A consequence of coronavirus: Mississippi teachers won’t receive pay raise this year

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Toni Coleman, Center Hill High School economics teacher, helps her 12th grade class with one of their final class projects in Olive Branch Tuesday, May 7, 2019.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, statewide elected officials promised and the Mississippi Legislature moved quickly on a bill that would provide annual pay raises for public school teachers. Now, as lawmakers worry about the state budget during the pandemic, it’s dead.

Senate Bill 2001, which would have raised teacher pay in the state with one of the lowest average teacher salaries, died in House committee on Tuesday’s legislative deadline.

Early in the session, the Senate passed a bill that would give a $1,110 raise to teachers in their first three years of teaching, and $1,000 for all other teachers thereafter. For assistant teachers, their salaries would increase to $15,000; a brand new teacher with a bachelor’s degree would earn $37,000.

The bill died in the House Education committee on Tuesday after lawmakers failed to take it up. When asked why the bill would not move forward in the legislative process, House Education Committee chairman Rep. Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, told Mississippi Today: “Look at the budget.”

While teachers did receive a $1,500 pay increase in the 2019 legislative session, many criticized it as nothing but a symbolic gesture, given that teachers in the state are still some of the lowest paid in the country. In the 2018-19 school year the average salary for a teacher was $45,105.

In January lawmakers described the teacher pay bill as a “first step” to increase teachers’ salaries to an adequate level, but the Legislature was forced to put the session on pause in March as a coronavirus precaution. During that break businesses closed, people lost their jobs, and the economy suffered.

Every state agency is facing cuts as the coronavirus pandemic has affected state revenue collections. Last month, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann said that revenue could be $400 million below the estimate used to construct the current budget, and down as much as $800 million for the next fiscal year, beginning July 1. This means legislators may have to make double digit cuts to all state agencies.

“People are hurting, people are unemployed and we can’t do that to the taxpayers at this time,” Bennett said. “We’re just trying to maintain the services as best we can, so we can’t be adding to the budget at this point.”

Erica Jones, president of the Mississippi Association of Educators, said her organization was not surprised to see the bill die. While disappointed, …”the reality is that it’s not just educators experiencing financial hardship right now.”

The pay raise bill is dead, but if circumstances did change lawmakers could attempt to revive the pay raise later in the session in another piece of legislation that’s relevant and still alive, although this is unlikely.

“A pay raise bill is never about lining our educators’ pockets,” Jones said. “None of us entered this profession to get rich. A meaningful teacher pay raise is about recruiting and retaining teachers, helping address the teacher shortage crisis, and making sure that every student in Mississippi has access to a highly qualified educator in their classroom.”