This is one in a series of stories produced by students taking a state government reporting class at the University of Mississippi’s Meek School of Journalism and New Media. The class is led by Mississippi Today co-editor Fred Anklam Jr. and Meek school journalism professor LaReeca Rucker.
JACKSON — Lt. Gov. Reeves often makes it known that producing an educated workforce and creating jobs is at the forefront of his platform.
However, it is no secret that many public school districts in the state are not up to speed, when it comes to producing students with high reading, math and science proficiency.
Reeves sat down with Mississippi Press Corps students from Ole Miss Wednesday afternoon and discussed underlying state education issues, and improvements that are being made to increase potential educational outcomes for students.
A strong believer in school choice, Reeves said parents should be the ones to make the decision where their child receives their education, not the government.
“I believe strongly in giving parents an option about what’s best for their kid,” Reeves said. “I think parents have a better idea of what is best for their kid, than any government entity ever will.”
In 2016, the Legislature made changes to the state’s charter school-law, which the Senate passed with a vote of 24-21. One of the changes made to the law, was to allow students to attend a charter school if they reside in districts that received a performance grade of a “C, “D”, or “F.”
According to the Mississippi Department of Education 2017 Accountability Report, 42 school districts in Mississippi received a C, 36 a D, and 9 an F. Two of the 36 districts that received a D were charter schools, and one of the nine F districts, also was a charter school.
Despite this, the lieutenant governor is proud that Mississippi’s high school graduation rate has improved from 70.5 percent to over 82 percent in the most recent year.
Many districts that received poor grades are located in low income areas, where poverty rates are high. For example, in 2017, Holmes County School District received an F, where 43.4 percent of the county’s population live below the poverty line, according to the United States Census Bureau.
This is an issue seen vastly across the state and education advocates say it needs to be fixed quickly. Reeves said by adding public charter schools in low income areas, there is a greater opportunity for students to succeed.
“There are those that believe low income people and low income children can’t learn, I am not one of those,” Reeves said. “In fact, I think if you put them in the right environment, they can learn just as quickly, and are as capable as any other student in our state.”
But why create charter schools and move students around, rather than improve low performing, traditional public schools? Reeves said the creation of charter schools will force traditional public schools to compete, resulting in higher academic achievement.
The lieutenant governor admits however, it will take more than some competition between schools to improve the quality of education and students. Reeves supports having elected school boards, with an appointed superintendent to run day to day operations, and minimizing the number school districts to improve the quality of schools.
“The most ideal size of a school district is between 4,500 and 5,000 students. That’s big enough to have quality leadership, but also big enough to have a calculus teacher, an advanced math teacher, an AP chemistry teacher, an AP English teacher, but yet not so big that a lot of kids get lost in the shuffle,” Reeves said.
The “brain drain” issue is another frequently debated topic among state government officials, but according to Reeves, it is not as big of a problem as people like to believe. He said statistics show 89 percent of students that attend one of the eight higher learning institutions in Mississippi — and are graduates of Mississippi high schools — stay in state after college.
However, there are less people entering the workforce, than there are those earning a four-year degree, according to the Mississippi Brain Drain Commission. The commission is a coalition of public, private, trade, and non-profit organizations working to improve brain drain in Mississippi through policy, awareness, and development.
Reeves said a large contributing factor to millennial migration after college, is the desire to live in a big city, and Mississippi only has one true metropolitan area, Jackson. He hopes that the Capitol Complex Improvement District legislation that was passed last year, will make downtown Jackson a more attractive place to live in for the young workforce.
“I want every one of you to graduate from school and have an option to stay here. I want my 13- year-old, my 10-year-old, and my five-year-old to have that very same option,” Reeves said. “I do this because I have a passion to ensure that our state will compete in the long term.”