Sunday, February 21, 2016

MS To Teachers: "Shut Up!"

So, first, to put this in context, I have to tell you about Initiative 42.

Mississippi has historically languished at the bottom of the American education barrel, notable for their unwillingness to spend money on schools. Maybe many of their leaders don't like education, or don't like spending money, or don't like spending money that might somehow help black folks. I'm sure it's all very complicated. But at the end of the day, Mississippi has systematically underfunded their school system.

They took a shot at fixing the problem in 1997 with the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. By passing the MAEP, the legislature committed to funding schools according to a formula, but mostly all MAEP has done is provide a formula for computing just how money public schools are being cheated out of. The funding requirement laid out by MAEP has only been met twice since 1997. Since 2009, Mississippi has underfunded schools by $1.5 billion-with-a-B.

So last year, some folks proposed yet another tweak to the rules. That tweak looked something like this, with strikethroughs representing the deleted language and underlining the added language:

Educational opportunity for public school children: To protect each child's fundamental right to educational opportunity The Legislature the State shall, by general law, provide for the establishment, maintenance and support of an adequate and efficient system of free public schools upon such conditions and limitations as the Legislature may prescribe. The chancery courts of this State shall have the power to enforce this section with appropriate injunctive relief.
This was Initiative 42, and while it may look like SOP in some states, in Mississippi, it raised quite a fuss.

Arguments against it included "We underfund everything; why are schools special?" Also, "the GOP has been doing a great job funding education!" Republicans from Haley Barbour to the MS GOP chairman argued that this gave power to "a judge in Hinds County." Because if there's anything that characterizes our democratic form of government, it's that the legislative branch should be allowed to operate without having to answer to anybody, ever.

The GOP-controlled legislature floated their own amendment called "Alternative 42," putting the legislature on par with those companies that create cheap knock-off versions of popular films in hopes that your easily-confused grandfather will buy you a copy for your birthday. Alternative 42 was sort of the same idea except instead of having to provide an "adequate and efficient system of free public schools" to the satisfaction of the courts, Alternative 42 would have required the legislature to provide "an effective system" that satisfied the legislature's idea of what such a system would be. IOW, Alternative 42 would not have done jack.

What it did do was turn the ballot initiative into a series of confusing questions about either-or propositions where you had to decode exactly what you were voting for. Both measures were defeated, allowing Mississippi's political leaders to continue sitting on their hands and doing Not A Damn Thing about education. (If you would like to read more about the ballot initiative, I recommend this highly informative article at Ballotpedia, upon which I leaned heavily for the above account.)

Actually, Not A Damn Thing isn't quite fair. The MS legislature is still considering lots of fun education bills. Here's one that fines a school $1,500 every time it doesn't have students say the Pledge of Allegiance within the first hour of school. Here's one forbidding schools to open before Labor Day.
Here's one to make sure that Creationism can still be taught in the classroom (actually, as written, it also allows teachers to throw in Holocaust denial and Flat Earth Theory).

Oh, yeah. And this bill and this bill both intended to make teachers shut the hell up.

One version of the bill is from House Education Chairman John Moore, who filed a similar bill last year. The other version of the bill is from Greg Snowden, who also authored Alternative 42, the legislative smokescreen that laid down to mess with Initiative 42.

Not that Mississippi has ever been fond of vocal teachers-- this is the state where teacher strikes are illegal, and if a teacher takes part in one, she can never work in any school in Mississippi ever again. But it may be the Initiative 42 fracas that finally overstressed the legislative camel's back. Teachers and superintendents lobbied hard for that bill, and the legislature didn't much care for it. So now we have increased attempts to silence Mississippi educators.

Some of the provisions of these proposed laws are reasonable. Teachers who want to advocate for a political action shouldn't be doing it while they're on the state's clock. "Here's a worksheet to do quietly while I call my Congressman or work on this phone chain" is not an acceptable professional stance.

But the bills as written are both vague and extensive. Can I turn to a colleague at lunch and say, "You know, I really think we should all vote for Candidate Barnswaggle in the upcoming election"? Getting on Facebook and posting any kind of political message while I'm on my duty-free lunch period-- well, depending on the bill, that could earn a fine of $100 to $250 (Snowden) or a fine of $10K and loss of my teacher license (Moore).

Teachers, however, make out far better than superintendents, who are not allowed to take a political position on anything, ever. They may not advocate for or against bills that could affect their districts, ever. Ditto for school board members, which must make them the only elected officials who give up their First Amendment rights by being elected.

As one analysts suggests, these bills could also clamp down on any political activity in the schools-- say goodbye to your campus chapter of Young Republicans or Young Democrats. In fact, combined with the "teach the controversy in science" bill, these would make Mississippi schools the only place where you could discuss the existence of God, Satan or the Flying Spagetti Monster, but not the existence of political parties and legislation.

And so the Mississippi legislature works hard to maintain its supremacy in education awfulness, pursuing its right to avoid spending any money on schools while not having to listen to anybody bitch about it. Mississippi-- "it's like coming home" if you are over 150 years old.


  1. A school board member her in Jacksonville just called me a Liar because he doesn't like what I write on my blog, in a state paper. He then proposed sweeping blogging and social media changes. The old adage if you can't beat them join them has become, if you can't beat them, silence them.

  2. One note, for many of us in Mississippi, there is no such thing as a duty-free lunch. I get 22 minutes to walk my students to the cafeteria, get them seated at an assigned, go to the restroom myself, and return to the table to monitor them as I inhale a few calories in the few minutes before another class comes and I must make sure my students leave the table clean before lining up and returning to the classroom. In 30 years of teaching in Mississippi, it was only the first five years where I had a duty free lunch.