This past week’s detailed proposal from Tate Reeves to sharply raise teacher pay and recruiting efforts makes you wonder if the candidate for governor actually read it before announcing it.
That’s because the plan flies in the face of the austerity program that Reeves played a major role in crafting as lieutenant governor, as well as what he said less than three months ago in a debate with two Republican challengers.
Both Bill Waller Jr. and Robert Foster, who lost to Reeves for the GOP nomination, said at the July debate that the state needs to pay teachers more. Reeves would not commit, saying raises would depend on state tax revenues.
Apparently a lot of extra money is about to roll in, because Reeves has found religion on education. He said his proposals are based on months of research to figure out what the state can afford, “with an eye toward aggressive investment in our educators.” Such as:
• Raise starting salaries for public school teachers within two years from the current $35,890 to the Southeastern average, which is around $37,500.
• Get Mississippi’s average teacher salary to the Southeastern average in four years. The regional average is about $51,000, and the state trails that figure by some $4,000.
• Pay a $10,000 recruiting bonus to new teachers to address shortages in certain subjects and in geographic locations of the state.
• Increase the state supplement to National Board Certified Teachers from the current $6,000 per year to $10,000. Reeves also proposes paying teachers extra who complete components of the certification process.
• “Significantly increase” state funding for “early learning collaboratives” — which used to be called pre-kindergarten.
• Double to $24 million the amount of money the state allocates for teacher supplies.
• Raise community college professor pay across the board, find incentives for professors to teach critical subjects at high schools and reward colleges that produce education majors who stay in Mississippi to teach.
Frankly, it all sounds pretty good. But there are a number of obvious questions.
First, where does Mississippi get the money for all this? In four years, if the state gets average pay to the regional average, it will be spending at least $224 million more per year.
Add in the other proposals, and it’s easy to see that the total annual price tag could be $275 million or even $300 million. This is coming from somebody who for years whacked school budgets by underfunding the Mississippi Adequate Education Program?
Also, why now? Obviously because there’s an election coming up, and Reeves’ opponent, Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood, has advocated better pay for teachers.
To frame the question a different way: Reeves, as leader of the Senate, has long had the clout to provide more aggressive investment in educators. Why didn’t that happen?
Finally, what about Mississippi’s other needs, such as highway funding and prison staffing? Will the state find money to deal with those, too?
Reeves is a very successful politician, and he sounded supremely confident in presenting his numbers. He said his proposals would not require a tax increase because the state economy is growing and tax collections are exceeding expectations.
“I don’t traffic in false promises of unlimited free money,” he added.
But as lieutenant governor, he surely has learned that when something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. And his proposal for teacher pay sounds awfully good.