BOBBY HARRISON: Teacher pay raise politics gets complicated for House

BOBBY HARRISON

BOBBY HARRISON

House Speaker Philip Gunn’s decision unexpectedly to jump out front in support of a teacher pay raise this past December was arguably both good policy and good politics

It appeared to be a proposal that was nothing but a win-win for Gunn and the House leadership.

After all, Mississippi is beginning, again, to fall further behind the nation, and more importantly neighboring states, in teacher pay at a time when the state’s political leadership is saying it wants to attract the best and brightest to the classroom. From a policy standpoint, it made sense to increase teacher pay not only to keep teachers from leaving the field, but also to lure the universities’ best students to the profession.

From a political standpoint, it would be much easier in 2015 for the Republicans to maintain the House majority they won in the 2011 election cycle if teachers – a voting bloc Democrats often count on – are happy with a pay raise and less inclined to aggressively oppose Republicans.

And Gunn needed to do something to offset the House passing over the leadership’s objections a 2013 proposal offered by Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, to give teachers a $5,000 pay raise. That proposal was killed later in the session in the budgeting process by legislative leaders.

So, in a nutshell, a teacher pay raise proposal seemed like a sure winner for Gunn, R-Clinton, and his Republican majority. It was a proposal that was both good policy and good politics.

But at some point along the way, in closed-door meetings, as Gunn and his leadership team developed the proposal, they maybe got a little too cute for their own good.

House leaders incorporated into their proposal benchmarks that veteran teachers had to meet to garner the pay raise. Teachers had to obtain three of 22 benchmarks that were as varied as having an advanced degree, having a good report from the school principal, joining a civic club, working at extracurricular activities and having a good attendance record.

Education Chairman John Moore, R-Brandon, promised that the benchmarks were designed to make it easy for all teachers to garner the pay raise.

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, was perhaps the first to refer to making teachers “jump through hoops” to get the raise. The phrase quickly caught on with people from both sides of the political aisle saying teachers should not have “to jump through hoops” to get a raise

It quickly became apparent that many teachers viewed the benchmarks as an insult – especially since new teachers would not have to achieve them.

The question is if the pay raise benchmarks were designed to be absurdly easy to meet, what did they accomplish in terms of being good policy? And the second question is if the benchmarks upset teachers – the group the pay raise was intended to placate – then how are they good politics?

In an extraordinary moment of honesty, when the issue originally was being debated on the House floor, House Appropriations Chairman Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, said the benchmarks were an effort to allow Gov. Phil Bryant to “save face” since the governor had said any pay raise should include performance measures.

Over in the Senate, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Education Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, removed the benchmarks and replaced them with a system that could potentially provide teachers a bonus in three years based on their school’s performance.

In the first two years, the Senate plan would provide teachers with larger raises than the House proposal

Oh, by the way, Reeves referred to the ineffectiveness of requiring teachers to jump through hoops for the raise.

The effect was to put the House leadership on defensive on an issue that should have been a strength. They have now agreed to forgo the benchmarks and it appears the House and Senate might be engaged in a bidding war to determine which side can provide teachers a better raise.

The question is whether teachers will remember that House leaders first advocated for a raise or whether they will remember House leaders suggested they “jump through hoops” to get that raise.

» Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@journalinc.com.

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