Dr. Mike Ward, now a Mississippian, education consultant and University of Southern Mississippi faculty member, addressed the Community Development Foundation's monthly First Friday program. He underscored the urgency needed locally and throughout the state in closing academic achievement gaps between racial and economic groups.
Those disparities - which have recently received wide attention in Tupelo, but which are common virtually everywhere - are a ticking time bomb for Mississippi's economic competitiveness.
Educating all children to the maximum level of their capabilities ought to be seen as a moral and ethical necessity, Ward declared, and he's right. Broad failure, or simple underperformance, among the economically disadvantaged is too often tolerated or excused. Former President George W. Bush called this "the soft bigotry of low expectations."
But if we can't see it as a moral and ethical issue, Ward reminded his audience that we at least ought to acknowledge the economic risks such persistent gaps entail. If an increasingly large segment of our student population 1) underachieves, or 2) never graduates, we'll increasingly lose the jobs that require high skills.
CREATE Foundation is in the early stages of a collaborative effort to address the achievement gap, and Tupelo's school system has begun to develop strategies and measurements. The solution is not to lower standards for already high-performing students, but to raise everybody's.
The hot topic of the moment among policymakers in the Legislature is charter schools. There's some evidence that the good ones can be incubators of innovation that can ultimately benefit traditional public schools, especially at-risk students. But Ward's experience in North Carolina, which had close to 100 charter schools, also provided a caution. Some charters are excellent, some are OK, and some are bad, Ward said - much like conventional public schools.
He listed three factors to consider before a charter school is authorized in any district: 1) A sound business plan; 2) a well-defined purpose that isn't currently being filled by traditional public schools in the area; and 3) an inclusive approach to enrollment.
Mississippi lawmakers would do well to ponder that list since at least some of them seem intent on passing a broad, almost anything goes charter school bill. We need, instead, a targeted effort that allows for charters where they can help but that doesn't do unnecessary collateral damage in the process.
Ward's is a voice worth hearing as Mississippi debates educational issues critical to our future. His advice is both morally instructive and practically sound.