State Takeover of Jackson Schools a Step Forward??

“Are these state government takeover of our children school system warranted?? Look at the educational cost of taking on Local School Control. I then ask where are: PTA”s, Community Outrage, School Administration, Teachers and last but not least the students??”

America’s ongoing solutions to “reform” public schools is filled with stories of state officials taking over “underperforming” school districts. Recent presidential administrations, including Obama’s, have approved of such takeovers even though, in nearly every instance—New Orleans, Detroit, Newark—takeovers are carried out by white state officials accusing black and brown communities of being unable to care for their children.

Again the same old story is repeating itself but now its in the most racist state in the union, against the largest majority school district in the state Jackson, Mississippi, where a state audit of the district’s schools gave justification for a series of hearings by the state accreditation board and education department to propose a takeover of Jackson schools. The mostly white state officials presented their cases for takeover in a room limited in seating and closed to the public except for invited guests. Scores of mostly black community leaders and citizens, watched remotely on a video livestream from an auditorium. After each hearing, state officials deliberated behind closed doors while people in the auditorium waited patiently for the takeover decisions to be announced.

“This is a frame job to push an agenda,” Melvin Priester, a native of Jackson who attended Jackson schools before going on to earn an undergraduate degree from Harvard and a law degree from Stanford stated. He now practices law in his hometown and serves on the city council. “This unfair fight has been building for years,” he said.

Yet, this story of a state takeover of Jackson Schools is very different;

When the call for takeover was sent to Governor Phil Bryant’s desk, he made an unusual decision to eschew takeover outright and agreed with a proposal from Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba to create a joint committee to recommend next steps for the schools. The commission, called “Better Together,” would include city and state officials, Jackson citizens, and representatives from the Kellogg Foundation based in Michigan.

Some are already hailing the approach as a “public-private partnership”, but questions still remain. Is Mississippi plowing new ground for genuine partnerships between white political rule and black communities in the Deep South? Or is the state merely continuing centuries-old oppression of black governance under a different guise?

Governor Bryant is still holding out the possibility of state takeover prompting many in Jackson to doubt the governor’s sincerity. The district has continued to close schools in response to state directives, while state monitors with the Mississippi Department of Education have reminded Jackson the district still faces possible takeover.

A number of Jackson Public Schools supporters admitted that some problems in the district had indeed not been addressed and that former superintendent Cedrick Gray was indeed “over his head.”

While, a careful reading of the audit shows that many of the standards and violations cited seem exceedingly bureaucratic—such as failures in record keeping, data reporting, and regulatory compliance—are addressable issues but by no means drastic enough for a state takeover. Further citations seem overly general and subjective, such as administrators failing to “implement standards of governance” or teachers failing to follow “tiered instruction.” Other violations can be easily explained by lack of funding for the schools, particularly shortages in school staffing and unaddressed building maintenance issues.

Dorsey Carson, a Jackson native who heads a local law firm, complained that his daughter’s elementary school was dinged for having “inattentive students,” because the auditor happened to show up during naptime. The school is the only one in Mississippi to be recognized as a National PTA School of Excellence, according to its website.

Other violations were hotly contested by interim superintendent Freddrick Murray and district special counsel James Keith, who argued that many of the violations—particularly with busing, safety, and security—happened almost a year ago and have since been corrected. But the thick binders Jackson Public Schools staff hastily assembled to counter the auditors’ claims were generally ignored during the proceedings.

“There’s always been a target on Jackson’s back,” Jed Oppenheim, a school board member, who worked as a senior advocate in Mississippi for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “[The state’s efforts] are about controlling money and power, Oppenheim said. “There’s no awakening or newfound care for black kids.”

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