JACKSON FREE PRESS: The Katrina Education Lie

Among the many reflections on the effects of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast, the discussion of its effects on schools in New Orleans may be the most disingenuous. There is no doubt that pre-Katrina public schools in New Orleans were struggling, but the narrative is that post-Katrina, with its charter-school takeover, New Orleans education is better. Some even hint that Katrina was a godsend, that we should wipe the school slate clean and start over.

Two major pieces appeared last week, one in The New York Times and another from The Institute for Public Affairs, providing blistering rebuttals to this narrative. Both articles lay out the evidence that the “accomplishments” of charter schools in one of the poorest, most struggling school systems is a mirage.

In addition, the Network for Public Education has a study comparing charter schools in Louisiana to the state’s traditional public schools, controlling for race, ethnicity, poverty and whether students qualified for special education. On eighth-grade reading and math tests, charter-school students performed worse than their public-school counterparts by enormous margins—two to three standard deviations.

Despite this evidence, we hear disturbing calls for a similar takeover of public education in Mississippi with the mantra that “more money is spent than ever before, but schools are no better.” A few public-school opponents even have called for doing away with “government indoctrination centers” altogether. And it’s not just talk radio: This scorn goes all the way up to Gov. Phil Bryant, who called public education in Mississippi an “abysmal failure.”

Some claim that if we closed every school in the Delta and southwest Mississippi, the state would go from 48th to around 24th in the nation in education. Did education magically improve? No, but the numbers would look better. In effect, that’s what happened in New Orleans. Keep the “desirable” students (and their scores), and force out the rest.

The problem, as it has always been with public education, is that we are asking schools to overcome the effects of conditions in the communities they exist in. It takes more resources to offer students in struggling communities the same opportunities as those in affluent ones.

Simply put, we have to spend more money in struggling schools—not to simply throw good money after bad, but to try and overcome outside factors. Research proves that two-thirds of student-achievement impact happens away from school. With students in stable, affluent homes in strong communities, this two-thirds is a plus. For those students in unstable, poor homes in struggling communities, this two-thirds is a minus.

Public schools reflect their communities. When people attack schools, they are actually attacking the communities those schools serve. Saying we should stop supporting “failing” schools is tantamount to saying we should stop supporting “failing” communities. But in both cases, we never made a serious attempt to improve them in the first place.

Mississippi has opposed public schools for decades. We resisted providing free textbooks in the 1940s; we consolidated schools to maintain segregation in the 1950s; we tried to abolish public schools altogether in response to integration in the 1960s; we tried to shift public funds to segregation academies in the 1970s; we resisted attempts to provide kindergarten and basic standards in the 1980s; we resisted adequately funding education in the 1990s; we resisted adjusting school funding to fix inequities in the 2000s; and we are determined to privatize education in the 2010s.

To those who say public education is a failure: Just when are we ever going to give it a chance to succeed? Are we ever going to try provide an adequate education to all our state’s children, instead of finding excuses not to? Or have we decided as a people to accept the inequity as permanent, creating a dual system of education for the haves and the have-nots?

Shannon Eubanks is principal of Enterprise Attendance Center in Brookhaven.

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JACKSON FREE PRESS: Senate Panel Denies School Funding Group’s Records Request

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves’ email and other correspondence are not public records that are subject to disclosure, the Mississippi Senate Rules Committee said Monday. Leaders of a group promoting a school funding amendment disagreed.

Patsy Brumfield of the 42 For Better Schools Campaign said the group sent certified letters on Aug. 11 to Reeves and Speaker Philip Gunn, requesting all email or other correspondence from the two Republican officials about Initiative 42 and an alternative, Initiative 42-A.

Gunn said state law gives the Legislature the power to regulate public access to its records. He said the request for his correspondence was sent to the House Management Committee, which meets Sept. 15.

Initiative 42 is a citizen-led effort to force lawmakers to fully fund an education budget formula that has been largely ignored since it was put into law in 1997. People could sue if schools are shortchanged.

The Republican-led Legislature put 42-A on the same ballot, saying it would require funding of “effective” schools but wouldn’t allow a lawsuit. Critics see the alternative as a proposal designed to confuse voters and kill Initiative 42.

Both proposals will be on the Nov. 3 general election ballot.

Legislative leaders have said repeatedly in the past several months that Initiative 42 would give one judge control over the state budget.

Michael Rejebian, a political researcher who often works for Democrats, filed the public records request on behalf of 42 for Better Schools.

“The politicians at the state Capitol set laws for everyone to follow except themselves,” Rejebian said Monday in a news release. “Their refusal to release this information raises even more questions about their relationship with privately funded, special interest lobbyists who are fighting against Initiative 42.”

Senate President Pro Tempore Giles Ward, R-Louisville, is chairman of the Rules Committee presides over the Senate when Reeves is not available. Ward said in a letter to Rejebian on Monday that a Senate public records rule was set in 2002 and is still in effect.

“The only records subject to release under this policy are expense reimbursement records and NO OTHER RECORDS ARE SUBJECT TO RELEASE,” Ward wrote, using all capital letters for emphasis.

The Mississippi Legislature has long exempted itself from many provisions of the Open Meetings and Public Records laws.

In 1990, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that the lieutenant governor is a member of both the executive branch and the legislative branch. The ruling came in a lawsuit brought by a state senator who challenged the lieutenant governor’s role as a member of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee. Justices allowed the lieutenant governor to remain on the committee.

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JACKSON FREE PRESS: How School Districts Try to Make the Grade

Jackson Public Schools Superintendent Cedrick Gray plans to lift his district’s grade from a D to an A in three years, he says. Trip Burns/File Photo

How schools are graded is important. Grade them too easily, and failing districts and schools will make the cut despite miserable conditions or poor teaching and standards. Grade them too harshly, and several districts will continue to fail, despite attempts at improvements.

The state grades Mississippi public schools based on an A-F scale, according to its accountability standards. Mississippi began assigning A-to-F grades in 2012 and switched to a new underlying system of scoring in 2014. The new system is under fire in a recent PEER study that has called for changes. PEER is a bi-partisan legislative committee that reviews and investigates state agency programs.

The shifting of accountability scoring standards has not affected Jackson Public Schools’ grade, a D, for the past two years.

Jackson Public Schools Chief of Staff Jason Sargent said he is unsure if PEER’s suggested changes would help or hurt the district’s grade. JPS’ overall D grade is a combination of each school’s individual performance as well as graduation rates, and growth in history, science, math and reading subject areas.

Sargent said despite receiving a D grade again, JPS has decreased its number of failing schools. In 2013, the district had 17 failing schools. Now only eight middle schools and elementary schools have an F grade.

The accountability system, however, might not be the best measure for a district’s performance. Even before the PEER report came out, Jackson city and school officials at the JPS budget hearing criticized the accountability rating system and raised questions about its validity. The district’s grade is not determined based solely on the number of failing schools, Sargent said.

“Depending on how it’s calculated, this upcoming year we could still have eight failing schools and move our rating to a C,” he said.

JPS Superintendent Cedrick Gray has publicized his strategic plan to get JPS to be an A district in three years, and Sargent said the focus is not only on the failing schools but on all schools to bring up individual school grades to As and Bs.

PEER’s Concerns

The district’s predicament is common—39 districts in the state received D grades in 2014—only one school district in the state got an F: Hinds County AHS District.

The PEER study said that the accountability standards should have more emphasis based on proficiency rather than growth or benchmark scores that districts have too much control over.

“If the purpose of the accountability standards is to improve student achievement and increase the level of accountability of schools and districts, then more emphasis should be placed on proficiency—how a student actually performs on the assessments,” states the report by the Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Committee.

State Superintendent Carey Wright, though, fundamentally disagrees with the report’s recommendations. She said PEER’s recommendations would weaken the statistical validity of Mississippi’s A-to-F grades for schools and that de-emphasizing student growth would penalize schools that are making strides in student performance.

“There’s nothing arbitrary about our accountability model,” Wright told reporters attending a meeting of the state Board of Education at its temporary office in Clinton.

A key element of that model takes students’ test scores and assigns them to one of four performance groups—minimal, basic, proficient or advanced. The model then assigns points based on what share of a school’s students are proficient and advanced.

PEER said such sorting is imprecise and could give equal credit to a school where students all scored in the proficient range and a school where all scored advanced. The committee recommended instead that the department publish scores as a share of possible points.

The report recommended a grade based solely on scores, and then a separate measure showing whether scores grew, fell or were flat. Without including growth, Wright warns that schools where poor students start behind but learn a lot would be “systematically disadvantaged” compared to schools with more affluent students.

On Friday, the Department of Education issued their 85-page response to the PEER study, rejecting the report’s concerns, saying that the group used no empirical data or analytics to back up their report’s claims.

The department’s press release also issued on Friday said they use a task force made up of superintendents, administrators and legislators as well as an external review team to evaluate school districts.

PEER said the use of a committee to set score cutoffs is “subjective,” allowing officials to make schools “look good.” PEER also questioned whether Mississippi dropped its requirement for high-school seniors to pass four subject-area tests to graduate to manipulate graduation rates.

Because Mississippi’s accountability system is written into state law, legislators could ultimately judge the report. Nicole Webb, a spokeswoman for Gov. Phil Bryant, said his office was reviewing the report, saying it appears to contain “valuable information.”

2014 Mississippi School Districts Report Card

Most school districts in the state are in the received Bs, Cs and Ds, according to the Mississippi Department of Education accountability system.

# of Districts Receiving Each Grade:

A: 19

B: 43

C: 48

D: 39

F: 1

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JACKSON FREE PRESS: A Three-Point Plan for Public Safety Built on Youth Success

Robert Shuler Smith Trip Burns/File Photo

During the past few months, nearly 50 police chiefs and sheriffs from Mississippi have voiced their support for a three-pronged approach for putting all kids—particularly boys of color—on track for success in school and lives free of the criminal justice system.

Driven by research and common sense, these law enforcement leaders are advocating for quality early education. They are also urging educators to reduce school suspensions and expulsions. And they are determined to improve relations between youth and the law enforcement community.

The law enforcement leaders made their case by joining Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a national crime prevention organization. As a fellow member of the organization, I am also urging Mississippi lawmakers to continue their support for practices with a proven impact on public safety and the success of our kids.

They can begin with continued backing of Mississippi’s state preschool program. Mississippi’s law enforcement community championed the program’s creation in 2013 with a report, Pay Now or Pay Much More Later, that spotlighted studies that followed at-risk kids who experienced high quality early learning several decades into their adult lives. Both studies found that kids who participated were far more likely to graduate from high school and far less likely to become involved in crime.

While this outcome is obviously important to us, we also pushed for the program because quality early learning is especially important for kids from poorer families who cannot afford to spend nearly $4,000, the average annual cost of private preschool here in Mississippi, where 38 percent of kids aged five and under are living in poverty. Equally important, research shows quality early learning can return, on average, a net economic benefit to society of more than $26,000 for every child served, based on reduced costs of crime, special education, grade repetition and other costs incurred by the public.

Policymakers should also champion efforts such as those underway in Jackson and Biloxi schools to reduce suspensions and expulsions. Led by pragmatic educators, the schools deal with problem behaviors – such as talking back to teachers, using inappropriate language and disrupting other students – within the school environment, thereby keeping kids in school and off the streets. This is important for public safety because data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows out-of-school 12- to 19-year-olds were more likely to get into a physical fight, carry a weapon or engage in risky behaviors such as drug use.

We are especially pleased that these schools here in Jackson are using in-school discipline programs such as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, which utilize peer pressure and rewards systems to foster and reinforce good behaviors. Here too the public benefits, because researchers have found that positive behavior programs can produce net savings of $30,000 per student based on reducing crime and increasing school success.

Lawmakers can further reduce crime by joining efforts to build better relations between law enforcement and youth. While this is obviously important given the widely publicized distrust of police among minority youth in particular, American police academics spend little, if any, time to prepare officers on how to diffuse tension among youth during stressful situations.

In an effort to turn the tide, Mississippi law enforcement organized a Teen Town Hall at Wingfield High School in May. The event featured a panel of young black men alongside several officials from Jackson and Hinds County. The dialogue allowed the youth to speak honestly about their struggles, and reasons for their animosity toward police, while offering law enforcement the opportunity to connect on a personal level with the kids. The dialogue was emotionally powerful for everyone, and I have no doubt that it will inspire more trust and help young people understand law enforcement’s desire to protect their safety.

Unfortunately we need to do more than talk. Law enforcement officers nationwide need more training to understand the impact of adolescent brain development on impulsive and sometimes counter-productive behavior. We also need to learn how to de-escalate tensions in police interactions with young people, particularly youth of color, to build the trust we need to effectively protect our communities. And we must recognize that the best way to keep our streets safe is to prevent more young people from turning to crime in the first place. Supporting quality education, keeping kids in school, and becoming better ambassadors for our public safety mission will keep these efforts on track now and in the years to come.

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JACKSON FREE PRESS: PEER Questions Grading System for Public Schools

State Superintendent Dr. Carey Wright defends Mississippi's accountability model, saying there is "nothing arbitrary" about it. Photo courtesy Dr. Carey Wright

A legislative oversight group is questioning the way Mississippi grades its public schools even as the state moves forward with plans to take control of schools considered failing. The state grades Mississippi public schools based on an A-F scale, according to the state’s accountability standards. The Tunica County School District received a D grade in 2014 and an F in 2013. Jackson Public Schools has been graded with a D for the past two years.

In July, the Tunica County School District became the most recent to fall under the state’s control after violating 22 of 31 accreditation standards. The conservator, Dr. Margie Pulley, reported to the state school board Aug. 20 that the district is moving in the right direction.

She said the district is fully staffed except for one special-education teacher position. Pulley said personnel training and curriculum development are in motion; the real problem is funding.

“Nothing has been done with the budget,” she said.

The district’s budget was due Aug. 15, but Pulley said they are missing about $2 million in gaming revenue from Tunica County from the last year. The priority for Pulley and her team in recent weeks, however, has been making sure all schools could open at the start of the school year.

“There are many issues in Tunica schools,” she said. “It’s going to take time to change.”

The PEER report said the state’s scoring system assigns more points to test-score growth than to actual scores, potentially skewing the school districts’ final grades.

On Wednesday, during a presentation on the JPS budget, Jackson city and school officials criticized the accountability rating system and raised questions about its validity.

A report released the following day, Aug. 20, bolstered the doubts of Jackson leaders and questioned how Mississippi grades its public-school districts and individual schools. The report concludes that the focus of accountability standards should be on students’ actual test scores, rather than year-over-year test-score growth in calculations.

“If the purpose of the accountability standards is to improve student achievement and increase the level of accountability of schools and districts, then more emphasis should be placed on proficiency—how a student actually performs on the assessments,” states the report by the Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Committee.

State Superintendent Carey Wright, though, fundamentally disagrees with the report’s recommendations. She said that PEER’s recommendations would weaken the statistical validity of Mississippi’s A-to-F grades for schools and that de-emphasizing student growth would penalize schools that are making strides in student performance.

“There’s nothing arbitrary about our accountability model,” Wright told reporters attending a meeting of the state Board of Education at its temporary office in Clinton.

Mississippi began assigning A-to-F grades in 2012 and switched to a new underlying system of scoring in 2014.

A key element of that plan takes students’ test scores and assigns them to one of four performance groups—minimal, basic, proficient or advanced. The model then assigns points based on what share of a school’s students are proficient and advanced.

PEER said such sorting is imprecise and could give equal credit to a school where students all scored in the proficient range and a school where all scored advanced. The committee recommended instead that the department publish scores as a share of possible points.

Deputy State Superintendent J.P. Beaudoin, though, said that tests aren’t perfect measures, and that using such scores would be a “false precision.” He and Wright emphasized that assigning students to performance groups is accepted national practice.

“While it might seem beneficial to provide incentives for schools and districts to encourage them to reach a higher level of achievement, if those incentives obfuscate data regarding actual student performance, the ultimate goal of improving student achievement and increasing school and district accountability has not been reached,” the report states.

PEER recommended a grade based solely on scores, and then a separate measure showing whether scores grew, fell or were flat. Without including growth, Wright warns that schools where poor students start behind but learn a lot would be “systematically disadvantaged” compared to schools with more affluent students.

“To the extent that equity (or improving performance of at-risk students) is a priority outcome, indicators must be included that signal such progress and reward ongoing efforts,” Wright wrote in a response letter.

Wright said growth should be baked into the single grade to avoid increased imprecision.

PEER said the use of a committee to set score cutoffs is “subjective,” allowing officials to make schools “look good.” PEER also questioned whether Mississippi dropped its requirement for high-school seniors to pass four subject-area tests to graduate to manipulate graduation rates.

Because Mississippi’s accountability system is written into state law, legislators could ultimately judge the report. Nicole Webb, a spokeswoman for Gov. Phil Bryant, said his office was reviewing the report, saying it appears to contain “valuable information.”

“Gov. Bryant believes that Mississippi must have high, effective and accurate standards for students, and that grades and school ratings must be awarded with the utmost integrity so families have an accurate understanding of school and student performance,” she wrote in an email.

Read the full PEER report here.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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JACKSON FREE PRESS: Report Finds School Ratings Flawed, Superintendent Disagrees

CLINTON, Miss. (AP) — A legislative watchdog committee is questioning how Mississippi grades its public school districts and individual schools.

The Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Committee released a report Thursday sharply criticizing how the Mississippi Department of Education calculates A-to-F grades for schools.

The committee says the current system gives too big a boost to schools recording growth in student test scores, obscuring their actual achievement levels.

The report also criticizes the practice of sorting student test scores into broad classification categories and then using the shares of students in each category to assign grades. It says decisions on scores required to reach performance levels are arbitrary.

State superintendent Carey Wright says she fundamentally disagrees with the report’s conclusions. She says some of PEER’s suggested changes would make school grading less statistically reliable.

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JACKSON FREE PRESS: Journal from Jackson: Will Kids Win State’s School-Funding Fight?

Jarrius Adams speaks at a public forum about Initiative 42. Photo courtesy Liz Allen

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Mississippi.

Fixing education in a state like Mississippi doesn’t happen without a lot of kicking and screaming, even when there is nowhere to go but up.

After all, this is a place where politicians fiercely resisted desegregation, balk at raising taxes and are spending money drug-testing welfare recipients. The state spends as much as 30 percent less per pupil than its neighbors and posts some of the lowest test scores in the U.S. And let’s not forget that Mississippi has the country’s highest rate of childhood poverty.

In the past year, there’s been a campaign backed by foundations, parents and a host of educators pushing to direct more money to lagging public education via a constitutional amendment known as Initiative 42. It’s picked up competition in recent months after lawmakers agreed last January to file their own competing amendment.

I came to Jackson last week for the first in a series of statewide public hearings on the two measures that will come before state voters in November, and I wondered how they’ll manage to keep the confusing language straight. Initiative 42 would direct the Legislature to fully fund 150 school districts across the state. The other – Alternative Measure 42A – may nullify the effort by keeping funding as it is.

I heard plenty from both sides. At the hearing at the Mississippi e-Center at Jackson State University, I encountered Jarrius Adams, a Hattiesburg debate champion who just turned 18 and had never heard of either amendment before he was asked to speak on behalf of Initiative 42. By the time Adams stepped up to the podium in a crisply tailored suit and powder blue power tie for the first hearing, he practically owned it.

“I want you to ask yourself: Are you satisfied with the schools your children and grandchildren go to?” Adams said, electrifying the crowd with his powerful oratory. “Because that is the only question that matters. You have a chance to take back control of your schools … to hold these politicians accountable. It’s all a matter of priorities.” The Goal: Confusing Voters

Initiative 42 first got its place on the ballot after more than 200,000 residents signed a petition asking the Legislature to enforce the 1997 law known as the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which determines the threshold funding necessary to make schools effective. It’s only been fully funded twice.

But the Republican-controlled Legislature decided to fight back, led by Meridian Republican Rep. Gregory Snowden, the speaker pro tem. They say Alternative Measure 42A will keep funding decisions in the hands of legislators instead of judges, give voters another choice and protect cuts to other key services.

Further litigation over the ballot title for the alternative amendment has been even more confusing, as has discussion over the difference between “adequate and efficient,” schools (in 42) vs. “effective,” schools – in 42A.

At the first hearing, Adams debated with Snowden, who acknowledged that 42A’s place on the ballot is a reaction to 42. “Is it intended to make it more difficult to pass 42? Of course, it is,” Snowden told the crowd.

Snowden has insisted that voting for 42 will mean deep cuts to important taxpayer services such as road maintenance and higher education. Mississippi lawmakers recently ordered state agency leaders to begin planning for major budget cuts if the initiative passes. 
’Packed Shoulder to Shoulder’

At last week’s hearing in Jackson and second hearing in Hernando, speaker after speaker, largely educators, parents and grandparents, called the threat of cuts “a scare tactic,” and described the many ways their schools are shortchanged.

None of this surprised me; in recent years, Hechinger Report journalists have witnessed unsafe playgrounds, overcrowded classrooms and a lack of textbooks and adequate technology all over the state.

We’ve also perused requests for basic supplies from classroom teachers at sites like Donors Choose and GoFundMe where new teacher Paige Watson recently sent out a plea for pencils and notebooks, along with a classroom library “full of books that are age-appropriate for my students,” – adding that she also needs books for parents because public libraries “are few and far between.”

Naturally, I wondered what kind of experience Adams, the National Speech and Debate Student of the Year, had at Hattiesburg High School, where he recently graduated sixth in his class: “Behind five girls, what can I say?!” he told me.

As a national debate champion, Adams had previously debated health care and gun-control laws, but said he hadn’t given serious thought to what’s been missing in his own education until 42 for Better Schools contacted him.

Now, Adams considers himself a poster child for why Initiative 42 is needed. He attended high school honor classes that were packed “shoulder to shoulder,” and, in some cases, taught by unqualified teachers. During his senior year, Adams recalls shouting out in frustration because he couldn’t find a counselor to help him with college applications, and described how he relied on videos to learn geometry because textbooks were outdated.

And while Adams is attending University of Mississippi (“Ole Miss” to locals) to study business administration this fall, he recounted missing several out-of-state application deadlines because his teachers failed to turn in letters of recommendation on time; he says they were simply too overwhelmed.

Adams performance was not overlooked by Snowden. “I was certainly impressed with the young man,” Snowden told me afterwards. “I took the time to speak to him and told him it was nice to meet him.”

Factchecking the Factcheckers

Nonetheless, Snowden complained that Adams has his facts wrong; Snowden insists that residents can only vote for Initiative 42 if they want a “Hinds County Judge,” (the seat of state government) to decide how their tax dollars are spent, instead of representatives and senators elected “by the people.”

Snowden also disagrees that state government has underfunded schools by more than $1 billion since 2008. He maintains that the Legislature has been unfairly “demonized,” while trying to fully fund schools “and get them off the bottom.” He says they’ve been hampered by the difficult recovery from the recession.

The Meridian Republican also said that he doesn’t believe there is always “a higher correlation between higher funding and success,” and told me that beyond funding, “there are a number of ways to improve, there are all sorts of things we can do,” although he did not elaborate.

Grant Cullen, president and founder of the citizens movement Empower Mississippi, is also pointing out that Republicans “have increased spending on education every year since they took control in 2001,” although 42 For Better Schools disputes that.

Rather than listen to the same old fights over money, I decided I’d spend some time last week at the windowless warehouse in Jackson that’s become headquarters for 42 For Better Schools, which gets funds largely from foundations and individuals. Former journalist, author and campaign veteran Michael Rejebian of the Jackson based research/public relations firm Huffman & Rejebian leads much of the effort.

When I arrived, Rejebian was perusing new videos made in favor of 42, including one from veteran actor Danny Glover. He was also enraged after hearing that Paul Gallo of talk radio had erroneously tweeted remarks by the state’s Ways & Means Chair Jeff Smith that the organization was funded by the same group that funds Planned Parenthood; a subsequent tweet after numerous calls from the campaign produced a correction.

The staff was busy getting ready for the rest of this summer’s hearings, and I wanted to see a few public schools. I found myself on a mini tour with Drew Schimmel, a former special assistant attorney general who is now working with 42 for Better Schools.

‘An Observer From Within’

Schimmel and I ended up at Murrah High, where Schimmel graduated in 2000, one of a handful of white students whose parents were deeply involved with Parents for Public Schools and made a concerted effort to send their children to Jackson’s public schools to fight the city’s prevalent “white flight.”

By that time, efforts to resist desegregation had long been in place, with white families across the state creating private schools referred to as “segregation academies,” for their own kids. Hundreds had opened across the South in the 20 years after the 1954 Brown v. Board decision, and many still thrive in Mississippi. A Hechinger Report analysis found last year that all of the remaining academies in Mississippi enroll fewer than 2 percent black students, and are eligible for federal funds that flow through public-school districts, such as for professional development, even though they have little interaction with them.

The experience has stayed with Schimmel, who calls himself “a white participant and observer from within,” and says he can get mad about lackluster schools “in a way many can’t. I was put through that system, and I’m still making up for the deficiencies.”

Schimmel’s parents and their close friends, including former Secretary of State Dick Molpus, fought hard for public schools, and Schimmel in his own way is doing his part.

Yet as the hearings and the campaign continue, it’s clear how truly difficult – once again – it will be to get the money into Mississippi schools and boost student performance. For either of the proposals to be successful in forcing an amendment to the state constitution, they’ll have to get at least 40 percent of the total votes cast in the general election. That will mean a huge turnout is needed in a non-presidential year.

Change will not be easy.
 “There’s a lot of work to be done,” said Adams, who moved into his dorm at Ole Miss over the weekend and plans to continue working with 42 in the coming weeks. “I’m just glad to be part of something positive in my state.”

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JACKSON FREE PRESS: Justices: Judge Wrong to Rewrite 42-A Ballot Description

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Supporters of a citizen-led school funding initiative have lost a battle in the Mississippi Supreme Court.

In a split decision Thursday, justices ruled that a Hinds County circuit judge should not have rewritten the ballot title for an alternative initiative, also dealing with school funding, that legislators put on the Nov. 3 ballot.

A ballot title is a brief description of a proposed constitutional amendment, and the wording is important because it could determine whether voters accept or reject a proposal.

The justices’ ruling means the original language for the Legislature’s alternative initiative will appear on the ballot.

Initiative 42 got on the ballot through citizens’ petitions, and its supporters say it’s a way to force lawmakers to fully fund an education budget formula that has been ignored most years since it was put into law in 1997. The ballot title for Initiative 42 says the state must provide “an adequate and efficient system of free public schools.” It also stipulates that people could sue the state if education funding falls short.

The Republican-controlled Legislature put Initiative 42-A on the same ballot as an alternative. The original title for 42-A, written by Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood, said lawmakers must fund “effective free public schools.”

Supporters of 42 filed a lawsuit early this year to seek a new description of 42-A, arguing voters could become confused and not know how to choose between the two similarly worded proposals. In April, Hinds County Circuit Judge Winston Kidd rewrote the title of 42-A to say the Legislature should fund effective schools, but to specify that there is no mechanism for enforcement, meaning that the Legislature didn’t say people could file a lawsuit if funding falls short.

The lead plaintiff in the lawsuit was Adrian Shipman of Oxford, who has children in public schools.

“Regardless of what the Supreme Court says, we are completely dedicated to winning Nov. 3 for the sake of all our children’s futures,” Shipman said in a statement Thursday. “And, certainly, it doesn’t change the fact that the legislative alternative to Initiative 42 is nothing more than our lawmakers’ best effort to confuse voters and hold public education hostage.”

A majority of justices ruled Thursday that state law gives a circuit judge the power to rewrite the ballot title for a citizen-led initiative but not the ballot title for an alternative initiative put on the ballot by legislators.

Republican leaders, including Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn, have said the citizen-led initiative could give one judge control over the state budget. Reeves and Gunn issued a joint statement Thursday praising “the justices’ decision to correct a Hinds County judge who overstepped his constitutional role.”

“This judicial irresponsibility is precisely why voters should be wary of Initiative 42, which gives a Hinds County judge the authority to direct education policy,” they said in the statement.

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