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Mitchell: Arc of Education Funding Rises as Arc of Interest Falls

Every day, Eddie went to his kitchen, got the jelly and peanut butter from the shelf and sat down to fix himself a sandwich.

Eddie kept a flyswatter at the table because as soon as he took the lid off the jelly jar, a steady stream of flies showed up. Eddie would take a bite, swat a fly, take a bite, swat a fly. Eddie cursed the flies, and wished he could eat in peace.

One day a neighbor visited and watched as Eddie cycled through his daily routine. Without saying a word, the neighbor went to a kitchen drawer, removed a roll of duct tape, tore off a square and placed it over a quarter-sized hole in Eddie’s screen door. No more flies.

A problem lasts forever unless the cause of the problem is addressed.

Mississippi schoolchildren are back in class, most working earnestly under the tutelage of skilled educators who really want them to achieve.

Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann is holding hearings around the state in keeping with the processes required leading to November’s statewide vote related to public school funding.
The separation between those who gathered petitions leading to Initiative 42 and the state legislators who added a competing proposal on ballots to confuse voters could not be more clear.
Proponents say, factually, that the Legislature has failed to follow the school funding law it passed in 1997. Noncompliance, the proponents say, has cost schools $1.67 billion through the years and the scarcity of funds is directly responsible for public schools not performing as well as they could if they had more assets. Further, proponents point out the state had funds on hand this year to support schools as the law directs.

Opponents are using fear talk. House Appropriations Committee Chair Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, is “safe” for re-election and is leading the charge. He warned state agencies to prepare for 7.8 percent budget cuts if Initiate 42 is approved. The usual alarms were sounded —no highway patrol, loved ones kicked to the curb outside nursing homes.

Another tactic has been to rail about “sovereignty,” saying it would be folly to surrender to a court (dirty word) the power to fund education when that power properly belongs to the “people,” (meaning the magnificent Legislature). Truth is, if legislators had funded the schools at the level they themselves established as law, the initiative wouldn’t exist.

And there’s this: While K-12 funding has not hit the levels lawmakers prescribed almost 20 years ago, it has increased fairly steadily in real dollars. Earlier this year and very early in the session, “record underfunding” of K-12 was approved.

But here’s where we get back to Eddie.

In all conversations about education, dollars are posited as the singular key to excellence. Said another way, the image created is that if every school principal were given a bottomless checkbook, every child would make straight A’s and be recruited by the Ivy League.

But there are so many other factors. Ask any teacher.

Every day when school doors open, a growing proportion of the kiddies pouring through have no preparation for learning and see no interest in learning. They are coming from homes where parents think of schools as day care centers — places to house and feed their children. If parents have jobs, they usually have more than one to try to make ends meet. And there are also totally disaffected parents who openly say it’s the job of schools, not them, to educate their children.

Disengagement is a factor perhaps of greater importance than dollars. The arc of education funding is rising while the arc of interest in learning slides. This is a societal trend, but it lands squarely in the lap of teachers. They are expected to force-feed knowledge into the brains of children who don’t want it, think they don’t need it. Ambition has been squashed by a culture centered on celebrity and wealth. That failing, a sustenance lifestyle is good enough. Becoming educated is not seen as a key to either.

Sadly, this can’t be fixed by something as simple as placing tape over a hole in a screen door. Creating a climate and a society where incentive to learn is the norm because education is valued is a long-term proposition.

Money is elemental to public education. Part of the hole in the screen in Mississippi schools might be closed by more money, but not all of it.

As the funding debate rages on, that really should be kept in mind.


Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at cmitchell43@yahoo.com.

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