Mississippi rarely funds public education to the fullest. It’s time to change that.

Editorial

Marshall Ramsey/MIssissippi Today

There is a simple reason why Mississippi refuses to fully fund public schools.

Historically, it rarely has.

Before the Civil War, most of Mississippi’s funding for education went to private schools.

And now Mississippi is on course to return to those days, with voucher bills threatening to send more money from the state’s coffers to private schools — with no transparency.

One bill promised to block the release of any records from these schools, despite the fact these vouchers are paid for by taxpayers.

If that weren’t bad enough, there is little accountability within the current voucher program.

An investigation by the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review discovered that one parent in the program had pocketed $11,000 for teaching. Another parent received $1,040 for “tutoring,” which included $390 for a “Mother’s Day Out.”

Mississippi’s top leaders are pushing for a teacher pay raise, which sounds good on the surface.

But in its current form, the legislation offers teachers no more than a two-year bonus, after which they will see their paychecks shrink back to current levels.

If there is a raise, lawmakers are talking about a $1,000 one.

That translates into $2.74 a day — not enough for a teacher to buy a McDonald’s Egg McMuffin on the way to work.

It’s an amount far below what teachers have lost through inflation since 2014.

History has been most unkind to African-American students. From 1890 through 1960 in Mississippi, black students received more than $25 billion less than white students in 2017 dollars, according to an approximation based on government data.

In more recent years, the same Legislature that developed a formula designed to raise the quality of education in public schools has declined to fully fund them.

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

So how much have Mississippi’s schoolchildren been deprived of over the past decade? At least $2.3 billion.

Gov. Phil Bryant, whose dyslexia caused him to repeat the third grade, deserves tremendous credit for getting the state to invest $15 million a year in Reading Gate to improve literacy. The program has already paid big dividends, helping students boost their reading scores.

Since the program has proven successful, why not double down on that investment so that more students can not only improve their reading, but improve their chances for success in life?

It’s needed now more than ever.

When 35,000 third-graders take their Reading Gate test in May, the cutoff score will be much higher than before.

That means more third-graders will be held back. The only question is how many.

If students’ reading scores wind up close to last year’s full test scores, more than 9,000 students — one in four — would have to repeat third grade, unless qualifying for exemptions.

The cost to the taxpayers? More than $90 million.

But the real cost is much higher because students who repeat a grade are far more likely to drop out of school, far more likely to wind up unemployed and far more likely to wind up in prison.

Investing $15 million more could actually save Mississippi far more money.

Most troubling is too many leaders lack a vision for improving education.

Teachers need to test less and teach more.

And if they can, students will stress less and learn more.

When teachers have time to inspire, students can start to soar.

The average Mississippian, with children in school, seems to understand this better than the average lawmaker.

A 2018 survey showed that most Mississippians favored using a state lottery to raise money for education.

But lawmakers would have none of it. Instead, they adopted a lottery and funneled all of that future cash to the state’s crumbling infrastructure.

You get what you pay for, and in Mississippi’s case, that has too often meant middling mediocrity — or worse.

Until our leaders begin to view education as our expressway to the future, instead of an obstacle blocking our path, Mississippi will remain mired, where it has been all too often, in last place.

 
Marshall Ramsey/Mississippi Today

Marshall Ramsey/Mississippi Today

 

This editorial 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.