Of the many, many voices we hear from Mississippi’s elected leaders on the subject of K-12 education, it is interesting that the two most articulate and well-reasoned are, essentially, neighbors.
During Tuesday’s Columbus Rotary Club meeting, the audience heard from Republican Sen. Gray Tollison, who serves as the chairman of the Senate Education Committee.
In May, Democrat Rep. Jay Hughes made his case for public education at the Columbus Exchange Club.
Both men are from Oxford and while they do share a commitment and common beliefs and about how to address the state’s chronically under-performing education system, their roles in the debate, along with their general philosophies differ greatly.
The state faces chronic budget shortfalls that affect all state agencies, including education. There is little hope that full funding of K-12 education will happen in the short-term.
On Tuesday, Tollison made a case that there are real solutions to our educational problems that are not tied to funding and, in fact, the state has made some real progress toward that end.
Most notable is the state’s “third-grade gate” legislation, passed two years ago and championed by Tollison and Gov. Phil Bryant.
By requiring all third-graders to read at grade level before being promoted to fourth grade, the state has added a level of accountability that did not previously exist.
“The more you invest in children when they are young, the bigger the dividends you’ll see,” Tollison said. “We’ve made real progress there.”
He pointed out that Mississippi was the only state in which its fourth-graders improved scores in both reading and math. Mississippi’s plan is now the model that other states are following, Tollison said.
Tollison also favors school consolidation, which he said directs more funds from administration to the classroom, where it matters most.
“It’s the teachers and principals who make the difference,” Tollison noted.
A GOP-backed pay raise for teachers has helped retain good teachers, but he confessed, there is much work yet to be done.
On that point, both Republicans and Democrats can agree.
If there is cause for optimism, it is that both Tollison and his neighbor, Hughes, are deeply committed to education. They are well-informed, thoughtful, articulate and passionate about a critical — the critical — issue facing our state. While others shed heat, they shed light.
These are the voices that should lead the discussion on both sides of the aisle. It is our best hope of the kind of collaboration and compromise that will elevate the discussion from political pandering to real solutions.