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Published in Print: May 10, 2000, as Mississippi Links Teacher Raises To Growth in Revenues

Mississippi Links Teacher Raises To Growth in Revenues

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Mississippi teachers are scheduled to receive raises aimed at increasing their pay to regionally competitive levels, under a bill signed last week by Gov. Ronnie Musgrove.

The six-year pay package represents a historic first for the state, which pledged in a 1982 education reform bill to increase teachers' salaries to the Southeastern average but hasn't followed through, said Maryann Graczyk, the president of the 3,500-member Mississippi American Federation of Teachers.

But the bill wasn't a clean victory for the governor, teachers' organizations, and the public-policy organizations that have promoted higher teacher pay as a key step in improving the state's chronically low-performing schools.

First, teachers won't receive any raises in the coming fiscal year and are slated to receive just 2 percent increases in fiscal 2002. Between fiscal 2002 and 2005, they would receive pay hikes totaling 30 percent, bringing the average salary to $41,000 a year.

Perhaps more significantly, the bill includes a caveat that says state revenues must be projected to grow 5 percent annually in order for teachers to receive the increases. The total cost of the package is estimated at $338 million—a figure that prompted some lawmakers to warn of possible tax increases to pay for it.

In a May 1 signing ceremony, Mr. Musgrove pledged to fight for removing language linking the raises to revenue growth.

"This is something the governor worked diligently toward, and it actually passed within the first 100 days of his administration," said Lisa Mader, a spokeswoman for the Democratic governor. "He knows they can be paid for without the 5 percent stipulation, and he believes education should be a priority, must be a priority, and [policymakers] can find a way to make it happen every year."

Mississippi teachers currently earn an average of $31,913 a year, compared with an average of $37,072 in the 12 Southeastern states with which it competes for teaching talent.

'Promise for Future'

The issue of increasing teachers' pay in Mississippi has become more urgent in the past few years, as policymakers have begun to worry about the supply of teachers and have seen homegrown teachers cross the state line to earn far more in neighboring states.

"We wish [the raises] could be clear-cut," said William Lewis, the executive director of the Public Education Forum, a public-policy group in Jackson that has conducted research and pressed for attention to the state's teacher workforce. "But it still does give promise for the future and shows governmental leadership in this state in terms of trying to move education to the forefront of the state's agenda."

Ms. Graczyk of the Mississippi AFT cautioned that even with the raises, Mississippi teachers' pay won't match the projected Southeastern average of approximately $45,000 six years from now.

If the Mississippi legislature holds a special session on economic development this summer, as Mr. Musgrove has discussed, the union leader pledges to lobby to change the pay-raise bill to provide 10 percent increases in each of the next four years.

Teachers have "very mixed emotions" about the bill, Ms. Graczyk said. Most didn't trust lawmakers to actually address the issue, since many were warning that the state faced a budget crunch. And teachers wish the raises took effect sooner, she added.

In fact, it wasn't until April 3 that Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck introduced a pay-raise bill.

The measure ended up as an amendment to a broad accountability plan that will divide individual Mississippi schools into three tiers according to their students' performance on state tests.

Depending on schools' performance, the bill calls for them to receive various rewards and sanctions.

Vol. 19, Issue 35, Page 24

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