Recently, public-education supporters gathered 200,000 signatures to place on the November ballot an amendment to the Mississippi Constitution that, if approved, would mandate "adequate and efficient" funding of public schools and allow for judicial relief if a chancery court found that the funding fell short.
Almost immediately after convening in January, the Mississippi House of Representatives, long a bastion of anti-public-school sentiment, passed an alternative to Initiative 42, which at best will muddle the issue and, most likely, doom the initiative outright. Shortly thereafter, the Mississippi Senate followed suit and passed the House alternative. This alternative calls on the Legislature to establish "effective" schools, whatever that means. But the implication is that school funding should be tied to achievement.
Only about 30 percent of student achievement comes from in-school factors such as teachers, principals and class size; almost 70 percent comes from outside factors such as poverty, parents and access to resources. This is amplified in Mississippi, which ranks at the top of negative social issues such as poverty, teen pregnancy and illiteracy. So if lawmakers wanted to make the biggest effect on student achievement, they would focus on those home and community factors that matter most.
However, to overcome these factors, it would take a greater commitment of focus and resources than our lawmakers want to give, or the voters insist upon. So, the public school is asked to perform miracles and use its 30-percent effect to overcome the 70-percent effect outside school.
To do this, public schools need resources. And because most communities across Mississippi do not have enough resources to fund their own schools, the state is asked to help out.
The Mississippi Adequate Education Program is how Mississippi determines what resources to give schools to educate children. Basically, the state funds schools on the low end cost of what a C or 'Successful' district costs to operate. (Side note: There is a move to fund MAEP at A or B levels instead of C, saying it is more effective. This is a shell game; most A and B districts are more affluent, have a lower minority makeup and do not have the same outside obstacles to overcome. Therefore, these districts need less help from the state, i.e., lower MAEP costs).
Importantly, the Legislature chose MAEP as how it would fund schools "adequately"—teachers, books, materials, power, water, heat and air, etc.—to avoid a lawsuit over underfunding public schools, which is a historic problem in Mississippi, and lawmakers knew they would lose. And even today, courts are ordering states such as Kansas, Texas and South Carolina to meet their obligations to fund public schools.
Now, there are those (both elected officials and their allies) who maintain money is not the answer. They claim by offering competition and choice (merit pay, charter schools, vouchers, etc.) then student achievement will improve while lowering costs. Besides, they argue, any increase in school funding goes toward administration anyway, not the classroom.
Hogwash. The facts are:
• A December PEER report on school efficiency and funding found no clear factors between funding, efficiency and achievement, other than poor districts requiring more money. In fact, districts scoring a C, D or F were spending more on instruction than A or B districts.
• Teacher quality is very important, and maybe most important in a classroom. But evidence from other states demonstrates that about 80 to 90 percent of all teachers are comparable in effectiveness, with only a small percentage at the extremes: master teacher and ineffective teacher. So unless a child has a truly terrible teacher, she or he will have a quality teacher. But telling teachers they are only valuable if they are in the top 1 to 5 percent (i.e., merit pay) undermines and discourages teachers to the point it becomes difficult to retain or recruit any.
• Research demonstrates that charter schools, as a whole, are no better than community public schools and in many cases are worse. A recent study in Ohio showed that most charters were outperformed by their public school counterparts. New Orleans Recovery District, which is held as a model for charters, scored a D in the most recent rankings. And for this, charter CEOs are often paid three times what school principals are paid.
• School vouchers transfer public dollars to private schools with little to no oversight. Louisiana, Indiana, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C., which use vouchers extensively, report no real improvement in student achievement, no accountability for how public dollars are used and no remedy when voucher dollars are misused. Even vouchers that theoretically sound good (special-needs vouchers) are poorly written to provide a backdoor to transfer public money to private schools with no evidence that student achievement improves.
• Mississippi only pays for 65 percent of what a school district needs to operate, but 85 percent of district costs go to the classroom. So the Legislature is not even fully funding the classroom, much less school administrators. But to the charge that administrator salaries are rising while teacher salaries are not, it's simple: When a 30-year teacher retires, he/she is often replaced with an inexperienced teacher, which saves up to 1/3 of salary costs, whereas when school administrators who aren't on salary scales retire, they are replaced with an experienced educator for about the same salary. Basically, this is a wedge issue to divide educators and remove the focus from underfunded schools.
Elected officials claim they will spend more money on education, but not MAEP. Instead, the money will be "targeted." What are the targets? Testing (e.g., 3rd grade reading gate), vouchers, charter schools, merit pay pilot, private Pre-K grants—not universal Pre-K—and others. It's a ruse because more than 90 percent of Mississippi students attend public schools. But instead of investing in those schools, lawmakers want to shift funding to sources that will only benefit 10 percent of students. This is a return to the days when schools were only funded for the affluent, leaving poor and minority schools neglected and underfunded.
The argument about school funding and MAEP is simple: Do you support a chance at a quality education for all students and believe that the purpose of schools is to prepare students to take their place in our society and be a contributing member? Or do you believe in a dual system, for the haves and the have-nots, and that money is wasted trying to educate the poorest, highest minority, economically depressed areas of our state?
Traditionally, Mississippi has held the latter; I work to try to make it the former.
Shannon Eubanks is the principal of the Enterprise Attendance Center in Brookhaven. Opinions stated here are his own.