Carey Wright will become one of Mississippi’s highest-paid state officials when she takes over the post of state superintendent of education next month.
Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds and some university officials, including some university coaches, earn more than her $300,000 per year salary.
And no doubt, they have difficult jobs. Winning in the powerhouse Southeastern Conference is tough.
But winning college football games cannot be any more difficult nor important than improving the education standards in Mississippi. For decades now, there has been tremendous pressure on the state’s top K-12 educator to develop policies that lead to improvements in the performance level in Mississippi schools – and there have been improvements, though, most would agree not enough.
Much of that pressure has come from the Mississippi Legislature.
While the most important and most difficult part of Wright’s job will be developing those policies to improve student outcomes, another crucial and challenging part of the duties of the new superintendent will be dealing with the Legislature.
It is no secret that many Republican legislators, in particular, have been critical of the Department of Education and by the extension the state Board of Education and the superintendent that speaks for that panel.
Republicans are now in charge of both chambers of the Mississippi Legislature for the first time since the 1800s.
The relationship between the state board and that new Republican leadership in the Legislature has at times been rocky.
Last year, for instance, during a budget presentation, a key member of the Republican leadership essentially said it might be time to scrap the Adequate Education Program.
At the hearing, interim Superintendent Lynn House did not put up much of an argument even though the Adequate Education Program is viewed as the most important education legislation in the history of the state by many. The program provides the bulk of the state funding to local school districts and, importantly, provides those funds, based on the wealth of the district. Property-poor districts receive a greater share of state funds.
This year at the same meeting, it should be pointed out the House argued that it was crucial to fund the Adequate Ed Program.
When the Legislature debated charter schools during the past two years, one of the key issues of contention was who would be in charge of the charter schools. The state Board of Education said it agreed with the concept of charter schools – public schools that are exempt from some of the guidelines and governance of traditional public schools – but that it should oversee the new schools.
The Republican Legislature rejected the Board of Education’s argument and, instead the “less government” party created a new agency to oversee charter schools.
In other words, Wright will be entering an environment where her agency and her boss, the Board of Education, have been tied to the proverbial whipping post to an extent in recent years.
Wright, a personable and articulate educator, said she looks forward to working with legislators. She said she is confident she can build positive relationships based on honesty and the mutual goal of improving education achievement.
In many ways, she might be the ideal new superintendent. She is not part of the state’s current education hierarchy and she worked in a Washington, D.C., system for a superintendent that was a hero to many Republicans.
Many Republicans have argued that more money will not solve the problems with education in the state. During a recent meeting with the Mississippi media, Wright agreed that money is not the sole answer.
But she did advocate for full funding of the Adequate Education Program, for a significant teacher pay raise and for a large investment in pre-kindergarten programs. She essentially said that if she was queen of Mississippi there would be universal pre-K for 3-year-olds.
Those are positions that could make aspects of her job – dealing with the Legislature – even tougher, but then again that is why she makes the big bucks.
Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau chief. Contact him at (601) 353-3119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.