Mississippi public school kids lose again

Photo credit: NPR

Earlier this week, Magnolia State voters rejected Initiative 42, which would have amended the state constitution to require elected officials to fund “an adequate and efficient” public school system.

Mississippi remains the poorest state in the Union. By every conceivable measure — public school funding, student achievement, educator salaries, teacher retention — the state’s public schools generally rank 49th, 50th or 51st in the U.S.

American kids consistently finish in the middle of the pack in comparisons of academic achievement among industrialized countries. But if Mississippi were a country, its student performance would sit near the bottom of those world rankings.

Of course, the state could afford to do better. On a per capita basis, Mississippi is much richer than Mexico, Tunisia and Indonesia, but most Magnolia State voters evidently prefer to stick with Third World educational outcomes.

All of the usual suspects conspired to defeat the measure: racialized politics, low turnout, scare tactics, indifference and diabolically confusing ballot construction.

Supporters of Initiative 42 worked valiantly to educate and motivate voters, but they could not tame the tsunami of malice that cynically exploited the residue of ignorance left behind by generations of inferior schooling.

I taught in a public high school in the Mississippi Delta from 1996–2001, and I know firsthand that kids, teachers and people in the state deserve better.

Many of my friends voted against Initiative 42. Most astonishing was the opposition of a teacher in a public middle school, who wrote…

“But the truth is that we didn’t actually need I42, because there is a much simpler option, had anyone been willing to consider it:

“All elected senators, governors and representatives will take a 35% pay cut. These monies will be earmarked without question or finagling of any sort for the funding of education….

“This may be considered by some to be a radical idea.”

My friend’s scheme would add exactly $773,892 to the state public school budget, which is about $1.7 billion ($1,718,556,000).

That is, my former colleague proposes a 0.045% increase in public school funding. (If you’re reading aloud, that number is pronounced “45 thousandths of a percent.”)

Obviously, that would not move the needle on my friend’s salary, on student achievement or on anything else in Magnolia State public schools.

So, my friend’s idea is not radical, but profoundly reactionary.

William Winter, the Governor of Mississippi from 1980–84, used to keep a sign on his desk that read, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

Unfortunately, the state seems to have adopted just the last two words of that slogan as a permanent mission statement.

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