OUR OPINION: Legislators' constituency is with public education

By NEMS Daily Journal

The opening shots in the battle for changes in Mississippi public education were fired last week in the House Education Committee, and the offensive was seized by a proponent of comprehensive improvement rather than the path of selective retreat and disengagement advocated in some of the proposals by Gov. Phil Bryant and his allies.
Bryant’s plan for education reform includes a scheme to use tax credits to finance private school education for students “trapped” in “D” or “F” public schools, plus a plan allowing students to transfer to their parents’ school of choice within the public school system, plus charter schools.
Taken together, those elements retreat from confronting and overcoming problems in low-performing or marginal schools, which has been proven possible when a district’s resources are fully energized, especially the support of parents and the larger school constituency.
Rep. Forrest Hamilton, R-Olive Branch, a town with schools in the state’s largest public school system, DeSoto County, asked why the state should get involved with private schools.
“Instead of addressing the real root of the problem, we are skirting the issue … We are skirting the issue of D and F failing schools, saying, ‘Let’s just send them to another school instead of fixing the failing ones,’” Hamilton said during the committee meeting.
His point is valid. DeSoto County, a bright red Republican County, wants its public schools to remain strong because the general public school constituency is highly engaged in keeping them competitive. The transfer-and-retreat approach focuses on scattered individual children rather than the obligation of quality education for all children.
As for state funds and private schools, the state should fix what’s wrong with its public education system before paying students to go to private schools, Hamilton said, and he’s right.
Hamilton, a silver-haired, 71-year-old retired pharmacist and the second-longest-serving member of the DeSoto County legislative delegation, noted, “Our economic development, everything, depends on our school system. We would not be DeSoto County, we would not have the growth that we’ve had if it were not for our good school system. We all know that, we’re business people. So we have got to stand up for our public schools.
“As public schools go, so goes our community.”
Northeast Mississippi, which has some notably strong public school districts, also has a share of the low performers.
Our region needs for its legislators to engage the issues and help solve the problems as have many school districts – with community support, exemplary school leadership, and parental engagement.
There’s too much silence these days about the centrality of public schools to communities, and the need to both support them as the foundation of community improvement and hold them to higher expectations.
Parents are free to send their children to private schools, and those schools or other private interests can provide scholarships to the families who can’t afford them. But it is not a public obligation to foot the bill for individual private preference.