BY: Grant Callen
Mississippi is on top of the college football world. This historic accomplishment has generated tremendous publicity for Mississippi, even in areas unrelated to football. As a lifelong Mississippian, I can attest there is much to celebrate here. For my three children, my wife and me, Mississippi is the best place in the world to live and raise a family. However, we have major challenges, none greater than our last in the nation education system. For too many students, our education system is woefully inadequate.
What do we do about it?
Supporters of the so-called MAEP Ballot Initiative argue it is simply a money problem. They contend the legislature has failed to “fully fund” education, so the initiative would take that power from the legislature and give it to a Hinds County Chancery Judge.
Throwing more money at education will not fix it. We have steadily increased public education funding for thirty years and it has produced almost zero measurable academic improvements. Since 1980, expenditures per student increased 457 percent, yet our average ACT score has remained flat. If money could fix education, the District of Columbia would be a mecca for parents looking for a quality education for their children. DC spends more money on public education than most any state, yet it consistently battles it out with Mississippi for last place in academic achievement.
The amount of money we spend on education is important, but not nearly as important as who makes decisions about how it is spent. This week State Auditor Stacey Pickering released an audit of the MAEP funding formula and noted that only a fraction of the money allocated is actually getting to the classroom.
We agree the education status quo must change. But while supporters of the ballot initiative want to empower one judge in Hinds County with the authority to determine the adequacy of your child’s education, Empower Mississippi proposes empowering parents with the ability to choose an education that they determine is right for their children.
No one knows a child and his unique educational needs better than his parents. 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? In 44 states, policymakers have done that. Through a variety of education choice programs, states like Florida, Louisiana, Georgia, Indiana, Ohio and North Carolina have empowered parents to make decisions about their children’s education, and the results are remarkable.
To the east, Florida has been the number one state in the country to close the achievement gap for minority students since implementing school choice programs. Since 1999, graduation rates for Hispanics have increased 28 points to 75 percent, and rates for black students have increased 23 points to 65 percent.
To the west, the education system in New Orleans has changed dramatically since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Today, ninety percent of students in the city attend charter schools, with amazing results. In 2005, only 12 percent of city schools were rated A or B and 75 percent earned an F. By 2013, 34 percent of schools earned an A or B while only 17 percent earned an F. From 2004 to 2012, the New Orleans graduation rate has gone from 54 percent to 78 percent – surpassing the state average.
At Empower Mississippi, not only do we believe an education revolution can happen here at home, but it is already underway. It simply requires the courage to enact much needed reforms that tear down the barriers to educational opportunity. Many Mississippi legislators have already championed education choice policies, as evidenced by the 24 Senators and 50 Representatives who scored an “A” on our Education Choice Scorecard released this week.
We applaud these policymakers for their initial steps, but greater choice is needed. For the children trapped by a failing system, help can’t come soon enough.
Grant Callen is President of Empower Mississippi, an organization that seeks to empower citizens to advocate for policies that help people thrive. Learn more at www.empowerms.org.