OUR OPINION: Focus on improving not abandoning schools

By NEMS Daily Journal

The Mississippi Legislature’s focus on education in the 2013 session is appropriate, and some sound legislation with the potential to improve the state’s public schools is winding through the process.
But not everything that’s being promoted is helpful. The move to funnel public dollars to private K-12 schools is particularly inappropriate and objectionable.
Gov. Phil Bryant’s Education Works, which includes a targeted focus on teacher recruitment, reading improvements and pre-K programs, unfortunately also seeks to provide tax credits for scholarships that would allow students in underperforming school districts to attend private schools. Children in families with incomes up to $57,000 would be eligible.
Mississippi’s constitution prohibits spending public funds on non-free schools. Supporters of tax credits contend they don’t violate the constitution since they’re indirect allocation of public funds.
Regardless of constitutional questions – and they appear to be at least worth asking – it’s simply not good policy to funnel public tax money, directly or indirectly, to private schools. This is particularly true in Mississippi, where most private schools began as havens for white students to avoid integration and have been anything but concerned about the plight of minority students in underperforming public schools.
In many communities, in fact, it was the abandonment of public schools by whites that led to a diminishment of resources and support, and a decline in performance, by the public schools in the first place.
Far better to focus the resources on improving public schools in those districts and demanding more from them than diverting the money to institutions often created for the purpose of exclusion. Private schools that do care about low-income students in poor-performing schools are free to offer scholarships without involving public funds, and some do.
Another bad idea is making its way through the process that would provide vouchers to special education students to attend private schools. This would apparently apply to all special ed students, not just those with severe academic deficiencies. That could mean up to 65,000 students, according to the state Department of Education.
Again, the principle of funneling tax dollars away from an already existing system of tax-funded education to private schools is counterproductive.
Let’s keep the focus and energy on legislation that creates higher expectations, better performance and stronger support for existing public schools than on proposals that offer more creative ways to abandon them.