Other Opinions

We should help children from low-income and minority families get the education they deserve

Russ Latino
Russ Latino

In emotional testimony at a recent hearing at the State Capitol, a Mississippi mother explained that when the school her son attended failed to meet his learning needs — he has dyslexia — she went back to school and became a dyslexia therapist to help him learn.

“You will sell your kidney,” Leah Ferretti told lawmakers. “You will sell your soul to make sure your child is going to be OK.”

She’s right. As families, we will do anything to secure a brighter future for our kids. That’s true of most every family, regardless of background.

Unfortunately, countless children, many of them in low-income and minority families, are trapped in schools that do not meet their needs and their families are powerless to change it. Many families cannot simply pick up and move to the neighborhood with the top-rated school. They cannot afford a private school with smaller class sizes or an alternative approach to learning that best fits their child’s learning style.

Forcing children to remain in a school system that’s failing them “should be criminal,” says Johnny Taylor, the former president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall Fund, which represents public Historically Black Colleges and Universities. “And I know that’s a strong word — but it should be criminal because you are stealing children’s lives.”

Low-income students in Mississippi routinely score lower than their peers according to the “nation’s report card,” the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In fourth and eighth grade math and reading, students who were eligible for free or reduced lunch, scored more than 20 points below students who were not. The gaps were similar for minority students.

And their families worry. What will their future be? In today’s economy, post-secondary education is increasingly necessary to secure a spot in the middle class. According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and Workforce, in 1973 only 28 percent of jobs were held by workers with a post-secondary education. By 2010, that number had jumped to 59 percent, and it is expected to hit 65 percent by 2020. Without a solid educational foundation, thousands of Mississippi students will miss out on these opportunities.

But we don’t have to resign ourselves to the status quo. We can give families greater educational choice and enable them to find the right learning environment so their children can thrive.

The Equal Opportunity for Mississippi Students Act, versions of which have been filed in both the Senate and the House this legislative session, would expand our state’s successful education scholarship account (ESA) program so that all Mississippi students are eligible.

The program currently serves students with special needs by giving families a portion of the education funding the state already spends on their children to pay for certain educational expenses like tutoring, textbooks, therapies, and tuition at independent schools. It’s a great tool that allows parents to tailor their child’s learning experience and improve educational outcomes. An impressive 98 percent of participating families say they are satisfied with the program or school they chose for their child using their ESA.

Every child is unique and they all learn differently. Expanding this successful program so that all Mississippi families can take advantage of it and find the best educational fit for their children makes sense.

Whether it’s a charter or traditional public school, a private school, or home schooling, when it’s the right educational environment for them, students will acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed and find fulfillment in their lives. And that’s what all families, from downtown Jackson to Itta Bena, and beyond, want for our children.

Russ Latino is the Mississippi State Director of Americans for Prosperity.