Selective funding leaves public schools in the hole

By Jerry Mitchell
Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting

The only heat for students in the Sherman Creek Elementary School in Tallahatchie County in 1955 was the wood heater in the middle of the room.
John E. Phay collection at the University of Mississippi Libraries Digital Collections

Throughout its history, Mississippi policymakers have fought against the education of those who didn’t belong to their “club.”

“Even in the territorial days, public schools were for the elite,” said David Sansing, professor emeritus of history at the University of Mississippi.

In the years leading up to the Civil War, the state spent little money on public education, regarding “free schools” with contempt.

It’s no surprise then that what little public money the state did invest in education often went to private schools.

Many towns contributed nothing to educate white children in Mississippi. Black children fared even worse because state law made it illegal to educate them.

In the years following the Civil War, Mississippi held its first constitutional convention in 1868 in which African Americans were allowed to participate. Their breakthrough Constitution created “a uniform system of free public schools” for those ages 5 to 21, and divided school funds evenly among all children of school age.

But many policymakers rebelled against white taxpayers paying anything toward the education of black students.

The state superintendent of education called the creation of public schools “an unmitigated outrage upon the rights and liberties of the white people of the state.”

In the years that followed, violence, fraud and a new Constitution in 1890 put an end to black voting, returning white supremacy to power.

Outside of the rundown Hines Elementary School for black students in Benton County in 1956.
John E. Phay collection at the University of Mississippi Libraries Digital Collections

With white policymakers back in charge, taxes were cut, school funding was whacked, segregation resumed, and state officials relied on favoritism, prejudice and the law to send the majority of money to all-white public schools.

In 1931, a State Department of Education official concluded Mississippi’s basis of funding education was “the least satisfactory basis now in practice.

Five years later, Mississippi began requiring counties that wanted state funding to levy a local 10-mill property tax, but that local tax could only be imposed with a majority vote, leaving a number of counties in the cold.

Separate and unequal in every way

Black students suffered the most, and policymakers defended their prejudices.

“The education of a Negro only spoils a good field hand,” U.S. Sen.and Gov. James K. Vardaman declared. “It is money thrown away.”

His words found fertile soil in Mississippi.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld “separate but equal” schools, but Mississippi’s segregated schools were far from equal.

In 1890, the state spent twice as much on white students as on black students. By 1935, the state spent more than three times more on white students.

By World War II, African-American students received only 13 percent of the education funding, despite making up 57 percent of the school-age children.

Black teachers, who took home the same pay as white teachers between 1877 and 1885, now made only 38 percent as much as white teachers.

Students in grades 1 and 2 crammed into the all-black school in Tippo in 1955.
John E. Phay collection at the University of Mississippi Libraries Digital Collections

Lack of pay, combined with a lack of training, contributed to fewer qualified teachers, half of them lacking a high school diploma.

It’s no surprise then that by 1950 only 2.3 percent of black Mississippians had graduated from high school. The vast majority had a seventh-grade education or less.

Two years later, a state legislative committee on education investigated the matter and concluded that “the condition of Mississippi’s schools for Negroes in rural areas is pathetic, and in some cases it is inexcusable.

Hundreds of black children are compelled to attend school in “unpainted, unheated and unlighted buildings that are not fit for human habitation and should have been condemned years ago,” the report said. “There are very few rural schools for Negroes in Mississippi that have sanitary drinking water facilities or sanitary toilet facilities.”

Fearful that courts would rule its segregated schools far from equal, Mississippi began to build more all-black schools, following the lead of other Southern states.

But even with those efforts, the state fell far short of closing the funding gap between black and white schools.

Money the state appropriated to raise the pay of African-American teachers often failed to reach them.

And districts continued their spending along racial lines. For instance, funding in Glendora for the average black student was $13.71 — less than 3 percent of the $464 the average white student received.

Despite the Supreme Court decision in 1954 that segregated schools had to come to an end, Mississippi continued to underfund black schools.

Between 1954 and 1960, the state gave black students more than $297 million less (in 2017 dollars) than white students, according to an approximation based on government data.

And if that number is extended back to 1890, black students were shortchanged more than $25 billion.

When a federal judge in 1964 began to order some public schools to submit desegregation plans, the white Citizens’ Council urged the closing of schools — a strategy that even Mississippi policymakers refused to embrace.

Instead, lawmakers adopted a “freedom of choice” plan that supposedly let students attend where they liked.

Talk of choice led to few changes, and many of Mississippi’s schools remained segregated.

But that all came to a halt in 1969, when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Mississippi’s school districts to stop operating dual school systems, and within a year, the remainder of public schools began to integrate.

Segregation academies arose, and white flight followed.

Historian John Dittmer, whose daughter, Julie, was attending school in Jackson at the time, recalled school officials trying everything they could to keep the white students. “It was chaos,” he said.

By the time the dust had settled, much of Mississippi had shifted toward racially separate school systems through both the public and private school systems, and the state Legislature began to cool toward any new programs for public education.

“The major problem,” Dittmer said, “was that Mississippi could not adequately finance one school system, let alone two.”

And since then the state has added a third system, charter schools, to go with the fastest growing segment — home schooled students.

In 10 years, public schools underfunded $2.3 billion

Since the 1950s, most Mississippians have expressed support in surveys for better public schools and for better funding for those schools.

But more often than not, those wishes have failed to turn into reality, and the state has struggled to get off the bottom.

Although Mississippi has seen several stabs at reforms (Education Reform Act, Enhancement Act and the Mississippi Adequate Education Program), the state Legislature has often undermined those goals.

After passing MAEP (aimed at making sure Mississippi students wouldn’t be left behind), lawmakers fully funded the schools only twice under the formula — both during election years.

According to that formula, lawmakers have underfunded public schools $2.3 billion since 2008.

Lawmakers have now shifted their focus from adequately funding schools to giving pay raises to teachers. In 2015, the Legislature passed such a raise, and there is talk of another raise this session, during another election year.

Using constant dollars, the average teacher’s salary in Mississippi has fallen 16 percent since the 2009-2010 school year. The state pays teachers the lowest wages of any state in the Southeast.

Second-grade students stand for the Pledge of Allegiance at the all-white Durant elementary school in 1955.
John E. Phay collection at the University of Mississippi Libraries Digital Collections

Nearly four times as many white students attend public schools than private schools, but a perception persists among many policymakers that spending money on public education means spending money strictly on black students, said Leslie B. McLemore, professor emeritus of political science at Jackson State University.

“That’s not the case,” he said. “It’s the same with public assistance. The majority of the people receiving public assistance are white, but based on the propaganda, you would think they were black.”

Too often, he said, policymakers deciding how much money to invest in public education “are sending their children to white private schools.”

By failing to invest in public education, “we have deprived ourselves of our best minds,” he said. “Many of our kids, black and white, are leaving the state because we have not maintained a high-quality education system.”

 

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.

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