Eleven more school districts today joined a teachers strike that has idled more than one-fourth of the students in the nation's poorest state in a classic struggle over how much citizens are willing to pay to improve their schools.
Mississippi teachers, the lowest-paid in the nation, have walked out in 43 of the state's 154 school districts, according to the State Department of Education.
This strike, the first by Mississippi teachers, is directed at the state legislature, which has kept a tight, centralized hold over education unmatched elsewhere. Paradoxically, it may have its roots in educational reforms passed in 1982.
The measure mandated free public kindergartens and raised the minimum age for leaving high school to 14. It promised to bring teachers up to the average southeastern wage scale "if possible;" their average salary, $15,971, remains below the southeastern average of $18,506 and well below the national average of $22,000.
The teachers are calling for a $7,000 raise over two years. Gov. Bill Allain has proposed as an increase of $1,500.
On Monday, a Chancery Court judge continued a temporary restraining order against the striking teachers -- an order that generally has been ignored.
"Anyone who stepped back and took a look at this situation could see that it was building, building, building," said Maryann Graczyk, president of the 3,500-member Mississippi American Federation of Teachers.
At a time when other states are using budget surpluses to increase education funding, Mississippi lawmakers are looking for a way to cure the schools' ills without adding to taxpayers' pain.
"I've heard all kinds of people say give the teachers more pay, but don't raise my taxes," said state Education Department spokesman Jack Lynch. "You're not going to find anything like this anywhere. It's not your traditional kind of strike. These folks are not striking against their local districts or their local supervisors; they are striking against the governor and the state legislature."
As if to prove Lynch's point, hundreds of teachers and some parents donned yellow armbands and buttons and descended today on the stately, domed Capitol, which has taken on the atmosphere of a government under siege. Allain has threatened to veto any teacher pay raise that calls for a tax increase, and House and Senate lawmakers are scrambling for a compromise.
"When you've got a state with the lowest per capita income in the country, it's unfair to ask citizens to bear a new tax," said Allain's spokesman, JoAnn Klein.
Rep. Robert G. Clarke, chairman of the state House Education Committee, said, "There's no way in the world, with Reaganomics hitting the way it has since 1981, that the economy of Mississippi can stand a $7,000 pay raise for 28,000 school teachers." But, he added, in an apparent contradiction that underscores the dilemma here, "we have to take education and set it aside from other programs, and look at it as an investment."
Ironically, the Mississippi teachers believe they have a trump card: They say they are unlikely to be fired en masse for striking, since the state could never find teachers to replace them at Mississippi's low salaries.
When Mississippi schools were integrated two decades ago, the state responded by abandoning them.
Now the public school system is about 50 percent black, in a state that is 35 percent black. Many white families, particularly in the rural north and around the Delta, enroll their children in private academies.
"There's never been a real commitment on the part of elected officials in the state of Mississippi to the idea of public education," said Rep. Clarke, a black. "They have not been committed to educating minorities."
Herman Coleman, interim director of the Mississippi Association of Educators, said, "There are a large number of people -- white -- who have their kids in private schools, and they certainly oppose a tax increase to help the public schools."
In some southern districts, teachers have seen their colleagues across the Louisiana and Alabama borders receive starting salaries $2,000 higher than theirs. The strike began and took root in those southern districts, and only today spread to a few districts farther north in the Delta region.
About 60 percent of the state's budget is spent on education. Localities may to supplement that, but the amount varies. Jackson, for example, provides almost 44 percent of its schools' funds, and its teachers, who earn more than the southeastern average, are not striking. Oktibbeha County in central Mississippi provides 7 percent of its' schools' funds, receives 77 percent from the state and pays its teachers below the state average.
Education, and most other state government services, are primarily financed through the sales tax, which provides 41 percent of all available state funds, followed by the personal income tax at 19 percent. Local property taxes used to supplement state education funding are often negligible.
"If our local districts were putting in what other local districts around the country are putting in, the teachers would be making more money," Clarke said. "But it's all exploding now, and we'll just have to wait and see."