Mississippi

OPINION: Fight for better education instead of blasting “unhappy liberals’’

Mississippi senator gets pushback for “alternate” view of protests

Mississippi State Sen. Chris McDaniel (R) and his wife Jill McDaniel (L) prepare to cast their ballots at the George Harrison Building on June 24, 2014 in Ellisville, Mississippi.

Once again, a leading Mississippi politician has managed to anger and alienate women, attracting attention to a state with a huge education crisis, for all the wrong reasons.

Republican Gov. Phil Bryant set a foot-in-mouth precedent back in 2013 when he linked “mediocre” outcomes in education to having “the mom in the work place.”

Now, Republican State Sen. Chris McDaniel, who represents District 42  and opposes federal funding for education, faces pushback for calling hundreds of thousands of women who marched in Washington D.C. over the weekend “unhappy liberals.”

“If they can afford all those piercings, tattoos, body paintings, signs, and plane tickets, then why do they want us to pay for their birth control?” he wrote on his Facebook page.

Related: Do not blame working Mississippi moms for state’s education woes

It seems having President Donald Trump in the White House criticizing march participants and pushing “alternative facts” has only emboldened the conservative McDaniel, whose post received over 30,000 comments.

McDaniel offered no apology, insisting: “I’m on the right side of history,’’ and posting a photo of an ultrasound on his page with the caption: “Gender equality starts here. Let’s fight for her.”

Plenty of women – and men – in this largely poor and rural state disagree with McDaniel, including hundreds who marched in the downtown capital of Jackson on Saturday and those who marched in Washington, D.C., like attorney Vickie Slater, a Democrat who unsuccessfully challenged Bryant for governor in 2015.

“More than half of the voters in Mississippi are women,” Slater told WAPT News. “More than half of the small businesses are owned and operated by women, but he’s just making a joke of the state. He’s making us a national laughingstock one more time.’’

Mississippi often draws negative attention for its consistent ranking at the bottom of education measures. Naturally, while McDaniel was taking aim at women in the state, emotions were running high this week around education, both in the Magnolia State and nationally.

Trump’s controversial education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos is facing criticism for her lack of public education credentials and her pro-voucher, school choice agenda.

In Mississippi, a school choice rally drew huge support: On Monday, hundreds of students, parents and teachers held aloft “School Choice Now!” signs in honor of National School Choice Week, pushing for options including more charter and magnet schools, home schooling and vouchers for private schools. The state has just three charter schools, all in the state capital of Jackson.

Related: Dear students, Betsy DeVos may not be prepared for office, but you must prepare for her

At the same time, more than 2,000 public school teachers responded to survey questions from the state education department, complaining of overcrowding, crumbling buildings, workplace stresses and a lack of money for supplies, among other things.

At The Hechinger Report, where we’ve spent more than five years examining and reporting on education Mississippi, it’s difficult to fathom why Republican politicians find ways around supporting public education, instead pushing bills like a proposed $1,500 fine for failing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance within the first hour of class each day.

In 2015, Gov. Bryant opposed a ballot initiative that would have brought more long-sought-after resources to schools in a state that spends as much as 30 percent less per pupil than its neighbors. McDaniel has said he does not believe in federal funding for education.

“The word ‘education’ is not in the Constitution,” McDaniel said in a speech in Jackson on his education policy, where he noted that the federal government should have no role in paying for education. “Because the word is not in the Constitution, it’s none of their business. The Department of Education is not constitutional.”

This week, Republican Rep. Tom Weathersby even introduced a bill that would make it unlawful to wear pants or shorts in a way “that exposes underwear or body parts in an indecent or vulgar manner.”

A woman wears a hat and holds a cat paw during the Women’s March On Portland.

Rather than spending time on inconsequential legislation and alienating women and children, they could instead prioritize finding ways to make their constituents’ lives better.

Related: How a governor’s push for “religious freedom,” eclipses education crisis

In education, Mississippi consistently ranks at or near the bottom nationwide. State spending is far lower per pupil than among its neighbors and test scores are always among the lowest in the U.S.  Some two-thirds of kindergarteners were unprepared for school in 2014, the most recently available data, while 38 percent of children under the age of six live in poverty.

Close to three thousand – or 8 percent – of all third-graders were retained for the 2015 school year because they weren’t reading on grade level, according to data compiled by Mississippi KIDS COUNT, a resource for information the state’s children.

I know Mississippi can do better. In recent weeks, the state announced it would double the number of times it inspects its child care centers, which will go a long way toward improving the care of its littlest learners. The move followed an 18-month investigation by The Hechinger Report and The Clarion-Ledger, revealing a system plagued by low funding and weak enforcement regulations.

There’s also a bill proposed for the upcoming session that would require 5-year-old children in the state to attend kindergarten, something required by only 15 states and Washington D.C.

If he listens, McDaniel will hear heartfelt pleas for better resources and opportunities for the children of Mississippi. He might also want to take a close look at the thousands of comments women have posted on his Facebook page in response to his remarks.

Mississippi need only look toward Nebraska, where Republican State Senator Bill Kintner resigned his seat after pushback from women; they were enraged by his re-tweet of a conservative radio host’s post mocking women who marched against Trump as too unattractive to be sexually assaulted.

McDaniel seems to have no intention of backing down, although there is another state senator with the same name who likely wishes he would.  A Kentucky state senator also named Chris McDaniel has gotten more than his share of angry tweets from those who have the two senators mixed up.

The Kentucky McDaniel thanked those who wrote and cleared it up, via twitter: “And they say civil discourse is dead!”

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Liz Willen

Liz Willen, a longtime education reporter, has been proud to lead an award-winning staff of The Hechinger Report since 2011. She was recently honored for… See Archive

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