When Joseph Puckett was a substitute teacher at Vicksburg High School, he was shocked by what he saw. The product of a private school education, the sophomore teaching and coaching major at Copiah-Lincoln Community College said he saw students who lacked a stable connection with their teachers in an outdated environment.
His experience at the D-rated school caused him to evaluate the politicians in office and resign from a leadership position in his College Republicans group.
“I went to the Neshoba County Fair, saw Jim Hood speak, and I said I can’t be a part of this group no more,” Puckett said. “They’re going to hold me back. If I cannot stand up for what I believe is right without getting pushed down and my feet stepped on, then this group is not for me.”
Puckett is one of nearly 1,000 members in the Teachers for Hood Facebook group, which has united Democrat and Republican teachers who have committed to voting for Attorney General Jim Hood for governor Nov. 5. Some have dubbed the general election as the public education election. Republican teachers specifically, many for the first time, have announced their commitment to voting against their party to support Hood, who they believe will fight for higher salaries, invest in public schools and combat the teacher shortage.
“It’s not a Democrat-Republican issue. It’s an outsider person establishment issue, and that’s the problem in our state government,” Puckett said. “Jim Hood really is on a mission to make Mississippi great again.”
Republican teacher in the Jackson Public School District Vicky Hankins, who has been a teacher for 27 years, said she created the Facebook group to give frustrated teachers a voice. Hankins said people refusing to vote outside their party are shortsighted.
“[It] is the very reason we have many of the problems in education that we have. We already know Tate Reeves’ voting record as far as public education and public school teachers. To me, this should be enough to make any Republican teacher in Mississippi step outside their party and vote for the best interest of public education and their own livelihood.”
Hankins said legislators have implied that teachers are unimportant by not paying teachers the southeastern average salary, which is about $50,000.
Mississippi ranks last for the average public school teacher salary. Currently, teachers with a bachelor’s degree earn a base salary of $35,890 for their first two years while teachers with a doctorate degree earn a salary of $40,608, according to the Mississippi Department of Education. In 2017-2018, the average salary was $44,926.
Education studies professor and teacher for 37 years Thomas O’Brien, Ph.D., said the candidates have similar education plans on paper. The differences are the levels of trust with educators and the language they use to describe education.
“Reeves has gotten very interested recently in articulating a platform on public education, and I’ve noticed even though he’s, you know, not funded it or not been in favor of funding it in the past, he’s got a plan now to increase teacher pay,” O’Brien said. “Maybe some can trust that Tate Reeves will come through, but my gut is that this is kind of a last minute maneuver to peel off some of those teachers and secure a vote.”
In 2017, the state spent $8,771 per student, according to the Census. The national average is $12,201.
O’Brien said Mississippi is indicative of a national problem of treating teachers like nonprofessionals.
“Jim Hood, for example, will say we want to invest in public schools,” O’Brien said. “We’ve never really fully funded schools. We’ve never supported teachers, we’ve never, so let’s fund them as best we can. Tate Reeves will probably argue that the system isn’t working. So let’s try something else, like charter schools or voucher schools. “I’m more on the invest in the public side.”
Southern Miss alumna and member of the Teachers for Hood Facebook group Ashley Dixon is not registered as a Republican or Democrat, but she knew she was voting for Hood when she read his stance on education.
Dixon currently teaches third grade special education in the Senatobia Municipal School District. In seven years, she has worked in several school districts.
When she taught for Yazoo City Municipal School District, she said she was faced with the struggles children in underfunded school districts deal with daily: scarce basic necessities like toilet paper and teachers with no certification and little educational background.
“Every day was a battle to love and educate some of the greatest kids I’ve ever known, but because of legislative policies and where they happen to live, they have no fighting chance,” Dixon said.
Legislators have been brainstorming ways to fix the teacher shortage for years. Stories from teachers like Dixon’s are common. A 2017 study published in the Mississippi Economic Review found that the teacher shortage tends to disproportionately affect school districts with predominantly black students in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta region.
According to Hood’s website, Hood plans to combat the teacher shortage through adjusting licensing requirements and reevaluating the Praxis among other ideas. According to Reeves’ website, Reeves plans to offer a $10,000 bonus for new teachers who teach science, technology, engineering or math in critical shortage areas like the Delta.
Dixon wonders if Hood is able to relate to all voters.
“In my opinion he’s more relatable to the everyday Mississippian, but I also feel like he’s missing out on the established Mississippian who relates to Reeves’s status,” Dixon said.
Reeves has been endorsed by Gov. Phil Bryant, Brett Favre and most recently, President Donald Trump. O’Brien said Trump’s endorsement might not be a factor for socially conservatice teachers.
“My guess is that they’re going to make a distinction between state politics and national politics and then look at their own pocketbooks and figure out that these bread and butter issues deserve a real scrutiny of who to vote for,” O’Brien said.
In the latest poll by WLBT and Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy, Inc., Reeves has a slight lead over Hood with 46% of likely voters saying they’re likely to support him compared to Hood’s 43%.
Trump will campaign for Reeves at a rally in Tupelo Friday. Puckett plans to attend the rally and wear his Hood hat.
“I’m going to stand out there and say, ‘I support Trump, but it’s time for a change in Mississippi. I want to drain the swamp here.”
If elected, Hood would be Mississippi’s first Democratic governor since 2003.
Reeves’ campaign did not respond to request for comment.