Voting day and the next generation

Published 6:00 am Sunday, November 1, 2015

By Milly West

This column, “Teaming Up” has always focused on the environment. What started as a piece on migration to Oxford for families seeking a better life, especially good public education, has now morphed into a story about our election this week and Initiative 42. How does this fit in? Well, imagine that if all of Mississippi’s children stay in school, study science, live responsibly and learn how to take care of the planet, won’t that have lasting benefit to our society?

Some newcomers tell us that their public schools “back home” are not what they used to be, or that the school population is “70 or 80 percent black,” things like this. I have no specific reference for this, except that I have heard it on several occasions. Our state demographics (U.S. Census data) tell us that our population is just over 36 percent black. No need to run, right? Except that racism still exists, some private schools foiled integration, and there is a big difference in the education a child receives at Oxford High School and the education a child receives in a poor city or town.

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The solution our governor and the current legislature like is not fully funding public schools while creating publicly funded, privately run charter schools. But charter schools have no mandate to accept all students who apply. That’s wrong if they are publicly funded. So with the infrastructure already in place across the state, why don’t those folks in Jackson just follow the law and fund our hometown public schools fully?

During the time my children were in Oxford Public Schools, I worked for Mississippi Blood Services and traveled throughout 13 counties in North Mississippi recruiting blood donors. I was welcomed into churches, factories, civic clubs, colleges and high schools to set up the drives.

Just after the horrific ice storm of 1994, we had a blood shortage. Our local schools were just opening after two weeks of downed power lines and icy roads. I arranged an emergency blood drive with the principal of Lafayette High School, Mr. Ernest Bigham; he agreed to let me speak to the seniors on the students’ first day back. Many of these students were living still without power or running water.

I arrived early to the high school office. Teachers and support staff were coming in, hugging each other and catching up. Mr. Bigham made an announcement over the loud speaker before the buses arrived. “Teachers,” he said, “I just want to remind you that none of us has any idea the conditions these students are coming from. Be patient, and give everyone time to settle in. There is no hurry, and we are here to help you help them.”

I never forgot Mr. Bigham’s announcement more than 20 years ago, and the simple way he set the tone for empathy. Every educator and every politician should have the same level of empathy.

Months later, at North Panola High School, I met another caring principal, but his problems were different. His school was poor; the grounds were just gravel and patches of grass. The morning I arrived to speak to the students, he was talking to a woman standing in the doorway with a baby on her hip. She was trying to get her daughter out of class to keep the baby. “Every day,” he said, “these 36-year-old grandmothers are here, telling me they got to go to work, and somebody has to keep the baby.”

We have a cycle of poverty here in Mississippi, and one in four of our children are not finishing high school. ( The solution is to decide to change the pattern. Healthy communities and families start with teaching our students good health practices and how to avoid unwanted pregnancies. According to The Earth Policy Institute, “Women who are empowered through education tend to have fewer children and have them later. They earn more money with which to support their families, and contribute more to their communities’ economic growth.”

I worked in Byhalia, Holly Springs, Clarksdale, Marks and many other public schools in the 1990s.  The students and teachers were wonderful, but their buildings were often disgraceful. In Byhalia, many classes were held in trailers. To get from one trailer to another on a rainy day was a muddy challenge. It was conditions like this which led to the MAEP law which our legislature is refusing to follow:

Passed by the Mississippi Legislature in 1997, the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) is a law that provides a formula that is designed to ensure an adequate education for every Mississippi child — whether that child lives in a “wealthy” community or a “poor” one. It is designed to provide schools the resources necessary for adequate student achievement. —

Maybe every school can’t have a tennis team or a football team, but all kids need art, music and physical exercise. “Place” matters and being proud of your school truly matters.

Initiative 42 is looking to the next generation, yet there is a well-financed force to stop it. The scare tactics out there say we can’t take the power to fund education away from the legislature and give it to a judge. Yet, the legislature has control now, and we are still 50th in the country. — (2014)

“Groups supporting defeat of Initiative 42 are Mississippi Manufacturers Association, Mississippi Bankers Association, Mississippi Poultry Association, Mississippi Homebuilders Association and Mississippi Realtors Association; smaller donors include the PACs for the Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association, Independent Insurance Agents of Mississippi and the Mississippi Malt Beverage Association.”— Jackson Free Press   

A skunk by any other name is still a skunk:

The Improve Mississippi political initiative committee (PIC), formed to defeat Initiative 42, originally surfaced in leaked emails from Jones County Junior College President, Jesse Smith, who urged other presidents to donate to the PIC in September. Donors are mainly local Republicans and industry groups, including donations from the campaigns of Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Reeves, House Appropriations Chairman Herb Frierson and House Speaker Philip Gunn. Each of those campaigns have donated $10,000 to (the group) Improve Mississippi.” — Arielle Dreher, Jackson Free Press.

Jim Barksdale, who has strong ties to education and to Oxford, wrote in a recent editorial: “These cries of alarm are designed to distract voters from the real issue: Is 42 necessary in order to achieve adequate funding of our public schools? I believe that the answer to that critical question is yes. I have been working on this funding issue for the past 15 years — with Democrats and Republicans — and, unfortunately, it does not appear that the state’s leaders will ever fully fund education unless we amend the state’s constitution and force them to do so. —

Decision-makers in Jackson need a special understanding of the potential and promise we lose each year that nothing changes. Initiative 42 is about a better future for Mississippi. As Mr. Bigham said so many years ago, “None of us has any idea the conditions these students are coming from.”  Schools matter, and on Tuesday, we have an opportunity to send a message to the legislature and the governor that they have disregarded the law too long.

MILLY WEST is an Oxford resident and can be reached at