Sunday, February 5, 2023

The Party of Education

Here’s a startling statement: Republicans are the party of education in Mississippi.

I can hear the steam whistling out of my Democrat friends’ ears. Keep reading; it gets better.

For decades, Democrats have claimed the title of “pro-education” party, sometimes with support. Democrats have also spent many elections painting Republicans as a mortal threat to the education of our kids.

But the Democrat narrative, often echoed in the media, is being disproven by actual facts. Republicans (yes Republicans!) are driving meaningful reform and pushing for accountability in public schools. At times bucking the education establishment, the GOP focus is on results for students who are tomorrow’s workforce. The emerging
Republican education record is a teachable moment for both the GOP and voters.

Take charter schools. Charter schools are aimed at giving parents and students more accountability and options to realize the dreams enabled by better education. Though you may not know it, House Democrats passed a charter law when they were in the majority. There’s a reason they’re quiet about it: Out of 43 states with charter school laws, Mississippi’s was recently ranked dead last in terms of effectiveness.

Democrats gave us a gimmick disguised as “reform.” By comparison, under Republicans, the debate has shifted from whether we should have charter schools to how broad the charter law should be. Particularly for families who cannot afford to move to private schools or better districts, Republicans are the ones offering hope for change.

One charter school question is whether charters should be permitted only in “D” and “F” districts, or also in “A,” “B,” and “C” districts, too. Those school grades are another Republican policy, by the way. Imagine the simple idea of making school grades as easy to understand as kids’ grades. Parents, who now know that their “Successful” ranked school really was “C” quality, appreciate the clarity. Hundreds are starting to show up at school meetings (in places like Canton) to demand accountability.

As Republicans concede, charter schools are no silver bullet. Education policy is multifaceted. Republicans are responding with a multifaceted approach, judging from a series of initiatives:

Governor Bryant proposed a range of education reforms last fall known as “Education Works.” Bryant’s agenda addresses five key areas, including reading proficiency, teacher quality, early childhood education, increased school choice, and college and career readiness. Bryant’s proposals are aimed at the bigger picture of equipping today’s students to excel in tomorrow’s economy.

Ditto Treasurer Lynn Fitch, who wants increased financial literacy prior to high school graduation. Fitch has made “real world” education about investments and budgeting a priority of her tenure.

Last week, Lt. Governor Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn announced support for a proposal from Senator Brice Wiggins (R-Pascagoula) to expand early childhood education in Mississippi through collaborative public-private partnerships. If successful, that’s a big deal.

In the past, early childhood education was envisioned as another state-mandated and funded government school expansion. But Republican leaders are proposing to leverage state “seed” money with private and other funding sources raised by proven early education providers.

Enhancing education through local flexibility, while minimizing bureaucratic bloat, Republicans are moving early childhood education to a workable reality. Democrats may have talked about it, but never did it.

Same with school district consolidation. Last year, three struggling districts in Sunflower County were combined into one. Hardly sweeping change, but it was a step that actually, finally, happened.

As for school funding, Republican performance has shown that accountability is more than a buzzword. In more than four years of active oversight of 16th Section Lands, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann has generated millions more dollars for local schools, with no tax increase.

And, last week, Auditor Stacey Pickering called for greater accountability in the way the much-touted (and little-comprehended) Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) funding formula is calculated. The Auditor suspects that many school districts are gaming the current funding method to grab more state money.

Democratic legislators immediately agreed with Pickering that better metrics are needed to ensure accurate funding. (Might have been nice to admit that during recent election campaigns, but Democrats were too busy using MAEP as a club against Republicans.)

Taken together, these are meaningful reforms and results-oriented accountability that point toward stronger education in Mississippi. It may not happen overnight, but Republicans are setting up an environment for enhanced educational attainment.

It’s enough to give Democrat Aunt Pitty-Pats all over the state the Vapors. But the potential progress suggests that Republicans are the party of public education’s future. Pass the smelling salts.

Cory T. Wilson is a Moss Point native and Madison attorney with Heidelberg Steinberger Colmer & Burrow, P.A. Follow Cory on Twitter, @CoryWilsonMS, or email cory@corywilson.ms.

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