By Wyatt Emmerich, Syndicated columnist
The Picayune Item
Both my grandfather and father were huge supporters of education in Mississippi. My grandfather, Oliver Emmerich, served for years on the state board of higher education. My father, John Emmerich, worked closely with Gov. William Winter to help secure the passage of the education reform act of 1982. John Emmerich sat by Winter’s side in the governor’s office as they called every single legislator in for an individual plea for support. It worked.
Rep. Linda Whittington from Greenwood, one of my dearest friends who for years lived with my mother during the legislative session, was caught in the recent crossfire of the education controversy. Speaker Phillip Gunn removed her from the House education committee because she opposed some of the reforms. Linda and I had spent many late night debates on education reform.
So it is not lightly that I take this position, but I wholeheartedly support the Republican efforts to shake up our educational system and try something new.
“Our public education system is a lie.” Those were the words of James Meredith as he sat in my office a few months ago. I wanted to talk about his days at Ole Miss, but he wanted to talk about reforming public education in Mississippi. It is imperative to the future of our state, he told me.
A tree farmer, Meredith had been able to send his children to private school where they succeeded greatly. But with many grandchildren, some entered the public schools. He has been shocked and disappointed.
One thing I remember about my father, John Emmerich: He was never one to stick to a losing plan. If something wasn’t working, he was willing to try something new. Shortly before his death, we discussed the emerging issue of school choice. His position: “It makes sense. There is no reason to oppose it.”
Things move slowly in Mississippi. Now 17 years later, we are on the precipice of public vouchers, school choice and charter schools. There is one common theme running through all of these innovations: competition.
Where would we be without competition? How good would the Alabama football team be without competition? How good would the best restaurants in Mississippi be without competition? Competition is the missing ingredient in our school system. We are handicapping our children by perpetuating a huge, bloated, inefficient government monopoly to teach our children.
Our neighboring state Louisiana, meanwhile, has been a model of innovative ideas. Louisiana has 90 charter schools. In New Orleans, 71 percent of students are in charter schools.
A recent editorial in the New Orleans Times-Picayune praised the success of these schools, noting that test scores and graduation rates have improved rapidly with the introduction of competition. The editorial concluded with this statement: “The improvement is undeniable. And that could be life-changing for these students, for their families and for our community.”
The supporters of public education’s existing monopoly mean well. Just like the Russian communists, they believe having one big system is more efficient. They believe that central planners can design a better system and push it down the system. But they are wrong.
The best system comes from the bottom up, not the top down. It is the parents and children making personal decisions as to their own best interests that will improve education, not countless education administrators telling parents what they need.
The initial legislative moves are baby steps that will have minimal impact on our huge government bureaucracy. Something is better than nothing.
But to truly transform education - and it needs transforming - much more sweeping changes will be necessary. We need to dismantle the behemoth and replace it with a diverse and competitive system based on competition and parental choice.
Government’s role should be to certify schools so that they meet a reasonable standard. Government should not have a monopoly on the teaching of students using public funds.
With two children in alternative schools, I know. School choice is not about skimming the cream off the top. It is about providing alternative, publicly-funded education environments for the 30 percent of children for whom the mainstream school does not work.
Right now, we are losing these children. Our dropout rate is 40 percent - a horrible figure. One size does not fit all. Let’s create some new sizes.