The state of Mississippi is often the butt of many jokes revolving around intelligence and education—or lack thereof. These jokes don’t happen for no reason; less than 22% of Mississippi students meet eighth grade proficiency levels in math and reading before they move on to high school. Mississippi ranks 48th in education and last in average teacher pay.
In 1997, the state legislature adopted the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) which developed a formula to determine the level of funding that Mississippi public schools needed to succeed. Since then, schools have only been fully funded according to MAEP standards twice. The state boasts one of the lowest per-pupil spending rankings in the nation. Until Mississippi leaders recognize the importance of education on both the lives of the students and the success of the state, students will continue to underperform, and the state will fall further behind the rest of the U.S., both economically and socially.
I spoke with a chemistry teacher from a school in southern Mississippi who explained that it is almost impossible to educate students with the resources they have available to them. She told me,
I don’t have enough desks for the number of students in my class, so some kids have to share desks. I don’t have enough textbooks for each student to have one, and the ones I do have are over 25 years old and were donated to the school years ago. To be able to afford toilet paper for the bathrooms, we have to open concession stands during the day and sell snacks.
With conditions like this, students do not stand a chance to move up in the real world, which is evidenced by the fact that Mississippi is the poorest state in the union with the lowest average income. This is absolutely unacceptable, yet Mississippi lawmakers do not seem to agree.
In a 35 minute interview regarding problems during the COVID-19 pandemic, Mississippi Speaker of the House Phillip Gunn did not mention the effect the pandemic has had on the educational system in the state once. Gunn, like many state officials, seemingly does not view education as a top priority even though economic growth of a state is directly related to the quality of the state’s schools.
Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves recently released his first budget recommendation for fiscal year 2021. The plan increases the budget for public schools by 3.2%, but cuts the budget for higher education by 2.8%. Even with the minuscule budget increase for public schools, the state education system would still remain one of the lowest funded programs in the US.
As one teacher at The Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science—the highest ranked school in the state—put it,
I understand that the state has all kinds of immediate needs and a limited budget. But the fact that we’ve fully funded education twice in the last two decades shows Mississippians that their leaders don’t care about giving people the educational tools they need to compete in a global marketplace.
Reforms to education do not just improve the lives of the student’s, it increases the quality of living for everyone in the state. According to a study performed by a professor at Stanford University, if Mississippi were to raise its levels of student achievement to the same levels as Minnesota—the state with the highest student achievement—the growth in GDP would allow the state to meet all public demands and keep their budget balanced.
Mississippians deserve an equal opportunity to achieve educational excellence—like every other American. It is time for Mississippi lawmakers to acknowledge the importance of a quality education. And it is time for Mississippi public schools to receive the resources they need for both the students and the state as a whole to be successful.