The Clarion-Ledger recently published an opinion piece that attacked public education in Mississippi and castigated its supporters. The piece, written by Empower Mississippi President Grant Callen, advocated for alternatives to traditional public schooling. Callen said "throwing more money at education"—which is how he characterizes the Mississippi Adequate Education Program—will not fix the problems in education that our state faces.
"What if we allowed the public funds allocated for a child to follow him to whatever school his parents determined could best meet his needs, whether at a traditional public school, charter school or private school?" Callen wrote.
Callen said that funding education is not as important as ensuring that the money is used where it's needed, implying that MAEP funds are not being used appropriately, an argument often used against funding public education in Mississippi. On its website, Empower Mississippian says it is dedicated to "education choice, economic freedom and fiscal responsibility."
Like the author, I am a lifelong Mississippian, and I am proud of where I live with my wife and two children. However, I am a product of public schools, my children attend public schools, and I have been an educator for nearly two decades in public schools. So when a newspaper publishes a column that is unfair in its portrayal of public schools and their supporters, I take it personally.
We have been fighting a battle in Mississippi over public education for more than 70 years. In 1940, the Legislature opposed Gov. Paul B. Johnson's attempt to provide free textbooks to students who could not otherwise afford them. In 1954, House Speaker Walter Sillers called for the abolishment of public schools instead of desegregation and integration.
During the education battles of the 1980s, Gov. William Winter had to fight forces that opposed kindergarten for students and insisted that school funding be on the backs of the working families of Mississippi with a sales-tax increase instead of raising oil and gas severance taxes.
We are facing the same foes today: opposition to pre-kindergarten, refusal to fully fund our schools and paying for "reform" by taking money away from our public schools so that corporate backers may profit. Yes, we have too many schools in Mississippi that are failing, but that is because too many communities that are failing. Schools reflect their communities. Thriving communities have strong public schools; struggling communities have weak public schools.
Is anyone really surprised that the delta and southwest Mississippi, areas long neglected by our leaders, also have the largest concentration of both struggling communities and schools? And when our leaders will not fund our schools, what other remedy exists but our judicial system?
Our state spends almost $650 less per student than it did before 2008. Add the underfunding of the education formula, MAEP, and you'll see that schools have been shorted nearly $2 billion. This, during a time of increased testing and accountability puts more burdens on teachers, more obstacles for students trying to graduate high school and is a constant assault on educators as professionals.
The real issue is who will control our schools: local parents through their local officials or outsiders to our communities? Allen didn't hide that fact in his column. "The amount of money we spend on education is important, but not nearly as important as who makes decisions ...," he said. Simply put, this is a takeover of our community schools to financially benefit an elite few.
Parents have been surveyed time and time again, and what they have consistently asked for is not more "choice," but strong community schools in their neighborhoods. The column is incorrect in its praise of charter effectiveness. Studies have shown that charters are, on average, no better than local schools, but end up devastating neighborhoods by forcing the closure of their community schools. Much of the "proof" cited in the opinion piece has been roundly refuted by research, but evidence is secondary to a desired narrative
The one positive Callen offered in his column is a record of how my local legislative delegation voted on key education issues. I now firmly know who supports me as an educator and who doesn't, and who will receive my support in the next election and who will not.
Shannon Eubanks is the principal of the Enterprise Attendance Center in Brookhaven. Opinions stated here are his own.