Does it ever end? From Mississippi Senator Angela Hill’s bill to do away with the Mississippi Department of Education to Speaker of the House Phillip Gunn’s bill to bounce the MAEP education funding formula for a new less expensive formula, the assault on Mississippi Public Schools goes on, and on, and on. Since 2013, to inform people of efforts in Jackson to weaken and dismantle public schools, I have written enough for a book on the plight of public education in Mississippi. For those who have listened, I along with many others have written and warned about what is happening, and true to those warnings, the nightmares are becoming reality. With little to no input from state educators, legislating and railroading changes to public schools that are not always in the best interests of children and teachers appear to be escalating. In Mr. Gunn’s case, he has done everything from writing a new education funding formula to handpicking the man who could push his bill through the House to the Senate in record time. Never mind the bill contains issues, and it is less than complete as acknowledged by the House Education Committee Chair. According to state leadership, those are trivial things that can be worked out later. Right, and we can believe teacher pay in Mississippi will be raised to the national average in the near future! As for Mrs. Hill, buying into the reasoning behind her chaotic idea to do away with the Mississippi Department of Education makes about as much sense as conceding all government control to local independent fiefdoms, but maybe chaos is her end game – at least for public schools.
There is a little more rationality in Mr. Gunn’s proposal. He argues the MAEP formula was written almost twenty years ago and has failed to keep up with classroom needs. He is partially right. MAEP became law in 1997, but what the public does not hear him say is the formula has failed to keep up with classroom needs because it has been fully funded only twice in those twenty years. It is Phillip Gunn and his fellow legislators who have failed to meet the needs of the classroom – not the current funding formula!
Why should anyone with a lick of common sense believe a new formula will fare better? Two maybe three years down the road, 2020 maybe 2021, we are likely to hear once again legislators cannot be held accountable to an education funding bill passed by a previous legislature – only then, they will be talking about the 2018 Legislature. State legislators have successfully gone down that road before, so why should they stray from a proven path. They won’t, especially when they have duped the public into believing public school educators are the bad guys and private and school choice hungry legislators are the saviors.
I do not suggest all legislators are at war against public schools; there are a few who stand by state educators. Those few are the reason Richard Bennett, Republican Representative from Long Beach, was handpicked by Gunn as the new House Education Committee Chair. As a colleague and friend, Gunn knew Bennett was not likely to be swayed to any degree by those few dissenting voices. From day one, not only did Bennet blindly champion Gunn’s funding bill, he did all within his power to railroad the bill into law. By his own admission, he has never read the MAEP formula, so he really doesn’t know if the new bill is better or not. His job was to run Gunn’s bill through the motions and get it to the Senate quickly with as few questions as possible.
Thank goodness there were a few legislators in the House who asked, “Why the rush?” For Gunn and Bennet that was simple, push hard and fast, and don’t allow time for study and knowledgeable pushback that might delay the bill’s passage. As Democratic Representative Jay Hughes of Oxford noted, the 354-page bill was filed Thursday, January 11; dropped to the House floor Tuesday, January 16; and passed on to the Senate Thursday, January 18. In comparison to time frames legislators usually work under, that is a remarkable achievement. Such swiftness and urgency are almost unheard of, especially with a funding bill that should be studied, discussed, and tweaked often prior to any vote. Instead, Bennet asked the House to fast track the overhaul of the public school funding formula. He told lawmakers they would have two years to work out any discrepancies or problems in the bill, so they shouldn’t worry about any issues – just pass it. Does that mean once passed they can manipulate the law anyway they choose? Of course, it does; they’ve been doing that for years.
This smells strangely of deeds that should be scraped from shoes before entering the house. Why soil the carpet when it is simpler to clean the mess at the door? For whatever reason, Mr. Bennett and Mr. Gunn have chosen not to do so, but Mr. Bennet has given his word they will clean up their act over the next two years. He seems to think his word is good enough, but he has been in Jackson long enough to know better. Teachers were given the word of state legislators in 1997, but legislators honored their word only twice over the next two decades. Why should anyone who believes in and supports public education in this state believe Mr. Bennet now? He is most likely an honorable man, but educators in this state have been bitten too many times in past years by legislators professing to be honorable men. If you need a reminder of leadership ethics in Mississippi, think back to Initiative 42, and the boatload of mistruths used to confuse and divide the public’s support of public schools.
“We’re going to work through it,” Bennett said. “This is not something cut in stone.” Maybe so, but I for one will have to see it to believe it. True, HB 957 may be an attempt by the legislature, as some have suggested, to apologize for years of inadequate funding and compromise with a formula that provides a watered down though more realistic funding formula in the eyes of legislators. If that is so, House Bill 957 may be a bullet all educators have to bite and learn to live with at some point. However, it does not make it easy when the process is surrounded by haste, isolation, and secrecy. Trust means inclusion and respect, which is something public school educators have rarely received from state legislators. It’s not easy to trust when educators have watched helplessly as other legislative promises that were cut in stone crumbled under them.
©Jack Linton, January 20, 2018