BOBBY HARRISON: Race remains overarching factor in schools debate

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – In the final days of the 2011 Republican primary for lieutenant governor, the campaign of then-Senate President Pro Tem Billy Hewes, R-Gulfport, accused then-Treasurer Tate Reeves of “race-baiting” by sending out mailers in predominantly white school districts pointing out Hewes supported legislation that would have merged their schools with districts that were majority black.
Reeves did not use any racial references in his mailer. He just pointed out to the residents of Clinton, for example, that Hewes supported merging their school district with the Jackson Public School District.
Similar mailers were sent out in other areas of the state, such as Lowndes and Lauderdale counties.
What Reeves, who won the race for lieutenant governor in 2011, was referring to is the fact that Hewes introduced legislation to have only one school district per county. On paper, that makes a lot of sense. If each of the state’s 82 counties had one district, the number of systems would be reduced by almost half.
But in many counties, there is, generally speaking, one district that is relatively successful and one that is failing or near failing.
In far too many instances, the unsuccessful district is predominantly African-American.
In much of the recent spate of school choice proposals made by Gov. Phil Bryant and others, race is the elephant in the room. Bryant does not propose countywide mergers. He does propose open enrollment – allowing students to cross boundaries to attend the district of their choice.
But even Bryant says the accepting district must have safeguards to ensure it is not getting more new students than it can accommodate.
Way back when former Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, served as House Education Committee chair in the 1990s, an open transfer policy was proposed. McCoy said perhaps a bus could transfer inner city kids from the Jackson Public School District that has struggled in terms of academic achievement to the affluent and generally successful Madison County District. Let’s just say the people proposing the open transfer policy were less enthusiastic.
The truth of the matter is that many districts already have fairly liberal transfer policies and say they do not have an issue with an open transfer policy as long as they have final say on the number of students from outside the district being transferred in.
There is the rub. Whether talking about consolidation or individual transfers, administrators and residents in successful districts are reluctant to consolidate with or absorb a large number of students from poor performing systems. The logical reason is the potential to negatively impact the district’s high state ranking.
Perhaps that concern about having a district’s accreditation ranking negatively impacted has little to do with race and more to do with protecting the status quo, which, in general, is working for the folks in the high performing districts.
In a much larger sense, though, so much of what has happened and what is yet to happen with Mississippi’s public schools is a function of race. In the 1960s when Mississippi was finally forced to integrate its schools, in many areas of the state, white students – virtually all of them – left the public school system, leaving only largely disadvantaged black students.
Under those circumstances, the public schools have suffered for years, creating a vicious cycle that only appears to get worse.
There is a certain amount of irony in the fact that another one of the governor’s education proposals is to provide scholarships – another word for vouchers – for students in poor performing districts to attend a private school.
Most of the poor performing schools in Mississippi are largely black and poor, and in most instances, are located in areas where when integration was forced, most white students left to attend private schools.
Would those private schools be willing to accept the students, via a voucher, they were formed to evade?
As I said, race was and often still is the unspoken but overarching issue when talking about education in Mississippi.
That is one of the reasons that changing the education system in Mississippi is such a difficult and touchy endeavor.
Bobby Harrison is Capitol Bureau reporter in Jackson for the Daily Journal. Contact him at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@journalinc.com.