How Mississippi Republicans and Democrats view the state’s education problems
By Thomas Goris
Mississippi Capitol Press Corps
There are positives and negatives when it comes to Mississippi’s education system.
Republicans tout rising graduation numbers, an increase in school choice, and historically high spending on education as a sign that the state is on the right track. Democrat lawmakers argue that Mississippi still lags behind others states in education marks, and that funding for Mississippi’s schools and teachers is still far too low.
According to Mississippi’s Legislative Budget Report for the current fiscal year, 53 percent of the state’s general fund is spent on education, which amounts to $3,032,680,297. Republican Speaker of the House Philip Gunn points to the current level of education funding as a sign that Mississippi leaders support education.
“Republicans have spent more money in the last two years on education than has ever been spent in the history of the state of Mississippi,” Gunn said. “55 cents out of every dollar we bring into this state is spent on education-related issues.”
In addition to lauding the current high levels of education-related spending, top Republicans, such as Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, point to rising high school graduation rates as another key sign that Mississippi’s public education system is making big strides.
“Before I became lieutenant governor, the national high school graduation rate was 82 percent,” he said. In Mississippi, that number was 70.5 percent. Last year, the national graduation rate was 83 percent, and Mississippi’s was 82 percent. We’re up almost 12 percentage points in a few years.”
However, according to some state Democrats, the state of education in Mississippi isn’t nearly as rosy as some Republicans want it to appear. Attorney General James Hood remains critical of Republican efforts to improve education, saying Mississippi education funding lags behind other states. He believes Republicans are misleading people with claims about record high graduation rates.
“They haven’t even funded enough to keep up with inflation,” Hood said. “They haven’t kept up with what we need to compete with what other states are doing. We’re sitting dead in the water, while other states are increasing funding.”
Hood pointed to innovations that other states are implementing in education, such as increased access to free community colleges for students as an example of what Mississippi could be doing better. Hood also argues that Republicans all too often fall back on the catch phrase, “You can’t just throw money at a problem to fix it,” while never actually funding necessary programs that would improve education.
In contrast, Lt. Gov. Reeves argues that Democrats are all too often caught up in a debate about how much money is being spent on schools, or input, versus what the results of individual schools are, or output.
“We’ve tried to change the conversation to no longer be one about input, but to be one about outcomes,” Reeves said. “What are the success rates, what are the results?”
Reeves also points to an increase in school choice for families across Mississippi as an example of a significant improvement in statewide education. According to Reeves, more choices equals better opportunities for school children.
The push for expanded school choice has not been met without opposition, however. Advocacy groups, such as the nonpartisan Mississippi Parent’s Campaign, argues that by giving families an option to move their children to different schools, the poorest schools in the state will only continue to get poorer as their enrollment numbers drop.
Attorney General Hood argues that Republicans need to do more for schools that are losing students, and not simply slash funds to schools that have fewer students.
Democratic representative Michael Evans echoed the attorney general’s remarks, and argued higher wages are needed to attract quality teachers to poor areas to keep students from leaving schools.
“We have a teacher shortage; a lot of people don’t want to teach for the money that we pay,” Evans said. “We need to increase teaching wages if teachers are going to stay in state and help improve poor areas.”
Speaker Dunn fired back against the argument that higher wages and higher funding would automatically solve issues in failing schools, pointing to issues with the Jackson school system as an example.
“Jackson is one the highest paying teaching jobs in the district, but no one wants to go there,” Dunn said. “It’s unsafe, discipline’s out of control, and teachers would rather go to a place like Clinton and make less money.”
Dunn argues that to truly fix education in poor areas, individuals will have to start taking personal responsibility, and that true change starts at the local level, not from lawmakers in Jackson.
Thomas Goris, 21, is a University of Mississippi junior studying broadcast journalism and political science.