Biology teacher Chiquita Gaylor and students practice social distancing in the classroom at Jefferson County High School in Fayette. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

With less than a week before Gov. Tate Reeves must approve the education budget passed by lawmakers this year, a merit pay program he supports was not funded this year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The School Recognition Program, which provides bonuses for public school teachers in high-performing schools and those that improve their students’ achievement, went unfunded this year by the Legislature. And with less than a week before Reeves must sign or veto the state’s education budget, it is unclear whether he will push back. 

Last year, Reeves partially vetoed the education budget because it did not fund the School Recognition Program, which he championed dating back to his time as lieutenant governor. Lawmakers overrode Reeves’ veto but also passed a separate bill for $28 million for the School Recognition Program. 

Sen. Dennis DeBar, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said the program went unfunded this year after state testing was canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The program awards bonuses to educators based on schools’ accountability ratings, which are based partly on students’ performance on state tests. Without year-over-year test results, bonuses would prove difficult to award.

Instead, the money that would have gone toward the program was spent instead in areas such as the $1,000 pay raise for public school teachers and teacher assistants, which costs a total of about $51 million, according to DeBar.

Reeves’ office did not respond to Mississippi Today’s questions about whether he would sign or veto the education bill.

Schools will also keep their previous accountability ratings for the 2020-2021 school year after the State Board of Education decided testing would take place this year to get a sense of where students are academically, but no new accountability grades would be issued. That means the program likely won’t be funded next year either. 

The Legislature created the program in 2014. It financially rewards schools and teachers for student performance and improved letter grades in annual accountability ratings, which are based partly on students’ performance on state tests. 

Teachers in A-rated schools or those that improve from a ‘F’ to ‘D,’ or ‘D’ to ‘C,’ receive $100 per student, and teachers at ‘B’ rated schools receive $75 per student.

Supporters of the program, including Reeves, say it incentivizes educators to work harder to raise student performance. But critics say it exacerbates inequity among wealthy and cash-strapped school districts. There are also concerns about a lack of guidelines in how to distribute the funds and who is eligible for them. 

“I think it’s a program that needs some work, as far as ensuring some of the kinks that are in it are worked out,” said DeBar.  

READ MORE: Critics say School Recognition Program “intensifies already serious inequality.

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.