Please call your legislator today. We can make a difference right now.
The state Legislature has been robbing Peter to pay for Paul's educational needs for the past several years, and it needs to stop. Legislators must make public education the top priority of this legislative session, and finally agree to pay for educational commitments it supposedly has made over the last two decades. This broken contract has come even as many of our public schools steadily re-segregate—with the greater number of resources going to mostly white, suburban schools. This is unconscionable.
Before former Gov. William Winter's education reforms became law in 1982, public schools in Mississippi—although technically integrated for 13 whole years—were anything but equal. As the federal court order forced integration here over Christmas break, 1969, many white families immediately fled the public schools for "seg" academies. Suddenly, public education became a political punching bag with many people deciding it was simply another government handout to minorities. (Of course, that same handout had been fine for many of the same folks before integration.) After the Winter reforms, public education finally began to get its fair share in Mississippi—state funding reached 46.5 percent of the state's budget.
It wouldn't last, though. Soaring health-care and prison costs started cutting into education's piece of the budget pie, bringing it down to 39 percent and finally back up to today's 43 percent. In 1992, lawmakers raised the (regressive) state sales tax by 1 percent, supposedly to use as supplemental "Educational Enhancement" funds to pay for basic educational needs around the state. But that effort has proved a wash, as the legislators quickly cut back education's other funding. Mississippi Department of Education accountability director Judy Rhodes says the sales tax has brought about $1.9 billion in education money, while the Legislature has chosen to spend about $1.9 billion less in general funds on education. An interesting coincidence.
In 1997, the Legislature once again promised to equalize educational funds, passing the clumsily named "Mississippi Adequate Education Program." The law required the state to make up property-tax shortfalls between poor and rich districts to ensure that every young Mississippian, regardless of race or class, has access to an "adequate" education and that every school had enough resources to achieve "Level III" accreditation. Relieved districts were promised the funds to pay to patch holes in roofs, buy new textbooks and supplies, replace buses, fix water pipe leaks and pay teacher salaries. They were promised the money, and they contracted work and projects based on it. The program was to be fully phased in by this school year.
The Legislature was, apparently, just kidding. Since George W. Bush took the White House and started talking about "leaving no child behind," the state Legislature has started leaving plenty of schools behind. For two sessions, it's gone back on its "Adequate" promise, under-funding the Adequate Education Program by $59 million. Likewise, the education contingency funds were under-funded by $57 million and the public-school building fund came up $20 million short. The number would have been even higher last year had the state not finally dipped into its Rainy Day Fund to find some of the money for education. (And we all know how quickly rainy-day funds can dry up.)
It is time to re-affirm the state's commitment to public education. As schools steadily re-segregate along de facto income and racial lines, more children enjoy fewer educational resources, meaning a less-than-adequate education. Then, when they try to apply to colleges, scholarships or for jobs, they're expected to compete in the pure meritocracy of college boards and HR departments. But today's poorer students and schools are not standing on an even playing field, and it's time to stop pretending that they are. Before we can even consider dismantling the last vestiges of affirmative action, we must equalize public education. That's plain old horse sense.
Shortly before he died in 1999, writer Willie Morris addressed this issue in the epilogue to his book, "My Mississippi," published after his death. Morris lamented his state's refusal to adequately fund public education, which is so obviously the answer to moving us off the bottom of the barrel, lessening drug abuse (legal and illegal), lowering crime, reducing race hatred, improving our self-confidence, creating jobs, keeping more educated workers (and doctors) in the state, and so much more. He wrote: "To me, this reality amounts to nothing less than a societal death wish. The most essential question for all of us, I submit, is how long the citizenry of this state will allow this collective nihilism to continue...the children must be saved."
While the bitter aftertaste of the Trent Lott debacle still lingers, Mississippi faces a historic opportunity to prove that we are not who we used to be. We can make public education a priority right now by casting racism, prison-building fixations and "tort-reform" obsessions to the side in order to fully fund public education for all our children. What can you do?
1. Call your state legislators and demand equal education funding right away.
2. Vocally support intelligent affirmative-action efforts.
3. Support and defend public schools in any way possible.
(Correction appended Jan. 27, 2003)
Please note that we rather stupidly typed "million" instead of "billion" twice in this editorial. The above version has been corrected.
Word has it that the House and Senate conferees are presenting a bill tonight fully funding MAEP that could be on the governor's desk by this weekend! This is great news for the state.
When segregation was legal and sanctioned
by white society, our nation's, even Mississippi's,
public education system was the envy of
the rest of the world.
This was the one true innovation that
distinguished America: the idea of free
and universal public education. Problem was,
we finally discovered that it was not
universal by a country mile. It was a
program designed to benefit only the children
of white people, to maintain for whites the
advantages they have always enjoyed. Blacks,
historically, were given only enough education
to enable them to be compliant consumers, never
enough to enable them to compete on an
While we may consider many of the legislators
in Jackson to be stupid, even ignorant, they
know one thing very well. When they provide
an adequate education for the state's
black children, those children will be
able to compete on equal terms for the
advantages our society has to offer. This is
something many of them will never do.
Until the last vestiges of the old guard
are retired and sent home, they will never
produce any legislation that offers an
equal opportunity to all of Mississippi's
Racism is not dead. It's just more subtle now
than it used to be.
- John Allred