Money, by far, isn’t the only woe for some public schools in Mississippi, but pick a headline anyway:
1. “Legislature Approves Record Cash To Support K-12 Education.”
2. “Legislature Again Ignores Own Mandate, Underfunds Schools By $211 Million.”
Both are accurate.
Last week, the state Senate by a 49-2 vote gave final approval and sent to the governor a bill appropriating nearly $100 million more real dollars for public schools. The total will be $2.2 billion to be added to local taxes, federal dollars and assorted other money to pay for the education of about 490,000 students during the next school year.
It’s an election year. The 90-day lawmaking season is winding down in Jackson. Getting K-12 funding out of the way was smart public relations. It took the topic off the table and out of the vigorous debates that sometimes arise during end-of-session hoopla. Out of sight, out of mind.
Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton, put it this way in The Clarion-Ledger. “K-12 education is a priority. We’re funding it first. We’re funding it more than it has ever been funded before.”
Unspoken was the fact that the Legislature again disregarded the legal obligation it gave itself to “fully fund” public elementary and secondary schools. Lawmakers haven’t changed the statute that directs the Department of Education to plug enrollment and other figures into formulas to determine the total amount of cash needed to provide “adequate” schools. They just ignored it.
Had the Mississippi Adequate Education Plan been followed, the appropriation would have increased by another $211 million.
Some, including Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, certainly noticed. “I would encourage you to talk to your superintendents, talk to your school board members, talk about what’s going on,” he told his colleagues. “They laid off teachers. They have fewer teachers now than they need. They’re doing things they have to do when there’s not enough money to operate school districts.”
So where is Mississippi doing a good job in education? According to many sources, Mississippi is doing better than most states in equalizing funding among school districts. Those with scarce local resources are getting extra help.
But still not enough as required by law, which is at the core of the citizen initiative that will allow voters in November to bypass the Legislature and of a separate lawsuit filed by several school districts against the state.
Lots has been written about those actions and much will be, so let’s shift gears.
Let’s assume that every school superintendent in Mississippi is given a bottomless checkbook. And let’s ask a question: Would that, of itself, make schools better?
The answer is no.
Witness that the best-funded school district in the nation with the highest-paid teachers (Washington D.C.), is among the worst performing. Witness the range within the 150 or so public school districts in Mississippi. All have about the same money to spend per-student. Some generate top-achievers, have low dropout rates. Others can’t avoid repeated state takeovers for misfeasance and malfeasance.
Once in a while it’s important to talk about this, to state flat-out that $200 million or $200 billion more for public schools would, of itself, fix nothing.
The recipe for effective schools does include sufficient funds, which by its own standards the Legislature is not providing. But there are infinitely more variables, prime among them parental and community support along with appreciation for the value of education, a sense among students and families that a high school diploma is worth earning.
This is what has been lost in failing locales.
The recipe for getting it back is simple to describe, but challenging to put into practice. First, get rid of the assumption that all white-majority districts in affluent areas are peachy and all black-majority districts in poverty areas are abysmal. That’s not accurate.
Next, look at the best practices in the districts that are hitting on all (or most) cylinders and translate or mimic or apply those same practices in struggling districts.
This approach would take energy, initiative and dedication. It would take a relentless commitment to excellence and a zero tolerance for excuses. In sum, it would take a lot more than money. And it would not happen overnight.
If there is any common grounded between those who are adamant that schools are underfunded and those who are proud of the state’s financial commitment, it should be this: Money is an essential ingredient in education. But it is not the only ingredient, not by a long shot.
We all know this. It’s just that when the topic of education funding comes up, we tend to act like money matters most.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist and assistant dean of the Meek School of Journalism and New Media. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.