The Mississippi Legislature vs. public schools

Published 10:29 am Friday, April 20, 2018

By T.J. Ray

Consider this an apology for the unkind and perhaps inaccurate things I have said about the 2018 Legislature. As the session is now finished, we have but to look forward to the start of a new session — in the fervent hope that it is more productive and less destructive than the recent one.

Much of my concern with those folks has to do with what they have been doing to public education. That they have been bought off may be the key to their performance. That they may simply not be able to grasp the consequences of their cavalier rape of public education is a possible explanation. In any event, the power of a super-dominant party running things may be the simplest explanation. How often, one might ask, does a long Republican legislature who disagrees with the predictable outcome of a vote on a bill really consider standing up to his party goers?

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Perhaps a recap of the treatment of public education is in order. Similar lists might well be tallied for other parts of the public welfare: roads, health, mental health.

So let’s start sort of at the top. The law dictated that Mississippi Adequate Education funding would be adequate. There is even a formula to compute that amount. Our gang in Jackson determined a new definition of “adequate” and have shorted public schools $237 million for the coming year.

One problem most schools have is resources to offer good wages to teachers. The first bill to raise teacher pay was defeated on the board, i.e., it made it to the House floor and was voted down. The second, to raise teacher pay to Southeastern average died in Committee. A third effort to provide a $4,000 raise died in Committee, as did the next one to raise salaries by $2,000. Likewise, a first effort to raise teacher assistant salaries to $15K died in Committee.

Two more bills to raise teacher assistant pay died in Committee. Three other bills to support teacher assistants died in Committee.

Other aspects of public schools were not ignored. A bill to increase English Language Learners funding to 20 percent died in Committee. Thus local districts have to scrounge money where they can to provide needed instruction for those thousands of students who don’t speak English as their primary language.

A proposed Vo-Tech program in each school district died in Committee. Likewise, a new requirement for a Home Economics program in every district died in Committee.

A bill to provide more funding for programs helping dyslexic young people by providing for speech screening died in Committee. An effort to define autism as being “at risk” signal under MAEP also went down in Committee.

One of the issues facing schools is the matter of getting through real instruction which must be truncated to make time for all the endless — and largely pointless — state testing. Remember that the $10M contract with a testing firm locks in the foolish waste of time on many tests. A bill that would terminate “End of Course” exit exams died — you guessed it: in Committee. The use of ACT and Aspire WorkKeys died. Certainly, it makes no sense to arm teachers with proven learning tools.

A bill to mandate pre-kindergarten programs died in Committee. No need to start kids in school early. Just let them play another year or two! The same treatment killed a move to mandate Kindergarten.

Two more on the hit list: An effort to create alternate licensing to ease the teacher shortage died in Committee. And the credit of donations to public schools as a tax deduction died, as did donating to a school for a designated use, i.e., perhaps someone wants to strengthen the chemistry lab in a school.

Ah, but the powerful Committee lost one, which can only be considered a victory for the citizens of Mississippi who believe public funds should be spent on public schools. House Bill 957 passed Committee vetting and died when the entire House of Representatives took up the issue. The purveyors of that insidious piece of legislation openly advocated killing the MAEP and at the same time wanted to start sending public dollars to charter schools. In case the language of the State Constitution is not fresh in your mind, such diversion of funding would be unconstitutional. Of course, that body of solons hasn’t met the formula that the statute calls for but two years in its entire existence.

Well, there you have it. For the most part, education suffered mightily in the last legislature.

A suggestion for upcoming elections: Go to every rally. Contact every candidate. Demand his or her stand on supporting public education. Remember — these folks don’t send themselves to Jackson. If you don’t try or you don’t vote, you’re wearing their hat.

One last question: How do we get rid of the evil legislator named Committee?

T.J. Ray is a retired professor of English at Ole Miss.