2021 Legislative session wrap-up

It’s fair to say this session was a mixed bag. While we certainly saw several successes — the teacher and teacher assistant pay raise, license reciprocity, the teacher loan repayment program, a community college and university faculty pay raise — we also saw a number of bills that would’ve demonstrated lawmakers’ understanding of the importance of a whole-child approach die on the calendar or not make it out of Committee.

After watching educators struggle to meet the needs of students and their families over the past year, it has never been more clear that addressing issues like trauma and providing wraparound services is critically needed in Mississippi. The pandemic didn’t create new issues in public education; it simply exposed, highlighted, and exacerbated the preexisting challenges students and educators face every day in our schools. If lawmakers haven’t been spurred to action now, what will it take?

Though we are disappointed to have not yet passed the transformative bills we’ve spent the last two sessions championing — community schools and trauma-informed practice standards — it’s important to note that MAE’s advocacy and the direct advocacy of our members played a critical role in ensuring the passage of several bills that will ease the burden on Mississippi educators.

We commend legislators and state leaders for their work improving the lives of public school educators and students this session. However, it is not yet time to sit back and congratulate ourselves on a job well done. There is still so much work to be done. Much of the legislation passed this session was simply righting the ship after years of divestment in public education. More than ever, Mississippi’s kids are depending on us to come up with innovative, strategic ways to rethink what we do with the tools we have at our disposal. We owe them that.

Some key takeaways from the session:

HB 852: Teacher pay raise bill | Despite the pay raise’s inclusion in the House’s failed massive tax proposal, a clean pay raise bill was signed by the governor late in the session. Upon the signing of HB 852, teachers with 0-2 years experience receiving a $1,100 pay increase, bringing the minimum starting salary to $37,000. All other teachers and teacher assistants would receive a $1,000 pay increase.

SB 2267: License reciprocity | This bill helps address the teacher shortage crisis by allowing teachers from other states reciprocity with a valid teaching license and a background check. This legislation is waiting for the governor’s signature.

HB 1179: the William F. Winter and Jack Reed, Sr., Teacher Loan Repayment Program | On an annual first-come, first-serve basis, up to 150 teachers can receive a payment of $1,500 toward the loan debt for the first year he or she teaches, $2,500 for the second year and $3,500 for the third year. The bill provides financial assistance for teaching anywhere in the state, though the final bill provides additional help for teaching in certain geographic areas or subject areas with profound shortages. This legislation is awaiting the governor’s signature.

STATE EMPLOYEE PAY RAISE | State employees will receive a 3% pay raise this year, with most community college and university faculty set to receive at least a 1% pay raise. There is obviously more work to do, but we’re pleased with the passage of this legislation; it is another step in the right direction.

COMMUNITY SCHOOLS + TRAUMA-INFORMED PRACTICE STANDARDS | In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, we found ourselves advocating with renewed zeal for community schools and trauma-informed school standards. Neither bill requires additional funding — they are thoughtful, creative ways to rethink what we do with the tools we currently have at our disposal. These bills were essential prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in its wake they are more necessary than ever before.

Unfortunately, despite the community schools bill being passed out of the House with overwhelming bipartisan support it died without being brought up in Committee in the Senate. The trauma bill died on the House calendar after sailing through the House education committee.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented challenges into every facet of our lives. It exposed profound inequities in our public school system and created serious, complicated problems for our students, educators, and communities to navigate this year. We know those issues will continue to impact the public school experience for years to come. And, though neither bill made their way to the governor’s desk, we continued to gain traction with legislators and key decisionmakers. Know that we won’t rest until a whole-child approach becomes a priority for every lawmaker.

ONE MORE THING| For an additional look at how this session shook out as compared to other legislative sessions, check out this great analysis from Mississippi Today.