Charlie Mitchell Column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 3, 2009


Mitchell: Angling for better schools ineffective without local leaders, parents

It won’t be long before commutes by Mississippi lawmakers to and from the Capitol will offer a seasonal sight: Individuals or clusters of individuals sitting on upside-down five-gallon plastic buckets and holding cane poles out over ponds.

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And, as everyone around here knows, it’s an official sign of spring when the insulating effect of the buckets is no longer needed. When the ground has warmed enough, the fishermen will put their posteriors flat down on it.

About that time, the more affluent will start heading to lakes in state parks or the Ross Barnett, Sardis, Enid, Arkabutla or other reservoirs. Some will ride in $30,000 powerboats that might well have another $30,000 worth of paraphernalia — rods, reels, depth-finders, global positioning systems, water temperature and acidity gauges and even submersible video cameras.

While driving, legislators might ponder which of the two angler groups actually produces more fish for Mississippi frying pans — those with $200 rods, $500 reels and $12 artificial baits or the bank-sitters who dangle worms, crickets or chicken livers?

The reason is that again in Jackson this year — as every year — education funding is under discussion. It would be good for lawmakers — and everyone else — to pause: Just as there is no direct, causal guarantee that more spending produces more fish, more money doesn’t guarantee more learning by students in state classrooms.

The math isn’t complicated.

Reducing the allocation of Mississippi Adequate Education Program funds by $90 million for this year — which has sparked an outcry — translates to $1 less per class day per student.

That’s not “drastic” or “severe.” It means the state allocation will be about $36 per day instead of $37. Also, it should help that many districts are seeing transportation and utility costs at less-than-expected levels.

Any discussion of this topic runs head-on into hurtful numbers. One is that even with a five-year 25 percent increase to $2.18 billion in allocations for K-12 schools, Mississippi still lags dollar-for-dollar in per-pupil education investment. That’s not a point of pride.

Also, while student performance has been edging up, it, too, still lags average achievement recorded in other states. By any measure, performance is not up 25 percent, clearly showing there’s no dollar-for-dollar correlation.

We tend to forget education is not like road-building. All else being equal, if it takes $1 million to pave one mile, it costs $10 million to pave 10 miles. Education is a lot more like angling. The fish have to be biting or both the bucket-sitters and the boat-pullers will have to go to a drive-through on the way home if they want supper.

No sane person is against public education. No sane person would argue that being painfully generous to schools is foolhardy. But we must not become like the fisherman who decides the only thing he needs to fill his live wells is more equipment.

There needs to be recognition that there’s very little the Legislature can do for education other than provide money for buildings and teachers. Yes, there have been efforts through the years to increase class days and offer better pay to teachers with proven classroom skills. Yes, Gov. Haley Barbour has joined his predecessors who also stressed school changes that are checkbook-neutral. State Superintendent of Education Hank Bounds also backs myriad initiatives aimed at improving the quality of instruction and increasing student motivation which, like “fish motivation” is what matters most.

Public education in Mississippi’s 152 separate districts has been hurt by a lot of things, but nothing more than the long-term drain of support by families that seek and pay for private alternatives. Some well-meaning groups, including Parents for Public Schools, have tried to turn this around, meeting some success. Harm has also come from indifference by people in positions of community prominence who have turned a blind eye to public schools, allowing them to be administered by people who are inept, corrupt or both.

We just need to face it. All around Mississippi, the best school districts are those where parents and local leaders refuse to settle for less. Legislators can’t control our expectations any more than they can control the weather. What they can control is the money, so that’s what gets the attention. More money may mean a fisherman can get off the bank and into a boat. But it also means he can also go broke by trying to buy success — without ever getting more than a nibble.

(Charlie Mitchell is executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182, or e-mail