Other Opinions

School choice simply a cop out

With all the noise about school funding, school choice, vouchers, and teacher shortages, perhaps a look at some fundamentals would be helpful.

Remember 2015? The Initiative 42 referendum to put full funding for the Mississippi Adequate Education Program in the state constitution? That initiative and the Legislature's alternative both failed. So Section 201 of the Mississippi Constitution remains unchanged.

It reads, "The Legislature shall, by general law, provide for the establishment, maintenance and support of free public schools upon such conditions and limitations as the Legislature may prescribe."

That means it is our legislators’ duty to provide us free public schools, and puts the onus on them to make our free schools good schools.

The constitution gives them the power. They can draw and realign school districts, establish standards for administrators and teachers, set the school calendar, establish school policy and regulations, provide teacher pay, hold administrators accountable, and provide different types of schools, programs, and pay packages for challenged districts.

Instead, legislators have pushed much of the funding and responsibility to the local level. This lets legislators cut taxes, limit school funding, and pass blame for bad schools to local folks.

According to the constitution, however, this is not local folks’ job. Section 206 of the constitution says this about local effort, "Any county or separate school district may levy an additional tax, as prescribed by general law, to maintain its schools."

“May.” The constitution says local effort is to be discretionary.

It is not. Both the MAEP, and the apparently dead Mississippi Uniform Per Student Funding Formula considered by the Legislature this year, require local school districts to contribute up to 27 percent of the "base student cost." Legislators also expect school districts to provide most, often all, of the costs for school buildings and related facilities.

Meanwhile, the availability of teachers is fast declining. The Mississippi Department of Education reported a 92 percent decrease, from 7,620 in 2007 to 603 in 2017, in the number of applicants for teacher licenses.

Given our low pay, deteriorating teaching environments, constant curricula changes, and never-ending school funding fights, no wonder fewer and fewer want to teach in Mississippi.

It's pretty clear the Legislature has flubbed its responsibility to provide free and good public schools. We have too many low-performing schools and too many unable to attract and retain good teachers.

It’s no wonder parents in those school districts are frustrated. They feel locked into bad schools with no recourse for their children.

Rather than address the bad school problem, legislative leaders this year concocted a “school choice” plan to expand access to Education Scholarship Accounts. Already available for students with special needs, the expanded version would have given vouchers to selected parents to send their children to private schools.

What a cop out to legislators’ constitutional responsibility to provide good schools for all children!

Parents living in school districts with low-performing schools or those struggling to attract and retain good teachers, look to the Legislature to fix your schools and pay teachers attractive salaries. Diverting dear school funds to vouchers for private schools is not the solution our constitution authorizes or envisions.

Bill Crawford is a syndicated columnist from Meridian.