School reform major topic of discussion at Capitol

Published 3:46 pm Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Education reform has been a major topic of discussion for the Legislature this year, as it has been for many legislative sessions for decades.

For all the changes Mississippi has made since the early 1980s, there remains a persistent sense that there’s a better way to do things in order to get this state’s academic standing off or near the bottom of most achievement indicators.

One of the most sensible and longstanding proposals is to stop electing school district superintendents, as this state still does in 40 percent of its districts.

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Almost no one else does this. There are about 14,500 school districts in the United States. Only 1 percent are elected — 147. And Mississippi accounts for 64 of the 147.

It is dumb to limit the hiring of a school superintendent to a narrowly defined geographic area, as is the case with the elective system. In some districts, there may be only a handful of people who meet the minimum qualifications to run for the job, and even then they might not all have the competence to handle it if they are elected.

The Senate got the message, voting 43-9 to switch to an appointive system statewide unless voters in areas with elected superintendents vote to keep it that way.

The House is stalling, however. Rep. John Moore, the chairman of that chamber’s Education Committee, says he’s not convinced. He apparently wants proof that appointed superintendents produce better academic results than elected ones.

That proof might be hard to come by, since the performance of superintendents is a mixed bag, regardless of how they are selected. There are some fine elected superintendents, and there are some weak appointed ones. If you want to get rid of a weak elected superintendent, though, your options are limited when it comes to a replacement.

It’s true under existing law that any district that now elects its superintendent can switch to an appointive system by gathering enough signatures to put it to a referendum.

The existing law, though, is backward. It makes it difficult to switch to a superior way of doing things. Instead, the law should make it difficult to switch to an inferior way.

That’s what the Senate bill would do. The House should get behind it.