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State News: Mississippians May Disagree, But Not on Funding Public Schools

By Shirley L. Smith
Mississippi Center For Investigative Reporting

As Mississippians head to the polls Aug. 6 for primaries, they remain split on who has the best football team, who has the best barbecue and even if the state is headed in the right direction — but nearly 70 percent of them believe public schools deserve more funding.

Sarah Siebert reads the 2018 CELI Read Aloud Book, ‘Grandma’s Tiny House,’ to children at school. 

“We often hear Mississippians are divided on a lot of things, but there was agreement among Mississippians (in a recent survey) that the funding for public education is too low and teachers’ pay is also too low and needs to be raised,” said Nathan Shrader, who chairs the Department of Government and Politics at Millsaps College.

In the latest quarterly Millsaps College/Chism Strategies State of the State Survey, the majority of voters also said they would use additional state funds to give teachers a pay raise or hire more teachers to reduce class size.

State Rep. Jay Hughes of Oxford, who is running for lieutenant governor as a Democrat, said he is not surprised.

“I have been in too many schools that have 5-gallon buckets catching water dripping through the ceiling. That have holes in the walls. That have exposed concrete flooring from plumbing repairs. That have broken air conditioning, but the teachers are still trying to teach with a smile on their face, and the students are hungry to learn,” Hughes said.

The survey of 614 people, which crossed racial, gender and party lines, found voters are more unified today than they were two years ago in their support for increasing funding for public education.

“This is the first survey out of the eight that we have done where roads and bridges were not the number one priority (for voters), but they are still a close second,” said Shrader, who has a doctorate in political science.

Shrader attributes the growing sentiment among voters to increase funding for public education to more media coverage about the problems facing public education and teacher shortages. Hughes agrees.

The survey is meant to gauge what Mississippians care about to help politicians make informed decisions. Shrader said the survey sample is reflective of the electorate, as it includes voters from different genders, races, ages, educational backgrounds and party affiliations. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.95%.

Public education in Mississippi has historically been underfunded, leaving school districts with a shrinking tax base and less revenues to fend for themselves, said Dick Hall, the state’s Central District transportation commissioner who served 24 years in the Mississippi Legislature.

“The first time I ran for office was in 1975, and the three most important topics that ranked the highest back then were education, roads and bridges, and healthcare. And, this year the same topics are education, roads and bridges, and health care. Over 40 years have passed, and we ain’t solved any of them,” Hall said.

Officials say the Legislature’s failure to adequately fund public schools has created disparities in the public educational system, because local governments in economically distressed areas lack the tax base to raise the revenues needed to make up for the lack of state funding.

“In one major school district (Jackson), I asked a teacher, if she could have anything for her classroom or school that she wanted if money was not an issue, what would it be, and she said she would like to have toilet paper in the bathroom for the students. And, I asked her what the second most important thing was, and she said soap in the bathrooms to wash their hands,” Hughes said.

School districts in economically distressed areas also have fewer certified teachers, larger classes and less technology, Hughes said. “In the end, it’s the students that lose.”

To rectify these disparities, the Legislature in 1997 passed the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, a funding formula designed to boost student achievement and ensure that every child in Mississippi — whether living in a “wealthy” community or a “poor” one – receives an adequate education. However, the program has only been fully funded twice.

“The Adequate Education Fund would have been effective if we properly funded it,” said Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, who is running for lieutenant governor as a Republican.

Hosemann and Hughes agree the Legislature needs to fully fund MAEP.

Hosemann said he also wants to fund pre-K, noting 9,000 children in the state lack pre-K, and give teachers a raise, so they do not have to base their decisions on where to teach on economics.

The Legislature this past session approved a $1,500-a-year pay raise for teachers — the first pay increase in five years — but 70 percent of voters surveyed said it is insufficient.

Hosemann said he also wants to increase opportunities for students to learn technical skills to help them succeed in the workforce. “We would like all of our students to go to college, but realistically 70 percent of our young men and women are not going to get a college degree,” said Hosemann, whose last annual Y’all Business Survey in June reached 6,500 companies.

Although increasing funding for education is important, Hughes said, “we need policies that help teachers teach and students learn without an obsession for standardized testing.”

Many teachers are leaving, “because of lack of respect, constant attack by politicians, lower salaries and better opportunities elsewhere, and too much paperwork and obsession with standardized tests,” Hughes said.

“When the governor declared in 2015 that our public education system was an abysmal failure, that is not the type of positive reinforcement you need to stay in a teaching profession,” Hughes said.

Hughes described the public education system as one that is “desperately trying to succeed in spite of political leaders not because of them.”

Hughes said he has been a lifelong proponent of public education and a volunteer substitute teacher. “I didn’t wait for this election year to discover public education. When I served as an alderman, I donated my salary to my local school district, and since I have been in the Legislature, I have donated my public salary to the local school district,” Hughes said.

Money for education comes from the general fund. Money for roads and bridges comes from the fuel tax, which Hall said has not been increased in 32 years.

Over half of voters say they prefer using proceeds from the state lottery, which was created this year, for education over increasing taxes. However, Hall said, “the lottery is not a solution for funding education or for funding roads and bridges, and they (legislators) should have known that when they passed it and probably did.”

Hall explained that for the first 10 years of the lottery, $80 million a year will go towards fixing roads and bridges with any excess going to education. After that, the $80 million will go into the general fund and legislators will spend it as they see fit.

“The estimate right now is that it will be a long time before the lottery even gets to $80 million, and that is not enough money to fund roads and bridges, and it’s going to be little money for education. We need at least $400 million to $500 million a year just to repair roads and bridges,” Hall said.

The lottery is slated to begin operation on Dec. 1, said Meg Annison, director of communications for the Mississippi Lottery Corporation.

The most recent statistics from the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries show that 15 states use all or substantially all of the lottery proceeds for education, including Mississippi’s neighboring states of Tennessee, Louisiana and Arkansas.

Hughes said some legislators have failed to adequately fund education because “they are supported by lobbyists and big donors who want to privatize public education or divert money to private, for-profit school centers and charter schools. And, most of them did not attend public schools and their children don’t attend public schools.”

Mississippi’s public education system has consistently ranked near the bottom among states in both funding per student and quality rank. In the 2019 Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual KIDS COUNT, Mississippi ranked 44th among states in education.

The data shows some improvements in reading and math scores, but the number of students in Mississippi who are not proficient in reading and math is well above the national average.

In 2017, 73 percent of fourth-graders in Mississippi were not proficient in reading compared to 86 percent in 1990. Nationally, in 2017, 65 percent of students were not proficient in reading. In 2017, the data also shows that 78 percent of eighth-graders in Mississippi were not proficient in math compared to the national average of 67 percent.

Shirley L. Smith is an investigative reporter for the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization that seeks to hold public officials accountable and empower citizens in their communities.
Email her at Shirley.Smith.MCIR@gmail.com.

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