fresh voices from the front lines of change







America’s ongoing saga to “reform” public schools is filled with stories of state officials taking over “underperforming” school districts. Recent presidential administrations, including Obama’s, have approved of such takeovers even though, in nearly every instance—New Orleans, Detroit, Newark—takeovers are carried out by white state officials accusing black and brown communities of being unable to care for their children.

This story repeated itself recently in Jackson, Mississippi, where a state audit of the district’s schools gave justification for a series of hearings by the state accreditation board and education department to propose a takeover of Jackson schools. The mostly white state officials presented their cases for takeover in a room limited in seating and closed to the public except for invited guests. I, along with scores of mostly black community leaders and citizens, watched remotely on a video livestream from an auditorium. After each hearing, state officials deliberated behind closed doors while people in the auditorium waited patiently for the takeover decisions to be announced.

“This was a frame job to push an agenda,” Melvin Priester told me. Priester, a native of Jackson who attended Jackson schools before going on to earn an undergraduate degree from Harvard and a law degree from Stanford. He now practices law in his hometown and serves on the city council. “This unfair fight has been building for years,” he said.

Yet, the story of state takeover of Jackson is also different.

When the call for takeover was sent to the Governor Phil Bryant's desk, he made the unusual decision to eschew takeover outright and agreed with a proposal from Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba to create a joint committee to recommend next steps for the schools. The commission, called “Better Together,” would include city and state officials, Jackson citizens, and representatives from the Kellogg Foundation based in Michigan.

Some are already hailing the approach as a “public-private partnership”, but questions remain. Is Mississippi plowing new ground for genuine partnerships between white political rule and black communities in the Deep South? Or is the state merely continuing centuries-old oppression of black governance under a different guise?

An ‘Agenda’

The fact that Governor Bryant is still holding out the possibility of state takeover prompts many in Jackson to doubt the governor's sincerity.

The district has continued to close schools in response to state directives, and state monitors with the Mississippi Department of Education have reminded Jackson the district still faces possible takeover.

A number of Jackson Public Schools supporters admitted to me that some problems in the district had indeed not been addressed and that embattled former superintendent Cedrick Gray was likely “in over his head.”

Yet, a careful reading of the audit finds that many of the standards violations cited seem exceedingly bureaucratic—such as failures in record keeping, data reporting, and regulatory compliance—and addressable by means far less drastic than a state takeover. Other citations seem overly general and subjective, such as administrators failing to “implement standards of governance” or teachers failing to follow “tiered instruction.” Other violations can be easily explained by lack of funding for the schools, particularly shortages in school staffing and unaddressed building maintenance issues.

Dorsey Carson, a Jackson native who heads a local law firm, complained to me that his daughter's elementary school was dinged for having “inattentive students,” because the auditor happened to show up during naptime. The school is the only one in Mississippi to be recognized as a National PTA School of Excellence, according to its website.

Other violations were hotly contested by interim superintendent Freddrick Murray and district special counsel James Keith, who argued that many of the violations—particularly with busing, safety, and security—happened almost a year ago and have since been corrected. But the thick binders Jackson Public Schools staff hastily assembled to counter the auditors’ claims were generally ignored during the proceedings.

“There's always been a target on Jackson’s back,” Jed Oppenheim explained to me. Oppenheim, a school board member, worked as a senior advocate in Mississippi for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “[The state’s efforts] are about controlling money and power, Oppenheim said. “There's no awakening or newfound care for black kids.”

A Legacy of White Rule

White rule in Mississippi has long made Jackson schools a target of either malevolent neglect or authoritarian abuse.

From the end of Reconstruction in 1875 to the landmark Supreme Court ruling Brown v Board of Education that ended legal racial segregation of public schools in 1954, the needs of black Mississippi school children were routinely ignored. In retaliation to the Brown ruling, white businessmen across Mississippi formed “Citizens Councils” to devise ways around forced school desegregation. In Jackson, the Council headquarters was located down the street from City Hall, with an office across the street from the governor's mansion.

In 1964, the all-white Mississippi legislature passed a tuition grant to fund private, non-sectarian schools so white people could send their children to “council schools” using taxpayer dollars. The Citizens’ Council, which ran the private schools, opened its first school in Jackson in the fall of 1964. Governor Bryant himself attended one of the segregationist academies—Council McCluer High School, now called Hillcrest Christian School.

In the early 1960s, Council advocates disseminated “racial facts” to Jackson parents and advocated that white Jackson parents keep their children home rather than attend integrated schools. Mississippi had no compulsory school attendance law at the time. Under white rule in the 1960s, Jackson continued to fund schools for black families significantly less than schools for whites: $106 per black student compared to $149 per each white student.

When the 1969 case Singleton vs. the Jackson Public School District, ended legal segregation, thousands of Jackson’s white families fled the schools virtually overnight. When schools re-opened on February 1, 1970, there were 5,000 fewer students in attendance, most of the missing were white.

Any integration that did occur in Jackson peaked in the 1980s. By then, Jackson Public Schools was 85 percent black. Today the district is 95 percent black, and 99 percent are eligible for free and reduced lunch, a common measure of poverty.

No Chance to Succeed

No one disputes that Jackson’s schools have struggled to serve their students.

According to results of the most recent round of standardized tests in the state, the percent of black students reaching proficiency in English Language arts is 19.8 percent, while the state average is 22.4. In math, black students fare even worse with only 14.8 percent reaching proficiency, also well below the state average of 23.5 percent.

The district was recently downgraded from a “D” rating in Mississippi’s rating system to “F.” but the rating system employed by the state has long been a moving target for schools. Changes in the state testing regime have stabilized baseline results over the last two years, but that hardly constitutes a reliable benchmark.

“The whole accountability process in the state has been wrongheaded to begin with,” Pam Shaw told me. Shaw helps run Our JPS, a parent and citizen-led advocacy group for the local schools. Her criticism reflects widespread views that the rating system is more of a measure of poverty than it is of school performance. “When the schools are chronically underfunded, it's a recipe for failure,” she argues.

Mississippi has funded schools fully only three times since 1997, shorting students and teachers over a billion dollars over the last four years. One result is a significant teacher shortage due to low salaries and challenging school climates.

“Black districts have been stretching resources since Reconstruction,” wrote Andre Perry in The Hechinger Report. Perry is a fellow at the Brookings Institute, a policy think tank in Washington, DC, and a former New Orleans charter school operator who has become a caustic critic of the charter industry.

“Last academic year, the district had to accommodate a mid-year cut of $1.3 million,” he noted of the Jackson district. “This school year, the district’s yearly allocation is approximately $9.6 million short. . . Children lose when schools don’t have the baseline funding resources they need to educate them.”

“I've been to schools in Jackson that didn't have enough electrical outlets, much less computers with connection to high-speed internet,” Shaw told me.

Numerous studies have shown school districts like Jackson Public Schools with high poverty levels require more funding to help address the considerable education challenges that derive from poverty. Yet, a recent study by the Education Law Center found that poverty levels of Mississippi schools vary considerably, but per public spending does not change much to compensate for needs of high-poverty schools. According to the study, high-poverty districts in the state would need an additional $15,000 in state and local spending per pupil above current levels for students to be able to achieve average outcomes. The report projects Mississippi’s highest poverty districts will need three times their current funding levels or more students to approach national average outcomes

“If [state officials] want to improve the lives of children in Jackson,” Oppenheim told me, “they have a screwy way of going about it—divesting in communities, defunding schools.”

All About ‘Education Politics’

“It's all about the politics of public education,” Steve Suitts explained to me in a phone call.

Suitts, an Alabama native, led the Southern Regional Council and then worked at the Southern Education Foundation in Atlanta. He now works in a consulting firm.

“There is an enormous hostility in the state to black politics and black control,” Suitts said. He called the choreographed takeover hearings at the Mississippi Department of Education headquarters “a great opportunity for state leadership to prove black folks were unable to lead.”

Suitts named a string of events that have made Jackson “the perfect target for the failure narrative,” including the city’s decaying infrastructure, a school rating system that assures Jackson schools score low, the defeat of a statewide education funding referendum in 2015, and the recent proposal (although eventually defeated) to cut back the amount of guaranteed funding the state is obligated to provide to schools.

Mississippi’s conservative state authorities may also be concerned about the nature of Jackson’s black leadership.

When Chokwe Antar Lumumba ran for Jackson mayor in 2017, he presented himself as an unabashed lefty. After he won a landslide victory, he talked about making Jackson “the most radical city on the planet,” elevating an agenda of social justice, economic democracy, and citizen engagement.

Many have pointed to Lumumba and another newly elected black mayor in the Deep South, Randall Woodfin in Birmingham, Alabama, as signs of a progressive new wave of black political leadership rising in the region.

A Coming Collision with Charter Schools

The rise of black populism in Jackson also raises the potential for a head-on collision with Empower, one of the most potent movers and shakers of education politics in Mississippi.

“Few organizations have more influence on ‘school choice’ policy and lawmakers than Empower Mississippi,” reports the Jackson Free Press.

Backed by big donations from Walmart billionaire Jim Walton and the Mississippi branch of the American Federation for Children, Empower Mississippi—a national “school choice” organization co-founded and formerly led by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos—funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars through its PAC to political candidates who supported its agenda for more charter schools and school voucher programs.

In 2015, Empower successfully unseated four incumbent state representatives who were insufficiently supportive of charter schools. Their replacements became instrumental in pushing through new school voucher legislation in the state, with two of the four new representatives serving on the House Education Committee that drafted the bill.

Empower also came out against the failed ballot initiative that sought to force the state legislature to fully fund schools. “Citizens like the path we’re on,” Empower’s founder and president Grant Callen told a national media outlet. “The amount of money is not nearly as important as how the money is being spent.”

There are currently three charter schools in Mississippi, all of them located in Jackson. By August two more will open, one outside of Jackson. And a wave of new applications is in the offing.

In 2017, the U.S. Department of Education under Secretary DeVos awarded Mississippi with a $15 million grant to subsidize the startup of new charters over the next five years. Most of the new charters are expected to open in Jackson.

Only two of the Jackson charters have been open long enough to have received state evaluations. One is rated “D” and the other “F” according to state rankings. In 2017, Jackson Public Schools lost over 500 students to charter schools, costing the district $1.4 million as the state money followed the students to their transfer schools. Scores of those students eventually returned to Jackson public schools, but the money didn’t. Since charters opened in Jackson in 2015, the district has sent more than $12 million to charters.

Mayor Woodfin, Lumumba’s populist peer in Birmingham, has explicitly called out charter schools as “a separate and unequal” education system.

“A charter school will take away students and subsequently funding from Birmingham city schools,” he said during his mayoral campaign. “This will cause city schools to cut programs such as arts and extracurricular activities.”

“It's a valid fear that charters will be allowed to take over [Jackson schools],” Shaw told me, given the kind of money and clout charter advocates in Mississippi are building.

What Jackson Needs

As the work of the Better Together Commission proceeds, while the threat of state takeover of Jackson Public Schools looms, what’s in danger of getting lost in the swirl of political forces and issues is the question of what would really help the schools suceede.

“Jackson schools need what all schools need,” Suitts told me. “Community involvement, early childhood education, a reinvigorated teacher workforce, research-supported programs that get kids on track. There’s got to be a systemic approach, and you have to start early."

“We need schools that serve as hubs of the community,” Shaw added. “Communities should own that space and use it as a launching pad for everything children need.”

The new form of school takeover model rolling out in Jackson could deliver that. “Sometimes arranged marriages work,” Oppenheim shrugged.

If Jackson's Better Together approach is really going to work, it’s clear it can’t happen through compromising with the state's racist past, but only by completely overthrowing it.

First published at The Progressive.

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