Too often we forget that it was not that long ago that in many parts of Mississippi the public school system was torn asunder when the federal government told Mississippi leaders that they could no longer operate separate and in reality not-that-equal school systems.
It is against that potentially explosive backdrop that much of the debate on public policy concerning Mississippi’s school system is considered in the eyes of many African-Americans.
At the end of a long and emotional debate last week on greatly expanding the state’s charter school laws, Rep. Brad Mayo, R-Oxford, stood at the well of the House to speak.
By the time Mayo stood to speak, it was obvious that the minds of every member of the House had been decided on how she or he was going to vote on the contentious issue. But it was obvious that Mayo, a freshman member of the House, had carefully crafted a speech that he wanted to deliver. He has that right. And there is noting wrong with members wanting to put their opinion on record.
Mayo stood to tell members he was a product of the public schools in Oxford and supported them. He said he also supported charter schools that receive public funds but do not have to follow all of the guidelines and governance of traditional public schools in exchange for the promise of meeting specified outcomes. He then told the story of his father to explain why he supported charter schools.
He told of seeing a photo of his father’s 1960 graduating class at Drew High School in the Mississippi Delta. He described his father as a tall, lanky youngster in the photo.
He said today it was nearly impossible for a young boy like his father to get a good education in Drew.
There is no reason for anyone to doubt what Mayo was trying to say – that he supported charter schools as an education tool because he genuinely wanted all young people growing up in places like Drew to have as many options as possible to get a good education
What many African-Americans thought of when Mayo told that story was that in the 1960s there were two school systems in Drew – one for whites and one for blacks. It is a pretty safe bet that the photo that Mayo was referring to was of an all-white class. Chances are the blacks in Drew received a lesser education than did Mayo’s father and the rest of his graduating class.
And when many blacks hear such tales they think of a time when Mississippi operated a dual public education system and ask isn’t that what is being created with charter schools.
“I don’t believe for one second that you care about improving the plight of our children,” said Rep. Adrienne Wooten, D-Jackson, in debate that at times was racially charged and did not conclude until 1 a.m. Thursday morning.
Sure, real safeguards are being taken to ensure that charter schools will not create an all-black school and an all-white school, but still they are creating schools that get special treatment. Some ask why can’t the same fervor be applied to improving all Mississippi schools for all children?
Nowadays in places like Drew, nearly all whites go to private schools, leaving the public schools to blacks.
What will happen with charter schools? How will it impact that dynamic that has led to all-white private schools and nearly all black public schools in some areas?
The case could be made that if charter schools improve that dynamic then that is a good thing.
But all of those issues must be addressed within the context of Mississippi’s history – especially as it relates to race.
The Mississippi Legislature often struggles with doing that.
Bobby Harrison is chief of the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau. Contact him at email@example.com or call(601) 353-3119.