The Mississippi Association of Educators (MAE), the state affiliate of the National Education Association, has polled educators across the state to gauge interest for potential protests or walkouts. The move comes on the heels of the Mississippi legislature approving a paltry $1,500 pay increase for the state’s teachers, a move perceived by many workers as a slap in the face. Mississippi teachers make the second-lowest salary in the country behind South Dakota, at an average of $42,925 annually. The fact educators are even mulling the possibility of a strike is a huge development in a state that hasn’t seen a teacher work stoppage in over 30 years.
MAE is the state affiliate of the National Education Association (NEA). On April 4, the group posted a survey on its Facebook page. “Mississippi’s educators and citizens have been extremely engaged this legislative session and from across the state we have made our voices heard!” reads the post. “Despite that engagement, the legislature chose to ignore the needs of our educators and our students.” The survey asked whether or not educators would be interested in participating in a variety of work actions, from sickouts to strikes.
According to the survey, over 60% of teachers would support a protest or a one-day “sickout,” in which everyone would call in sick on the same day, while only about 30% would currently be receptive to a strike. However, MAE points out that the last teacher strike in Mississippi took place in 1985 and although it effectively secured a pay raise, lawmakers immediately made any future strikes illegal. Teachers can lose their licenses and be fined if they participate in any kind of strike. A group like MAE could face punitive measures for organizing a strike, putting its existence in jeopardy.
According to a 2017 report put out by the NEA, it is currently illegal for teachers to strike in 38 states. Yet legal prohibition ultimately can not stop workers for taking action if they decide to do so. Educators in West Virginia were able to launch a successful teacher strike in 2018, despite concerns about legal repercussions. However, the effort required vast coordination across the state’s school systems and took months to properly plan.
Joyce Helmick, the president of MAE, told In These Times, “Our educators are deathly afraid of losing their jobs. Our concern is for the students. No one wants to walk out, but our teachers feel like something must be done. We’ve been nice and it hasn’t been working.”
The MAE survey was a direct response to recent actions in the state’s legislature. In March, Mississippi lawmakers in the state’s House and Senate approved the $1,500 pay raise for teachers starting July 1. That’s more than the initial Republican proposal — a pair of $500 raises — but significantly less than the two $2,000 raises that Democrats were looking for. “Send the bill back so we can give the teachers the pay raise they deserve,” declared Senate Minority Leader Derrick Simmons (D) after the bill passed. “We’re talking about a pay raise that amounts to a little more than a Happy Meal.”
Helmick said Mississippi is consistently losing teachers to other states that offer higher salaries. “A good substantial pay raise would keep our educators here,” she said.
The uninspiring pay bump wasn’t the only thing that angered teachers. While Republicans couldn’t find the money for a substantial teacher raise, they managed to sneak a $2 million private school voucher program into a non-education bill. That legislation had already been voted down two times before lawmakers found a way to pass it using a backdoor method. "If we could have a $2 million voucher bill, why couldn’t that be part of a pay raise?” asked Helmick.
The voucher move has even upset some state Republicans. "Today was a low point in my time here at the Capitol," declared GOP Rep. Shane Barnet in a March 28 Facebook post. "In an underhanded move, the lieutenant governor snuck in last minute language to increase funding for the voucher program.” He continued, “I would not have voted for this bill knowing that this language was in it. In an effort to be as transparent as possible, I want to admit this mistake."
Facebook groups have emerged as integral part of teacher actions over the last couple years, as educators can use them to privately share stories and debate tactics. A Facebook group called “Pay Raise for Mississippi Teachers” has been created to discuss potential teacher actions. The identity of the group’s creators is not known, and the site isn’t affiliated with MAE, but it already has over 38,000 followers and 40,000 likes on Facebook.
In a development that will presumably increase teacher agitation, on April 24 it was discovered that a counting error by the Mississippi Department of Education has led to a budget shortfall of between $10 and $15 million. Those missing funds were supposed to pay for the wage increase. State lawmakers say they will be able to make the gap up, but the administrative mistake means that many educators are being left out of the pay raise, including teachers in the field of special education and some teacher assistants.