Public school backers demand ‘Seat at the Table’

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Kayleigh Skinner, Mississippi Today

Public school student JT Grist speaks at the “Seat at the Table” community rally on Thursday.

 

Hundreds of students, parents and supporters of public schools in Mississippi crowded the Capitol on Thursday to demand inclusion as the Legislature drafts a new school funding formula.

The late morning rally kicked off after both the House and Senate had adjourned for the week — earlier than their normal schedule for a Thursday.

Several legislators joined the crowd for the community rally dubbed “A Seat at the Table.” The event was organized to let lawmakers know the public requests involvement in the rewrite of the Mississippi Adequate Education Formula (MAEP), the baseline for public education funding in the state.

“First and foremost, I demand a seat because the decision to change the education funding formula is the most important piece of legislation this Legislature has done in 20 years,” said Leslie Fye, a public school parent and president-elect of the Starkville Foundation for Public Education. “As such, I object to the process for the most important decision in 20 years being rushed and being made behind closed doors.”

The Legislature hired New Jersey-based nonprofit consultant EdBuild last fall to provide recommendations on a new funding formula. That report, including recommendations to change the percentage of funding the state provides for public schools, was delivered in January. Prior to that, EdBuild held a public meeting in Jackson in November and visited several districts across the state.

In February, a placeholder bill that would have served as a vehicle for a new funding law died in both chambers. Many representatives said at that time that they were not kept informed by leadership about what a new formula would look like.

Legislative leaders have said House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves are working to develop a new formula based on the EdBuild recommendations. Those recommendations include a shift to a student-weighted formula that assigns a dollar value to the cost of educating an average student, and then provides some additional funding for the number of students in a district that meet special categories.

During Thursday’s event, many speakers urged their lawmakers to fully fund public education and slow down the process of adopting EdBuild’s recommendations. The Legislature has failed to fully fund education at the rate established through the MAEP formula for most of the past two decades.

“There is a need to ensure that the public have a seat at the table so that unwarranted … mistakes with public education will not be continued that will impact generations of Mississippians,” said Howard Sanders, a retired educator from Hollandale.

While the speakers stood at the podium, dozens of students and other stakeholders sat behind them on the steps holding signs that read “50th is not adequate,” “We deserve a good education,” and “Try harder! We are worth every penny.”

Former mayor of Tupelo and chair of the Mississippi Economic Council Jack Reed Jr. said strong public education benefits all legislative agendas, whether it be a stronger economy, criminal justice reform or reducing the number of Mississippians using Medicaid.

“Strong public schools are the best path out of poverty,” said Reed, president and chairman of the board for R.W. Reed Company.

Although some representatives and senators attended the rally, none spoke.

“It wasn’t just a rally about public education, it was a rally to say ‘lets do it in the open,’ ” Rep. Jay Hughes, D-Oxford said after the event ended. “Let the parents and the teachers have a seat at this table when y’all are trying to do a new formula that will affect almost half a million children.”

Public school students also got their chance to speak out. Murrah High School senior Kristen Burns told the crowd about her experience in the Jackson Public School District.

“Because of a lack of resources such as outdated textbooks and technology, I feel I’m not as educationally prepared as I could be,” Burns said.

She said she has enjoyed her time at JPS, but believed her friends and relatives attended school districts with more resources that would better prepare her to compete with students at a national and international level.

“Students like myself, all students, deserve a fair and equal chance,” the 17-year-old said. “Our voices matter and our minds matter.”

Tupelo Middle School student J.T. Grist echoed her statement, telling the audience he felt he was receiving a good education in his district but wished everyone else had the same.

“I don’t understand why our lawmakers would want to put money that should go in our public schools into private companies,” Grist, 14, said. “I don’t understand why big companies are getting tax breaks while education is getting less and less.”

Every student in Mississippi deserves the best education possible, he said.

“It shouldn’t matter where you live or how much money your community has,” the eighth grader said. “Every school district in the state should have the funds needed to provide a world class education.”