Nearly 1,000 students, teachers and policymakers crowded the Capitol rotunda in Jackson on Tuesday for the state’s second school choice rally, hosted by pro-school choice group Empower Mississippi to celebrate National School Choice Week.
The message was that while progress has been made toward school choice, only a small percentage of Mississippi students are able to take advantage and opportunities need to be expanded.
Three public charter schools are only available statewide in the footprint of Jackson Public School District. The state’s education scholarship program is open to 1,000 students with special needs, and parents can use an allotted $6,500 on tuition, tutors, books and other educational aids.
Too many students in Mississippi are trapped in failing schools. More than 28 percent (about 135,700 students) of the state’s 482,000 public school students are in districts that received either “D” or “F”grades from the Mississippi Department of Education, according to an analysis of data by Mississippi Watchdog.
Keynote speaker Kevin Chavous, an attorney, author and former District of Columbia city councilman who helped lead the charter school movement in D.C., said Mississippi is just starting on the road toward school choice and has a long way to go. He said the key to progress is getting policymakers from both parties to realize that providing a high-quality education isn’t a Democrat or Republican issue.
“Mississippi is a little late to the school choice dance,” Chavous said. “What we need is a more constructive dialogue with people who come from different walks of life in Mississippi.
“I had dinner last night with several African-American legislators and I told them to sit, look at the charter law, look at the choice law, sit with the governor, lieutenant governor, sit with the Republican leadership, and look to find a way to build some common ground around the goal of educating kids.”
He added that “constructive dialogue” is important to unite parties, and said school choice is the only way to end the “school to prison pipeline.” Chavous said 82 percent of the nation’s prison population are high school dropouts.
State Rep. John Moore, R-Brandon, chairs the House Education Committee. He said the ultimate goal is to have funds follow each child to whatever school their parents think is the best for their needs. He also said a rewrite of the state’s K-12 funding formula, the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, is the first step toward that goal.
Moore said that the only part of education where every parent doesn’t have a choice is kindergarten through 12th grade.
“[In] pre-kindergarten, mamas and daddies decide where their children will go,” Moore said. “Parents can decide what hospital where they’d like their baby to be born. As soon as they graduate high school, they can pick out the university or the community college of their choice, or [decide] if they want to go to vocational school. But for some reason, when a child is supposed to be receiving their real education, they don’t have a choice. I always thought that was very strange.”
Last legislative session, he signed a bill that allows students in “C,” “D” and “F”-rated districts to cross district lines to attend a charter school. It also authorizes charter school employees to receive state benefits such as joining the Public Employees’ Retirement System, and enables charter operators to lease school buildings from districts at market value.
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