Commentary: How to make $60,000 when schools are underfunded

Become a lawyer and represent the Legislature when it evades its responsibility to adequately support public schools.

It’s not easy to make $60,000 as a public school teacher in Mississippi. The starting salary is just over $34,000, and yearly raises are modest at best. To break the $60,000 threshold, a teacher must have a graduate degree and spend between 26 years (for a Ph.D.) and 35 years (for a master’s) in the system.*

On the other hand, it’s apparently quite easy to make $60,000 as a lawyer defending the Legislature’s efforts to stymie a constitutional requirement to adequately fund the state’s K-12 schools.

From Bobby Harrison in today’s Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal:

Jackson attorney Michael Wallace, hired by the Legislative leadership to contest the ballot title language approved by a Hinds County circuit judge for a legislative alternative to a citizen-sponsored initiative, was paid $60,222.01 in state funds.

…According to legislative records, Wallace billed the state about 300 hours between late March and August when the Supreme Court ruled in his favor.

As you may recall, the Legislature passed a bill in January to place an alternative, 42-A, on the November ballot alongside the citizen-sponsored Initiative 42. 42-A is nothing more than a Potemkin amendment designed to clutter the ballot and increase the votes needed for passage.

Adrian Shipman of Oxford brought a suit claiming the 20-word title the Attorney General’s office wrote for 42-A was too similar to Initiative 42’s title, potentially confusing voters who intended to support the citizen-sponsored version. Circuit Judge Winston Kidd of Hinds County sided with the plaintiff and rewrote the ballot title to clarify the contrast.

Wallace, a well-credentialed attorney with strong GOP connections, was tasked with persuading the state Supreme Court to toss out Judge Kidd’s ruling. A majority of justices agreed on the (dubious) grounds that the courts can review the AG’s ballot titles for citizen-sponsored initiatives, but not the titles of legislative alternatives. For his work, Wallace received more than $60,000 from the state treasury.

To earn as much as Wallace took home in 300 billable hours (equal to two months full-time), a Mississippi teacher fresh out of college would have to work approximately 2,500 hours — almost two school years. Add in time for grading, planning, and extracurriculars, and the total commitment could easily exceed 3,000 hours. Phrased another way, that teacher would have to work almost two full days to earn as much as Wallace earned just waiting his turn to speak in front of the Supreme Court.

The point isn’t that Wallace or the legislative leaders did anything unethical or out of the ordinary. Even though 42-A is a disgraceful bit of political chicanery, it has been signed into law, and the Legislature has a right to defend laws that it passes. The AG’s office declined to do so — they actually argued that the language could be reviewed — so legislative leaders hired outside counsel. And at an average of $200 per hour, Wallace almost certainly gave them a big discount for his services.

Nevertheless, the disparity in compensation gives us a window into our priorities as a state. Mississippi’s underpaid teachers are worth every dime they receive and many, many more. It’s hard to say the same for the lawyers the Legislature hires to evade their responsiblity to adequately fund our schools.


*Teachers who only have a bachelor’s degree top out at $52,785 no matter how long they work. Districts supplement teacher pay by an average of $2,427, but most teachers receive far less unless they work in a handful of wealthy or casino-funded districts. Overall, Mississippi’s average teacher salary is just over $41,000, second-lowest in the country.

Also, if I have made any arithmetic errors, please do not blame my wonderful math teachers in the Oxford School District.

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