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If Mississippi is going to move past its troubled history, it will take a renewed focus on education — and better funding of its public schools, advocates said Tuesday.

Volunteers, parents and youth who gathered in a small, cool chapel at Tougaloo College emphasized the importance of better funding as part of a Freedom Summer 50th anniversary conference. Throughout the week, the conference will host multiple discussions about civil rights, education and other social issues to commemorate the summer of 1964, when civil rights workers from around the country flocked to the state to help register black voters and set up Freedom Schools.

Better Schools Better Jobs
Field directors Charles Taylor and Amber Thomas explain how the ballot initiative works to the audience.
(Photo: Kayleigh Skinner/The Hechinger Report )

At “Better Schools, Better Jobs: A Ballot Initiative” field coordinators Amber Thomas and Charles Taylor fostered a discussion with a large audience about what it will take to fully fund education in the state.

“If you invest in education in the state of Mississippi, that’s investing in economic development,” Taylor said.

The purpose of Better Schools, Better Jobs is to pass an amendment to the state’s constitution that would require the state Legislature to fully fund K-12 public school education with no cost to taxpayers. The group needs 107,000 signatures from registered voters by the end of the summer, but hopes to gather more than 200,000 signatures, according to external operations director Jennifer Johnson. The group will submit all of the signatures on Oct. 1 so the initiative might be on the 2015 ballot.

The initiative calls for funding through the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. This law uses a formula to spread funds equally throughout the state. The group contends one reason Mississippi’s students lag behind the rest of the country is the schools don’t have adequate resources.

“It costs the same amount of money to educate a student whether they’re in a poor county or a wealthy county,” Taylor said. “So when the state underfunds Mississippi, it does a true injustice.”

The Legislature has only fully funded public education in Mississippi twice since MAEP was passed in 1997. The consistent lack of state support for the schools has long angered educators, advocates and parents, who say Mississippi’s lagging test scores and dismal graduation rates cannot be fixed without better state funding. In Mississippi, 75 percent of students graduate from high school within four years — far below the national average of about 80 percent. Resources and facilities often are substandard, and teachers say they scramble at the start of the school year for sufficient supplies and textbooks.

“Education should be an institutional right for all children,” Thomas said. “Because once you make it a right for every single child in Mississippi, what happens? They can’t underfund a right.”

Both Thomas and Taylor fielded questions from the audience as they explained how and why they intend to collect enough signatures. To do this, the group needs volunteers.

“While we’re trying to change the state of education, we need youth, because they are the ones inheriting the state of Mississippi,” Taylor said.

The duo also tried to educate the students in the audience about what the initiative would mean for the struggling state, where students post some of the lowest test scores in the U.S.

“I got a pretty good understanding of it, at least the fiscal aspect,” said Keeshan Harley, a student at Medgar Evers College in New York. “I understand how we have to re-fund our schools before we re-educate, because if you don’t have the funding for the books then you can’t educate the people.”

As the session came to a close, Thomas asked the audience how many people might be interested in helping out.

A sea of young hands shot up into the air, eager to begin.

“If we look back 50 years from now, 100 years from Freedom Summer, we can say that Mississippi has an adequate education system,” Taylor said. “We can say that Mississippi schools are fully funded. But that starts with you.”

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