With rally, MS school choice seeks to hide its shadowy roots

This Tuesday, as part of “School Choice Week,” Empower Mississippi has organized a rally in Jackson to promote awareness of its chief cause- bringing vouchers and charter schools to our state. MS Ed Blogger Amanda Koonlaba has written about the movement previously, here and here.

The pros and cons of school choice should be discussed widely- this post is not a commentary on the substance of the reform itself. What we should all take issue with, though, is the cynical, calculated attempt to make school choice more relevant with artificial popularity.

Oh, the rally will have parents, students, teachers, and principals from all stripes of life. No doubt these people will believe earnestly in the value of school choice reforms. I do not question their honesty. But make no mistake: they are being manipulated by organizations that have been structured and funded by outsiders to bring privatization policy changes to Mississippi, whether we like it or not.

The Big Plan

alecThe changes being made by our legislators are carbon copies of bills pushed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group seeking to replace the American education system with a privatized model. With a fully privatized school system, Mississippi would not have schools supported (or overseen) by community taxpayers. Education would be contracted out to non-government, often for-profit entities. Some within the movement claim what they really want is a hybrid of that and what we currently have.

Mississippi’s 2013 Charter School Act, the special education voucher bill, the A-F school grading system– all are derived from planned steps toward privatization from national billionaire think tanks. Not that there’s anything wrong with that- great ideas can come from billionaires and businessmen, or from outside the state. There’s usually no reason to disguise the sources of these ideas.

But for some reason, we’re being led to believe the movement is coming from within Mississippi itself. It isn’t.

“Mississippi wants school choice.”

Earlier this month, Empower Mississippi, state legislators, and other government officials began to proclaim “Mississippi wants school choice.”  Empower’s president, Grant Callen, began a press tour of interviews and articles touting the talking point. The statistic most often quoted is from a study on school choice opinions in Mississippi done last year. 800 people were polled, and “78% of Mississippians want school choice” is the mantra that came out of it.

Could this be true? Did a phone survey really find overwhelming support in Mississippi for school choice? Well, yes and no.

The following prompt and question were posed: “As you may know, school choice gives parents the right to use the tax dollars associated with their child’s education to send their child to the public or private school which best serves their needs. In general, do you favor or oppose the idea of school choice?” And yes, 53% of the responders said they strongly favor the idea of parents somewhere having access to the best service of their needs. Phrased that way, it almost seems calloused to stand against it. An additional 25% said they somewhat support it. (Page 15)

But wait! There’s more!

But there’s more to the data.  Here are some statistics from that same survey Callen, Reeves, and Phillip Gunn won’t tell you:

  • 77% of Mississippians surveyed would rate their local school at “C” or above.  (Over half gave theirs an “A” or “B”) (Page 3)
  • Only 6% gave their local public school a failing grade. That’s 6% in Mississippi, where public schools have been called “abysmal” by our own governor. (Page 3)
  • When given a choice to send their children to any type of school, for free, 41% of Mississippians surveyed said they would still send their children to the local public school. Only 15% opted for a charter school. (Page 24)

Graph

When the school choice lobby says “Mississippi wants school choice,” it may very well be true.  As far as we know though, the 78% of Mississippians in the survey (624 of the 800) might passively support school choice because they’re open to alternative solutions for others who may be in worse shape.

OnMessageIt’s also worth noting that the purpose of the survey was to dig up a pro-school choice talking point statistic. On their website, the pollsters, OnMessage Inc., brag “We play aggressive offense. And most of all, we’re in it to win it.” “We take your principles, your experience, and your opponent’s weaknesses to develop a winning message plan that the voters will embrace.” That’s from their own website. They list as clients Tate Reeves, the Alliance for School Choice, and a whole host of Republican organizations. Clients. OnMessage’s job is to take school choice money and dig up statistics they can use as message points to sway public opinion. That’s who’s telling you “78% of Mississippians want school choice.”

What does Mississippi actually want?

What do Mississippians actually want for their children? Isn’t it important for state legislators to be in touch with the wants and needs of their constituents?

Bishop_Joseph_Campbell_Ik_web_t670The 78% support in the survey- those 624 people- have created a rallying call that helps our legislators forget about the 332,738 Mississippians who wanted adequately funded public schools so badly they voted to change the state constitution. And that doesn’t even count the thousands who want adequate funding but thought the amendment was too flawed to vote for it. This week’s school choice rally- though well intentioned and honestly approached by many attendees- will be used as a visual aid to help further silence public school advocates.

Why would legislators want to ignore the mandate of over 300,000 voters, but seize a message hand-crafted from a small survey and promoted at a rally? Well, there are thousands of reasons, and they’re all needed when it’s time for reelection. The rally and the 78% statistic just make awfully handy mind tricks for any legislators who need to pretend they’re doing the right thing. For honest public servants, money bags must also include blindfolds and mouth tape. They can all shrug collectively in Jackson. “Mississippi wants it.”

Is there anything inherently wrong with billionaires and out of state businessmen funneling money into an organization to convince us school choice is a good idea? Definitely not, if we’re all open about the source of the ideas. We should be talking about every option we have. Our discussion should be robust. But it should also be honest.

And this, friends, is anything but. Empower Mississippi and their friends in government are going to great lengths to convince us (and themselves) that they are simply giving us what we already want.  Instead, they should come clean about MS school choice’s connections to big privatizers. After all, transparency only hurts politicians who just want to “take the money and run.”

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