In January of 2018, I began a reporting project on the critical teacher shortage in Mississippi with my colleague Kelsey Betz. In the midst of reporting for that series, I stumbled across the School Recognition Program, which was set up to reward teachers in school districts that improve a letter grade or kept their A or B rating.

I hadn’t seen much reporting on it. I wanted to look more closely at how much money went to individual school districts annually and how many teachers received the funds. I researched as much as I could about the program.

The main question I wanted to answer was: “Does this program continue to give money to already wealthy schools and not compensate the hardworking teachers in struggling districts?”

What I found was 53% of the funds went to school districts where at least half the student body was white. And the way this money was disbursed to teachers was difficult to track. There wasn’t an accurate number for how many teachers received the one-time supplement.

Why? For the first two years of the program, teacher committees decided on how the money would be handed out in their schools. This caused issues within districts. As a result, the Legislature changed the guidelines in the most recent year so that all eligible staff got the same amount of money. Our analysis showed since the program was enacted, only 60 percent of districts gave teachers the exact same amount.

How did I figure this out? I had heard rumors of teachers “fighting” over the money, so in spring 2019, I put out a social media call to educators across the state. After hearing directly from teachers about their confusion and lack of clear guidance on the program, I requested all of the data the Mississippi Department of Education had. What I thought would be a simple data analysis turned out to be time consuming and stressful.

Here’s a screenshot of award supplements from FY20

Data from the last three fiscal years were available, so I requested the Excel sheets for each year to see how much money districts received. This includes the district, each school in the district, the award amount, its letter grade improvement, and student average daily attendance. I also requested more than 600 pages of district response forms for each year to see what information schools were submitting to the state.

Some districts typed in responses while others hand-wrote theirs, making it difficult to create a spreadsheet with everything in one place because everyone reported things differently. Some districts did not submit forms while others did not submit certain information, such as the number of teachers eligible to receive awards.

Madison County Schools district response form from FY17. It doesn’t specify how much money teachers received.
Newton Municipal’s FY19 district response form. The district submitted information for every teacher and the amount of money they received

I also asked my colleagues Kayleigh Skinner and Alex Rozier to help assist me with manually inputting data from the response forms to build our own database. Weeks later, we finally had one place to look for how much money each district received each year, as well as how many teachers that money went to, whether that money was split evenly, and the student demographics data of each district.

Because this required so much time to vet the data, I stepped away from it to work on other reporting projects and stories. At the top of this year, I interviewed the MDE about the data and spoke to education advocates. I put this story on pause once the pandemic hit because it wasn’t as pressing a news priority with the way the world changed this spring.

But then last month, Gov. Tate Reeves expressed his concerns on social media about the Legislature not funding the School Recognition Program. This was time to put out the reporting I’ve been working on for more than a year while addressing the governor’s claims that schools are improving as a result of this program.

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Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.