Will the Teacher Strike Wave Hit Mississippi?

Michael Arria April 30, 2019

(NARAPIROM/Shutterstock)

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.

Michael Arria is the U.S. cor­re­spon­dent for Mon­doweiss. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @michaelarria.
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