Taxes are necessary
More than 90 percent of all Mississippi kids attend public schools. That means that 90 percent of the state’s workforce, voters, parents, and leaders come from public schools. More than 60,000 teachers and support staff work in Mississippi’s public schools, and Mississippi state government spends more than $2 billion a year on public education. In addition, local taxpayers spend untold millions more. Is it any wonder that the subject of public education is always at the forefront for most Mississippians?
It is no secret that Mississippi has struggled to improve its public school performance. No need to go through the statistics. We have some great public schools, but too many are failing or inadequate for the needs of their students. Too many kids go into the workforce or to college unprepared for the challenges they will face.
Each year the Legislature, the governor, the State Department of Education, and various public interest groups propose ideas to improve educational outcomes. Some ideas work around the margins, and others make no appreciable difference. Few have resulted in significant improvements.
Most often the debate is about the level of funding and the method of distribution of dollars among competing education interests and school districts. And lack of adequate funds remains a problem in most districts. But there is really only one fix for a broken school or school district – good leadership and community support.
Until we figure out a way to give every school district a topnotch superintendent, every school a competent principal, and every classroom a qualified teacher, we will not improve the system. It does not matter how much we spend. It will not happen.
This year the Legislature began the process of making every school superintendent position an appointed one. The argument is that moving from elected superintendents to appointments widens the pool of qualified applicants. That may be a good first step, but it is not enough. If the board that appoints the superintendent is incompetent or too political, they will not make a wise choice. And a bad superintendent is likely to make poor choices of principals and teachers.
In Mississippi we have both appointed and elected superintendents who are great leaders and run exemplary districts, and both elected and appointed superintendents who are poor leaders who lead failing districts. In the end, just making all superintendents appointed will make little difference in overall educational performance. We must ensure that all school boards are careful in their selections, support their appointees, hire only competent teachers, manage their budgets effectively and are responsive the needs of the community. To do that we have to have parents and taxpayers who demand better schools in their districts.
In the end, whether they are appointed or elected, putting qualified, committed people in charge is the only way to ensure that high quality teaching and learning are going on in our classrooms. And that effort can only come from within our communities. There are no classrooms in the state capitol. School employees are local employees. They do not work for the state. They work for the taxpayers of the local school districts.
Want to fix your schools? First you have to fix your leadership. No amount of money or Common Core or 3rd grade gate or charter schools or vouchers or merit pay or any other top down program can fix a broken system. Just wanting better schools is not enough. Just like successful cities require competent mayors and council members, successful school districts require competent superintendents and board members. Parents and taxpayers have to demand success from school leadership, or subpar schools will continue to produce subpar results.
Cecil Brown is former chairman of the House Education Committee and now serves on the Mississippi Public Service Commission.