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Here’s why Mississippi will likely stay at bottom of education rankings

Education underfunding, state’s health care system hurt Mississippi

Jeremy Eisler, attorney with the Mississippi Center For Justice, in 2016 explains how the state legislation's failure to adequately fund education continues to hurt the state's ability to attract more jobs.
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Jeremy Eisler, attorney with the Mississippi Center For Justice, in 2016 explains how the state legislation's failure to adequately fund education continues to hurt the state's ability to attract more jobs.

It’s bleak future for Mississippi schools, a recent report says, unless something changes.

Segregated school systems and chronic underfunding have tied the state to the bottom of educational rankings for decades.

If policies don’t change, the report suggests Mississippi will continue to circle the drain in the one area it needs the most improvement: Giving residents access to fair and quality education.

The Jesuit Social Research Institute of Loyola University New Orleans, a social welfare advocacy group, recently presented a report called the “State of Working Mississippi 2016” at a Biloxi seminar. The institute used data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Department of Education, Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Economic Policy Institute to illustrate how the state still lacks resources and funding in education.

Not everyone in Mississippi has access to quality education, which means they have fewer job opportunities, said Jeanie Donovan, economic policy specialist with the institute. Where they do have access, underfunding continues to prevent school districts from raising standards.

“Mississippi often ranks at the bottom when compared to other states. Low rankings aren’t just numbers,” Donovan said. “They represent a daily struggle. There’s a lack of educational opportunity for a significant number of households.”

Not unexpectedly, the report addressed the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which has been underfunded according to its own formula every year but two since its creation in 1997.

According to the formula, Coast schools will have been underfunded by more than $250 million over the last eight years. Statewide, the number balloons to $1.2 billion in the same time frame.

“I think what we’ve seen is everything starts with education,” said Jeremy Eisler, a senior education staff attorney for the Mississippi Center for Justice. “And yet in a state where we’ve established a mandatory education funding formula, we’re $1.2 billion behind. This year, the Legislature again has refused to fully fund it. Without adequate education and health, no one in this state has what it needs.”

Eisler filed legal documents with the state Supreme Court arguing for the full funding of MAEP. Voters failed to pass Initiative 42 last year, which would have required education to be funded according to the MAEP formula.

Two-school system?

The existence of private schools and public schools, where per-student funding varies drastically, has contributed to a divide in educational attainment, the report suggests.

Schools in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi are among the most segregated in the nation, according to the report.

A school is considered segregated if more than 90 percent of students are the same race and if the racial composition of the school was significantly different (5 percent or more) than that of the overall public school student population in the county. In short, does the school look like the county?

Mississippi’s percentage of segregated public schools is 23.3 percent. For comparison, 9 percent of Texas schools and 7.8 percent of Florida schools are considered segregated. The national average is 15.6 percent.

Mississippi is tied with Kentucky for the fourth-worst disparity between the household income of children who attend private and public schools, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 survey of school system finances.

“There are, in effect, two school systems in Mississippi: underfunded public schools for the poor and private schools for the wealthy,” the report said. “Mississippi children attending private schools typically come from households with considerably more wealth than the households of children attending public schools, their households in 2015 earning on average 185 percent more income than those of children attending public schools.”

In May, a federal court ordered Cleveland, Mississippi, to desegregate its high schools and middle schools. United States District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi Judge Debra M. Brown rejected two alternatives proposed by the district as unconstitutional and ordered it to adopt a Justice Department desegregation plan.

The ruling means the middle and high school programs in the Cleveland School District will be combined for the first time in their century-long history.

Tax tie

School district officials have told the Sun Herald they’ve felt forced to raise property taxes to keep up with expenses because of underfunding.

The Pascagoula-Gautier, Biloxi, Gulfport and Harrison County districts benefit from local business and industry. Property taxes in poorer districts don’t bring as much money as more well-to-do districts, resulting in less funding for education.

Several Coast school districts without additional ad valorem revenue cannot raise property taxes any higher, and are at their millage caps, leaving them to rely on the MAEP formula.

Close to 80 percent of Mississippi’s local revenues for public school systems come from property taxes, whereas the percentage in Alabama and Louisiana is 44.1 percent and 42.3 percent, respectively, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014 survey of school system finances.

Low rankings aren’t just numbers ... they represent a daily struggle.

Jeanie Donovan, economic policy specialist with the Jesuit Social Research Institute

The high emphasis on property values means schools in economically depressed regions are consistently underfunded, thereby “reinforcing the cycle of poverty,” the report concluded. Low-income areas where property values depress local-level school funding are often rural and African-American.

Also, school districts that have fewer resources face challenges attracting and retaining quality teachers, where 50 percent of teachers leave after their first five years.

“Low investment in education has negative impacts on the state’s economy as a whole, and places low-income children at a disadvantage compared to higher income families whose families can afford private education,” said Father Fred Kammer, executive director of the Jesuit Social Research Institute.

Solutions

MDE says some gains have been made in public education over the last few years.

On Sept. 26, Nathan Oakley, MDE’s director of curriculum and instruction, presented gains the state has made in test scores and graduation and dropout rates. He said the department is working on improving seven separate metrics to improve education standings.

Oakley said fourth-grade reading and math scores improved on the latest Nation’s Report Card, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Mississippi was the only state to show “significant improvement” since 2013 in both reading and math scores among fourth-graders, he said.

Mississippi students earned a higher composite ACT score in 2016, Oakley said, up from 2015.

Also, the state graduation rate reached an all-time high of 80.8 percent, up from 78.4 percent. Oakley said it’s possible the state will surpass the national average of 82 percent by 2017.

In a news release, MDE said Mississippi students showed significant increases from last year on Advanced Placement exams. The department also said the number of AP scholar awards from its AP Initiative program increased by nearly 50 percent in the last two years.

I think what we’ve seen is everything starts with education. And yet in a state where we’ve established a mandatory education funding formula, we’re $1.2 billion behind.

Jeremy Eisler, senior education staff attorney for the Mississippi Center for Justice

Still, there remains a wide margin of improvement in several categories for Mississippi if the state wishes to inch its way up from low national rankings.

The department’s hands are tied when it comes to funding. The institute suggests — above all — that legislators invest more in public education.

“Full funding of MAEP would allow all Mississippians to receive the education they deserve and help create the educated workforce the state largely lacks,” the institute report said.

The report also recommends additional funding to recent pre-K funding initiatives.

“Given the well-documented effects of quality early childhood education on outcomes for vulnerable children, expansion of pre-K programs would particularly benefit African-American children, who are disproportionately likely to live in poverty,” the report said.

Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, and Rep. Toby Barker, R-Hattiesburg, sponsored Senate Bill 2395, also known as the Early Learning Collaborative Act of 2013. It’s the first time the state has allocated funding for pre-K education, appropriating $3 million. This year, the Legislature approved an additional $4 million.

Justin Vicory: 228-896-2326, @justinvicory

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