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In the heart of the Deep South, Mississippi has wrestled with enduring educational disparities, a profoundly rooted challenge passed down through generations.

The pandemic exacerbated preexisting funding inequities for high-need, under-resourced school districts, a longstanding challenge for the Magnolia State. Evidence of this persistent struggle is the distressing fact that 32 school districts remain under federal desegregation orders.

To delve deeper into how chronically under-resourced schools fared during the pandemic, the Mississippi Center for Justice (MCJ) spent over a year conducting parent focus groups and examining educational testing data in 12 predominantly Black and economically disadvantaged communities in the rural Delta, the northwestern section of the state, one of the poorest regions in the U.S.

Sadly, what we discovered was not surprising. Mississippi’s past, marked by a legacy of racial segregation and educational inequality, continues to cast a long shadow on its present and future.

Our extensive work at MCJ culminated in a report that showcased an unsettling reality: Affordability and availability are formidable barriers to internet access, while reading and math proficiency rates are significantly below the state averages in grades 3-8. In addition, special education programs and staff remain woefully under-resourced, while access to mental health professionals and support is often limited or, in some cases, entirely nonexistent. Past excuses by the state to avoid addressing these disparities are no longer acceptable.

It is past time for lawmakers to make education in Mississippi a priority for all students.

These issues, among others, further widen the chasm between the haves and have-nots in Mississippi and are creating a new generation of students failed by the system. The evidence of this gap is glaring according to the School Finance Indicators Database.

Spending in Mississippi’s highest-poverty districts is 55 percent below the estimated “adequate” level and 18 percent below adequate in the state’s wealthiest districts, according to the Database.

A significant challenge for Delta communities is the ever-growing digital divide. During the pandemic, students in better-resourced school districts had greater access to high-speed internet connections for a relatively seamless transition to remote learning, while students throughout the Delta struggled with internet accessibility, which contributed to significant learning loss.

While most students across the state received devices for virtual learning, many couldn’t use them due to poor, limited or no internet access. Our report found that this left them at a severe disadvantage.

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Mississippi has one of the largest populations of K-12 students who lack broadband access; its sparsely populated rural communities are often redlined by internet service providers, leaving them grossly unserved or underserved. But it’s not just a Mississippi trend. According to a national study of the Black Rural South, nearly three-quarters, or 72.6 percent, of households in the Black Rural South do not have broadband of at least 25 Mbps — the minimum standard for broadband internet.

Compounding these challenges is the stark lack of access to mental health care, a formidable barrier for Mississippi students. According to our report, while parents described the immense toll the pandemic had on their family’s mental health, few of them sought help or had access to mental health professionals. Over 70 percent of children in Mississippi with major depression disorder do not receive treatment, surpassing the national average of 60 percent.

Unfortunately, the pandemic exacerbated this issue, with many students grappling with losing loved ones, economic instability and the social isolation imposed by remote learning. The student-to-counselor ratio in Mississippi is 398 to 1, almost 60 percent higher than the American School Counselor Association recommendation of 250 to 1, according to an analysis done by Charlie Health.

Our report also found that students with disabilities were acutely affected during the pandemic. Although Covid guidelines mandated compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, many districts consistently failed to support students and their parents.

Mississippi now confronts a moral imperative to fortify its historically underserved school districts, especially those most severely impacted by the pandemic. With a $3.9 billion surplus of state revenue in 2023, legislators finally have the means to fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) for the first time since 2008. Yet they have chosen not to do so during a time when schools need investment and support the most.

Related: OPINION: Lessons from Mississippi: Is there really a miracle here we can all learn from?

It is past time for lawmakers to make education in Mississippi a priority for all students, especially those in historically under-resourced districts. The state must begin investing in education to overcome historical inequities and post-pandemic challenges. This is the only viable path toward dismantling the systemic barriers that have perpetuated disparities for far too long.

Until then, Mississippi’s commitment to the well-being and success of all its residents, regardless of their ZIP code, will remain in question.

The time for unwavering action is now.

Kim L. Wiley is a former educator who serves as the Education Analyst & Project Coordinator for the Mississippi Center for Justice, a nonprofit, public-interest law firm committed to advancing racial and economic justice.

This story about Mississippi education inequality was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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