Teachers are on the march

The Mississippi Legislature probably is glad its 2018 session has ended, because public school teachers in several other states are on the march.

In Oklahoma, some teachers walked out of school in spite of a bill signed last month to raise their pay by 15 to 18 percent. It was their first raise in 10 years, and they crowded into the state Capitol last week, shouting, “Where’s our money?”

And in Kentucky, teachers and other school employees attended a rally at that state’s Capitol, demanding the state put more money into education. Lawmakers are looking at increases to Kentucky’s school funding formula, but educators also are upset because the Legislature reduced retirement benefits for new teachers.

These demonstrations appear to be based on a successful nine-day walkout earlier this year in West Virginia, which produced a 5 percent pay increase for teachers. Arizona teachers reportedly are considering similar action in their quest for a 20 percent raise.

Mississippi, with both its teacher pay and per-student education funding at or near the bottom of the national rankings, would seem to be fertile ground for a similar rebellion — though perhaps not till early 2019, when the Legislature is back in session. Whether or not that occurs, a few thoughts are in order.

The first is that Mississippi, like most other states, already pumps a significant amount of money into public education. Right now about $2 billion of the state’s $6 billion general fund is being spent on elementary and secondary education. A large percentage of any school district’s budget is for employee salaries.

Then there is the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, the state’s funding formula for school districts. Lawmakers have only fully funded the program twice in 20 years — although it must be noted that nearly half that period includes the fallout from the Great Recession of 2008.

Education advocates fault Mississippi and other states for failing to provide more money for education. This leads to a nagging sense that, even if Mississippi had paid every penny of the MAEP formula over the past two decades, schools would still ask for more money.

An alternate viewpoint, one rarely spoken, is this: Given the $20 million and $30 million budgets some school districts in Mississippi now have, schools must continue to make do with less than full funding. This is not the ideal situation, but it is a realistic one.

The first impulse might be to fire any teachers who walk out or go on strike. That would be a spectacularly wrong move.

Once things calm down, how many quality educators would be lost if a state fires them over a pay dispute? Removing even a small percentage of teachers would make it more difficult for any state to move toward its goal of better test scores.

All this puts Mississippi lawmakers in a fix. Everyone agrees schools need to produce smarter students. One way to do this is through good teachers. And the best way to attract and keep good teachers is to pay them more.

This problem is that the many demands of modern budgeting — highways, prisons, Medicaid, public safety, mental health — put limits on what legislatures can or will do. So it will be interesting to see if Mississippi teachers follow the lead of their peers in other states.