Not long ago, education was among the key issues political candidates discussed on the stump.

Even though the federal government plays a relatively small role in education, Congress does have oversight over the U.S. Department of Education and controls the purse strings for a number of federal programs that help fund schools.

Mike Espy and Cindy Hyde-Smith, who will go toe-to-toe on Nov. 27 in a runoff election, have largely avoided talking about education. During their only debate, for example, Espy called for full funding of the state’s education formula and Hyde-Smith criticized Common Core standards.

Mississippi Today spoke with several Mississippi groups about what they want from their next U.S. senator when it comes to education.

Grant Callen, executive director of nonprofit Empower Mississippi, noted a lot of what happens inside classrooms is decided at a state level. The Legislature is responsible for deciding the amount of funding schools receive annually through the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, and passes laws each session that pave the way for the creation of charter schools and programs that affect public schools.

“The most important decisions about education are always made at the state and local levels, but activity on any level that recognizes parents’ primary role in the decision-making process is worthy of applause,” Callen said. “Just last year, Congress expanded 529 plans to include K-12 tuition expenses, providing families who’ve chosen a private setting with some tax relief. These are the sorts of reforms I hope our Senators and Representatives heartily support.”

On her campaign site, Sen. Hyde-Smith has a page dedicated to education that states, “She believes the federal government should support states’ efforts to improve educational opportunities for their citizens, but it should not dictate how they get the job done.”

“Mississippi does not need Washington telling it how to raise and educate its children, so she will support policies that help states, local communities, teachers and parents make decisions to improve education for our children,” the website states.

“The most important thing that our congressional representatives can do is protect our public schools from those who would like to privatize and profit from them,” said Nancy Loome, executive director of The Parent’s Campaign, a public school advocacy group.

Loome noted that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who visited the Holmes County School District last month, has pushed for more privatization at the federal level since she’s stepped into the role. DeVos and the Trump Administration have introduced a budget proposal for the U.S. Department of Education that would cut the agency’s budget while also diverting more funds to school choice initiatives like vouchers, according to the Washington Post.

“Fortunately, so far Congress has pushed back on attempts to fund private schools with public tax dollars,” Loome said. “We certainly hope that any congressperson or senator would stand up to that effort.”

Loome said that although most education policy and oversight is worked out at the state level, the federal government does provide important funds through Title I funds, provided to school districts with high numbers of children from low-income families.

“Especially in a state like Mississippi where schools are underfunded, when you start pulling any dollars away at all there is a significant impact on children,” Loome said.

Like Loome, Mississippi Association of Educators President Joyce Helmick said she wants legislators in Washington, D.C. who support public education and policies that ensure all students receive equal resources regardless of zip code or any other factor.

“We would ask that they support keeping our public schools public and not privatizing (our) schools in any way through vouchers or charter schools,” Helmick said. “We want them to support programs that would strengthen education for all students in our schools, from students with special needs as well as our gifted and talented students, the whole spectrum.”

It’s important they “understand how important our school system is to economic growth in our state,” she said.

Before the general election, the MAE endorsed Hyde-Smith’s opponent, Democrat Mike Espy. Helmick said the organization’s political action committee sent out a lengthy questionnaire to all candidates and interviewed them in-person if the candidates completed it. Espy completed the process; Helmick said Hyde-Smith did not respond.

On Espy’s campaign site, he states he will work together with senators from other rural states to increase the number of quality teachers with incentives like loan forgiveness and interest subsidies on student loans.

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Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.