January 21, 2014 10:15:32 AM
JACKSON -- Public school teachers and education advocates rallied at the Capitol on Monday to push for higher pay and increased state aid to public schools -- not a new fight, but one that they hope will have more success this year than it has in the past.
The Mississippi Association of Educators, or MAE, the state's largest teacher union, is pushing for an across-the-board pay raise for the state's 22,000 public school teachers.
Groups sponsored by the Children's Defense Fund also rallied to push for lawmakers to fully fund the state's formula for sending school aid to local districts.
This year, the call for across-the-board pay raises is being backed by House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton. Gunn and other Republicans didn't attend the rally of traditionally Democratic-affiliated MAE. There, House Minority Leader Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, said he wanted to make sure any pay raise was "significant."
Officials estimated last year it would cost $35 million to give $1,000 raises to teachers, administrators, counselors and others.
Mississippi teachers made $41,646 in 2011-2012, the second-lowest average salary nationwide, according to a study by the National Education Association, which includes MAE. Mississippi's average pay actually fell from $41,975 the year earlier. Causes for that decrease could have included departures of higher-paid teachers or cuts to local money used to supplement state aid.
Teachers get step raises of $495 each year under the state salary schedule, and make more money with advanced degrees. Teachers with 35 years of experience and a doctorate make at least $64,870.
Gov. Phil Bryant has advocated merit-based increases, with a goal of expanding it to 70 of the state's 151 school districts by 2018.
"While merit pay and an across-the-board raise are not necessarily mutually exclusive, the state must weigh the costs and benefits of providing an across-the-board raise versus providing incentive pay to teachers who prove the ability to move their students forward," Bryant said in a statement.
While a number of Mississippi schools are experimenting with merit pay, those examining effective ways to pay for performance say they need more time for study. That makes it unlikely that lawmakers could create a merit pay program in the 2015 budget and be certain it would work.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican like Bryant and Gunn, said he doesn't want to consider pay increases unless lawmakers agree more money is available.
"I remain committed to stop the state from spending one-time money on recurring operating expenses," Reeves said in a statement.
Some legislative leaders also hope to narrow the projected $265 million funding gap for schools in the 2015 budget.
Supporters of more funding led by the Children's Defense Fund said it's more important to spend on education than save money in the state's rainy day fund, as some Republicans advocate.
"We are concerned about our Legislature's attitude and their focus away from our children's education," said Barbara Brooks of Leland. "Our children are getting rained on and they need a rainy day fund right now."
Destiny Keys, who graduated from Gentry High School in Indianola, said the school offered only two advanced placement classes. Her AP English class was taught by Internet, and she said 20 students shared only 12 working computers, frustrating the already difficult task of keeping up.
"When I got to college, I was far from prepared," Keys said. "There were many things I had to teach myself."