Empower Mississippi, a nonprofit advocacy organization with a focus on education and employability, is helping elevate the state of Mississippi’s education standards.
Their emphasis is on freedom and choice, paramount to transforming the education system. Elyse Marcellino, the Vice President of Empower Mississippi writes: “All in all, Mississippians have more opportunities than ever to find the educational program, services, staff, curriculum, and environment their children need.”
This is due to their concerted effort on promoting choice in both private and public education. There are more than 4,500 students enrolled in a school choice program in the state of Mississippi and the numbers are increasing due to the passage of new legislation. As Marcellino notes, “after four years of inaction by the legislature, though the wait list had boasted hundreds of students for years, funding for the [Education Scholarship Accounts (ESA)] program grew to match demand for the first time.”
The ESA program enables students to opt in to a school they choose—and it is not limited to only private schools. According to Marcellino, “ESA families surveyed last year said their satisfaction with their child’s education had increased by an astounding 67 percent since using the ESA.”
And in the public sector of school choice, Mississippi has now approved nine public charter schools. Marcellino shares that, “Every school had a wait list going into this school year along with high student retention rates.”
Mississippi should not take their foot off the gas now. The state has placed themselves with a unique opportunity to continue the expansion of education freedom and choice. Don Nielsen, program chair of ACTE argues, “School choice has the potential to improve academic opportunity for some students, and that makes it worth trying. However, we need to recognize that the solution to our education crisis lies in improving our public schools, rather than adopting ideas that merely skirt the problem.”
The logical steps after the expansion of choice is for the state to implement changes in the areas of teacher quality, leadership improvement, and enhanced governance. Without these changes, sustained improvements may still not occur.
To boost teacher quality we must address three issues: selection and preparation, placement and working conditions, and the compensation scale. All three areas require major change if we truly expect to make teaching a real profession that we can expect our brightest to enter and spend at least a few years in the teaching field.
The educational success of children will also require superb leadership at all levels. What Nielsen proposes is a novel concept that remains unseen in the educational realm: principal and superintendent training academies–multidisciplinary institutions that set high standards for admission and graduation, and turn out truly gifted leaders with a passion for education.
Leadership comes from the top, and in education that means the school board must be comprised of great leaders, not mere managers. ACTE suggests eliminating the elected school board and shifting to an appointed school board or even eliminate the school board entirely, particularly in urban school systems. This will prevent leaving our education to amateurs, local activists, and political junkies.
Mississippi is in a perfect position to keep the keep the pedal to the metal and bring about real education reform. It will require political courage, which is in short supply these days. But it is the right thing to do.