Citizens Call for Transparency in Mississippi Consolidation Recommendations

Last Updated: May 26, 2010

This article appeared in the May 2010 Rural Policy Matters.

This winter Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour appointed a panel, the Commission on Mississippi Education Structure, to make recommendations for closing school districts in that state. Barbour indicated he would like to see a reduction of the state’s 152 districts to about 100, claiming the reduction would save the state millions of dollars.

Using donations from the National Governor’s Association, the Appalachian Regional Commission, and the Barksdale Reading Institute, the Commission hired the school finance firm of Augenblick, Palaich, and Associates as consultants. The firm recently identified 18 districts, mostly rural, high-poverty, and majority African-American as candidates for consolidation.

Citizens and advocacy groups, including Southern Echo, have been calling for transparency and public involvement in the decision-making process and release of the data analysis upon which the consolidation recommendations are based.

So far the Commission has refused to release the information requested.

Last month the Rural Trust conducted two separate analyses of achievement in Mississippi school districts. One analysis found that low-income students are less likely to fall behind their higher income classmates when they attend school in smaller districts. The study found that poverty exerted less negative influence on student achievement in smaller districts than in larger districts on all 18 academic assessments required by the state.

In the second analysis, researchers Jerry Johnson and Shane Shope explored the patterns of achievement gaps in the six performance categories to which the state assigns districts based on student test scores. The categories include Failing, At Risk of Failing, Academic Watch, Successful, High Performing, and Star.

Specifically, the study compared achievement levels of (1) White and African American students, (2) Economically Disadvantaged and Non-Economically Disadvantaged students, and (3) Disabled and Non-Disabled students. It found that for a number of grades and subjects “failing” districts actually exhibit less of an achievement gap between White and African-American students than “Star” districts. Data for low-income and disabled students showed no significant patterns linking achievement gap and districts with different ratings.

The analysis concluded that no districts have been entirely successful at closing achievement gaps in Mississippi schools, even those touted as being the state’s best. Higher rankings in the accountability categories tend to describe a student demographic that is more affluent and includes a larger percentage of white students and not how well those districts are educating students with learning challenges.

Read more from the May 2010 Rural Policy Matters.