The 2015 Mississippi legislative session may have been one of the most contentious sessions between state legislators and state public school educators in the history of the state. Both groups agreed improvements were needed in Mississippi’s public schools, which should have brought about a unified effort to improve education in the state for the good of all children. However, instead of a rare collaborative effort between state legislators and state public school educators, the 2015 legislative session became a battleground. To put it accurately, the session became a sniper’s blood bath with legislators taking negative potshots at educators as educators once again took the abuse on the chin.
The early pre-session rumblings by legislators indicated they were ready to right what they deemed a failed public education system. That should have been a sign they were ready to work with state educators to improve public education in the state. As it turned out, that was not the case. Instead, the pre-session rumblings were a warning that what was about to happen to public education was not going to be pretty. Early in the 2015 session these rumblings turned into an outright assault on public schools as Republican legislators declared war against Mississippi educators.
Led by Governor Phil Bryant, Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves, Mississippi Speaker of the House, Phillip Gun, and House Education Chair, John L. Moore, the Mississippi Republican Party branded itself as the savior of Mississippi education. Their intentions were clear! They intended to rid Mississippi of the Common Core Standards that public schools had been working to implement for three years, reduce the power of the State Superintendent of Education, continue their push to privatize public education, silence educators who dared speak out against them, and ultimately take full control of public education. When it came to education, their attitude was they knew what was best for Mississippi children, and they did not need input from public school administrators and teachers who, in their minds, had failed the state’s children. Why should they listen to educators who, according to them, had proven themselves to be incompetent?
These men and women failed or refused to recognize the strides Mississippi had made in recent years to improve the quality of education for its children. Although there were still needed improvements, Mississippi educators had shown their commitment to making whatever improvements needed to be made. Great strides had been made in the quality of first year teachers graduating from state colleges and universities, high school graduation rates were improving in a state that traditionally viewed an eighth grade education as sufficient, and tremendous improvements had been made in the quality of professional development opportunities for teachers. For the first time in the state’s history, teachers were consistently and actively engaged in improving their profession for the good of all children. Teachers no longer could obtain a license to teach, get a teaching job, go to their classroom and close the door, and remain there unchallenged and often unmonitored until retirement. Change was happening slowly, but it was happening at the highest level physically and fiscally possible. To accelerate the progress, more teachers, assistant teachers and funding would be needed. However, the only thing that accelerated in Jackson was pointing fingers of blame at public school educators. Other than political rhetoric expounding their concerns for the state of education in Mississippi, they proved once again their commitment to Mississippi public school education was little more than a smoke and mirror illusion. Under the smokescreen of concern for public education, they bragged and continue to brag to the public how the 2015 legislative session increased education funding over the previous year while glossing over the fact they had once again failed to fully fund MAEP (Mississippi Adequate Education Plan) and comply with state law. They failed to tell the public that the 2015 education funding increase paled in comparison to the $1.7 billion public school education had been short changed since 2009. They failed to talk about the $1.3 billion in tax breaks they had granted Nissan to keep its plant in Mississippi although the majority of the Mississippi jobs Nissan had promised in return went to workers transplanted to Mississippi from other states. They failed to mention that the $1.3 billion in tax breaks and exemptions was money that could have been spent to educate Mississippi’s children. And, they failed to understand that Mississippi public schools need a break also?
Mississippi legislators and educators have no business being at war! They should be collaboratively working to improve public education for all children. In a state where 35% of its children live in poverty, there is no room for personal or political agendas when it comes to the education of children. State legislators can point fingers of blame and mouth condemnations at teachers all they want, but until they are willing to put money where their mouth is, education in Mississippi will continue to struggle and lag behind the rest of the nation – you cannot build a Cadillac or even a good minivan on a Nissan Versa budget.
The state legislators claim Mississippi is a poor state and cannot afford to fully fund public school education; they say they are doing the best they can do. Hogwash! Yes, Mississippi is a poor state, but if state legislators truly wanted to fully fund education, they would find a way to make it happen. The people in Jackson may be bull-headed, have misplaced priorities, and driven by a political agenda, but they are not stupid people. But, when the Speaker of the House, Phillip Gunn, announced during the same session public school education was once again underfunded that he is in favor of doing away with the state income tax, which accounts for approximately 40% of Mississippi’s total operating revenue, it is safe to assume he is either stupid, incompetent, politically motivated, or cognizant of other untapped revenue sources. An intelligent legislator responsive to the needs of the people would not make such a statement of support otherwise. So, if Mr. Gunn is not stupid, incompetent, or politically motivated, why not keep the state income tax and tap into those other revenue sources? It only stands to reason that if Mississippi can operate efficiently, including funding education, without state income tax as Mr. Gunn claims, the state should not have a problem adequately funding education as the law requires if it keeps the state income tax intact and taps into whatever other revenue sources Mr. Gunn has in mind.
Unfortunately, reluctance to fund education in Mississippi is not only a political issue; it is just as much a public issue. Underfunding Mississippi education goes much deeper than the personal and political agendas of state legislators and their thumbing their noses at the law. Reluctance to fully fund education is as much the fault of the public as it is state legislators. For example, a major problem in Mississippi is that when the word “funding” is used in conjunction with education, the public has been duped to immediately think pay raises for teachers, but that is not always the case. Although teachers should be paid better, the funding that is most needed in Mississippi is not for pay raises, but for new teacher positions, additional assistant teachers, books, supplies, and facilities to name a few basics that schools need to operate. In a state, where minimal wages are the standard, it is often difficult for hard working families to understand this. However, even if the public does not understand this, the state legislators in Jackson understand this all too well.
Across Mississippi, there are children who ride to school on buses that should have been parked and replaced years ago; there are children who try to learn in classrooms with the roof leaking on their desk; there are children who attend schools with broken windows, broken air conditioning, broken and rusted playground equipment; and there are children who attend schools where the facilities are in urgent need of repair or even demolished and rebuilt to provide a safe environment for teachers to teach and children to learn. Across the state, there are teachers who buy supplies with money out of their own pockets, and there are teachers who teach without textbooks – not by choice, but because the textbooks they have are falling apart and out of date. In an age where school shootings are not uncommon, Mississippi has schools without security systems as well as internal and external doors that do not lock; schools without police or security officers; and playgrounds with little or no protective fencing around them. The problem with education in Mississippi is not money hungry incompetent teachers as so many state legislators would have the public believe; the problem with education in Mississippi is state legislators who refuse to fulfill their commitment to fully fund education. The problem with education in Mississippi is state legislators who refuse to work collaboratively with educators for the good of Mississippi’s children.
Unfortunately, as disappointing as the current situation is for public school education in Mississippi, there is little reason to believe anything will change with the 2016 session unless there is a change in leadership. Regrettably, that is not likely to happen. Mississippi bleeds Republican red, and often that means politics takes precedent over our children. So, unless there is a change in the Republican agenda to privatize public school education, a change in their reluctance to fully fund education, or there are some unexpected upsets in the November election, there is little chance the 2016 legislative session will offer educators the funding and support they desperately need. This unlikelihood for change truly makes Mississippi a sad state for education and educators.
©Jack Linton, October 3, 2015