Mississippi lawmakers hear from experts on state’s low teacher pay problems

Politics

JACKSON, Miss. (WJTV) – Members of the Mississippi Legislature held a hearing on Wednesday to discuss the state’s teacher pay structure.

The discussion was led by the Senate Education Committee and included testimonies and insight from experts. They said teacher pay is only a piece of the puzzle, while showing support to educators is another.

A Mississippi public school teacher with 15 years of experience providing health insurance for their family took home just under $30,000 a year in net pay in 2020, a “shocking number,” a policy adviser with the Southern Regional Education Board told state lawmakers Wednesday.

That’s only a few thousand dollars more a year than first-year teachers who were paying for only their health insurance took home, the adviser said.

A teacher with 15 years of experience took home an annual salary of about $29,680 after taxes and benefits in 2020, compared with about $26,580 for first-year teachers, according to data shared by the Atlanta nonpartisan nonprofit.

A teacher with 35 years of experience took home $43,266 after taxes and benefits in 2019. The Southern Regional Education Board did not have 2020 salary figures available for 35-year teachers.

Mississippi’s teacher pay structure currently lags behind other southern states. Wednesday’s hearing looked at a comprehensive solution to tackle the state’s teacher shortage.

“We’re further behind when we appear, when you consider the situation of a teacher covering her children on health insurance,” said State Senator David Blount (D-District 29).

“What we’re trying to do is get a clear picture of what our teacher salary schedule is, where it stands, what all goes into a teacher salary, and things we can do as a committee to improve it,” explained State Senator Dennis Debar (R-District 43), who is the Senate Education Committee Chair.

During the 2021 legislative session, the Mississippi Legislature approved a $1,000 raise for most teachers and a $1,100 raise for those in the early years of their careers. The raises were signed into law by Gov. Tate Reeves (R-Miss.) in March.

But many contend lawmakers need to go much further to get Mississippi up to speed with other states.

According to the Southern Regional Education Board, the average teacher salary in the U.S. for 2018-19 was $62,304. For Mississippi, the average was $45,105, approximately $8,200 below the southeastern region average.

The starting salary for teachers with zero to three years of experience and a bachelor’s degree in Mississippi was $37,000, about $3,300 below the regional average.

“We need to pay our teachers based on their level of professionalism,” Felica Gavin, chief operating officer at the Mississippi Department of Education, told lawmakers. “They’re not paid as professionals as in some other industries.”

Southern Regional Education Board President Stephen Pruitt said pay is only “one piece of the puzzle” when it comes to reducing teacher shortages.

Mississippi Insurance Administrator Cindy Bradshaw said health insurance plans for single teachers are affordable compared with other states but families bear a much greater cost.

In 2020, the state contributed $378 a month toward teachers’ health insurance, while employees paid $40. Employees opting for a family coverage plan paid $726 a month in 2020, while the state pitched in $378. That’s compared with neighboring Alabama, which charges $251 a month for a family plan. The state covers $1,091. Single-plan employees in Alabama pay $42 a month, while the state pays $477.

The Southern Regional Education Board offered several lawmakers ideas Wednesday for how they can better retain teachers, including deceasing monthly employee family premiums and raising teachers’ starting and average salaries.

Coinciding with the hearing, Governor Reeves released an action plan by a task force, which calls for a stop to teacher shortages in the state.

“We also have to work to have accountability and to ensure that we’re investing in the classroom in education in Mississippi,” Reeves stated.

Legislators over the years have been looking at a meaningful pathway for retired teachers to return to the classroom. Some data showed pay is reportedly the fifth reason why people leave the teaching profession.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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