Many of Mississippi’s schools struggle to attract and retain qualified teachers. Nearly one-third of the state’s districts fall within “critical shortage areas” that must rely heavily on unlicensed teachers to fill their classrooms. Mississippi has one of the lowest average starting teacher salaries in the country, and schools in the state have been underfunded by an estimated $1 billion in the past four years alone. For years, the Mississippi Association of Educators (MAE), a state affiliate of the National Education Association (NEA), the largest teachers union in the country, has championed efforts to raise teacher salaries and provide more funding for schools.
In late November, Becky Pringle, the secretary-treasurer of NEA and Joyce Helmick, president of MAE, toured schools Mississippi to celebrate American Education Week and promote their new Raise Your Hand initiative. Rethink Mississippi teamed up with The Hechinger Report to speak with Pringle and Helmick about their efforts to improve conditions for teachers and students in the state.
The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: We wanted to start it off by talking about the initiatives MAE and NEA are working on in Mississippi. Specifically, Becky, what brought you to Mississippi?
Becky: We are here celebrating American Education Week. [American Education Week is] our time when we invite the local politicians in and the celebrities and bring the spotlight to our schools, not only to see the incredible things we’re doing with kids but for them to get a sense [of the] weight of responsibility and what [teachers] need to accomplish. It also sheds light on things like the library that I visited yesterday that was so small, about half the size of this room, with only about 15 chairs in it so [children] were sitting two to a seat. You need to shed light on things like that. We need to focus on kinds of policies that are passed and resources that are allocated to ensure that every one of our students has access to a chair, let alone the tools and materials they need to be successful.
For the NEA, we started an initiative called “Raise Your Hand,” which I think is fabulous because everyone can raise your hand for public education with whatever you’re doing. You can participate in a serious conversation about education whether it’s parents or community members or educators ourselves, because we feel that we have to take the responsibility to lead the way for our kids. We scoured our state affiliates to see who is leading in certain efforts, and Mississippi popped up because they did a phenomenal job of saying [to legislators] that, “You know what, we’re tired of you saying that you don’t have money for our public schools. We know you have money, you’re making choices, and investing in our schools is not one of your choices.”
We’re going to go one step further and not just say that you’re not doing what you should be doing — we’re going to actually help you find money. [MAE] led the way for NEA. We’ve been working on tax structure, economic policy, and school funding initiatives where we’re shedding the light not only on how they’re not investing but how corporations and companies have these loopholes in either the economic structure or tax policies and trying to do something about it. Mississippi did it. They are our star. What is it, $80 million? They didn’t raise any taxes – they just went out and said, let’s close these loopholes. That’s pretty phenomenal to us, and so we chose them because they’re our star in that effort.
Joyce: Our tax initiative that we’ve worked on, our executive director Frank Yates has worked tirelessly for a couple of years traveling around the state and explaining what that really means. He’s had town hall meetings with not just educators but community leaders to show how much money is actually there if the lawmakers will close those loopholes for us and provide that funding for our schools.
[column size=”one-third”] [/column]
[column size=”two-third” last=”true”] [alert type=”info”]The MAE began working with legislators in 2011 to find ways to increase revenue without raising taxes. In FY 2013, the Legislature increased the budget for the Department of Revenue by $3.5 million, resulting in the collection of over $80 million in back corporate taxes. The MAE will continue to advocate for the closing of loopholes that can generate new funds for Mississippi’s schools. [/alert] [/column]
They other thing we are extremely proud of is that we are leading our profession with Common Core professional development. Back in October, we had a great professional development conference here in Jackson at the convention center. We had almost 200 educators from Mississippi and some from Louisiana who came over here to learn what to do when they go back over there. We are staunch supporters of the Common Core initiative, and we are actually teaching our teachers how to implement Common Core.
We’re not having workshops anymore about “What is Common Core?” We are actually giving them lesson plans and having them work together in these workshops to go back to their schools so that all the teachers are working together with the Common Core standards. And [we are] also explaining it to the parents and the community, some who’ve decided they might not like Common Core. I was talking to a parent the other day who said, “You know, you might not like what I have to say about Common Core.” I said, “Just sit a few minutes with me and after that you’ll love Common Core. I can tell you, you will love it!”
[alert type=”info”]For more on Common Core, check out The Hechinger Report’s coverage here. [/alert]
The other thing is that in Mississippi we have taken a great step forward is on our M-STAR (Mississippi Statewide Teacher Appraisal Rubric) training. M-STAR is our teacher evaluation system in our state. We are doing professional development to teach our teachers what M-STAR really is and how to begin developing their own evaluation instruments, and also working with administrators who are nervous about M-STAR. So we’re trying to get the principals and the teachers to work together, all of them to get this thing together, and to talk a bit about the high-stakes test scores that will enter in to the M-STAR evaluation system. So we have spent a lot of time working on those things.
And all of this of course is to improve the education for our students and to make our public schools stronger and stronger and better and better.
Q: I wanted to go back to the funding aspect and the $80 million that you found. How are you going to make sure that money goes to schools?
Joyce: One thing is that we’re going to use this “Raise Your Hand” initiative, and we’re going to try very hard to spread the word that we want to bring that money to our schools. We have to work with our educators, and we have to make our communities aware. We were just having a conversation a few minutes ago saying, “Well, does the community actually know that children are sitting two to a chair in that small library?” We want to make them aware of that — making all stakeholders involved in public education aware of what’s not there and of the budget cuts that we have suffered over the years. Especially since MAEP has only been funded twice in the past decade, we have lost so many funds for our schools.
We’re asking all our stakeholders to care about our schools in that we confirm a raise for educators. Because in Mississippi we have a huge vacuum of teachers in classrooms, in some of our areas we do not have certified teachers in every classroom, and if we had a raise for educators and bring our salaries to a good point, then our classrooms would be full and we wouldn’t have to search, search, search for our good teachers. We could retain our brightest and best right here in our public schools.
Q: I’m curious about the mathematics of it. MAEP has been underfunded by $1 billion over the past four years. Teacher salaries are among the lowest in the country, $15,000 less than the national average. [Mississippi] is a state with a small tax base, right, and we talk about choices, and so that $80 million that’s gleaned from closing loopholes doesn’t make up a large percentage of that gap. What other measures are you thinking about to try to bring us up to at least our self-proclaimed “adequate” level of funding?
[column size=”one-half”] Joyce: The MAEP was a formula devised by our legislators, and they have passed that full funding twice since it was put into law. This is how I feel about your question. I have spent 37 years in the classroom, and I have done my job over and over and over, and I figured out what I needed for what I needed to do in that classroom. If I needed something else that I didn’t have right there, I went to my principal and said, “You know what, I need something.” [/column]
[column size=”one-half” last=”true”] [alert type=”info”]The Mississippi Adequate Education Program is a formula that establishes the level of funding every school district needs to provide an “adequate” level of education to its students. MAEP was intended to level the playing field across districts regardless of size of the local tax base. Since its passage in 1997, however, the Legislature has fallen short of the level of funding mandated by MAEP in all but two years. [/alert] [/column]
He either had it or tried to figure out a way to get it, or maybe I improvised. I did my job. There are 32,000 educators in Mississippi who are doing their jobs everyday, taking care of the children of Mississippi. It is not my job to come up with those funds. It’s not my job to figure out where that comes from. Now we went a step beyond and figured out those loopholes, but we know that’s not our job, that’s the job of the Legislature. We elected them to do their job. And that’s the way it is.
Becky: I could not agree more. Unfortunately, we have elected folks that aren’t doing their jobs. We’re in Mississippi, but there are legislators [cutting education funding] all over this country, or we could go to the national level, too. In most of our states federal funding only accounts for 8-10 percent, but you can look at the national level and see what’s going on there, or not going on there, [with] the impact of across-the-board cuts – the sequester – having continued to play out. We’ve been able to slow [the cuts] but the threat is still there. At a national level we haven’t invested the way we should have invested. We promised our states that we would fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act at a level of 40 percent. We have never even gotten out of the teens. And that has a direct impact on what the states have to be able to do. There’s no secret that the population of our special needs students has grown and their needs have grown. And the federal government has not stepped up to its responsibility on Title I, those students of Free and Reduced Lunch. [And] don’t even get me started on Head Start! We’ve not at the federal level stepped up to our responsibility, and we’ve seen that play out in legislatures across the country.
In the school we were in this morning, [Jackson’s] G.E. Smith [Elementary], we met a kindergarten teacher. I asked her, “Do you have mandatory kindergarten here in Mississippi?” She said, “No, but we do have space for whoever wants to come to kindergarten.” And she said, “We do have pre-kindergarten class, too.” I said, “Oh, that’s great, how many do you have of them?” and she said, “We only have money for 20 slots. They apply, and we pick 20.” I said, “Are you kidding me? What about the other kids?” I was so shocked by that. We have to bring those real stories to people so they do their jobs. That’s unacceptable [for] 20 kids get picked and the rest of them, too bad for you! Good luck when you get to kindergarten. That is unacceptable.
It is unacceptable, the tale of two schools we saw today. We walked into one [school] with a library bigger than this building. They had iPads just laying out there on the tables. And the other library [had children two to a chair]. That is unacceptable in this country that we allow the quality of education to be determined by what ZIP Code you live in. This is not America. I don’t understand why we don’t address the issue of equity in this country. That’s what turned those countries around that we compare ourselves to. They addressed the issue of equity first. Then they talked about excellence, but equity was first. So you’re right, Joyce, it’s not our job, but we’re teachers, we’ll make it our job.
Q: You brought up pre-kindergarten, and in April, Pre-K was passed, but [Mississippi is] only giving $3 million toward it. From a teacher perspective, what needs to happen to make sure that Pre-K comes to fruition in Mississippi?
[column size=”one-half”] Joyce: We had $3 million for Pre-K. It’s the same thing, where is that money going? If I understand it correctly, it’s kind of going to where it’s not really needed. We need it in the areas that cannot afford to have those Pre-K quarters, so let’s take that money to those areas that have no Pre-K programs, where parents cannot afford to send their children to private Pre-K. And then we can begin to equalize and begin to make that disparity less evident. [/column]
[column size=”one-half” last=”true”] [alert type=”info”]Gov. Phil Bryant signed the Early Learning Collaborate Act into law in 2013, phasing in state support for voluntary pre-kindergarten programs for 4-year-olds. Mississippi had been among the last states in the country — and the last state in the South — to commit state funding to Pre-K education, widely regarded as the most effective way to close achievement gaps and generate bang for the educational buck. [/alert] [/column]
Becky: We have to lead in having those serious conversations. I hate that you talked about Pre-K as a reform. That should be a right. It shouldn’t be a reform, it should be a right. We already know that kids who come to kindergarten ready to learn with those prerequisite skills are going to do better. Every student should be able to read at grade level by third grade. We already know that [third grade] is an indicator whether that kid is going to college or going to jail. We already know that. The question is what are we prepared to do about it. That really is the question. So to even call Pre-K a reform, right away, that’s not a serious conversation to me.
Q: So we talk about equity, and in this state, we deal with lots of inequities — racial inequities, socioeconomic ones. I’m curious about the rural/urban inequities. Mississippi is the fourth most rural state in the country. Far more rural that even Alabama and Louisiana. So that creates unique challenges for Mississippi, particularly when it comes to teachers. My question is how do you attract teachers to those rural schools, and how do you retain them?
Joyce: Our idea is that we take those people who live there in that area, who go to school there, who want to live there, who want to be in that community, we want to grow them as educators. We want to have a program where we encourage them to be educators and to stay there and live in their community with their families and the people they’ve gone to school with and grown up with and everything. But we have to grow them and offer them a real reason to stay in that community. We have to offer them the compensation, we have to offer them enough money to be able to afford to stay in that community.
That’s what’s happening to so many of our rural communities. Our young people are going to college and going somewhere else. They’re leaving the state, or they’re coming to Jackson, or going to the Coast, or DeSoto County and working there. But they’re not staying at home. And if they are staying at home, they don’t want to teach because they’re not making enough money. When their local manager of the Sonic can make more money than they do as a first-year teacher, they don’t want to do that. So our answer is to grow our own. We really feel passionate about having our rural communities grow their own teachers and make it so they feel good about staying there and staying with those schools.
Becky: We also have the challenge because the rural schools don’t have the funding, they don’t have that kind of [tax] base. A lot of the students who attend those schools don’t have access to higher-level math courses, AP Physics, or languages, [so we’re] trying to figure out partnerships between schools. Technology is a huge piece of addressing those issues in rural schools.
We often don’t talk about challenges in rural schools because so much of the spotlight is on urban education and the challenges that they face. But I can tell you that at the NEA we have rural initiatives, and at the federal level, when we talk about federal money and focus on all that, we do not forget about those schools. We’re looking at every avenue to address these issues, from legislative fixes to legal, based on the state constitution — “adequate” education, we all have some version of it in our state constitutions. And to go at that, we are very focused on making sure that unique challenges of our rural schools, our rural educators, the students who are going to those schools [are understood] so that as we bring those challenges we do not forget about them.
Homepage photo courtesy of NEA.