Federal mandates connected to the "No Child Left Behind Act," signed by President George Bush in 2002, demand that Mississippi improve its school test scores or face losing federal money for education.
Jim Hill High School teacher Dave Molina called state tests "absurdly easy."
"I'm afraid that even if our kids score proficient on a Mississippi test, give them a test from Florida or New York, and they'll probably get the mess kicked out of them," Molina said. "I'm kind of happy that we're getting reprimanded on this. It's unfortunate that it had to happen like this, but we've needed a wake-up call for generations."
It's no secret that Mississippi's public schools are underfunded. Just last year, public schools were underfunded by $120 million, according to calculations based on the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which sets funding levels for Mississippi schools. MAEP has only been fully funded once, in 2003. This year, the Legislature appropriated an additional $123 million over last year's $1.89 billion, but was so far behind in appropriating funds for MAEP that the increase left the program $120 million short. Gov. Haley Barbour recently announced that the state had a $70 million surplus, but he pledged no additional funding to MAEP.
"Legislators just have not made (education) a priority," Nancy Loome said. "In backroom politics, education always loses."
Loome is a Clinton parent who won the 2004 Parent of the Year award from the state. She is also executive director of a new non-profit called the Parents' Campaign.
The Parents' Campaign to build support for education by mounting an awareness campaign. The hope is that once people are better informed, they will stand up for better funding, and legislators will know education is important to their constituents.
"I think the Legislature needs to stop giving excuses, and start offering solutions," said Jonathan Davis, a parent in the Tupelo Public School District.
The Parents' Campaign is an outgrowth of Parents for Public Schools in Jackson, and is forming a statewide network of people concerned about education. When important education bills come before the Legislature, the Parents' Campaign will get the word out, so people can make their voices heard. "Our mission is to ensure that state leaders don't shortchange our children by providing inferior schools. We hope to ensure a quality education for all Mississippi children by empowering their parents to speak, armed with accurate information, on their behalf," Loome said.
"There are a lot of important services in our state that aren't funded as they should be," Susan Womack, executive director of Parents for Public Schools of Jackson, said. "Mississippi is not a wealthy state, so we understand there isn't always enough money to go around, but at the same time, if the population is better educated, then our economic status will be increased."
The principle behind the Parents' Campaign effort is that better education will lead to better jobs for Mississippians, to the benefit of us all. "It's all just a domino effect when you start with a good education," Davis said.
For now, the Parents' Campaign is gearing up for the next legislative session. This time around, the Parents' Campaign means to lobby hard and lobby early for adequate education funding. Their effort will begin in September, four months before the legislative session, and will continue throughout. Even before their new role as state watchdog begins, the federal government is looking for some state accountability of its own.
Loome said she doubted the federal demand would culminate in feds pulling education money, but she said the state needed to do everything within its power to make sure the state provides a higher level of education.
"We need to hold our legislators accountable for that standard that they set for themselves," Loome said, adding that she would be willing to let parents know how legislators vote in upcoming sessions.
State Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, who chairs the state Education Committee, said he was confident that State Superintendent of Education Hank Bounds had the situation under control.
"I think Dr. Bounds and the board will take care of this," Brown said. "They've been aware of this problem with the testing for a while, and I have all the confidence in the world that we'll be able to work it out. The U.S. Department of Education is not going to let that money go back."
Chris Kaase, associate superintendent for academic education for the Mississippi Department of Education, said the state is already putting together a timeline to improve testing and achieve national levels, but warned that it was difficult to rush this kind of progress.
"We already had a plan in place for quite some time, but if you rush to do these things, you could have some serious problems. It's important for us to proceed in a carefully guided way that gets good results, rather than rushing to meet a deadline with no significant impact."
Visit http://www.msparentscampaign.org, or e-mail Nancy Loome at [e-mail missing] for more information.
It's never made sense to me to remove funding from states that can least afford it and have the biggest problems.