Paul Hampton

Here's how Mississippi schools could get lawmakers' attention

SUN HERALD 
 Gov. Phil Bryant signs a bill that will require appointment of all public school superintedents.
SUN HERALD Gov. Phil Bryant signs a bill that will require appointment of all public school superintedents.

We have become the grumpy old man among the other, more-United States.

Mississippi will occasionally emerge from its hermitage to loudly tell outsiders to get off its lawn. But that's a problem that's taking care of itself. Fewer and fewer folks will be coming to what could be the Great State of Mississippi.

And our leaders know why. It's the flag. It's the religious-freedom law.

And, surprise! It turns out they do have cable TV and newspapers and radios in Jackson and they haven't been isolated from the world's reaction.

They just don't care.

I figured it couldn't get much worse than one-party rule. Silly me. I hadn't seen anything until I'd seen one-party rule with supermajorities in both the House and Senate.

There's a telling photograph on Gov. Phil Bryant's Facebook page that shows where one-party rule has taken Mississippi. He's signing a law that makes all superintendents of education appointed rather than elected. He's surrounded by his homies. Nineteen white men. Not a woman nor a black person in sight. And the group leans toward retirement age as well.

Here's the problem that's not taking care of itself: Later in that week, there was a hearing at the Capitol on the state of Mississippi's schools. It was a chance for our leaders to listen to the people who matter the most in that discussion -- the children.

For Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes of Gulfport, the most instructive of the children was a girl from Yazoo City.

She described her school as rat and roach infested.

"That's a rat, she said she told a teacher," Williams-Barnes said. "And it was like, 'Yeah, we know.'"

These are our children. And we ask them to learn in that atmosphere. And we wring our hands because we're on the bottom.

On the way to Jackson, the children from Yazoo City stopped and toured a school in Clinton, home of House Speaker Phil Gunn. There was, Williams-Barnes said, a world of difference.

"That girl had one question that just tore at my heart," Williams-Barnes said. "'What's so special about them that's not so special about me?'"

There may not be roaches and four-legged rats scurrying about the Capitol but I do believe I hear the sound of crickets.

The Legislature has done some work on schools. It passed SB 2161 to expand charter schools, which will take money from public schools such as those in Yazoo City. It passed another bill to expand vouchers for students with special needs.

But funding for public schools eludes our Legislature. HB 458, the bill that will decide how much schools will get, is headed to a conference committee. House conferees are Reps. John Moore, Charles Busby and Herb Frierson. Senate conferees haven't been named.

Their negotiations will be secretive, Williams-Barnes said.

"I'm concerned about what's going to happen when things are not done in a transparent manner," she said.

Williams-Barnes had her eyes opened by that child, almost in tears, wondering why her school wasn't like the one in Clinton.

"I was not aware," she said. "I come from the Coast where our schools are great."

Unfortunately, not one Republican came to the hearing to hear the heart-rending description of the vast differences in our public schools. It was like that photograph of Gov. Bryant, only in reverse. I have to wonder what was more important.

"I don't think enough people under that dome (in the Capitol) care," Williams-Barnes said.

Perhaps that student from Yazoo City should have told the Republicans she saw a transvestite in her restroom.

Contact Paul Hampton, politics editor at the Sun Herald, at 896-2330 or jphampton@sunherald.com. Follow on Twitter@jpaulhampton.

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