By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – Eighth grade Tupelo Middle School student J.T Grist told a crowd of hundreds Thursday in the Mississippi Capitol he does not think it is fair that students across the state do not have the same opportunities as those afforded to students in his hometown.
Grist said the Tupelo community spends local money to make up for the lack of state funding, but said many poor areas do not have the local funds to contribute to their schools.
“Doesn’t every child in the state deserve the best education they can get?” he asked. “It should not matter where you live.”
Jack Reed Jr., a businessman and former mayor of Tupelo, told the same crowd that support for public education should not be a partisan issue because of its importance to the progress of the state.
Referencing the fact that Sens. Chad McMahan, R-Guntown, and Hob Bryan, D-Amory, who both represent Lee County, were at the pro-education rally, Reed said, “It shouldn’t even be bipartisan. It should be non-partisan. It is an economic issue.”
Reed told the crowd of about 500 that legislators who cared about creating good jobs and about reducing the crime rate should be for support of public education as the best way – the only way – to achieve those goals.
But Leslie Fye, a mother of two children in the Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District, said matter of factly she could not trust some Republican politicians in the state.
She said they have supported sending funds that should be going to public education to other entities – whether to vouchers or for tax breaks to corporations – and have been critical of the public schools at times in the past.
Fye cited an instance when Gov Phil Bryant referred to the schools as “abysmal.”
“He said that about the teachers I have grown to know and respect,” she said. “That saddens me.”
Northeast Mississippians played a key role in the statewide education rally held Thursday in the state Capitol. Besides those who spoke to the crowd, there were about 25 others who drove down to voice their support.
Throughout the crowd were signs demanding “A seat at the table.” Many of the speakers voiced concern that legislators, led by Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, were trying to rush through and not be transparent in their planned rewrite of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. The MAEP is the mechanism that provides state funding to local school districts for basic operation.
MAEP has been underfunded $1.8 billion since 2008 and is $182 million short of full funding for the current year.
“How do you know MAEP will not work” when it has been fully funded only twice since it was enacted in 1997? asked retired Hollandale Superintendent Howard Sanders, who was the first speaker Thursday.
He said the “the one goal” of the proposed rewrite is “to privatize eduction across the state.”
Janice Magers of Tupelo, a retired Mantachie teacher, traveled to Jackson to support the speakers. She also expressed concern about tax dollars that should be going to the public schools being diverted to charter schools and vouchers.
She questioned the wisdom of opening charter schools “when we can’t fund our public schools. … We should fund our public schools and give them a chance to pull their grades up to the level of other schools in the nation.”
The rally, which has been scheduled for weeks, occurred Thursday after legislators already had adjourned for the weekend.
Some referenced that perhaps many legislators did not want to face the large pro-education crowd.
Reed said to give them the benefit of the doubt – that perhaps they wanted to give the rally-goers their parking spots.
At any rate, the fact many of the legislators had left town did not dampen the enthusiasm of the crowd.
The 14-year-old Grist drew loud applause when he said he did not understand why “big corporations were getting big tax breaks and public education is getting less and less.”
The rally-goers filled the second floor rotunda area, and many more watched from along the rails on the third and fourth floors.