Before Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann finished his post-legislative session press conference on April 1, education advocates and politicos rapidly fired off texts to one another and to reporters, opining about an assertion he made.
“This year education had its best year since, probably since William Winter,” Hosemann said early in the press conference.
Hosemann was harkening back to the 1982 session, when former Gov. William Winter ushered one of the state’s most transformative legislative education packages. It increased teacher pay, established public kindergarten and compulsory school attendance, and created a statewide testing program for performance-based accreditation of public schools.
The change Winter led in 1982 demonstrated a shift in thinking about public education. It signaled to the nation that Mississippi cared to think critically and act boldly about its future. This year, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to magnify wide educational disparities and years of legislative under-funding of public education, lawmakers failed to match the transformative action of Winter.
Lawmakers this year spent about $100 million more on education than last year. Half of that amount went to a modest $1,000-per-year pay raise for teachers. They also doubled funds for the state’s early childhood programs and increased the teacher classroom supply fund by $8 million, to $20 million.
Additionally, lawmakers learned that the latest federal stimulus package will send a whopping $1.6 billion to K-12 education in Mississippi — part of what Hosemann was highlighting when he referenced Winter’s legacy — though schools, not lawmakers, will control how those funds are spent.. Other legislative leaders seemed to share Hosemann’s feelings about the 2021 session.
“It’s just a real good year for education as far as money going into it,” House Education Committee Chairman Richard Bennett told fellow lawmakers on the floor of the House.
Leah Smith, Hosemann’s education policy director, pointed to the teacher pay raise, doubling support for the pre-kindergarten programs, increasing money for math and early learning coaches, increasing teacher supply money and the creation of a new teacher loan repayment program as successes from the 2021 session.
“The lieutenant governor believes investing in the human mind is the best way to move Mississippi forward, and has consistently advocated for providing teachers and schools with the resources they need to be successful,” Smith said.
While the 2021 legislative accomplishments and funding realities were commendable, according to every education advocate who spoke with Mississippi Today this week, they were not transformative relative to 1982 and other sessions since.
Winter’s policies in 1982 proved that Mississippi prioritized public education, and the nation took notice. This year, lawmakers offered a modest pay raise that doesn’t move Mississippi out of last place for average teacher pay in the region, allocated lottery funds to public education based on existing state law, and passed a student loan forgiveness program that arguably wouldn’t be necessary if teachers were paid more in the first place.
Before the passage of Winter’s reform, Mississippi was still reeling from integration and the subsequent creation of segregation academies. It was the only state in the nation with no public kindergarten, and it was also the second-most illiterate state in the nation, according to Ellen Meacham’s Mississippi Encyclopedia entry.
If Winter’s Education Reform Act ushered in a new commitment by the state to public education, it could be argued that commitment continued in the 1990s and early 2000s. What legislation has been most impactful in terms of improving education might be open for debate, but based on any criteria, Mississippi schools would be much worse off today if not for proposals enacted in the 1990s and early 2000s.
During that period — considered by many a golden age in terms of education legislation — funding was dramatically increased, teachers were placed on the state health insurance plan, classrooms were air conditioned and a new funding formula was enacted to ensure a level of equity in funding for Mississippi schools.
From 1992-1996, then-Sen. Ronnie Musgrove and Rep. Billy McCoy chaired their respective chambers’ education committees. While the two headstrong and ambitious politicians often butted heads, they shared a common belief that transformative education legislation was needed to help the state progress. Together, they passed proposals that are often taken for granted as part of the state’s current education fabric.
Those proposals were kicked off in the first year of a new four-year term in 1992, when the Legislature’s education committees teamed up with the revenue committees to pass a 1-cent sales tax increase for education. The education enhancement legislation now generates about $400 million each year for education.
Unthinkable in today’s no-new-tax environment, the sales tax increase was passed during an election year. Legislators, who had just won election in 1991, were forced to run again in 1992 as a result of federal litigation over redistricting issues. Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice, who vetoed the 1-cent sales tax increase, pledged to campaign against legislators who voted to override his veto of the tax hike. Despite that threat, the veto was overridden. Only one key legislator lost reelection later that year: Senate Finance Chair Rick Lambert of Hattiesburg. But his defeat was attributed to personal issues more so than to his role in passing the sales tax increase.
With the new money coming in, the Legislature later put teachers, who had no health insurance program, on the state employee health insurance plan and mandated the air-conditioning of classrooms. Before then, teachers most likely had no health insurance unless they were married and on their spouses’ plans.
And people who have attended school in classes without air-conditioners in hot Mississippi summers might argue that no more impactful legislation has been passed.
But other programs enacted in the 1990s included a $5,000-a-year salary supplement for National Board Certified teachers and money for teachers to purchase classroom supplies. The teacher supply program was part of the 1-cent sales tax increase legislation.
In 1997, the Legislature passed the watershed Mississippi Adequate Education Program — again over a governor’s veto. The legislation ensured that property-poor school districts received more state funding per student than did more affluent districts, based on a formula. The legislation is credited with ensuring Mississippi did not lose an equity funding lawsuit as many surrounding states had.
And in 2000, during Musgrove’s tenure as governor, the Legislature passed a teacher pay plan phased in over six years costing the state $338 million, or $516 million in today’s dollars. No pay raise since then has come close to that total.
When fully phased in, teachers were projected to have received a 30% pay raise. The average teacher salary when the pay raise was passed — $31,913 — was increased to about $41,000 when fully enacted, according to reports at the time.
Thinking back on the 2021 legislative session, the Mississippi Association of Educators, the state’s teachers union, said while there were some successes, there were failures as well.
“While we certainly saw several successes … we also saw a number of bills that would’ve demonstrated lawmakers’ understanding of the importance of a whole-child approach die on the calendar or not make it out of committee,” said Erica Jones, the president of the association.
One example, she said, was a bill dealing with incorporating trauma-informed practices and awareness into schools with the goal of ensuring every student is well-known by at least one adult in the school setting.
“After watching educators struggle to meet the needs of students and their families over the past year, it has never been more clear that addressing issues like trauma and providing wraparound services is critically needed in Mississippi,” Jones said. “The pandemic didn’t create new issues in public education; it simply exposed, highlighted, and exacerbated the preexisting challenges students and educators face every day in our schools. If lawmakers haven’t been spurred to action now, when will they be?”
Nancy Loome, executive director of the public education advocacy group The Parents’ Campaign, said 2021 was a strong session for public schools — one that sets the Legislature up to go further in future years.
“The bump in funding for teacher pay and important programs like pre-K will serve students well and positions us for some critical next steps, like closing the gap between what Mississippi invests in public schools per student and what our neighbors like Arkansas spend,” Loome said.
The Legislature has consistently underfunded the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, the state’s education funding formula passed in that 1997 session, every year since 2008. This year, MAEP funding was about $271 million below full funding.
Kelly Riley, executive director of Mississippi Professional Educators, had a similar take and pointed to necessary policy improvements for the future.
“While the $1,000 pay raise is not enough to make Mississippi competitive with surrounding states, it is a step in the right direction,” Riley said. “We are encouraged by the Senate’s commitment to developing a long-range plan this summer for increasing Mississippi’s average teacher salary to the southeastern average. We hope the House will partner in the development of this plan.”
Nearly 40 years after Winter’s historic education reform, Mississippi’s average teacher salary is $45,105, compared to the southeastern average of $53,340, according to 2018-2019 data. The national average is $62,304.
The 2021 Mississippi legislative session saw increases in teacher pay and education funding. But whether it equals or bests other education-focused sessions of recent decades is questionable.