LLOYD GRAY: A balance on education

By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal

First-year House Speaker Philip Gunn deserves kudos for making the effort to travel around the state and hear from people about what the Legislature should be doing. His nine-city “Mississippi Solutions – An Ideas Tour” made a well-attended stop in Tupelo last week.
Gunn, a Republican from Clinton, technically answers only to his House district and the legislative colleagues who elected him speaker. But as the House leader, he’s one of the three most powerful figures in state government, so he – like his predecessors – is a de facto statewide official. The “Ideas Tour” was an appropriate way of acknowledging that reality.
Gunn and his colleagues heard similar themes repeated across the state, and not surprisingly, concerns about education were at the top of the list. Views differed, but agreement is widespread that we’re at a pivotal point for public education.
The greatest danger in coming legislative sessions is that education will turn into even more of a political football, with partisan arguments and political advantage trumping what’s best for children.
Education reform is much discussed these days, but it means something different than it once did. When the Education Reform Act passed 30 years ago, it was all about giving schools in Mississippi the resources they’d never had, along with adding a new layer – public kindergarten – that was the norm in other states. The first seeds of accountability were planted then as well.
That legislation, which passed only after a grassroots movement statewide, was also about fully committing to a public education system abandoned by a sizable number of white Mississippians after integration and whose very existence had been called into question.
These days reform tends to mean shaking up the system, and many legislators apparently believe our schools have all the resources they need but just aren’t using them effectively. Any effort to shore up resources, financial or otherwise, is seen as a defense of the status quo.
Because those who have traditionally been strong supporters of public education question the motives of some proponents of reforms such as charter schools or tougher accountability labeling, there is a tendency to recoil against any and all challenges to the system as it exists.
We need a balance. Schools that aren’t doing well, and there are many, need to be shaken up and forced to do better. But we also need a renewed consensus on giving schools the resources they need, including full funding of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program and at the very least an initial downpayment on a statewide pre-kindergarten program.
It is amazing what high community expectations combined with strong involvement and support will do for public school performance. We need both, at the local and state levels
We also need to face head-on the reality that schools doing well are overwhelmingly in places where the population is more white and more affluent, and that schools in poorer communities with higher proportions of minority students struggle. Then we need to ask: How do we correct this glaring inequity?
Charter schools may be part of the answer. But if they only serve to separate poor from affluent students and further solidify a pattern of racial resegregation, they’ll do much more harm than good.
Legislators and the rest of us need to set aside our reflexive positions and look at education issues with a balanced perspective. If Philip Gunn’s experience in hearing many diverse voices across the state talk about education helps bring balance and equilibrium to the education debate in the Legislature, it will have been more than worth the time and effort.

LLOYD GRAY is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.

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