In an election year where the question of our nation's fiscal future is front and center, we cannot forget that the educational progress of our nation's children is pivotal for renewing U.S. prosperity. Yet, our lawmakers spent most of the four-month legislative session arguing over charter schools, leaving public education underfunded and forcing our school districts to shoulder the burden of educating our children with limited resources.
Until the state of Mississippi develops the political will to create a system that provides quality education for all children instead of "quick-fix" solutions like charter schools, we will continue to fail our children.
The absence of a new federal education framework authorized by Congress has placed Mississippi between a rock and a hard place: to either continue the failed policies of No Child Left Behind or apply for a waiver and be subjected to unrealistic requirements. Either choice denies most of our children a substantive and fair opportunity to learn.
Mississippi decided to apply for a waiver that will let the state off the hook for some measures meant to improve outcomes for struggling students, schools and districts rather than face NCLB's punishments, which would include more schools labeled as failing and the possible loss of federal funding. Although the waivers come with some new requirements, the direction of the reforms they embrace aren't that different from NCLB: measuring outcomes without requiring the appropriate inputs, labeling schools and teachers without appropriate measurements or supports, and emphasizing testing in narrow subject areas instead of encouraging a well-rounded and balanced education.
Forcing states to implement more of the same reforms to avoid penalty makes little sense, especially considering the magnitude of problems in our education system. Without an emphasis on inputs and resource allocation, inequalities in education opportunity and attainment will persist.
The Mississippi State Department of Education currently addresses struggling schools that lack adequate resources and strong teachers by appointing conservators who have the authority to make "quick-fix" changes such as arbitrary closings, firings and other reforms in an attempt to "turn around" the worst-performing schools. This approach continues to ignore the mounting evidence that reform focused exclusively on outcomes actually widens the achievement gap. It also amounts to a refusal to fix the growing inequities in educational funding that exacerbate student underachievement and pose the biggest roadblock to teacher effectiveness.
Teachers need intense training before they ever enter a classroom, mentoring and support when they begin teaching, and fair evaluation systems that critically and holistically analyze and bolster performance.
We should entice highly qualified, experienced teachers and principals into schools of high academic need. Money can be one incentive, but we must also recognize that not all rewards are monetary. Professionals, first and foremost, want a chance to succeed and that means creating supports and structures for people.
As outlined in "2020 Vision Roadmap: A Pre-K Through Postsecondary Blueprint for Education Reform" from the Opportunity to Learn Campaign, we need comprehensive, system-wide improvements. School financing needs to be equitably distributed throughout districts with increased investments going to schools where students live in poverty. And it should always be focused on increasing opportunity and quality at every stage of a student's life.
We also need to encourage parent and community involvement through after-school and neighborhood programs or the establishment of parent advisory councils. Effective parent and community involvement can positively impact school culture, working conditions, and student achievement.
I applaud President Obama's recent push to protect our students from going deeper into debt to finance their education. But many of our children are worried about graduating from high school prepared to attend college, let alone how much it will cost and what the interest rates on student loans will be. If we are going to meet the president's goal of once again becoming the leader in post-secondary graduates, our policies, practices and investments must support an aggressive and comprehensive approach to education reform that gives every child the opportunity to learn.
Derrick Johnson is president of the Mississippi State Conference NAACP and president and CEO of One Voice Mississippi, a nonprofit organization focused on the housing, education and related policy advocacy needs facing Mississippi's disadvantaged communities.