- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 5, 2014

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Arguing that their option is the only politically viable route to a teacher pay raise this year, Republicans on Wednesday pushed through the Mississippi House their proposal to increase salaries by about $4,250 over four years.

Representatives voted 86-26 to pass House Bill 504 after rejecting an effort by Democrats to transform it into an immediate $5,000 pay raise with no “hoops” for veteran teachers to jump through.

Under the Republican plan that passed, teachers would get a $1,500 raise over the next two years, and a projected raise of $2,750 over the following two years, assuming state revenues continue growing at 3 percent a year.

Teachers in their first five years would get raises automatically. Those with more than five years’ experience would have to meet three of 22 criteria, ranging from certification by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to sponsoring a school club.

Those “hoops” or “benchmarks” were a key focus of the three-hour debate. Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, a former chairman of the House Education Committee, said requiring teachers to meet the specified criteria to get a pay raise is unfair. He said teachers will wonder: “Why aren’t you treating us like professionals? Why are you making us jump through all these hoops?”

Those who support benchmarks said they believe almost all teachers could meet the requirements, saying that the price tag of $188 million a year at full enactment includes every teacher now working for public schools.

“This is not merit pay,” said House Education Chairman John Moore, R-Brandon. “This is professional achievement and letting the teachers control whether they get the raise.”

Leaders said the requirements give a graceful way for Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, both Republicans, to change past positions favoring merit pay - raises based on test scores or other measures of student achievement.

“The benchmarks are in there because the governor has said he can’t support across-the-board. We’re putting benchmarks in to give him a way to save face,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville.

Mississippi had the second-lowest average teacher pay in the nation in 2013 at $41,994, above only South Dakota, according to a survey by the National Education Association.

Rep. Linda Whittington, D-Schlater, said an immediate $5,000 raise with no benchmarks, projected to cost $233 million a year, is worthwhile, even if the state has to dip into reserves.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we do have the money. We do not have the political will,” said Whittington, the amendment’s sponsor.

But Republicans said such a measure would be laughed out of the Senate, just as a House measure for an immediate $5,000 raise was ignored last year.

“We have brought forward a legitimate and good-faith effort to give the teachers a pay raise,” House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, said after the vote. “There are some that would play politics with this issue and try to bring out amendments that we have already seen will not survive.”

The amendment was rejected 67-53, with Rep. Gary Staples of Laurel the only Republican supporting it.

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Online: House Bill 504: https://bit.ly/1nV77G3

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Follow Jeff Amy at https://twitter.com/jeffamy

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