How to make school choice happen in Mississippi

A school choice revolution is sweeping America. Mississippi is now sandwiched on either side by states that give families control over their child’s share of state education dollars.

In Arkansas and Alabama, the state government will pay between $7,000-$9,000 into a dedicated Education Savings Account for each individual child. Mom and dad will then be able to allocate that money to a school that best meets the needs of their child.

Almost of dozen states have done something similar but not Mississippi. Why?

Despite having a solid Republican majority for over a decade, Mississippi has made ridiculously little progress toward school choice.

Right now our state has a total of nine Charter Schools, less than 0.8% of the total, and fewer than one might find in a single suburb of New Orleans. Our school choice program for Special Needs students has hardly grown at all.

According to one of the leading figures of the school choice movement, Corey DeAngelis, whose new book “The Parent Revolution” has just been released, COVID lockdowns were the great catalyst for change in other states.

Before COVID, many parents meekly assumed that education meant sending their kids to whichever government school people in their zip code were assigned. Along came the lockdowns, and millions of Americans got to see how many government schools are run in the interests of teacher unions and school board bureaucrats, rather than their kids.

Teacher Unions were quick to call for schools to be closed, and fought to keep things that way. They attacked suggestions schools reopen as “rooted in sexism, racism and misogyny.” The vice president of the Chicago Teacher Union attacked proposals to return to in-person teaching — while on vacation in Puerto Rico!So why didn’t COVID lockdowns help shake things up in our state? Lots of government schools in Mississippi were closed for extended periods. How come that not led to more pressure for school choice in the Magnolia state?

The biggest barrier to change in our state is that fact that not enough of our elected politicians see the need for change. Many prefer to believe that standards in government schools are better than they are, and if things aren’t bad, they reason, why change?

Advocates for school choice need to be prepared to present some uncomfortable facts about education standards in our state:

  • Two in 3 fourth graders in Mississippi government schools fail to achieve proficiency in reading. According to National Assessment of Educational Progress data only 31 percent of fourth graders were at or above reading proficiency in 2022.

  • Almost 4 in 10 fourth graders in 2022 did not even reach the basic reading standard.

  • Two in 3 fourth graders in Mississippi government schools fail to achieve proficiency in math, with only 32 percent at or above proficiency in 2022.

  • At eighth grade, 8 in 10 were failing to achieve math proficiency in 2022.

  • Almost one in four Mississippi students — 108,000 children — are chronically absent from school. Mississippi Department of Education data shows that in 2022-23 the chronic absentee rate from Mississippi government schools was 23.8%.

  • The chronic absentee rate is way above the national average and has skyrocketed from 70,275 in 2016-17 to 108,310 in 2022-23.

If you want young Mississippians to get a better start in life than this, you need to support fully fledged school choice.

School choice advocacy organizations, like MCPP, have often made the case for change in terms of social justice. School choice, we like to say, would give every American child opportunities that today only rich families have. This isn’t enough.

Nor is it enough to keep publishing white papers nobody reads and drafting legislation that never gets passed.

We need to demonstrate that school choice is the only effective response to the "woke" takeover of government-run classrooms by the ideological left.

Many government schools in America have clearly been promoting Critical Race Theory, an off shoot of Marxist academic theory. Often this has been done innocuously, under the banner of promoting equity, diversity or inclusion. Sometimes the mask slips. We know, for example, that here in Republican-run Mississippi, our own Department of Education has recommended that teachers use social studies resources calling for the abolition of Christopher Columbus Day and the payment of racial reparations.

There are no shortage of vested interests — teacher unions, education bureaucrats, federal officials — determined to do everything they can to keep your kids captive in government-run classrooms.

To overcome that opposition, we must first address the anti-school choice politicians who indulge them. In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbot was a fully throated champion of universal education savings accounts. He threw his weight behind change, only to have a dozen or so “conservative” members of the legislature scupper the plan. When Texas voters saw those anti-school choice “Republicans” vote to deny them school choice, they helped make these “Republican” lawmakers ex-lawmakers. School choice, I suspect, will sail through the Texas legislature in the next session.

Either you are a conservative and support school choice, or you aren’t.

Douglas Carswell is the President & CEO of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy.

This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: How to make school choice happen in Mississippi