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Slimantics: Reform shouldn't mean 'make it worse'

 

Slim Smith

 

Noted 20th Century essayist G.K. Chesterton once wrote that the whole modern world is made up of Conservatives and Progressives. "The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes," he wrote in a 1924 newspaper column. "The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected." 

 

Although I have a more charitable view of Progressives than Chesterton, I do agree with the premise that modern politics, especially in an era in which extremists on both ends of the political spectrum seem to have the most power, generally aggravates more problems than it solves. 

 

That is why this time of the year -- when the Mississippi Legislature is in session -- evokes discomfort.  

 

The Mississippi Legislature is like the story of the man with a withered hand who went to the church and prayed, "Dear Lord, make both my hands the same" and walked out of the church with two withered hands. You wonder what problems the Legislature will make worse. 

 

The expanded charter school bill may or may not be an example of this. Fair-minded people will concede that there are legitimate arguments both in support and in opposition to charter schools. 

 

There are also bills in play that will consolidate some county and city school districts. In fact, there are presently bills that would consolidate Starkville/Oktibbeha County and West Point/Clay County school districts. The primary benefit would be to reduce administrative costs and, in some instances, bring lower performing schools up to standards of the other district it would join. In sparsely-populated districts, this seems like an entirely reasonable suggestion. There are reports that some districts with as few as 150 students spend as much as $350,000 in administrative costs. Obviously, eliminating wasteful spending is a worthy endeavor. 

 

With charter school and consolidation in the bills headed toward passage, you might think that the state legislature would be content to call it a day. 

 

But, of course, to end the "reform" at that point would be to leave the breakfast table without knocking over a glass of milk.  

 

Those who have followed our Legislature for any length of time know better than that. 

 

On Wednesday, House Bill 906 made it out of committee and arrived on the floor, where it will likely be voted on after scant discussion and, hopefully, before regular Mississippians get wind of it.  

 

The bill uses tax credits to divert state money to private academies, while reducing revenue available to fund public schools, an idea that has been repeatedly rejected by Mississippians regardless of their political leanings.  

 

In the past, Mississippians have been so opposed to using taxpayer dollars to fund private schools that our constitution bans these voucher payments, as do the constitutions of many states. Savvy folks in other states found a way to circumvent their constitutions - and the will of the people - through tax credit scholarships, also called neo-vouchers. House bill 906 is one of those tactics. 

 

The flimsy argument that such a provision, even when used to help low-income students escape failing schools, can boost achievement has been thoroughly refuted by research.  

 

Such a bill would weaken public education. It creates two withered hands, if you will. 

 

For that reason, two leading parents groups -- Parents for Public Schools, which advocates for education on the local level, and The Parents Campaign, which focuses on state-wide education policy -- have voiced strong opposition to the bill. 

 

Faced with wide-spread opposition from parents, the House will fast-track this bill before most folks get wind of what they are up to. 

 

A call to your representative to let them know they are pulling the wool over your eyes seems worthwhile.  

 

Their phone numbers at the Capitol are: Jim Beckett (Clay, Oktibbeha counties), 601-359-3335; Gary Chism (Lowndes), 601-359-2434; Tyrone Ellis (Clay, Lowndes, Noxubee, Oktibbeha), 601-359-4084; Reecy Dickson (Noxubee), 601-359-2433; Esther Harrison (Lowndes), eharrison@house.ms.gov; Joey Hood (Oktibbeha), 601-359-3339; Jeff Smith (Lowndes), 601-359-3343. 

 

As a side note, if Jeff Smith actually answers or returns your call, let us know. We have an office pool on what decade that might happen. 

 

Hopefully, you can at least leave him a message.

 

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is ssmith@cdispatch.com.

 

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