State leaders’ choice: Cutting public education

By Jerry Mitchell
Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting

Mississippi politicians believe in bashing public schools — unless, of course, they’re running for reelection.

Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Phillip Gunn have criticized public education, wearing yellow “school choice” scarves at rallies at the state Capitol.

Students were bused in to Mississippi’s Capitol on Jan. 22, 2019, for the National Schools Choice rally.
Sarah Warnock/Clarion Ledger

At the same time that state lawmakers have underfunded public schools by billions, they have given millions in taxpayer money to parents of special needs children to pay for their private school tuition.

At a Jan. 22 rally at the state Capitol for school choice, several parents and children wore “Waitlisted” T-shirts. (The current waiting list is 184.)

“Let this Legislature find the money this year,” Reeves told the crowd, “so kids can go to the best schools for them.”

The irony about his call for more funding is more than $3.85 million of the $9 million allocated for this program over the past three years has gone unspent.

Some families getting scholarships (also known as vouchers) through the semi-annual lottery don’t use them for a variety of reasons, such as private school tuition being too expensive, or private schools being unable to provide services.

A survey by the state’s legislative watchdog showed a high satisfaction rate with the scholarship program: 91 percent among the parents and 80 percent among the children.

The same survey showed that more than two-thirds of the private schools receiving scholarship monies used public school employees to provide special education services.

Last year, the state’s legislative watchdog revealed in a report that the program, despite spending more than $300,000 for administration, lacked accountability.

One parent pocketed $11,000 for “teaching.” Another parent received $1,040 for “tutoring,” which included $390 for a “Mother’s Day Out.”

Grant Callen, executive director of Empower Mississippi, which has sponsored the school choice rallies, wants to see this program expanded so that all students are able to receive a scholarship to attend schools of their choosing.

“It’s not about helping kids who already have their education funded,” he said. “This is about helping kids who are trapped in schools that are not meeting their needs.”

Asked how Mississippi taxpayers could afford such a program, he said the $4,700 per student would be far less than the $10,034 spent per student in the state’s public schools.

While $4,700 would fall far short of the cost of tuition for some private schools in the Jackson metro area, he said Mississippi’s average private school tuition is about $5,000.

School choice is coming to the Magnolia State, he said. “Whether it’s this year or next year, it’s coming. I have no doubt about that.”

Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison wants to make it happen this year, proposing a bill to expand the scholarship program beyond special needs to all Mississippi students.

The taxpayer money for these scholarships for students could be spent not only on textbooks and tuition at private schools, but on curricula, computer software, school supplies, test fees and payments to tutors.

The scholarships would aid 2,350 — or 0.4 percent — of the more than 547,000 Mississippi students, with plans of increasing those numbers every year.

Current estimates put the scholarship at $5,200 or so, which is more than the $5,097 the state appropriates for each public-school student.

Scholarship winners would be picked, not by need, but by lottery. Estimated cost for the first year? $24.5 million. And that amount would jump each year.

As for accountability, the bill says private schools receiving these taxpayer funds “shall not be required to report data to the office or any other entity.”

After the lieutenant governor pushed through the state’s first taxpayer-financed voucher program and charter schools, Empower Mississippi honored him as its education reformer of the year.

“It should not matter what a kid’s zip code is, nor should it matter what his mom and dad do for a living,” Reeves told the crowd at the recent school choice rally. “Every kid in our state deserves an opportunity for success.”

Gunn echoed that sentiment, saying, “Every parent should have the freedom to pick what is best for their child.”

‘Misplaced allegiance to campaign donors’

This inexorable march toward taxpayers paying for tuition at private schools, however, does have critics.

Nancy Loome, executive director of The Parents’ Campaign, is one of them.

“Public school parents and educators have felt betrayed by our current leaders’ obvious support for policies that threaten public schools, such as state-funded vouchers for private school tuition and a proposed change to the education budget law that would have reduced significantly the state’s funding obligation to public schools,” she said.

Over the past decade, the Mississippi Legislature has underfunded public schools by $2.3 billion.

Since 1997, when the funding formula for the Mississippi Adequate Education Program became law, lawmakers have fully funded public schools only twice — both during election years.

The governor has said it would be wrong to conclude that failing to follow the formula means failing to support education. 

Mississippi’s top leaders have castigated the formula, but they have yet to agree on an alternate.

Reeves, who has announced he is running for governor this year, is telling voters that more is needed.

“We need to invest more money in our educational system,” he said, “and that’s why we’re going to spend almost $400 million more by the end of this session than we spent the year I got elected lieutenant governor.”

Between fiscal years 2008 and 2015, Mississippi’s funding for K-12 education actually declined, forcing many districts to slash their budgets, cancel construction, cut programs and lay off teachers.

Adjusting for inflation, Mississippi lawmakers gave schools $323 million less in 2015 than they did in 2008.

All of the surrounding states invest millions more in education, with Arkansas outspending Mississippi by an average of nearly $2,000 a student, according to Education Week

Despite failures to get lawmakers to fully fund public schools, Loome continues to lobby them.

“The yellow scarves draped around the necks of elected leaders participating in the annual ‘school choice’ rallies have become iconic – evidence of a misplaced allegiance to campaign donors who hope to profit from the privatization of public education at the expense of Mississippi children,” she said.

Callen called it “absurd” to accuse supporters of school choice of “profiting off children.”

His nonprofit has close ties with the Americans for Prosperity, the political arm of the Koch brothers, but he would not say if his nonprofit receives money from the organization.

Across the U.S., Americans for Prosperity has lobbied and contributed to millions to candidates who favor school choice, charter schools and vouchers.

Callen lobbies Mississippi lawmakers, and Empower’s Political Action Committee has given Reeves’ campaign $35,000 in contributions. Empower board members have donated another $13,000. Koch Industries has given more than $5,000.

Callen accused Loome of being unconcerned about children “who don’t fit into the public-school model, who have special needs, who are bullied in school, who have talents that are not served by a local public school.”

Science shows that students learn differently, and local public schools often fail to address that, he said. “Ms. Loome has no answer and offers no hope.”

Loome said some companies are indeed profiting off children, making billions through charter schools.

She said privatization is “not about allowing parents to choose what is best for their children; it is about what is and is not an appropriate use of tax dollars. Certainly, parents have a right to educate their children as they wish. They do not have a right to require taxpayers to foot the bill for whatever they want.”

If Callen and other privatization lobbyists were serious about helping children, their bills would require voucher schools to serve all children, not just some, she said.

“Mr. Callen lobbies for legislation that says specifically that voucher schools are not required to admit children they don’t want, are not required to provide any services for children with special needs and cannot be required to provide any data whatsoever to state officials or to the public,” she said. “Taxpayers are kept in the dark about what the voucher schools are providing with our tax dollars.”

Callen said research shows that “children do better academically when given the freedom to choose their school, but the strongest argument for choice in Mississippi is the over 1,000 students, parents and teachers who showed up at the Capitol (for the Jan. 22 rally). Ms. Loome … needs to stop pitting public school supporters against school choice supporters, because there were hundreds of public-school students in attendance at the rally.”

Most of the students at the rally arrived by way of charter buses — paid for by Empower Mississippi.

Lawmakers send education advocates message

Julia Weaver of Ocean Springs and other parents decided to start Fed Up With 50th because they felt Mississippi lawmakers were failing to support public schools.

If the Legislature “would fund our schools according to the law, more ‘B’ districts could become ‘A’ districts,” she said. “‘C’ districts could become ‘B’ districts, and more children would get great schools.”

In 2015, more than 187,000 Mississippians signed a petition for Initiative 42, a proposed constitutional amendment to force lawmakers to fully fund public schools under the Mississippi Adequate Education Program law.

Angered by this, top lawmakers created an alternative, Initiative 42A.

In the ensuing election, Initiative 42 fell short, with proponents saying the two choices on the ballot confused voters.

In the next legislative session, lawmakers did their best to punish superintendents, teachers and other educators who backed the measure.

The Legislature passed a law that made it illegal for school districts to pay any money toward the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents, a nonprofit that trains school leaders and had supported 42. (The law was reversed a year later.)

Lawmakers also proposed a law to freeze the salaries of all school superintendents for three years.

The author of the bills, then-House Appropriations Chairman Herb Frierson, recalled, “I was pissed off. I’m just being honest. I was just being a smart-ass.”

Initiative 42 angered him because he said it would have taken away the Legislature’s constitutional authority to appropriate. 

He said he would have supported a constitutional amendment that would have given lawmakers five years to provide full funding for schools.

Lawmakers also set their sights on school district personnel who supported 42. 

House Speaker Pro Tem Greg Snowden introduced a bill that leveled fines for any of them who dared to communicate “information in support or opposition of any political party, philosophy or issue in an election” during the work day.

The bill didn’t pass, but educators got the message.

Even before the vote, Joeanne Williams said she and other teachers in Jackson Public Schools were told not to discuss Initiative 42 on work time.

“We felt like our rights were being violated,” she said. “If we wanted to talk about it, we should have been able to.”

Mississippi politicians are fond of criticizing public schools, the six-figure salaries of superintendents and the low-test scores.

But when it’s election season, the politicians praise improvements in public schools, test scores and the like — and claim credit for improvements.

Bryant has been fond of bashing Mississippi’s public education system, calling it an “abysmal failure.”

But in his last State of the State address earlier this year, he gushed about his “Reading Gate” program, saying 93 percent of Mississippi’s third graders were “reading proficiently. I believe that time and results will record your passage of this act as the single most successful reform to public education in Mississippi history.”

The governor, who has shared his struggle with dyslexia that led to him repeating third grade, has drawn national praise for his program that helped boost reading scores in Mississippi.

The figure he cited, however, is somewhat misleading. In reality, less than half the students scored “proficient” or higher. The rest made high enough to move on.

The biggest test for Reading Gate is expected to come in May when about 35,000 third-graders take the test. This time, the cutoff score will be higher.

If the students’ scores for the reading portion of the test wind up close to the same as their scores for the full test in 2018, nearly one in four will have to repeat third grade — more than 9,000 students.

The cost to the taxpayers for these students having to repeat third grade? More than $90 million.

Katie McCustion of Tupelo saw her son, Ian, who has been diagnosed with severe dyslexia, almost have to repeat third grade because of the existing law — despite the fact he was on honor roll.

She had already been battling the law, leading lawmakers to alter the language. As a result, her son and other students in similar situations received exemptions.

Untreated, dyslexia can lead to anxiety, behavior problems and even aggression. “Half of our jail cells are filled with dyslexic inmates,” she said.

Those battling dyslexia are often good at problem solving, so proper teaching makes all the difference, she said. “We’re either making astronauts or inmates.”

Education should matter to all Mississippians because it impacts every aspect of our lives, she said.

At the state Capitol, some lawmakers “care more about their picture being on the wall than doing good,” she said. “Do we really care about being 50th? If so, we’ve got to get it together.”

She believes in school choice, but “let’s also focus on innovation,” she said. “The system we know is broken.”

Until Mississippians are willing to sit at a table, put their agendas aside and discuss solutions for education, nothing will happen, she said. “No matter what color or disability, students deserve this. It is the civil rights issue of our time.”


This story was produced by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization that seeks to hold public officials accountable and empower citizens in their communities.