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Mississippi may pass Tennessee in education spending

Mississippi may pass Tennessee in education spending

That sound you just heard was Tennessee falling to last place in the Southeast—and next to last in the country—for funding K through 12 education.

For the longest time, we have always been able to tell ourselves, “Thank God for Mississippi.” But Tennessee’s lofty days of looking down on its neighbor to the southwest may be over. Last week, the Mississippi Legislature approved a plan to increase average teacher salaries from $31,892 to $41,445 over the next five years—a move that will cost $351 million a year and probably will translate to Mississippi lapping Tennessee in K through 12 spending, assuming spending in the Volunteer State stagnates.

In its most recent annual ranking by Governing magazine, the Volunteer State placed 48th in the nation in state and local dollars spent on K through 12 education, or $861 per capita. Meanwhile, Texas spent $1,130 per capita, Virginia $1,064, Georgia $1,089, North Carolina $934, and Louisiana $913.

The only states trailing Tennessee were Mississippi ($836) and Hawaii ($794). The average salary of a teacher in Tennessee is $37,074. Mississippi also gives hefty bonuses to teachers who are nationally board-certified, something Tennessee does not do.

The recent move in Mississippi was a major victory for Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, who campaigned on the idea of increasing teacher pay. “Sometimes it takes action, it takes relentless pursuit of something...to get the benefits,” the Memphis Commercial Appeal quoted Musgrove as saying before he signed the bill into law.

Meanwhile, the budget that the Tennessee Legislature is expected to pass next week over Gov. Don Sundquist’s veto abandons just about every education improvement Sundquist earlier recommended. “We have put ourselves in a position where keeping up with other states isn’t even an option,” Sundquist said before he vetoed the budget last week.

Few people are more upset about this disparity than George Yowell, the executive director of Tennessee Tomorrow, an organization, funded in large part by business leaders, that campaigns for improvements in Tennessee’s education system. “What is happening in education is the root cause of many things, such as the fact that per capita income has fallen in Tennessee,” Yowell says. “It is also the cause of the fact that Tennessee is just not getting good jobs anymore.”

Economic development types such as Yowell are also well aware of the fact that Mississippi recently outbid Tennessee for a new Nissan plant.

“The jobs that are coming here now are assembly-line jobs and call-center jobs,” he says. “We’re not getting research-and-development jobs and 21st-century jobs.”

State Rep. Gene Davidson, an income tax opponent who is the former chairman of the House Education Committee and now the House majority leader, says he’s embarrassed by the idea that Mississippi is poised to surpass Tennessee in education spending. “It’s one of many woes we’re facing at this point,” he says.

Some legislators have argued that the income tax is Tennessee’s only long-term way to solve its budget problems. Davidson, who took a no-income-tax pledge during the last election, disagrees. “To a certain degree, I regret the idea that I promised not to support an income tax,” he says. “But since I made that promise, I intend to stick with it.”

Davidson also says there are other ways to raise revenue in Tennessee, including a sales tax increase. “Just because the income tax doesn’t have the votes doesn’t mean that all the doors are closed,” he says. “We have other sources of revenue out there, but it seems that there are those concerned with just the income tax.”

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