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Mississippi’s K-12 Public Schools Making Progress for Better Education

Mac Gordon

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Mississippi’s K-12 public schools have made verifiable progress in the past decade, none of it more important than stemming a tidal wave of student dropouts.

One new report showing the states with the highest dropout rates listed New Mexico at number one. Mississippi didn’t make the top five, which included Arizona, Nevada, Idaho and Oregon.

Mississippi, with the 12th highest rate, formerly led the statistic that is one of the most-telling barometers of a state’s secondary education arrangement.

A State Department of Education report in January listed our dropout rate at 8.5-percent, down from 14-percent in 2013. The graduation rate is almost 90-percent for students entering the 9th grade since the 2019-20 year.

More good news came in the 2024 Legislature with a hopefully-landmark decision that creates a new funding formula for the state’s 152 public school districts.

Mississippi is spending a vast amount on K-12 public education, despite many observers believing it’s still not enough. The amount for the next school year is $2,957,721,549 — some $217 million more than this year’s.

The almost $3 billion to be expended is big money for a state with less than 3 million people, one with a wide range of monumental societal needs.

We can do better, but not at the expense of other vital state agencies. We can’t slash funding of other vital state departments simply to put more money into education. Imagine cutting to the bone such services as public safety, public health, mental health, environmental regulation, higher education and economic development to put more money in K-12.

With even the large appropriation, the figure is about $50 million shy of fully funding the old Mississippi Adequate Education Program. MAEP, created almost 30 years ago, is being shelved.

Funding K-12 and educating children is generally considered the most important and fundamental function of state government, outside, perhaps, of public safety. My lifelong friend Robert Ingram is a scholar on economic development and once headed the University of Southern Mississippi’s department on the subject. Ask the former McComb mayor what entrepreneurs want to know about a potential community in which to make an investment.

“How are the public schools there?”

Not the average price of a home. Not how the Chamber of Commerce is doing in leading the place. Not how many medical clinics, churches, golf courses or service clubs exist.

They ask about the public schools because industry cannot locate where workplace skills are inadequate.

When it appeared the 2024 Legislature might kick the can on funding K-12 to a later date, wiser heads approved a new method called the Mississippi Student Funding Program.

A pleasing aspect of the new plan is enhanced funding for the poorest of the poor and low-performing school districts, bringing to mind an old legislative argument that says “throwing more money” at a school system isn’t always the proper corrective action. The other side of that aphorism, some say, is “we should try that sometime.”

House Education Chairman Rob Roberson, a Starkville Republican, said, “A lot of people will tell you that money doesn’t change education... Well, I’m here to tell you: the lack of it certainly will.”

Effective July 1, the new plan will replace the MAEP, which was never truly adequate and seemingly always shortchanged districts.

One wonders how Mississippi’s public school superintendents and boards historically have planned for the future beyond a few months.

Most years, it would take a California psychic or a professional poker player on staff to guess how much money the state was sending to the districts for the next term.

Hopefully, that uncertainty is what’s been booted down the road.

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