Mississippi

Schools in the poorest state become even poorer

Can Mississippi schools get ahead after a new round of budget cuts?

A child rides a bike on the playground at Global Connections Learning Center in Jackson.

JACKSON, Miss. — This fall, students at Enterprise Attendance Center in the small city of Brookhaven may get to draw, paint and make crafts in an elementary art class — the first the school has had in 12 years.

But the opportunity comes at a cost: larger class sizes for third-graders. Principal Shannon Eubanks sees the trade-off, which involves reshuffling staff, as the best way to provide an art teacher for all elementary grades.

Years of stagnant funding make this type of prioritizing necessary, some say.

Under the fiscal 2017 budget, approved by lawmakers in April, allocations for the state’s public schools will still be about $172 million below what is considered full funding, according to figures from the state Department of Education.

Across Mississippi, principals and district leaders are holding off on filling positions when teachers resign or retire. They’re waiting as long as they can to replace school buses or paint buildings. If possible, they plan to dip — or have already dipped — into their district’s financial reserves to absorb anticipated funding cuts.

“It is a very familiar story,” said Michael Cormack, chief executive officer of the Barksdale Reading Institute, a nonprofit education organization. “We’ve become accustomed to not receiving funding, unfortunately.”

Related: “Education costs money,” says state superintendent in Mississippi

As in most states, school funding in Mississippi has not yet returned to pre-recession levels. The last time schools were fully funded, in 2008, the state spent roughly $2.56 billion on elementary and secondary education. Schools stand to receive $2.4 billion under the 2017 budget.

But next fiscal year is already clouded by uncertainty. There are concerns that the state will not end the current year with a balanced budget.

The level of funding makes a big difference in the quality of education, particularly in Mississippi where a greater percentage of children live in poverty than anywhere else in the nation. Nearly 30 percent of school-age children here, those from 5 to 17 years old, come from low-income families, according to U.S. Census data. By comparison, the national average is about 20.4 percent.

“Research has been very consistent in showing that children who live in poverty and have grown up in poverty need more resources in school to level the playing field and make sure they have access to some of the resources, or most of the resources, that their more affluent peers have,” said Nancy Loome, executive director and founder of the Parents’ Campaign, a nonprofit and grassroots education advocacy organization.

In Mississippi, she said, there is debate about how much more resources schools require, but few dispute that there is a need.

“We should be spending more than any other state because we have more poverty — significantly more poverty,” Loome said.

Instead, Mississippi spends about $9,000 per K-12 student, according to estimates from the National Education Association — the lowest of the southeast region and one of the lowest in the nation.

The Parents’ Campaign estimates Mississippi schools have been shortchanged by roughly $2 billion in state funding over the past eight years. Insufficient funding, and the related lack of resources, puts Mississippi students at a disadvantage when competing with peers in more affluent states, Loome said.

“It’s not just the money itself. It’s what the money pays for,” she said.

Persistent underfunding creates a climate in which art classes — considered by some to be an important basic — become a luxury.

The “tragedy,” said Eubanks, the Enterprise principal, “is that we’ve done without for so long, parents and children and people don’t know what they don’t have.”

Making do

When talking about school funding, principals, superintendents and parents give grim descriptions of the status quo. Bare bones. Survival mode. Treading water.

The class sizes at Enterprise Attendance Center are an example of these struggles. At the K-12 school, there are 26 or 27 students in one first-grade class, Eubanks said. The school has had large class sizes, even in the lower grades, for years because of stagnant funding, he said.

Access to technology is another funding-related struggle.

“If E-rate didn’t fund our technology, we didn’t get it,” he said, referring to a federal program that makes telecommunications and Internet access more affordable for schools and libraries. “We didn’t have a lot of extra. We were as bare bones as we could make it.”

Even when state funding for schools remains flat, expenses do not — such as required salary increases for teachers. Employees are the biggest expense for a school or district, but officials say it’s difficult to cut teaching staff without hurting the quality of instruction. It’s easier to delay minor building maintenance, bus purchases or technology upgrades.

Some buses in the school’s fleet were there when Eubanks became principal 12 years ago, he said. A hallway in one building was recently painted for the first time in 10 years; Eubanks’ own office hasn’t been painted in a decade. One of the newer buildings on the school’s campus hasn’t been painted since it was built in 2006.

The challenge with persistently low funding is to make cuts while minimizing the effect on the classroom, said Cormack, of the Barksdale Reading Institute.

Cormack used to be principal of Quitman Elementary School, so Cormack has firsthand experience with cost-cutting. One way to reduce personnel costs is to freeze positions when teachers resign or retire.

“You hate to do that, but then you look at your teachers and try to put the most capable teacher with a slightly larger class,” he said. “You have to be wary about burnout. There are no easy answers.”

It’s the kind of conversation Cormack had this year with principals hired by the institute after two rounds of mid-year cuts to the state budget.

State funding for DeSoto County Schools, Mississippi’s largest district with 42 schools and more than 33,000 students, will be roughly $11 million less than what is considered the full amount. That doesn’t include an April cut of about $622,000 — the result of lawmakers finding an almost $57 million mistake in the fiscal 2017 budget — money Superintendent Cory Uselton said he and others in the district had been counting on since last summer.

Uselton plans to put roughly $17 million from the district’s reserves toward covering the budget cuts, which means there will be less money for operating costs in 2016-17.

Now, a number of construction and maintenance projects are on hold. They include cleaning or replacing auditorium curtains at several schools, replacing or upgrading tiles in the hallways, and repairing awnings over sidewalks. The maintenance staff is focusing on projects that involve safety concerns, Uselton said.

In Clinton Public Schools, a suburban district outside of Jackson, officials have tried to deal with inadequate funding by cutting teacher assistants from second- and third-grade classes. First-grade teacher assistants were spared; first grade classes already share assistants, Finance Director Sandy Halliwell said.

To save money, Clinton school leaders have reduced the number of teachers at the alternative school, where students are sent if they are suspended; they cut extra work days for vocational teachers; and they eliminated a librarian position at an elementary school, forcing Lovett and Sumner Hill elementary schools to share one librarian

There are no longer printers in individual offices and classes. Clinton school officials have also delayed large purchases.

Related: How one Mississippi district made integration work

When Kelli Pope first started teaching 16 years ago, there were teacher assistants in second and third grade. Not anymore. At the height of the recession, Pope, then an assistant principal of Northside Elementary in Clinton, had to trim her staff.

There’s value in those jobs. “Any time that we can reduce student-teacher ratios, we have a chance to improve student achievement,” Pope said.

Pope has been spared making some of those difficult decisions in her current job, as principal of Clinton Park Elementary. Despite stagnant state funding, Clinton is one of the districts faring well. Pope said she plans to add a certified teacher position in first grade. In Clinton, she said, district leaders try to “keep the budget cuts away from us as much as possible.”

That’s a harder task in poorer, more rural parts of the state.

Schools in the Carroll County district haven’t offered classes in foreign languages for four or five years, Superintendent Billy Joe Ferguson said. And while struggling students still get extra academic help, such tutoring has been scaled back.

Ferguson hopes to add that type of position back next year despite pending budget cuts.

“We’re in … survival mode,” he said. There are no plans to expand the curriculum.

“We’re just trying to make ends meet with what we’ve got.”

Still, he noted the cuts to state funding weren’t as bad as expected.

“There are some positive things, even in the negative world,” Ferguson said. He said he tries to do the best he can with the resources he has.

“That’s all we can do. It’s going to be what it’s going to be.”

Opportunities matter

Owen Brown, who graduated in May from Jim Hill High School in Jackson, knows that the lack of such classroom basics as textbooks is not universal.

At different schools he attended over the years, some classes had equipment such as interactive whiteboards and laptop computers, but lacked adequate software and electronic or hard copies of textbooks.

But Brown also had access to programs and resources at Jim Hill that aren’t available to students in poorer, more rural districts, such as International Baccalaureate and the opportunity to earn college credit while in high school.

Related: A district fights an influx of black and Hispanic students

Whether he would go to college was never up for discussion, said Brown, who plans to attend Mississippi State University this fall. In his family, he said, the question was not if he would go to college but where. He questioned whether other Mississippi students who don’t have parents pushing them to succeed will be ready for college or a career.

“We cannot teach 21st-century learners in the 20th-century classroom,” he said.

Brown plans to study elementary education with a focus on middle schools. He wants to be a teacher to help change the status quo.

Brown’s concerns about textbooks mirror those parents have expressed to Loome. Parents complain to her that students do not have textbooks to take home, which affects their ability to study and hinders their parents’ ability to help with homework.

Class sizes also are important for children who live in poverty, she said. Struggling students need more individualized help.

“There are also things like the ability to offer multiple electives, a variety of foreign languages, different types of history classes, Advanced Placement classes. Some of our poorer districts can’t afford to hire teachers to teach Advanced Placement classes because they can barely afford to hire teachers to teach the basics,” she said.

Those options matter.

A student who wants to major in art or history but lacks access to relevant courses is at a significant disadvantage when competing for college scholarships. The classes also offer students another way to figure out what they want to do with their lives. Students are more likely to drop out if they don’t discover something at school they are good at, are interested in, or that feels relevant.

Aging buildings

Low morale in schools flows into the community, said Rosaline McCoy, president of the Jackson Council of PTAs.

“Our parents and our families are not as confident in our school system anymore because we’re having to cut so many things,” she said.

When her daughter didn’t have a textbook to take home for certain classes, she could still access information online, McCoy said. That’s not the case for every family.

And “even with us having access to the internet, it still wasn’t enough,” she said.

McCoy helped her daughter’s teacher figure out how students could work together in class and share books. Many schools turn to their PTAs for help with things such as buying supplies, but there’s only so much PTAs can ask parents to contribute.

Jan Richardson’s children are students in the Ridgeland zone of Madison County Schools, another suburban district outside of Jackson. When her daughter was in elementary school 12 years ago, there typically were 20 to 22 students in each class. Richardson has a son in elementary school now, his classes have averaged 27 to 29 students, she said.

Richardson sees other signs of inadequate school funding. In her daughter’s French class, textbooks still referenced francs, not euros, as the nation’s currency, she said. The currency change happened in 2002.

Richardson, who serves on the elementary school parent-teacher organization, worries the state’s top students will choose to leave Mississippi and never return.

“We are denying Mississippi its best future by underfunding schools now,” she said. “Our best and brightest are realizing the barriers present in Mississippi aren’t universal in this country.”

Related: How Mississippi got an award for education

At Vicksburg High School, one of those barriers is a congested cafeteria “that was never equipped to serve the number of students that it’s serving these days,” said Lauren Wilkes Stubblefield, whose two sons graduated from Vicksburg High in May.

A majority of students here qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a federal poverty indicator. Yet long lines keep many from eating that lunch, Stubblefield said. Her own sons packed lunch to avoid the lines.

Vicksburg High’s facilities are a problem in general, Stubblefield said. She doubts the restrooms at the school have been updated in 25 years, not since she was a student there. They were outdated even then, she said.

The school district has “to make the choice between bricks and mortar and teachers,” she said, “and they’re already having to scrape the bottom of the barrel to have money for teachers.”

School leaders dipped into their reserves during the recession to stay afloat amid mid-year budget cuts. Spending down those emergency funds, and then not getting enough money to fully bounce back can create a “perfect storm,” said Loome.

Eventually, she said, the lack of routine maintenance can be costly: things break. Roofs need repair. Air conditioners and heating units stop working. Buses break down.

Jackson Public Schools lost a bus in May after an engine fire.

“They had to replace that bus, and those buses are very expensive,” Loome said. “It’s very popular to say, ‘Oh they need to just tighten their belts.’ They can’t tighten their belts anymore.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about education in Mississippi.

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Marquita Brown

Marquita Brown is a reporter based in Greensboro, N.C. She is a Mississippi native, a product of the state's public schools, and a graduate of… See Archive

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