Funding, whether for pre-kindergarten programs or for the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP), was the primary topic of concern at the Columbus Lowndes Chamber of Commerce’s annual Education Town Hall Monday night.
The 60-plus attendees who crowded into the Castleberry Ballroom at the Courtyard Marriott had the opportunity to ask education-related questions to the panel of four legislators and three representatives from area school districts. Questions touched on topics such as virtual education and state testing for K-12 students, and especially whether the Legislature would fund educational programs once the 2020 session begins.
Each legislator present said they felt education has not been a priority in the Legislature, pointing out lawmakers have only twice fully funded MAEP, a formula the state uses to allocate funds to public education, since it was implemented in 1997.
“You look at the numbers, we’re constantly fighting for 47th, 48th, as far as being the worst state for public education,” said Rep. Cheikh Taylor (D-Starkville). “But I’m here to tell you that is strictly because of political will. When we fully fund the MAEP formula … we outdo other states almost overnight. … That puts us back into the game. So if the state is very serious about that, we’re going to locate those dollars.”
In addition to Taylor, the legislators on the panel included Rep. Kabir Karriem (D-Columbus), Sen. Angela Turner-Ford (D-West Point) and Rep.-elect Dana McLean (R-Columbus). Sen. Chuck Younger (R-Columbus) and Rep. Gary Chism (R-Columbus) did not attend due to prior commitments, though Younger sent written answers to two questions prepared by the chamber of commerce’s education committee, which organized the event. Also present were Columbus Municipal School District Superintendent Cherie Labat, CMSD Board of Trustees president Jason Spears and Lowndes County School District Deputy Superintendent Robin Ballard. Aundrea Self, an anchor for WCBI, moderated the event.
The legislators present all said they would support fully funding public education before they supported state money going to school voucher programs. However, there was more discussion on the avenues for funding.
In one of his submitted answers, Younger said he would support 100 percent of revenue from the newly approved state lottery going to education. As the law currently stands, the first $80 million raised will go toward infrastructure, with leftover money going to education.
“I propose that the lottery be allocated to education instead of roads and bridges,” Younger said. “I’ve also proposed a fuel tax to be implemented for infrastructure. I have not given up on this plan.”
Taylor said he is “on the fence” about a gas tax because it disproportionately affects the poor. He instead suggested Mississippi legalize and tax “cash crops” like hemp and use that money to bring in more revenue.
But other legislators said there is already money in the budget that could be used for education, but hasn’t.
“… Until the priority changes, I imagine that the amount of dollars that are appropriated will continue to remain the same,” Turner-Ford said. “Hopefully it will not decrease, because that has been the trend in previous years.”
Karriem and McLean — who both pointed out the Legislature had a $500 million surplus last year — told attendees to call state officials, particularly those who championed public education during their campaigns for the elections earlier this month.
“On the campaign trail, there were a lot of promises made,” Karriem said. “… I’m suggesting as not only a legislator but as a citizen, we have to hold us accountable to the promises that were made. And right now, if education and early childhood is one of those things that you would like to see, starting in the morning, as soon as the Capitol’s open, when you know your representative’s phone numbers, you need to be expressing that to them.”
Solutions to problems
Though funding was a primary topic at the event, panelists weighed in on other issues. In response to a question from an audience member, Ballard talked about testing as a way to keep “a finger on the pulse” of what the district’s students are learning.
“I’m going to try to keep testing at bay as much as we can,” she said, referring to a common critique that schools put too much focus on standardized testing, “but also keep our thumbs on what the data is telling us about how well our teachers are doing and how well our students are receiving that information.”
Labat emphasized the importance of public education in a question asking about education’s affect on economic development.
“Where are (public school) children going if they don’t have a quality education?” she said. “They’re not leaving the community. They need jobs, they need WorkKeys. … It is in the best interest of everybody in the community that all children are educated. The 10 percent (who don’t attend public schools) have to care about the 90 percent, because if they plan to be a part of this great state and this great community, then they have to understand that the children of Columbus have to (get) a quality education, and they have to be just as much of a proponent for the students of Columbus Municipal School District as they are for everyone in the community.”
Panelists also addressed Mississippi’s “brain drain.” Labat said she recently learned of a survey conducted by education nonprofit The FORGE Foundation, in which 60 percent of eighth graders surveyed said they plan to leave Mississippi after they graduate.
McLean said students don’t realize there are opportunities here.
“We have the great industries,” she said. “We have Paccar, Airbus, Steel Dynamics, and I think if we can get those kids to see that they can have a better life, that they can get a better job than maybe their parents had, … they can have a better life here in Mississippi.”
Labat said Mississippi has the solutions to its problems.
“The country is an industry and manufacturing country with technology,” she said. “Right now, we need skill sets and people who are able to do the job and learn the job. Our whole focus on K-12 education has to change, and it has to be dynamic. It has to include things like virtual education, it has to include things (like) intentional workforce development. If we use pre K-12 education for job development, and college readiness for those who are prepared, … we could use those dollars so wisely and change this state to be a top state in this country.”