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A child in the Brookhaven School District takes the 2nd grade gifted screening test on Aug. 11, 2020. Photo courtesy Brookhaven School District.

Loome: Neglect Left ‘Dreadfully Underfunded’ Mississippi Schools Unprepared for COVID-19

Public education advocate Nancy Loome is “pleased and grateful” that the Mississippi Legislature overrode Gov. Tate Reeves’ education funding veto on Monday, but concerns remain plentiful, The Parents’ Campaign’s executive director told the Mississippi Free Press yesterday.

“Superintendents and teachers and principals are under unimaginable pressure and stress to make the best decisions” as schools across the state reopen while the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage the state, Loome said.

When the Republican-led House and Senate overrode the Republican governor’s veto of the education-funding bill earlier this week, it marked the first time that had happened since Ronnie Musgrove, a Democrat, was governor in 2002. 

With schools reopening across the state, the move relieved some stress from educators, because Gov. Reeves’ move had blocked funding for teacher salaries, special education, classroom supplies, the Mississippi School for the Deaf and the Blind, and the Chickasaw Cession funds, which funds some districts in North Mississippi. But educators still face impossible choices, Loome said.

“And I can tell you that I have talked to so many who really are so worried about their children, the students and their employees who are dependent on their paychecks,” the public-education lobbyist said. “If the students all go home and learn virtually, and there’s no one at school, that means non-certified, hourly employees don’t get paid, which is devastating for their families,” she continued.

‘There Really Are No Good, Safe Choices’

Within days of the Corinth School District opening on July 27, students and teachers began testing positive for COVID-19, and administrators have ordered at least 120 students and teachers to quarantine at home for two weeks due to exposure since then. At least 22 schools across the state that have opened have reported novel coronavirus cases, while others have reported possible cases.

In Harrison County, Gulfport High School sent around 100 choir students home yesterday after a teacher developed COVID-19-like symptoms. 

The Parents Campaign Executive Director Nancy Loome

But during a press conference last week, Reeves decided to delay school reopenings in only eight districts in areas hardest hit by recent virus outbreaks until Aug. 17. The governor has pushed back against suggestions that he ought to delay all schools until Labor Day, or even order virtual-only learning for now, saying he fears many children may fall behind.

“We know that children do learn better in the classrooms, and teachers want to be in the classroom,” Loome told the Mississippi Free Press Wednesday. “We are very worried about children falling behind, but also worried that the consequences of having children in the classroom could be that people in their families could get sick. I mean, the choices are all bad. There really are no good, safe choices. Superintendents and teachers are doing the very, very best that they can.”

In an Aug. 4 press conference, the governor acknowledged that some of his decisions about school reopenings amid the deadliest pandemic in a century could change over time.

“Everything is a gray area. … The decision we make today could change a week from now,” Reeves said. “Is that going to make it hard for parents? Yes it is. And I know that.”

Parents are not the only ones who are struggling with the shifting rules and orders, though. So are educators and school administrators.

“They’re doing this in an environment that is constantly changing,” Loome told the Mississippi Free Press. “The rules are constantly changing. The demands from above are constantly changing. And it’s just very, very difficult for school districts. They have all sorts of expenses that they would not normally have, from disinfecting and masks to devices for children in case they need to learn from home.”

‘We Would Be Miles Ahead’

The Parents’ Campaign leader has long advocated for the State to “fully fund” education under the Mississippi Adequate Education Program funding formula, which the Legislature established in 1997. In the 23 years since, Mississippi lawmakers have only funded education in accordance with the formula’s guidelines one time. Meanwhile, many school districts, especially in the Delta and other poorer areas of the state, have struggled with dilapidated buildings, lack of essential classroom materials like textbooks and teacher shortages.

Over the course of the pandemic, a number of medical and education experts have noted that Mississippi could have been better prepared to deal with the pandemic if the Legislature had done things like expand Medicaid or make more investments in broadband infrastructure, which would make virtual schooling easier. 

One of the most important things the State could have done that would have made it better prepared for schools to handle a crisis the size of COVID-19, though, Loome said, would have been to properly fund education. 

“If schools had not been underfunded so terribly for all these years, we would probably have a one-to-one initiative in every school district,” the lobbyist said.

A “one-to-one” initiative refers to a concept educators have discussed since the 1990s, in which students would all receive a computer or tablet upon enrolling that would allow them to access the internet and any digital textbooks or other course materials needed. Instead, in many schools, students have to take turns using computers or are expected to bring their own devices, adding another hurdle for disadvantaged students.

“They would probably already have digital devices” if the Legislature had funded schools properly over the years, Loome said. “All of the children and all of their teachers would have management systems that are needed to make sure that the high-quality curriculum is available online, and teachers would know more about how to use online instruction.

“We would be miles ahead of where we are now had schools not been dreadfully underfunded. We also would have more teachers so our class sizes would be smaller. Our buildings would be in better shape, so we would have more options for additional classroom space. We would not be in such a bad position if not for years of underfunding.”

Without money to update buildings, many schools with older facilities rely on outdated ventilation systems that make it easier for COVID-19 to transmit, too. Medical scientists have noted that ventilation plays an important role in helping to mitigate viral spread.

DeVos Wants to Divert Public Aid to Private Schools

Before Tate Reeves became governor earlier this year, he served as the state’s lieutenant governor, which includes the role of Senate president. Loome’s organization often stood at odds with Reeves, who repeatedly pushed back on efforts to raise teacher pay and more vigorously fund public schools. 

The organization came to blows with then-Lt. Gov. Reeves when he championed the creation of the Education Scholarship Accounts program, which moves millions from public education in order to fund vouchers for several hundred select students to attend private schools. Reeves, who graduated from a public school and lives in Jackson, sends his three children to private schools.

The Mississippi Federation for Children PAC helped fund the push for the ESA program in 2015. The PAC was a state-level political arm of the national American Federation for Children organization, which U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos once chaired. During the pandemic, DeVos has pushed for states to give some of the billions in federal coronavirus relief funds meant for public schools to private schools instead, inviting a lawsuit from the State of California. Donald Trump has similarly suggested stripping money from public schools that refuse to reopen for in-person instruction this fall.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, seen here meeting Mississippi homeschoolers during her “Rethink School” tour through the state in 2018, wants to divert some coronavirus relief aid from public schools to private schools. Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Education

Though some pro-voucher voices nationwide have called for taking money from public schools that do not reopen and giving it to private schools instead, Mississippi’s top pro-voucher group, Empower Mississippi, instead wants all public-school parents to have the option for both in-class instruction and virtual-only options. Some districts are doing that, while others are offering virtual classes only as a contingency in response to outbreaks.

“Every day our children go without access to quality education represents a danger to their future. In this unsettled environment, all Mississippi families deserve the option to choose between in-person and at-home instruction,” Empower Mississippi said in an Aug. 4 statement. “The state should take seriously the opportunity to offer a full-time, statewide virtual public school option to any student who is not comfortable returning to the classroom given districts’ differing abilities to offer both models to all students.”

Empower has other suggestions, too, proposing in an Aug. 7 post on its website that the State should “give students direct access to statewide, full-time virtual schools operated by the state, districts, or even out-of-state providers”; allow students to choose to learn with a district other than the one in which they reside; and introduce a “Learn Safely” scholarship program, a type of voucher that would move some “per student education funding or smaller, supplemental amounts to pay for in-person tutors or online tutors, small group instruction, special education services and therapists, online courses, and curricula.”

As public schools across the state reopen with a patchwork of their own pandemic plans, preparations and safety measures, the public education-centric Parents’ Campaign is worried that the federal government, and the U.S. education secretary, could make things harder.

“Betsy DeVos has made it absolutely clear that she is not supportive of public education and that her agenda is to privatize public education and she’s taken advantage of any and every opportunity to funnel public dollars into private schools, so yes, we’re very concerned about that,” Loome said.

Still, she said, there “is very little support for that across the board in our state,” even though DeVos is “working hard on that agenda.”

Lawmakers Sue Reeves Over Vetoes

In the Magnolia State in recent months, political skirmishes over everything from education to coronavirus relief aid through federal CARES Act funding have centered around disputes between the Republican governor and both houses of the Republican-led Legislature, including the Senate he led for the past eight years. The current lieutenant governor, Delbert Hosemann, is among the governor’s frequent critics.

When Gov. Reeves vetoed funding for public schools last month, he used a line-item veto to only veto parts of the bill, while leaving others intact. Line item vetoes are controversial, because they allow executives to cherry pick which parts of a legislative body’s bills they want to keep and which they want to discard. In 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that line item vetoes are unconstitutional for presidents to use to strike provisions from bills Congress sent to his desk. Mississippi legislative leaders filed a lawsuit against Gov. Reeves earlier this month, challenging his use of the partial vetoes.

Reeves justified last month’s education vetoes by pointing out that the Legislature had omitted funding for the School Recognition Bonus program, a merit-based program that gives pay bumps to educators in districts where student performance on state tests rises. The program is controversial, though, because it makes it harder for educators in poorer districts with less funding to benefit.

“There are teachers in those districts who are some of the best, hardest working teachers in the state,” Loome told the Mississippi Free Press. “But the bonuses are awarded based on the performance of the entire school—not just one teacher. And so there are all kinds of problems.”

Mississippi lawmakers had left the funding out because they thought it would not be needed, since schools shuttered as the pandemic spread to Mississippi in March, cancelling the 2019-2020 state testing weeks before it was supposed to take place. Lawmakers were mistaken, though, because the merit pay bonuses lag a year.

“So the bonuses were actually for the 2018-2019 school year, and those teachers, of course, had been expecting those bonuses, even though it’s a really flawed program that most teachers do not like,” Loome said. 

‘This is Their Hail Mary’

Lawmakers had to pause the legislative session during July as a COVID-19 outbreak there hit dozens of legislators and staff members. But legislative leaders, after realizing their error, had already promised to come back and fund the 2018-2019 bonuses.

Despite that, Reeves responded to the Legislature’s override of his veto and reinstitution of the bonus pay with a celebratory tweet, claiming his moves had forced lawmakers to agree to fund the bonus program, even though they had already made that pledge. He made similar comments during a press conference that day.

“If individual House members want to punch me in the face, or stab me in the back, that’s fine as long as teachers get that money,” Reeves said.

Governor Tate Reeves - Abortion Ban During COVID-19 - Mississippi Free Press
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves vetoed most school funding, but left funding intact for private vouchers and Mississippi Department of Education administrators. Photo by Ashton Pittman

The governor’s vetoes never made much sense to begin with, though, Loome told the Mississippi Free Press.

“He vetoed all sorts of things that have nothing whatsoever to do with the School Recognition Program,” she said, again highlighting the fact that Reeves’ move barred funding for essentials like teacher’s salaries and special education programs.

“He did not veto funding for the Department of Education and its administrative costs, which of course is necessary funding. But he also did not veto the ESA voucher funding for private-school tuition. So I’m not sure what his reasoning was, but I can tell you that the public schools and parents were not very happy about it.”

In the lawsuit against the governor, Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn told a Hinds County Chancery Court that Reeves’ partial vetoes should be struck down because they are unconstitutional. Reeves downplayed the lawsuit on Aug. 5, saying it was the result of “liberal Republicans” joining forces with “liberal Democrats.”

“They don’t have the votes to override the vetoes, so this is their Hail Mary,” Reeves said on Aug. 5

Five days later, on Monday, 109 members of the Mississippi House and 41 members of the Senate voted to override the governor’s veto. Only seven House representatives and one senator sided with Reeves.

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