Our education system in Mississippi represents a case of “good news, bad news.” On the positive side, our state has made real progress in improving state test scores. Unfortunately, however, we still have much work to do to catch up to the national averages—let alone the achievement levels of our better-performing competitors overseas. As we celebrate National School Choice Week, we should welcome the role that school choice has played in improving Mississippi education—and focus on expanding choice to increase our performance still further.
A comparison of achievement scores from standardized tests—the “Nation’s Report Card”—illustrates Mississippi’s dilemma. From the beginning of this century through 2015, fourth grade math scores rose by 23 points, fourth grade reading by 11 points, and eighth grade math by 17 points—all statistically significant improvements.
Yet as much ground as we’ve made up, our students still lag far behind children in most other states. In eighth grade math, Mississippi’s average score ranks behind 46 other states; we rank below 49 other states in eighth grade reading. We’ve tripled the number of eighth grade students achieving advanced levels in mathematics—but only from one percent to three percent. When two in five (40 percent) of eighth graders cannot achieve even basic levels of comprehension in math, it’s obvious we must do far more to improve Mississippi’s education system.
That’s where school choice and Empower Mississippi, come in. We work to ensure that every parent and every child in our state has access to a choice of high-quality educational options—to allow parents to select the one that will best serve their child’s needs. No two children are alike, so parents need to find the option that will help their children unlock their full potential in the classroom.
At its best, school choice provides just such an array of options to parents. School choice includes charter schools, funded by public money but given more flexibility and accountability than traditional neighborhood schools. School choice also includes open enrollment—allowing students to attend public schools outside their neighborhood boundaries—and distance learning options that can help connect children in rural communities. School choice includes scholarships to fund education at a private school of a parent’s choosing. And school choice also encompasses educational savings accounts, which give parents the dollars spent on their child’s education, and allow them to pay for the option or options that will help their child best.
At Empower Mississippi, we’ve worked to expand access to all of these options. Our state created an education savings account program for children with special needs in 2015, and two scholarship programs for specific children with disabilities. All told, more than 1,000 children participate in these programs or attend Mississippi charter schools.
But we firmly believe each and every child, not just a select few, deserves access to educational options. School choice has grown by leaps and bounds over the past two decades, with literally millions of students benefiting from the choice movement, precisely because most studies have shown that school choice programs help improve educational outcomes—for students who receive private school scholarships, those who attend public charter schools, and those who remain in traditional public schools. As we work with parents around the state to discuss their schooling options, we see firsthand how the hope and opportunity of school choice excites people as they find out more about it.
This Jan. 21-27, parents, students, teachers, and educators across Mississippi will gather to celebrate National School Choice Week at more than 32,000 events nationwide. As we do, let’s keep working to expand access to school choice in Mississippi. We’ve made real progress, but all our children deserve nothing less than access to the best educational options.