First shots fired over teacher pay

By Staff
May 20, 2001
Seems Gov. Musgrove's "historic" 2000 teacher pay hike wasn't as "historic" as he tried to make us believe.
In his freshman year as governor, Ronnie Musgrove drove to passage a phased, six-year pay increase for teachers that he told us was "historic" in that it was the largest teacher pay hike in Mississippi history and that it came closer than any other prior effort to raising Mississippi teachers to the Southeastern Average for teacher compensation.
By using the teacher unions to do the heavy lifting in terms of lobbying Mississippi legislators to adopt the pay plan in spite of the fact that veteran lawmakers saw the handwriting on the wall in 2000 that hard times were coming in the state budget, Musgrove co-opted the Legislature into being part of the pay hike or appearing to be "anti-education."
But the Legislature and by the Legislature I mean the Legislative leadership including State Sen. Travis Little, Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck and a handful of other senators held fast on a five percent growth trigger in the legislation, which held that the raises would only be given if the state achieved five percent revenue growth in each of the phased years of the package.
Mississippi indeed didn't achieve the 5 percent revenue growth, but the Mississippi Legislature went ahead and appropriated funds for the first year of the teacher pay plan. Why? Because the first year of the raises was the cheapest year of the phases plan to fund, costing only about $20 million and resulting in a rather paltry $200-$250 annual pay raise for the teachers.
But in many school districts, teachers are being asked to sign papers that treat the first year of the "pay raise" as only a one-time "bonus" because the districts don't know if the Legislature will fund the second year of the pay raises and the financially-strapped school districts don't want to be left holding the bag if a stagnant state revenue curve continues and the money simply isn't there come the end of the 2002 regular session of the Mississippi Legislature.
Mississippi teachers are bone-tired of being used as a political football between governors and legislators. They are tired of being lied to, misled and treated as the most disposable of state employees. The teacher unions are tired of being demonized by those in Mississippi politics who truly don't give a damn about public education and lawmakers are tired of being the victims of political assaults by teacher unions who refuse to see the state budget as a whole document  representing diverse interests competing for pieces of a shrinking state budget pie.
Mississippi taxpayers are tired of hearing governors and legislators talk about holding the line on new taxes while paying the bills for tuition increases and other "sneaky" tax hikes designed to sock taxpayers while providing political covers for the politicians who created the need for the tuition hikes.
Musgrove's future
Nothing less than Musgrove's political future rides on the outcome of his 2000 teacher pay increase package. Should Mississippi teachers come to
believe that Musgrove paid lip service only to raising teacher pay and see that he is unable to move the Legislature toward making good on his promises to the teachers, he's dead meat come his re-election bid.
Each and every member of the Mississippi Legislature knows how vulnerable Musgrove is on the question of making good on the teacher pay hike. Musgrove knows that his only salvation from the sale of his political soul to the teacher unions and his first-hand knowledge of how incredibly tight the state budget is right now lies in a campaign of making support of the teacher pay plan a litmus test for each individual legislator with the teacher unions.
That means turning loose political operatives among the teacher lobby who can manipulate "phone trees," letter writing campaigns and the like to turn the political heat up on lawmakers who point to the fiscal responsibility dictated by the five percent trigger.
The political stakes are also high for Tuck and Little as the architects of the 5 percent growth trigger on the teacher pay plan.
Tuck's ambitions
Tuck has future gubernatorial ambitions. The teacher unions abandoned her in the 1999 statewide elections and she won election as lieutenant governor in a fashion so convincing as to call into question whether the teacher unions really have the political clout at the ballot box that their reputations imply.
The politics aside, the question boils down to one of merit and fairness. Mississippi taxpayers want their children to get a good education and want teachers fairly compensated. They also want weak and unproductive teachers weeded out of the system and they seem to abhor the idea that weak teachers are to be paid the same as excellent teachers.
But in the political arena, neither Musgrove nor most legislators have the guts to point out that across-the-board pay hikes protect mediocrity in the ranks of educators. Merit pay never seems to be an idea that teacher unions will embrace because they offer the lukewarm argument that "merit" is difficult to measure.
Strange that teachers can decide some students deserve an "A" and some deserve an "F", but they can't agree on a method to make that determination among their peers.
Musgrove will exhaust much political effort the rest of this year in getting the second year phase of the teacher pay hike funded. The rhetoric between Musgrove, Tuck and Little is likely to become more and more shrill.
If revenue projections hold up, this will be the battle of the 2002 legislative session. In recent weeks, we've already seen the first shots fired.
Sid Salter is publisher/editor of the Scott County Times in Forest. E-mail him at salternews.aol.com.

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