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BILL CRAWFORD — Wrong school fixes will keep our children shamefully behind


Emerging initiative “Empower Mississippi” is right that many children do not “flourish” in Mississippi public schools. But the fix it wants is wrong. Just as the fix proposed by the “Better Schools, Better Jobs” initiative was wrong. 

Neither creating a new entitlement program in the guise of school choice nor making Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) funding mandatory will help our children flourish in school. 
Given all the conservatives jumping on the Empower Mississippi bandwagon, you would think it provides a conservative fix. Nope. Instead it would give parents an entitlement to tax dollars (not a conservative thing at all). It would let them take money away from public schools to spend on private schools, home schooling, tutoring, or any educational activities they might prefer. The rhetoric declares this would allow students to “flourish.” Perhaps some would, but mostly this would simply transfer public funds to private schools where many students really don’t flourish academically. It would also erode education for students left behind at schools losing funds.
Given all the liberals who jumped on the Better Schools, Better Jobs bandwagon, you would think it would have provided a liberal fix. Nope. Oh, it would have liberally thrown more money at schools, but would have done nothing to fix what’s broken. If money alone were the solution, some of our D rated school districts would be A+ districts.
For a high poverty state like Mississippi, the fix lies elsewhere. 
Why do you suppose Kentucky, which has an 18.5% poverty rate just below Mississippi’s 20.8% rate, has a better high school graduation rate (88.6% to 82.3%) and far higher 8th grade reading and math proficiencies than Mississippi (36.1% and 27.7% to 20.0% and 21.8% respectively)? 
School choice? Nope, though a similar initiative has popped up there. Per pupil spending? Not really, Kentucky spends $10,945 compared to Mississippi’s $9,885.
Unlike Mississippi, however, Kentucky is committed to early childhood education, particularly for at-risk children. In Kentucky, preschool programs are available for all four-year-old children whose family income is no more than 160% of poverty and all three and four-year-old children with developmental challenges.
“Studies show that children who attend high quality early learning environments have better math, language and social skills,” according to Kentucky’s Department of Education. 
That’s the stuff that helps children to flourish. That’s the stuff that will attract good teachers back to struggling schools and make weak schools stronger. That’s what Mississippi’s conservative, liberal, and just regular folks should pursue together as our education fix. 
Regrettably, that’s not where the big money action is in Mississippi. Empower Mississippi is building a $400,000 war chest to buy political support during the 2019 elections; it contributed roughly $300,000 to candidates in 2015 according to the Clarion-Ledger. Better Schools, Better Jobs spent over $5 million to support their constitutional amendment vote in 2015.
Dr. Cathy Grace, who has spent most of a lifetime championing early childhood education efforts in Mississippi, says, “True conservative leadership across the country has recognized the value in early childhood education.”  She added that Mississippi has designed a high quality voluntary program, but, legislative funding for it “is shamefully behind.”
Pursuing the wrong fixes for our schools will keep our children shamefully behind too.  
» Bill Crawford (crawfolk@gmail.com) is a syndicated columnist from Meridian.


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