Public School Funding: War of Attrition

This in-depth reporting project is a collaboration between the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, Clarion Ledger, Sun Herald, Daily Journal, and Mississippi Today. MPA is working in partnership with the MCIR to make this content available to community newspapers across the state. All material is free for use by media outlets with proper attribution to the originating reporters and news organization.

READ THE PROJECT OVERVIEW in a note to editors from MCIR’s Jerry Mitchell, a longtime journalist and former investigative reporter for the Clarion Ledger.

Series Budget

EDUFIGHT — Mississippi politicians believe in bashing public schools — unless, of course, they’re running for reelection. Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Phillip Gunn have criticized public education, wearing yellow “school choice” scarves at rallies at the state Capitol. At the same time that state lawmakers have underfunded public schools by billions, they have given millions in taxpayer money to parents of special needs children to pay for their private school tuition. JERRY MITCHELL 2,232 words; Clarion Ledger photo of school choice rally.

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EDUSHRINKING — Education funding is shrinking, and so is the state of
Mississippi, which funded a K-12 education budget of $2.5 billion (and
$3.4 billion total on education) compared to Alabama’s $4 billion (and
$6.6 billion total on education). Since 2010, more than 42,000 people
have left Mississippi —the only state in the South expected to see a
school enrollment decrease of at least 5 percent by 2027. According to
Mississippi LifeTracks, only half of the recent graduates from the
state’s four-year public universities are working in the state five
years after receiving a degree. (Not so coincidentally, Mississippi
saw a decline in its hourly earnings between 2013 and 2018 — the worst
in the nation at 3.5% and one of only three states to actually see a
decline in wages.) In 2018, the Mississippi House unanimously passed a
bill aimed at trying to retain more young people through tax breaks,
but the Senate Finance Committee killed the bill, never allowing
senators to vote on the measure. Despite these numbers, Lt. Gov. Tate
Reeves has denied there is a problem, pointing to out-of-state
students attending Mississippi universities. “This crisis that has
been created is really not a crisis at all,” he was quoted as saying.

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EDUSOLUTIONS: Looking at the Mississippi School of Math and Science, a
residential public school. We will look at the admission process, what
the benefits/successes are and the research behind the idea, as well
as the cost (who pays) and the relationship with the Choctaw School
District. Given the school’s apparent success, we will probe lawmakers
on why they don’t invest more into the school. Kayleigh Skinner,
MISSISSIPPI TODAY 2,600 words, photos

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EDUCASINOS — Every time he speaks to Rotary, Kiwanis or other groups,
Larry Gregory says people ask if casino tax revenue isn’t supposed to
be pumping millions of dollars into schools across Mississippi. Every
time he tells the audience it’s a misconception, said Gregory,
executive director of the Mississippi Gaming and Hospitality
Association and former executive director of the Mississippi Gaming
Association. If there had been talk about education becoming a major
beneficiary when voters approved casinos back in the early 1990s, he
said it didn’t make it into any of the regulations. Mary Perez,
Sun-Herald 1,209 words; file Sun Herald photos of Coast casino

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EDUYEARROUND — Corinth School District has incorporated a unique
schedule that gives students periodic breaks (rather than a long
summer) so that they can receive extra help during the year. Despite
the innovation, Mississippi gave Corinth a “C” — a grade the district
appealed. So how is the experiment working? What evidence is there
that it is paying off? Josh Mitchell, Daily Journal 1,118 words

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EDUJOY — Whatever happened to the joy of learning? Is there any way to
pass on this valuable gift to students? Featuring teacher in Holmes
County, the poorest county in the state. BRACEY HARRIS, C-L photos,
1,119 words

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EDUCLUB — Throughout its history, Mississippi policymakers have fought
against the education of those who failed to belong to their “club.”
“Even in the territorial days, public schools were for the elite,”
said David Sansing, professor emeritus of history at the University of
Mississippi. In the years leading up to the Civil War, the state spent
little money on public education, regarding “free schools” with
contempt. It’s no surprise then that what little public money the
state did invest in education often went to private schools. The
public schools that operated were all-white because educating African
Americans was illegal under Mississippi law. In the years following
the Civil War, Mississippi held its first constitutional convention in
1868 in which African Americans were allowed to participate. This
convention adopted a constitution, which established “a uniform system
of free public schools” for those ages 5 to 21, and divided school
funds evenly among all children of school age. But many policymakers
were upset that white taxpayers were paying anything toward the
education of black students. The State Superintendent of Education
called the creation of public schools “an unmitigated outrage upon the
rights and liberties of the white people of the state.” JERRY
MITCHELL, MCIR 1,351 words

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EDUSHORTAGE — Stories on teacher shortages in Mississippi.

MISSISSIPPI TODAY Story 1 Details the history of the teacher shortage in the state, how
statewide percentage of uncertified teachers is six times worse than it was 20 years ago when legislation passed to address the issue. The story delves into how the statewide number doesn’t accurately reflect the shortage in the Delta region, where as much as 19 to 30 percent of the teaching staff isn’t certified in some districts. The story also touches on pay issues. 3,064 words

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Story 2 Focuses on the toll the teacher shortage has taken on students both academically and personally. It tells the stories of students at West Bolivar High School and Clarksdale High School, and is relatable to parents throughout the Delta. The report also takes a deep look at online classes, which is being pushed at the state and federal levels as an answer to teacher shortages in rural areas. 2,843 words

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Story 3 Solutions story looks at the solutions being offered on a local level. It shows how complicated and difficult the process of becoming a certified teacher and how one Coahoma County non-profit is helping aspiring and veteran teachers.

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EDUEDITORIAL — Does Mississippi want to get out of last place? If so,
it must properly fund public education. Giving raises to teachers is
nothing more than a first step. Jerry Mitchell

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Editorial Cartoons

Marshall Ramsey, editor and large of Mississippi Today, has provided five supporting editorial cartoons for this project.

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A brief video for digital platforms is available as an introduction to the topic and series.

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For more information or questions about this content, please contact series editor Debbie Skipper of the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.