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Published in Print: August 8, 2001, as Brushing Aside Slowdown, Mississippi Hikes Teacher Pay

Brushing Aside Slowdown, Mississippi Hikes Teacher Pay

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Mississippi teachers will see pay raises starting this fall—after the legislature decided in a one-day summer session that their pay shouldn't be held hostage to a sputtering economy.

Members of both the House and the Senate voted overwhelmingly July 23 to ax a provision in a law passed last year that made teacher-pay raises conditional on state economic growth of 5 percent.

"It brings to culmination a fight for teacher pay that has been going on for decades," said Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, a Democrat, who called legislators back to the state capital of Jackson for the special session. He signed the bill the same day it passed.

Given the current economic slowdown, it had appeared that Mississippi's teachers—already some of the nation's lowest-paid—might get no raise at all this school year if the economic-growth provision remained.

Gov. Musgrove vetoed one-time, across-the- board teacher raises passed by lawmakers in the spring. Those raises would have awarded $500 to teachers with less than 25 years' experience, and $1,000 to those above that threshold.

But those raises would have derailed the governor's six-year blueprint for raising teacher salaries, a plan approved by the legislature last year.

During the special session, a total of only six lawmakers voted against the plan—signaling a political victory for Mr. Musgrove and a long-term state commitment to higher teacher salaries.

Right now, teachers in the Magnolia State earn about $32,500 a year on average, compared with a national average of about $43,000. In time, the governor's plan should make the state more competitive with its Southeastern neighbors, raising salaries 30 percent by 2006. The current Southeastern average is about $37,800.

"It's a tremendous increase for our teachers, and we're proud of that," said Steve Williams, the special assistant to state Superintendent Richard L. Thompson.

'Close to a Crisis'

The pay raises are crucial, considering Mississippi's educational needs, said Beverly Sanders, the president of the Mississippi Association of Educators, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

Hundreds of teacher vacancies exist statewide, even though schools are scheduled to reopen this month, Ms. Sanders said. Only about half the graduates of college teacher-training programs in Mississippi actually enter the field, and close to a third of the state's teachers are nearing retirement.

"Literally, we are really close to a crisis with all the vacancies," Ms. Sanders said.

The legislature's lopsided vote showed that Mississippians may be interested in education more than any other issue, said Rep. Charlie Capps, a Democrat and the chairman of the House budget committee.

"If we have to make cuts in other agencies, well, that'll happen," said Mr. Capps. "Our workforce has to be better-educated than it is today."

Vol. 20, Issue 43, Page 30

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