Math teacher Krupa Kaneria talks with students on the first day of school at Cleveland Central Middle School on Monday, Aug. 9, 2021. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Senate leaders on Monday unveiled a proposal to give Mississippi teachers an average raise of $4,700 over two years and restructure the way teachers are paid to provide them higher salaries in the long-term.

The proposal — which, if passed, would represent the largest teacher pay increase since at least the early 2000s — was announced on Monday by Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and Senate Education Chair Dennis DeBar of Leakesville.

The aim, Senate leaders said, is to structurally address Mississippi’s teacher salaries, which by several metrics are the lowest in the nation.

“This pay plan will make us more competitive with our neighbors,” DeBar said. “Hopefully, this will entice or provide some incentive, some motivation for teachers to stay in the profession as well as stay in Mississippi.”

The Senate’s proposed restructuring of annual changes to teacher pay is aimed at retaining mid- and early career teachers, who often leave the state or the teaching profession altogether because of low pay.

The Senate plan would cost $210 million per year starting the second year. That figure includes a $166 million cost in the first year to restructure step increases and provide a large raise for most teachers, and $44 million starting in the second year for a $1,000 across-the-board raise for all teachers.

The plan was unveiled Monday during a Capitol press corps luncheon meeting of the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute of Government where Hosemann, the presiding officer of the Senate, was scheduled to speak.

Unannounced, Hosemann asked DeBar, who was in the audience, to join him at the podium where they outlined the plan.

Teacher pay is expected to be one of the priority issues during the 2022 legislative session, which began last week. Hosemann, Speaker of the House Philip Gunn and Gov. Tate Reeves have all voiced support for “significant” teacher salary increases this year.

Reeves has proposed a $3,300 increase over two years. The House has yet to announce its plan. DeBar said Monday if the House wanted a larger raise that would be OK with him.

Reeves’ office on Monday issued a brief written statement on the Senate plan: “We’re grateful for the Senate’s work on this, and optimistic at this further momentum for a meaningful teacher pay raise this year. Teachers deserve it.”

The significance of the Senate plan, Hosemann and DeBar said, is that it attempts to correct some of the structural deficiencies in the so-called salary ladder.

The ladder, which is written in state law, determines the state compensation each year for teachers based on their years of experience and education level. Each year, with no action from the Legislature, teachers get a small increase as they garner another year of experience. Teachers also receive more pay based on their academic degrees.

The Senate plan unveiled Monday would make the yearly increase uniform at $500.

The plan also would provide significantly larger raises for each five-year increment —  $1,325 for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree, $1,425 for a master’s, $1,525 for a specialist and $1,624 for a doctorate. The teachers would automatically get the larger step increase every five years and, importantly, those increases would become part of their regular pay.

In addition, the salary ladder would begin after year one for teachers. The current ladder starts after the third year of teaching. And the starting pay for teachers would increase from $37,000 annually to $40,000.

“I think it (Senate plan) will make a difference,” said Kelly Riley, executive director of the Mississippi Professional Educators. “Is it all that we want it to be? No.

“It is significant. It is going in the right direction. It will make us more competitive. We are appreciative of (DeBar’s) commitment to this.”

Nancy Loome, director of The Parents’ Campaign, said: “I think it’s a very good effort, and it does a very good job of addressing specific concerns teachers raised during listening sessions. They actually rewrote the entire salary schedule — including adding steps after years one and two, and it compounds, so that raises everybody. The bigger bumps at five year intervals. We are very pleased about that.

“As we heard from (Southern Regional Education Board), our teachers at the top end of the scale actually compare pretty well to other states. They did not leave those teachers out of this plan – everybody gets something – but it’s those teachers in that mid-career range that will see some increases that will help, hopefully allow them to stop those second or third jobs unless they want to work them.”

Erica Jones, president of the Mississippi Association of Educators, said she attended several listening sessions the Senate leaders held and, “I believe they were listening to what teachers were saying.”

“I saw it did include the increases for teachers 0-3 years, and we heard that mentioned to them several times,” Jones said. “And we are really pleased to see the year five larger increases. I know this can change as it goes through the legislative process, but we are very pleased with this proposal … One concern I did have was that it didn’t include all school staff — custodians, cafeteria workers and bus drivers.”

The proposal comes on the heels of s roughly $1,000 raise teachers received during the 2021 legislative session. For the past several legislative terms, lawmakers have opted to offer pay raises in small increments rather than addressing the pay scale itself, like in this new Senate plan.

DeBar said he had planned for a smaller pay raise proposal before holding town hall-style meetings with teachers across the state the last few weeks of 2021.

“They were enthusiastic,” DeBar joked.

He and Hosemann said the current unprecedented growth in state collections — 15.9% for last year — gave them the opportunity to propose a larger pay hike.

“If we did not go forward with a significant pay plan this year with the times we have, with the revenue we have… I don’t know if we could do it another year,” DeBar said. “This is the year to do it… It is important to do it now.”

Loome said: “It sounds like we are in a really good place… when the executive and both branches of the Legislature say they are committed to a significant pay raise. I think they are realizing that our teachers are doing an amazing job, but they are being paid near poverty level and it’s not reasonable to expect professional people do to continue to do such a job for such low pay.”

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.

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.