OPINION: Many elements are required for Mississippi school excellence

When I spoke recently to Dr. Tommye Henderson’s School Finance class at Mississippi College, a student asked, “Which is most critical for student success: adequate funding, excellent leadership, or highly qualified teachers?” The answer I gave? All three are essential. Any of the three in isolation is insufficient.
The good news is that the 2009 Legislature passed bills that address all of these elements. Now it is up to us to ensure that the legislation has its intended effect: excellent schools in every community.
Despite tough economic times, and with significant help from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Mississippi Legislature did what many states were not able to do and fully funded our basic education funding mechanism, the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP). Stimulus funding will make maintenance of that commitment easier in the next legislative session, as well.
Unfortunately, previous funding cuts were not restored. Local districts were assured that the funds cut from school district budgets in January would be replaced when the stimulus funding came through, and school leaders made decisions based upon that pledge. When the cuts were not restored, many districts were left strapped for cash.
This uncertain economic environment requires that legislators and school leaders seek out high-yield investments for Mississippi’s scarce resources and put student outcomes at the center of every education funding decision. Highly qualified teachers and early childhood education should top the list of good investments.
Research shows that the single most important factor in student achievement is the classroom teacher. Every Mississippi child deserves a highly qualified teacher in every class. The 2009 Legislature continued its commitment to experienced teachers, funding the second phase of the salary increment increase and making it easier for districts to keep veteran teachers on board.
High quality pre-k programs in other states have provided returns as high as $7 to $17 for every dollar invested and have shown impressive student outcomes. Understanding that no other state investment can boast that kind of return, the 2009 Legislature passed a bill making it easier for school districts to use existing resources to provide pre-k classes. Our neighboring states have made great strides in the early childhood arena, and we will need to add emphasis here to avoid falling further behind.
Mississippi’s more rigorous curriculum and assessment will also help to advance learning, placing our students on a more level playing field with students in other states. Mississippi children, as bright as the children in any state are up to this challenge. Higher expectations will yield higher achievement, allowing our youth to fulfill their potential and contribute back to the state that gave them a good start.
The Children First Act of 2009, also passed this session, provides school leaders with additional resources and assistance and provides communities a means by which their school leaders will be held accountable for the quality of education provided our children. Forward-thinking leaders are embracing this act as a tool for school improvement.
Parents and communities have a critical role to play, as well. When we send our children to school prepared to learn, fewer resources are required to move them toward advanced levels of achievement. For young children, the secret is, “Talk, talk, talk; read, read, read.” Any adult who has contact with young children should adopt this mantra – in Sunday school classes, child care centers, play groups, and, especially, at home. If the adults they respect value education, children will as well.
When all stakeholders – parents, communities, state officials, and educators- make our children our top priority, schools and student outcomes will improve. An investment in our schools, be it time or funding, is the best investment we can make, hands down.
Mississippi has great momentum and a new set of regulations that could catapult us to the next level; tough economic times require that we all pitch in to ensure excellent schools in every community. Our children’s future provides us the best reason I can think of to do just that!
Nancy Loome is executive director of The Parents’ Campaign, a Jackson-based network of over 53,000 Mississippians committed to improving public education. E-mail her at nloome@msparentscampaign.org.

Nancy Loome