Jackson Public School System Cont.
ALL ABOUT ‘EDUCATION POLITICS’
“It’s all about the politics of public education,” explains Steve Suitts.
Suitts, an Alabama native, led the Southern Regional Council and then worked at the Southern Education Foundation in Atlanta. He now works in a consulting firm.
“There is an enormous hostility in the state to black politics and black control,” Suitts said. He called the choreographed takeover hearings at the Mississippi Department of Education headquarters “a great opportunity for state leadership to prove black folks were unable to lead.”
Suitts named a string of events that have made Jackson “the perfect target for the failure narrative,” including the city’s decaying infrastructure, a school rating system that assures Jackson schools score low, the defeat of a statewide education funding referendum in 2015, and the recent proposal (although eventually defeated) to cut back the amount of guaranteed funding the state is obligated to provide to schools.
Mississippi’s conservative state authorities may also be concerned about the nature of Jackson’s black leadership.
When Chokwe Antar Lumumba ran for Jackson mayor in 2017, he presented himself as an unabashed lefty. After he won a landslide victory, he talked about making Jackson “the most radical city on the planet,” elevating an agenda of social justice, economic democracy, and citizen engagement.
Many have pointed to Lumumba and another newly elected black mayor in the Deep South, Randall Woodfin in Birmingham, Alabama, as signs of a progressive new wave of black political leadership rising in the region.
A COMING COLLISION WITH CHARTER SCHOOLS
The rise of black populism in Jackson also raises the potential for a head-on collision with Empower, one of the most potent movers and shakers of education politics in Mississippi.
“Few organizations have more influence on ‘school choice’ policy and lawmakers than Empower Mississippi,” reports the Jackson Free Press.
Backed by big donations from Walmart billionaire Jim Walton and the Mississippi branch of the American Federation for Children, Empower Mississippi—a national “school choice” organization co-founded and formerly led by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos—funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars through its PAC to political candidates who supported its agenda for more charter schools and school voucher programs.
In 2015, Empower successfully unseated four incumbent state representatives who were insufficiently supportive of charter schools. Their replacements became instrumental in pushing through new school voucher legislation in the state, with two of the four new representatives serving on the House Education Committee that drafted the bill.
Empower also came out against the failed ballot initiative that sought to force the state legislature to fully fund schools. “Citizens like the path we’re on,” Empower’s founder and president Grant Callen told a national media outlet. “The amount of money is not nearly as important as how the money is being spent.”
There are currently three charter schools in Mississippi, all of them located in Jackson. By August two more will open, one outside of Jackson. And a wave of new applications is in the offing.
In 2017, the U.S. Department of Education under Secretary DeVos awarded Mississippi with a $15 million grant to subsidize the startup of new charters over the next five years. Most of the new charters are expected to open in Jackson.
Only two of the Jackson charters have been open long enough to have received state evaluations. One is rated “D” and the other “F” according to state rankings. In 2017, Jackson Public Schools lost over 500 students to charter schools, costing the district $1.4 million as the state money followed the students to their transfer schools. Scores of those students eventually returned to Jackson public schools, but the money didn’t. Since charters opened in Jackson in 2015, the district has sent more than $12 million to charters.
Mayor Woodfin, Lumumba’s populist peer in Birmingham, has explicitly called out charter schools as “a separate and unequal” education system.
“A charter school will take away students and subsequently funding from Birmingham city schools,” he said during his mayoral campaign. “This will cause city schools to cut programs such as arts and extracurricular activities.”
“It’s a valid fear that charters will be allowed to take over [Jackson schools],” stated Shaw, given the kind of money and clout charter advocates in Mississippi are building.
WHAT JACKSON NEEDS
As the work of the Better Together Commission proceeds, while the threat of state takeover of Jackson Public Schools looms, what’s in danger of getting lost in the swirl of political forces and issues is the question of what would really help the schools succeed.
“Jackson schools need what all schools need,” Suitts says. “Community involvement, early childhood education, a reinvigorated teacher workforce, research-supported programs that get kids on track. There’s got to be a systemic approach, and you have to start early.”
“We need schools that serve as hubs of the community,” Shaw added. “Communities should own that space and use it as a launching pad for everything children need.”
The new form of school takeover model rolling out in Jackson could deliver that. “Sometimes arranged marriages work,” Oppenheim shrugged.
If Jackson’s Better Together approach is really going to work, it’s clear it can’t happen through compromising with the state’s racist past, but only by completely overthrowing it.