Leaders of two organizations leading a town hall meeting in Hernando Monday night believe the treatment of public education by the Mississippi legislature in the waning days of the 2019 session was deplorable.
Nancy Loome of the Parents’ Campaign and Oleta Fitzgerald of the Children’s Defense Fund discussed the issue and answered questions from about 40 people who came to the Gale Center.
Loome is the executive director of the effort to serve as watchdog on legislative issues affecting Mississippi public education. Fitzgerald is the Southern Regional Director of the national organization that seeks to be a voice for all the children of America and educates about the needs of children.
A wide-ranging cross section of people heard from Loome and Fitzgerald, ranging from a recent high school graduate set to pursue a teaching career, to educators, school administrators, activists and legislative candidates.
The consensus of those who spoke out was that a certain few run the dealings both in the House and Senate chambers and most local lawmakers, and thus their citizens, don’t have a voice.
Much of the commentary centered on that, as well as the teacher pay raise issue and the addition of private school vouchers in the waning days of the session.
Loome calls the upcoming August primary election and the November general election “critical” to public education in Mississippi.
“Our teachers and our children deserve the full support of our elected officials,” Loome said. “To some degree that has been lacking the last few years. Rank and file legislators are also frustrated. They want to represent their constituents and many of them feel constrained in that. I think there is a big push among a lot of folks to make some changes at the top.”
Loome and Fitzgerald pointed to the addition of school voucher increases at the end of the session as a prime example. Legislators voted for an education bill that included vouchers to allow special needs children to attend private schools, a bill worth about $2 million.
They claim lawmakers did not know the vouchers were included because the legislative leadership didn’t allow the bill to be posted online for lawmakers to read until it was on the floor for a vote.
“Both chambers had defeated all of the voucher legislation and had made it absolutely clear that they did not support any increase in funding of vouchers for funding private school education,” Loome explained. “The leadership knew that if rank-and-file legislators had an opportunity to vote on that and knew what they were voting on, they wouldn’t pass that legislation. At the last minute, they sneaked it into a conference report, did not post the conference report online until after it was already being debated on the floor, so legislators couldn’t read the conference report.”
“The solution is to elect people who stand for good governance and transparency and who will support public education for all children in the state of Mississippi,” Fitzgerald added.
There is frustration about how a certain few are handling the proceedings of the state Legislature, Fitzgerald said. Without naming names, the pair pointed specifically to the top as far as who controls things in Jackson.
“People are really concerned about their local school districts, but they’re concerned about where the state of Mississippi is going in terms of supporting public schools and where the hearts of our current members of the legislature are and where their commitment is to making sure we have a strong and growing public education system that will serve all children in the state,” said Fitzgerald.
“It’s frustrating when you think you are operating in a process that on the books say that this is the way laws are to be made and that all peoples’ voices matter and all legislators’ voices matter,” added Loome. “There’s a frustration when you don’t have that democratic process win, lose or draw. People should be able to discern what is best for their districts and cast a vote in a way that they want to and not be held hostage by leadership threatening them that if they want other things that they’re trying to get for their districts. In many ways, folks are getting blackmailed.”
Loome was not disappointed in the Monday evening turnout, as she said the voices of those who attended can be easily multiplied.
“Every one of these people who came tonight know other people, and social media amplifies their voices,” said Loome. “Forty people is a great start and we hope that they will reach out to their friends, do the research and find the candidates they want to support, get behind those candidates and encourage their friends to join them in getting behind those candidates in making a real difference for our children and our public schools.”
Fitzgerald said the solution is simple. “Go vote.”
Bob Bakken is Managing Editor for the DeSoto Times-Tribune.