as authors of the legislation. Fifty-six representatives, including local legislators Kabir Karriem (D, Columbus) and Dana McLean (R, Columbus) were listed as authors.
When the new law goes into effect in July, Mississippi teachers will see an average salary increase of $5,100 annually, roughly a 10 percent increase. It will be the largest teacher pay raise (at least by total dollars) in the state’s history. In 1988, Gov. Ray Mabus signed off on an 18 percent increase.
The bill also raises starting pay for teachers by $4,0000 and increases teacher assistant pay by $2,000.
There can be no serious poor-mouthing of the legislature’s action, of course. It’s a substantial raise.
It’s long overdue for our teachers, who have been historically among the lowest paid teachers in the nation and, most likely, will someday have that distinction again.
The raise closes, but does not eliminate, the gap between Mississippi teachers salaries and the Southeastern average. The new average salary in Mississippi will be around $52,000. The Southeast average is, at present, $55,000. Even with the increase, the average Mississippi teacher will make 22 percent less than the national average of $66,300.
Meanwhile, other states are working on teacher pay raises as well. The raise is important, certainly, but it may not prove to be the game-changer in hiring and retaining teachers that some of the legislators are crowing about.
Still, it’s the best thing the legislature has done for public education in memory.
Over the last decade, if not longer, the legislature has proven it is no friend of public education. It constantly plays footsie with right-wing lobbyists who push for state funding for private schools and annually fails to provide adequate funding according to its own funding formula. In 2015, the legislature sabotaged a citizen-led effort to demand the state properly fund its schools by constitutional amendment.
The pay raise represents a practical political reality. What legislators want most of all is to be re-elected. After years of ignoring pleas for a pay raise, legislators were feeling the heat. There are 37,600 public school teachers in the state. Most of them have spouses. All of them have friends and family who are voters. That’s a substantial voting bloc, one that could be no longer ignored.
With elections coming up next year, this pay raise was driven more by expediency than empathy.
Let’s just hope it doesn’t take another 25 years for Mississippi’s teachers to get the pay they deserve.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.
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