Far from the scorched-earth politics of social media, two conservative activists were making a play for the hearts and minds of people attuned to education in Mississippi.
Phil Harding and John Mosely Jr. were out on a crisp Saturday morning in October, walking a north Long Beach neighborhood. Their mission: Gauge interest in school choice and gather information for the Americans for Prosperity database. For about a month, teams in South Mississippi knocked on about 5,000 doors.
“It’s strictly a voter education effort,” said Harding, the relatively new grassroots director for AFP on the Coast. “Just educating folks on school choice. What school choice and educational freedom can do for families. What the programs we have in Mississippi are. Charter schools. Educational Scholarship Accounts for special needs and dyslexia.
“We’ve had a good response. A lot of people want to learn about education.”
The Sun Herald tagged along that Saturday afternoon for about an hour. The AFP team found two people at home during that time and they both seemed up to be up to speed on the school choice issue and were receptive to the concepts of charter schools and scholarship accounts.
Of course, opponents point out, who wouldn’t be in favor of “education freedom” when it “makes high quality education available to all students.” That’s language straight from an AFP brochure mailed about the same time the door-to-door tours began.
“These are slick, national organizations,” said Nancy Loome, executive director of The Parents’ Campaign. “They run focus groups to see what kind of terminology is appealing to people. That’s why they’re using education freedom.
“They try to pull the wool over people’s eyes. If you look at research, it is absolutely not about providing a better education. Over and over, it shows public schools outperform these private voucher schools.”
Evidence of struggles
The Parents’ Campaign website points to an Education Week commentary that suggests recent research found the benefit claimed for vouchers were more than overblown.
“In April, the Institute of Education Sciences released a rigorous study showing that the congressionally mandated Opportunity Scholarship Program in the nation's capital caused significant negative effects on student learning,” wrote Christopher Lubienski & Sarah Theule Lubienski at EdWeek.org. “Students who used vouchers through the program to attend private schools in Washington experienced a 7-percentile-point decline in mathematics and an almost 5-percentile-point decline in reading compared with students who applied to, but were randomly rejected from, the program.”
AFP Mississippi State Director Russ Latino said that surveys have found “out of this world satisfaction” with the scholarship programs that are limited to special needs students and students with dyslexia.
“Anecdotally, the parents I’ve talked to sing its praises as being life-changing,” he said.
The 2018 legislative session is just over a month away, and that’s why AFP has switched from grassroots education to lobbying.
“That effort was through our foundation,” said Latino. “From the AFP side, we’ll definitely be more involved in school choice policy moving forward. I would anticipate there would be some activity this legislative session.
“Change is scary, right? That’s why humans are pretty resistant to (change). A lot has changed in our society since we started the traditional brick-and-mortar public schools. Kids are learning in different ways. School choice isn’t just options for students, it’s also options for educators.
“I think you could very well hear a discussion about an expanded education scholarship.”
Pints & Policy
Like-minded Empower Mississippi is turning its attention to Jackson, where it’s drumming up support for AFP Mississippi’s Pints & Policy: Education Scholarship Accounts For A Brighter Future on Tuesday at the Bulldog in Jackson and a School Choice Rally on Jan. 23 at the Capitol.
And if The Parents’ Campaign and the Mississippi Association of Educators have their way, the discussion about school funding will continue as well. For years, they have argued that one reason Mississippi school are subpar is the state gives them subpar funding. The Legislature year after year has not fully funded education, at least under the parameters of its Mississippi Adequate Education Program. Lawmakers argue that MAEP funding doesn’t fully reflect the amount of money the state puts into education.
This year, the MAE is teaming up with the national organization to encourage parents to send a message to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos: “No Way to the Private School Giveaway.”
“It couldn’t be clearer: Betsy DeVos’ goal as Secretary of Education is to slash funding for public schools, using voucher schemes to funnel taxpayer dollars to unaccountable private schools,” the National Education Association posted on its website. “Vouchers only weaken our public schools, when we know that a well-resourced public school in every neighborhood is our best bet for setting every student up for success.”
Critics worry that putting more money into vouchers will take away more money from public schools.
“It’s not about the quality,” Loome said. “It’s about taxpayer funded private schools. Which is very dangerous. We’ve tried that.
“They underfund the public schools. They award the money to the children and it doesn’t get used because the private schools won’t accept the students.”
But the law that established a charter school system in Mississippi offers one important takeaway: Lawmakers listened to critics and ended up with a charter-guiding law that is better than charter laws in some other states.
“They’ve been pretty particular about who they grant charters to,” Loome said. “And I think that’s good. If we’re going to have more schools in Mississippi, we don’t need more failing schools. They struggle. The charter schools have struggled.
“(Mississippi has) higher standards than what was written into the bill to start with, which was basically nothing.”