I had the opportunity to hear Mayor Barker speak about public education at the Train Depot on Wednesday afternoon. He was both prepared and personable, and made thoughtful, no doubt sincere, remarks concerning the essential elements of public school system success – a success that he insisted is pivotal to the success of Hattiesburg as a thriving urban center.
The three essential ingredients for system success, Mr. Barker instructed, are resources, leadership, and community involvement. Further, said the mayor, it is encouraging to know that the system is already blessed with excellent leadership, and that it is making significant headway on building community engagement. This is good news, to be sure, so there appears to be good reason for optimism about the system’s prospects; in fact, one might say (though, to be clear, the mayor did not go this far) that Hattiesburg is close to checking off two of the three key ingredients of success.
Unfortunately, the resource issue – critical to every aspect of education, from buying textbooks to retaining teachers – remains rather stubbornly unresolved. And here’s where I might take some issue with our energetic and enthusiastic mayor’s line of thinking.
Few would dare deny that public schools throughout the state are badly underfunded, and that present prospects for improvements are poor, given stagnant state revenues. A former legislator himself, Mayor Barker in fact acknowledged that the legislature seems to have “lost its mind” with the most recent round of corporate and income tax cuts, and he voiced hope that some form of corrective will ensue. But the mayor’s principal recommendations for addressing the schools’ funding dilemma had nothing to do with state funding, or pressing the legislature for more of it. Rather they were, first, renewal of a local 4-mill property tax, for purposes of physical upgrades (for which there will be a special election on May 22), and, second, private philanthropy, specifically support of local schools by local churches – for which, he said, his own small church, Ekklesia, offered an example for emulation.
I heartily agree that community engagement with public schools is part of any sound formula for success. But looking to voluntary contributions to fill gaping holes in school budgets is beyond “optimism,” indeed beyond naïvete. Absent an accompanying push – broad-based, demanding, and unrelenting – for increased state funding, it amounts to capitulation to the public abandonment of public education. In that sense, it is not so much a formula for success as it is a recipe for failure.