A prime talking point for legislative advocates of charter schools this year is “local control.”
It sounds so very appealing, harkens to the day when there was no officious intermeddling (and it is often officious intermeddling) from Jackson and Washington, D.C. Yes, in the one-room schoolhouse good old days, all teachers knew the families of all students and all families knew all teachers. Indeed, one of the stated objectives in a makeover of Jackson Public Schools is to make each school building a center of community life.
Not a talking point, however, is that most charters to operate local schools are awarded to multinational corporations that spend heavily — campaign contributions and otherwise — to lure state contracts they find extremely lucrative.
But never mind about that. Today the aim is to talk about how selective legislators are in their respect for the ability of local folks to make the best decisions about their communities.
There are many examples, but two illustrate the situation: Minimum wage and historic monuments. Lawmakers have acted affirmatively in saying these are clearly areas where local folks do not know best. Who does? Why they do, of course.
Whether a government-set minimum rate of hourly pay helps or hurts individuals and the overall economy has been debated for decades. The conversation will likely continue for decades more. What’s being noted here is that Mississippi legislators hate the idea so much that not only will they refuse to entertain the discussion, they have acted to keep any city or county governments talking about it, either.
House Bill 1241, with Judiciary A Chairman Rep. Mark Baker, R-Brandon, as principal author, passed the House as an express declaration that no local government has any authority over wages or any other matter between an employer and employee.
Contrast that with the fact 18 states began this year with higher state minimum wages, some by operation of automatic escalators and others by new legislation. Only five states — Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama among them — have no minimum wage law.
More germane to this discussion is that 19 counties and cities used their local autonomy to increase minimum pay rates this year.
Interestingly, “local” mattered when wage minimums started in America. The first law was local — adopted in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912. It wasn’t until 1938 that New Deal legislation required a nationwide minimum wage, then 25 cents per hour.
But what do those Northerners know? Right? If Massachusetts wanted to ruin its economy with a minimum wage law, who cares? Mississippi would have none of that 106 years ago, and will have none of it today. Even though most Southern states do regulate wages, Mississippi will brook no such nonsense, and, if HB 1241 passes, will make sure elected officials in Jackson or Olive Branch or Gulfport can’t adopt wage laws, either.
The second example was kindled a few years ago when smoldering resentment of certain monuments and street and building names flickered into flames.
Justly or unjustly, city officials in New Orleans and Memphis joined campus officials from Texas and elsewhere in deciding to remove or contextualize statues, mostly of Confederate leaders.
It won’t happen in Jackson or Meridian or Greenville. Why? Because the Legislature acted quickly to make it illegal for any locality to remove or diminish the presence of any artifact of any type erected to reflect state history.
See? Locals were trustworthy enough to make some decisions — including allowing statues in the first place — but they are not smart enough to decide whether they should remain.
Not to dive too deeply into legalisms here, but it should be remembered that counties and cities have very different origins. Mississippi counties were formed by the state to carry out state business in 82 defined regions. Cities, very differently, were formed by locals who petitioned the state for charters as municipal corporations. The basis for a city to exist is sharing services such as utilities, police and fire protection and defining zones for residential, commercial and other uses. No small part of the proposition was to gain local authority to create, fund (at least in part) and administer public schools.
A fraction of local authority over schools, if that much, remains. That’s what makes it so appealing when legislative leaders parrot lobbyists about how charter schools will give families both a choice and a greater say.
It just has to be remembered, though, that Mississippi lawmakers have demonstrated time and again a very selective actual appreciation for local control — and often none at all.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist.