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. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Not only does Mississippi’s public school teacher pay lag other states, insurance and some other benefits cost teachers more or pale in comparison to others.

The Senate Education Committee on Wednesday held a daylong hearing digging into teacher pay, benefits and other issues impacting teacher shortages and problems attracting and retaining qualified educators.

While lawmakers have passed some modest increases in teacher pay in recent years — and politicians have promised more — Mississippi still trails the region and nation in teacher pay by most measures, particularly for starting and mid-career teachers. Mississippi’s starting salary for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree is $37,000. Political leaders have vowed to try to get it up at least to the regional average of nearly $40,000.

Wednesday’s hearing, led by Senate Education Chairman Dennis DeBar, R-Leakesville, marks the first time in several years that lawmakers have attempted a comprehensive look at the issue to inform policy — and teacher pay.

Lawmakers did not discuss specific pay raise figures, vowing to make a holistic study of compensation, costs and other factors before trying to come up with a dollar amount. Gov. Tate Reeves, who on Wednesday released an education task force study on teacher recruitment and retention, recently proposed a $3,300 teacher pay raise over three years.

DeBar noted that his district borders Alabama, and that not only is teacher pay higher across the border, insurance premiums for public school teachers are “half as much as Mississippi premiums” for a teacher to insure their family.

Lawmakers on Wednesday were given figures showing that while the total cost of public employee insurance is lower in Mississippi than other Southern states, the employee share for family coverage is higher. For instance, in Mississippi, a teacher with family coverage would pay $726 a month, compared to $251 a month in Alabama, $598 a month in Arkansas or $641 a month in Louisiana.

The state, which has a self-funded government employee insurance plan, has increased rates for employees (teachers included) about 3% a year for the last three years, with more increases expected in coming years. This, teachers have complained, eats into any pay raises they receive.

Kelly Riley, executive director of Mississippi Professional Educators, said she’s glad lawmakers are looking at insurance and other benefits as they discuss teacher pay raises.

“I think this insurance discussion is critical,” Riley said. “We do hear concerns that any time there is a pay raise, there seems to be an accompanying increase in insurance. All benefits are important to teachers.”

Lawmakers also discussed retirement benefits and heard from officials with the Public Employee Retirement System. Mississippi’s employee contribution to the plan is 9%, higher than many other states including Alabama, at 7.5% and Arkansas at 6.5%.

While taxpayers in Mississippi contribute 17.4% for the employer contribution, 16.2% goes to unfunded pension liabilities and only 1.2% to a teacher’s benefits. Many other states also have shorter vesting periods than Mississippi’s eight years for new teachers, and Mississippi’s “break even” point for when pension benefits match what an employee is paying in is 25-30 years.

Lawmakers and presenters noted that factors other than pay play into teacher recruitment and retention, such as providing support staff, career development and “treating teachers like professionals.”

“Pay alone is not going to solve the problem,” said Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, who also urged his colleagues to “think outside the box” and outside bureaucracy in looking for ways to recruit and retain teachers.

READ MORE: “It’s very obvious that we do not value teachers”: Why educators say there’s a critical teacher shortage

But the discussions kept coming back to salary and benefits. Experts with the Southern Regional Education Board noted that teacher salaries in adjusted dollars are lower today than they were in 1980. In the South, teacher pay is 21% lower than in professions where people have similar education.

They also noted that in Mississippi, it can take a teacher with a bachelor’s degree up to 30 years to reach a $50,000 a year salary, 23 years for a teacher with a master’s degree, and up to 16 years for one with a doctorate. They noted that in the South, 45% of teachers leave the profession before their fifth year.

While Mississippi trails other states in starting and mid-career teacher pay, it’s pay average is better for longtime teachers. Figures presented at the hearing showed Mississippi teacher pay for those with 35 years of experience in 2019 was $68,562, compared to the regional average of $66,099.

“It’s teachers coming out of school, up to 20 years — that’s where we have the problems,” DeBar said.

State economist Corey Miller pointed out to legislators that Mississippi’s low cost of living ameliorates lower salaries, but even when adjusted for this, the state’s teacher pay trails that of neighboring and most other states.

Legislative discussions of teacher pay raises this summer are coinciding with talks of eliminating the state’s individual income tax. On Wednesday, Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, said the two initiatives are mutually exclusive.

“You cannot eliminate the income tax and raise teacher pay,” Blount said. “If you eliminate it, you will be forced to cut teacher pay and funding for education. The total funding for (K-12 public schools) is about $2 billion. The revenue from the income tax is about $2 billion.”

Senators on Wednesday also took the opportunity to grill Mississippi Department of Education officials on complaints they’ve received about the education department. Some also bristled when they learned that the two MDE officials planned to skedaddle the day-long hearings after their presentation was over.

Sen. Chad McMahan, R-Tupelo, held up his cell phone and told them he had been on hold with the department for about 45 minutes — since before the hearing started Wednesday.

“I called the Department of Education, the number on y’all’s web site,” McMahan said. “They just hung up … There’s a feeling among educators in this state that they are unable to communicate with the Department of Education. I get calls all the time from teachers either moving to this state or graduating from college that have problems getting their credentials, teachers licenses in a timely manner … sometimes it has taken months … and I have had to help intervene on their behalf.”

MDE officials said they are upgrading their phone system and hiring more people to answer phones and help with credentialing.

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, noted that the agency has in the past struggled to provide lawmakers accurate figures on how much teacher pay raises would cost.

“I find it very disturbing that the Department of Education has any problem at all determining how much a pay raise will be,” Bryan said. “Some of us consider it an example of how things are working at this Department of Ed.”

Sen. John Polk, R-Hattiesburg, questioned MDE’s efficiency and wondered whether cuts to the agency could help fund raises for classroom teachers.

“A couple of years ago you had a $1 million contract for software, but then two weeks before it was up, you decided you wouldn’t use the software,” Polk said. “That’s $1 million wasted that could have gone to teacher salaries.”

Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who oversees the Senate, pushed last year’s $1,000 teacher raise and supports further increases. He said in on part of the hearings Wednesday and briefly addressed the committee.

“Whenever you see this many lobbyists in a room, you know something must be happening,” Hosemann joked with the committee. “What you are working on is the future of Mississippi, with our teachers — our opportunity to change and opportunity to prosper. Everything you’re talking about is the key to that.”

READ MORE: Pay for new, mid-career teachers in Mississippi ‘extremely low’ compared to other Southern states

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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.