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Rachel Canter on doing the right thing

q&A_Rachel Canter_rgbRachel Canter is executive director of Mississippi First. A Starkville native, she has a B.B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and a M.P.P. from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

Q —How did Mississippi First get its start?

A —In 2002, Sanford Johnson, my co-founder, and I each had summer internships in Jackson. We would meet for lunch and discuss all the things we saw wrong with our state and how frustrated we were with the lack of progress.

Those conversations slowly changed from what we didn’t like to what we were going to do about it. In the next few years, we would both join Teach For America and witness first-hand the tremendous impact that a nonprofit could have. That experience inspired us to form a public policy nonprofit that could work on the issues that we most cared about — like education — in a systemic way.

I wrote the business plan for Mississippi First while I was in graduate school, and we were lucky enough to secure a start-up grant the day I graduated. We have been fighting for education reform ever since our official launch in October 2008.

Q —What is the organization’s mission?

A —The mission of Mississippi First is to advocate for the best public policy solutions and to revitalize Mississippi’s democracy.

Q —What are some of Mississippi First’s priorities as far as policy issues in the state?

Pre-Kindergarten — We support collaborative pre-K programs.

Charter Schools — We support high-quality charter schools.

School Turnaround — We support a variety of policies that help low-performing schools improve. These include accountability reforms, teacher and leader quality policies, a longer school day/year and better accessibility and use of data in education, to name a few.

Q —What are some of your other immediate goals?

A —Mississippi First wants to see the recent appetite for education reform grow and expand; much of our work consists of pushing these conversations and then turning talk into action.

First, we would like to see a major piece of education legislation debated every session. Although many important education bills are filed each year, they don’t often elicit the intense interest and debate that the charter bill has for the last two sessions. We’d like it to become the norm for legislators and the public to know there is going to be at least one really big idea before the legislature each spring.

Secondly, we want the public to become more knowledgeable about education reform ideas and to embrace the notion that Mississippi has the power to change its education system if we get smarter about our policies.

Finally, we would like to see the State Board of Education get a little bit bolder in their approach to education reform. We have been seeing good signs from them in the last several months on important accountability issues. We want that trend to continue and to grow.

Q —You say on your website that “broken public policy” has prevented Mississippi from making progress. What are some examples of that?

A —Every year, we hear legislators and others lament the fact that we pass new policies and law and nothing changes. However, many times those efforts, while earnest, are flawed from the start or are never implemented.

Take the Children First Act of 2009 that was passed with much fanfare as a new tool to take over and turn around failing districts. Although the law included an idea for a Recovery School District like the ones in Louisiana and Tennessee (whose is called the Achievement School District), that section of the bill has never gotten off the ground. The Department of Education has several districts under conservatorship and has used some of the granted powers, but the Recovery School District was never created as a formal entity with policies and procedures adopted by the State Board of Education.

A Mississippi Recovery School District could be a powerful step toward building statewide capacity for school turnaround; it is unfortunate that the human capital and policy infrastructure required to manage turnaround efforts at scale has never been assembled.

Q —What do you hope is the future for Mississippi First?

A —We want Mississippi First to be a prominent, respected, research-based voice for education reform in Mississippi. We look forward to a long history of working for children in Mississippi and improving educational outcomes.

More on Canter:

Must-have Mississippi food: “I’m a dessert gal, so I’d say strawberry cake. I’m not sure the nation has caught up with us yet on how delicious strawberry cake is.”

Favorite movie: “Gosh, this is a hard one as I’m more likely to read than to watch movies! I really love the Jennifer Ehle/Colin Firth version of Pride & Prejudice.”

Last book read: “The last book I read for fun was The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.”

Website: mississippifirst.org

Twitter: @mississippi1st


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