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It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. This may be how history remembers the current period of American history. The American people elected the first Black President of the United States to preside over an unprecedented economic crisis. Education remains one of the most important social infrastructure investments this nation can make in producing democratic citizens and economic prosperity. And the economic crisis has both crippled state education budgets and prompted a huge influx of federal dollars into secondary education—two critically important opportunities this complex moment provides. This report describes the landscape of the continuing struggle for educational excellence in Mississippi and identifies opportunities and challenges that reformers must navigate in order to transform one of the nation’s most unsuccessful school systems. Including data, research, and news reports, along with interviews with education reformers (see Appendix), this report draws on the context and the experiences of those working for transformation of Mississippi’s schools.
Mississippi mirrors and is influenced by the national context. Both declining faith in public schools and the current economic crisis make this an important moment in which to discuss reform. But the discussion is marred by tension and contradictions. The National Civic Index and research by Lake Research Associates indicate that in 2008 education had decreased in importance for Americans, eclipsed by rising gas prices and massive job losses.(1) This is true even as Americans grow more disappointed with the quality of public education: 32% reported a decline in the quality of their local schools in 2008, compared to 27% in 2006.(2)
At the same time, two factors are increasing federal influence on state education reform strategies. The federal government has increased education spending to the states by almost $50 billion in American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (Recovery Act) dollars. And the nation’s first African American President, an incredibly popular figure with strong views on public education, has also affected the debate on reform. A poll conducted by Stanford University, the Hoover Institution and Harvard University in February 2009 showed that knowledge of the President’s support for charter schools and merit pay for teachers increased support for those strategies by 11% and 13%, respectively.(3)
Many Mississippi elected officials on both sides of the aisle, like the President, support charter schools. Some of the state education advocates strongly oppose expansion of charter schools in Mississippi. They believe charters raise the threat of racial segregation and allow state officials to avoid discussion of systemic failures. This is not a trivial debate, nor one that is only relevant to Mississippi. But it is a particularly poignant debate in a state with a high percentage of Black residents, a high percentage of poor residents, and historic opposition to educational reform and racial equity. Together, racial segregation, concentrated poverty and local funding make the cracked foundation upon which the state’s schools are built. Success for all of Mississippi’s children must address the gap in educational opportunity based on race.
Building on existing work in Mississippi and supporting its communities most in need of systemic education reform might lead to innovations that may work across the state, the region and the nation. Stakeholders concerned with educational excellence in Mississippi are a broad and varied group. They range from students, parents, and educators to business leaders and policy makers. The interests of and relationships between these stakeholders are often mediated by non-profit organizations. These groups are themselves diverse, ranging from community-based “concerned citizen” groups to regional training and policy centers and legal organizations. Like many other resources in this poor, rural state, these organizations are spread thin and receive too little support. Nonetheless, powered by creative and committed staff and supporters, they have proven resilient and have produced surprising results despite their challenges.(4)
These community-based organizations often struggle to take advantage of promising opportunities, while also maintaining ongoing work and relationships. Addressing this difficulty requires building these organizations up, strengthening their resource bases and supporting their financial independence from local power brokers. With a more stable and independent presence, such groups can take full advantage of training programs, federal dollars and other new opportunities for reform.
(1) Celinda Lake, Joshua Panetta, Public Education Network National Civic Index Analysis 9, presented (June 2008).
(2) Id. at 13.
(3) Dakarai Aarons & Debra Viadero, Obama Education Views Can Sway Public, Education Week (Aug. 31, 2009) citing William G. Howell et al., 2009 Education Next-PEPG Survey of Public Opinion 2-3, 5-6 (2009).
(4) Center for Social Inclusion, Triumph Over Tragedy: Leadership, Capacity and Needsin Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi (2007).